Jesus taught about the hope of the resurrection and life after death, particularly in his parable about Lazarus and the beggar (Luke 16v19-31). From this we know that there is life after death and that the righteous who die will go to a good place. Heaven and hell are separated by a chasm that cannot be crossed, and people retain physical characteristics that means that they are recognisable. The present heaven and hell are real places where people go when they die. Those who die in the Lord will see Jesus face to face at the moment of their death. Some have returned after they died, for example Moses and Elijah appeared at Jesus' transfiguration.
However the bodies mentioned above are not the final resurrection bodies that we will have after Jesus returns to the earth to draw all Christians to him. At this time the new heaven and new earth will be created and those who have died in Christ will be given their final resurrection bodies. Just as man was created in God's image for fellowship with him (until sin entered the world at the Fall), so we will have constant fellowship with God in eternity.
We are told in Acts that Jesus will return in the same way that he ascended into heaven and the cloud that surrounded him is the cloud of God's presence, in the same way as the cloud was God's presence with the Israelites in the desert. At that time, God will make all things new and the past will be forgotten. We look forward to the new Jerusalem wherein the dwelling of God will be with (among) us. The Lamb that was slain (Jesus) will be seated on the throne. The process of being made holy is a daily one that goes on until we are presented perfect to God. Then we will be free from all that separates us from God, and will serve him perfectly according to his purposes.
1Timothy 1 v12-17
1 and 2Timothy and Titus are what are known as the "pastoral epistles". They were written to encourage the churches that Paul had started on his missionary journeys. They are equally applicable to our churches today. Verse 15 gives us a trustworthy saying "that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners."
.This is a reliable truth that we can fully accept today. Jesus Christ came to save sinners, and not to condemn them. We all have a story to tell of how we came to faith and received the saving grace and forgiveness of God. We should be prepared to tell people of this at an appropriate time.
This is a relevant truth. It was applicable to the people to whom Paul's letters were addressed, to the church down through the ages and also to us today. Even though these letters were written many hundreds of years ago they contain the same truths that help us today. This truth is applicable to all circumstances, all times and all cultures.
This is also a remedial truth. Through Christ's death on the cross we have been saved from the punishment due to us for our sins. This is true in the past, present and future tenses. When we first came to Christ in repentance, we were saved; we are being saved and forgiven daily when we pray to Him and we will be saved and have eternal life with Him in heaven.
Finally, this is a redemptive truth. Paul says that Jesus came to save sinners "of which I am the worst". Our Lord Jesus has the power to redeem anyone and everyone who comes to Him in repentance. He can reach into any circumstance in anyone's life and make them whole through His shed blood.
Revelation 3v14 - 22
This is the message from Jesus to the church in Laodicea, in a vision given to the apostle John when he was on the island of Patmos, but it is also the message to the church in every generation. Laodicea was a strategic commercial centre, renowned for its water supply, as its water came from hot and cold springs and was piped down from Heiropolis and Colossae. It was influential, a great banking centre and known for its manufacture of eye salve and clothing.
There was no praise for the church in Laodicea - they were far from the Lord and lukewarm in their faith. Because of this, Jesus is about to spit them out, but still gives them the oportunity to change. In a reference to what they are famous for manufacturing, Jesus tells them to put on white clothes and to put salve on their eyes so that they can see. Jesus rebukes them for their lukewarmness and tries to get them to see the error of their ways.
In verse 20, the verse that inspired the well-known painting, Jesus says that he stands at the door of their hearts and knocks, waiting to be invited in. He does not force his way into our hearts. We need to think about our own faith and ensure that we are not lukewarm for the Lord. We need to repent in the words of Psalm 51, written by David after being confronted by the prophet Nathan about his sin. God will wash us clean, when we let Jesus come into our hearts. We can then be spiritually rich and filled with the desire to serve the Lord.
Ezekiel is a book of visions. The river in this passage represents the river of life, as it does also in Revelation. The different depths of the water represent different stages in our Christian lives. We need to grow more and more in our faith and depend on Christ for everything. We need to allow God to reach the deep recesses of our lives, and realise that there is always more of God to experience. All material things wear out in time, but our Christian life will never wear out. As we examine our Christian life, what stage are we at?
Ankle deep in water requires little adjustment; just take our shoes off and paddle. Afterwards, there is little evidence that we have done so. Maybe we go to church regularly, and have then "done our duty". But we don't want to be challenged by what we hear. People do not notice much difference in us. Faith like this can die quickly.
Knee deep water is not quite as convenient as ankle deep. It slows us down a bit and we can only walk and not run in it, but it is still only a fairly minor inconvenience. We want some of the Holy Spirit, but not so much that we have to change or even do something in the church. We are lukewarm, like the church in Laodicea in Revelation 3 v14-22.
Waist high water requires a lot more effort to move in. If our faith is like this it requires that we make a greater commitment to God's work. Our faith has some depth to it. There is no hiding the fact that you have been in waist deep water -you are completely wet at the bottom. Faith like this means that we have had a significant experience of Christ. However there may still be some dry areas in our faith. This is the point that probably the majority of Christians are at.
