Believe is a popular enough word today. We hear it used in reference to sport, we are encouraged with the words ‘believe in yourself’ & of course there are popular songs like ‘I Believe I Can Fly’ by R. Kelly that we've probably all sang in the shower. There seems to be something within the human heart that longs to believe. Perhaps believing is part of what it means to be human. Christians believe Christ is the only true resting place for this human longing to believe. The Apostles' Creed opens with the words ‘I believe’. It is a confession many Christians have repeated over the centuries & all around the globe, yet at its heart it is a personal confession of faith.
There is evidence something very like The Apostles’ Creed was used at Christian baptisms as early as the second century. It was used as a public confession of personal faith years before the books of the New Testament were canonised. The Jews who believed on the day of Pentecost were baptised there & then for they had Old Testament understanding that helped them realise the significance of what they were doing. However as the Gospel continued to spread further into Gentile nations, which knew little of the God of Israel & his promised Messiah, more teaching was needed so baptism became meaningful to new Christians. A creed very like The Apostles Creed summarised what these very early Christians had learned & come to believe.
What It Means To Believe
J. I. Packer writes in his book Affirming The Apostles’ Creed that; “The Creed’s opening words, “I believe in God,” render a Greek phrase coined by the writers of the New Testament, meaning literally: “I am believing into God.” That is to say, over & above believing certain truths about God, I am living in a relation of commitment to God in trust & union. When I say “I believe in God,” I am professing my conviction that God has invited me to this commitment & declaring that I have accepted his invitation.” True believing means hearing, trusting, confessing, loving & obeying God. Paul says in chapter 10 of Romans; “With the heart one believes & is justified, & with the mouth one confesses & is saved.” James says in chapter 3 of his letter; “faith apart from works is dead.” This reveals to us something of the depth & commitment which should accompany a personal, public & ongoing confession of Christian faith.
How the Creed Came About
The Apostles’ Creed is not called The Apostles’ Creed because it was written by the Apostles’ but because it summarised what the Apostles’ taught. It came about for the same reasons other creeds came about, to protect the Gospel & Church from heresies which threatened to undermine apostolic teaching. Paul had warned the Ephesian elders of coming ‘fierce wolves’, for this reason John in his first letter strongly encouraged Christians to abide in what they had heard from the beginning & Jude was eager to write about what he described as “our common salvation” & appealed for Christians “to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” because false teachers had crept to pervert the Gospel of grace.
The early creeds helped early Christians safeguard themselves & the Gospel from error & continue to help us do so. While the precise wording of The Apostles’ Creed wasn't fully crystallised until the beginning of the 8th Century the main tenets of it can be dated back as far as the 2nd. Very little changed over those five centuries! Christians can disagree & debate many things but more often than not the difference between being part of the Church & joining a cult comes down to acceptance or rejection of something in the ancient creeds. In fact every line is a response to some error & every line confesses something key to our understanding of the Gospel. For example one of the things being undermined was the humanity of Jesus; this is why The Apostles’ Creed so firmly roots Jesus’ birth, death & resurrection in history while still confessing him as the second person of the Trinity.
How the Creed Relates to Scripture
Some Christians object to creeds with a “no creed but the Bible” mentality as if to believe & recite a creed is somehow at odds with Biblical Christianity. In his book The King Jesus Gospel Scot McKnight says that when people object to the Creed he simply asks them what part of it is they disagree with. Personally I’d be more concerned about the biblical basis of some songs sung in Christian worship today than a creed that has served the church for almost 2000 years. The fact is the earliest form of what eventually became The Apostles’ Creed helped the journey towards the canonization the New Testament. Michael Bird in his book What Christians Ought to Believe: An Introduction to the Apostles’ Creed writes; “The point to note is that the writings that make up our Old & New Testaments shaped the developing creeds, the creeds established the orthodox faith & determined the criteria for books to be included in the biblical canon. In which case, we have to say that there is a symbolic relationship between creed & canon, as the two entities were mutually creating & mutually reinforcing.” So to adopt a slogan like “no creed but the Bible” is actually to shoot oneself on the foot. In short the Creed makes sense only because of the apostles teaching found in the New Testament.
As well as this the New Testament itself uses creedal statements. One example is at the end of 1 Timothy 3 when Paul quotes;
“He appeared in the flesh,
was vindicated by the Spirit,
was seen by angels,
was preached among nations,
was believed on in the world,
was taken into glory.”
Reciting creeds is biblical, both in the Old & New Testaments. Creeds have always played a part in clarifying faith & protecting God's people from wrong ideas, including wrong interpretations of Scripture.
