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From Nigel

Our Gospel is Veiled

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3 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. 4 In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. 2 Corinthians 4:3-4

“Your having a laugh aren’t you, you believe in the devil!” This was said to me in a previous work place setting, the conclusion was, I lost my reputation and credibility to have an informed conversation, yep, I was viewed as odd!

Having said that, if we are more concerned about being true to the Word of God than saving our reputation, then verses 3-4 will bring us great encouragement and perspective.

What makes these verses so incredible is that they portray unbelievers as being in the grip of a god with power and in bondage to and blinded by none other than Satan himself. This is incredible because the one thing on which most non-Christians pride themselves is their perceived freedom, their opinions and their enlightened perspective on life.

The Apostle Paul would beg to differ,

in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience Ephesians 2:2

This does not mean that all unbelievers are demon possessed, but it refers to Satan’s supernatural activity by which he exerts a negative influence over the lives of those who reject Jesus.

Let’s push this a little further.

19 We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one. 20 And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. 1 John 5:19-20

The point is that everyone is ‘in’ someone! Everyone is therefore either ‘of God’ or ‘in the evil one,’ there is no third category.

This should shatter the illusion of neutrality, the idea that so called ‘good’ people who are not Christians are neither for God nor for Satan, are neither in God’s kingdom nor in Satan’s. The fact is that all people, young or old, male or female, belong to one of two kingdoms; the kingdom of light or the kingdom of darkness. If one is not “in Christ” one is “in the power of the evil one,” even if there is no visible, sensible awareness of being in the devil’s grip, thus serving Satan whether one is conscious of it or not.

A flawed argument exists which suggests that widespread unbelief and deliberate rejection of the gospel invalidates the gospel’s claim to save. Some have also argued that a rejection of the gospel puts a shadow on the gospel’s power and glory. In summary both arguments state, If it’s that good, why do people reject it? However, the glory of the Good News does not guarantee its acceptance.

“The blindness of unbelievers,” said Calvin, “in no way detracts from the clearness of the gospel, for the sun is no less resplendent because the blind do not perceive its light.”

Many pointed out to Paul and subsequently rejected his apostolic calling, his boldness and sincerity in preaching the cross of Christ by saying it was a stumbling block and foolishness (1 Corinthians 1:23).

The reason for this veiling wasn’t some failure in Paul’s character or gifting, or an inherent defect in the gospel itself but rather two forces that are at work; the unbelief of those who are perishing and Satan’s activity in blinding them, and both are strong.

The problem isn’t that they don’t understand what the gospel means, as if it were illogical or incoherent. Nor does Paul mean that they lacked the necessary faculties of mind and will to embrace Christ in faith. Their refusal to believe is due to an opposition to both God and the gospel. They find nothing in him, or it, attractive or appealing or worthwhile. Their treasure is the world and they see nothing in Christ crucified that would lead them to believe he is worthy of their affection and devotion. Wow!

The “unbelievers” (vs 4) whom Paul describes are not simply lacking faith in Christ, they are actively antagonistic toward him. Their hearts seethe with hostility (see Romans 3:10-18).

It isn’t the case that they are indifferent or disinterested or that they want to believe in Christ but Satan intervenes and prevents it. They are already refusing to believe, choosing to put their hope and trust in anything other than Jesus. Satan doesn’t blind the minds of otherwise “good” people, compelling them against their will to become unbelievers. Rather he blinds or aggravates their existing hardness of heart.

On the other hand, people are not blinded because they choose to renounce the gospel, rather, they choose to renounce the gospel because they are blind. And they are not blind because they choose to be so, but because Satan has made them so.

Paul says that those in whom Satan is operative and on whom blindness is inflicted are already in unbelief. Satan’s role is to compound the hopelessness of the unbeliever by aggravating and intensifying a resistance to the truth that is already growing in their souls.

What they do not see is the light that comes or flows from the gospel that embodies or contains the glory of Christ Jesus. Think about the nature of poor eyesight and how this can be used to understand why people cannot see the glory of God in the gospel.

Some suffer physically from short-sightedness or long-sightedness. So some suffer in the same way spiritually because they cannot see beyond themselves and their own selfishness or in the case of long-sightedness can only see things far off and have great and lofty opinions never looking at their own heart.

Still others suffer physically from presbyopia or inelasticity of the lens that comes from old age. So some suffer in the same way spiritually because they have grown old looking at the gospel and with the passing of time they have just become hardened to it, they have heard it all before.

Is there, then, no hope for a lost and dying world? YES, there is! But it requires an act of sovereign, saving mercy in which the God who spoke light into the primeval darkness (Genesis 1) yet again shines His light into the hearts of men and women to give them “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6).

Satan is active and powerful in his efforts to blind those who know not Christ. But God’s gracious work through His Spirit is more powerful still. Our prayer for unsaved friends and family must be that God would sovereignty dispel the darkness of unbelief and shine the light of truth into their hardened and spiritually lifeless souls, giving them a taste for the sweetness of the saving mercies of Christ and an eye for his incomparable beauty.

 

Discouragement

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Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. 2 Corinthians 4:1

How do you battle with discouragement? Do you hit it head on, refusing to be shaped by it or perhaps by being stoic. Maybe you just plough on regardless or crumble and give up under the pressure of it.

I have known people who, in the face of great disappointment, have carried on but done so carrying hurt and bitterness and frustration which is projected on everything that moves. You keep out of their way!

I have also know others who, in the face of great disappointment, have withdrawn, or taken to alcohol, justifying their actions by pointing out how badly they have been treated by the church or even blaming God!

Do we have a right to, ‘not be disappointed’ in this fallen world of ours?

