My name is Legion for we are many

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Can people really change?

Perhaps we think that, superficially, there can be a make-over.  But what about an abiding shift for good in the core of a person?  Mark chapter 5 gives us such a picture.  In the beginning we meet a man described like this:

“A man with an unclean spirit,  3 Who had his dwelling among the tombs; and no man could bind him, no, not with chains:  4 Because that he had been often bound with fetters and chains, and the chains had been plucked asunder by him, and the fetters broken in pieces: neither could any man tame him.  5 And always, night and day, he was in the mountains, and in the tombs, crying, and cutting himself with stones.” (Mark 5:2-5)

We will be tempted to consider this man a different species to the rest of us.  But Mark presents this as an extreme example of the human condition common to us all.  The phrase “no man could bind him” is meant to remind us of the Lord’s saying two chapters earlier:

“No man can enter into a strong man’s house, and spoil his goods, except he will first bind the strong man; and then he will spoil his house.”  (Mark 3:27)

The “strong man” is Satan.  His goods are the human race.  And Jesus came to “ransom” us from our bondage (Mark 10:45).  What we see in Mark chapter 5 is a dramatic example of the need we all have for Jesus to rescue us from Satan’s clutches.

We all naturally “fulfil the desires of our flesh.” In this way we are all, by nature, under the power of the devil (Ephesians 2:1-3).  Right where we cannot be bound, there we are most under Satan’s control.  The stronger the willfulness, the deeper the slavery.

More than this, we are all walking through the valley of the shadow of death and in this way are making our home among the tombs.  And, under the power of death and the devil we cry and harm ourselves in all kinds of ways.

This man is certainly an extreme.  But he is not an alien.  Our struggles are reflected and magnified in his.  Therefore Christ’s victory over these powers will give us hope.  If Jesus can bring peace and order to his life He can do it to any life.

Mark 5:1-20 presents the whole encounter as a battle scene.  First there was the sea-crossing in which the wind and waves – forces of chaos – rise up to halt their progress.  Then there is a beach landing.  The man who looks like he will oppose them is called “Legion” which is a military term for thousands of soldiers.  It looks as though there will be an almighty battle.  But it’s a woeful mismatch:

“When he saw Jesus afar off, he ran and worshipped him,  And cried with a loud voice, and said, What have I to do with thee, Jesus, thou Son of the most high God? I adjure thee by God, that thou torment me not.” (Mark 5:6-7)

When it comes to it, the powers opposing Jesus do not fight Him but worship Him – that is, prostrate themselves before Him!

Jesus asked him, What is thy name? And he answered, saying, My name is Legion: for we are many.  (Mark 5:9)

This legion of unclean spirits are no match for the Strongest Man.  Just as He had commanded the wind and waves, now He commands these evil forces.

They beg Jesus to be sent into some nearby pigs – unclean spirits seek unclean animals.  When Jesus grants their request we see the malign power of these devils:

The unclean spirits went out, and entered into the swine: and the herd ran violently down a steep place into the sea, (they were about two thousand;) and were choked in the sea.  (v13)

Just minutes ago this sea looked like it would kill Jesus.  Now it’s the watery grave of this army of demons.  The sea is a picture of the abyss – the Abyss where the demons and Satan himself will face their ultimate doom.  Here they run headlong into it.  They are hell-bent.  And their effect on all whom they influence is that same self-destructive death-wish.

But now that Legion is free, what is the result?  The man is now

sitting, and clothed, and in his right mind (Mark 5:15)

There are three Greek words in the original: seated, clothed, sane.  A wonderful conversion.

And how does Jesus effect it?

He doesn’t boil up a secret potion or wave a magic wand.  He doesn’t circle around Him 9 times sprinkling the blood of a hamster.  No holy water, no incantations, no hocus pocus.  He just commands: “Come out of the man, thou unclean spirit.”  And they come out.

The bible never describes lengthy battles with evil spirits.  In the bible no-one ever goes on search and destroy ghost-busting missions.  As the gospel goes out, people do encounter these extreme manifestations.  And it does seem to happen when frontiers are being crossed.  Here as Jesus crosses over into Gentile territory, there is a turf-war so to speak.  When the gospel comes to a new place there do seem to be these “flare-ups” of evil.  We can see this in the book of Acts and in modern missionary settings.

