Camel through the eye of a needle

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Matthew 19:16-26

Jesus was always using comic imagery to make His points.

If you know the Lord and don’t speak of Him, it’s like using a bucket as a lamp shade.

If you’re a hypocrite, you’re like a tutting eye doctor, blinded by a plank of four by two.

If you’re trying to be good but not born again, you’re like a thorn bush trying to produce figs.

And if you’re trusting your earthly currency to buy a heavenly welcome, there’s more hope of threading a camel through the eye of a needle.  Let’s listen in to the context.

Jesus has just spoken on our need to be utterly child-like and dependent.  But a rich young ruler seems to want to take a different route into the kingdom…

“And, behold, one came and said unto him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?” (Matthew 19:16)

Had the man been listening to Jesus?  His approach could not be more different to that of these little children, gathered up in the arms of the King.  Here is a man trying to earn it.

To the helpless, Jesus opens His arms and bids them come.  To the self-confident, Jesus employs a very different tactic.

“And he said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God:  but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.  He saith unto him, Which? Jesus said, Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Honour thy father and thy mother:  and, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.”  (Matthew 19:17-19)

Jesus uses the commandments to undermine the man’s self-reliance.  But it’s not working:

“The young man saith unto him, All these things have I kept from my youth up:  what lack I yet?”  (Matthew 19:20)

What does he lack?  Everything.  He lacks everything.  The ten commandments are not meant to be a tick-box form to reassure the moral.  They describe the life of heaven – the life of God’s son.  So Jesus lays it all out for this man.  Effectively He asks “Can you be the perfect Son of God?  Can you live my life – the life of utter self-giving?”

“Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven:  and come and follow me.  But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful:  for he had great possessions.”  (Matthew 19:21-22)

Finally the law exposes the man.  There he stands in the presence of his only Hope for salvation.  He should confess his need and cry for deliverance.  He should take the position of an undeserving “little child” and ask for Christ’s blessing.  But instead he leaves.  It is tragic.

Perhaps Christ speaks these next lines within earshot of the rich young ruler:

“Then said Jesus unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven.  And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.”  (Matthew 19:23-24)

A camel through the eye of a needle is more than a little tricky.  Even with a food processor!  Camels can’t go through needle eyes.  And rich people can’t get through the gates of heaven.

It’s a shocking teaching.

“When his disciples heard it, they were exceedingly amazed, saying, Who then can be saved?  But Jesus beheld them, and said unto them, With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible.”  (Matthew 19:25-26)

The disciples are exceedingly amazed because, to them, the rich seem the best resourced, the most blessed – those with most to offer.  If their resources don’t count, then what currency will be accepted in the bank of heaven?

Especially when we consider how good this rich man has been.  Neither his earthly means nor his morality qualify him for the kingdom.

Jesus will not give us even a glimmer of human hope in this teaching.  His point is not that the camel should go on a diet.  He’s not saying we should grease the beast and push.  He’s saying that it won’t happen, it can’t happen, it never will happen.  Rich people can’t get themselves into heaven.  Even good rich people can’t get themselves into heaven.

It is impossible.  From the human side of things, heaven is as open as a pin prick, and we are camels.  But the view from God’s side is very different.  From His side, heaven is as open as the arms of Jesus, and we are children.

But which will it be?  The gates of heaven turn on this question:  Will we be reliant or resourceful?  Will we approach Him with our dependence or our desert?

Suffer the little children and forbid them not to come unto me

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Matthew 19:13-15

What does a true disciple of Jesus look like?

Perhaps we imagine soldiers assembled before their commanding officer.

–          Or students in the school of their Rabbi.

–          Or labourers in gospel service.

–          Or worshippers at the feet of their Lord.

