Tuesday 22 June 2010

Jesus Divides (Matthew 10:26-42)

What would it take for England to win the World Cup?

Last Friday night was the very first football match I had ever sat down to watch. Up till then, I had been catching the highlights on the news; and watched bits of a few games on the weekend.

But last Friday, Vicky and I and a few of the guys got together to watch England play Algeria. The stadium was packed with fans who had spent thousands of pounds to fly down to South Africa, just to show their support for this one game. Even Princes William and Harry were there.

Everyone said, England was going to win – perhaps even by 3-nil, according to the bookies who were predicting that Wayne Rooney would score all three goals.

Except, as many of you may know, they didn’t. The result was a draw. Nil-nil.

The displeasure of the fans was obvious. The game ended to the roaring sounds of thousands of supporters, jeering the team off the pitch. Rooney was caught on camera saying, “Nice to see your own fans booing you.”

What would it take for England to win the World Cup?

A miracle? Better management? A kick up the backside? Someone said to me last week, I was more likely to become the next Archbishop of Cantebury than if England could win the World Cup.

One criticism you hear again and again from fans and media, is their lack of spirit. “They don’t seem to be taking enough chances. Their heart isn’t in it. They are playing it too safe”

In an international tournament like the World Cup, fans turn on their TVs not just for the performance, they are looking for passion.

And it’s the same with life. What keeps us from embracing life, from taking chances, what keeps us from getting up when we’re knocked down again and again – is not a lack of strength, but the lack of nerve. We get discouraged too easily. We lose hope too often.

Jesus’ half-time pitch

And so today we find Jesus speaking to his twelve disciples, about their passion and about their fears.

The context is mission. Jesus is sending them out as his missionaries, as his apostles, to announce the coming Kingdom of God. He empowers them with authority – verse 8:: they are to heal the sick, cleanse those with leprosy, drive out demons.

But he warns them, they are being sent into conflict. Verse 17: People will arrest them, torture them, even prosecute them under the law. And last week, we learned that Jesus had some very practical advice for these twelve apostles. Be careful of men; Be innocent in your conduct; Be prepared to speak the gospel boldly!

And today we're looking at the second half of Jesus' message to his disciples. But it's somewhat different. There are no practical tips. No tactics. Instead Jesus can see that before he sends these twelve men on their mission in there hearts, Jesus needs to deal with the battle that is raging in their hearts - their fears, their anxiety and their doubts.

Today’s text is Jesus’ half-time pitch to the players. They are words of comfort, but also words of inspiration. He tells them of the risks, but also promises great reward. As every good manager knows: there are going to have to be soft words, but also hard truths.

1. Do not be afraid

So do not be afraid of them. There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known.

What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight;
what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs.

Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

The question at the end of the day is: who do you fear? Do you fear man, or do you fear God?

It’s a very useful question to ask yourself - especially in times of great temptation. When a friend suggests doing something you know is not right. When your boss tells you to fudge the accounts.

It’s useful to ask yourself: Am I more concerned with what people will think of me, or God? Do I fear man or God?

But actually, the context is not temptation – but proclamation. Will you continue to speak the gospel? When men threaten you to stop witnessing for Christ – will you fold?

Jesus says in verse 27 – speak it out even louder – in the open, from the rooftops.

Jesus is saying: the reason why Christians don't preach the gospel; the main reason why we don't tell our friends about Jesus - it's not opportunity, or lack of experience - the main reason is fear.

When we keep quiet about Jesus: it's because we fear man, and we do not fear God.

And Jesus says such fear is foolish - to fear man over God. It is foolish because it is God who can destroy both soul and body in hell. But it is foolish also because of verse 32:

Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven.
(Verses 32-33)

Meaning the basis of who is saved and who isn't; the basis of who gets into heaven and who suffers the judgement of God in hell - is not our goodness, nor our good works - but the acceptance or rejection of Jesus. Those who reject Jesus, Jesus will reject him before the Father. But those who receive Jesus, by receiving his message, by acknowledging him before men - Jesus will acknowledge him before his Father.

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father.
And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.

(Verses 29-31)

Sparrows were the smallest creatures known to the Israelites, and the penny was one of the smallest denominations of currency - it was loose change. And here Jesus uses the insignificant, most unnoticed examples around us to waken our senses to the overwhelming truth of God's care, love and provision.

He says: these creatures you see as insignificant and cheap - God values them. How much more then does your Father value your life, your well-being, your safety.