But the question is - do we want to be saturated with God and have a deeper experience of and relationship with him? In this way our whole life is bound up in Christ, and people can see that we have met with Jesus in a real way. The trees at the side of this river (v6) are the people who don't yet know Christ, and the nets (v10) are our talents that can be used by God to help them come to know him. We need to trust God to move us forward in our faith to make it deeper and help us to commit wholly to his work. The vital question for each of us is - How deep is your faith?
Jesus went with his disciples back to his home town of Nazareth and went to the synagogue to teach. Those who heard him couldn't understand where he got the things he was saying from because he was "only the carpenter's son". The people there, including all his own family, did not believe in him and because of their lack of faith in him, he was "unable to do any great work there". Because of this lack of faith, the people of Nazareth missed out on the blessing that could have been theirs if they had believed in him. Jesus never forced himself on people, but waited for them to come to him in faith and ask for his help.
Unfortunately a great number of people today treat Jesus with a similar contempt. The good things of this world get in the way of any thought of needing Jesus' help. But when hard times come, and the material things are lost, sometimes people then realise how empty their lives really are and then turn to God for help.
In a way, Christians can be guilty of becoming too familiar with the stories of Jesus and our worship can become routine and meaningless. We need to worship God in the true sense of the definition of worship - "adoration or devotion comparable to homage". We need to get back that sense of how great and awesome our God is; how powerful and all-knowing he is. We need to be less "familiar" with God and give him the worship that is truly due to him. If we lose the belief that God really can do "immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine" (Ephesians 3v20), we limit His ability to do things in our life, in the same way that the people of Nazareth limited Jesus' ability to do things for them. We need to be open to the fact that God can do great things in our lives and through us for others around us. Only as we acknowledge God's power to do this do we open ourselves up to God's blessing. Don't limit God's work in you or your church by a lack of trust in what He can do.
Psalm 126 & Deuteronomy 32v32&32
This Psalm was associated with the return of the Jews from exile, so they sang it with great joy. God has done many great things for His people. He has great mercy, great promises, great power and great love.
God is gracious, slow to anger and has great mercy. We can take hold of the great mercy of God, because as Christians, we have come to Him, confessed our sins and been forgiven. The Lord Jesus died for each one of us - that sums up God's great mercy.
God has made great promises for us, and we can rely on the fact that God has never broken, and never will break a promise. He will never let us go; He has forgiven us and forgotten our sins. In the same way that God has done this, so we need to forgive others and wipe the slate clean and forget what others have done to hurt or wrong us.
We have in our lives the great power of the Holy Spirit. He helps us to live our Christian lives and to witness to others. We can live out our Christian lives in the sure knowledge that God has not left us on our own to do this. Ask God to fill you with the Holy Spirit daily.
God's great love for us is eternal and unchanging. His love is there for unlovely people who do not deserve it, but by coming to God in repentance, we can be freed from sin. The Lord has done great things for us and we should be filled with joy, and thank God for the blessings He bestows on us.
We have the joy of being able to share the news of the Gospel with those who need to hear it. People need to see that Jesus does make a difference in our lives. The joy of the Lord is not just the passing happiness or contentment that the world offers, but is the deep settled sense of peace based on God's love. Through this we can have joy, whatever our circumstances, because Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever.
Psalm 96 & Revelation 4
What is worship? It should include praise, thanksgiving and petition - all the elements of prayer. You could say worship is "worth-ship" or recognising God's worth. We can value something or someone instrumentally - or by what it/they give us or does/do for us, or intrinsically - for its/their own beauty. We value our God in both ways. There are at least 4 elements to this.
God is holy. In Revelation 4, the four living creatures constantly circle the throne of God singing "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty". Holiness is being set apart from God, or when applied to God it means that God is elevated far above all things because of the presence of sin. However, unlike the Israelites, who had to go through elaborate rituals to approach God, we can come directly to God because of Jesus' death on the cross to take our sins. But this should not be taken lightly; we should recognise our sin and come before God in awe and wonder.
God is light. 1John 1 v5 says, "God is light; in him there is no darkness at all." This light speaks of what is good and holy. Most lights cast shadows and also reveal hidden things that we may not want exposed. In God's light there are no shadows. Are we ready to come to God where nothing is hidden? Psalm 119v105 says "Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path." Let's use God's word to instruct us in the right way.
God is truth. In John 14v6, Jesus says, "I am the way and the truth and the light." God's perception of truth is perfect because he knows everything. Therefore it is unchanging. It is inextricably linked to His faithfulness. Jesus points us to this truth.
God is love. 1John 4 speaks of God's love for us and the ways in which we can show by our love for each other that we love God. God's love is a total, self giving, sacrificial love. Because of this great love for us, He sent His only Son Jesus to die on the cross for our sins, and because of this, we can come, flawed as we are, to God and receive His love and forgiveness.