In Matthew chapter 19, Jesus gives us a hands-on portrait of the kingdom:

“Then were there brought unto him little children, that he should put his hands on them, and pray:  and the disciples rebuked them.  But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me:  for of such is the kingdom of heaven.  And he laid his hands on them, and departed thence.”  (Matthew 19:13-15)

The disciples imagined that Jesus would be too “important” for children. They made the decision for Him and sent away the young families, giving them an earful as they went.  We can only imagine what their rebuke was…  “The Rabbi’s a busy man!  Don’t bring your grubby toddlers here! He’s the King, don’t you know child-care is beneath Him.”  In these rebukes they revealed how desperately they had misunderstood Jesus.

This King was all about stooping.  He had come from heaven to earth and it was His glory and gladness to do so!  To bend down and pick up the helpless, to bless the needy who have nothing to offer, “to gather the lambs in His arms and carry them in His bosom” (Isaiah 40:11) – this is His heart-beat.

The disciples had to eat their words as Jesus invites all and sundry:

“Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me:  for of such is the kingdom of heaven.”  (Matthew 19:14)

The disciples had it exactly wrong.  It’s the helpless dependants who belong with the King.  Therefore their own attempt at excluding the needy puts them on dangerous ground.  Who do they think they are barring those whom Jesus welcomes?  The disciples should not think of themselves as noble defenders of Jesus’ honour.  Jesus welcomes “little children.”  If the disciples do not, it only shows that they must repent. They must do what Jesus commands in Matthew 18:

“Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3)

It’s not just that these disciples are unfit to judge – they’re unfit for the kingdom itself.  They also must come to Jesus, accepting the position of total need which they disdained in the children.

The point about “little children” is that they receive everything and have no complex about it.  Has there ever been a seven year old who’s been given a gift and responded: “Are you sure? I feel so bad because I haven’t gotten you anything. Let me pay you for that!”?  Little children freely receive, with no thought of desert or pay-back.

This is how Jesus wants us with Him.  Little children with no thought of desert or payback, just content to be in His arms.

Nothing in the Bible transforms my prayer life like this image.  So often I come before the Lord like I’m a soldier and He’s my Sergeant Major.  Or I’m an employee and He is my Line Manager.  Or I am a worshipper trying to summon up devotion to a static Object of praise.  But no, He wants me to come, and to come as a little child.  In fact without “converting” and becoming like a little child I will know nothing of this kingdom and this King.

But in reality the Son invites me into a kingdom where little children belong – in fact, only little children belong.  It’s a kingdom whose royal insignia could depict this scene – The Lord of Life stooping to gather up the children as they squeal with delight.  This kingdom is, fundamentally, a Family where, in Lewis’s phrase “Everything is for the asking, and absolutely nothing can be bought.”   What could stop you from coming to this King?

What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder

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Matthew 19:1-12

Two friends of mine were getting married.  They had just made their vows and the minister held their hands aloft to present them, united, to the congregation.  He was about to read these words from Matthew 19 as the prayer book stipulates:

“What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.”  (Matthew 19:6)

But before he said those words, he glared at the assembled friends and family and offered his own translation of the verse:

“Do NOT mess with this!”

God has joined them!  Let no-one come between them!  It was a stern reminder about the seriousness of this union.

I wonder what advice you have heard concerning a healthy marriage?


Sense of humour.

Keeping the passion alive.

Never going to bed angry.

Never trying to change the other person.

While some advice seems to be geared at letting the partners live out separate existences, at least most modern marriage counsel still recognises the vital importance of one-ness.

And so advice abounds on how to create such oneness:  Couples are counselled on the importance of communication, a good sex life, conflict resolution, quality time, etc.

No doubt these things can be helpful.  But our verse for today declares that something decisive has already happened to a married couple:  “God hath joined [them] together.”

God has united the married couple.  The union is not primarily in the couple’s hands.  The union is in God’s hands.  The quality of union does not depend on the partners.  It’s not down to their compatibility, their communication, their commitment.  It’s not about their ability to unite themselves.  It’s foundationally about God’s ability to unite them.  And He is very good at His job.

In fact He has united the married couple.  At the most fundamental level, this one-ness is not a future hope but a present gift.  When the two become one flesh it’s not primarily a human union which God then blesses.  Instead the human union is an enjoyment of the prior fact of “what God hath joined together.”

