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Romans 1:1-17; Colossians 1:15-23

“You’re a saint!” they exclaim.  And it feels nice to be called that.  Though obviously we bat away the compliment.  Because we know it’s mock praise for a minor act of kindness.  We know they don’t really think of us as a saint.  You see in most people’s understanding saints are unapproachable, austere and long-dead individuals.  They’re not real people, not down-to-earth folk.

But the Apostle Paul thought of saints very differently.  When he wrote his letters to the churches he commonly called whole congregations “saints” (Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians).

“To all that be in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints:  Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.”  (Romans 1:7)

The italics you can see in this verse are original to the KJV.  They convey that the translators have added words which are not based on any underlying Greek words.  They have supplied the verb “to be” here, even though there is no such verb in Paul’s original statement.  More literally Paul says that the Romans are “called saints.”  That is their status.  That is a declaration that stands over them.  God calls them saints – not in the future but right now.

See how Paul puts it more straightforwardly in Ephesians:

“Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, to the saints which are at Ephesus.”  (Ephesians 1:1)

Here were ordinary Christians, some of them well-bred, but most of them not (1 Corinthians 1:26).  Some of them cultured, some of them not (Romans 1:14).  Some of them Jews, some of them Gentiles (Romans 1:16).  All of them were sinners (Romans 3:23).  Nonetheless, all of them, through faith in Jesus, are called “saints.”  And we, if we have trusted Christ, can call ourselves “saints.”  I’m well within my rights to introduce myself as “St Glen.”  My business card can read “Glen Scrivener:  Saint.”   And so can yours if you’re a Christian.

But what does it mean?  Well the word literally means “holy ones.”  Saints are special ones, devoted ones, set apart ones.  And yet, there’s nothing in our natural circumstance that would warrant the label.  There’s nothing in our genes, nothing in our grooming, nothing even in our behaviour that makes us saintly.  But, here is the central message of Saint Paul:  unholy ones like you and me are declared to be holy, not because of our saintly deeds, but purely through the work of the Holy One, Jesus.  As Paul says in his letter to the Colossians:

“And you, that were sometime alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now hath he reconciled in the body of his flesh through death, to present you holy and unblameable and unreproveable in his sight.”  (Colossians 1:21-22)

Let me ask you a question:  How does God see you?

We tend to think the answer to that lies on a sliding scale.  Sometimes we imagine that God views us as relatively good and sometimes as relatively bad.  We think of our status with God as something like a dimmer switch, always fluctuating according to our performance.

Yet Paul says differently.  He says our status with God is like an ordinary light switch.  It’s either on or off.  In verse 21 we see the off position. Three descriptions:  alienated, enemies and wicked.  Nothing saintly about us!

What changes?  Us?  Do we embark on a little holiness project to turn things around?  No.  Here’s what changes things.  Christ works reconciliation between us and God.  He comes as peacemaker.  He takes our side, takes our flesh and puts our unholy humanity to death.  Rising up by the power of the Holy Spirit, He is presented to the Father in a glorified humanity.  When we, by that same Holy Spirit, are united to Jesus by faith, we too are presented to the Father in Christ.  And now, how does God see us?  Well Paul gives us another three descriptions, and how different they are:  “holy, unblameable and unreproveable.”

Not just blameless but unblameable.  Not just without reproof, but unreproveable.  God does not see us according to our unholiness.  He sees us in Jesus and says to us – “you are holy.”

Sainthood is not conferred by the church but by God.  Sainthood is not earned by us, but worked on our behalf by Christ.  And sainthood is not the preserve of monks and nuns.  Sainthood is the status of the Christian – every Christian.

Forget dimmer-switch Christianity, if you belong to Jesus the light has been switched on.  The decisive change has happened.  You are not climbing a saintliness ladder.  You are not walking a holiness tightrope. Whatever the world calls you, God calls you “holy, unblameable and unreproveable.”

You’re not just saintly.  You might not even be saintly.  But here’s God’s verdict, without a hint of irony or reserve, He says: “You’re a saint!”

It is more blessed to give than to receive

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Acts 20:13-38

Jesus’ version of it is probably the most famous – but everyone says “it’s better to give than receive.”  All the religions say it.  Even the atheists say it.

Last year, UCLA life scientists released a study showing the health benefits of providing support to others.  There are many such studies around.  They generally find that altruistic behaviour is beneficial, not simply for the recipient but for the giver.

Why might that be?  Well evolutionary psychologists proffer explanations like “reciprocal altruism” – when we perform a good deed we might reasonably expect them to return the favour.  Simply our anticipation of their pay-back feels good.

Evolutionary psychology, for all of its fascinating findings, reminds me of that old adage:  “If all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”  Basic selfishness is a brilliant explanation for so much of human life.  But it doesn’t capture everything, and trying to make it capture everything leads to unconvincing explanations, like this one.