The first three chapters of Ephesians set out the doctrine of the church and chapter 4 sets out the duty of the church, but we cannot separate the one from the other. We need to build bridges of unity by living in a way worthy of our calling. This involves 5 fruits of the spirit - humility (1Peter 5v5); gentleness, using Jesus as our example; patience (1Corinthians 13 v4); forgiveness, as God forgave us (1Corinthians 13v5 and Ephesians 4v32) and bearing with one another in love (Ephesians 4v3). How do we measure up to these standards?
The basis of the unity of the spirit is the 7 uses of the word "one" - one body, one spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all. Do we hold fast to these foundational truths of our faith and live them out in our lives?
The building of unity is the church, made up of diverse people. Within this, four different ministries are mentioned - apostles (someone set apart for the gospel), prophets (someone to whom God gives a message for the people, which should be tested against the Scriptures), evangelists (those who take the Gospel message to people outside the church) and pastors and teachers (those who are set apart to teach the people and prepare them for works of service to build up the body of Christ).
The blessings of unity result in maturity. We will no longer be fooled by false teachers and deceitful people, but we will speak the truth in love and grow up into Christ. We will all hold each other up and work together as a fellowship to tell others about the good news of the Gospel.
Hebrews 4 v1-16 & 1Chronicles 4v9-10
The two verses in 1Chronicles 4 are a short prayer by Jabez to God. The name Jabez means "he causes pain". In Old Testament times, names signified a person's character or sometimes their destiny. Jabez did not want to go through life causing people pain, so he asked God to bless him and enlarge his territory, and have His hand on his life. It was a short prayer directly to God. Sometimes short prayers make a big difference. Like Jabez we need to go directly to God and ask Him for His blessing on our life. We need to depend on God. He always answers prayer; but not always in the way that we might want. We also need to honour God.
God has many unclaimed blessings that He is just waiting to give us when we ask. If we do this, His plan for us will sweep us forward and surround us with His blessing. We may feel that asking God to bless us is a selfish prayer; we feel we should be praying for other people. But when God gives us His blessing, it is to help us to fulfil His plan for us and that involves helping others to get to know Him better.
Asking for God's blessing is not just a personal thing. We need to ask as a fellowship for God's blessing as we seek His will for us. We need to pray that God will enlarge our boundaries; that He will show us how to reach out to people in the community around the church. We need to pray for the area in which the church is situated and for the area where we live. If we ask God to lead us and teach us, we can claim God's power for our work for Him. But we also need to ask God what He wants us to do for Him. We need to remember that there is no limit to God's blessing and His promises. The only limits are the ones that we make.
John 6 v35-40 & 2Peter 1v1-21
The question asked was - do we know our Bible well enough to enable the Holy Spirit to speak through us to other people and help them come to a knowledge of Jesus as their Saviour? We worship God as a Trinity of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. This seems to be anathema to some people, who think that thereby we worship three Gods, rather than a triune God. It is one of the mysteries of our faith that we cannot really explain, but which we believe by faith, and by the enabling power of the Holy Spirit within us. Some people of other faiths say that this is a ridiculous doctrine, but the Trinity is at the very heart of our belief and our salvation.
God the Father sent His Son Jesus to earth to die for us, to win for us our eternal salvation. Just before Jesus ascended back to heaven, He told His disciples (and us, by extension) that He would send us a Comforter - the Holy Spirit to help us to live in a way that is more pleasing to God. In 2Peter 1v5-7, Peter calls on his readers to add to our faith a number of qualities, that are very like the list of the fruits of the Spirit that Paul mentions in Galatians 5v22-23. Our calling is to live our lives through the help of the Holy Spirit and try to develop these attributes. It is not something we ourselves can do alone. But like Peter, we know that we are loved by God the Father, saved by Jesus Christ the Son and empowered by the Holy Spirit to live our lives to the glory of God.
Ephesians 5v15-21 & Acts 2v1-13
Do we sometimes worry when we see manifestations of the work of the Holy Spirit that we are losing control of things? We need to remember that there is no such thing as a Christian without the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is with us to help us in our everyday lives. It is the Holy Spirit that convicts people of their sin and leads them to accept the forgiveness that comes from God.
In Acts 2, we read that the Holy Spirit came upon the apostles; they experienced the presence of God like tongues of fire coming to rest upon them. In the Old Testament, the Holy Spirit was only given to special people - priests, prophets and kings, but since Pentecost, all God's people receive the Holy Spirit. The Israelites asked "What will separate us from the other nations unless You [God] go with us?" What now separates us from everyone else is God with us in the form of the Holy Spirit.
The apostles experienced the Holy Spirit within them. The purity that the Holy Spirit brings us helps us to change. God is greater than all our bad habits and sins, and everything else in the world, and dwells within us when we give our lives to Christ.
The apostles experienced the Holy Spirit working through them. Peter had denied even knowing Jesus only a few days earlier, and now he was standing up in front of thousands of people, telling the Jews that they had crucified the Messiah. Peter's boldness and courage came from the Holy Spirit, and it is the same Holy Spirit at work in and through us. The real work of the Holy Spirit is unspectacular, working through ordinary Christians living out their lives with the Holy Spirit working through them. The message of Pentecost is You have hope; you can change; you can be used to change others.