In 1943 Dietrich Bonhoeffer was both engaged and imprisoned.  He wrote a wedding sermon for his niece in which he declared:

“It is not your love that sustains the marriage, but from now on, the marriage that sustains your love.”

The experience of oneness (love) does not effect the oneness.  That is too great a burden to put onto anyone’s love.  Instead the fact of oneness (marriage) sustains and encourages the experience of oneness (love).

So before you read another paperback on “17 Tips for a Healthy Marriage”, look full in the face of your spouse and know, as surely as that ring is on your finger, you are one with this person at the very deepest level.  Like a head to a body you are joined.  The other person might not be for your union.  You might not be for your union.  But God is not just for your union – He has established it.  And let no-one – not even yourself – put it asunder.  Reflect deeply on the fact of your oneness, and see if it does not affect the experience of your oneness.

But more than this.  We should realise that marriage is a proclamation of our union with Jesus.  Therefore we also learn about our Christian lives from this verse.  You see God hath joined me to Christ.  My union with Jesus is His achievement.  I do not make it happen.  I just enjoy it – and all the more as I recognize the sheer fact of it.

Just as with marriage books, there are a million paperbacks promising to “put the romance back into your Christian walk.”  There are tips and techniques.  There’s advice – some of it sensible, some of it plain ridiculous.  But what do we need first?  We first need a conviction regarding the strength of the union.  God hath joined me to Christ.

So in the same way that I looked at my spouse while feeling my wedding ring, so I look full in the face of Jesus and call to mind my baptism… and I know I am one with Him like a body to a head.  The union is not as strong as my human feelings or faithfulness, it’s as strong as divine faithfulness.  Therefore let not man put it asunder!

Let the fact of your union shape your experience of it.  And realise, to rephrase Bonhoeffer,

It is not your spiritual experiences that sustain your covenant union with Jesus.  But from now on, your covenant union with Jesus sustains your spiritual experiences.

I am the Good Shepherd, the Good Shepherd giveth his life for the sheep

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John 10:1-21

When you meet someone at a party what are the first two questions you ask?  Usually it’s:  Who are you?  And what do you do?

In John 10:11 Jesus answers both questions.

Who are you?  I am the Good Shepherd.

To the Jews who were listening, this was a very significant title.  The Old Testament would describe wicked rulers as bad shepherds who cared nothing for their flock.  Yet the people awaited good shepherding (Ezekiel 34).  This would come from God Most High and through “David” – the Ideal King, the Divine Messiah.  He and the unseen LORD would be one in caring for the flock.  Just as the Messiah confessed that “The LORD is my shepherd”, so the Messiah would be the Good Shepherd to His people.

Therefore Jesus’ claim to be this long promised Shepherd was nothing less than the claim that He is the Messiah.  Jesus is the Divine King who reveals God’s pastoral heart to earth.  He is the eternal Son, through whom the Father has always ruled and saved.

Now how would anyone go about proving they were God’s eternal King? How should Jesus justify His claim to divine, messianic status?

We might expect Him to rain down fire from heaven in spectacular fashion.  Or to make a donkey sing light operetta.  Or turn a mountain into a flower-pot.  Jesus doesn’t do anything like that.  This is how Jesus proves He’s the King of the Cosmos:  He says, ‘I am King, because I die for my people.  I am the LORD because I pour out my life unto death.”

“I am the Good Shepherd:  the Good Shepherd giveth His life for the sheep.”  (John 10:11)

It’s very surprising.  Jesus proves His deity by dying!

And this is the shocking answer to our second party question:  What do you do?  I give my life for the sheep.

Think about that mental image for a minute.  Picture in your mind a shepherd who cares for his flock so much that he dies for his sheep. Perhaps a pack of wolves have cornered young, wee Flossie.  He races down the hill and into the fray, putting himself between Flossie and the ravenous wolves.  Flossie gets away, the shepherd is torn apart.

