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‘Hopeless or Hopeful…?’

‘Hopeless or Hopeful…?’

HelplessOver the last seventeen months millions have watched helplessly as loved ones have died from Covid-19. For many there has been no comfort or hope.

In recent times our culture has made a habit of setting aside the wisdom of the past, and especially the wisdom of the Bible. But, as we touched on last week, when we are facing catastrophe and are confronted with the realities of the human experience, the words of the Bible come through with immense power and wisdom, truth and compassion. For here there is comfort for the broken-hearted and hope for the bereaved.

In the Book of Job, chapter 19 we read Job’s words: ‘I know that my redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another’ (19:25ff).

And through the words and works of Jesus Christ we see the evidence of God’s life-giving power, providing a sure hope of life beyond the grave.

A dying girl. In chapter 5 of his record, St Mark tells of a 12-year-old girl who was dying. Her father, Jairus, a synagogue ruler had ignored the usual Jewish religious leadership opposition to Jesus and begged him for help. And, while Jesus agreed to go with Jairus, he hadn’t hurried. In fact, when he realized that a woman had been cured by touching his clothing, Jesus had stopped to speak with her. We can imagine Jairus’ further sense of helplessness.

It’s worth pausing to consider Jesus’ lack of urgency here. Often we’re anxious because we think God doesn’t understand the urgency of our need. It’s helpful to realize that Jesus knows our situation.

Don’t fear, only believe. During the delay a messenger brought Jairus the news that his daughter had died. Overhearing a comment to Jairus: “Why trouble the teacher any further?” Jesus’ reassuring response is remarkable: “Do not fear, only believe” (5:35f).

Jesus’ words underline a theme we have already observed: With his coming, fear can give way to faith, not just any faith, or faith in faith, but faith in him. It was a test of Jairus’ faith. The delay not only heightened the drama of the miracle, but shows us that we can trust God to be working out his good purposes for us at all times, even in tough times when he seems to be doing nothing.

So far in Mark’s narrative there is very little evidence of this kind of faith. Yet it is something he wants to press on us, his readers, as he moves on to the climax of this event.

God’s compassionBy noting that Jesus took with him into the house, Peter and John and James (the three who would later witness his transfiguration), Mark affirms their credibility as witnesses to Jesus. Furthermore, by describing the scene at Jairus’ house where people were weeping and wailing loudly, Mark heightens the drama of the scene (5:38).

With Jesus’ words, “Why are you making a commotion and weeping? The child is not dead but sleeping”, the crowds laughed (5:39). They knew the girl was dead, otherwise they would not have been there, and they certainly didn’t believe that Jesus could do anything for her now. But in saying that the girl was sleeping, a word that could signify either physical sleep or death, Jesus indicated the situation was not as hopeless as they thought. Are there not times when we are downcast because we don’t expect God to do the unexpected?

Taking the girl’s parents and the three disciples with him to her bedside, he took the girl’s hand and without any fuss or incantation, said, “Talitha cumi” which means, “Little girl, I say to you, arise” (5:41).

In touching the dead girl Jesus had technically become impure and ritually unclean. Yet he had not hesitated to do this for her sake.

New life. At his words, immediately the girl got up and began walking… (5:42). Understandably the parents were amazed (8:56) at this extraordinary act of Jesus. Directing that they should give her something to eat (5:43), Jesus not only showed his understanding of the girl’s need, he wanted everyone to know she was not an apparition. She was truly alive. No one but God could raise the dead.

There is no other word to describe what Jesus had: power. Power over death itself; power to turn a day of mourning into a day of joy.

New hope. An event such as this awakens us to where hope is to be found. According to the Bible we are all helpless. We try to hide this or simply ignore it, but the reality is that we are not in charge of our destiny. Our world is subject to titanic forces far beyond our control. Consider the power of fires, floods and earthquakes; consider the evil in the world and the atrocities that are perpetrated for the sake of human power; consider the power of a pandemic and the harsh reality of death.

CS Lewis spoke of suffering as God’s megaphone. It can awaken us to the realities of our helplessness and therefore our need for God. Sometimes it is only when face the realities of life and death that we come to our senses and turn to Jesus.

Whatever our cry is, Mark wants us to know that our cry will be heard. We can also point people we know who have lost loved ones through Covid or for some other reason, to the God of all hope. In Christ Jesus alone, helplessness can be changed into hopefulness.

A prayer. Heavenly Father, keep your people continually in a true faith in you; so that those who lean only on the hope of your heavenly grace may always be defended by your mighty power; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

‘Hopeless or Hopeful…?’