But in the bible, the way people deal with these demonic flare ups is not with a series of rituals but simply with words.  Either Jesus calls them out with a sentence or people pray a sentence in the Name of Jesus.  And that’s it.  It’s not about conjuring or cajoling the powers.  It’s simply a demonstration of Jesus’ power.

And the world is terrified.  When the villagers see Legion “in his right mind… they were afraid” (v15).  In a sense this is very understandable.  Jesus has proved Himself the Strongest Man: mightier than a tornado; taming the wild man; commanding the demons.

And so they beg Jesus to leave.  Here we see that the crowds aren’t very different to the demons!  The madness of those hell-bent spirits finds an echo in the madness of men who pray for Jesus to leave.  They would rather be left to enslaving powers than to invite the presence of the Liberator.  Devils aren’t just  a problem for Legion.  There is a crazed obstinacy to “normal” folk.  We would rather do without the power of Jesus.  Instead we are ruled by forces determined to destroy us and we ask Jesus to leave.

Interestingly, Jesus grants their request and starts to go.  At that point Legion makes a request too.  And he would have had high hopes for its success.  After all Jesus granted the request of the demons and He granted the request of the mob.  But when Legion asks to go with Jesus, He replies:

Go home to thy friends, and tell them how great things the Lord hath done for thee, and hath had compassion on thee.

Jesus commissions the craziest man in the region to be an evangelist.  Why?  Because he is to tell of the “compassion” of the Lord.  His story is not the story of a man who pulled it all together and turned things around.  It’s the story of helpless hellishness conquered by omnipotent mercy.  And so Legion goes,

and began to publish in Decapolis how great things Jesus had done for him: and all men did marvel.  (Mark 5:20)

First possessed then placid then preacher.  No-one is a lost cause for Jesus.

Jesus! the Name high over all,
In hell or earth or sky;
Angels and men before it fall,
And devils fear and fly.

Jesus! the Name to sinners dear,
The Name to sinners giv’n;
It scatters all their guilty fear,
It turns their hell to Heav’n.

Jesus! the prisoner’s fetters breaks,
And bruises Satan’s head;
Power into strengthless souls it speaks,
And life into the dead…

The friend of sinners

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The world is always judging Jesus.  At His birth much was made of His name (Matthew 1:18-25).  At His death the key issue was His identity (Matthew 26:63-65).  And the central question of the Gospels is “What think ye of Christ?”  (Matthew 22:42).

Sometimes the labels He attracted were true and well-meant, as in “Behold the Lamb of God“.  Sometimes they were false and ill-meant, as in “He hath a devil” (Luke 7:33).  But  in this verse we have an accusation that is both true and ill-meant. Here Jesus comments on the verdicts being passed on Him:

“The Son of man is come eating and drinking; and ye say, Behold a gluttonous man, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners!” (Luke 7:34)

In the minds of these accusers “friend of sinners” was a shameful epithet.  Perhaps they lived by that old maxim: ‘you can tell a man by the company he keeps!’  What should they conclude when they see Jesus associating with such “down-and-outs”?

Well they should think: Jesus is the Doctor for the sick.  They should see the out-going merciful love of Jesus for sinners.  And such love should thrill them.  But instead they see it as a slur.  “Friend of sinners” is their slander.  But Jesus owns the title with pride.

And Luke shows us what it means with the next incident he relates.  Read Luke 7:36-52 to see Christ’s befriending love shown to a sinner.  There a “woman in the city, which was a sinner”, kisses Jesus’ feet, washes them with her tears and dries them with her hair.  It’s more than an awkward moment for the respectable Pharisee who has invited Jesus to his house.  The Pharisee, called Simon, says to himself “This man, if he were a prophet, would have known who and what manner of woman this is that toucheth him: for she is a sinner.”

Jesus responds to the thoughts of Simon!  “There was a certain creditor which had two debtors: the one owed five hundred pence, and the other fifty.  And when they had nothing to pay, he frankly forgave them both. Tell me therefore, which of them will love him most?”  The answer is inescapable.  Whoever has been forgiven much will love much.

Simon imagined that he had little or no debt to be forgiven.  Therefore Simon did not love Jesus.

The woman knew that she was indebted to the hilt.  But she also knew that Jesus was the Friend of Sinners.  She loved Him very much.  And Jesus says to her: Thy sins are forgiven… Thy faith hath saved thee; go in peace.”

