Get behind me Satan

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Matthew 16:21-23

When people speak of God, Martin Luther said, they can take two paths. There’s the way of “glory” or the way of “the cross.”  One method builds a picture of God according to what seems reasonable to man.  The other looks to God’s revelation in Christ and Him crucified.  The one is the pathway to hell, the other to heaven.  The scary thing is that we all naturally think according to the way of glory.

Allow me to demonstrate.  Let me ask you some questions and you can monitor your gut reactions:

–  Imagine that a preacher calls someone “Satanic”.  What sorts of things do you imagine the person has said or done to earn that label?

–  Imagine that a preacher wants you to savour “the things of God”, what would you imagine he meant by “the things of God”?

–  Imagine the preacher wants you to be less mindful of “the things of men” in order to concentrate on “the things of God.”  What do you think of as “the things of men”?

Well let’s allow Jesus to confront our natural instincts.

In Matthew 16, Jesus has just been declared “The Christ, the Son of the living God.”  And in response, Jesus has declared Simon to be “Peter” (“Rocky”) and given him the keys of the kingdom.  It’s a mountaintop moment.  And it lasts just a minute or two.

Here’s what happens next:

“From that time forth began Jesus to shew unto his disciples, how that he must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and Scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day.  Then Peter took him, and began to rebuke him, saying, Be it far from thee, Lord: this shall not be unto thee.  But he turned, and said unto Peter, Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offence unto me: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men.”   (Matthew 16:21-23)

Here are six shocks:

1. Jesus goes from “Son of God” to sacrificial victim in the space of five verses.  Having been declared “The Christ, the Son of the living God”, Jesus immediately proclaims His own death.  “He must” be killed.  His identity is Son, His mission is sacrifice.  And if we don’t understand the sacrifice, we don’t understand the Son. Jesus is the Christ.  But He refuses to be known as a cross-less Christ.  If we think of Him without the cross, we have fallen for the perilous way of “glory”.

2. Peter buys into the way of glory.  And in so doing descends from “key-holder” to a conduit of Satan in just four verses.  Jesus identifies in Peter’s words the voice of the devil, distracting him from the cross.  Later Peter would write of the cross as “a stone of stumbling and a rock of offence” (1 Peter 2:8).  But before he wrote of it, he tripped on it!  No sooner was he named “Rocky” than he stumbled over the true Rock.

3. The “things of men” are Satanic.   What qualifies Peter’s advice as Satanic?  He merely savours the “things of men”!  Consider on which  side humanity lies that the Son of God identifies human-ness with devilry!?

4. This savouring of the “things of men” is a simple matter of moving towards comfort and avoiding the way of the cross.  Satanism is simply the preference of comfort to cruciformity.

5. Peter’s sin is not even that he desires his own comfort but that he attempts to shepherd Jesus from the cross and towards comfort.  Peter thinks he is helping Jesus, in fact his encouragement to self-protection is demonic.  To desire a Christ without a cross is the basic definition of the way of glory.  And the way of glory is the way of Satan!

6. The “things of God” means Christ crucified.  The highest height of deity is Jesus bleeding for devils like Peter!  If we want to savour the things of God, we must look resolutely to the cross.

So then let’s overturn our “gut reactions”.

What are the things of men?  They are not neutral but Satanic!

What is it to be Satanic?  Simply to shun the way of the cross?

What are the things of God?  They are Christ and Him crucified.

I find this profoundly challenging.  I think I’m meant to.  If even Rocky can get things so devilishly wrong, then we are all in trouble!  Therefore let’s allow Jesus to redefine all those concepts we think we know so well. “Glory”, “the things of God”, even God Himself are cross-shaped realities.  We must learn and re-learn these things at the foot of Calvary.

The keys of the kingdom

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Matthew 16:13-20

Once you’ve been through the screening process your work may assign you a pass, a swipe card and the keys.  Now you’re in.  Now you’re trusted. And now you can bring others in too.  You have the keys.

Well in Matthew chapter 16, Jesus gives to Peter the keys of the kingdom of heaven!  What could prompt such massive trust being placed in him? Let’s listen in:

“When Jesus came into the coasts of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, saying, Whom do men say that I the Son of man am?  And they said, Some say that thou art John the Baptist: some, Elias; and others, Jeremias, or one of the prophets.  He saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am?  And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  (Matthew 16:13-16)

Everyone else had answered in generalities.  Their responses sounded like my undergraduate essays, full of hand waving and caveats and quotations of other people’s opinions because actually I hadn’t a clue.  But what’s interesting about the straw poll of verse 14 is that no-one can explain Jesus away easily.  Wherever people stand along this spectrum of belief they are all convinced that He is out of this world.  John, Elijah, Jeremiah – the prophets – they are all dead!  But seeing the kingdom authority of Jesus, everyone concludes He has some kind of back-from-the-dead power.