If “reciprocal altruism” explained our “blessedness” in giving, Jesus should have said “It is more blessed to receive than to give, but, hey, giving’s a great way of getting!”

Or how about this for an explanation.  One of the UCLA scientists said:

“Because of the importance of support-giving for the survival of our species, it is possible that over the course of our evolutionary history, support-giving may have become psychologically rewarding to ensure that this behaviour persisted.”

If this were the case, Jesus should have said “It is more blessed to receive than to give, but remember to factor in the survival of the species over several millenia when you make your self-interested calculations.”

Once again, we’ve avoided the blessedness of true self-giving.  Self-giving is affirmed close-up, but denied when we zoom back to get the big picture.

Yet in Acts 20:35 Paul recounts a saying of Jesus that was not recorded by the four Evangelists but which was clearly remembered and circulated by the early church:  “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

Such a sentiment is expressed in virtually every other world-view imaginable.   There’s only one difference with Christ’s saying… the Speaker.  You see “Evolutionary Psychology” may tell you it’s better to give, but Evolution itself is selfishness writ large.  Other gods may urge you to be selfless – but they themselves are self-interested takers.  The difference with Christ’s saying is Christ.

He is ultimate reality and He Himself is self-giving love, the cross proves it.  The universe with Christ at the centre is the one universe in which grace reigns.  He is the one Lord who does not come to be served but to serve and to give His life for us (Mark 10:45).

There are many exemplars of self-giving, but they operate contrary to the selfish universe they claim to inhabit.  There are many that claim to be ultimate powers who tell you to give – but these powers are themselves self-interested.  Christ is the one Power who a) tells you to give, b) is Giver and c) determines ultimate reality.  Jesus tells you to give because He is grace poured out beyond all limits.  And because the Lord is grace, so self-giving is not a means towards ultimate selfishness.  Grace is the essence of the blessed life.  There’s nothing higher, or deeper, or more real.  This is Christ’s universe.  So give.

In Him we live and move and have our being

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Acts 17:16-34

How do we proclaim the gospel to a world that thinks so differently?

“Contextualisation” is a buzz word in some Christian circles to describe the way our message needs to be fitted to our surroundings.  Today’s phrase is often used as a prime example of how Paul drew on the truths already present in the culture to build up a credible gospel presentation. You see “In Him we live and move and have our being” was originally a line from an ancient Greek poet.  Yet Paul uses the phrase to further his gospel proclamation.

So how do we relate the gospel word to an unbelieving world?

Well last time we learnt the truth that the Christian message “turns the world upside-down”.  It is the subversion of all our natural thinking. Therefore when this message meets the philosophers of Athens, we expect to see quite a clash.  Which is exactly how Acts 17 continues…

“Now while Paul waited for [Silas and Timothy] at Athens, his spirit was stirred in him, when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry.  Therefore disputed he in the synagogue with the Jews, and with the devout persons, and in the market daily with them that met with him.  Then certain philosophers of the Epicureans, and of the Stoicks, encountered him.  And some said, What will this babbler say? other some, He seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods:  because he preached unto them Jesus, and the resurrection.”  (Acts 17:16-18)

Other visitors to Athens may have marvelled at the temples and statues, Paul was incensed.  He did not see these other gods as stepping stones to Jesus but as idols, pure and simple.  In contrast, Paul proclaimed “strange gods.”  In fact the Athenians seem to have thought that Paul was preaching two gods:  Jesus and Anastasia (the Greek for ‘resurrection’)! Paul was not seeking common ground on the basis of ‘some notion of deity’, he dives straight in with the Lord Jesus and His resurrection.  And this, in spite of the unpopularity of “resurrection” to the Greek mind (v32!).  It all just seemed like so much “babble” to the cultured Athenians.

But why?  We know that Paul was a wonderful communicator, millions still read his letters.  We know that these philosophers were experienced at comprehending new ideas (v21), yet the gospel sounds to them like ‘gobble-di-gook’. Paul would explain it in 1 Corinthians:

“The preaching of the cross is, to them that perish, foolishness.” (1 Corinthians 1:18)

Yet Paul persists (as should we all).  And when he has another opportunity, he sets out his message once again.

“Then Paul stood in the midst of Mars’ hill, and said, Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious.  For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you.”  (Acts 17:22-23)

Some see this opening as Paul’s establishment of common ground.  Yet if there’s anything which Paul concedes to the Athenians it is their ignorance.  The one thing they seem to know is that they don’t know God.  But Paul will simply declare Him:

“God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands; Neither is worshipped with men’s hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things;”  (Acts 17:24-25)

We don’t make houses for the gods, God makes a home for us.  We don’t serve Him, He serves us.  He doesn’t need us, we need Him.  It’s all so blatantly obvious, and yet the very foundations of human religion are founded on folly.  And it’s folly which Paul is keen to point out.