Surely, if anyone had a right not to be discouraged it was Paul who, in the course of his life, seemed to get more that his fair share of things seeming to go wrong.

24 Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea;

26 on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers;

27 in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. 28 And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. 2 Corinthians 11:24-28

Yet he declares “we do not lose heart,” however, many look at Paul as being super human and different to us (which is wrong). We could be tempted to say, “of course he does not lose heart, he was eloquent, strong, gifted, he had been transported to the third heaven, encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus. I could probably cope if I had what he had!”

It is true that Paul was uniquely called and gifted by God but that’s not what kept him going. That’s not what accounted for his ability to resist the temptation to throw in the towel.

To understand his refusal to “lose heart” we need to look at verse one as a whole. There are actually two reasons Paul gives for why he overcame discouragement. They are related and distinct.

He had been entrusted with “this ministry,” a reference to the ministry of the New Covenant in the power of the Holy Spirit (described in chapter three, see previous blogs). He had been called to a ministry with a promise of the power and help of the Holy Spirit. Without the “helper” I doubt he would have survived persecution, imprisonment and shipwrecks, he too would have thrown in the towel. What sustained him, at least in part, was the fact that he proclaimed a message of grace and the assurance of the Holy Spirit’s presence of which he was a recipient.

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.

2 Corinthians 3:18

Had Paul thought that those who would follow Christ as Lord would be left to themselves, dependent on their own resources, asked to live by a set of external rules, I doubt very much we would be looking now at the man we have come to love and see as one who, believed that all things are possible with God. He was never alone, he had help, no not just help he had the third person of the Trinity as his help!

There is another reason why Paul did not lose heart. Paul, like you and I, was a recipient of mercy! He certainly didn’t deserve to be saved or to serve in any capacity. Paul again like you and I was gifted his salvation, he was gifted his ministry by God’s favour, God’s grace and God’s mercy. He was not deserving of anything at all.

The phrase translated, “by the mercy of God” is similar to Paul’s statement in Romans 11:31 where he speaks about being “shown mercy” which is translated “we were shown mercy”. Neither his salvation or his ability to serve in the role as an apostle had anything to do with his ability, intellect, initiative or recourses. It was simply and solely and sufficiently the fruit of having been made the object of divine mercy.

If you and I should ever think that our position in the kingdom of God is a reward rather than a gift, there will be little to sustain us in seasons of hardship, disappointments and sadness. What we have is solely based on grace. Instead of death and hell we have received eternal life therefore, will you find power to persevere with the help of the Holy Spirit and the wonder of mercy?

But how can mercy be a remedy for discouragement? The answer is found (bear with me!) with the truth that mercy is just incompatible with both boasting and disappointment.

Let’s start with what Paul says in 1 Corinthians,

For who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it? 1 Corinthians 4:7

He is simply saying everything you received was by mercy and not your own merit, so act like it!

Knowing the truth of this text will turn your life inside out and upside down. So, the reality of mercy transforms your view of both success and failure, both praise and persecution, both triumph and tragedy.

If your life, and it’s ups and downs are, as Paul says, “by the mercy of God,” you can neither take credit for what you’ve achieved nor complain about how you have been treated. All credit goes to God for the good and all blame to yourself for how you perceive the bad.

If I ask you, how are you? Then the truthful answer is not good or bad but as a Christian , I am “better that I deserve.” So again Paul says,

But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. 1 Corinthians 15:10

Let’s hit this hard using Paul’s logic.

Yes, this long term friend hurt me, but I never deserved friends in the first place. Yes, this person has said bad things about me, but I have no right to be spoken well of. I am the chief of sinners, but I have been shown kindness. I deserved death but what I got was eternal life.

I deserved nothing. But God, who is rich in Mercy…….

Paul’s understanding of the role of mercy was the sustaining power in his soul that left no room for discouragement and gave no space to bitterness: “How can I possibly ‘lose heart’ when I deserved nothing and got……..

Do you see your life in the same terms that Paul understood his? What about your family? Your career? Perhaps the effective use of some spiritual gift or your status in the church? Are you in good health? Are you finances stable, even flourishing? What of the praise of your peers?

Can you look at everything in your life and honestly say, “It was by the mercy of God?”

If not, you are a likely candidate either for self congratulation or for discouragement and the disheartening frustration that breeds bitterness and resentment. Mercy is medicine for the discouraged heart .The recommended dosage is daily, no hourly, instruction found not on the bottle but in the Bible.

 

Happy New Year. Have faith!

By From Nigel One Comment

 As we enter 2021 we are going to need faith, faith to believe that God will do immeasurably more than we can ask or imagine!

Hebrews 11

There have been many discussions regarding faith but before we get to faith itself let’s just bust a few myths. Faith is not trusting in something for which there are no facts or as some have said ‘a leap in the dark.’

Faith does not laugh at knowledge or reason, it is not putting your trust in someone you don’t know anything about. It is not superstition or mental power or wishful thinking. It’s not manipulation where faith gets you to persuade God to do certain things.

Faith gives us good grounds and confidence on which we can wholly trust. It is a justified trusting in something or someone. That is to say that there are solid facts that make our faith both wise and reasonable.

When we look at Hebrews 11 and 12 we see that those mentioned are not super human Christians, but people like you and I who were actually under great pressure for their faith. The writer to the Hebrews reminds his readers on several occasions, (and therefore us too ), that they are going to need to endure and persevere. He urges them not to be sluggish or lazy. Hardly the dynamic language for exploits of faith.