But it’s Peter who nails his colours to the mast.  And he gets it absolutely right:  “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

That is the best identification possible.  Jesus is the Christ – the Anointed One, full of the Holy Spirit.  And He is the Son of the living God – the Beloved of the Father.  There is no greater way of describing Jesus.  He is the One who shares eternal fellowship with the living God and His life-giving Spirit.

And Jesus rejoices to be known and proclaimed…

“And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven.”  (Matthew 16:17)

Jesus repeats His teaching from Matthew 11:27 – we do not piece together the truth of God from our wise and learned ways. We must receive this revelation from the Father, through the Son and by the Spirit (that is according to the Scriptures).  But now that Peter is on the inside of this truth, the keys are his!

“And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.  And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven:  and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”  (Matthew 16:18-19)

Peter (Petros in Greek) means Rock.  And there’s a great incongruity to Simon being given such an exalted title.  This unschooled fisherman is now “Rocky”.  And not just “Rocky” to his mates – “Rocky” to the Lord God of Israel.

It should be clear that he is renamed not because of his inherent qualities, but because of this revelation from the Father.  And now Jesus uses a play on words:  “You will be called “Rocky” and on this rock I will build my church.”

This, together with “the keys of the kingdom”, has become a key teaching for the Roman Catholic church.  Peter is, supposedly, the first pope.  And this office of “Rock” is the foundation on which the true church of Jesus is built.

But that is not how the Apostle Paul reads it.  In 1 Corinthians 3 he identifies the foundational rock of the church as “Jesus Christ”, or more specifically, the proclamation of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 3:11).  And this is precisely what has happened in Matthew 16.  Peter has proclaimed Christ and this is the rock on which the church is built.

The mark of a true church is not apostolic succession back to Peter.  The mark of a true church is true confession of Jesus Christ.  All those who confess the Lord Jesus are members of His body.  And with membership, comes privileges and responsibilities.

In verse 19, Jesus says “I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven.”  This authority is not for Peter alone.  When Jesus appears to the eleven in John 20:21-23 He reiterates just this kind of authority to them all.  Like those with keys to their workplace, they can now bring people in and out.

Peter will go out and proclaim Jesus to many.  Those who share his confession of Christ will be ushered into the kingdom through Peter – not because he is a pope but because he is a preacher!  Those who deny Christ will be condemned by that word, no matter how churchy they appear on the outside.  This is the “binding and loosing” that happens through the declaration of Jesus the Christ.

The keys of the kingdom represent an awesome trust.  But they ought not to make us papists but proclaimers!

I am the bread of life

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John 6:35-59

Yesterday we saw Jesus in amongst a clamouring, needy mob.  Though He was grieving, though He was hungry, though He wanted space to rest with His friends, yet He serves.  When He sees the crowd – like sheep without a shepherd – He has compassion on them (Mark 6:34).

The disciples want to send them away, Jesus wants to host a meal.  The 12 can’t imagine spending more than a few pennies, Jesus wants to lavish the equivalent of “thousands of pounds” on them.  How is this possible?

Is this a testimony to the invulnerable power of Jesus?  Is Jesus drawing on secret reserves of divine strength in order to out-serve us?  No.  As we’ll see today, this provision flows from the total exhaustion of Jesus.  It’s not so much that Jesus has more “in the tank” (being the Son of God). Actually Jesus determines to empty Himself.  We are the ones who keep things in reserve.  In a deep sense, Jesus has less in the tank – much less. That’s the secret of His strength.  Long after sinners say “Enough is enough” He continues to pour Himself out.

This is what He explains when, in John’s account, He identifies Himself with the bread.  As He tears apart these loaves in His hands, He tells people:

“For the bread of God is he which cometh down from heaven, and giveth life unto the world.”  (John 6:33)

As the disciples liberally give away loaf after loaf for free, Jesus declares:

I am the bread of life:  he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst.” (John 6:35)

While hungry men and women devour this bread, Jesus proclaims:

I am that bread of life.  Your fathers did eat manna in the wilderness, and are dead.  This is the bread which cometh down from heaven, that a man may eat thereof, and not die.  I am the living bread which came down from heaven:  if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”  (John 6:48-51)

It is incredible to think of what Jesus is identifying with in this scene.  He does not call Himself the Baker of heaven.  He could do that.  In Exodus 16 you might say He presided over the meal as the Israelites received the Manna.  But here He doesn’t describe Himself as the President.  He’s the meal!  He’s not the Baker.  He’s the Bread!

And it’s explicitly the fact that He is devoured that brings life to the world. “The bread that I will give is my flesh.”  Never has a man claimed to be so mighty and so meek – and in the same breath.  He gives eternal life to the world!  How?  He gives His life for the world!

He is an abundant source of life because He is a self-emptying Giver.

He repeats the point in the following verses:

“Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day.”  (John 6:54)

Eating flesh and drinking blood?  What does this mean?

The Psalmist spoke of his enemies eating up his flesh (Psalm 27:2).  David said he refused to drink his mens’ blood when he refused to drink the water they brought him at the risk of their lives (2 Samuel 23:17).  Therefore to eat flesh and drink blood is to take advantage of the death of another.