Now, I've heard these verses used in the weirdest of contexts, even by Christians. Someone once said to me, "Does this mean my cat will go to heaven?" Seriously. "After all, it says right there, God cares for the sparrows; God cares for the animals - he wouldn't let them die in vain?"

Or, someone might look at these words and go, "So, have you combed your hair today? Especially since we're in church now? God looks at every bit of you, you know, he's concerned about all the details - your hair, your shoes, your clothes. Jesus says so!"

Now, the thing is, there is a small measure of truth in each of these statements. God does care for his creation. God does care for the smallest of details in our lives. Yes, even the number of hairs on our heads.

But the problem is, we lose sight of the bigger picture Jesus paints for us. Yes, Jesus uses the small things, the tiniest of things, to help us understand what he is saying - but his point is then to say, how much more! How much more, then does God care for your whole life!

Furthermore, we mustn't forget the context of Jesus' words - he is challenging he to stand firm in the message of the Kingdom - to speak boldly the gospel - even in the face of the opposition, of harm, of even death! He says, don't be afraid of man - though they threaten even your life. God cares for the smallest of details in your life - how much more does God have your life itself under his control! So? Be bold! Go the distance! Be risky, even with your own life - for the sake of Jesus and for the sake of the gospel! That is what Jesus is saying!

2. Do not get the wrong idea

Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.
For I have come to turn " 'a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law -
a man's enemies will be the members of his own household.

Here Jesus is saying that he will divide even the deepest, closest of relationships. And he says this to expose how many of us have the wrong idea why Jesus came to die on the cross.

What Jesus says here is important if you are a Sunday School teacher. It’s important if you are marriage counsellor. If you're the kind of guy friends come to for advice, for help - these words are very important for you to take in.

The gospel is not a counselling tool. The purpose of Sunday School is not teach kids to be well-behaved little children. The bible is not there to give advice on how to fix marriages. This book is not a how-to guide to relationships, resolving arguments, tips on how to score in your exams or lose weight or getting a promotion.

Jesus did not come into the world to teach us how to be more loving; how to be more moral. He came to die for our sins so that we could be reconciled with God. He went to the cross so that we could be brought back into a loving relationship with God as our Heavenly Father.

And it is only after we have addressed our broken relationship with God that we can begin to deal with our problems with one another. Only after I see that my true identity is in Christ, and God is my Provider, my Protector, my Father - then I will be able to truly see you, as a brother in Christ, for whom Christ gave his life; who has been forgiven of all your sin - that I can see the importance of reconciling back with you; that whatever the grievance we have with one another in the family of God - we must always forgive one another; having ourselves been forgiven; we must always love one another - having received God's love through Jesus.

Now this means that if you do counsel a brother, a sister in Christ, a couple - it always begins with confession of sin; it means it always ends with prayer for forgiveness.

The reason we don't see this; the reason we don't do this - in part - Jesus has already told us. It's fear. We fear man and we do not fear God.

Are we too afraid of parents, to tell children the gospel? To help them understand how important it is that they giving their lives to Jesus?

Are we too afraid to say to the single Christians here today – you shouldn’t be dating a non-Christian. If you are, we will go through the relevant bible passages with you – to help you understand why for yourselves; But by the end of it, I’ll tell you that you will need to break off the relationship immediately – for both your sakes.

Is it fear that keeps us from telling the men to be men; to remind the husbands - and here I, too am convicted - to remind husbands husbands – Jesus charges you with the solemn responsibility of pastoring your family; of loving your wife - through the cleansing of pure water which is the word of God. Family devotions are your responsibility. It’s the man’s job to say – Let’s pray. Let’s open the bible. On Sundays, the man says - It's time to go to church. Not the wives, not the kids - the men being the man that God wants him to be - responsible, sacrificial, loving.

Sometimes we don’t say these things, because we fear man instead of God.But there is another reason we don’t say these things. It’s because we love man instead of loving God.

Here we come to the hardest verses in today’s passage, so please listen up, because it is so important we hear and understand what Jesus says next:

"Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

Now why does Jesus say this? These hard; these harsh words?

Today is Father’s Day. Let me tell you, I love my father. I just called him this morning, and it was good to hear his voice, to hear about his day, to tell him I love him.
And when I read verse 37 – Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me – my heart grows very, very heavy.

And I find myself asking: Why does Jesus say these things?