The men and women to whom the book of Hebrews is written were looking back at the the ways of people like; Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Joshua, Gideon and David (the very people of whom Hebrews 11 speaks). So what does our author do? He describes these Old Testament people as those who, lived in daily confidence and faith in the promise of God that something better was coming. They lived in confident faith and expectation of the coming of a Saviour, the very same Saviour of whom these first-century believers were being tempted to walk away from!

The writer knows that these early first century believers had suffered greatly. He realises that looking back to the safe haven of Old Testament Judaism felt appealing but then he reminds them that the very people whom they admired the most, those greats of the Old Covenant, were themselves living every day in a faithful expectation of the fulfilment of God’s promises and the coming of the Messiah, the very one they are thinking of abandoning! So rather, his exhortation to these early believers is to look to the example set by these Old Testament characters and to hold fast to their confidence in Christ no matter what happens.

That is the sort, or kind, of people that we too must become. People in whose hearts Jesus is known and experienced as being so much better. The point is that we also must be willing to suffer whatever may come and to do so with endurance and perseverance by faith in all that God has promised to be for us in Him. That’s what chapter 11 is designed to accomplish in our lives. It is meant to solidify and intensify our confidence in God’s word and His ability.

Hebrews 11 has two parts. Firstly, in verses 1-3 we find a description or definition of faith. Secondly, in the remaining verses of the chapter, verses 4-40, we read about a variety of men and women who displayed faith and confidence in the promises of God.

What is faith? (verses 1-3)

There are so many translations of these verses. The King James Version says, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” The NIV says, “Faith is being sure of what we hope for.” According to the Phillips translation it says, “Faith means putting our full confidence in the things we hope for.” The ESV uses the words “assurance” and “conviction.”

What does it mean then when it says that faith is the “substance” and “evidence” of the things for which we hope for, the things we have not yet seen? I think it means that genuine faith is more than merely a subjective confidence about what will happen in the future. It is that, but faith is also the internal assurance we experience that what is hoped for will, in fact, come to pass. Faith is our reliance on God to do what he has said he will do even when present circumstances suggest otherwise.

Let’s repeat that. Faith is our reliance on God to do what he has said he will do even when present circumstances suggest otherwise.  Faith gives to our future inheritance a present reality and power, as if it is already possessed. What God has said He will do. Now live accordingly.

Faith doesn’t create what we hope for, that would be mind games. Faith is an apprehending of what God promises. Faith does not just feel confident that this is coming some day at sometime. Faith has laid hold of, and perceived, that it is real, tangible. This means that faith has the substance or the nature of what is hoped for in it. Faith rests in the fact that the promise is a kind of substantial down payment of the reality that is coming.

So, for example, no one was present when the only thing that existed was God. We didn’t bear witness to and hear Him speak the universe into being, but the very nature of creation itself testifies to the existence of its Creator. We see the fingerprints of God all over the material world.

19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. Romans 1:19-20

The point the apostle Paul is making is that, the “evidence” that God created the World out of nothing by the Word of His power is in the things made. The stuff of our material world points to a Sovereign Creator. So faith is the spiritual seeing or perceiving of God’s powerful creative presence in the things he made.  It’s seeing and believing what God has said and can do.

The author of the book of Hebrews then gives us a few examples of this sort of “faith” in the particular experience of three men who lived before the flood Abel, Enoch and Noah.

One word of caution: don’t ever think of these people as extraordinary or perhaps spiritual super heroes of some sort whose lives are so beyond ours in terms of obedience, love and faith that all we can do is admire them from a distance. Maybe we just think we are incapable of such exploits. No these were also flawed followers of God.

What we are reading in Hebrews 11 is what God expects from us all. Let’s get this into our heads and hearts, this is ordinary Christian living. You and I, regardless of how much we may struggle, can live in the power of this sort of faith no less so than they did. God has made sufficient provision of His power that whatever is required to walk “with him” by faith is available for the taking.

Let’s remember that it says in verse 6 that faith pleases God. Why is this so? Part of the answer has to be because faith looks away from self to God. Faith is an act of moving away from self reliance and a declaration that our hope and confidence is in God. Faith puts no trust in ourselves or any other man but in God alone. It declares that; He is enough, He is sufficient, He is able. And it pleases God when he sees his children living this way. So don’t ever think that just obeying the commands of Scripture pleases God. External conformity without faith, does not please him. Only obedience that is fuelled and energised and sustained by loving confidence and trust in God brings pleasure to our heavenly Father. Having said that “without faith it is impossible to please God” in none of the first three stories noted above is faith ever mentioned. What! explain that?

It says Abel, Enoch, and Noah pleased God. That is how we know they had great faith. There are two things in particular that please God when we have faith in him. Firstly our belief that he exists and secondly that he rewards those who “earnestly” seek him (vs 6). In other words, God is pleased when we believe that he is real and that he is a rewarder. God is real and God exists. He exists absolutely and independently of anything or anyone else. The source of His life is within himself, and He exists eternally. He loves it, He likes it, that is to say, He is pleased when you and I demonstrate and reflect in the way that we live that we have a robust confidence that He is. But He also loves it when we live in such a way that it draws attention to the fact that God rewards those who seek him (vs 6). To please God you must believe that no one seeks Him in vain! He is merciful, gracious and giving to all who come to Him. Thus, God not only exists, He exists as the only being who is self-sufficient and abundant and overflowing with good things. He doesn’t need us, as if, without us, he would be deficient or in some way lacking if we withdrew our obedience and praise. God exists to bless us and to give to us all we need. God is pleased when our seeking of him and our serving him reflects the truth that He is the Giver and we are the getters.