How the Creed Can Help Us Know & Share the Gospel
The best way to show how the Creed helps us know & share the Gospel is simply to walk through it, which is the aim of the new sermon series I've stared at Amazing Grace. The fact that many people from the different Christian traditions in Ireland grew up reciting this Creed gives us a bridge, not to get people onto our denominational (or 'non-denominational') team, but to help them think through the truth expressed in it. So they can cross over to the point they personally believe & confess the Gospel from the heart. The Christian’s role is to help others come to real & personal faith in Christ while leaving them space to work out the finer details for themselves. The Creed clarifies without over clarifying. It affirms what is most important, what all Christians ought to believe, & leaves room for debate around other details. In this way it also serves as a meeting place towards the unity Jesus prayed for in John 17 as well as a bridge to help others understand the Gospel. As Michael Bird notes; “It doesn't say everything there is to say, but it gives the basic outlines into which other beliefs can be seamlessly added to fill out the picture.” Part of our role in evangelism can be viewed as colouring in the Gospel picture this Creed outlines so that Christian faith can come alive for others.
Affirming the Apostles' Creed by J. I. Packer
What Christians Ought to Believe by Michael Bird
John Fitzsimmons, pastor at Amazing Grace Fellowship
"And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbour as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”
But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbour to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”" - Luke 10:25-37
It's hard to find the right answers if the wrong questions are being asked. This is true in any sphere of life. We can be preoccupied with looking for answers, without realising we might in fact be asking the wrong questions. In this blog series I`m exploring how Jesus engaged people evangelistically & this famous parable is Jesus' creative way of showing an expert in Biblical law he is asking the wrong questions. Evangelizing like Jesus includes carefully & creatively correcting wrong questions in order to help others move closer to the Kingdom.So part of our role is helping people ask better questions; yet as we do this, we do it with a humble awareness that often we also need to ask better questions.
LISTEN CAREFULLY TO PEOPLE’S QUESTIONS
The first step to helping others ask better questions brings us to the idea of listening. We need to listen to the questions people are asking because behind those questions there are assumptions. Behind the lawyers first question there is an assumption about how eternal life is attained & behind his second question there is assumption about who is & is not his neighbour. What are the assumptions behind the questions people are asking? It's not enough to simply throw rehearsed answers at people who are on a completely different wavelength than us. Jesus never did that! There are answers that will satisfy us in our Christian world that will not satisfy people outside of it. People who don't yet trust the Bible have all sorts of different assumptions than people who do. People saturated in a different religious or secular system have very different ideas of God, justice, love, equality & morality. This is the reality of the world we live & witness in & we need to adapt & Jesus' example in the Gospel`s helps us adapt. And it starts with careful listening & this kind of listening takes awareness, discipline & intention.
We should also try to listen to the tone & reasons behind people’s questions. Has something significant happened that has raised a question for a particular person? Is it a question that has been a stumbling block to them coming to faith for years? Or are they simply out to test us like this lawyer was Jesus? This lawyer was trying to catch Jesus out & he was likely also seeking opportunity to show off how much he knew. He asks an identical question to the Rich Young Ruler but the difference is the Rich Young Ruler was genuine whereas this lawyer is testing Jesus. Jesus is aware of this, yet he doesn't take the lawyer any less seriously. He sees an opportunity to engage him & he makes the most of it. This is a reminder to us, that as we follow Jesus we will come across both genuine seekers & those who are simply out to test us. Yet Jesus was able to engage both in such a way that they went away with deep things to consider.
WISELY CHALLENGE FAULTY ASSUMPTIONS
In verses 25-28 we see the lawyer asking a question & we see Jesus asking him a question in reply; "What is written in the law? How do you read it?" In other words Jesus asks him what his interpretation of the law is. The lawyer then gives an answer which Jesus agrees with. Elsewhere Jesus summarises the law in exactly the same way. So Jesus tells him, "You have answered correctly; do this & you will live." Jesus affirms his answer but at the same time challenges his ability to live up to it. This guy knew the right answer but was he able to live up to the right answer? To summarise this Kenneth Bailey writes; "The lawyer asks, "What must I do in order to inherit eternal life?" Jesus replies, "You must jump over this ten foot fence!" The lawyer should be able to see that he cannot jump that high & that he has thereby asked the wrong question." You see the lawyers question was faulty. What can anyone do to inherit anything? Inheritance, by very nature, comes through birth or adoption. This was especially true in this culture. It is a gift from one family member (or a friend) to another.