How do you respond to the Friend of Sinners?

How we judge the Judge will prove to be our judgement.

Are you scandalized?  Do you watch, bemused, from the sidelines as Jesus mixes with the undesirables?  Or do you flock to Him in your sin no matter what the respectable might think?  What is your assessment of Jesus?  Do you love the Friend of Sinners?  If so, He says  to you “Thy sins are forgiven.  Thy faith has saved thee; go in peace.”

Shout it from the rooftops

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Recently I wrote a post on my other blog about open-air preaching.  One commenter responded:

“Do you have to bother people with this stuff? Can’t you just stick inside the churches.”

This man (not a Christian) perfectly expresses the spirit of the age.  We are happy with privatised beliefs.  We are content that folks practice their personal piety behind closed doors.  At the same time we fiercely protect public space as a neutral zone which is supposedly free from all particular truth claims.  We are happy for advertisers to sell us things when we walk out the door.  Commerce is allowed in public and no-one needs to argue for it.  But virtually everything else must meekly seek permission.  Preaching the consumerist gospel won’t attract opposition.  But preaching the Christian gospel will.  Very soon we will be told to “stick inside the churches.”

Such a commitment to the privatisation of beliefs is not itself religiously neutral.  It is the enforcement of a very particular secularist agenda.  But Jesus will have nothing to do with it.  He says:

“There is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed; and hid, that shall not be known. What I tell you in darkness, that speak ye in light: and what ye hear in the ear, that preach ye upon the housetops.”  (Matthew 10:26-27)

What could be more private than your house?  And yet Jesus says “Don’t close the door and shut in the truth.  Climb onto your house and publish the truth.  Your roof is not a prison to confine your beliefs.  It is a platform to confess them!  Even your abode is not private – it’s a pulpit.  We do not have a privatised faith but a proclaimed faith.”

How could it be any other way?  As they say, Good news is for sharing.  And that’s not just something for us to live by.  God’s own Truth is an audience-seeking reality.  From the beginning God has had a Word.  He has always had an outgoing Expression.  And He has not kept His Word to Himself.  He has created a whole cosmos to be a hearer of His Word.  “Every creature which is under heaven” has the gospel of His Son preached to them (Colossians 1:23).   From His own “holy habitation” God shouts from the rooftops.  His Word is always audience-seeking.  Therefore to have the Word means heralding the Word.  It’s true for God, it must be true for us.

The Truth will out.  In every sense imaginable – the Truth will out.  If we don’t feel something of the outgoing impulse inherent in the gospel, we haven’t yet heard it as we ought.  We have a faith to be shouted from the rooftops.

Let’s leave the final word to George MacLeod.  When he thought about the lengths to which the Word has gone to meet us in our darkness, he couldn’t help but recommend an outgoing, public proclamation of this Word:

I simply argue that the cross be raised again at the centre of the marketplace as well as on the steeple of the church. I am recovering the claim that Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles, but on a cross between two thieves; on the town garbage heap; at a crossroad so cosmopolitan that they had to write his title in Hebrew and Latin and in Greek; at the kind of place where cynics talk smut and thieves curse, and soldiers gamble. Because that is where he died. And that is what he died about. And that is where churchmen ought to be, and what churchmen ought to be about.

"The King's English" Tract

I have found this tract useful in open air outreach.  It explains the impact of the Bible on our language and our culture.  It then goes on to outline the gospel and offer the booklet for free.

It has been used effectively in open air evangelism.  I hand them out saying “World’s all-time best seller, have you read it?”

If you would like to print your own, here is the PDF file.

If you want to change the last page to print your own details, here is the Microsoft Publisher File

The text is below…

Putting words in our mouth

Have you ever “made a peace offering”? Or found a “scapegoat”? Ever been at your “wits’ end”? Or “given up the ghost”? Then the Bible has been “putting words in your mouth”!

This year is the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. It’s the most widely read translation of the world’s all-time best-seller. It’s given us hundreds of words and phrases—shaping the English language more than Shakespeare or any other source.

Turning the world upside down

But it’s not just language. The Bible has shaped our culture. From scientific enquiry to the abolition of slavery; from literature and art to the flourishing of economics; from schools and hospitals to the emergence of modern democracy; the Bible has inspired western civilisation. Our world would be unrecognisable without this book.