This shepherd would rather die than see harm come to his sheep.  He dies instead of them.  He dies in their place.  He dies so they might live.  That’s the shepherd Jesus asks us to imagine.

Now what would you say to someone with this kind of job commitment?  I would tell them, “Get a life!  Take up squash, get a hobby, have a sense of perspective!”  A good shepherd turns up early and mends the fence.  A shepherd who dies for sheep has ridiculous job loyalty!  How highly does this shepherd value His sheep?!

But think of it.  If the Good Shepherd is the LORD Messiah, and the sheep represent you and I, what is Jesus telling us?

He is saying that He – our Lord and King – has died for us like a rescuing shepherd, dying for sheep.

And that is His proof of divinity!  The proof that He is LORD is that He dies for the weak and unworthy.  Not heavenly special effects, not freak miracles but a bloody crucifixion – that is how the Good Shepherd is identified.  We expect to see true deity on a throne – Jesus reveals it on a cross.

But through it, He wins our hearts.  Every other would-be shepherd of our souls demands “Your life for me!”  Jesus opens His arms and says “My life for you!”

“I am the Good Shepherd:  the Good Shepherd giveth His life for the sheep.”  (John 10:11)

Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free

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John 8:31-47

We are inveterate liars and helpless slaves.

In John chapter 8, that is Jesus’ verdict on the human condition.  It’s a stark assessment.  But who can deny that the shoe fits?

Let’s think about our slavery.  Jesus says in John 8:32:

“Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin.”

Are there any who do not “committeth sin”?  No, the incident with the adulterous woman has proven it – there is no-one without sin.  Well then the question comes, Why do all the sons of Adam commit sin?  Answer: Because we are slaves to it.

It is not just that everyone happens to make bad decisions.  We don’t simply choose to sin, we are slaves to sin.  Whatever illicit thing we seek to possess – it possesses us.  We are not in charge of our sinning – sin is in charge of us.

We are like the alcoholic – free to choose beer, wine or spirits – but we can’t choose not to drink.  We are slaves to it.

If a person imagines their problems are so slight they can “clean up their act, straighten up and fly right”, they don’t yet know themselves as they should.  We need more than a self-help recovery plan, we need redemption – deliverance from slavery.

Therefore we ought to cry out to our Redeemer.  But we don’t like that. And we don’t like to think of ourselves as helpless.  So we lie.

Jesus’ listeners in John 8 are prime examples.  When told of their slavery they are indignant:

“We be Abraham’s seed, and were never in bondage to any man: how sayest thou, Ye shall be made free?”  (John 8:33)

This is the most stunning re-write of history imaginable.  The Scriptures consistently identity “Abraham’s seed” as the people who were brought up out of Egypt.  And the LORD identifies Himself as the God who redeemed them from that slavery.  “Freed slaves” is just about as fundamental a label as you could put on God’s people.

These Jews have only one thing in common with the Pharaohs.  They too are Kings of Denial.  (You’re welcome to add your groans in the comments).

But they haven’t only been slaves to the Pharaohs.  Historically, Abraham’s seed had been slaves of the Assyrians, of the Babylonians, of the Persians and Medes and of the Greeks.  To crown it all, we can well imagine this whole conversation overheard by a Roman soldier, shaking his head and chuckling.

These Jews have been in bondage to pretty much everyone in the ancient world!  Is there anyone to whom they hadn’t been slaves?  Yet how quickly they re-imagine their history.  And how often we re-imagine our own.

We have an astonishing ability to justify ourselves and to re-cast our history as noble freemen.

This is how human nature works.  Thomas Cranmer’s Biblical anthropology is helpful here.  Ashley Null summarizes Cranmer’s beliefs:

What the heart loves, the will chooses and the mind justifies.

As slaves to sin, we love false gods.  We choose from among these counterfeit lords and are ensnared in as many ways as there are idols.  Yet we refuse to cast ourselves as slaves.  And so we expend all our mental and emotional energy on denial, masks, performances and self-justification.  As slaves we flee from the truth.