Instead of getting this however the lawyer "desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, "And who is my neighbour." Again Luke is careful to note the motive behind the lawyer’s question. In his first question he asks what he can do & in his second he seeks to justify himself. He assumes his neighbour is his fellow Jew & he would even have a 'proof text' or two ready to back up his thinking (Lev 19:18). However the problem is there are other verses he seemed to leave out of his 'systematic theology'. Like Leviticus 19:34 which says; "The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, & you shall love him as yourself..." That's the problem with 'proof-texting' & relying too much on theological systems; they can blind you to other parts of the Bible & lead you to wrong assumptions. As one person puts it; "The tendency to read Scripture selectively is an old problem."
So what does Jesus do? He tells the lawyer the parable of the Good Samaritan & then uses it to turn the lawyer’s second question inside out, so he can truly begin to understand the heart of the law. He uses the shocking character of the Samaritan to get his attention as well as the characters of Priest & Levite which he would clearly see himself in. The Priest & Levite would have likewise justified themselves with parts of the law but in the parable they exemplify missing its heart because they ignore the stripped, beaten & abandoned one in the story. They respond wrongly to the one who is stripped, beaten & abandoned! This is a very humbling experience for this expert in biblical law. Jesus is trying to show him that for all his knowledge of the law he has missed its heart. If he gets it his thinking will be totally transformed & he will be closer to the kingdom of God.
CREATIVELY ASK BETTER QUESTIONS
Note that Jesus is indirect in his approach to challenging this man. Jesus crafts a parable to help the lawyer see he is asking the wrong question. The heart behind the law was not to define "who is my neighbor?" so one can draw boundaries around who one is to love. The heart behind the law was to teach God's people how to be good neighbours to all. The lawyer missed this because he was seeking to justify himself. The right question was never "who is my neighbour?" The right question was & is; "How can I be a good neighbor to whosoever?" This was the intention & heart of the law & this expert in the law misses it because he is asking the wrong questions. So at the end of this heart searching parable Jesus gives him a new question to ask; "Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbour to the man who fell among the robbers?" And of course the lawyer acknowledges; "the one who showed him mercy." Then Jesus says; "You go, & do likewise" & is content to leave the man with these things to ponder just like he was content to let the Rich Young Ruler walk away distressed. This law expert should now see he is a lawbreaker & if he does it will lead him to ask better questions. Yet Jesus feels no need to push things any further at this point. He leaves him with the sting of the law; he points him again to that ten foot fence. The focus in the lawyer’s questions has been what he can do & on justifying himself, now he should be realising that for all his knowledge of the law he had missed its heart.
Again think of how Jesus could have handled this differently if he'd only done a course on Evangelism 101. He could have directly told the lawyer he is a sinner, brought the good news that he’s on his way to the cross for him & sealed the deal with the magic prayer. But he doesn't, does he? Jesus doesn't join up the dots for him; he leaves him with stuff to think about, just like he did with the Rich Young Ruler. Jesus simply dismantles his assumptions, gives him a new question & then leaves him to figure it out.
What is Jesus at? I think Jerram Barrs in his book Learning Evangelism From Jesus gives us some help here. He writes; "Jesus does not always confront people head-on... Jesus does not come at this scholar with a full frontal attack. Also known as “direct evangelism,” this method can raise a person’s pride, create antagonism in the heart, and drive him or her further away from the truth if the ground of the person’s heart is unprepared. A straight proclamation and a challenge to faith and repentance can have the effect of raising barriers against the gospel by giving people answers to questions they are not yet ready to ask. Such directness can burn the ground, rather than helping prepare it to become ready soil for the seed of the Word. Instead, Jesus asks questions and tells stories so that he may say things that are difficult for people to hear as direct statements, and so that he can begin to move their heart toward the truth."
IS THERE ANY GOSPEL IN THE STORY?
So Jesus takes the indirect approach here & leaves him with stuff to think about & we also in our evangelism need to know when to stop & entrust people to God. But does Jesus leave any hint of the gospel in his interaction with this lawyer? Well Christian commentators & scholars generally believe he does. Many, including some Church Fathers, identify the Samaritan as a picture of Christlike compassion towards those wounded by sin. The Samaritan is willing to literally risk his life by entering a Jewish town to ensure the man is restored to health... Who does that make you think about?
Let me give you another possible watermark of the gospel in the parable, one I have already alluded to. The NIV Zondervan Study Bible notes that; "Jesus portrays the one lying on the ground as one who falls among robbers and is stripped, beaten, and abandoned. These descriptions match those applied to Jesus when he dies on the cross (22:63-65; 23:32,39; John 19:1-2,23)."