It’s because Jesus knows how much I love my father. And Jesus knows how much you love your parents, your family, your children. And here, Jesus is using the most precious, the most important things in your life to say, “Do you hear what I am saying? Wake up. This is serious.”

These are serious words. We have been talking about life and death. About heaven and hell. About salvation and judgement. Are you listening to what I am saying?

3. Our certain reward

Since Friday, I have been thinking again and again about the World Cup match. To be accurate, I have been thinking about what I've been thinking (?) Does that make sense?

I've been reflecting not on the game but my response to the game. Not about the players, but the fans who have so much to say about the players.

Everyone has something to say - the reporters, the commentators, the bloggers - guys who have never kicked a ball in their lives, suddenly become experts on the game. Everyone has a bone to pick, there is so much frustration expressed, anger vented, advice given - but very little mercy. Very little thanks.

And even now, I wonder how many of us think the same way about the church. About our brothers and sisters serving here today - in the music team, arranging the chairs, helping with the bible - How easy it is to find something we could comment on critically. "The music today could have been .....", "The sermon should have been .....",

I think Jesus picks up on this attitude in verse 41. He says:

Anyone who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet's reward, and anyone who receives a righteous man because he is a righteous man will receive a righteous man's reward.

He starts out by saying, it’s supply and demand. Econs 101. The bigger the effort, the bigger the supply - the bigger the cost, the bigger the reward. It's proportional. It's what we expect.
You receive a prophet – you get a prophet’s reward. If it’s a righteous man – then it’s a righteous man’s reward.

You go to dinner at Whetherspoons – it's 5 pounds. Dinner at Jamie’s Restaurant (Ooooh, fancy!) – 20 pounds. Bigger place, bigger cost, bigger price tag, better food. It’s logical, it's proportional.

Until you get to verse 42 where Jesus says something, well, something different. Maybe even, unexpected.

And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward.

What’s he saying? The small stuff matters to God. Even if no one else notices, God knows.

After service today, if pour a cup of tea and offer it to a friend – God sees that. God is pleased.

The time you spend praying for a brother or sister in need that no one else knows about – God knows. And Jesus says, God will reward.

Jesus intentionally chooses the smallest act of kindness, to the most insignificant individuals. Serving God doesn’t mean standing in front of lots of people, getting noticed, getting praised, playing in the music group, leading bible study, going on a mission trip, giving lots of money to the church.

Jesus says, the small stuff matters. I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward.

You kids here today, Jesus is talking to you. He's talking about you - about the people around you, serving you. If you are a disciple of Jesus, it is our honour, our privilege to serve you, love you, be there for you today. I hope you see that, this is God's word speaking directly into your life saying - you're so important to him.

4. Winning the World

Well then, back to our first question: What would it take for England to win the World Cup?

I have absolutely... no idea!

But I know this: I know what it would take for the church to win the world. To win the world for Jesus and his Kingdom.

It takes men and women who love Jesus, above everything else. It takes Christians who live not for the praise of men but for the glory of their Saviour. It takes disciples living salty, risky, sacrificial lives for the gospel.

It takes you and me, focussed on serving Jesus - by serving one another, reminding each other about the cross - to stand firm to the end and to stay faithful to our Saviour.

We do that - and Jesus says, we will win the World.

Friday 18 June 2010

Prepared to proclaim (Matthew 10:22)

This week we looked at some hard words from Jesus about persecution and I wanted to reflect on the words of Chapter 10 verse 22:

"All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved."

  1. Preparing for reality of suffering
    1 Peter 4:12 says, "Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you." What is striking about the way Peter describes suffering here is not the extent or intensity of pain; but how the Christians are caught by surprise by the reality of suffering. Jesus himself says, "I have told you this, so that when the time comes you will remember that I warned you." (John 16:4)

    This is Christianity 101. This is basic discipleship; You will suffer. Paul understands this. Returning from his first missionary journey together with Barnabas in Acts 14, having planted new churches, and established them with new leaders, his first words to them recorded for us in verse 22 are, "We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God."

  2. Recognising the reason for rejection
    "All men will hate you because of me," Jesus says (verse 22). The disciples will be "brought before governors and kings", on my account (verse 18). "If the head of the house has been called Beelzebub, how much more the members of his household" (verse 25).

    Jesus anticipates the rejection of his disciples as a reflection of the world's rejection of himself. "If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first." (John 15:18)

  3. The hope, certainty and comfort of salvation
    Jesus says, "You will not finish going through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes" (verse 23). Though he calls his disciples to faithfulness in the face of persecution ("he who stands firm to the end" - verse 22); here Jesus promises that their trial will be cut short before it reaches out of hand.