Over Sunday lunch I met a friend of a friend who is an atheist.  He hated the idea of “religion” since it was only a crutch for the weak.  I said that I, for one, need a crutch since I know myself to be broken.  He couldn’t identify with that admission of weakness.  Yet this morning I hear that binge-drinking dominates his life.

We are slaves whose deepest bondage is our denial of slavery. “Redemption is for the weak” we cry as we serve our cruel masters, pretending that we are in charge.  Yet the very solutions we turn to are our problems.

What do we need?  We need the Truth to set us free.

“Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”  (John 8:32)

Jesus is not trying to educate us out of our bondage.  He Himself is the Truth which liberates.  As he goes on to say:

“The servant abideth not in the house for ever:  but the Son abideth ever.  If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed.”  (John 8:35-36)

“The Son” is equivalent to “the Truth”.  Jesus is the Truth which does not simply judge our truth-denial.  Instead He releases truth-deniers from their prison of self-justification.  Jesus comes as The Free One and invites us to belong to Him in His freedom.

Every other lord pretends to be our servant but makes us its slave.  Jesus is the true Lord who makes us free.  False gods take life.  Jesus gives His. To have Him as Lord is to find liberation.  He justifies us so that we don’t have to anymore.  In the freedom of Christ we can finally confess to our slavery and confess to our true state.

Truth frees us.  And frees us into truth.

I am the light of the world

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John 8:12-30

Jesus is both the brightness of the Father’s glory (Hebrews 1:3) and the light of the world (John 8:12).  Let’s think about that for a minute.

The Father radiates.  His nature is luminous.  His being shines out.  You cannot think of the sun without sunshine and, just so, you cannot think of the Father without the Son.  The Father, through His Son, spreads to that which is beyond Him.  He graces the other with His own presence.  He blesses it with His glory.  There has always been this outgoing movement to God.

The world receives.  The world is not a light source.  The world is either enlightened from without or it must remain shrouded in darkness.  The world cannot contribute to its illumination – that which is shone upon is completely passive.  An other-worldly light must dawn.

So the Father radiates, the world receives… and the Son is that light which falls.  Jesus is the Brightness of the Father’s glory and the Light of the world.  Without Him, there is no radiant God.  Without Him the world is helplessly dark.

In the Bible, darkness points to three related truths.

Darkness means ignorance.  We speak of people being dim or unenlightened.  In Scripture, darkness often refers to our ignorance of God.  Spike Milligan was once asked if he ever prayed.  He answered “Yes I do pray, desperately, all the time.  I just have no idea who I’m praying to.”  Such ignorance of God is tragic, but it’s the human condition.  Without Jesus we do not know Him who holds our very lives in His hands.  That’s darkness.

But also, darkness is where we hide from God.  Darkness represents our rebellion.  We don’t want our lives brought out into the light.  No-one wants to be exposed to the clear light of day.  So, even though it’s a cold, dark captivity, we all like to live apart from God.  We are rebels.  Stuck in our ways, stuck in the dark.

Finally, darkness speaks of death.  We have already considered the valley of the shadow of death.  That’s where we live!  Death overshadows all we do and leaves us in the cold and in the dark.  We all have a certain number of heart-beats left.  And every beat moves us closer to death.  This is the shadow of death – a terrifying darkness.

Such is our helpless condition.  But the Father shines out His life giving glory.  And that glory is called Jesus.  He stands on the earth, as united to the Father as a sunbeam to the sun.  So as we look to Him, we see the Father’s blazing splendour  in the face of Jesus (2 Corinthians 4:4-6).  And He in turn sees us in the light of His Son.

To all those floundering in darkness, Jesus says:

“I am the light of the world:  he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.”  (John 8:12)

He that is without sin …

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John 8:1-11

It is truly a stroke of genius.  One line from Jesus disarms a deadly mob and turns all our perceptions right-side-up.  From the outside it seems like a crowd of righteous Jews are justly using the law of Moses to condemn one unrighteous woman.  Yet through this one sentence, Jesus flips it all around.  Actually the whole crowd is unrighteous.  And, once Christ’s words have had their effect, only the flagrant sinner is left standing before Him. And she’s the one declared righteous!