‘Faith, NOT Fear…’

There are times in life when we feel utterly helpless. The morning of September 11, 2001 in Downtown New York City close to the twin towers, was one such moment for me. You may have experienced such a moment in your own life – a moment when you felt alone and helpless.

Come with me to a scene in the Gospel of St Mark, chapter 4, verses 35 through 41: On that day, when evening had come, Jesus (he) said to his disciples (them), “Let us go across to the other side” (of the lake). And leaving the crowd, they took him with them on the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him. And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat so that the boat was already filling. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion…

For centuries the Jewish people feared the sea. They associated its unpredictable forces with the primordial powers of creation that God needed to bring under his control. It raised the kind of anxiety and fear that the word nuclear raises in the minds of many people today. The sea symbolized those unpredictable and untameable energies that exist beneath the world – the kind of energies that defy all of humanity’s attempts to harness them.

Fear. We can begin to understand the fear that overcame the disciples when a sudden squall blew up. The Sea of Galilee, some seven hundred feet below sea level, is shallow and set between high hills. As every sailor knows, this combination can be highly dangerous in a storm. Rapidly moving air streams can quickly cause the waters to rise, making it choppy and turbulent.

On this occasion the storm quickly turned the comparatively quiet waters into huge waves. The gale force winds and turbulent waters threatened to capsize the boat. Even though some of the disciples were professional fishermen, they felt totally helpless. Fearing for their lives, they woke the sleeping Jesus and said to him: “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” (4:38).

A cry for help. Their cry for help was driven by fear. It was not a prayer let alone an expression of faith in Jesus. Behind their question is the implied thought that he had led them into this situation: he was the one who had suggested the trip over the lake. And here he was, calm and asleep on a cushion in the stern of the boat – a detail that underscores the historical veracity of the event – seemingly oblivious to their danger.

A command. Jesus’ response is revealing and encouraging: He awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm.

Jesus’ words are a clear, authoritative rebuke, without histrionics or grandstanding. Only one word can describe Jesus’ action: power. There was no process in the storm’s abatement. Instantly the wind ceased, and the sea was calm.

When we pause to think about this, we can only be awed by the power at work here. And if we think a little more, we will want to ask, as the disciples asked, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

Those men knew their Bible. They knew that only God had this kind of power. Psalms 104:3 and 107:28-29 speak of God’s control over his creation. No ordinary man could have done this extraordinary thing. Only someone who wielded the power of God could do it.

Faith…? Immediately Jesus questioned his disciples: “Where is your faith?” he asked. The ball was in their court – as it is in ours!

Up until this point in his narrative, Mark has shown us that Jesus displayed the kind of supernatural power that could restore order in a world where there is sickness and evil. He is someone to be trusted in the crises of life.

In the western world today many, having turned aside from the Christian faith, are inclined to look for human ideas and political solutions to the world’s problems and their own fears. Gone is an awareness of the existence of the God of love and beauty, goodness, justice, and compassion – the God who has supremely revealed himself in the words and works of his unique Son.

When the disciples looked back at their experiences with Jesus, they came to understand that they were uniquely privileged: in Jesus, God was with them in person.

To return to the crossing of the Lake, Jesus’ sleep in the boat shows us that he experienced physical exhaustion: he is one of us. Yet his sleep indicates his lack of fear: he knew he could trust God with his life. As Alan Cole commented, ‘Faith and fear are mutual exclusives in the Bible: it was because of lack of faith that the disciples feared that they were about to drown, and so it was for their lack of faith that they were rebuked. No command is more often reiterated in the Bible than the simple, ‘Do not fear’ (see Exodus 14:13, 20:20)’ (Mark: IVP, 1989, p.155).

But in their consternation the disciples continued to be fearful, saying to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (4:41). It would seem they wanted the warm, friendly presence of Jesus as they knew him, not someone who, in revealing his supernatural powers, was beyond their understanding and comfort zone.

Yet it is because Jesus is uniquely God in the flesh that, come what may, we need not fear when we put our faith in him.

A prayer. Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things, graft in our hearts the love of your Name, increase in us a true faith, nourish us with all goodness, and so by your mercy keep us; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

‘Hopeless or Hopeful…?’

‘Identity Matters…’

Personal identity is the subject of much robust discussion today. Is our identity defined by what we feel about our color or gender or something else? There are white people who say they ‘feel’ black. And I recently heard of someone who didn’t ‘feel’ their legs were theirs.