And yet there is widespread ignorance about the Bible. Most people consider it a dusty rule-book or an ancient history. What is the Bible all about?

In the beginning…

The Bible begins with a loving God who made all things through His Word—Jesus Christ. He put humankind at the pinnacle of His creation. We were meant to live in loving harmony with God, with each other, and with the world. It started out as paradise. But soon paradise was lost…

How the Mighty are Fallen…

The first humans—Adam and Eve—mistrusted God and wanted to go it alone. When they broke fellowship with God, the whole world was broken. Yet right from the beginning there was a promise…

The Messiah

The Old Testament—the part of the Bible written BC—spoke of Jesus. God’s Son would come as “Messiah”— meaning God’s King, full of the Holy Spirit. He would take our sins and suffering on Himself and die as our sacrificial “scapegoat.” Then He would rise again to lead us back into perfect relationship with God. The Bible has always directed our hope to Jesus—the Saviour of the world.

The Good Samaritan

When Jesus came in the flesh He was the Ultimate Good Samaritan. The first four books of the New Testament—the Gospels—tell the story. He saw us dying under the weight of sin and He took it all on Himself. When He “gave up the ghost” on the cross, He made the perfect “peace offering.” And He did it for you!

The rest of the Bible tells how Jesus rose from the dead to immortal, bodily life. Today, He offers this life to us spiritually. If we come to Jesus we have the gift of His Spirit, complete forgiveness, an eternal friendship with God. And when He returns to put the world to rights we will share His physical life too, forevermore.

The Truth shall set you free

If you want to know the real power of the Bible, pick it up for yourself. As you read, ask God to show you Jesus—He is the true King of the King James Bible.

Write to receive a free Gospel of John in modern language along with a free booklet called “The King’s English”. It will guide you through the Bible, showing how Jesus makes sense of it all.

The very hairs of your head are all numbered

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“She knows my name,” says Ted, amazed.  “Some of my best friends don’t know my name.” (There’s Something About Mary.)

To be known is an incredible thing.  Many a marriage is destroyed when one of the spouses feels unappreciated.  As they take up with someone else they will often say, “It’s just that so-and-so really understands me!”   We crave face to face in which we know and are known.

Well ask yourself…

How many people know your nationality?

How many people know your eye colour?

How many people know your birthday?

How many people know your middle name?

How many people know your blood type?

At each stage I’m guessing that the number of people shrinks.  But as the numbers decrease, so the level of intimacy grows.  Perhaps only one or two people know your blood type.  But they’re likely to be very close to you.

What about this question:

How many people know the number of hairs on your head?

Jesus says your Father in heaven does:

Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father.  But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows. (Matthew 10:29-31)

It would be easy to write this off as a statement about abstract omniscience.  As though numbering our hairs was some parlour trick God wheels out to impress the dinner guests.  As though the numbering of our hairs merely demonstrates God’s computing powers.  But it’s not a display of mere knowledge – there’s nothing mere about knowing in the biblical sense.  This is about His intimate knowledge.

Some people know my middle name, very few know my blood type, but the Father alone numbers the hairs on my head.  This is deeply personal knowledge and it shows intense care.  What purpose could there be in knowing my hair-count?  What good is it to know such trivia about me?  And yet the Father knows it about me.  He loves me and cares for me down to the smallest detail.  He knows me – better than I know myself.

The context of this verse is Matthew 10 where Jesus sends out His disciples to the mission field.  Though they are sheep among wolves, yet they go with the Father’s wisdom and with the Father’s love.

Do you ever worry that God’s love for you is vague and impersonal?  Perhaps you trust He has a plan for the cosmos but is a little hazy on the details of your own situation. Nonsense.  Even the hairs of your head are all numbered.  Fear ye not therefore!

He that findeth his life shall lose it…

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“He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.” (Matthew 10:39)

We can think of many examples of it…

—  The musician lost in her music yet, at the same time, most fully herself.

—  The athlete pushed beyond his ‘limits’ but finding new strengths he had never known before.

—  The parents sacrificing everything for their children and discovering who they really are.

We might consider these to be small scale instances of Matthew 10:39.  But that’s only because they are echoes of true losing-and-finding.  The original pattern of losing life to find it pre-dates the universe!