Let’s see how it happens.

“Early in the morning he came again into the temple, and all the people came unto him; and he sat down, and taught them.  And the Scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst, They say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act.  Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned:  but what sayest thou?  This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him.”  (John 8:2-5)

They think they have trapped Jesus.  Either He sides with Moses and condones an unpopular stoning (which would attract the unwanted attention of the Romans), or He saves the woman and appears to dismiss the teaching of Moses.  Which would it be?

Well notice first that they aren’t interested in this woman.  And they aren’t particularly interested in the law either – for the law would hold the man to account also, but where was he?  They simply want to use this woman as a pawn in their game, and the law as a weapon in their war against Jesus.  But neither the woman, nor Moses were meant to be used like this!  So Jesus refuses to play their game…

“But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not.  So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.  And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground.”  (John 8:6-8)

It’s one of the coolest moments in all the Bible!  If you directed the movie version of this scene, who would play Jesus?  I’m imagining Clint Eastwood.  Slowly, calmly and with absolute conviction Jesus pierces through the self-righteous pretence of the crowd.  And the simplicity of His point is unanswerable.  Jesus, the Light of the world, has shone His light into their hearts.  He does what the law was meant to do – hold up a mirror to our own guilt.  What were they going to do?

Would they turn it all around and confess to Jesus their sham righteousness?  No.  They just retreat further into the darkness…

“And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst.”  (John 8:9)

The “righteous” flee away like bats, the “unrighteous one” sticks close, like a moth.  This is the perennial response to the Light of the world.  The Friend of sinners repulses the “righteous” and attracts the “sinners” in equal measure.

So there she stands before sinless Jesus – the one Person who has a right to stone her!  Yet she remains there just as she is, with no right to expect anything other than condemnation.

“When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee?  She said, No man, Lord.  And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.”  (John 8:10-11)

This woman was dragged to the Temple courts expecting ritualised shaming and a bloody death.  Instead her accusers are shamed and she is justified.  The Judge of the whole world exonerates her and she is freed.

Now that she is beyond condemnation, she will want to sin no more.  She has stared the consequences of sin full in the face and been spared.  The last thing she will want to do now is return to a life of sin.  She has been saved from sin and she leaves these temple courts a changed woman.

Maybe it’s because I’m a man, but if I ever imagine myself in this story, it’s always in the shoes of the mob.  I never think of myself as the one facing execution.  Yet Jesus’ famous saying should point me in just this direction.  I am not a just accuser, I’m the accused.  I’ve been dragged in front of judge and jury and I’m utterly guilty.  I should face death and condemnation.  But Jesus has intercepted the judgement and I am saved.

So today Jesus says to me:  “I do not condemn you, you are free, go and sin no more.”

Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief

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Mark 9:14-29

Are you a believer or an unbeliever?

The Christian answers:  “Yes!”

Mark 9:24 is the confession of all weak and failing Christians – which means all of us!

They are the words of a father seeking deliverance for his son who is oppressed by a spirit.  He tells Jesus,

“And ofttimes it hath cast him into the fire, and into the waters, to destroy him:  but if thou canst do any thing, have compassion on us, and help us.  Jesus said unto him, If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth.  And straightway the father of the child cried out, and said with tears, Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief. (Mark 9:22-24)

The father has faith and doubt all at once.  He has confidence and uncertainty mixed in together.  And it has to be this way.  It would be very strange for a believer if they didn’t make this kind of confession.  The Christian who did not confess to unbelief would be someone who betrays an unbecoming self-reliance.  If anyone declared their “unmixed and unwavering belief in the Lord” it would sound very much like a dependence upon their own faithfulness.  And this would be the opposite of faith!

