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‘Pentecost and Speaking Up…’

‘Pentecost and Speaking Up…’

Is there anything that can really make us different, that can shake us out of our apathy and anxieties? That can inject enthusiasm and joy, confidence and courage into our lives?

Come with me to the events of Pentecost that we read about in Acts chapter 2. It was six-weeks after Jesus’ resurrection. Three questions emerge.

What happened?  When the day of Pentecost came, the disciples were together in an upper room in Jerusalem. ‘Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came…  Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them… All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.’

Pentecost is the Jewish festival celebrating the giving of the Ten Commandments. In Exodus 19:18 we read that violent wind and tongues of fire had enveloped Mt Sinai at the time God gave Moses the law. However, as Israel’s prophets had said, the law failed to change the world because the law failed to change people.

Now at Pentecost some twelve hundred years later, God was coming with fire and wind, not to impart more law, but to impart his Spirit. The mighty wind symbolised the power of Jesus; the fire symbolised his purifying and cleansing work; and speech pointed to the good news of Jesus reaching every nation.

Luke, the author of Acts focuses on speech. He tells us: Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. … And everyone was bewildered because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each (2:5).

The crowd came from the Caspian Sea in the east to Rome in the west; from modern Turkey in the north to Africa in the south. ‘How is it?’ they asked, ‘That we can understand them in our own native language?’

The cynics in the crowd mocked, saying the disciples were drunk. But Peter wasn’t silenced: ‘The bars aren’t open yet,’ he said. ‘It’s only nine o’clock in the morning’. This was the ultimate Author of speech reversing Babel.

The disciples, previously demoralised and defeated, had a new enthusiasm, confidence and joy. Peter, who had denied Jesus, was no longer a coward but a courageous preacher. What made that difference? It was the Spirit, ‘Another Helper’ whom Jesus had promised.

For many, Christianity is little more than a moral code they must struggle to observe, or a creed recited mindlessly every week. But in John 14 Jesus had spoken of ‘a Companion’ who would enable his people to experience a life-changing personal relationship with him.

What did it mean? The Holy Spirit was turning cowardly disciples into intrepid apostles. From verse 22 Luke records Peter’s speech: “Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know.  …And you, …put him to death …but God raised him from the dead, …”

People today mock the idea of Jesus’ miracles. Yet first-century historians such as Josephus, agreed that Jesus was a miracle-worker. Peter called the miracles signs. Just as a sign-post points to the road we might follow, so Jesus’ works pointed to the power and authority he wielded. “If I by the finger of God cast out demons,” Jesus had said, “then the kingdom of God is come upon you.”

The climax of his speech is in verse 36: “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this, God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.”

Peter had a logically developed progression of ideas – not a frenzied set of phrases. He explains that Jesus’ cross and resurrection reveal God’s extraordinary love. The Son of God had put aside the glory of heaven and come amongst us, giving his life as the one perfect sacrifice for the sins of the world.

Human authorities had judged Jesus a threat and guilty, and nailed him to a cross. From his supreme court, God overturned that judgement and raised Jesus to life.

Does all this matter? It happened so long ago. Peter’s hearers were cut to the heart…, “Brothers, what should we do?” they asked (2:37f). Peter’s words cut through to their hearts. They were utterly ashamed. Previously they had mocked the dying Jesus. Now they knew the truth. God’s Spirit was at work.

Peter’s response is one we all need to hear: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven (Acts 2:38). He didn’t tell his hearers they needed to turn over a new leaf and start living moral lives. Rather, he focused on their relationship with Jesus. Repent. ‘Come to your senses about Jesus,’ Peter is saying. ‘Turn to him and ask him for his forgiveness.’

Three thousand responded to Peter’s call that day. God’s Spirit was taking up the work of Jesus the Messiah in the world, opening blind eyes and changing hearts.

Significantly Peter continued: And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him (Acts 2:38f). From now on God’s Spirit would come into the lives of all God’s people (see also Romans 8:9).

What God did that day, and what he has been doing ever since, matters. God’s delight is to draw men and women from all over the world, from every culture and walk of life – people like you and me – into a personal, living relationship with himself.