Do you see how this should affect your attitude toward worship on a Sunday morning, as well as the way you listen when God’s Word is preached and applied? You must come to God hungry for him, seeking the reward that he offers to those who trust him, and that reward is himself! God is the all-satisfying treasure we seek.

Back to those three men of faith

(1) Abel was the second son of Adam and Eve. Their first-born son was Cain. It was because of his “faith” that the sacrifice Abel offered to God was deemed “more acceptable” than the one offered by Cain. Abel wasn’t approved of because of the nature of his offering but rather, his offering was approved and deemed acceptable to God because of the manner by which it was made. Abel offered it in faith and not in some vain attempt to earn God’s favour. But how does Abel “still speak” to us today? I think the writer means that, Abel’s example of, faith in the God who exists and rewards those who seek him, continues to speak to us of how one pleases God; by believing him, by trusting his promises, by investing all one’s confidence in God alone.

(2) Enoch was the seventh generation after Adam. He had numerous brothers and sisters (Genesis 5) but none of them experienced the blessing of being taken into the presence of God without having first to die physically. By the way, Enoch was the father of Methuselah, the guy who lived to the huge old age of 969.  Of Enoch it says, “he walked with God, and he was not, for God took him.”

It’s fascinating to read Genesis 5 where Moses lists for us what he calls “the book of the generations of Adam.” After each person named, the verse closes with the cold statement, “and he died.” In the six generations preceding Enoch we read the same statement, “and he died.” Then we come to Enoch and read this: “When Enoch had lived 65 years he fathered Methuselah. Enoch walked with God after he fathered Methuselah 300 years and had other sons and daughters. Thus all the days of Enoch were 365 years. Enoch walked with God and he was not, for God took him” (Genesis 5:21-24).

But there is nothing about Enoch that says anything about his faith. So his faith was because he “walked with God.” That’s what faith is; sharing our lives with God, speaking with God, loving God, God being present to encourage and love and enjoy, living each moment and making each decision as if God were immediately and tangibly present. That’s faith! And that is why Enoch pleased God. Faith is never explicitly mentioned in the OT passages that describe them. Rather, he sees faith in their lives not because the word itself is mentioned but because these men pleased God, and there is no other way to please God than through faith!

(3) Noah, It was in his building of the Ark that Noah’s faith was seen. We know this not because the word “faith” is mentioned in the story of Noah. We know it because Noah’s obedience pleased God and the text verses tell us that you can’t please God without faith.

What Noah undertook must have appeared utterly stupid and senseless to his neighbours. They all lived inland. It’s entirely possible that none of them had ever seen anything resembling a flood or a ship! But that didn’t matter to Noah. God had spoken and he believed His promise.

We stand on the edge of a new year and like last year we do not know what it will bring. Some of you are battling a crisis in your faith right now. You don’t know what to believe. You don’t know whom to believe. You don’t know how to believe. Your faith is weak and faltering and on the verge of failing. What are you to do?

Remember Paul’s words, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). Listen to the words of Christ. If you need more faith, the solution is to see more of Christ, to hear more of Christ. Get to know Him.

This is what God wants you to believe and trust:

That Jesus Christ really is better (not just better than the OT hero’s but better than everything in our society with all its promises of pleasure, wealth, power and fame).

That everything God is for us in Jesus is enough. You don’t need to supplement your faith with worldly pleasures and props.

That God will never leave you or forsake you, no matter how painful and confusing your present circumstances may be.

That no trial or trouble or setback can thwart God’s determination to conform you into the image of His Son.

That every promise about your eternal future is more rock solid than Gibraltar.

That no matter what 2021 may hold for you, God has your life safely in His hands and you can trust Him to do with it what is best for you and for His glory.

So, how do you and I “walk with God” like Abel, Enoch and Noah and please Him “by faith”?

May 2021 be the beginning of your determination: to live “by faith” that no one is beyond hope, not even your spouse.

It may be that you’re stuck in a job you dislike; one that is unfulfilling and demanding, one that pays you less than you are worth and in which your boss is horrible. May 2021 be the beginning of your determination to live “by faith” and that you will come to appreciate the value of your efforts no matter how critical or negative your boss may be. To live “by faith” that at least for the moment God has you right where He wants you.

It may be that money is really tight right now, and there doesn’t seem to be any sign of immediate or even long term relief. May 2021 be the beginning of your determination to live “by faith” that God will honour His word to you as stated by Jesus, that, if you will seek first God and His kingdom all these basics of life will be added to you.

It may be that your health is bad and getting worse or more painful and more unmanageable each day. May 2021 be the beginning of your determination to live “by faith” that God is the one who “heals all your diseases” (Psalm 103:3). That also “by faith” you come to understand that His “power is made perfect in your weakness.”

It may be that you are more lonely now than you’ve ever been and sometimes it feels like more than you can endure. May 2021 be the beginning of your determination to live “by faith” that your dearest and closest friend is Christ and to know that He will never leave you or forsake you.

It may be that you are enslaved to some sinful addiction from which you can’t seem to break free. May 2021 be the beginning of your determination to live “by faith” that if you will cry out to God for strength and humbly submit to his Lordship and make yourself accountable to people who also love you, He will set you free.

It may be that the church is looking shabby around the edges, diminished, wounded and on its last legs. May 2021 be the beginning of your determination to live “by faith” believing that God will build this church and that this church will display the manifest wisdom of God.

Let 2021 be our year of faith and the rewards that come with faith.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Elizabeth, wife of Zechariah and mother of John the Baptist

By From Nigel One Comment

 

There are countless sermons about the men involved in the Christmas story like; Joseph, Zechariah, the Magi, the shepherds, and above all, obviously, Jesus himself. There is also an abundance of sermons about Mary, but I would like to look at Elizabeth, wife of Zechariah and mother of John the Baptist. Please have Luke 1 open as we go.