Luke 2v41-52 & Mark 11v15-18
When Mary and Joseph took Jesus up to the Temple in Jerusalem for the Passover at the age of twelve, they did not understand when they couldn't find Him amongst their friends and family, and eventually found Him, still in Jerusalem, sitting in the Temple discussing with the rabbis. He asked them "Didn't you know that I had to be in my Father's house?" It was important for Jesus to be in the Temple.
When Jesus went into the Temple before His last Passover meal with His disciples, He overturned the tables of the moneychangers and those selling doves and said to them "Is it not written, "My house shall be a house of prayer for all nations" but you have made it a den of robbers."
It is important for us to meet in God's house, especially in prayer. We must ask ourselves "What is our part in the prayer life of our church?" We must remember that listening to God is an important part of prayer, for how else are we to know the mind of God for us? What is God saying to us about our neighbours in the community around us? We need to have a passion for those around us who do not know God in a personal way as their Saviour. We should examine what we do as a church and ensure that all the activities that we do as "church" are still relevant and applicable to our mission.
We must remember that the "Church" is not the building, but the people who make up the community of believers. The building is just bricks and mortar, but the people of God make up the real "Church", so we should not lay too much emphasis on the building, but concentrate on the work that goes on there.
Hebrews 10v22-35 & Ecclesiastes 1
We had a speaker from Open Doors, who help persecuted Christians throughout the world. They celebrate the 60th anniversary of their foundation by Brother Andrew this year. In Ecclesiastes, the Teacher says that there is "nothing new under the sun". In other words, nothing that happens is new, but has happened before. We were shown pictures of the death camps of Ausschwitz during World War 2, and then pictures of death camps that are currently in North Korea. We have learned nothing from history, but that it repeats itself. However, where persecution of Christians is worst, and Christians are imprisoned for their faith, miracles are known to be happening. We should not be surprised at this, but should expect God to work to help and strengthen His people.
There is a responsibility laid on us all as Christians to care for other Christians. Persecution of Christians was reported in 125 countries last year. We might feel helpless at the enormity of this, but there are things that we can do. For example we can write letters of encouragement to other Christians through Open Doors; we can campaign and write letters to our MPs reminding them of this persecution; above all we can pray for them. Wherever persecuted Christians are encountered, they always ask people to pray for them.
How should we pray? We can pray for strength for those who are being persecuted. We can pray for those in authority in the countries persecuting Christians, that God will work in their hearts. We can pray for those who are doing the persecuting. We are all members of God's Church on earth, and 1Corinthians 12v26 tells us that "if one part suffers, every part suffers with it." So we should never forget our suffering brothers and sisters in Christ.
For more information about Open Doors click here
The gospel of John was written quite a while after the other gospels, when John had had opportunity to reflect on Jesus' life. It was written as a biography, as John says, in order that we might believe that Jesus is the Son of God. Chapter 21 seems a little like an afterthought, but no ancient manuscripts of the gospel have been found without this chapter. The passage reminds us of several other events in Jesus' life, such as the feeding of the 5,000, the calling of the first disciples, the Good Shepherd, and Peter's denying His Lord 3 times. In this chapter, Jesus asks Peter 3 times if he loves Him, and in this way He reinstates Peter.
John was demonstrating that the risen Jesus was the same person they had lived with before the crucifixion; He used some of the same words, calling Peter "Simon, son of John". Jesus is recognisably the same. We are reminded in Hebrews 13v8 that "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever."
The disciples had grown and matured in their faith. When Jesus had walked on the water to them, they had been terrified, and thought He was a ghost. This time, however, John says boldly "It is the Lord." How do we recognise Jesus today in our lives? To do so we need to read and study the Bible, share with other Christians and pray. We need to ask ourselves what we are doing to grow in the knowledge and love of Jesus.
Jesus was also doing things a little differently, but no one dared to ask "Who are you?" Jesus gave Peter a new commission to be a shepherd to the sheep, in a sense passing on the mantle of the Good Shepherd. He told Peter to "Follow me", using the same words with which He had called Peter initially.
God's character never changes, but maybe He is calling us to do something a little different. A river is the same river every time we see it, but it is different water flowing in it each time. In the same way, God might be doing something that we don't expect, in our lives and also in our church. We need to be open to His leading in this.
The passage told of the two followers of Jesus on the road to Emmaus after the resurrection, talking about what had happened. Jesus drew alongside them and asked them what they were talking about. They couldn't understand how Jesus could not know what had happened in the last three days, and told Jesus all about His own trial and crucifixion, and the fact that it was three days since it had happened. This leads us to believe they were open to the idea of the resurrection.
Jesus explains to them all the prophecies about the Messiah and the suffering he had to go through, and, starting with the laws of Moses - the ten commandments - opened up the scriptures to them. How lucky they were to have Jesus all to themselves explaining the Bible (or at least the Old Testament) to them. When they finally recognised Jesus when He broke the bread and gave thanks, He disappeared from their sight. Their comment was that their hearts were burning within them as Jesus taught them the scriptures.