He continues by presenting the Gospel of the Two Men.  This is something he also does in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15.  He tells the story of the world as the story of Adam and Christ.  First he tells us of the original man, from whom all nations of men have come…

“And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation; That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us:  For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring. Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man’s device.”  (Acts 17:26-29)

In verse 28 Paul quotes from Epimenides (the original source of today’s saying) and from Phaenomena.  It’s the equivalent of a preacher citing the latest pop song.  Of course he uses these Greek quotes to speak against Greek culture.  He’s saying “If you really believed what you sing about, how could you live how you live?”  Paul is not vindicating the latent wisdom of the Greeks, he is exposing their foolish inconsistencies. Epimenides spoke far better than he knew and far better than the Greeks lived.  On the preacher’s lips the truth is commandeered and pressed into gospel service.  Yet on the poet’s lips it stands only to reveal their folly. But such folly must end…

“The times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent:  Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead.”  (Acts 17:30-31)

Here is the second man in Paul’s sermon.  The Man Jesus Christ answers the man Adam.  Jesus passed through the door marked ‘death’ – the door through which we all must pass – and He came out the other side.  When we pass through that door we are assured that He is the One to meet us.

He is the Judge.  Therefore we must repent.  We must completely change our thinking – that’s how Paul unpacks the meaning of “repentance.”  Our minds must be reconfigured by this gospel story.

The gospel does not confront us as one truth among many.  It sets a question mark over all ‘truths’.  It does not build on our nascent religious or philosophical intuitions, it supplants them.  In short, it shows us what should be so obvious and yet it strikes the fallen mind as revolutionary – God does not live in the intellectual worlds that we build for Him.  No – we live in His world.  For in Him we live and move and have our being.

Turned the world upside down

"Look at that! Brilliant! You kill the leader and you nip the whole movement in the bud." (Click for source)

Acts 17:1-15

On Good Friday, Christianity was “down and out.”  The Christ was dead and buried.  His followers were despondent and scattered.  And that should have been that.

Yet, within a very short period of time, Christ’s people were said to be ‘turning the world upside down.’  How did such an extraordinary revolution happen?  Not through the sword, not through political machinations, not even through grass-roots activism.  The world was turned upside-down in the first century (and continues to be turned upside-down today) through the preaching of a message.

Just look at the context for this phrase…  In Acts 17 Paul and his associates go to the Greek city of Thessalonica.

“And Paul, as his manner was, went in unto them [at the synagogue], and three sabbath days reasoned with them out of the scriptures, Opening and alleging, that Christ must needs have suffered, and risen again from the dead; and that this Jesus, whom I preach unto you, is Christ.”  (Acts 17:2-3)

Here’s what was so volatile – the preaching of a ‘reasoned’, ‘scriptural’ message.   The message concerns a King – the Christ.  But this King is unlike all our expectations for kings.  He suffers and dies before rising again.  Yet it’s this upside-down message that unleashes an upside-down revolution.

You see some Thessalonians believed Paul’s message.  The Jews that didn’t, ‘moved with envy’, stirred up trouble for the apostles.  And this was their report to the powers that be:

“These that have turned the world upside down are come hither also.”  (Acts 17:7)

Perhaps we think it’s counter-intuitive that a message “turns the world upside down.”  But let’s consider the impact of this message over the last 20 centuries in the areas of politics, science and economics.  The gospel of the suffering and rising Christ has made all the difference…

When people believe that the Lord of all became a servant (or, as Mark 10:45 calls Him, “a minister”) then our understanding of earthly power is transformed.  The most powerful needs to be the prime minister – the chief servant.

When people believe that the Ruler of heaven reigns as Man and even because He is now Man, then we start to believe that government should be “of the people, for the people and by the people.”

When people believe that the Logic of all creation took flesh (John 1:14) and was seen, handled, tested and known (1 John 1:1-4), then we start to study the world in a new way.  The Word who became flesh leads us to expect both Laws and empirical testing to discover those laws.  If we only believe in “laws” we will create philosophers.  If we only believe in “empirical testing” we will create technology.  But for the modern scientific method you need both.  Without the Biblical worldview it is inconceivable that science as we know it could have arisen.

When people believe that God’s riches – His grace – should not be paid back to God (as though He needs anything) but freely paid forwards to our fellow man, then we begin having a different view of earthly riches. Freed by God’s grace we stop hoarding or displaying our wealth and start paying it forwards, re-investing it.  And we begin to realise the truth of Christ’s words “freely you have received, freely give.”

These are just some of the macro-effects of the gospel message on our culture.  None of them are, strictly, part of the message.  They are simply outworkings of the gospel in a culture where this message is taken seriously.  In addition to these fringe benefits, people are brought to an intimate knowledge of the living God, set free from the powers that enslave them, cleansed from guilt and shame, and given the status, power and indeed life of Christ.  What’s more, in Christ they are bonded together into a community of grace – witnesses in the world to God’s reconciling love.  They are salt and light and the world cannot help but be changed.