There is so much we can learn from this extraordinary woman of faith.

She lived a holy life.

5 In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6 And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. 7 But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years. Luke 1:5-7

They were both “righteous,” (“upright” in the NIV), “before God.” There are many, I suppose, who are righteous in the sight of men but not Elizabeth! Unlike the Pharisees and religious leaders of her day whose “righteousness” was often merely an external show, Elizabeth’s was internal, genuine, and noticed by God. She walked “blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord.”

Not talked but walked. Her belief was matched by her lifestyle in other words, she lived out what she believed. I think that Luke’s description of her as “blameless” is designed to tell us that her barrenness was not due to sin and that also she was not angry with God for her barrenness. Barren, yet blameless, remarkable! For a woman wanting children but unable to conceive, this would have been incredibly difficult. If ever anything tested her faith on a daily basis, it was her failure to bear a child. It would be so easy to become bitter.

It would be so easy to become disobedient rebellious and indifferent toward God, “Why should I worship and serve a God who won’t answer my prayers for a baby?” But not Elizabeth. She knew what the Old Testament said about God being Sovereign over the womb (1 Samuel 1:5, Genesis 29:31) but she still worshipped, loved and obeyed God.

This is some lady. Maybe she looked at all those young mums walking past her daily with their babies in their arms and cried deeply and yet remained blameless.

I am so impressed by her gratitude to God. Her husband, Zechariah, was first to receive the good news but his sceptical response to the angel’s word led to temporary muteness. There’s a lesson here: If Gabriel ever turns up with a message at your house, believe him, don’t argue!

We are told in Luke 1:24-25 that after Elizabeth conceived “she kept herself hidden” for “five months,” saying, “Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.” There are a few suggestions as to the reason for this act of seclusion. The most likely one is her age but also, she may have experienced a sense of needing privacy over the fact that she had encountered God in such a life changing way, she needed time to reflect upon this and then wait until her pregnancy was established. As far as Elizabeth was concerned, this was no mere physical occurrence but an encounter with God, a visitation of Sovereign love and mercy for which she needed time alone to pray, worship, and above all give thanks to God for what he had done (Psalm 113:9).

Elizabeth’s humility is outstanding which is demonstrated when we look at her encounter with her cousin Mary. Mary’s journey of around 90 miles to visit Elizabeth was motivated by at least two factors. Firstly, her desire to congratulate Elizabeth (she undoubtedly knew of her despair over being childless for so long) and secondly, her desire to share her own good news of Gabriel’s announcement.

39 In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, 40 and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, 42 and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! 43 And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”

Luke 1:39-45

Some sceptical commentators say the emotional trauma of Mary’s arrival caused a movement of the foetus which Elizabeth mistakenly interpreted as a symbolic reflection of her own joy. Pah! No, Elizabeth’s pregnancy is as miraculous as is Mary’s, this encounter was a miracle, as is the whole Christmas story which is one miracle after another. The fact is that John the Baptist was filled with the Holy Spirit while yet in the womb (Luke 1:15), therefore not only does Elizabeth rejoice for Mary, John rejoices for Jesus. John’s witness to Jesus began not at the river Jordan at Jesus’ baptism but in the fluid of his mother’s womb!

Elizabeth is immediately filled with the Holy Spirit which, in Luke, is typically followed by prophetic speech or praise. But now notice especially her humility.

In verse 42 she acknowledges that Mary is more blessed than any other woman, even more so than she herself. In spite of the marvellous, merciful, and miraculous thing God has done for her, Elizabeth readily admits to the blessedness of Mary as being greater.

In verse 43, Elizabeth is flabbergasted that Mary would visit her. The miracle in her own life has bred no pride. We read nothing along the lines of, “Well, in view of the favour I have found with God, and considering my age it’s only right that you, Mary, should show me a little respect. Put the tea on luv!”

Lastly, let’s not forget that Elizabeth’s son is destined to serve Mary’s. Yet, there’s no hint of rivalry or resentment or the slightest competitive spirit in her. As important as Elizabeth’s son will be, he is, and will be the forerunner of the Messiah, a voice in the wilderness pointing to One greater still.

Elizabeth is a woman of great faith and vision. In verse 43 she refers to Mary as the mother of “my Lord.” By using that statement she is giving evidence of her conscious need of a Saviour and, in verse 45, she confesses that she too, along with Mary, believed that what was announced to Mary would happen. She also trusted and believed in the God of the impossible to fulfil what he had promised.

Let’s finish by looking at Elizabeth’s amazing and willing obedience.

57 Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. 58 And her neighbours and relatives heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. 59 And on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child. And they would have called him Zechariah after his father, 60 but his mother answered, “No; he shall be called John.” 61 And they said to her, “None of your relatives is called by this name.” 62 And they made signs to his father, inquiring what he wanted him to be called. 63 And he asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And they all wondered. 64 And immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God. 65 And fear came on all their neighbours. And all these things were talked about through all the hill country of Judea,

66 and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, “What then will this child be?” For the hand of the Lord was with him.

Luke 1:57-66

My name is Nigel, apparently I should have been called John, but my brother got in on the discussion and it got changed to Nigel after an Aston Villa footballer called Nigel Sims. My brother’s name was Dave, or David when he was in trouble. How could he do that? But Nigel it is.