The capacity for choice is one of the most exciting and yet most frightening things about our humanity. For with the power to choose there is the moral responsibility to choose well. If we were robots, we could say our decisions were the outcome of the way we were programmed. If we were animals, we could say our decisions were shaped by our genetic code. But we are neither robots nor animals: we are human beings, and the matter of choice is in our hands.

When we think about it, our decisions are dependent upon assumptions we have made about life. And these assumptions include the spiritual values we might have.

Come with me to a parable that opens up a very big picture about life. It is found only in the Gospel of St Mark: Jesus also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come” (Mark 4:26-29).

This fascinating parable focuses on the reality of God and the supernatural activity of his kingdom – the sowing of seed and the harvest. To understand the parable, we need to read it in the context of Jesus’ ministry. In Mark 1:15 he proclaims: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.”

With Jesus’ coming God’s kingdom or rule is now present in a new and vital way. God’s king or ruler has come in person. His mission, spoken of in the parable as seedtime and harvest, brings the supernatural realm into human affairs. But, just as a seed remains hidden, so is the seed of God’s kingdom hidden.

The parable helps us begin to understand God’s greater purposes and his way of working. The evidence of his existence is around us in the nature of the universe, but the proofs of this and his supernatural rule in Jesus Christ remain hidden. Yet, in the same way that Jesus’ predictions concerning his arrest and trial, crucifixion and resurrection were fulfilled, we can be sure that the prediction of his return and bringing in the harvest of his people will also be revealed.

Paul the Apostle in writing to God’s people in Colossae tells us that with the coming of Jesus Christ the new age of God’s kingdom dawned. This new age co-exists with the old which the New Testament refers to as the world. For the present a door is open, allowing people to pass from the old age to the new. In Colossians 1:13 Paul writes of God’s hidden supernatural work: God has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and has transferred us into the kingdom of the Son he loves…

In turning to Jesus as the Lord, our whole relationship with God changes. Paul speaks of everyone who turns to Christ as dying with him (Colossians 2:20). And in Colossians 3:1, he says: So if you have been raised with Christ

While physically we are still in the old world, God’s people now move in the sphere of resurrection life. We should let the light of this sphere of eternity fall on all we think and feel, say and do. ‘Live,’ Paul is saying, ‘as though you belong, not on the earth, but in heaven.’

This means sitting at the feet of the enthroned Jesus Christ and letting our minds and hearts be instructed by his word – not least on matters such as our identity, gender and relationships.

It’s understandable that we hear the voices of those around us asking us ‘how we feel’. But Paul urges everyone of us who has this new life in the Lord Jesus to see ourselves and our identity, the challenges and troubles of life, through the lens of the glory of our life to come.

Paul develops this: For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God… (Coloss 3:3). For the present others only see our physical bodies. The reality of our new and eternal life is hidden. However, what is now hidden will one day be disclosed. Everyone will see the harvest of which Jesus speaks in his parable. So Paul writes: When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory (Coloss 3:4).

In today’s world the idea of Christ bursting through the skies in a blazing display of power and glory, seems pure science fiction. But the Bible leaves us in no doubt. From cover to cover it tells us that the world is going somewhere, and that the final outcome will be the return of God’s king.

In recent times there has been a revival of interest in 16th Century England, and especially the reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. Writing on Thomas Cranmer’s response to the news of Anne Boleyn’s execution (May 19, 1536) on false charges, Diarmaid MacCulloch records Cranmer’s words to a close friend: ‘She who has been the Queen of England on earth will today become a Queen of heaven’ (Diarmaid MacCulloch, Thomas Cranmer, 1996, p.159).

In Revelation 21 we read the words of St John: Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away” (21:1-4).

© John G. Mason

A prayer. Lord God, the strength of all who put their trust in you: mercifully accept our prayers, and because through the weakness of our mortal nature we can do nothing good without you, grant us the help of your grace, so that in keeping your commandments we may please you both in word and deed; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

‘Hopeless or Hopeful…?’

‘Is It Just All Relative…?’

As we start a new season we will be addressing contemporary questions in the light of the life and work of Jesus of Nazareth.

In recent decades the uncertainty of postmodernism has echoed throughout the West – in academia, the media, the school classroom and in the political arena. Because we are here by chance, we’re told, there is no God and no external objective truth. Your truth is just as valid as my truth. Increasingly political correctness, framed by our feelings, informs our decisions and relationships. For it’s all relative, of course.

Indeed, we’re told that anyone who expresses belief in a sovereign God, is too immature, too insecure, to enjoy the freedoms of the brave new order. It’s all relative, of course.