    Verses 22 and 23 are linked by the Greek word "telos" - translated in 22 as "the end" and in 23 as "finish". Though the apostles are to stand to the "finish", their persecution will not "finish"/"run it's full course" before the "Son of Man comes". Though this is commonly thought of as a reference to the second coming of Jesus - it is more appropriately understood as the fulfilment of Jesus' exaltation through his death on the cross.

    The title "Son of Man" is a reference to Daniel 7:13 - which describes one "like a son of man" coming with the clouds of heaven to receive authority, glory and power from God, pictured there as the Ancient of Days.

  4. Recognising the suffering of Christ
    Ultimately, Jesus is preparing the Twelve, not for their suffering, but his. He draws their attention to his own rejection by the religious leaders (verse 25; compare also with 9:34 and 12:24); hints at his own betrayal (linking verse 21 - brother will betray brother - the word "betray" literally meaning "handing over"; the same word used in verse 17 - "they will hand you over"; and the same word used to describe Judas in verse 4 - "who betrayed (Jesus)" - see also Matthew 26:2) and connects the end/finishing/completion of their suffering with his exaltation at the coming of the Son of Man (verse 23).

    Jesus, in sending the apostles out as his missionaries and messengers, is saying to them, "Don't just look to the successes of my current ministry - the crowds, the power, the signs, the authority, the healing, the miracles, the casting out of demons, the calming of the storm, the awe-struck response to my teaching - don't just look at these ministry 'successes'; but look at the growing response of hostility and rejection to me. That will be the pattern of your ministry as well. I have come into this world of hostility and conflict; and I now send you into this same world."

  5. Encouraged to speak boldly of message of Christ
    The ESV's translation of verse 22 is closer to the mark - "You will be hated by all for my name’s sake."

    Acts 5 records the fulfilment of Jesus' words in the experience of the apostles. Having been arrested by the temple guard, Peter and the apostles are made to appear before the Sanhedrin, flogged, and then warned "not to speak in the name of Jesus" (verses 40; see also verse 28). Verse 41 reads, "The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name."

    In chapters 4 and 5, "Jesus' name" becomes a shorthand for referring to the proclamation and teaching of, or identification with the gospel. To suffer hatred and rejection for "the Name", therefore means to face persecution for speaking message of the gospel.

    Hence looking again at Matthew 10:22 in its entirety, Jesus is calling his twelve apostles to "stand firm to the end" - by calling them to proclaim the gospel - the message of Jesus as the rejected Christ through his death on the cross. Inasmuch as it is a call to endurance in the face of our own suffering, it is moreover a call to faithfulness in witnessing to the sufferings of Christ.

Saturday 5 June 2010

Jesus and Islam

I had one of the most stimulating discussions I've had about Jesus in a long time with Muslim man this afternoon. We met at an exhibition about Islam in the city centre, where A welcomed me warmly to have a look at the maps, historical charts and calligraphy on display about the Islamic faith and culture. As soon as he found out I was a Christian, he became very inquisitive about the bible, the God of the bible and Jesus. It was clear that there were stark differences between Jesus and Islam, but I enjoyed the opportunity to explain how Jesus was central to understanding God, his plan of salvation and the meaning of Jesus' death on the cross.

Here are some points we able to talk through in the half-hour or so we chatted:

1. Grace and Mercy
  • While A was emphatic that he believed in a merciful and gracious God, I pressed him to clarify what he meant by this. For Islam, grace is seen in God's benevolence. He bestows blessings - of life, sight and senses, enjoyment - upon creatures who do not deserve this.
  • For Christians, God's mercy is fully revealed on the cross. Jesus dies to take our punishment for sin, thereby displaying the fullness of God's mercy in forgiveness.
  • Grace is therefore unfair. A had a big issue with this - at two levels. One, God need not send Jesus to die in order to forgive sins - he merely needs to overlook it. Secondly, God cannot punish another man for our sins. This led to a discussion about God's view of sin (see no. 2); and God's relationship with Jesus (see no.3 below)
  • It is important to see here, that Islam has a big issue not simply with God's forgiveness of sins (How the cross brings forgiveness), but for the need for forgiveness of sins (Why Jesus had to die in order for us to be forgiven).
  • This was a good opportunity to then move on to the justice of God...