The challenge is to us today - how often do our hearts burn when we read the Bible; when were we last moved by a message we heard in church; do we want our church to be "on fire for Jesus"? Our churches should not be just comfortable places for us to come Sunday by Sunday and meet our friends. The name "church" binds us to Christ with a mission to tell others around us of the good news of the Gospel. Their hearts burned as Jesus taught them about the scriptures and applied them to life. Hopefully we read the Bible daily, but this should not just be a habit. It should be something we desire to do and something that informs every part of our daily lives. We need to believe that what the Bible says applies to us, and read it with eyes of faith.
We can only have faith in all that the Bible says and how it applies to us with the help of the Holy Spirit working in our hearts. When we first came to faith in the Lord Jesus, we were enthusiastic about telling others and had a fire in our hearts for our Lord; but over time this can waver and we can lose that enthusiasm. We can however rekindle it by staying close to God through reading our Bible prayerfully and applying what we read to ourselves and our situations, and having a hunger to know more about the things of God.
Matthew 27&28, Luke 24v1-12 & John 20v1-18
For Easter Sunday there was a series of readings about the resurrection story. The gospels differ slightly in their accounts of what happened on that first Easter Day but all agree on the fact that our Lord Jesus Christ was raised from the dead. The vital message from all of them is of an empty cross, an empty tomb and empty grave clothes. Jesus' mission here on earth was always to go to the cross for the redemption of mankind, but to be raised to life again.
Jesus appeared to the disciples after the resurrection, and again when Thomas was with them. He told Thomas, after He had invited him to put his fingers in the nail marks in His hands that he was blessed because he had seen the risen Christ and believed. But the important statement for us comes after that - "blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed." That message includes every one of us that has accepted Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord. Isn't it wonderful that Jesus calls us blessed by this?
We hear many people say that the resurrection could not have happened, because people just don't come back from the dead, but the resurrection is actually the most documented event in ancient history - and not only from biblical accounts. Maybe if we had been in the disciples' position without the New Testament and two thousand years of witnesses to Christs's renewing work in peoples' lives, we might have been equally incredulous. But the fact is that we do have all this evidence. The resurrection is a vital component of our Christian faith. As Paul says in 1Corinthians 15, the whole gospel story is worthless without the resurrection, because it would come to an end at the cross. He goes on to say "if only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men." (v19). Jesus rose from the dead to show that He had conquered our final enemy, namely death. Our life in Him on earth is merely the precursor to the eternal life that we will have with Him in heaven. Easter Day is a good time for new beginnings - so if you don't know Christ as your Saviour, will you take that step of faith and invite Him into your life?
Isaiah 53 & Mark 14v32-42
On Passion Sunday, the reading in Mark was that of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. He prayed that the 'cup' would be taken from Him. He knew that ahead of Him lay the cross, and yet He prayed "not my will but Yours be done". He submitted in obedience to His Father's will. In a sense He had set Himself on the path to this time when He was tempted in the desert by satan. He knew that His enemies were coming for Him, led by a traiterous friend (Judas). But Jesus' life was one of perfect obedience to God's will for Him that had been foretold by the prophets (Isaiah 53 and others).
We need to follow Jesus' example of obedience to our Heavenly Father, even when we can't see the way ahead, and the future is uncertain. There is a saying "Fear not tomorrow for God is already there." Jesus had a close relationship with His Father - He called God "Abba Father", and we can similarly be close to God and have a close relationship with Him.
Jesus' life was one of constant prayer. Just as it was vitally important to Jesus, so it is vitally important to Christians today to maintain a good prayer life to be close to God. We need to be open to learning from Jesus, to use Him as our role model. When we say the Lord's Prayer, we echo Jesus' words - "Thy will be done". We need to trust in God just as Jesus did. We know that as Christians, we are not exempt from troubles in the world, but we have the assurance of God being with us, just as Jesus did. Jesus faced what was ahead of Him because that was God's will for His life from the very beginning. He died that we might be forgiven. If we share in the sufferings of Christ, ultimately we will share in His victory.
For Mothering Sunday, we considered four women in the Bible who were blessed by God giving them children in various circumstances.
The first was Sarah, Abraham's wife, who was childless. (Genesis 18v10-14 & 21v1-7) God had told Abraham and Sarah that she would be the "mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her." As Abraham was over 100 and Sarah was 90 this seemed to be unlikely, and when she overheard 3 visitors from God telling Abraham that Sarah would have a son within a year, she laughed, as did Abraham when he was told. However, he was asked by God "Is anything too hard for the Lord?" Like us today, Sarah found the waiting for God to fulfil His promise to them very hard, and tried to help things along. We can learn from Sarah's story and from scripture that "The Lord is not slow in keeping His promise, as some understand slowness. Instead He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance." (2Peter 3v9) God often uses times of waiting in our lives to teach us dependence on Him, and to remind us that He isn't bound by human limitations.
The second mother was Hannah, who was also childless. (1Samuel 1v1-2 & 9-20) She was very sad because she had no children, and was taunted by Elkanah's other wife who had children. But Hannah had great faith in God and she prayed so fervently to God about this that Eli the priest thought she was drunk. She made a promise to God that if He gave her a son she would give him to the Lord to serve Him. This was a very hard thing to do, but when she had Samuel, she kept her promise. God blessed her for her faithfulness by giving her more children.
Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist was also "well on in years" and childless. (Luke 1v8-13 & 57-66) She also had great faith in God. Because her husband Zechariah did not believe the angel that told him Elizabeth would have a son, he was struck dumb until the time came to name the child and he said what the angel had told him - that the name was to be John. The story of the birth of John the Baptist reminds us not to underestimate God's love for us. He is a God of surprises and He sometimes touches our lives with a miracle.
Our final mother was of course Mary, the mother of Jesus. She was very young when the angel told her that she would conceive a child by the Holy Spirit. She did not know how this could be, as she was unmarried, a virgin and betrothed to Joseph. She must have wondered what people would think of her being pregnant, knowing that she was not married. The law at that time permitted a woman to be stoned for this. However, Mary accepted God's will for her life and lived out God's plan for her and her child. This included having to make the 80 mile journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the Roman census, finding nowhere to stay when they arrived, and giving birth in a dirty stable. After the birth there was no private time for her and Joseph to rejoice in the birth - they were visited by shepherds, and then when staying in Bethlehem wealthy visitors arrived bringing gifts that spoke of kingship, hardship and death for Jesus. The birth of Jesus fulfilled many prophecies made about the Messiah in the Old Testament.
All of these births were part of God's great plan for mankind; a plan that was meticulous and mindblowing in its purpose - the death of Jesus on a Roman cross, to take away the sins of the world and restore our relationship with God, so that we can have salvation.
Although the book of Hosea is the love story of Hosea and his wife Gomer, it also represents God's love for the people of Israel. Hosea was led by God to marry Gomer, and what happened in his relationship was an object lesson in what would happen to Israel. Gomer turned away from Hosea, drifted back to her old adulterous life and was loved by another man. Hosea divorced her for infidelity, but continued to love her. However God later instructed him to take her back so he bought her back. There is a parallel between this and God's provision for our salvation by letting His Son Jesus buy our salvation through His death on the cross.
The people of Israel turned away from God to worship other gods but God continued to love His people and provided for their redemption. We sometimes drift away from God, especially when trouble comes, but when we are at our lowest it is then that we turn back to God. God never stops loving us wherever we are.
In the Greek of the Bible, there are four different words for love. These are Agape, or unconditional, pure love, like God's love for us. This is the kind of love that is spoken of in John 3v16; God loved us enough to sacrifice His only Son for us, and accepts us just as we are, warts and all. There is also Philia, or affectionate platonic love between friends. This love can sour at times of trouble. Storge is love between family members and close friends. This can turn into romantic love when it is between friends. It is also unconditional, and forgiveness is part of the relationship. The last kind of love is Eros, or sexual love and passion. This may not necessarily last because it can be selfish and controlling.
This was our BMS Sunday when we celebrated the work of BMS World Mission. The passage is called "The Great Commission", where Jesus commanded his disciples to GO into all the world and preach the gospel. It applies equally to Christians today. Not passing on our faith is not an option for us. As Baptists we believe in the "priesthood of all believers", which means that every Christian has a responsibility to speak about their faith whenever the opportunity arises. Jesus not only told his disciples to GO, but to go into the WHOLE WORLD and preach the gospel. The good news of salvation through faith in Jesus was not to be limited to the chosen Jews, but was freely available for anyone and everyone. Jesus told his disciples (Matthew 24v14) that the gospel would be preached in the whole world to all nations "and then the end will come". In other worlds, the world will not end until everyone in the world has had the opportunity to hear the gospel and respond to it.
The disciples preached mainly to the Jews at first, but God had someone picked out to preach primarily to the Gentiles. This was none other than Saul of Tarsus (Paul), who was on his way to destroy Christians when he was confronted on the road to Damascus by the living Lord Jesus. When Ananias was told by God in a vision to go to Paul, because he was the person God had chosen to preach to the Gentiles, his reaction was essentially "Not him Lord, that's impossible. He could never become a Christian!" However Scripture tells us that with God "nothing is impossible". We should not limit God. However, we probably have much the same reaction at times if we hear of someone who has committed awful crimes being converted in prison. We wonder if they have really been converted. But Romans 10v13 tells us that "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved." Indeed we are all sinners who have been redeemed by grace. Romans 3v23 tells us that "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." So who are we to judge?
Sometimes those who are most against the gospel are the most forceful in proclaiming it when they have been saved. The BMS video - Amazonia tells of a man who was inciting people to rebel against the authorities, who was converted and became a pastor, ministering to prisoners in jail. To see the video click here
Jesus told us to care for those who are sick, in need or in prison, and that is just what some of the BMS missionaries are doing. We may not ourselves be physically able to go to help people but we can give to Mission organisations like BMS World Mission and enable others to do that. The ultimate goal of preaching the gospel is spelled out in Philippians 2 - that "At the name of Jesus every knee should bow ....... and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." We pray that we can play our part in this.