As Jesus says in John 10:17:

“Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life, that I might take it again.”

This is a mind-blowing truth.  The Father has always loved the Son.  Their love, shared in the unity of the Holy Spirit, defines the very being of God.  And here Jesus links it in the most profound way to the laying down of His life, only to find it again.  Let me put it this way: The eternal love of God is cross-and-resurrection shaped.  And the cross and resurrection manifests the eternal love of God.

Therefore “losing your life to find it” is a very ancient path.  It is pre-historic in the ultimate sense.  Before there was a world there was the Son gladly yielding up His life to the Father in the power of the Spirit.  There was the Father generously pouring His life into the Son by the Spirit.  And in this other-centred communion they find themselves.

As the Son submits to the Father so He finds His identity as obedient Son.  As the Father commits everything into the hands of His Son, so He finds His identity as loving Father.  As the Spirit empowers the Father and Son in their sacrificial love so He finds His identity as communing Spirit.  The Trinity is a community of Persons who find their lives in losing them.

This is the love that preceded and produced the universe.  So when the Father sends the Spirit-filled Son into the world, He manifests this life in our midst.  And Jesus calls us to join in, not in an abstract sense, but very concretely we are to lose our life for His sake.

In this life there are a million things that ask us to lose our lives.  They do it by promising to give life.  So our careers promise to make us somebody, but in the end they only take.  Success, fame, money, power, respect, even human love offer us life, but we only end up losing our lives to them.  None of these idols can give us a return on investment.  Only Jesus can promise that.

You see Jesus asks us to lose our life and, initially, that sounds very unappealing.  All the idols of this world are promising the finding of life.  But Jesus here unmasks the lies.  Idols participate in a death-march from finding to losing.  Jesus exists in an eternal Fellowship of losing-to-find.  He’s in on the one Power that transforms lost into found.  While everything else in this world goes from life to death.  Jesus is the One who travelled the other way.  He laid down His life on the cross, only to receive it again in resurrection glory.

Therefore, as we consider where to invest our lives, Jesus is the only One who can be trusted.  But if we do trust Him we will certainly find our lives again.  With interest!

“He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.” (Matthew 10:39)

Wise as serpents, harmless as doves

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Matthew 10:16 is a veritable menagerie of biblical imagery:

“Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.”

Not since the ark have so many animals been crammed into so short a Scriptural space.  Yet Jesus thinks we will be well prepared for the mission field if we consider these four creatures: There is the weakness of sheep, the ferocity of wolves, the wisdom of serpents and the innocence of doves.  Since we have already thought of sheep amidst wolves, let’s consider the serpents and doves.

Nowhere but here are serpents held up as positive role models!  The serpent is the devil himself (Genesis 3; Revelation 12).  Therefore the serpent’s pairing with a dove is very surprising.  Just a few chapters previously we saw the Spirit descending “like a dove” upon Jesus (Matthew 3:16).

How do serpents and doves relate?

Well serpents do have one positive attribute: “subtilty” / “wisdom” / “guile”  (Genesis 3:1; 2 Corinthians 11:3).  The serpent is famous for its powers of persuasion, though in the devil’s case this is wrought through deception.

And so the Christian is to be shrewd like the most evil spirit and as pure as the most Holy Spirit.   How do we line up those traits?

Well it’s interesting that the dove-like Holy Spirit is also  known for wisdom (see for instance the book of Proverbs).  This is the point of similarity between them – there is a guile-full wisdom in the serpent; a guile-less wisdom in the dove.  Jesus is therefore double-underlining the need for shrewd dealings.  Sheep wandering among wolves will need incredible wisdom – but not the cunning of the serpent.  Purified wisdom.

Jesus goes on in Matthew 10 to tell His disciples how this purified wisdom will look under fire:

19 But when they deliver you up, take no thought how or what ye shall speak: for it shall be given you in that same hour what ye shall speak. 20 For it is not ye that speak, but the Spirit of your Father which speaketh in you.

Just as Christ is equipped by the Spirit of His Father, so are Christians.  Jesus’ disciples share not only His mission, not only His sufferings, but also His Spirit.  As we suffer for His name’s sake, our fellowship with Christ will be profound.  Under persecution we will experience even more dramatically our adoption by the Father and our anointing with the Spirit.  We are little christs, holding out the Christ.