And Jesus says “Take advantage of me.  My flesh is food, my blood is drink, devour me!”  It is a shocking way to speak and it offends the disciples (John 6:60-61).  But there is no way around it.  Jesus is our spiritual food.  Without Him we perish.  But if we’re not to perish, then He must be consumed.

The night before He died Jesus tore a loaf apart in His hands and said “This is my body” (Matthew 26:26).  He poured out wine and said “This is my blood” (Matthew 26:28).  And the next day He was ripped open and emptied for us.  It’s the weakest a Man has ever been.  And it’s the power to save the world.

He is consumed, we are nourished.  He is poured out, we are filled.  Christ abundantly gives because He utterly self-empties.  Jesus does not hold back.  We hold back.  We keep things in reserve.  Jesus keeps no power in reserve, His power is His sacrifice.  And He is given for us.

So let me say to you what I say to communicants as I press the bread into their hands:

“Feed on Him in your heart by faith, with thanksgiving.”

Feeding the five thousand

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Mark 6:30-44

Are you ever overwhelmed by grief?  By crowds?  By needs?

Jesus and the disciples were facing all three in Mark chapter 6.

They have just learnt of John the Baptist’s beheading (cf Matthew 14:13). In response, Jesus says to them:

“Come ye yourselves apart into a desert place, and rest a while: for there were many coming and going, and they had no leisure so much as to eat.  And they departed into a desert place by ship privately.  And the people saw them departing, and many knew him, and ran afoot thither out of all cities, and outwent them, and came together unto him.  And Jesus, when he came out, saw much people…”  (Mark 6:32-34)

Can you picture the scene?  Physically hungry and desperate for a place to grieve in peace, they take drastic steps to get some space.  They steal away by boat to “a desert place.”  While sailing along, one of the disciples sees movement on the shoreline.  He nudges his neighbour – Look, the crowds have spotted us.  Not just scores, not just hundreds, thousands of them.

There they are scrambling across the desert, pointing ahead to the place where the boat would land.  As the disciples pull in to shore, the “desert place” is heaving with a jostling crowd of needy people.

If you were in their shoes, what would you be thinking?

I’d be thinking, “For crying out loud, leave us alone!  You’re not the only ones with needs!  We’re tired, we’re hungry, we’re hurting.  We’re not public property.  Give us some space.  We have nothing more to give!”

That’s not Jesus’ attitude:

“Jesus, when he came out, saw much people and was moved with compassion toward them, because they were as sheep not having a shepherd:  and he began to teach them many things.”  (Mark 6:34)

“Moved with compassion” translates a Greek word meaning “gut-wrenching pity.”  His stomach is turned for these people.  It’s a visceral compassion for these crowds.

I would only be thinking about my stomach, Jesus is turned in His stomach.  His love for the crowds trumps every other need He feels.  Let’s remember that Jesus’ hunger, His grief, His physical and emotional tiredness were at least as strong as any of His disciples’.  He was not immune to any of those weaknesses just because He was the Son of God. In His full humanity He felt those needs strongly.  But He felt compassion even more strongly.

And notice what the Good Shepherd thinks the sheep need?  Teaching. He feeds them on His words first.  Only later does He serve their physical needs.

Often Christians will minister to needy people the other way around.  They will put on a soup kitchen and then, perhaps, teach the words of Jesus to those who come.  Jesus gave the crowds His word first.  And in that context He provided for their physical needs.

Well the disciples have had enough.

“When the day was now far spent, his disciples came unto him, and said, This is a desert place, and now the time is far passed: Send them away, that they may go into the country round about, and into the villages, and buy themselves bread:  for they have nothing to eat.”  (Mark 6:35-36)

“Send them away” they urge.  “Their needs are far beyond us now.  We must tell them, they’re on their own.”  Jesus disagrees.

“He answered and said unto them, Give ye them to eat.  And they say unto him, Shall we go and buy two hundred pennyworth of bread, and give them to eat?”  (Mark 6:37)

Interestingly, Jesus does not tell them “O ye of little faith, I can feed them.”  He says “Why don’t you feed them?”

Someone must have been good at maths because they calculate the cost as somewhere in the region of 8 months’ wages. That’s a lot.  Between 12 of them it works out at about 3 weeks’ wages each – just to feed a mob of strangers one meal.  That’s too much.  Jesus has found their limit.  This sacrifice is beyond them.  But that’s the point.

“Jesus saith unto them, How many loaves have ye? go and see. And when they knew, they say, Five, and two fishes.  And he commanded them to make all sit down by companies upon the green grass.  And they sat down in ranks, by hundreds, and by fifties.  And when he had taken the five loaves and the two fishes, he looked up to heaven, and blessed, and brake the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to set before them; and the two fishes divided he among them all.  And they did all eat, and were filled. And they took up twelve baskets full of the fragments, and of the fishes.  And they that did eat of the loaves were about five thousand men.”  (Mark 6:38-44)

Notice the ways Jesus involves the disciples in this miracle.  First He asks them to scout out the available ingredients (cf John 6:9).  Then, once He’s multiplied the bread and fish, He uses the disciples to distribute it.  Finally the disciples are tasked with collecting the left-overs, “that nothing be lost” (John 6:12).  Therefore each of them had a testimony to the Lord’s super-abundant provision – one basket-full for every grumbling disciple.