What changes the world?  Not our doings, but the proclamation of His doing.  That’s the power to turn the world upside down.

Damascus Road Experience

Acts 9:1-31

It’s shorthand for any dramatic conversion.  People have often said to me that they’re Christians but they’re still waiting for their “Damascus Road Experience.”

But they will have to wait for Christ’s return for anything like what Paul experienced.  You see the Damascus Road was not just the conversion of a man, it was the creation of an Apostle.  And Apostles needed to have met the risen Christ – both the 11 and Paul himself acknowledge that (Acts 1:21-221 Corinthians 15:1-11).  Therefore something extraordinary was needed to turn Saul of Tarsus into Paul the Apostle.  The risen Christ had to personally appear.  But He didn’t have to appear to a man like Saul! This conversion would model the sheer grace of the Lord.

For a start, Saul was a Pharisee.  He describes his past like this:

“Circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee;” (Philippians 3:5)

When Jesus chose the original twelve he chose a tax-collector, Matthew. He also chose a Zealot, Simon.  These two were hated and feared members of the establishment and anti-establishment respectively. Nonetheless, there was place in Christ’s kingdom for all manner of publicans and sinners.  Yet all the while the Pharisees remained firmly on the outside, muttering (Luke 15:1-2).

Now Christ steps in with compelling force and claims a Pharisee for His own.  And not just any Pharisee – the chief persecutor of the early church. Saul oversaw the killing of Stephen in Acts 7 and was known to believers everywhere as “he that destroyed” Christians. (Acts 9:21)

So how was Saul prepared for this religious experience?  Was he particularly soft-hearted and receptive to the grace of Jesus that day?  No. The grace of Jesus is not attracted to soft-heartedness, the grace of Jesus creates soft-heartedness where before there was stony opposition.  Here is the context of Saul’s conversion:

“And Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, went unto the high priest, And desired of him letters to Damascus to the synagogues, that if he found any of this way, whether they were men or women, he might bring them bound unto Jerusalem.  And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus:  and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven:  And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?  And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest:  it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.”  (Acts 9:1-5)

Saul is not ready for Jesus.  Saul is breathing out slaughter against Christ and His people.  And notice how personally Jesus takes it.  According to Jesus, Saul has been persecuting Himself.  The risen Christ is not above and beyond the struggles of this world.  He feels His people’s suffering keenly.  He is the Head and His body is hurting – therefore Christ Himself is hurting.

Persecuted Christians need to know this.  Christ feels this pain and knows how to confront the perpetrators, in His own time and in His own way. But be prepared for Christ to approach the wrong-doers with mercy.  This is how He comes to Saul.  He even pities his enemy:  “It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.”   “Pricks” are the sharp goads at the end of a shepherd’s crook.  Sheep going astray harm themselves on the sharpened points and then harm themselves further by kicking against them.  That has been Saul’s life.  Brought up in the Scriptures, confronted by Christ on every page yet twisting and turning from Him at every opportunity. Conversion for Saul means the end of that kind of suffering.  But it will mean a very different kind of suffering from now on.

You see he is blinded by his vision and healed by a Christian called Ananias.  Ananias is told by the Lord:

“[Paul] is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel:  For I will shew him how great things he must suffer for my name’s sake.”     (Acts 9:15-16)

Saul is converted from one kind of suffering – a swimming against the stream of his existence – to another kind of suffering – a swimming against the stream of the world.  We can go with the world’s flow and run up against the Lord, or we can walk with the Lord and go against the world’s flow.  Paul is summoned to live for Christ’s name’s sake.

And here is the effect.  Jesus says to him:

“But rise, and stand upon thy feet:  for I have appeared unto thee for this purpose, to make thee a minister and a witness both of these things which thou hast seen, and of those things in the which I will appear unto thee; Delivering thee from the people, and from the Gentiles, unto whom now I send thee, To open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me.”  (Acts 26:15-18)

This is exactly what happens.  Paul goes on to live one of the most influential lives the world has ever seen.  He writes half of the New Testament and plants churches all around the eastern half of the Mediterranean.  Thus the church’s greatest enemy is converted to its greatest asset.  That’s what the grace of God does – turns calamity into even greater blessing.  And it does so not because of any goodness in us, but despite our deepest evil.  You see the witness of Paul to the grace of Jesus is not diminished by his terrible past, but magnified by it.  This murderous blasphemer is able to say:

“This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief.”  (1 Timothy 1:15)

The conversion of Paul is not meant to make us despair – as though we could never experience such a change.  The conversion of Paul gives us hope.  The grace of Jesus extends even to His greatest enemies.  It most definitely extends to me.

Cut to the heart

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Acts 2:36-47

When we’re “cut to the heart” it’s usually because we’ve been insulted or betrayed or broken up with.