And as we think in these categories it becomes clear that the ultimate picture of a serpentine dove is Christ Himself as He encounters the wolves.  Remember how He repeatedly avoided capture and unnecessary controversy until the time was right.  Remember how He answered His opponents with Scripture after Scripture.  Remember as He was tried the total lack of self-justification.  Remember how He entrusted Himself  to “to Him that judgeth righteously” (1 Pet 2:23).  And remember the end-point – martyrdom.

To be wise as a serpent and innocent as a dove is not a way of avoiding suffering.  For sheep among wolves there’s no way of avoiding suffering.  In a wicked world, harmless doves cannot expect to live long and prosper.  But since we can only be crucified once, serpentine wisdom will help us to pick the right battles and to make them count.

Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves

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In Matthew 7 Jesus calls false prophets “wolves in sheep’s clothing.”  Now in Matthew 10,  He sends out some true prophets – the 12 disciples – and they will be “sheep in the midst of wolves.”  (Matthew 10:16)

When worldly prophets infiltrate the church it’s deadly.  And when the church’s prophets infiltrate the world it’s deadly. Yet in both cases it’s the Christians who are in danger.  The sheep are in danger at home and in danger abroad.  There are wolves in the fold and wolves in the world.  Nonetheless Jesus sends forth the sheep.

But He’s going to warn them in advance.  No soldier should enter battle unaware of the perils.  No-one ever heard of a soldier shrieking, “They’re shooting at me!  I can’t believe they’re shooting at me!”  Yet many Christians go forth as messengers of Jesus and are mortified that opposition comes their way.

Jesus does not want us to be unprepared.  And so His image is even more graphic than warfare.  He asks the disciples to imagine some sheep trotting through the midst of a pack of wolves.  That is mission according to Jesus.

And if the image is too esoteric for us, He spells it out in the following verses:

17 Beware of men: for they will deliver you up to the councils, and they will scourge you in their synagogues; 18 And ye shall be brought before governors and kings for my sake, for a testimony against them and the Gentiles…   21 And the brother shall deliver up the brother to death, and the father the child: and the children shall rise up against their parents, and cause them to be put to death. 22 And ye shall be hated of all men for my name’s sake… 25 If they have called the master of the house Beelzebub, how much more shall they call them of his household?

Sheep in the midst of wolves means hatred, slander, betrayal, scourging, arrests and death.  Those “sent forth” in mission risk their reputations, their freedom, their families, their health and their very lives.

What are these sheep doing to provoke such hostility?  Simply, they are preaching,

saying, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” [They] Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils: (Matthew 10:7-8)

In other words they are bringing good news, healing and restoration to all that they meet.  For this they are met with defamation, disgust, detention and death.

How do we make sense of that?  Verse 40:

He that receiveth you receiveth me, and he that receiveth me receiveth him that sent me.

Jesus – the Sender – has Himself been sent forth.  The Master of mission knows what mission is.  He is the original Sheep among wolves.  He was the innocent Lamb of God sent forth amongst a whole world that tore Him apart.  And what did He do to deserve it?  He simply preached and procured salvation for the world.  And the world killed Him for it.  Jesus endured the ultimate hatred, slander, betrayal, scourging, arrest and death.  He did not merely risk His reputation, freedom, family, health and life – He gave them all up.  He was a helpless Sheep devoured by ravenous wolves.

So when Jesus “sends forth” He does not do it from a distance.  He is the Suffering Sent One.  Therefore when He calls “unto Himself” (v1) He cannot help “sending forth” (v16).  And when He sends forth, it’s actually a call to “follow after me” (v35).  To be with Jesus is to go out in His name.  To come to Christ is to share in His missionary sufferings.

We will never face the wolves the way that He did.  And we will never face our own wolves alone.  But we will know His fellowship in suffering now and, in just a little while:

Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven. (v32)

They that are whole need not a physician but they that are sick

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Last week David Cameron called “pockets of our society… not just broken but, frankly, sick.”  He was referring not, of course, to politicians but to the riotous youth of Britain.

Jesus says, there is a problem with moral and spiritual sickness – a deadly one.  Yet the far greater problem is people who deny their own sickness and point elsewhere to “pockets”.