And we have a part to play. Let’s not be fearful. Rather, let’s pray for the Spirit’s strength and wisdom to take up opportunities we have, to introduce people we know to Jesus. Why not invite a friend to join you in exploring John’s Gospel through ‘The Word One-to-One’? It is available online free of charge at: www.theword121.com.

‘Pentecost and Speaking Up…’

‘The Ascension and Two Kingdoms…’

Welcome to this Word on Wednesday for Ascension Day. It is great to have you with us.

In his article in The Spectator (UK), ‘The China model: Why is the West imitating Beijing?’ (May 8, 2021), Niall Ferguson writes: ‘In a revealing essay published last year, the Chinese political theorist Jiang Shi-gong, a professor at Peking University Law School, spelled out the corollary of American decline. ‘The history of humanity is surely the history of competition for imperial hegemony,’ Jiang wrote, ‘which has gradually propelled the form of empires from their original local nature toward the current tendency toward global empires, and finally toward a single world empire.’

‘The globalisation of our time, according to Jiang, is the “single world empire” 1.0, the model of world empire established by England and the United States. But that Anglo-American empire is ‘unravelling’ internally, because of ‘three great unsolvable problems: the ever-increasing inequality created by the liberal economy… ineffective governance caused by political liberalism, and decadence and nihilism created by cultural liberalism’. Moreover, the western empire is under external attack from ‘Russian resistance and Chinese competition’. This is not a bid to create an alternative Eurasian empire, but ‘a struggle to become the heart of the world empire’.’

It is not my purpose to explore these issues, but rather to touch on the significance of Jesus’ physical departure from the world recorded in Acts chapter 1. In verses 9-11 we read: While Jesus (he) was going and the disciples were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

It reads like sci-fi. In his book Miracles CS Lewis asks, ‘… what precisely should we expect the onlookers to see? Perhaps mere instantaneous vanishing would make us feel most comfortable. A sudden break between the perceptible and the imperceptible would worry us less than any kind of joint. But if the spectators say they saw first a short vertical movement and then a vague luminosity (… ‘cloud’) and then nothing – have we any reason to object?’ (pp.177f).

Clearly Christ moved from the space and time dimensions that we know into another beyond our comprehension. Further references in the New Testament help us understand. Philippians 2:9f tell us that God the Father has highly exalted Jesus and given him the name which is above every name. And Colossians 3:1 speaks of Christ as seated at the right hand of God. And, back in the opening lines of Acts chapter 1, Luke tells us that during the forty days between Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God (1:3). The age of God’s Messiah had dawned.

From their question, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” the disciples were excited and thought that at last Jesus was going to reveal his true power and position as Israel’s true king. They were thinking in political and nationalistic categories.

And through the ages many have thought in similar terms. But it’s important that we focus on Jesus’ response: “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority (1:7). ‘You’re not to worry about times and end-times,’ Jesus is saying. ‘I’ve got something much more important for you to do with your time and energy: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Jesus had a very specific agenda for his disciples.

Witnesses. In commissioning his disciples as witnesses, Jesus wants us to know that what they passed on is nothing but the truth. This is so important because the Bible makes it plain that Christianity is not a religion, involving rules, rituals, and regulations. At its heart is a relationship with Jesus Christ. And because meaningful and lasting relationships can only be built on truth, we need to know the truth. Relationships within families are only meaningful where there is truth and honesty. Without truth there can be no trust.

Now, it’s important to make a distinction here. Jesus is not saying that his followers down through the ages are witnesses as were the original disciples. We can’t be. We weren’t there. But we are called upon to testify to the good news he brings.

Two kingdoms. For the present God’s kingdom, the rule of the Messiah remains hidden. Indeed, in his Letter to the Colossians Paul the Apostle tells us that the new age of God’s rule co-exists with the old – which the New Testament speaks of as the world. Currently a door is open, allowing people to pass from the old age to the new. So, while we see around us the movement of human kingdoms and powers, God, in his mercy is rescuing people throughout the world from the dominion of darkness, transferring us into the kingdom of the Son he loves… (Colossians 1:13).

We live in an uncertain and troubled world. We need to pray for the leaders of the nations and play our part in contributing to the welfare of people in need around us. Above all, let’s pray that God in his mercy will use the good examples of our lives and our testimony to draw many to the Lord Jesus Christ. His physical resurrection and the angels’ words at his ascension assure us that his return is certain.