2. Sin and Judgement
  • I think it was new for A to see that the cross displays the justice (or righteousness) of God.
  • Starting with Paul's argument from Romans 1 (I did not refer to it as such, instead I often used the phrase "The bible says"), God's rightful anger is displayed towards sinful man in creation. A did not have a problem with the idea of creation testifying to God's existence. But he was unsettled with the notion that God was personally offended by our sinfulness.
  • The follow-on question was then - How could we personally offend God? The bible says that we do not acknowledge him as God, neither glorifying him nor thanking him. But again, the rub was that God took personal offence at this as creator.
  • The point I was trying to get across was our differing views on sin. Sin is a personal offence against God. Rebelling against him as God but also ignoring him as our Creator.
  • Therefore God's response in judgement is also personal. He hates sin. But he also hates those who sin.
  • Furthermore, I tried to get across the fact that God was grieved by sin. It saddens him as a father who is hurt when his children not only act in a way that is harmful to themselves (which was A's argument for our need for salvation), but when his children turn away from him to live lives independent of him, despising who he is and what he has done for them. For A, and for Islam, God is not affected when we sin. In Islam, God does not experience anger when we sin.
  • I did this in part to help articulate A's problem with the "unfairness" of the cross. You see, for A and for Islam, God's righteousness is seen in punishing wrong and rewarding good. Therefore punishing the innocent (Jesus) and rewarding sinners (us) is "unfair".
  • I was bringing A to the point where I could show him how the cross was the ultimate justice of God. God is able and justified to fully forgive sinners, not simply by overlooking sin, but because his anger has been satisfied when he poured out his wrath for sin upon Jesus.
  • This was vitally important for A to see, as Islam defined grace very differently from Christianity. For Islam, God is "gracious" when he rewards those who obey his commandments - by observing the 5 pillars of Islam (the duties of every Muslim believer: prayer, profession of faith, fasting, alms-giving and the hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca).
  • For Christians, God's grace is displayed through the forgiveness of sinners through the righteous judgement of anger poured out on Jesus at the cross.
  • The questions that remained were: (1) Why was Jesus able to take our punishment for the sins of the world and (2) How can we know that what the bible says about this is true (over and against the testimony of Mohammed and the Quran)?

3. God and Jesus
  • The repeated objection I got from A was, "You say there are two Gods: God the Father and Jesus. How can that be?"
  • A had earlier had a conversation with a Christian named R (whom I suspect is a friend I know; and I was thanking God silently in my heart for) about the Trinity. A made comparisons between the Christian God and Hinduism, which also promoted a view of God in triplicate form (this was new to me). Essentially, A was saying that Christians taught there were many "gods" when they said Jesus was also God.
  • In answering these very valid questions, I decided to bring A back to the cross. I said that Jesus fully revealed who God was through his life and ministry (his mercy and compassion), his dependence upon his heavenly Father (his personal relationship with God), but ultimately through his death and resurrection (God's humility, grace and love). So instead of starting with arguments about Jesus as creator, Jesus as judge (which I touched on in answering the caricature question - "You Christians say: The Old Testament God is anger, the New Testament Jesus is love"), Jesus as the true prophet (promised by Moses - not Mohammed) - which are all valid and useful - I wanted A to look at Jesus on the cross and see that there, God was fully revealed.... on the cross. There, God was fully revealed in his mercy, his justice and his love.
  • On the cross we the severing of the eternal relationship between God the Father and God the Son. A's repeated caricature of the cross was "God punching himself". I could tell he was trying to evoke a response with that quip (even acting it out for me).
  • Here is where the Trinity is so important in understanding what happened on the cross. God the Father punishes his Son, Jesus whom he has loved since eternity past - by breaking this relationship momentarily on the cross. The judgement is seen not in the pain Jesus experienced through the beatings, the cuts and bruises, the open wounds and stripes on his back - but through the rejection of Jesus from man and God. It is the severing of a loving relationship resulting in animosity, anguish and agony.
  • Only the Trinity can explain God's love. It is relational: between the eternal Father and Son. For Islam, God's love is distant - Muslims are not to think of a God who is personally involved with their lives, their love or even their pain and frustrations - Allah is gracious in even considering to reward the believer who obeys him fully. But Jesus shows us that God is loving in an intensely personal and affectionate way: as a father loves his own son. And the cross demonstrates this supremely - in the true eternal Son, who humbly obeys his Father even unto death.
  • In this way, the cross shows God's relationship with us. Through his death, Jesus clothes us with his righteousness: God the Father sees us as he sees him - holy, righteous and loved.