The Jewish leaders would of course by-and-large reject Christ, distance themselves from him, cross over the road if you like. Yet here in the story it's an outsider, a Samaritan of all people, who responds appropriately to the stripped, beaten & abandoned Jew. As well as challenging this lawyer is it possible Jesus is alluding to things to come & the importance of responding properly to him when that time comes? Luke uses very similar language to describe the suffering of Christ later in his Gospel! So a question surfaces; How are you going to respond to the stripped, beaten & abandoned One? This is a question which can be levelled at each of us: How are we responding to the One who was stripped beaten & abandoned for our sins? Are we crossing over the other side of the road, distancing ourselves from him & trying to justify ourselves or are we responding appropriately? Inheriting eternal life depends on our response him!
John Fitzsimmons, pastor at Amazing Grace Fellowship
What would you do if a respectable young man ran up to you, fell on his knees & genuinely asked; "Good Christian. What must I do to inherit eternal life?" How would you respond? What would you think? What would you say? Well let’s listen to how Jesus responded in an equivalent situation in Mark 10:17-27.
“As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honour your father and mother.”’ He said to him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.’ Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!’ And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, ‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ They were greatly astounded and said to one another, ‘Then who can be saved?’ Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.’”
ASK THE RIGHT QUESTION
Perhaps if Jesus was a bit more like you or me he would have got distracted with the complement of being a called a “good teacher”. We all like to think we’re good at what we do & it can be encouraging to hear someone else thinks we’re good at what we do. Yet Jesus doesn’t get distracted & by asking what he asks actually shows he is listening attentively to the young man & therefore is able to begin challenging his assumptions about goodness. Jesus asks; "why do you call me good? No one is good but God..."
Being good seemed to be a thing for this young man. In the story he highlights both that Jesus is a good teacher & that he himself is good person (v20). Yet while feeling he is a good person the young man at the same time is still genuinely unsure if he has done enough good to inherit eternal life. He asks Jesus; "What can I do?" Or as Matthew records; "What good thing can I do..." Jesus quickly discerns all this & it is his loving attention on the young man in front of him that enables him to ask the right question which leads to the right conversation.
GET TO THE HEART
Jesus has truly engaged this young man on his level & now he gets to the heart. Yet before he does Mark is careful to record that; "Jesus, looking at him, loved him." The Message paraphrases it this way; "Jesus looked him hard in the eye, and loved him." Before Jesus brought the deepest of challenges the young man knew he had been heard & that he was loved by Jesus. Let's not miss that. Jesus then gets right to his heart when he says; "You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, then follow me."
Jesus does not make it easy for the young man but he does show willingness to commit him when he invites him to follow him. Jesus uses no canned evangelism technique because he is not after a quick decision but a long term disciple. By saying what he says Jesus identifies the idol the young man is presently trusting in, an idol that has him unsure of where he stands with God. The young man is shocked/disheartened by Jesus words & walks away grieving/distressed & Jesus lets him go. Think of how Jesus could have handled this differently if he'd only done a course on Evangelism 101. He could have just directly told the young man he was a sinner etc but that he was on his way to the cross to die for him & then led him in the magic prayer. Yet he doesn't, he simply stops & let us note this is an example of the Master soul surgeon at work! He knows what he is doing.
KNOW WHEN TO STOP
Jesus doesn't join up all the dots for him; he leaves him with stuff to think about. Jesus dismantles his assumptions & gives him space to consider his words. He leaves him shocked, disheartened & grieving. The young man walks away sad, but not angry. The young man came asking; "What must I do?" Now our reading begins to focus on what only God can do. Now turning to his disciples Jesus begins to challenge their assumptions. Note here that Jesus is not only sensitive to where the young ruler is at in his thinking, he is also conscious of where his disciples are at in theirs. I love the presence of mind that Jesus displays throughout the Gospel’s.
The disciple’s assumptions would have simply reflected those of the time. Why do you think the disciples were so perplexed by Jesus' words & why did they say to one another; "Then who can be saved?" Well an assumption of the time was that riches signified favor with God. So if it was so impossibly hard for this respectable young rich man to enter the kingdom of God then what hope was there for anyone else! That's the assumption behind the disciples question & that is why the rich young ruler went away grieving. Likewise it’s important for us to be aware of the popular assumptions our times if we are to evangelize with the loving consciousness & heart penetrating wisdom of Christ. Wisdom that asks the right question, gets to the heart & knows when to stop.