God's guidance was given to people in the Old Testament by direct word. In the New Testament Jesus guided His disciples and then the Holy Spirit guided them. God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit are all involved in leading us.We are guided in different ways.
Firstly by Commanding Scripture. Psalm 119 v105 says "Thy word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path." It is said that there are 176 references in this Psalm to statutes, laws or promises. Are we devoted enough to the Bible to know it well enough to be guided by it? The caution is that we should not take passages of Scripture out of context in order to make them fit what we want.
Secondly, God's Controlling Spirit guides us. In Acts 16v7, Paul wanted to go to Bithynia, but "the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to." After this, Paul had a vision of a man from Macedonia begging him to come and help them. That was where God wanted them to go. God communicates with us through prayer. We need to remember that prayer is a two-way thing. Do we take time to listen to what God is saying to us?
Sometimes, God leads us by the Counsel of the Saints. Talking to other Christians who are unbiased can help us to seek the mind of God. The caution is not just to go to people that we know will agree with us! Proverbs 15v22 says "Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed."
There can also be Circumstantial Signs from God. He opens doors for us that He wants us to go through, to do an effective work for Him. The caution is not to try to force the door open ourselves, or go for personal gain. We need to wait for God to open the door for us.
Lastly we can use our Common Sense to guide us. Romans 12 urges us to offer our bodies as a living sacrifice to God. This involves our heart, mind and will being transformed by God. Only then can we test what God's will for us is. We need to work through our decisions under God's guidance.
Matthew 19 & 20
Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life. If He is our Lord, we can expect His guidance in all areas of our lives. Matthew 19 and 20 record His teaching on 7 different topics.
Matthew 19v3-12 gives Jesus' teaching on marriage and divorce. These were a hot topic in Jesus' day as they are in our time. He taught that a man leaves his parents and is united with his wife and they become one. Also i) marriage is a gift of God; ii) God created male and female to be in a relationship; iii) marriage is permanent; iv) marriage is not necessarily for everyone - as it is a gift; it is not a right.
Matthew 19v13-15 Jesus' taught about children - at that time, children were to be seen but not heard; they were of little importance. However Jesus said that they are welcome in the kingdom of God. Children often have spiritual insights because they have a simple childlike trust. This is what we need too.
Matthew 19v16-22 Jesus talked about religion. Many people are confused - they feel they have led a good life and like the rich young man who came to Jesus they have kept all the commandments - isn't that enough to get to heaven? Doing good things should be the evidence of the presence of God in our lives, but it is not the way to heaven. We need to put all things under Jesus' control.
Matthew 19v19-23 Jesus talked about riches. At that time people regarded riches as a sign of God's blessing. This is similar to the so-called "prosperity Gospel" nowadays. Jesus said that it was impossible for someone who concentrated on their wealth to get to heaven. Neither riches nor religious observance will get us to heaven - only a right relationship with God.
Matthew 20v1-16 Jesus told a parable about merit. It is God's generosity to us through his grace in that he sent his Son Jesus to save us. It is nothing that we have done ourselves or any merit of our own that saves us.
Matthew 20v17-28 greatness or position in this life will not get us to heaven. When the diisciples argued about who was greatest among them, Jesus told them that He came to earth to serve us and save us. To sit at His right hand is not for us to decide, only God. We respect people for their titles and position, but God judges us by our obedience and service for Him.
Matthew 20v29-34 Jesus taught about outcasts, such as the blind men. Jesus asked "What do you want me to do for you?" After Jesus had healed the blind men, they followed Him. Are we specific in our requests to God? Jesus' teaching went against the teaching of the time and it goes against the way that people think today. Will we accept Jesus as our Lord and accept His values in our lives?
Hebrews 11v1-3 & 12v1-3
Hebrews chapter 11 is all about many people of faith in the Old Testament. Their lives showed what God could do through them, but they all suffered in different ways. Hebrews 12, by starting with the word "therefore" refers back to the "cloud of witnesses" listed in chapter 11, who, like us were all running a race. This race starts when we commit our lives to Christ, and ends when we go to be with Him in heaven. The stories of these people of faith encourage us to remember that God is faithful.
We are urged to "throw off everything that would hinder us" in living our lives for Christ. Some things in our lives take up a lot of our time - they are not necessarily wrong, but they stop us doing things for Christ. The "sin that so easily entangles us" could be unbelief. We sometimes doubt that God can do things for us and through us, and in doubting, we make God out to be a liar and this cannot be.
We need to run the race "with perseverance". We need to keep going and be patient. The way is marked out for us - the markers along the way show us the plan that God has for each one of us. We need to run our own race - no one can do it for us. We also need to listen to God to discover what He wants us to do; whatever it is it will not be impossible - He never gives us something to do that with His help we can't do. God gives us the strength for each day to live for Him.
We need to fix our eyes on Jesus, and not on the people of faith mentioned in chapter 11 - they were all flawed, but Jesus was perfect. He is the "author and perfecter of our faith". We can learn lessons from these people - in particular that God is always faithful to us, and will help us to do what He wants us to do.