4. Revelation and Illumination
  • My goal was to talk about the gospel, and the question that led there was revelation: Was the bible a reliable witness to Jesus?
  • For A, the Quran was God's final revelation and a guide for Muslims to live rightly under his rule. He expected me to say that Christians only deferred on the point that the bible was our source of God's revelation.
  • Rather, I replied that Jesus was God's final and full revelation, and that the bible was the means by which this was revealed to us, but only in as much as it pointed to Jesus. More than that, it pointed to Jesus on the cross and explained the reason why he came to save us through his death and resurrection.
  • This was important, as A saw Judaism, Christianity (and the bible - though in a rather distorted form) and the Quran as successively revealing God through the prophets, with Mohammed as the last in the line of God's chosen spokesmen. However, for the Christian, every point of the bible, even the Old Testament pointed forward to the same event and person of Jesus as the fulfilment of God's plan of salvation. True, there is a progression in salvation history: through Abraham, through the Exodus and the Kingdom of Israel to the Deportation and return from Exile - but given any point of these events - they point to who Jesus is, and what Jesus did on the cross.
  • Here, I brought A back to God's revelation of his wrath in creation. Though evident to all, hence making all mankind accountable for their rebellion, we suppress this revelation of the knowledge of God.
  • This created the tension I was hoping for; because A's next question was - how do we get to Jesus? If the revelation of God in creation (which he agrees with from Islam's perspective) is suppressed, what role does Jesus play?
  • In part, A thought Christians placed a premium over their personal experience over God's revelation. "You Christians say you feel what is right for you, but Islam speaks from the objective viewpoint of the Quran."
  • I replied that the bible says we suppress the knowledge of God through sin. But the cross is the true revelation of God that overcomes this suppression by (1) displaying God's true justice over sin, (2) displaying God's forgiveness for sin and finally (3) enabling man to respond to God's offer of forgiveness and new life through repentance and faith.
  • And here then was the biggest difference between the message of the bible and the message of the Quran - the gospel! The gospel was the good news of forgiveness for sins. And the turning point in all history that made this a possibility was the cross.
  • When Christians speak about God opening their hearts to hear the gospel - it is the work of God's Spirit to open our hearts and minds to see Jesus on the cross.

At this point I got a call from V and had to leave. But I am praying for A that will see how wonderful the message of Jesus is; how much more hopeful and real and joyful the gospel is because of his death on the cross.

Some reflections on my encounter:

  • Being loving
    I am conscious we were in a very public place. It would have been a terrible testimony if I had made any remarks or accusations about the Quran and Islam in such a context. Everything I said was only in response to A's questions on Christianity.

    The encounter was totally unexpected; I was only strolling through the area and had a heavy bag on my back. Throughout our conversation, A was gracious in his manner, and even apologised at times, which I really appreciated. To be honest, I wasn't concentrating on getting the answers right as much as I was thinking about getting them across as lovingly as possible - consciously slowing the pace of my speech (it was tempting to speed up to get as much in as possible), and listening to his comments closely in order to understand them rightly before answering.

  • Being clear about Jesus
    A was firing question after question about Jesus, the Trinity, Catholicism - I didn't really get a chance to deal with any one of them at length. So, instead I focussed to connecting each question with Jesus and the cross; ending each answer with "It really has to do with what Jesus - what he did at the cross."

    Revelation of God? Look at the cross. The Trinity? Look at the cross. Grace? Look to the cross. How can Jesus be God? Good question - precisely the question that got Jesus into trouble and killed on the cross.

Wednesday 2 June 2010

Stand Firm! (Matthew 10:16-25)

Sheep, snakes and doves

I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.
(Verse 16)

Jesus is speaking to his twelve disciples as he prepares to send them out as his apostles, empowered with his authority to heal any and every sickness, to drive out unclean spirits and teach and to preach the coming Kingdom of God. He is preparing them for the task ahead as he warns them soberly - there will be resistance and rejection. Not only will they receive the same mission, the same message and the same ministry as their master, these twelve disciples would also face the same hostility, hatred and dishonour as Jesus did.

He says he is sending them as sheep among wolves. The vivid imagery is that of savage beasts feasting on the flesh of helpless animals. These disciples, though filled with power from God to restore health and well-being to others, would be placing their own lives at risk.