In his book Learning Evangelism From Jesus Jeream Barrs writes; "We cannot be certain of course, but it is very probable that the [young man] came back to Jesus later. The early church seems to have identified Joseph of Arimathea—the rich man who provided a tomb for Jesus’ body after his crucifixion—as the young man of this encounter with Jesus. We will find out for sure one day, but it seems likely that by revealing the secrets of the young man’s heart, Jesus did begin to draw the young man to his love."
In pondering all this I’m reminded of Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 7. Paul is writing to a church & not an individual but I think his words are relevant. I'll quote them in The Message;
“I know I distressed you greatly with my letter. Although I felt awful at the time, I don’t feel at all bad now that I see how it turned out. The letter upset you, but only for a while. Now I’m glad—not that you were upset, but that you were jarred into turning things around. You let the distress bring you to God, not drive you from him. The result was all gain, no loss.
Distress that drives us to God does that. It turns us around. It gets us back in the way of salvation. We never regret that kind of pain. But those who let distress drive them away from God are full of regrets, end up on a deathbed of regrets.
And now, isn’t it wonderful all the ways in which this distress has goaded you closer to God? You’re more alive, more concerned, more sensitive, more reverent, more human, more passionate, more responsible. Looked at from any angle, you’ve come out of this with purity of heart. And that is what I was hoping for in the first place when I wrote the letter.”
I believe Christ was hoping for something similar regarding this young man.
In the forward to Randy Newman's book Questioning Evangelism Lee Stobel tells a story which helps underline the power of asking the right question, getting to heart & knowing when to stop. He writes;
"THE EMAIL WAS SNARKY, with decidedly hostile and mocking undertones. At the end, the person—someone I didn’t know—posed a pointed question: “If your God is loving, why does he allow so much pain and suffering in the world?” I wasn’t in a good mood when I read the missive. Part of me wanted to answer in a similarly negative style, but I quickly realized that wouldn’t be the right approach. So I started to write a detailed five-point answer to the pain-and-suffering question—you know, the kind of theologically sound response you learn when you study Christian apologetics. I paused. I deleted what I had written. Instead, I simply typed, “Of all the questions in the universe, why did you choose to ask that one?” I hit “send.” The answer came the next day. This second email had a totally different tone—the anger was gone, and the writer was much more sincere. He described his impressive academic achievements and how he had climbed to success in his career—only to lose his eyesight and health to diabetes. His job evaporated. His friends drifted away. Now he was living on welfare and food stamps. He was suffering from depression, loneliness, bitterness, and fear. My heart went out to him. As for him, he responded that he felt heard and valued. Suddenly, the door was open to a fruitful spiritual conversation."
This is another beautiful example of asking the right question, getting to the heart & knowing when to stop.
John Fitzsimmons, pastor at Amazing Grace Fellowship
I wonder if you've ever had a little rush of excitement when you've been going about your day & suddenly someone famous comes into your sight. It may be a sports star or well know musician. I had a little moment like that when Lee Keegan walked into Chilli Coffee Shop when I was there one day. Then I thought, it's Westport so off course I'm going to see him around. I recognised him because of his exploits for the Mayo football team. In the part of Christmas story we’re going to think about now we see excitement & joy as Elizabeth & her unborn son recognise who Jesus is.
"In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” - Luke 1:39-45
In this little account we find a senior citizen & a teenager & both of them find themselves miraculously pregnant in different ways. Old barren Elizabeth is now six months pregnant, while the young Virgin Mary has only just conceived. The angel had just told Mary about her older cousin Elizabeth, so Mary couldn't wait to go visit her - journeying almost 100 miles through dangerous wasteland to do so. When Mary arrived, Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit & spoke a beautiful blessing over Mary. As Philip Ryken puts it; "There was a spontaneous outburst of exultant joy, as the old covenant greeted the new."
For months the hidden joy in Elizabeth's life had been her own pregnancy after years of barrenness. Yet instead of being caught up in her own exciting news, she immediately rejoiced in what God had done for Mary. She didn't allow her personal joy to blind her to the bigger story or the big news of another. There is a lesson here for us, we ought not let our personal circumstances - good or bad - blind us to the lives of others or to the bigger story of God's redemptive plan.
These verses also show us the joy that comes whenever anyone recognises that Jesus is the Christ. Baby John leaped for joy in the womb & Elisabeth overflowed with joyful praise. Even in the womb Jesus ignited joy in hearts! In the next chapter the angel declares to the shepherds; "I bring you news of great joy that will be for all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a saviour, who is Christ the Lord." Jesus brought joy to everyone who recognised him as Lord, Saviour or Messiah - even before he was born! Do we recognise who Jesus is? Knowing true joy depends on it!