But three times in the book of Acts, the Israelites are “cut” or “pricked” to the heart (Acts 2:37; 5:33; 7:54).  Yet with them it’s different.  Here’s what pricks their hearts:  the preaching of the Apostles.  As the sins of the Israelites are uncovered so it feels like a dagger in their chest.

Let’s examine the first instance of hearts pricked by the gospel…

The Duchess of Cambridge was teased terribly at school.  While Kate Middleton was at Downe House school she was bullied so badly that her parents took her out after just two terms.

I wonder what those bullies think now?

Maybe the last time they saw her up close they had reduced her to tears. Maybe they laughed and cheered and said good riddance when Kate finally left.  Maybe they thought that nothing would ever come of the most unpopular girl in school.

How wrong they were!  Through her Prince, she’s now royalty.  And one day she will be Queen over those bullies!  I’m guessing that her old class-mates have changed their mind about Kate Middleton.

Acts 2 speaks of a similar but vastly more significant change of mind. Peter is addressing the crowd that, 7 weeks earlier, had bayed for Jesus’ blood. Peter, full of the Holy Spirit, pulls no punches:

“Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ.”  (Acts 2:36)

The charge here is nothing short of deicide – the murder of God Himself! You see, they might have thought little of Jesus in the days of His flesh, but in resurrection God has declared the truth about Jesus:  He is Lord and Christ.  How would you feel if you were in the crowd?

If you had bullied someone at school, and it turned out they were the son of the headmaster, you would be worried.

What if you’d bullied the Son of God, how much trouble do you think you’d be in?

What if you’d killed the Son of God, what then?

Peter says “You crucified the LORD of Glory.”

How do you respond to such a message?  Here’s what the people do. Verse 37:

“Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart, and said unto Peter and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brethren, what shall we do?”

Pricked in the heart.  Peter’s words are like a sword straight through them. What should they do?

Should they try to run and hide?  Where would they hide?  God’s quite good at hide and seek.  He usually wins that one.

Should they hope that God forgets?  He’s not particularly absent minded, God.

Should they try to make it up to God?  How could they make it up to God?  They haven’t just stolen stationery from the workplace – they’ve killed the Lord of Glory!

What should they do?  What could they do?  Surely this is it for these bullies, these murderers.  What hope could there be?  Well Peter gives some incredibly good news:

“Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.”  (Acts 2:38)

This is unprecedented grace.  Peter says that God wants to forgive the killers of His Son.  And not just forgive them, He wants to give them a gift.

Have you ever heard of a Judge who says “I know you’re guilty but I forgive you.”  Can you imagine a Judge whose son was murdered saying “I know you’re guilty but I forgive you”?  Can you imagine a Judge whose son was murdered saying, “I know you’re guilty, but I forgive you and I want to give you a gift.”  And imagine he says “Here’s my gift – have my daughter’s hand in marriage!”  Unthinkable.  But that’s just what God is like.  He wants to forgive us and give us a gift – the gift of His Spirit.  Another Family Member if you like.

He gives us One Family Member – His Son.  We kill Him and He pays us back by giving us His Other Family Member, His Spirit!  That’s everything He has to give us.  It’s incomparable grace.  And in the light of it, Peter implores them to change their mind.

That’s what repent means:  change your mind.  Jesus is Lord.  He is the Christ.

It’s like with Kate Middleton.  Those bullies used to call her Flaky Pimpletongue.  Now she’s the Duchess of Cambridge.  One day they will call her Queen.  I imagine those bullies have changed their mind about Kate.  But the world needs to do the same with Jesus.  We used to think He was an inconvenience.  We used to try to silence Him.  Perhaps we used to use Jesus’ name as a swear word.  At best we used to think of Him as a mere teacher or example.  We were wrong.  He is Lord and Christ and raised to God’s right hand to rule the world.  So repent – change your mind… and be baptised.

You see, Jesus was baptized into our kind of life – He stood in our shoes to do life in our place.  Now, says Peter, you should get baptised into Him. Be clothed in Him – in His kind of life.

United to Jesus, the gift of the Holy Spirit is freely offered as well as the remission of all our sins.  It’s the most incredible promise.  Who’s it for?   Surely it’s for good people, religious people, respectable people, the super-keen?  No, says Peter.  Verse 39 – this promise is for you.  The promise is for Christ-killers!

For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call.

You can’t be too bad, you can’t be too immature, you can’t be too far from God – the promise is for you.  Because Christ is for you.  He’s even for His killers.  He is most definitely for you.

In spite of the worst crimes imaginable we are given God’s Son, we are given His Spirit, we are forgiven all our sins and called home to God’s Family Life.  All we’ve ever done is cause His death.  All He’s ever done is give us more.  When we see this gospel reality, our heart are not just pricked, they are melted.

The fruit of his loins

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Acts 2:1-41

If this phrase is used today it’s usually as a playful archaism.