Here was a situation of overwhelming need.  Each one of us, in this situation, would have been tested beyond breaking point.  Yet right at our weakest Jesus steps in.  He takes what we have and makes it more than enough.

Are you facing burdens far beyond you?  Jesus is with you, bringing you to the end of yourself, then pointing to the mundane in your midst.  He will prove Himself the great Provider, and no doubt in a very surprising way.  In the end we will be overwhelmed, not by the demands, but by His grace.

Dives and Lazarus

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Luke 16:19-31

This story is often studied to discover the “what” of judgement.  Yet it seems most in keeping with the context and content to read it as a parable.  And, though we will learn much about the nature of judgement, undoubtedly it was the “who” of judgement that would have shocked Jesus’ hearers:

“There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day:  And there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, which was laid at his gate, full of sores, And desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table:  moreover the dogs came and licked his sores.” (Luke 16:19-21)

The figure of verse 19 is commonly known as “Dives” since this is Latin for “rich man.”   His riches make us think of the Pharisees who were listening, since verse 14 has told us that they loved money.  He’s also a royal figure, clothed in purple.  And later we learn that he has five brothers (v28).  This points us in the direction of Judah who had five full-brothers and was the bearer of the royal line.  Everything about this rich man would make the crowds confident of his eternal destiny.

On the other hand, Lazarus was wretched.  His name is a transliteration of Eleazar.  Given his close relationship to Abraham (v22) it makes us think of Abraham’s Gentile servant from Genesis 15.  So not only is he poor and pitiful, he’s also an outsider to the covenant people of God.  Yet, as we’ve come to expect now in Jesus’ right-side-up kingdom, everything gets turned around:

“And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom:  the rich man also died, and was buried; And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.”  (Luke 16:22-23)

Death is the great leveller and judgement the great reverser of fortunes.

Verses 22 and 23 would have fallen like a ton of bricks on the crowds. The Pharisees – still reeling from their portrayal as the elder son – now have the implications of the prodigal son parable spelt out.  Effectively Jesus is saying, “Let me make it even clearer – being shut out of the feast means the torments of hell!  And all the while, those people you despise are flocking to the kingdom!”

“And [the rich man] cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.  But Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things:  but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented.  And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed:  so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence.”  (Luke 16:24-26)

Notice that there is no intermediate state, such as purgatory.  There is also no fluid state – “a great gulf is fixed.”  And notice that Abraham’s bosom (paradise), as well as Hades (the more literal translation of “hell”), as well as the life of Dives’ brothers is all contemporaneous.   There is no “soul sleep” of the believer while we wait for the general resurrection.  The living and the dead; the damned and the saved are all conscious at once.

Perhaps it’s most striking of all to note that the rich man hasn’t changed a bit.  He was mercilessly bossing Lazarus around in life and he continues to want to do it in death (“send Lazarus”).  It has well been said before that hell was in Dives before Dives was in hell.  The same self-serving spirit that possessed him in life is just that hellish impulse that will dominate him forever.  But even as he “abandons all hope” himself, he makes this request:

“Then he said, I pray thee therefore, father, that thou wouldest send him to my father’s house:  For I have five brethren; that he may testify unto them, lest they also come into this place of torment.  Abraham saith unto him, They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.  And he said, Nay, father Abraham:  but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent.  And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.”  (Luke 16:27-31)

Is the spiritual deafness of Israel’s elite so profound?  Will they really be so unresponsive to heavenly warnings?  Jesus says, “They already have rejected such warnings.  They have failed to listen to the clear words of Scripture.  Not even the resurrection itself would convince them!”

As an Anglican minister I am called on to take the funerals of people I have never met.  Often I won’t know where the deceased stood with the Lord.  But I do know one thing as I stand by their coffin and as I read from Moses and the Prophets, from the Gospels and the Epistles.  As I speak from Scripture about the One who did rise from the dead, this story assures me of what the deceased wants me to say.  Wherever they are now, they would urge me to “testify to their brethren!”  And with Scriptures in hand I have a summons as compelling as resurrection itself!

Therefore Luke 16 would encourage me to testify something like this:  Do not trust in wealth, in status, in pedigree, in religious accomplishments – do not trust in yourself at all.  Come as a beggar to the One who fulfilled the Law and the Prophets, to the One who rose from the dead.  He still “receiveth sinners and eateth with them.”  Seek him today because tomorrow is promised to no one.

He was lost and is found

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Luke 15:11-32

We left off from Jesus’ parable with the older son refusing to join the joy.

How will the father respond?  A slap for this petulant upstart?  Frog-march him into the party?  That’s not his style.  Instead, in verse 31, he boils down the whole issue to a single word:


Son!  You might even translate it, “Child”.  If the older brother could grasp this little word it would change his life forever.  “Son!”