But no, this father shows us the way.  I need to pray “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief” regularly.  Because every day I struggle with a mixed faith.  If anyone needed proof of my struggle, they would only have to look at my sin.  Every sin is proof positive of unbelief.  As Martin Luther has said:

“Under every [behavioural] sin is the sin of idolatry, and under every act of idolatry is a disbelief in the gospel.”

Trace back my sins to their source and you will find the foul headwaters called “disbelief.”  That’s why Luther says in his Galatians commentary:

“The article of justification must be sounded in our ears incessantly because the frailty of our flesh will not permit us to take hold of it perfectly and to believe it with all our heart.”

My sin shows my unbelief.  And my unbelief makes me cry out for more of the gracious word of Christ.  This father literally cries out with tears as he confesses his own poverty of faith.  Yet even as he does so, he makes it a prayer: Lord, help!   And this is the essence of faith.  Not reliance on some inner quality of belief, but reliance on the Lord from whom faith must come.

The Lord Jesus must help our unbelief.  Because belief does not originate in our own hearts.  It comes as a gift from the Lord.  He wins our hearts with His own compelling fidelity and this awakens a feeble and faltering response in us.  The Lord shows Himself trustworthy and faith is kindled in our hearts.  Therefore faith is always His to bestow.

Put it this way:  there is very little my wife can do to make herself trust in me.  But there is plenty that I can do to become more trustworthy.  In this sense, her faith in me is in my hands, not hers.  And so it is with Jesus.  He grants faith – not via some impersonal heavenly zapping – but through revealing more of His own trustworthiness in the gospel.  This He will do if we prayerfully take hold of His gospel promises and allow them to win our hearts yet again.  That is the way on in the Christian life.

Are you someone who cries out “Lord I believe, help my unbelief”?  This plea from the father is not only permissible for Christians, it is foundational to our daily walk.


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Matthew 17:1-13

How do you picture “Majesty”?  “Honour”?  And “Glory”?

If we have been paying attention to Jesus’ teaching in Matthew chapters 16 and 17 we will expect a radical cross-shaped quality to those concepts. And that’s exactly what the Transfiguration reveals.

In Matthew 16, Peter has just declared Jesus to be “the Son of the living God” and Jesus responds by declaring Himself to be a human sacrifice! (Matthew 16:16,21)  The glorious Christ must be crucified in shame. When Peter objects and tries to steer Jesus out of harm’s way, Jesus identifies it as Satanic (Matthew 16:23).  Peter’s love of comfort and reputation is simply “the things of men.”  The “things of God” entail a bloody death at the hands of wicked men.

Jesus gives His disciples a week to mull over this revolutionary perspective.  Then He will take Peter, as well as James and John, up a mountain.  There they will experience “the Son of man coming in his kingdom” (Matthew 16:28).  I wonder what those disciples expected to see?

Well when the time came,

“he was transfigured before them:  and his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light…  While he yet spake, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them:  and behold a voice out of the cloud, which said, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him.”  (Matthew 17:2)

Years later Peter described the experience like this:

“We were eyewitnesses of his majesty.  For he received from God the Father honour and glory, when there came such a voice to him from the excellent glory, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.  And this voice which came from heaven we heard, when we were with him in the holy mount.”  (2 Peter 1:16-17)

“Receiving honour and glory” is what the High Priest does in his ordination (Exodus 28:2,40).  Furthermore, the Father’s declaration: “Thou art my Son” is His designation of Christ as High Priest (see Hebrews 5:5).  So we seem to be dealing with an ordination ceremony here.  Jesus is being declared High Priest – the Divine Mediator between heaven and earth.

But if Christ is going to be the Son-of-God-Reconciler-of-the-world, there will be trouble.  To make peace between God and man will involve bloody sacrifice.  And in fact, every time we read of the Father declaring His Son, it’s associated with suffering.