Now if you have been planning for a child for years and years I guess by now you will have some names you like. For those who knew Zechariah and Elizabeth maybe they thought that this miracle child would be named after his father or some prophet from the Old Testament. After all this was their miracle son but Elizabeth remembered what Gabriel had told her husband, “you shall call his name John” (vs 13) just like that! Ok! The surprise of the community could not sway Elizabeth. Violating a custom and tradition on this occasion was not an easy thing to do but Elizabeth, obedient unto the end, declared, “God has given us his name he will be called John.”

People today measure greatness in a variety of ways, usually based on; influence, popularity, wealth, beauty, strength, or some such earthly standard. Elizabeth was an incredible woman, but not for these or any other such reasons. Her greatness was seen in her holiness, her gratitude, her humility, her faith, and her obedience. She is a model not only for women but to all of us. May we all, by the grace and mercy and help of God, embrace the virtues for which she is justifiably remembered in scripture. Thank you Elizabeth! Happy Christmas.

 

 

 

The Brilliance and Wonder of the New Covenant

By From Nigel One Comment

 

4 Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. 5 Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, 6 who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. 7 Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses’ face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end, 8 will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory? 9 For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory. 10 Indeed, in this case, what once had glory has come to have no glory at all, because of the glory that surpasses it. 11 For if what was being brought to an end came with glory, much more will what is permanent have glory.

2 Corinthians 3:4-11

There is nothing more frustrating than knowing what we ought to do but lacking the power to perform it. To see and read and be confronted with all that God desires while one feels unable and without the spiritual power to respond. Does it not leave us feeling disappointed that we do not match up to how we should be as Christians?

I thank God that we do not live in an age when the law of God is written on stone and calls for our obedience without the promise of the provision of help and power. Our Christian lives would be constantly missing the mark, but that is not the case because we are members of the New Covenant through Jesus Christ. Through the New Covenant there is power and strength to follow every command or principle without which it would make what God requires an impossible task. It is the power of the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit.

In describing the New Covenant, of which we’ve been made members, Paul contrasts it with the Mosaic or Old Covenant. He associates the New with the Spirit and says that it “gives life,” whereas the Old he describes as “the letter which kills” (vs 6-7).

This contrast has been frequently misunderstood. It does not mean that the Law of Moses is sinful or wrong (Romans 7:12-14) nor does it give us two different ways of interpreting scripture that is, the literal versus the spiritual. It also isn’t, as some have suggested, doctrine versus Spirit or mind versus heart.

In order to understand this we need to examine the nature of the New Covenant against the Old. In summary, the Law of Moses was imposed from without on a rebellious people, the result of which was death. The New Covenant, on the other hand, is inscribed on the very hearts of its recipients, all of whom, from least to the greatest, “will know the Lord” (Jeremiah 31:33-34).

Everyone in the New Covenant is provided with inner power, that is to say, the Holy Spirit who provides all that is needed. The Old Covenant made no such provision but rather it speaks to a people whose hearts were stone. The effect of God’s commandments on unchanged (stony) hearts is condemnation and death. Thus, spiritually speaking, the Old Covenant “killed” and made it, therefore, “a ministry of death” (vs 7).

The problem with the Sinai covenant was not with the law itself, but, as Ezekiel and Jeremiah tell us, with the people whose hearts remained hardened to it. They did not want to live by it! The law remained for Paul, as it did for the Jewish traditions of his day, the holy, just, and good expression of God’s covenantal will (Romans 7:12).

Paul says the law itself is spiritual ( 7:14) and yet, although the law declares God’s will, it is powerless to enable people to keep it. It shouts, it demands but does not reach out its hand to help.

So the inadequacy of the Mosaic Law was not due to any inherent failure on its part but rather, its inadequacy was, that it could only prescribe what people ought to do but without making provision that would sufficiently enable them to fulfil its requirements. The Law of Moses was quite effective in explaining one’s moral obligation and exposing one’s sin, but it did not not move to help those who stood under its covenant.

Paul, therefore, speaks of the New Covenant in very different terms. He speaks of its “glory” no fewer than six times in verses 7-11, and he speaks no fewer than four times referring to its superior “glory” this amazing glory of the New Covenant established through Christ!

Why is this so important? It is because the New Covenant is the foundation of your relationship with God! Nothing could be more personal or important than understanding the terms on which we relate to God as our Lord and Saviour and experience the blessings he has for us. Let’s go on a Bible train together.

What is provided for us in the New Covenant? According to what we read in Jeremiah 31:31-34 and Ezekiel 36:25-28 it provides significant wonderful blessings, such as the internalisation of God’s law, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts “(Jeremiah 31:33 and 2 Corinthians 3:3). It provides an unbroken, unbreakable fellowship with God, “I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jeremiah 31:33). It provides an unmediated knowledge of God, “no longer shall each one teach his neighbour and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord” (Jeremiah 33:34). And it provides the unconditional forgiveness of sins, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more”(Jeremiah 33:34).

In whom is the New Covenant fulfilled? I’m always a bit surprised that anyone could have any doubts about this, but let me briefly mention some suggestions that have been given. Some “classical dispensationalists” argue that the New Covenant was given exclusively for ethnic Israel and will therefore be fulfilled only in her at the end of the age when Israel as a nation is saved. The Church, according to this view, has no part in the blessings of this covenant.

There have been other dispensationalists who argued that there are two New Covenants, one for ethnic Israel and one for the Church. Happily, this view has been largely if not altogether abandoned by those who first proposed it, but it may be still out there, wooooo.

Others have suggested that there is only one New Covenant and that it is for Israel but in which the Church shares spiritually. In other words, those blessings in the covenant which pertain to salvation are equally enjoyed by the Church, but those that pertain to earthly prominence in the land belong solely to Israel. It’s getting rather complex!