Dear boy stop slaving, you are my son.  Sons don’t slave.  And slaves aren’t sons.  Dear child don’t tell me you’re slaving.  You are my son.

“Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine.  It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad:  for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.”  (Luke 15:31-32)

Notice the father’s heart here.  He has to celebrate.  The sinner comes home and he can’t help celebrating.  Now think of the older brother’s heart.  The sinner comes home and he can’t help seething.

The difference between the father and the elder son is striking.  Most people only notice the difference between the younger son and the elder.  Obviously the older son is different to his brother.  But he’s nothing like his dad either!  He is far from the father’s heart.  He is lost.  And it’s his goodness, his obedience, his hard work, his moral record that keeps him out!

It is so important to realise why he is estranged from the feast in outer darkness.  He is shut out through his own wilfulness.  He is not out of the feast because of his badness.  He’s out of the feast because of his “goodness.”  He insists on being too good for this feast.  Yet in doing so he proclaims himself too good for his father.  He will not draw up a chair alongside sinners.  Therefore he despises the One who welcomes sinners.

Well the father makes his final plea and, before we hear the response, Jesus ends the story.  Cliff-hanger!  What happens next?  Does the elder son come in?

Well the parable ends here.  But the story in Luke continues.  Remember what the parable is portraying: the younger son represents the “sinners and publicans”, the older son represents “the Pharisees and Scribes” and the father represents Jesus who “receiveth sinners and eateth with them.”  (Luke 15:1-2).

This parable is illustrating the response of the religious to the grace of Christ.  And the reaction is not pretty.

In a sense we know exactly what this older brother does in the end. We know it because we know what the slaves – the Pharisees and Scribes – did.  It isn’t a happy ending.

Allow me to write the parable’s ending according to how the events of Luke unfold:

The father entreats his older son with open arms.  The older son, in blind fury, picks up his shovel and bashes his old man to death.

That’s what happens in the Gospel.  The Pharisees and Scribes hated the grace of Jesus so much they conspired to kill Him.  That is where older brother living takes you.  It forces you to hate gracious Jesus.

Christ was not killed by a mob, he was killed by moralists.  Like this older brother.

And yet it’s the death of Jesus that would welcome them home, if only they would receive Him.  Think of the cross.  Think of how this Man willingly accepted such a death.  Because on the cross the Man “who receiveth sinners” opened His arms.  On that cross He didn’t just give over His best robe, He was stripped naked.  He didn’t just associate with sinners, He became sin for us.  He didn’t just sacrifice the fatted calf, He sacrificed Himself.  He didn’t just come out of his house to plead with sinners, He was shut out of heaven as the darkness fell.

And He did it all for me – wretch that I am.  He was stripped, so that I can be robed.  He was made sin, so that I am made righteous.  He was torn apart like bread, so that I can have the feast.

That’s the heart of Jesus for sinners and for slaves.  But Jesus leaves the story open because He’s inviting us to make our response.

Where do you fit into the story?  A sinner lost in the far country, going for freedom?  A slave lost in the field, going for respect?  Or are you a son (or a daughter), one who was lost but now is found?

Sinners run hard from a Heavenly Slave-Driver.
Slaves run hard for a Heavenly Slave-Driver.
Sons run happily towards a Heavenly Father.

Sinners are strangers to God in the far country.
Slaves are strangers to God in the field.
Sons are sinners in the Father’s arms.

Sinners seek freedom yet find deeper slavery.
Slaves seek righteousness yet find deeper sin.
Sons seek Christ and find both freedom and righteousness.

Sinners are wretched in their rebellion.
Slaves are wretched in their righteousness.
Sons are wretches, wrapped in His robes.

Sinners are the lost trying to find escape.
Slaves are the lost trying to find esteem.
Sons are the lost, found by Jesus.

The fatted calf

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Luke 15:11-32

When the prodigal came home, they killed the fatted calf.

From the father, it was the most lavish gesture of reconciliation.  He would publicly welcome, celebrate and eat with his lost son.

For the younger son, it was the most incredible token of the father’s forgiveness.  The father from whom he had only taken, now expends even more.

For the village, it was an unforgettable party.  Meat was a delicacy and this meat would have fed hundreds.

But there was one person who was not happy about this impromptu feast (and I’m not talking about the calf!)  The older son.  Notice how it is particularly the news of the calf that triggers his rage:

“Now his elder son was in the field: and as he came and drew nigh to the house, he heard musick and dancing.  And he called one of the servants, and asked what these things meant.  And he said unto him, Thy brother is come; and thy father hath killed the fatted calf, because he hath received him safe and sound. And he was angry, and would not go in.”  (Luke 15:25-28)

The servant is more in tune with the father’s plans than this son.  And when the son hears the father’s heart for the prodigal he is livid.  He throws a very public and very embarrassing tantrum.  The whole village has gathered to celebrate reconciliation.  But now they witness a rift every bit as great as the prodigal’s first departure.  When the younger son left home, he slipped away quietly.  But on this day – the greatest of the father’s life – the elder boy shames him with an audience of hundreds.