–  “That’s my boy,” says the teasing father, “the fruit of my loins.”

–  “Dad!!!”

But actually it’s a great compliment.  There’s only one person in the Bible who is specifically referred to as ‘loin-fruit’:  Jesus.  Well of course – the One who is the original Seed, comes in the fullness of time as Fruit.

Let’s get the context for this phrase.

It’s the day of Pentecost.  50 days since Jesus rose from the dead.  10 days since He ascended into heaven.  And on this Sunday, the Holy Spirit comes in power to clothe the church for its witness to the world.

At the time, the whole nation of Israel was gathered to celebrate the ancient festival of Pentecost.  It’s seven weeks after that post-Passover festival of “Firstfruits” when the green shoots of the coming harvest were presented to God.  Now at Pentecost, the new batch of grain is brought before the LORD (Leviticus 23:15-21).  It isn’t just firstfruits, this is now the harvest, and everyone would be thinking of “fruit.”

Now remember the last time these Israelites were all together.  It was Passover when they had cried out unanimously:  “Crucify Him, Crucify Him!”  And in spite of their hatred, the Lord Jesus responded on the cross: “Father, forgive.”  Now, as the Christ-killers reconvene, there’s an opportunity for Christ’s prayer to be answered.

The Holy Spirit empowers the disciples to speak to the international gathering – each one hearing them in their native language.  It’s a wonderful miracle for Pentecost, breaking down barriers so that all sorts of “new grain” might be harvested.  Peter steps forward to explain this sign of new life coming upon the world (Acts 2).  First he quotes Joel and explains how the ancient prophet predicted this breakdown of the old barriers.  The end times are now upon us, just as the Scriptures foresaw.

From verse 22-32 Peter narrates the events of Christ’s life as the fulfillment of another prophet.  According to Peter, David was a prophet and knew “that God had sworn with an oath to him, that of the fruit of his loins, according to the flesh, he would raise up Christ to sit on his throne; He seeing this before spake of the resurrection of Christ.” (Acts 2:30-31)

The Psalms are not ultimately chronicling David’s own experiences of suffering and glory.  King David knowingly put words to the experiences of the Messiah – who would be the fruit of his loins.  David looked forward to his Seed who would be planted into the ground but raised up by God to be a fruitful Vine for all.

People commonly talk of living on in their progeny.  David was someone who really could trust in that!  That’s because Christ, his Seed, was the Firstfruits of a bumper crop of resurrection.

Here is the true meaning of Pentecost.  At Passover the Seed died.  On the third day, He rose again – the Firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep (1 Corinthians 15:20).  And on the basis of this Firstfruits, the world can be grafted in to find new life where before there was only death and barrenness.  The Fruit of David’s loins was not only fruitful for Himself, He has enough life bursting out of Him for a cosmic harvest.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit

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Matthew 28:16-20

Thomas Jefferson once wrote:

“When we shall have done away the incomprehensible jargon of the Trinitarian arithmetic, that three are one, and one is three; when we shall have knocked down the artificial scaffolding, reared to mask from view the simple structure of Jesus; when, in short, we shall have unlearned everything which has been taught since His day, and got back to the pure and simple doctrines He inculcated, we shall then be truly and worthily His disciples.”

Jefferson is not alone.  Many Christians consider the Trinity to be a mathematical problem, an artificial scaffolding and an obscurity that masks the simple teaching of Jesus.  Yet to think this way is to deny the very Person and teaching of Jesus.

Trinity and the Person of Jesus

It denies the Person of Jesus because He is, most fundamentally, “the Christ, the Son of God.”  Both Mark’s Gospel and John’s Gospel are structured around that full name of Jesus – “the Christ, the Son of God.” This means that He is the One anointed (Christed) without measure by the Spirit and the One eternally begotten of the Father.  To know Jesus is to be introduced to His Spirit and His Father.  In short, to understand Jesus is already to be drawn into a knowledge of the Three Persons.  And to know the Spirit and Father in the Son, is to know the Three as Persons united together in love.

This is the doctrine of the Trinity: God is three Persons united in love. There is no mathematical conundrum here.  It’s clear how God is Three – there are Three distinct Persons.  It’s also clear how God is One – the Three Persons are united in love.  That’s how one-ness happens in the Bible.  Adam and Eve are one because they are united in love. The Church is meant to be  one by being united in love (John 17:21-22).  And the Father, Son and Spirit are one through love.  In fact they are so one that they cannot be without each other.  The Father is Father of the Son – without whom He would cease to be who He is.  Likewise, the Son is Son of the Father – without whom He would cease to be who He is, etc, etc.

The Three are so much One that they are ‘in one another.  This loving, mutual in-dwelling is the unity of the three.  And that’s where we get the word “trinity” from.  It’s the “tri-unity” – the loving unity of the three. This is who our God is.