Another extremely unbiblical and dangerous view is that there are two covenants, one for the Jewish people and one for those who embrace Jesus as Messiah!

In my view there is only one New Covenant. The Church, being the historical continuation of the believing remnant within Israel, is the recipient of its blessings. So both believing Jews and believing Gentiles, the latter of whom have been graciously included in the covenants of promise (Ephesians 2:12) together and equally enjoy the fulfilment of all aspects of the New Covenant.

For those that want evidence, Mark 26:28, Mark 14:24, Luke 22:20, 1 Corinthians 11:25, 2 Corinthians 3:6, Galatians 3:29, Ephesians 2:11-22 and 3:6. Plus a load in Hebrews 8:6-13, 9:15,10:15,10:19.

It is as a minister of this New Covenant that Paul happily declares he has been made adequate or sufficient by God. He finds nothing in himself that would otherwise qualify him for this great and awesome task. God made him “competent” (vs 5), as is surely the case with each one of us in the exercise of any spiritual gift or ministry or act of service to which God has called us to.

What an incredible blessing , that the superior glory of the “ministry of the Spirit” (vs 8) or the “ministry of righteousness” (vs 9), that is, the ministry of the New Covenant, will never fade away or be abolished or replaced by one that surpasses it in power or pre-eminence (vs 11). For its provision we give thanks and on its power we rely as we seek first the Kingdom of God and look to its advancement in the communities we live in.

 

 

Who are we?

By From Nigel One Comment

 

1 Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you, or from you? 2 You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all. 3 And you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.

2 Corinthians 3:1-3

Salvation and our relationship to our Father are described in a number of different ways in the New Testament, using a variety of images, metaphors, analogies and descriptions. Jesus is the Good Shepherd and we are the sheep. God is the giver of life and we are born again. He is the compassionate Father and we are the adopted sons. God is the righteous judge and we are the justified. The Spirit is an indwelling presence and we are His temple, and the list goes on and on. One that particularly stirs my heart is the one Paul uses the most “in Christ,” that short phrase blows my mind.

One of the more intriguing and interesting descriptions is that of Christians as a letter which Jesus himself has written, the Holy Spirit being, as it were, the pen or instrument by which he has authored us.

Verse 3 says And you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.

Paul says, “you show…..that you are a letter from Christ.” Before we get into this unique description let’s look at the context.

You will remember that Paul has just defended the integrity of his Apostleship at the close of 2 Corinthians 2. Unlike those who peddle the word of God for financial gain, he speaks sincerely as one “commissioned by God”. He ministers “in Christ” as one who is ever under the scrutiny of God himself (vs 17). Paul may well have feared that when those opposed to him heard those words they would again accuse him of boasting and self-promotion. Perhaps they would gossip and spread rumours about him with comments like, “well, there he goes again, commending himself to you, just like we told you.” Possibly anticipating this he writes verses 1 to 3.

The many in 2:17 who peddled the Word of God are probably the same in 3:1 who promoted themselves and gained a foothold in Corinth on the strength of so called letters of commendation.

Paul does not say that the letters are not genuine, but he explains that he does not need them when it comes to his relationship with the Corinthians. He knows them, they know him. He does not need to prove himself to them. After all, he had devoted eighteen months to living in Corinth, serving and ministering to them (Acts 18:1-11). How could they possibly now require such letters from him before they acknowledged his apostolic gift? Come on guys we know each other well!

Paul’s use of the word “again” in verse 1 does not mean he was actually guilty of self promotion on some earlier occasion, but that his opponents had accused him of it, possibly because of his choice of words in 1 Corinthians 4:16 and 11:1 “be imitators of me”. This may have fuelled some to question.

Back to Paul’s reference to “letters of recommendation.” I have as a pastor, on several occasions been asked to write letters of recommendation. I have done many references for folk I know as part of their application for a new job, or seeking voluntary work or study courses in a variety of places. It is an acceptable practice in today’s world of work. In Paul’s world the need for letters of recommendation indicated that someone lacked sufficient evidence on their own to back up whatever claims they were making for themselves. It was a usual practice.

Paul’s point is, that the Corinthians themselves, their very existence as believers and the transformation in their lives, was sufficient recommendation in itself. He didn’t need additional proof of the authenticity of his calling. How could the Corinthians cave in to the pressure of the false teachers and demand from Paul that he bring with him letters that proved his apostolic gift? The Corinthians need only look at their own changed lives and their experience of Christ to realise that Paul was precisely who he claimed to be and that he ministered in the power and authority of Jesus himself. We could say it like this, “If it is a letter of recommendation you want then you are it!” In other words, the best evidence of Paul’s apostolic gift is the Corinthian church. The letter written not on a parchment scroll but in people’s lives was visible for all to read. They themselves were the visible recommendation.

That was a bit long! That is the context for verse 3. Using the same words Paul tells the church in Corinth that they themselves are a letter written by Christ. Their salvation is likened to the Lord, through the person and ministry of the Holy Spirit, writing a document that testifies to his glory and beauty and life changing power! Love it!

The implications of this are stunning. I have very curly handwriting, but as an old engineer I was also taught to write flat and square using the top of a ruler. Many have tried to interpret both of the methods I use over the years which has amused me. At the age of 11 whilst still in primary school we had a lesson on ‘creating a signature’ mine is much the same today. I believe the study of handwriting is called Graphology. from which you can discover a persons character. Some say that curly or flat writing has no meaning and no scientific credibility, others say that the shape, size, and other distinctive features of one’s personal writing reveal much about an individual’s personality and psychological tendencies . Oh dear!