The guests would be thinking, This father has the two worst sons in Israel.  One shames the family in the pigsty, the other shames the family in the “back yard”.

But this father will again bear the shame of his sinful children.  He had gone out to his younger son and now in verse 28 he goes out to the older son.  He doesn’t play favourites.  He hasn’t got a soft spot for the younger son’s “rebellious streak.”  He loves them both equally.  So he pleads with the older brother.

“Therefore came his father out, and entreated him.” (verse 28)

You could even translate verse 28, “he begged him.”

Which is extraordinary.  Because, really, who wants the older brother at this banquet?!  Would this feast go better with or without this party pooper?  Who wants him at the feast?  Answer:  The father!  He wants him there.

And Jesus wants slaves in heaven.  His heart is for the sinners and the slaves.  He would have them all if only they would come.  So he begs him.

But the older son is having none of it:

“And he answering said to his father, Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends:  But as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf.”  (Luke 15:29-30)

Question:  How does this son relate to his father?  Answer:  As a slave.  A good slave, an obedient slave, but a slave.

And he can’t help comparing the fatted calf to a notionally withheld “kid.”  What should we make of this?

Well we have already noted that, back in verse 12, the older brother also got his share of the inheritance.  The father’s living was all “on tap” for the elder son.  The father reminds him of this in verse 31, “all that I have is thine.”  Not just a kid, not just a fatted calf, everything has always been the older son’s for the asking.

But there’s nothing that makes us think he ever asked for a kid.  If he had, he would surely have heard his father say “all that I have is thine” (verse 32).  But this older son is not the celebrating type.  And he’s certainly not the asking type.  He would rather scrimp and save and earn.

The madness of this older son is that he would rather be a good slave than a beloved son.

How far is this son from his father’s heart?  The older son is also lost.  He is as lost in the “back yard” as the younger son ever was in the pigsty.  You see the issue is not the riotous living of the younger son, nor is it the faultless obedience of the older son.  The issue is relationship with the father. One son prefers freedom and wild times.  Another prefers earning and respect.  But neither wanted the father. Both sought to use the father to get what they wanted.  And that is our real sin.

So what about us?

Do we find ourselves living out an older brother kind of Christianity?  Do we have subterranean anger, mostly dormant but liable to erupt when slighted?  Do we find it difficult to celebrate?  Do we harbour a judgemental spirit?  Do we constantly feel superior?  Are we always keeping score?  Are we always pointing to our good performances?  Are we always comparing ourselves?  Always finding life unfair?  Do we feel God to be distant?  Do we think of Him more as slave-driver than Father?  If so we need to remember how Jesus represents the father to us.

He is not a grudging paymaster.  He is the generous host of a banquet of grace.  He is not a harsh slave-driver.  He is a running, hugging, kissing, robing, celebrating Reconciler.  He “receiveth sinners and eateth with them.”  Therefore He refuses to deal with us on the basis of our moral record – whether good or bad.

So forget your riotous living and forget your faultless slaving.  Jesus’ summons elder brothers everywhere, saying:

– Lay down the shovel, lay down the slaving.  Come on home and join the joy.

Safe and sound

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Luke 15:11-32

Every story has a turning point?  What’s the turning point of the Prodigal Son?

Perhaps we think it’s in the pigsty.  There he is, hungry and helpless, and the prodigal hatches a plan…

“When he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger!  I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, And am no more worthy to be called thy son:  make me as one of thy hired servants.”  (Luke 15:17-19)

It’s common to hear this moment explained as the turning point for the prodigal.  I’m not so sure.  It seems to me that a prodigal truly returning to the father is as likely as a lost sheep trotting back to its pen.  No, verse 17 describes the kind of “turning” that happens in the far country.  “He came to himself.” It’s himself he’s thinking about.  And his apology in v18 is actually a famous apology from the Old Testament.  Many of Jesus’ hearers would have remembered it.  Someone in Hebrew history famously said “I’ve sinned against heaven and against you”… Pharaoh.  When Pharaoh was in deep trouble with plagues crashing down on his head, he also came to himself and said to Moses, “I’ve sinned against heaven and against you.” (Exodus 10:16; “heaven” is a common way for Hebrews to avoid saying the LORD’s name).  But of course Pharaoh’s “repentance” lasted only a matter of hours.

So here in the far country, the prodigal devises a pigsty plan to make some Pharaoh repentance.  And not so he can be restored to his relationship as “son.”  No, instead the prodigal makes a job application. This sinner resolves to become a slave.  That’s the only change that happens in the pigsty – and it’s the only change that happens when churches preach “pigsty repentance.”  Many prodigals have resolved to clean up their act, to give up the far country and exchange it for hard work in the field.  They leave the pigsty and enter the slaves’ quarters.  But it’s not what the father wants!

Halfway through verse 20 we see the real turning point of the story.