But there’s something else we need – which we’ll talk about next week!

‘Pentecost and Speaking Up…’

‘Mother’s Day and a Word to Husbands…’

Being Mother’s Day this Sunday (May 9), let me highlight little-known or oft-forgotten words to men in their relationship with women. It’s most important that we keep before us biblical principles in our relationships.

In setting out features of the marriage relationship in 1 Peter chapter 3, Peter has some challenging words for believing husbands in verse 7: … In the same way be considerate as you live with your wives…, he says.

To first century ears these words were revolutionary. The idea that men should be considerate towards their wives was totally new. Despite liberation movements amongst first century Roman women, the reality was that they were still treated as second class citizens.

Be considerate. We can only begin to imagine the relief and joy of women as they read Peter’s exhoration here. No more would they be exploited. No more would they be chattels to be used and abused.

And with the almost daily news items of the abuse of women, we see the timeless relevance of Peter’s words to men. For today there is many a wife who fears her husband – his selfishness, his control, his unfaithfulness.  Many wives live in marital uncertainty and loneliness.

Show respect or honor, captures the meaning of considerate. ‘Get to know the woman you live with’, is another way this could be translated. Yet in far too many relationships this is ignored. A counselor often hears a woman say, ‘I don’t feel my husband cares about me. He doesn’t understand me. I’m a stranger to him. He doesn’t listen’.  ‘He’s always running me down,’ is another comment. ‘Whatever I do, he’s sarcastic or critical. He loves to make me feel a failure,’ is yet another.

Too often men don’t understand their life-partner because they haven’t bothered to take the time. A supreme example of this disinterest is Henry Higgins’ line in My Fair Lady: “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?”

Peter’s further words, live with, imply being aware of and sensitive to his wife’s sexual needs. It also refers to the issue of self-esteem: Treat them with respect, he says. One of the persistent causes of marriage breakdown is low self-esteem on the part of either a husband or a wife.

Women often need the security of being cared for and appreciated. Men, we need to be considerate of our wife’s feelings. We need to tell her how wonderful she is and what a privilege it is to enjoy the closest of all human relationships with her. We need to say this often. We need to say it when our children and others will hear. And don’t forget regular expressions of love that please her; it might be chocolate, flowers and the unexpected date.

Why should we do all this? Peter tells us why: Honor.  Paying honor to the woman as the weaker sex,..

Nowhere in the Bible does it state that a woman is spiritually, morally or intellectually weaker than a man. Yes, a woman is physically different – it is right to separate men’s and women’s sporting competitions.

The strength Peter has in mind is the implied reference to a woman becoming a victim of male exploitation. Men must be considerate and show respect. Far from taking advantage of a woman in the closest of all human relationships, husbands are to recognize their honor-bound responsibility under God.

With his words to men here, Peter is introducing a virtue that the ancient world knew nothing about – chivalry. Nobody had thought about this before. In Christian ethics a humble state of mind is required of everybody: the king as well as the slave, the parent as well as the child, the husband as well as the wife.

In the same way. Peter tells us in chapter 2 verse 24, Christ Jesus, although Lord of the universe, humbled himself and died on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins.

Equality: Since they too are also heirs of the gracious gift of life— Equality is a fundamental biblical principle – across the sexes, across nations and races. And here Peter is not just saying that we are equal as created beings, but now as redeemed beings. We share together all the benefits of God’s promise. A woman is not any less worthy, nor does she have any less status. Both men and women are dependent upon God’s grace – even for life itself. We are equally entitled to all the benefits of heaven. Men must treat their wives as fellow-heirs.

Prayer: So that nothing may hinder your prayers. How can our prayers be hindered? The Bible is quite clear that God does not hear our prayers when relationships with people around us are not right. Matthew 6 records Jesus’ comment about our need to forgive others if we expect God to forgive us. The effectiveness of our prayer life depends to a certain extent on the quality of our relationships. In the same way God doesn’t listen to the prayers of a selfish, inconsiderate husband.