When we think about it, the talk of relativism, freedom, and maturity, reflects Adam and Eve’s attempts to throw off what they came to view as God’s constraints. And certainly, it’s much easier to go through life thinking we are part of a giant cosmic accident.

That said, let me explore three themes we find in the closing section of Mark, chapter 3. Mark focuses on two groups of people: Jesus’ family who thought that he was out of his mind; and some Jewish leaders from Jerusalem who said that Jesus exorcised demons because he himself was from Satan (3:20-22).

Unanswerable questions. Mark tells us that Jesus called the Jewish leaders over and raised some pointed questions: “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand”. ‘What you’re saying is illogical,’ Jesus is saying. ‘If I am from Satan or from Beelzebub, and I am releasing people from his power, that’s mutiny.’ It would be like a political party imploding because of internal divisions. Jesus’ questions were unanswerable.

And Jesus presses his critics with a second theme: Undeniable power. In verse 27 we read: But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.

Many in Jesus’ day suffered from demon possession. Perhaps they had played with the occult and subsequently were possessed by a force far beyond their own power to overthrow. But Jesus’ coming revealed a superior power. It was like the beginning of spring in Narnia when the snow, brought about by the white witch, began to thaw. People could see for themselves that Jesus wielded a far greater power than the forces of evil. And the Jewish leaders could see it too.

In Mark chapter 3 we discern the reality of a cosmic power struggle. In comparing himself to the stronger man who has come to plunder the strong man’s house, Jesus is likening the force of evil to a medieval baron, locking men and women away from their true heritage. But with Jesus, someone stronger has come to plunder the strong man’s house. The powerbase of the evil one is under attack and the fortifications are crumbling. The exorcisms that Jesus carried out reveal his superior power.

Now it’s important to note that Christianity is not dualism with a conflict between equals, the power of good and the power of evil. The question is, ‘How then should we respond to this man who wields such divine authority?’ Will we simply echo the mantra: ‘It’s all relative of course’?

Unforgiveable sin is a third theme. “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter;” Jesus said. “But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness but is guilty of an eternal sin” (3:28-29).

Jesus’ words about the unforgiveable sin are amongst some of most misunderstood in the Bible. We need to remember that verse 28 precedes verse 29. In verse 28 we learn that Jesus holds out forgiveness for all our sins. This is amongst the most glorious and freeing promises in the whole of Scripture.

There are times when we all feel the weight of a serious thing we have done, and we wonder, ‘Can God really find it within himself to forgive me for this?’ There may be someone reading this who feels such a burden. Be assured, when we truly turn to Jesus in repentance and faith, our sins are wiped clean from God’s memory.

That said, a chilling warning follows: “But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness but is guilty of an eternal sin”.

Mark 1:10 tells us that the Holy Spirit came upon Jesus at his baptism equipping him for his unique ministry. And throughout his ministry we see the continued work of the Spirit – not just in Jesus’ miracles but also in his teaching and preaching. Indeed, throughout the Bible we see the Spirit of God and the Word of God working together. To reject the ministry of God’s Word is to reject the ministry of the Holy Spirit.

Now, Jesus is not condemning our questions and doubts. Professor Charles Cranfield wrote in his definitive commentary on Mark’s Gospel: ‘It is a matter of great importance pastorally that we can say with absolute confidence to anyone who is overwhelmed by the fear that he/she has committed this sin, that the fact that he/she is so troubled is itself a sure proof that he/she has not committed it’ (CEB Cranfield, Mark, p.142).

How sad it is when people reject the Holy Spirit’s work as the gospel is brought to them. It can happen when they observe the glory of the universe around us, and yet insist that it has all come together by chance; or when they follow politically correct stereotypes, refusing to accept the Bible as God’s special revelation.

We are not adrift in a sea of moral uncertainty. Right and wrong mean something. Good and bad, true and false, mean something, because Jesus is there to give these words meaning. “I am the truth,” he says in another place.

At the end of it all, the absolute nature of these fundamental values and truths will assert themselves over every single human life. We shall be placed against God’s plumbline, and that plumbline will be Jesus himself. Then we will discover how ridiculous is the cliche, ‘It’s all relative of course’.

© John G. Mason

A prayer. O God, the King of glory, you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven: do not leave us desolate, but send your Holy Spirit to strengthen us, and exalt us to where our Savior Christ has gone before, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for evermore.  Amen.

‘Hopeless or Hopeful…?’