“ …But when [the younger son] was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.  And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son.  But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet:  And bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry:  For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.  And they began to be merry.”  (Luke 15:20-24)

Before the father has heard a word from this sinner… he has bolted out the door, up the front drive and smothered his wretched boy in kisses.  Before he’s heard a word!

And did you notice how the father cut his son off at the end of verse 21.  The son was about to make his job application: “Make me as one of thy hired servants.”  The father is having none of it.  “Bring forth the best robe!”

Here’s what brings the sinner home – not his pigsty plan, not his Pharaoh sorry-speech, not his dutiful job application.  Here is what brings him home – the father!  Just as the shepherd hoists the lost sheep onto his shoulders and strides home.  Just as the woman finds the lost coin and celebrates, so the father reconciles his son still stinking of pig.

Filled with compassion he runs to his son.  Dignified, middle-eastern men did not run.  They would have to hitch up their robes.  They would look ridiculous.  But this father doesn’t mind looking undignified and unfatherly.  In fact he would look very motherly, hitching and running and hugging and kissing.

He robes the boy with the best robe – which would be his robe.  He puts a ring on his finger – a sign of authority.  He puts sandals on his feet – which would set him apart from the servants.  He kills the fatted calf – which would feed hundreds.  And the father publicly, expensively and joyfully invites this sinner right back into the heart of the family.

The world only knows how to turn sinners into slaves.  This man turns sinners into sons!

As the servant will say in verse 27, the father has him back “safe and sound.”

By the way, the phrase is a lovely amplified translation of a single Greek word (the way “laughed to scorn” is an amplified translation of a single Hebrew word).

The prodigal is now secure, healthy and whole – that’s the sense of “safe and sound.”  True freedom was not found in the far country.  And true change did not come in the pigsty.  Here is where he finds freedom and change – in the father’s embrace.

There’s one kind of humility required for a sorry speech.  That’s a kind of self-abasement in which you are still in possession of yourself.  It’s an entirely different kind of humbling when the One who has been so mortally offended falls on your neck and kisses you, when He welcomes you, celebrates you and lavishes you with undeserved kindness.  True repentance happens when the sinner – still stinking of pig! – slumps in the arms of the father.

No doubt, next morning the sinner would awake and remember his chequered past.  The riotous living, the shameful uncleanness.  But he arises in the father’s house, in the father’s robe, in the father’s love.  His sin was not stronger than his father’s forgiveness.  Nothing can separate him from the love of this man who “receiveth sinners and eateth with them.”  With this father he is forever “safe and sound.”

Far country

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Luke 15:11-32

Who is easier to get into heaven – a good person or a bad person?

That was my opening line for a talk given recently.  The occasion was a lunchtime concert held at my church.  We were halfway through a recital of Gilbert and Sullivan’s finest and I was given 5 minutes to speak.

I left the question hanging in the air and then answered it:  “Obviously a bad person.  It’s easier to get a bad person into heaven than a good person.  And if you want proof you only need to read Jesus’ most famous parable – the Prodigal Son (Luke 15).  There a father has two boys, a baddy and a goody.  And who ends up at the final feast (which represents heaven)?  Who receives the forgiveness and welcome of the father?  The bad son.  And who is left outside the feast, furious and refusing to go in? The good son.  So there you are!  Proof that it’s easier to get a bad person into heaven than a good person.”

Imagine their faces.  Cultured people.  Well, fans of light operetta anyway! They were expecting a few moral epithets, some mildly interesting cultural observations.  And there I was shutting the gates of heaven in the faces of “good people.”

One woman piped up with great indignation: “I suppose we should all become bad then!”  It echoed around the church.  I had expected some kind of response.  I wasn’t expecting heckling.  But that’s what happens when the message of Jesus goes out.

As we saw last time, this parable, usually known as “the prodigal son”, actually concerns two sons.  And it mirrors the way the world is divided into sinners and slaves.  When we see the younger and elder sons relating to their father we are watching how the un-righteous and the self-righteous relate to Jesus.  Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them, and the self-righteous are livid.  They get so mad they even start doing things respectable people don’t do – like yelling in church.

So how do we respond?  Well here’s what I said to the woman:  “We don’t have to become bad do we?  If we follow the story of the younger son we can all see our own sin in his.”

See if you can’t identify with the younger son as Jesus tells the story:

“And the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me.”  (Luke 15:12)

“Dear Dad, You know all that money I’m getting when you die.  You seem to be taking your time.  Frankly I can’t stand it any longer.  Must I put up with another day in which I endure the presence of you and the absence of my inheritance?  I’d like it the other way around.  I wish you were dead.  Give me the fruits of your death now.  I want your things so I can get as far away from you as I possibly can.”

That is the essence of the younger son’s request.  And it makes us realise – the younger son is not “a rough diamond”, he is not “a loveable rogue”.  He is scum.  Especially when you realise the generosity and love of his father.  This sinner is appalling.  But then, we must hold up the mirror to ourselves for a second.

Isn’t this exactly what you and I have said to the Lord of heaven?