We're told twice in this account that the baby in Elizabeth's womb “leaped for joy”. The angel had also previously told Zechariah, her husband, that the baby John would “be filled with Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb” (Luke 1:15). Note, the unborn baby is viewed as a real person with a capacity to experience emotion & even experience God! This little account then gives great value & dignity to both the elderly & the unborn! To the most vulnerable. The wider Christmas narrative also gives great value to the outcast shepherds, the old man Simeon, the sceptical priest Zechariah, the foreign wise men, the honourable Joseph & teenage Mary (who for a time became refugees) & of course old barren Elisabeth. None of those who recognise Jesus are excluded from the joyful celebrations & all are given a significant part in the story! Yet at the same time none, not even Mary, are allowed to share centre stage with Jesus. The consistent focus through Luke’s telling of the Christmas story is on recognising who baby Jesus is.
Elizabeth felt honoured that Mary "the mother of my Lord", as she put it, would visit her. She recognised who Jesus was & she was also the first person to confess him as her Lord! John in the womb was the first to recognise Jesus, Elisabeth is the first to confess him as her Lord. She confessed the unborn child in Mary's womb as her Lord & selflessly & humbly celebrated the good thing God had done in Mary, even though it overshadowed what God had done for her. What an example & challenge this elderly woman is to us. This is how everyone should respond to Jesus. Confessing him as our Lord is the only appropriate response when we recognise who he is.
You & I have even more reason to believe in Jesus than Elizabeth did at this time. She & John rejoiced over his conception, but we can also rejoice because of what his perfect life, death & resurrection accomplished for us & the world! We can also rejoice because he sent his Holy Spirit to us & because has promised to come again in power as judge & saviour of the world! Yes! We have even more reason for joy when we recognise who he is! So this Christmas time know deeply that there is joy to be found in recognising Jesus for who he is! Eternal joy. That is, joy which is both everlasting & heavenly in quality!
Being sent is one of the big themes in John’s Gospel. Jesus is identified as being sent 42 times! The word sent appears 53 times in all. I believe if you set time aside to meditate on each of these verses the reality of what it means to be sent will seep into your being. Jesus prayed in John 17:18; “As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” Our sent-ness is meant to mirror his sent-ness! Think about this as you look up each of these verses in your own time.
Traditionally ‘Missionaries’ & ‘Ministers’ have often carried in their hearts a strong sense of being called & sent. I want us to see that every believer needs to carry in their hearts an equally strong sense of being called & sent - we are all missionaries & ministers of a kind! God has us where he has us for his apostolic purpose. If we want to be like Jesus, if we are truly his disciples then an important part of our lives is being sent as he was sent! We need to see that our Lord came from heaven to earth as a missionary & that means if we follow him there is an apostolic purpose behind every aspect of our lives – our parenting, our work, our friendships, our grocery-shopping, our hobbies & interests & our corporate worship times. Everyday we follow Jesus the Sent One & as he said to his original 12 disciples; “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work.” So this sent-ness brings both intention & urgency to all we do.
Following Jesus is not all about mission but mission is a vital part of following him. Jesus also wants to deal with things in our hearts; he wants us to become more like him in everyway & grow in relationship with him. Yet note how Jesus did this with his disciples in the Gospel’s. He called the disciples to follow him as he went about his mission. Every day they followed a Jesus who was on a mission - we follow the same Jesus today. As they followed him they heard him preaching, seen him working & got to know him. He also included them in various ways as well as taking them aside to teach them further & deal with silly disputes among them.
From the day he called the 12 the action never stopped – all the teaching, following, challenging, correcting & growing was done in the context of being on a mission with Jesus. As the Gospel’s close & the book of Acts begins this only continues as his disciples are given the Great Commission & clothed with power from on high to be his witnesses. As Jesus ascends & the Spirit descends the mission continues & broadens & small churches are planted & established all over the known world. Then letters are written to those small churches & part of the purpose of those letters is to teach Christians in different settings how to live as sent ones in their everyday lives. Take 1 Peter for example where Christians are called to "live such good lives" as citizens, employees, families & churches, highlighting that mission is not only for the ‘professionals’ but for every believer. All of us are called to live everyday with the mission of Jesus burning in our hearts because like those first 12 disciples every day we follow a Jesus who in on a mission.
Most of us find it easier to think about being a missionary across the ocean than in our own town or area. However how would our thinking change if we imagine ourselves together in a different setting - as part of a mission team sent to establish a church in a small town in Italy say? If God called us to be long term missionaries in such a context we would learn the language, culture & context. We would also see employment & voluntary opportunities as a way to engage with local people & support the mission. (Remember, not every missionary is a preacher, pastor or evangelist; many are doctors, nurses, teachers, administrators, builders & people with various trades who simply have a heart to reach a people group with the gospel. In fact in closed countries it is almost essential to have another reason for being there apart from mission).