The setting was a dinner party.  Jesus was always at dinner parties.  This one was thrown by His latest follower – a tax collector called Matthew.  Tax collectors (or ‘publicans’ in the KJV) were universally hated.  They were collaborators with the enemy and white collar criminals – stealing far too much from their own people and supporting the Roman occupation.  Naturally Matthew’s friends were not upstanding Jews.  They were other “publicans and sinners” – notorious law breakers and miscreants.  Yet Matthew wanted to introduce them to the Lord who had changed his life.  And Jesus wanted to meet them and share life with them.

Appalled by this, the Pharisees do something very strange.  They gatecrash the party and then complain about the guest list!

They said unto His disciples, Why eateth your Master with publicans and sinners?  (Matthew 9:11)

Clearly the disciples were easier to talk to at this party.  They were on the fringe of things – not too sure they should mix with the riff raff.  Yet, from the heart of the party, Jesus overhears the pious objectors.  He responds for all to hear:
They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick… I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.  (Matthew 9:12)

This is how we can understand Jesus’ preoccupation with the “sick” of society.  He’s a Physician – a Doctor.

I’m a man, so I never go to the doctor.  I complain about every cough and cold like its bubonic plague, but I don’t go to the doctor.  If I ever do, I like to save up sicknesses until I have a decent list.  Why?  Because no-one sits down with their doctor and says, ‘I’m a picture of perfect health, I thought you’d be impressed.’  They won’t be impressed, you’re wasting their time. Doctors are for sick people.  And Jesus is for sinners.  Only for sinners.

What is a sinner?  Jesus likens sin to sickness.  It’s not really about the individual mistakes we’ve made.  I feel guilty for all sorts of things that I’ve done in my past.  But actually the problem goes deeper.

All those sins are like the spots you get when you have chicken pox.  They come to the surface and they’re obvious to everyone.  They are horrible, ugly, embarrassing, shameful.  But the real problem is not the spots.  The real problem is an underlying sickness.

And my sins – my spots if you like – will look different to yours.  My sickness might show itself in pride and anger.  Yours might come out as greed and gossip.  And some will have really gross and obvious symptoms – like a tax collector. Or a rioter.  But we’re all riotous at heart.  Some have obvious spots, some not so obvious.  Some are good at covering their spots, some are not.  But we all have the same disease.

And we cannot cure ourselves.  This sickness is not in our hair or we could shave it off.  It’s not a skin complaint or we could buy an ointment.  It’s not in our hand or our leg or we could amputate.  No we have a sickness in our bones, in our blood, in our brain and heart and soul.  We have a chronic, terminal illness called sin.  And if we never come to the Doctor, that sickness will go on forever.

We have spoken about hell before as we’ve travelled through the Bible.  This passage gives us one more window onto that dreaded reality.  Hell is our sick human condition that is never taken to Jesus, never healed by the Doctor, just allowed to progress and deteriorate eternally.

But here’s the shock about hell.  Hell is for the righteous. Hell is for those who consider themselves healthy, for those who refuse the Physician’s care.

Jesus is not the spiritual prize-giver – rewarding the good and punishing the bad.  Jesus is the spiritual doctor – attending to the sick and only the sick.

A doctor cannot help you if you claim to be well.  And Jesus cannot help you if you claim to be righteous.

Are you righteous?  Or do you realize that you are a sinner?  Do you point to “pockets” of sick people over there?  Or do you admit that you need the Doctor?

The Bible is clear – and Jesus is clear – that no-one is actually righteous.  Yet tragically, there are millions who fake it.  They cover up their spots and act healthy.  And the Doctor passes them by.

Jesus is for sinners.  Only for sinners.  In fact written across the gateway of heaven could be the sign: ‘Sinners Only! The righteous need not apply.’

Perhaps we need to stop pretending, to let the façade down and to admit “I am a sinner.”  Not “a-sinner-but-trying-ever-so-hard!”  Not “a-sinner-but-not-as-bad-as-some!”  Just a sinner.  That is who Jesus is for.  He came not for the righteous but the riotous.

Be of good cheer

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It sounds like the sort of saying we should use at Christmas.  It has that ye olde yuletide ring to it: “Be of good cheer!”  But when Jesus used this phrase there was nothing cheery about the circumstances.  There was no earthly reason to ‘cheer up.’  Yet that didn’t stop Jesus from saying it.