“Dear Lord, I quite enjoy your stuff, I don’t want you.  I’ll take your blessings, I don’t want your presence.  Give me your things, but I don’t want a relationship.”  This is the default mode of the human heart.

As I said to the heckler, it’s not a case of “becoming” bad.  We only need to realise that we are bad.  We have all said to the Lord “I want your things, I don’t want you.”  The difference is, this boy is bold enough to voice it.  Slaves would never say it out loud.  The older brother would never be so brazen.  But notice what happens in verse 12:

“And [the father] divided unto them his living.”

The older brother also takes the father’s things.  He didn’t come out and ask for them, but he takes them nonetheless.  And, as we’ll see, the older brother also has a disastrous relationship with the father.  Neither sinners nor slaves want the Lord, they only want to use the Lord.  The sinners take His blessings and run to “the far country.”  The slaves take His blessings and build their reputation in “the field.”  But both of them are bad sons. Both need to be reconciled to the father.

But did you notice what kind of father he is?  In stark contrast to his grasping children, he is incredibly generous.  He gives his ungrateful children what they want.  He agrees to the younger son’s demand and hands him over to his wicked and foolish desires.  It breaks apart “his living” – it tears open his very life – but that is the kind of father he is.

What will the younger son do with the money?

“And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living.  And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want.  And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed swine.  And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him.”  (Luke 15:13-16)

It’s a familiar story isn’t it?  This sinner tries to throw off the shackles but he gets mired even deeper.  He goes for riches, he ends up broke.  He goes for freedom, he ends up enslaved.  He goes for feasting, he ends up starving.  He goes for “riotous living”, he ends up in a pig sty.

If the “far country” is beckoning you, look carefully at this story.  “The far country” is a mirage, the pig-sty is the reality.  We think we will find ourselves by leaving Home.  But as we depart from Home we only lose our selves.  The far country will not liberate us.  True liberation is found at home, in the love of the Man who “receiveth sinners and eateth with them.”

Recognise that you too are a sinner.  You too seek His fortune but not His face.   But there is no country too far from His welcoming love.  He remains the Friend of sinners.

Prodigal son

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Luke 15:11-32

The world divides into two camps – sinners and slaves.

The sinners love freedom.  The slaves love respect.  The sinners opt out of the system to discover themselves.  The slaves opt in to prove themselves.

When sinners are upset they riot or hold protest rock concerts.  When slaves are upset they write stern letters to the Daily Mail.  And both groups are absolutely certain that the other side is the real problem with the world.

Which are you more like?  We’re usually a combination – but we’re a combination of these two options.  Which do you lean towards?  Sinner or slave?  Opt out or opt in?  Freedom or respect?  Rule-breaker or rule-maker?

Well these two kinds of people surrounded Jesus in Luke 15 and they responded in very different ways to the grace of Christ:

“Then drew near unto Jesus all the publicans and sinners for to hear him. And the Pharisees and Scribes murmured, saying, This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them.”  (Luke 15:1-2)

Do you see the two groups?  Sinners on the one hand, slaves on the other.

And how do they respond?  The sinners draw near, they hear Him and Jesus receives them and eats with them.  The slaves are livid.  They grumble and remain at a distance.

Well Jesus speaks His most famous parable to this audience.  And He begins in verse 11:

“A certain man had two sons…”

As the story progresses we see that the younger son is a sinner while the older son is a slave.  And the punchline of the story?  The sinner (the prodigal) gets welcomed home to the feast while the slave remains outside, grumbling.

Do you see the parallel?  The parable is about the two different responses to Jesus.  One kind of person rejoices in reconciliation, the other is embittered in self-righteousness.

All of which makes us realise that “the Prodigal Son” is a poor title for the parable.  For many reasons.  Firstly, there are two sons.  And both reactions to the grace of Christ are vital to understand.  But secondly, the sons are not the focus.  The prodigal is not the hero.  But neither is the elder brother.  The hero is the father.

And who does the father represent?  Well he is the one who “receiveth sinners and eateth with them.”  He is the one against whom the slaves grumble.  The father represents Jesus.

It is common to hear the father of the parable identified as God the Father.  But that would make this parable a story of Christ-less reconciliation.  It also fails to take the context of Luke 15 seriously.  In verses 1 and 2 it is Jesus who stands in the middle between sinners and slaves.  It is His grace that splits His hearers.

And then He tells three stories in Luke 15 to explain the responses of sinners and slaves.  From verse 3 He’s like a shepherd finding a lost sheep.  From verse 8 He’s like a woman finding a lost coin.  From verse 11 He’s like a father finding a lost son.  He’s not actually a shepherd.  He’s not actually a woman.  He’s not actually a dad.  But He’s making the same point three different ways:  I am for the lost, I am for the lost, I am for the lost.

As we consider the parable over the next few days let’s be aware of the major players.  The younger son is a sinner, the older son is a slave, but the star of the show is the Man who receiveth sinners and eateth with them.  Jesus really is the heart of all things.