‘Delighting in the Triune God…’

Robert Letham in The Holy Trinity (2004) commented on the impact of postmodernism on society: ‘In terms of instability and diversity, he said, ‘the postmodern world of constant flux is seeing insecurity, breakdown, and the rise of various forms of terrorism… As diversity rules, subgroups are divided against each other… A cult of the victim develops, and responsibility declines. This is a recipe for social breakdown, instability, and the unravelling of any cohesion that once existed’, he said (p.453).

Let me touch on some key words in Paul the Apostle’s prayer of thanksgiving for the church in Colossae. In Colossians 1:3 we read: In our prayers for you we always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,…

Paul begins by thanking God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Significantly, the sentence construction tells us that Jesus Christ is just as much God as God the Father.

Let’s think about this: The essential nature of a perfect father is to love and give life. Paul’s understanding is that God the Father delights to love and give life. From eternity God the Father has given life to a Son.

A water fountain, whose very nature is to pour out water, helps us with this idea. For Paul’s words are consistent with what we read in the opening line of John’s Gospel: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. And in Jeremiah 2:13, the Lord says of himself that he is the ‘spring of living water’. From eternity, before the creation of the universe, God the Father was loving and begetting his Son. God did not become a father at some point.

In the same way that a fountain is not a fountain if it doesn’t pour out water, so God the Father would not be who he is, unless he was giving life to his Son. God the Father and God the Son are distinct persons, but they are inseparable from one another. They always love one another, and they always work together in perfect harmony.

This is important, for it tells us that Paul is giving thanks to the God whose existence is not simply as a powerful intelligence behind the observable universe, but to God, the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ.

The Colossians’ faith in Christ Jesus was real and personal, expressing itself in their love and care for one another. The Colossian church was a place where there was genuine community. People accepted one another, treated one another as equals across the social and racial divide. Their love for one another led to compassion and practical care for those in need.

Significantly, Paul goes on to tell us that the faith and love the Colossians enjoyed, was inspired by a third Person of the Godhead – the Holy Spirit. In verse 8 he writes that Epaphras had told him of the Colossians’ love in the Spirit.

In John chapter 14 we learn that on the eve of his arrest, Jesus promised his disciples he would send the Holy Spirit to comfort and equip them. And in John 16:8 we learn that the Holy Spirit would also convict the world of sin and righteousness and judgment:… An important part of the Spirit’s work is to convict our consciences of our failure to honor and love Jesus as Lord. One day God will ask us all: ‘What did you do with my Son?’

In The Bondage of the Will Martin Luther addressed what he saw as the fundamental question regarding salvation. He pointed out that so distorted and flawed is the human heart, that no one has a free will when it comes to our relationship with God. The desires of our hearts lock us into self-worship and vainglory, rather than the rightful worship and glory of the one true God who is Lord of heaven and earth.

Thomas Cranmer, archbishop of canterbury in the reign of Henry VIII, held a similar view of humanity. Dr. Ashley Null sums up Cranmer’s anthropology this way: ‘What the heart loves, the will chooses, and the mind justifies… For Cranmer the mind is actually captive to what the will wants, and the will itself, in turn, is captive to what the heart wants’.

So how are hearts changed? From his rich understanding of Scripture Cranmer’s prayer books stress the need for God to intervene in our minds and hearts. And so, the 1552 Service of the Lord’s Supper begins with a Prayer for Purity: Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hidden: cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, so that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy name, through Christ our Lord. Amen.

It is a prayer for the outpouring, the coming down of the Spirit of God, significantly not on the bread and wine on the Holy Table, but on the minds and hearts of everyone present. As Ashley Null points out, the prayer is saying that we cannot truly love God unless God supernaturally changes our hearts.

A careful reading of Cranmer’s liturgies reveals that his prayer is that the Holy Spirit will work through the Scripture to change the hearts of the worshippers. For Cranmer, with all the English Reformers, believed in a living God whose delight is to answer prayer.

To return to Paul the Apostle’s prayer of thanksgiving in his Letter to the Colossians, we see the One God who exists in Three Persons, delighting to give life to his people.

Our broken world needs to hear afresh the good news of this Triune God. If we grieve for our world, we need to pray that God will act with compassion and send his Spirit to soften hearts, turning them, as they hear the gospel, to Jesus Christ as Lord.

(c) John G. Mason

A Prayer for Trinity Sunday: Almighty and everlasting God, you have given us your servants grace by the confession of a true faith to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, and by your divine power to worship you as One: we pray that you would keep us steadfast in this faith and evermore defend us from all adversities; through Christ our Lord.  Amen.

‘Hopeless or Hopeful…?’

‘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.