The truth is we have all been called to establish a church in a small town in the west of Ireland. Most of us already have a head start in terms of language, culture, employment, family, friendship & community connections etc. What we need to see is that our mission is just as real & important as if we were sent to Italy together. Perhaps we just need to change how we view ourselves & the opportunities our work & other connections already present. Think about it this way: How would viewing yourself as part of a church planting team change how you view everyday life, work & relationships?
The responsibility of mission & ministry is given to all believers & most of that responsibility is worked out not in our times together but in our everyday lives. To follow Jesus is to follow the missionary God whether that means in our home town or to the Amazon Jungle. Jesus may not be physically with us like he was with the 12 but he has sent his missionary Spirit to empower us to play our part in his mission today. For this reason no matter what our daily routine is like we should be filled with a sense of sent-ness – a sense of apostolic calling. This call to Christ's mission is less about organising more things for us to do & more about helping us see what we already do through the lens of the missionary heart of God. In light of this one way we should view our New Testaments is as a mission handbook for everyday life – for it clearly tells us how to live our whole lives for the sake of Christ's mission.
Below is a link to a helpful resource to explore this further in your own time
Small Town Mission by Aaron Morrow
John Fitzsimmons, pastor at Amazing Grace Fellowship
As we stand in view of the empty bloodstained cross the risen Saviour who hung on it is now alive. This is the reason we can linger at the cross & feel no need to rush too hastily to the next part of the story. True Sunday is coming like it does every week, but the Resurrection happened almost 2000 Easter Sunday's ago. The risen Christ is with us today by his Spirit as we consider afresh what he went through to save us. He is no longer on the cross, no longer in the tomb, we are not waiting for him to be raised tomorrow. No he is now alive & present with us as we contemplate the wonder of his cross. We are not worshipping a historical martyr, we are worshipping a present, risen & very much alive Saviour. Indeed for this very reason we can pause today & ask him to help us see the misery & majesty of his crucifixion. So that we can declare all the more deeply & passionately, "Worthy is the Lamb who was slain", as we grow in appreciating the depth he went to so he could shout PAID IN FULL on our behalf. A shout which continues to reverberate in every liberated & truly redeemed heart to this day! A shout which is now our shout of assurance, freedom & victory. A shout which can be yours today if you only believe Jesus + nothing = atonement!
John Fitzsimmons, pastor at Amazing Grace Fellowship.
Many of us have grown up having been regaled with wonderful stories of St. Patrick. How he drove the snakes out of Ireland (not in a car!), how he introduced alcohol to Ireland (hence the overwhelming global intent on over consumption of alcohol on the 17th March), and the list can go on. However, when the actual facts are collated, we start to see this amazing picture of a quite remarkable life. A life of extreme trials, slavery, loneliness, and persecution starts to emerge as his writings are studied (see: www.confessio.ie). In response to these hardships, what we see developing is a teenager becoming a man, with an utter reliance upon God; a relationship with the trinity, God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.
In an attempt to ‘move beyond the blarney’ we can look at some of the facts about the man Patrick, and what made him so remarkable.
As a troubled teenage boy Patrick was taken into slavery and brought to Ireland, left out in the Wild West (Mayo) tending sheep. Patrick came from a God fearing family, his father was a deacon, and his grandfather a priest. It was this childhood faith that was developed exponentially in his long days and nights by himself. Although he had turned away from God in his youth, deep down inside he must have known God was always with him.
In his writings Patrick himself reflects on how his prayer life grew at this time when he writes;
"After I arrived in Ireland, I tended sheep every day, and I prayed frequently during the day. More and more the love of God increased, and my sense of awe before God. Faith grew, and my spirit was moved, so that in one day I would pray up to one hundred times, and at night perhaps the same. I even remained in the woods and on the mountain, and I would rise to pray before dawn in snow and ice and rain. I never felt the worse for it, and I never felt lazy – as I realise now, the spirit was burning in me at that time."
Patrick knew, even though he had rebelled against the church and God, that God still loved him no matter what. Furthermore, that in his time of distress, he could call on the the Lord, and He would be there providing comfort to Patrick. Maybe this is a familiar story for most of us, we have turned away from God and things may not seem as hopeful as we would desire them to be. The good news is, that God is always there for you, desiring relationship with you. It is never to late or too soon to call out to God, to enter into a new personal relationship with Him in a fresh way, Patrick found this out and did so, as we can see from his reflection.