But it is the next pair of descriptions that sound both compelling and confusing. For Jesus instructs his disciples to be shrewd as snakes, yet innocent as doves. It is odd that believers are to be like snakes; that they are called to be cunning like serpents; to exercise shrewdness to such a degree, just up to the point of deceitfulness. For serpents are pictured as evil creatures in the bible. The devil is referred to as a serpent. Indeed, the book of Genesis describes Satan's first appearance in scripture as a crafty serpent - the word "crafty" in the Greek Septuagint version of the bible being the same word translated in verse 16 as "shrewd". In what sense are the apostles of Jesus to be shrewd like serpents?

At least, the second description seems to make more sense. There must be innocent as doves. Their innocence will be all the more important in the following verses when the disciples will have to stand as witnesses before men, not simply to defend their integrity, but to proclaim words given them by the living God.

Conflict of the Kingdom, confidence in the Spirit

"Be on your guard against men; they will hand you over to the local councils and flog you in their synagogues. On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles. But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, 20for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.
(Verses 17 to 19)

Here is the true context of gospel ministry - not through popularity but rejection, not in comfort but through conflict.

The disciples will face persecution at the hands of men. They will be mistreated, abused and imprisoned simply because they bear the message and ministry of Jesus. Yet, such opposition is ultimately to be seen as opportunity. "On my account," Jesus says - it is because of their association with him and witness of him - they will be (1) handed over to the authorities, (2) flogged in religious assemblies, (3) brought before governors and kings and (4) arrested.

It is in anticipation of such situations of conflict that Jesus comforts his disciples. "Do not worry," Jesus says, "about what to say or how to say it."

Here we see the essence of the mission given to the apostles by Jesus. They are to speak the message of God. They are to proclaim the Kingdom of God. Notice the repeated emphases on their witness before men - not simply with their conduct, but with their words. Verse 19: Do not worry about what to say or how to say it. Verse 20: You will be given what to say. Verse 21: It will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.

Jesus does not promise to deliver them out of trouble. Quite the contrary, their mission is to speak into situations of trouble and hardship with the gospel. Just as men will reject the message of the gospel, so will they reject the messengers of the gospel. But the true followers of Jesus are called to stand firm in the truth of the gospel.

Persecution of the church, propagation of the gospel

"Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved. When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another. I tell you the truth, you will not finish going through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes.
(Verses 21 to 23)

The scenarios seem unimaginably horrific. Betraying your own flesh and blood? Killing your own offspring? Handing your father and mother over to death? Surely, Jesus is exaggerating? It's just religious fanaticism, isn't it?

Notice three things. First: the reason Jesus gives for such betrayal. Verse 22: All men will hate you because of me. Hatred of Jesus will overwhelm the deepest of affections from our loved ones. Humanity's rejection of a God will be mirrored by the world's rejection of the people of God. Jesus isn't saying that you must betray your brother, father, children. Far from it. Rather, he is saying that if you are a Christian, be prepared to be betrayed by your brother, father and even your children because of him.

Secondly, Jesus paints the picture of the end times. Brother will betray brother. Children will rebel; he who stands firm to the end
will be saved; all this will happen before the Son of Man comes - a reference to Jesus' second coming. This is not to say that violence against Christians will only begin far into the future. The bible refers to the end times - the eschaton (eschatology is the study of the last days) - as beginning from the death and resurrection of Jesus. Meaning: this side of the cross, we now live in the end times. Rather, Jesus is painting a image of escalating rejection. Things will get worse, and continue to get much, much worse - before Jesus returns to bring the Kingdom of God.

It is worth noting that the word Matthew uses for the end is "telos" - meaning "finished"; and what this adds is the description of "the end of the end". The one who is still standing - who is still faithful - having "completed" this course; having "finished" the race - will be saved. (The same word is used in verse 23 - You will not "finish" - telesete; same word - going through the cities of Israel - Here Jesus denotes the urgency of this end time; The Son of Man will not wait till the persecution gets out of hand before he returns. Everything is timed according to God's plan).

And thirdly, Jesus calls us to wisely respond to such conflict. "When you are persecuted... flee". Here is the shrewdness of the serpent - The quickness in responding to a threatening situation. Here is the innocence of the dove - The avoidance of further unnecessary conflict. Don't go looking for a fight. Don't put yourself foolishly in harm's way.

Yet, Jesus is saying something more profound that just "stay out of trouble". He is giving a pattern of gospel propagation. He is saying, "This is how the gospel will spread. This is how God's people will go to the nations." It is through persecution.