Trinity and the Teaching of Jesus

Not only is the Trinity simply the explication of the Person of Jesus. Contrary to Jefferson’s assertion, the Trinity is the teaching of Jesus too.

Just before He ascended to heaven, He commanded His disciples:

“Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” (Matthew 28:19)

Notice that there are not three names here.  There is only one name – but that one name is constituted by these three Persons – the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

What we have here is, essentially, the Aaronic blessing brought into the New Testament.  In Numbers 6, the High Priest was meant to put the name of God onto the people.  And that name involved three different divine movements:

“Speak unto Aaron and unto his sons, saying, On this wise ye shall bless the children of Israel, saying unto them, The LORD bless thee, and keep thee:  The LORD make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee:  The LORD lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.  And they shall put my name upon the children of Israel; and I will bless them.”  (Numbers 6:23-27)

The first movement is blessing and keeping.  The second movement is the revelation of God’s radiant Face to shine in grace.  The third movement is turning that light personally upon the people to give them peace.

And now Jesus tells His followers – You are all priestly.  But now it’s a priesthood to the nations.  Bring them in and put God’s name on them.  The Father is the Fountain of all blessing.  The Son is the shining Face, radiating God’s grace.  The Spirit turns the world to that Radiance to give them peace.

When we put these truths together, what do we have?

Well a disciple of ‘the Christ, the Son of God’ is filled with His Spirit and adopted by His Father.  Such a person is a little christ, a little son or daughter of God.  And the sign of this reality is baptism into the Triune Name where a person is brought into the sphere of the Triune blessing. Here the Spirit ever turns us to the Son, in whose face we see the Source of all blessing, the Glorious Father.

Christ’s “Great Commission” is the mission of the Triune God, extended through His people, reaching the world.  As little christs in The Christ – we are sent to the nations, presenting God’s Face to the world: Jesus.  In Him, they too can be made a disciple.  They too can be baptised into the loving unity of Father, Son and Spirit.

The Trinity is not incomprehensible arithmetic.  “The Father, Son and Holy Ghost” is not a problem to be solved.  The Trinity is the very name and nature of God.  And in the loving unity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we find our place – united to Jesus, anointed with the Spirit and calling on our Abba, Father.

Jefferson could not be more wrong.  The Trinity is not the scaffolding – it is the very centre of our faith.  There is nothing purer, simpler or more worthy in all the doctrines of Christ!

Doubting Thomas

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John 20:1-31

“If God came down right now, I’d believe.  If He showed up in all His Godness and proved Himself to me, I’d bow down and worship.  I won’t believe if I can’t see, hear and touch Him – but if He appears, I’ll believe.”

Have you ever said that?  Or thought it?  Well, that’s Thomas’ question.

“Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.”  (John 20:25)

Thomas wasn’t there when Jesus had appeared to the other disciples the week before.  And he doesn’t believe the eye-witness testimony of the apostles.  He wants his own proof.  Tangible, in your face, see it, touch it, taste it, feel it, proof.

But he is knocked off his feet when this proof comes. Verse 26:

“And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them:  then came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, Peace be unto you.  Then saith he to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side:  and be not faithless, but believing.”  (John 20:26-27)

Thomas had wanted to see these wounds.  He demanded to see these wounds.  And so Jesus gives him more than he bargained for.  He even invites Thomas to thrust his hand into His side! Incredible.

Jesus seems proud of His scars.  He displays them as badges of honour, because these wounds carry a scar story that beats every scar story ever told.

All scar stories have a certain shape:  I was travelling along quite nicely until I encountered… a dog / a ball / a car / a fist / the force of gravity.  It hurt a lot, but I’m ok now.  And I have the scars to prove it.

Jesus’ scar story goes something like this:  Things were fine until I encountered… planet earth.  They did their worst to me, and it hurt immensely.  But I’m ok now.  And I have the scars to prove it.

So there is Jesus confronting Thomas with His war wounds – the marks of His suffering love.  And in verse 28 Thomas can’t control himself any more:  He exclaims to Jesus, “My LORD and my God.”

It’s one of the mountaintop declarations of the Bible.  And what has prompted it?  The wounds of Jesus.  This is not a cowering response to the strength of Christ’s resurrection.  This is worship elicited by the sacrificial love of His death.  Thomas understands the scar story.  He sees that Jesus has come to our aid and stuck up for us in the only fight that really matters.  And He’s won.  In gratitude and praise, Thomas cries out “My LORD and my God.”

Not simply, “The LORD” but “my LORD”.  It’s personal.

Is it personal for you?  Or are you still something of a doubting Thomas?

But perhaps you’re thinking, “It’s alright for Thomas.  He got to see Jesus. What about me?”

That’s why Jesus answers with verse 29:

“Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed:  blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.”