1John 5 v1-13
There are 4 different kinds of life - vegetable life, animal life, physical life and spiritual life. Our spiritual life comes from God, through Jesus Christ. He is the source of our spiritual life. In John10v10 Jesus says "I have come that you might have life and have it more abundantly." God gives us this life by His Spirit, and through the Holy Spirit, we see its effect. Jesus told Nicodemus (John 3) that he had to be born again - born of water and the Spirit. The crux of the gospel is contained in Jesus' words to him - "For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life." (John 3 v16)
The operation of this new life in Christ is a miracle, whether conversion is gradual or sudden and dramatic. In either case, it is a process which is begun by the Holy Spirit's work in the lives of those He will call. In many cases, conversion is as a result of the prayers of others for that person, sometimes over a period of many years. But always it is miraculous and brought about by God through His Holy Spirit.
The outcome of this new life in Christ is eternal for everyone. Part of our life in Christ is the ability to look forward to enjoying eternal life with Him. The book of Revelation tells us all about heaven. How can we be certain that we have eternal life? Because Jesus said so - "In my father's house are many rooms....I go there to prepare a place for you." (John 14v2). Scripture tells us (1John5v11&13) "God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son" and "I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life."
Jeremiah 29v4-14 & Romans 8v28-39
The text for the year (Jeremiah 29v11) was the subject of the message. God had plans for the exiles in Babylon, but they had to wait 70 years for the fulfilment of these plans for return to their homeland. In the meantime, God told them to settle where they were and marry and have children while they waited to return. This was not really what they wanted to hear. Sometimes what God tells us to do is the last thing that we want to do, it doesn't seem right to us, but it is important to realise that God has plans for our lives, and He sees the bigger picture. We need to take time to seek the wisdom of God in Scripture and base our plans for our future on what God values.
We often wish that we knew what all of God's plans for us are, but God reveals them to us a bit at a time. In this He is merciful, since we probably could not cope with knowing all the difficulties we have to go through before they happen. A lot of the time we do not know what God's plans for us are and we need to have faith and wait patiently for Him to reveal them to us, rather than telling Him what we think He should be doing in our lives.
God has plans for us - note plans, plural. We sometimes think that if for some reason what we think is God's plan for us goes wrong, often through our own wilfulness in going our own way, we have blown it for our whole life, but God "recalculates" (like a satnav?!) and guides us in an alternative way to the destination He has for us. There is nothing in the Bible that says God has only one plan for our lives. When we look back over our lives, we can see that God has guided us and what we were so certain was the right way for us was in fact completely wrong, and God knew that. As in the poem "Footprints" - at the most difficult times in our lives, God carries us.
God's plans for us are to prosper us and not harm us. This is not the so-called "prosperity gospel", but reminds us of the scripture in Romans 8v28 "and we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose." If we walk in the way that God leads us, we can be assured that eventually it will lead to good for us. We know that if we have trusted Him as our Saviour, that will lead to eternal life with Him. The Hebrew word translated as "prosperity", is "shalom", which is usually translated as "peace", but it has wider connotations of completeness, wholeness and unimpaired relationships with others and with God. Above all things, God wants us to have a good relationship with him.
Jeremiah 29v12 and 13 exhort us to "call on me and come and pray to me", and God says when we do this with all our heart, "I will be found by you." This passage relates not only to our personal lives, but also to our corporate lives as a church fellowship. God has plans for our church and we need to call upon Him earnestly in prayer to ask for His guidance in showing us the way to go. Let us seek Him with all our heart, that we may find Him.
Acts 2 v41-47
At this point in the life of our church, we forget what is behind and strain towards what is ahead and "press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called [us] heavenwards in Christ Jesus." (Philippians 3v14). God has a plan for us which resembles the core plans He has for every church.
God wants us to be a place where people become Christians. We need to carry out the "Great Commission" of Jesus in Matthew 28v19 to "go and make disciples". We need to reach out in relevant ways into our community to point people to Jesus. We can do this by caring for people where they are at. This is an all member ministry, for everyone to do. We need to have the same attitude as William Carey (founder of the Baptist Missionary Society) - "expect great things from God; attempt great things for God."
God also wants us to be a place where people become devoted disciples of Christ. The early church understood the need to instruct people in the Gospel, and they devoted themselves to the word of God. The instruction in Hebrews is good for the church today "Let us not give up meeting together.... but let us encourage one another." This means being a church where the Bible is central to all that is done, and prayer is constant. CH Spurgeon was once asked the secret of his success and he showed the questioner the powerhouse of his church - a room where many people were met together in prayer.
We must also be a place where people are in awe of God. The dictionary definition of awe is "an overwhelming feeling of reverence". What is our reaction when someone becomes a Christian? When did we last have a sense of that awe of God?
We need to be a place where people give to those in need. The early church acted on what they believed and continuously helped one another as each had need.
Our church must be somewhere that people are united in worship. The early church met together to worship and everyone was involved. We must love our brothers and sisters in Christ.
And finally we must be a church where people become Christians frequently. God wants His church to grow, in the same way that the early church did. "And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved." (Acts 2v47). Our church should be a mission station, introducing people to Christ, in which each person has a part to play.