Men, honor and respect your wife – and not just on Mother’s Day. Under God, serve her: she is an equal beneficiary with you of all God’s promises. Pray for the Lord’s forgiveness, for none of us is perfect. May the Lord equip you to be the loving, selfless husband in your wife’s life.

‘Pentecost and Speaking Up…’

‘Fruitfulness…’

Fruitful outcomes are something we normally expect from worthwhile endeavors. So, we look for measures of productivity in the corporate world – a measure of life and growth.

Why then do we often overlook the fact that Jesus is concerned with productivity? He lived in an agrarian culture and on one occasion used grape-growing as a metaphor for the productivity to which he is committed.

Vineyard owners work hard to develop the quality and the output of each vine. They know that to get maximum output, judicious pruning is required: good growers don’t confuse short-term profitability with long-term viability. Indeed, Jesus makes the point that a good vine-grower treats low-producing branches quite differently from non-productive ones.

In John 15:1-2 Jesus says: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower.  He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.”

To understand his reference to fruit, we need to consider the context of his words. John Chapter 14 concludes with Jesus’ expectation that his people will love him and keep his commands. And in John 15:9 we read: ‘If you obey my commands you will remain in my love’.

There are times in the Old Testament when Israel was likened to a vine, planted and tended by God. Psalm 80:8-9 says of God, ‘You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land. By the time of Jesus, the grapevine was close to being a national symbol for Israel – a little like the Big Apple for New York.

But there’s an irony: wherever we find the metaphor of the vine in the Old Testament it is usually associated with the moral and spiritual degradation of Israel. Isaiah 5, for example, tells us that instead of producing good grapes, Israel yielded sour grapes. For all the blessing God showered upon his people, he looked in vain for the harvest of righteousness he wanted to see. For his part Ezekiel commented that Israel was a useless vine.

With his words, ‘I am the true vine’, Jesus challenges Israel. Israel may say it is a vine, he says, but I am the true vine. ‘You are the branches’, he continues. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing’ (John 15:5).

These tough words weren’t just for Israel. They are words to everyone who says they are ‘Christian’, but for whom Christianity is no more than a Survey box to check. Jesus warns us that he expects visible evidence of our loyalty to Him. In the absence of such evidence, we cannot be assured of his friendship. It is said that the philosopher CEM Joad, was once asked at a university high table: ‘Tell me, what do you think of God?’ To which he replied, ‘My greater concern is what God thinks of me’.

Israel’s mistake was to assume that because they had the temple, because they had the Scriptures, because they had the right pedigree, they would be immune from judgment.

We today can say, ‘I’ve been baptized and married in the church’, and, ‘I attend church at Christmas and Easter’, thinking that all will be well when we pass from this world to the next. But, according to Jesus, the mark of everyone who is part of the true vine is fruitfulness. Where fruitfulness is absent, so is true faith.

Fruitfulness. So he continues: “Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers;…” (John 15: 6). There is a dramatic change in the tense of the verbs here. Literally he is saying, ‘whoever is not remaining in me’ (present tense), ‘has been thrown away’ (past tense).

This strange counterpoint of tenses suggests that the severance of the branch and its consequent decay are not the result of its sterility, but the cause. It is because it never really belonged to the vine that it never produced fruit. So, when he speaks of branches ‘in me’ being cut off, he is referring to people who have superficially called themselves ‘Christian’.

Love in response to his love, prayer, and loyalty to his commands is what Jesus expects of us.

As we reflect on what this fruit-bearing love and obedience looks like, we see that it refers to the reality of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, the quality of our life measured by the Ten Commandments and the exhortations of the New Testament; it also involves sharing God’s passion for the lost. Fruitfulness is seen in Godly love and living, prayer, and drawing others to know Christ Jesus. Let’s pray for God’s grace in these troubling times, enabling us to lead fruitful lives in Christ.

So urgent is the need for fruitful gospel living today, so ill-equipped are many of God’s people, that I ask you to join with me in praying that many more will take up the current opportunity of accessing the Anglican Connection gospel-focused online conference. It’s not just for ministers or even Anglicans. Available until May 31 at www.anglicanconnection.com, it is for everyone who is committed to the priority of God’s gospel. Keynote speakers include Dr. John Lennox, Richard Borgonon (‘Word One-to-One’), Dr. Liam Goligher, Keith Getty.