In Genesis 22, the beloved son will be sacrificed on the mountain.  In Psalm 2, the only begotten Son will be “poured out” (literally) on the mountain (Psalm 2:6-7).  In Isaiah 42, the chosen one will be the suffering servant who ends up wounded for our transgressions.  Whenever the Father declares His love for the Son, the cross looms large.  Because the glory of the Firstborn is to reconcile God’s children to their Father.  To put the matter at it’s most mind-stretching, Jesus says “Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life.” (John 10:17).  The Son is the Sacrifice.  This is what Jesus has been saying ever since Peter called Him “Son”.

Therefore, when the Father proclaims Him as “Son”, Christ is given two Old Testament giants as comforters, because suffering is intrinsic to the Son’s job description.

“Behold, there appeared unto them Moses and Elias talking with him.” (Matthew 17:3)

Moses and Elijah represent the law and the prophets.  More than this, they were men who knew a great mixture of glory and suffering in their lives.  For each of these three men, they knew about awesome wonder on mountaintops, but also great humbling on mountaintops.  Here they stood together and we know what they spoke of because Luke tells us:

“[they] spake of his decease which he should accomplish at Jerusalem.” (Luke 9:31)

The word translated ‘decease’ is literally the word “exodus”.  Jesus has an exodus to accomplish – the saving of a people through judgement.  And He’s going to accomplish it at Jerusalem where He would “suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and Scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day.”  (Matthew 16:21).

From the outside, the Transfiguration might have looked like a display of sheer power.  Peter, James and John seemed only to experience brilliant light and a heavenly voice.  But listen in to that Voice – it’s publishing Christ’s death sentence.  Overhear Moses and Elijah – they are discussing His brutal death.  Look at the High Priest – His own blood will bring peace with God.

The brilliance of this sun shines from a furnace of suffering love.

What is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?

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Matthew 16:24-28

To Peter it seemed that “the things of God” should involve glory and fame (see yesterday’s post).  He therefore shunned the way of the cross.  But Jesus insisted – it’s the things of men that are focussed on comfort and honour now. Such a preoccupation is in fact Satanic.  On the other hand, “the things of God” are the things of the cross.

Jesus is asking us to reverse our values and perceptions entirely.  We either continue with the devilish things of men, pursuing our own purpose and salvation, or we consider Christ’s cross as our own, putting an end to our strivings to make life work.

“If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.”  (Matthew 16:24)

As we saw when we discussed our “cross to bear” – Jesus doesn’t just die Himself.  He puts us to death with Him.  His cross becomes our cross – His death to the old becomes our death to the old.  Therefore a follower of Jesus is a “dead man walking (dead woman walking)”.  We are, in the words of Paul, crucified to the world and the world is crucified to us (Galatians 6:14). But, wonderfully, we are following Jesus as He goes through death and into a cosmic salvation.  He loses His life to find it, and we take that same journey in Him:

“For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.”  (Matthew 16:25)

Jesus reassures us that His way is not ultimately the way of loss.  It might seem like it.  But even if you’re offered the world to refuse Jesus it would not be worth it.

“What is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Matthew 16:26)

The question seems easily answerable:  Well Jesus, he gains the whole world! That’s quite a profit truth be told.  But compared to losing your soul it is an unthinkable exchange.

Jesus ought to know.  He owns the world, He knows it’s value.  Yet He sets the price of our souls incomparably higher.  In fact He values them at the cost of His own life!  Which means that the world is “chump change” compared to either Christ’s life or ours.

Thus the “things of men” are not profit, they are a dead loss.  All the kingdoms of the world could not give you what Christ gives you!

When archaeologists entered the tomb of Emperor Charlemagne they discovered the most stunning reminder of this truth.  In amongst the treasures of the kingdom sat Charlemagne, enthroned in royal dress.  He had a Bible on his lap and his bony finger was still fixed to this verse:

“What is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”

A corpse is still a corpse no matter how many crowns you put on it.  The only sound investment is Christ.  Therefore don’t be led astray by “the things of men.”  They promise you the world and deliver only death.  Jesus promises death but then delivers the world.  As you come to Him, allowing His death to be yours, know for certain – it’s worth it!