In God's providential plan, the persecution of the church by the nations will be used to drive the propagation of the gospel to the nations. "I tell you the truth, you will not finish going through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes." The book of Acts records how the early church established in the capital of Jerusalem soon faced persecution from the authorities, causing the believers to be "scattered throughout Judea and Samaria" (Acts 8:1), yet "those ... scattered preached the word wherever they went" (Acts 8:4).

Imitation of the master, expectation of the Christ

"A student is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for the student to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master. If the head of the house has been called Beelzebub, how much more the members of his household!
(Verses 24 to 25)

We have seen that Jesus is preparing his followers for the task ahead. He soberly warns them of persecution and rejection. He reminds them of the mission of God's message. He points them to certainty of God's Kingdom and Jesus' return.

Yet, the whole purpose of Jesus in speaking these words is to reveal who he is. At this point, the Twelve have yet to recognise Jesus as the Christ. He is God's chosen King sent to bring in all God's purposes of salvation through the forgiveness of sins. His disciples do not yet understand, that Jesus brings in the Kingdom through suffering - specifically, his suffering and death on the cross.

"A student is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master."
On one hand, Jesus is saying, don't forget who you are serving. He is the teacher, we are his students. He is our master, we are his servants (literally, slaves). The disciples are not to seek their own interests above the master's. They carry out his instructions. They serve his purposes.

Yet on another level, verse 25 elevates the position of follower. "It is enough for the student to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master." Now, Jesus implies the disciples are to find contentment in rising up to imitate their teacher, master and Lord. It even seems that Jesus is here inviting them to follow him, not simply as servants under his service, but partners with him in his mission. They are to be like him. This is their goal in ministry (a word which means "service"), and their purpose in mission - to be like Jesus.

But the question is: what kind of teacher is he? What kind of master, ought these servants aspire to follow and imitate?

He is a rejected Lord. Jesus is the suffering Christ.

"If the head of the house has been called Beelzebub, how much more the members of his household!"

Jesus is labelled "Beelzebub" a derogatory term which means "Lord of the flies" or "Lord of the house" - commonly used to refer to Satan. We see this accusation frequently in Matthew's gospel on the lips of the religious leaders and Pharisees. Near the end of chapter 9, the Pharisee, unable to refute the multiple miracles done by Jesus, say "It is by the prince of demons that he drives out demons" (Matthew 9:34). The religious leaders were unwilling to ascribe his power to God - not because they doubted the authenticity of the miracles - but because Jesus would not conform to their expectations of the Christ they were waiting for.

We see Jesus dealing with this more fully in Chapter 12. There, what prompts the Pharisees to make the same accusations in verse 24, "It is only by Beelzebub... that this fellow drives out demons" is verse 23, when the people say of Jesus "Could this be the Son of David" (a Messianic reference to the Christ).

Jesus now turns to his disciples essentially to say that they, too, will be rejected. Yes, their authority will be undeniable. Yes, their words will be convicting. And yes, God's spirit will be working powerfully through their ministry. But in spite of all this - perhaps, because of all this - men will reject them, persecute them, put them to death. Because that is what they did to their master and teacher. That is what they did to Jesus.

Jesus is dealing with expectations. What do we expect from following Jesus. What kind of Lord do we think him to be? What does "success" look like in the Kingdom of God?

At every point Jesus is bringing his hearers to the cross, where he will take our suffering upon himself. Through his sacrifice, Jesus takes the punishment for our rebellion against God, his wrath and anger, all upon himself. It is the basis of our salvation - that he takes our penalty, but we receive his righteousness.

But it is also the basis of all Christian service. Our suffering is a reflection of his. Not that our suffering saves, only Jesus' death achieves our salvation. But Jesus' work on the cross is demonstrated powerfully through the witness of his followers in the face of their suffering. The followers of Jesus are to boldly proclaim the message of forgiveness through the cross, to a world that is hostile to God's grace.

Jesus promises, "He who stand firm to the end will be saved."

You see, the big question at the end of the day is not our expectation of God, but Jesus' expectation of us. It is faithfulness. Will we trust him, and continue to trust in him, with our lives, to the very end of our lives?

In these words from Matthew 10, it means faithfully speaking about Jesus. Living every day hope of his return, but in the meantime, speaking the truth of his death and resurrection.

Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace.

(Ephesians 6:13-15)