© John G. Mason

Note: Today’s ‘Word’ is adapted from my Word on Wednesday, April 26, 2017

‘Pentecost and Speaking Up…’

‘Life to the Full…’

Elections and the resulting political discourse remind us how much most people long for a leader who will bring us justice and peace, protection and prosperity. However, on every occasion our aspirations are dashed as leaders reveal their flaws and failures and self-interest. No one proves to be the ideal leader.

Let me suggest the one exception: Jesus who said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11).

Many today view shepherds through rose-tinted lenses, imagining them with their faithful dogs, caring for their sheep on grassy hillsides. The reality is that the shepherds of ancient Israel lived dangerous lives. And because sheep were the equivalent of money in the bank today, shepherds had to contend, not only with marauding animals, but also with thieves and armed robbers.

Every village had their ‘banks’ – sheepfolds – with their door and security guard. In John 10 Jesus twins the images of Door (or Gate) and Good Shepherd when he says: ‘…He who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out (John 10:2-3). And in verse 7 he says, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep’, and in verse 10, ‘I am the good shepherd’.

Shepherds. Though poor and often treated as outcasts, shepherds played an important part in the life of Israel. Israel’s kings were described as shepherds. King David, the greatest of the Old Testament kings had been brought from shepherding sheep to shepherd God’s people Israel. But it was not only the kings who were called shepherds, but also the religious leaders. In Ezekiel 34 we read that when they abused their position and failed their spiritual duty, God declared that he himself would shepherd his people. Ezekiel 34:1-31 echoes Psalm 23 as it speaks of God himself as the shepherd of his people.

A millennium after David, Jesus says that he is the door and the good shepherd. As the good shepherd he brings together shepherd as a metaphor for the Messiah and the theme of death. False messiahs took the lives of men and women. The true Messiah gives life to men and women. And the life he gives, is life to the full (10:10). But it comes only at the cost of his own life ‘…Just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep’, Jesus says (10:15).

We begin to see what Jesus means when he says he is the good shepherd. He is not a do-gooder, for they tend to be more interested in themselves and what others think of them. Jesus is good in the very best sense of the word. He is genuinely concerned about the interests of others and, no matter the cost to himself, he is committed to provide life in all its fullness for his people.

Furthermore, eternal life in biblical terms is not an existence that goes on and on. Rather it is the expansion and intensification of the very best experiences we enjoy in life now. Jesus is not interested in the quantity of life but in the quality.

An underlying theme we often miss in John chapter 10 is the distinction that Jesus makes concerning his goal and his method compared with those who went before him – and would come after him. Jesus was not a political Messiah.

In John 10:8 Jesus says: ‘All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the door. If anyone enters by me, they will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly’.

The thieves and robbers were the false-messiahs, the political activists of Jesus’ day. In their endeavors to free Israel from Roman rule, they used violence in various forms. But Jesus charts a very different path in the cause of true life and real freedom. As the door, he is the only one who has the right to open the gate of heaven and have the title Messiah. As the good shepherd he has given his life to open the way to the freedom and joy of God’s long-promised kingdom.

When we consider Jesus’ words here, we discern their application for our 21st century world. The only real hope of freedom and life the progressive materialist has to offer is some kind of embodiment of Karl Marx’s classless society. According to Marx people could only find real happiness if they freed themselves from the imperialism of economic oppression and exploitation. Only then would the former hostilities between races and nations be resolved and humanity be able to develop its full potential.

‘Don’t be misled,’ Jesus is saying. ‘These people have come to steal – they have no respect for personal property or enterprise. They have come to kill – they don’t value human life.’

Think of the millions who died under the 20th century revolutionary movements – led by Lenin and Stalin, Hitler and Mao, Pol Pot and Idi Amin. And for what? No perfect peaceful and just society has emerged.

‘I am the door; I am the good shepherd’, Jesus says. Only those who turn to him will find true life and liberty. They alone find true deliverance – they are saved. They alone find true fulfillment – they find satisfying pasture. If we want to find true freedom, deep satisfaction and real life, we need to turn to Jesus Christ – who carried, not a gun, but a cross.