One time He said it to a sinking boat, buffeted by a terrible storm as everyone feared drowning (Matthew 14:27; Mark 6:50).  He said it to His disciples, hours before His death, having predicted terrible “tribulation” for them (John 16:33).  And He said it to a paralyzed man who needed four men to carry him

Son, be of good cheer. (Matthew 9:2)

In each case, “cheer” would have been the last thing on people’s minds.  Yet Jesus brings an other-worldly cheer to bear when the world offers only fear and trouble and powerlessness.

Let’s think about the story of the paralyzed man for a minute.  (Matthew 9:2-8)

Four friends are desperate to get their mate to Jesus so they carry him on a mat to the place He’s teaching.  Mark’s Gospel tells us they couldn’t get into the house and so went up onto the roof, punched a hole in it and lowered their friend down!

Jesus seeing their faith said unto the sick of the palsy; Son, be of good cheer; thy sins be forgiven thee. (Matthew 9:2)

Now we get shocked by that verse, but not for the same reason as the crowd got shocked.  We’re shocked because we think Jesus has His priorities wrong.  We think, the first thing this man needs is to walk.  Jesus thinks the first thing he needs is forgiveness.

Jesus considers that being forgiven is more important than your health, more important than money or getting a job or a family – all of which would have been virtually impossible for this paralytic.  Jesus thinks forgiveness is the priority.  Because if our sin remains unforgiven, it doesn’t matter if we have the finest health, if we can outrun Usain Bolt, if we get the greatest job, a pile of money and an adoring family.  If we only have our health, we might have a terrific life but a horrendous eternity.  Jesus knows what is most important.  Forgiveness is the priority.

That’s what shocks us.  But here is what shocks the crowd:

And, behold, certain of the scribes said within themselves, This man blasphemeth. (v3)

This is the really shocking thing.  How can Jesus offer forgiveness?

Surely only the offended party can forgive.  Is Jesus claiming to be the offended party in all the sins of this stranger?  Apparently He is.  Therefore the scribes are reasoning correctly – Jesus is claiming to be the God who is sinned against in every sin.  And if He’s not God then He certainly is blaspheming.

How will Jesus respond?  Well He backs up the divine claim with a divine act.  He heals the paralyzed man “that ye may know that the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins” (v6).  He performs the verifiable miracle to give credence to the unverifiable miracle.  He heals to show He can forgive.

And the paralyzed man arises and strides out the door a healed man and a forgiven man.  He now walks under an open heaven.  He now has the smile of His heavenly Father.  He now enjoys the eternal friendship of God.

If we could interview this man right now he would tell us about the day that changed his life… and his eternity.  No doubt he would assure us of how pleased he was to have the use of his legs.  No doubt the healing gave him “cheer” for many years afterwards.  But ask him now about what gives him “good cheer” and he will tell you, “the forgiveness of Jesus was the crucial thing.”  Nothing was more important than that forgiveness.  That is what gives good cheer, now and into eternity.

And Jesus is ready, willing and able to grant it.  This story shows us the power of Jesus for powerless sinners who come to Him.  His forgiveness gun is on a hair trigger, and there’s just one thing that sets it off:  Faith.  He sees faith and the words fly out of His mouth – “Son, be of good cheer, thy sins be forgiven thee.”

What does faith look like?  Is it a strange mystical sensation?  A funny feeling in the stomach?  A state of consciousness only attained by the super-spiritual?  No faith looks like tearing a hole in a roof because you want to get to Jesus.  That is faith.  It’s coming to Jesus with all your need.  When Jesus sees that, He always forgives.  No-one has ever come to Jesus in weakness and sin and been turned away.  No matter how great the sins, how awful the uncleanness, how chronic the impotence, Jesus has forgiveness for all who come to Him.

You might face shipwreck and ruin – be of good cheer, your sins are forgiven you.

You might face much “tribulation” in the months and years ahead – be of good cheer, your sins are forgiven you.

You might face debilitating ill health and not know when it will end – be of good cheer, your sins are forgiven you.

The one thing that needs to happen has happened.  The one question that must be resolved has been resolved.  When you have the forgiveness of Jesus you have everything.  It might just take a while to inherit it.  But hold on.  And look to Him now in your weakness.  Know His smile and good grace which will never be revoked.  And be of good cheer.