Blessed are people when they are not like Thomas.  Blessed are we when we don’t see and yet believe.  How is that possible?  John’s Gospel continues:

“And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book:  But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.” (John 20:30-31)

We can have a more blessed experience than Thomas.  How?  We can trust the written, eye-witness testimony.  And Jesus says that these Scriptures (of which John’s Gospel is a part) are better than a one-off resurrection experience.

How could that be true?  Well just imagine that Jesus appeared to you tonight at the end of your bed.  Imagine you saw His wounds and heard Him say ‘Peace’ to you personally.  That would give you a spiritual high for days.  Weeks, even!

But fairly soon you’d start to wonder whether you’d dreamt the whole thing.  People would ridicule you for your claims and pretty soon you’d need another appearance.

If you have ever asked for an extraordinary appearance of God, you are asking for something that will impress you today but will ultimately make you doubt more than believe.

It is more blessed – it is better – to go on the eye-witness testimony of the Bible.  Because with the Bible, it’s there in black and white for all time.  At three in the morning when I have doubts.  When loved ones die.  When I’ve lost my job.  I can always see Jesus, by opening my Bible and seeing Him in the sacred story.

If I had physically touched the risen Christ twelve years ago – by now my memory would have faded.  Instead I met Jesus in the pages of the Bible, and I am seeing Him more clearly today than when I first believed.  As I go deeper into the Bible His wounds are more vivid, His scar story is more real, His love seems more profound – all through the pages of Scripture.

All of us are a Doubting Thomas at various times and to various degrees. But the Holy Spirit has given us an antidote:

“These are written, that ye might believe.”

If that’s true – how should we read our Bibles?  Answer:  Expectantly.  We should seek a more blessed encounter than the Upper Room.  We should desire a coming of Christ, a sight of His war wounds and a response of worship – “My LORD and my God.”

He is not here, for he is risen

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Matthew 28:1-15

Woody Allen is famously fearful of death (of course he maintains he’s not afraid, he just ‘doesn’t want to be there when it happens’).  He was once asked, ‘Aren’t you pleased to know you’ll live on in the hearts and minds of those you’ve touched?’  Woody said ‘I don’t want to live on in hearts and minds, I want to live on in my apartment.’  That’s what we all want – resurrection.  It’s exactly what Jesus offers.  And yet it’s the last thing we expect.

It sounds like madness to even contemplate “living on in my apartment.” Sure, living on in memories is reasonable.  And living on in some non-physical, spiritual dimension sounds plausible… at a stretch. But living on in immortal, bodily, earthly life?  That’s the stuff of fairytales surely.  Everything in our natural experience works against resurrection hope.  Our ordinary lives teach us to believe Monty Python’s line:  “Life is quite absurd and death’s the final word.”  Life leads to death.  That’s the trajectory of this world and of Adam its original head.  Life and then death.

But Jesus came to reverse the way of Adam.  He came to turn the world right-side-up.  And therefore it strikes the children of Adam as utterly new and strange.  On that first Easter Sunday, the women came to the tomb expecting to pay their last respects to a departed friend.  They came to mark an ending.  Instead they were witnesses to the one great beginning:

“In the end of the sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to see the sepulchre. And, behold, there was a great earthquake:  for the angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat upon it.  His countenance was like lightning, and his raiment white as snow:  And for fear of him the keepers did shake, and became as dead men.  And the angel answered and said unto the women, Fear not ye:  for I know that ye seek Jesus, which was crucified.  He is not here: for he is risen, as he said.  Come, see the place where the Lord lay.” (Matthew 28:1-6)

Imagine an alternative Easter story.  Imagine that the women found the body of Jesus, but were startled by the angel who proclaimed:  “This is only the body of Jesus.  Don’t worry, the spirit of Jesus lives on, and so will you when you die.  Don’t be afraid, you will meet with Jesus again when you’ve all gotten rid of your earthly encumbrances.”  What kind of gospel would that be?  The Apostle Paul answered in 1 Corinthians 15:

“And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain…. if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins.  Then they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished.  If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.”  (1 Corinthians 15:14-19)

Some sort of life beyond death is not good news.  The gospel of God is that Christ has entered His own world to remake it from the inside.  He has come as our true Head, to take hold of the old world and put it down to the death it deserves.  The old order is a matter of ‘life unto death’, and that’s where Jesus takes it.  But then He rises up again to reverse the way of all flesh.

That’s why it’s so critical that He rises with the same body.  He is not abandoning Creation 1.0 and starting 2.0.  He is recapitulating His handiwork – going over the old ground and redeeming it all.  He is risen in that same body because He wills to fix this very world.  And just as the old body is restored and glorified, so will the whole universe.

On that first day of the week a new beginning was birthed.  Jesus had put the old to death on the 6th day.  He’d rested on the Sabbath, and brought light and immortality to life on the first day.  Jesus renews all things by rising up as the true and better Adam, the eternal King.  And as surely as the King was raised – so His Kingdom will also be raised.  Therefore “fear not”!