I have no way of knowing if this is true, but it provides a helpful illustration of what happens when a person is born again and begins to grow and change into the image of Jesus Christ. My point is that the personality of Christ can be seen in the “letters” that we are. We can be read. Just as handwriting may well reveal the character and emotions of the person writing, so too should the work of the Holy Spirit produce a work in our hearts and behaviour that says, it is Jesus who has “penned us.”

If we, like the Corinthians, are truly “letters ” written by the gracious hand of Christ himself, we will progressively display his glory and the shape of his personality. If the “letter” that goes by the name “Christian” sounds or looks nothing like the person who “penned” it there is reason to doubt if Christ is the author of their life.

Let’s remember and be challenged by Galatians 5

16 But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.17 For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. 19 Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, 21 envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,

23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Galatians 5:16-24

The life of faith, is the work of the Spirit, so there will be fruit that can be easily read. So, what do people discover when they “read” your life or my life? If we asked someone to read my letter or your letter what would they read. Would it compare to a tabloid newspaper, a comic, a theological work or a work of fiction or something reflecting the one who penned it? Would it point to evidence by the way we live, by the way we speak to an author whose merciful and gracious penmanship has written our lives. Do our lives tell great stories of a great God?

15 And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying, 16 “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds,” 17 then he adds, “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.” Hebrews 10:15-17

 

Who is Sufficient for These Things?

By From Nigel One Comment

 

16 to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things? 17 For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ.

2 Corinthians 2:16-17

We looked at triumphalism in my last blog and saw that it’s dangers are very real and challenging for Christians today. We have to resist the temptation to think that faith either, insulates us from trials and struggles or elevates us above them altogether. Our “triumph” is in our grace empowered endurance in the midst of suffering as we faithfully proclaim and live out the gospel.

We must also be extremely careful that we do not draw the wrong conclusions about triumphalism, especially in light of Paul’s question at the close of verse 16. Following the remarkable description of what constitutes true success in Christian life and ministry, Paul asks a pointed question: Who is sufficient for these things? I think most would respond almost immediately with what true humility demands and say, “not anyone and certainly not me.”

The reason some commentators think that Paul’s question calls for a negative answer is their belief that he has in mind self sufficiency. “I am unable to meet the demands, I don’t have the resources and qualifications,” but the word translated “sufficient” carries no such connotations. Paul is, in fact, looking for a positive response to his question. “Who is sufficient for these things?” “I am,” says Paul, “I am commissioned by God, I am not some sort of slick salesmen, I speak the very words of Christ.”

There are a couple of reasons for understanding Paul in this way. The language he uses is lifted from the call of Moses.

But Moses said to the LORD, “Oh, my Lord, I am not eloquent, either in the past or since you have spoken to your servant, but I am slow of speech and of tongue.” Exodus 4:10.

We know what happens next, Moses says he is not sufficient but then Moses is made sufficient by God. Therefore Paul sees his sufficiency as coming from God. See,

Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, 2 Corinthians 3:5

Next, if we look at the logical connection between verse 16 and 17 the word used is “for” or “because,” Paul is clearly contrasting himself with his opponents who took pride in their personal power and triumphant style of ministry. Unlike them, Paul will say, my ministry originates with God (2:17) and I am made adequate for it by God.

who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life 2 Corinthians 3:6.

How can Paul imply here, and say later (3:6), that he is adequate or sufficient to carry out this ministry and his opponents are not? His answer is direct and to the point, “they peddle the gospel, I don’t.”

The word translated “peddlers” is found only here in the New Testament. It carries the idea of a merchant who regularly cheated his customers by misrepresenting his product. Some historians take this a bit further explaining that the merchant’s prices were inflated and the goods tampered with for the sake of profit. It’s like buying a bottle of wine, emptying out a third and filling it up with water, re-corking it then selling it as the very best vintage wine.

Thus, the idea is of someone who dilutes the full strength of the gospel, perhaps eliminating (or at least minimising) its more difficult parts, or altering certain theological points, so that the finished “product” will be more appealing to the listeners. Their aim was obviously to gain as large a following as possible and potentially gain money.

So, on the one hand, we must resist all expressions of triumphalism whilst, on the other hand, we humbly acknowledge and give thanks for the fact that God has graciously equipped us as sufficient to give out the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Christ to a lost and dying world.

Therefore, the antidote to triumphalism isn’t defeatism or false humility but a God given, Christ-centered confidence that is biblically based and sustained by the Holy Spirit who has qualified us as stewards and ambassadors of the gospel.

Paul doesn’t disguise his true motives in ministry, he speaks with “sincerity “wanting only that people would understand the truth. Whether or not they choose to believe the gospel and live, or reject the truth and die, is beyond his control. Simply put, he did not change his preaching for personal gain or popularity.

He knows he is, “as commissioned by God.” In other words, what he says originates with God, not himself. He didn’t create the gospel. It isn’t the product of his imagination nor is it palatable to all. He speaks only what has been revealed. He is a passer on of the truth, not a manufacturer of it (see Galatians 1:11-17).

He speaks “in Christ” and out of the strength and confidence that flows from a vital, living union with Christ.

He lives and ministers “in the sight of God,” in God’s presence, under his omniscient and ever-watchful eye, mindful that every word he utters is known to God and that he will give a full account to God for what he speaks in God’s name. That’s powerful stuff! Paul was not accountable to any human court, least of all to the Corinthians, but ultimately to God alone.

Paul’s entire life as an apostle is contained in these verses and so too is yours and mine. It matters little whether we are students, teachers, at home, at work, politicians or pastors, our sufficiency is in Christ. Our adequacy comes from Him and so we can, by the grace of God, share the gospel of Christ.

 

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