Sometime after this Patrick had a vision from God, this informed him that ‘his ship was ready’ and so Patrick escaped slavery and went back to Britain. Happy days one might say, thank God that is over another might say, but what did God say? Let's see...
"A few years later I was again with my parents in Britain. They welcomed me as a son, and they pleaded with me that, after all the many tribulations I had undergone, I should never leave them again. It was while I was there that I saw, in a vision in the night, a man[Nota] whose name was Victoricus coming as it were from Ireland with so many letters they could not be counted. He gave me one of these, and I read the beginning of the letter, the voice of the Irish people. While I was reading out the beginning of the letter, I thought I heard at that moment the voice of those who were beside the wood of Voclut, near the western sea. They called out as it were with one voice: “We beg you, holy boy, to come and walk again among us.” This touched my heart deeply, and I could not read any further; I woke up then. Thanks be to God, after many years the Lord granted them what they were calling for."
After a series of visions and confirmations of his calling back to the land of his slavery. God wanted Patrick back in Ireland to spread he good news of the gospel to Irish men and women. Let us consider for a moment Ireland in the 5th century; Ireland had no government, it was made up of tribes/clans; it was a barbaric place; it was a polytheistic culture, pagan worship was widely practiced; and of course slavery was normal.
Now, Patrick knew this, but his time spent in slavery was a time of equipping. He learned about the culture, the language, and how the Irish worshipped. It had become clear that his previous slavery was a time of preparation for a greater purpose that God had for Patrick, and ultimately the people of Ireland. There are times in our own lives that we have gone through situations that hold nothing but negative memories. But God’s ways aren't our ways, and his thoughts aren't our thoughts, God can take these seemingly negative circumstances and redeem them for His own good purposes. Which in Patrick's case, was to bring the fullness of the gospel message to the Irish in difficult times.
In conclusion, Patrick had a tough life from boy to man, but as we can read from his confession, his relationship, trust and obedience grew in God. Patrick became sensitive to God’s leading and direction through the Holy Spirit and in obedience stepped out in faith to bring a hope filled message to the Irish. This gospel message of Jesus dying for the forgiveness of our sins, rising again on the third day, and ascending into heaven so we may receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, has been at the core of this great nation for generations.
It is my prayer that many more would hear the call from God to enter into personal relationship with him and beyond that share this good news with others across this nation.
By Paul Maloney. Paul is currently doing his degree in Applied Theology at Irish Bible Institute as well as being part of the fellowship at Amazing Grace.
Reading: Matthew 4:1-11 (cf. Luke 4)
God’s intent for us is not to be self-centered, self-sufficient or self-reliant but to depend on him throughout life. Life is about developing our relationship with him and not about fame, power, fortune or anything else that takes our focus away from God. Remember all Satan’s temptations are to take you away from God. He does so because he hates God and his kingdom. The story of the temptations of Jesus begins immediately after his baptism and at the start of his ministry- at a very important time in his life. So little said after Christ’s birth up to this point; only a handful of verses. There were actually four temptations Jesus had to face but first let's consider a few things:
1. Recognise that you have an enemy
Satan (whose name means adversary) is God’s enemy; is the enemy of Jesus; and his purpose is to thwart or destroy God plans, purposes and creation (incl. all mankind). As Christians, belonging to the kingdom of God, Satan especially hates you for God’s sake. He will use any and all means in an attempt to destroy your life: "The thief comes only to kill, steal and destroy" (John 10 v10). "He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of all lies" (John 8 v 44.) Read also Ephesians 6 v10 - 18 – we have weapons for our spiritual warfare with Satan, the world and the flesh nature.
2. Christ’s temptations are a blueprint for all Christians in their victory over Satan
Satan wants to trip you up from the word ‘go’; he is pre-emptive in his attack. Here are some examples in the Bible are:
Satan also wants to trip you up after great spiritual blessing. In this case after his Father’s affirmation of him at his baptism. Note how soon after Satan attacks that affirmation from God & how. He's says to Jesus; “if you are the Son of God.” Satan will attack you before or immediately after great blessings from God in your life as this story illustrates clearly. Another example of this in found in the story of Elijah. Elijah’s great spiritual victory on Mt Carmel was followed swiftly by Jezebel’s fiery darts out the blue which effected Elijah.
Satan will also attack you where & when you are most vulnerable (v2). In this case Jesus was weak, hungry and in need of sustenance. Satan knows your weaknesses and will exploit them so don’t give him a foothold in your life. He will attack you when you least expect it, at an inconvenient time or when you are either physically, mentally, emotionally or spiritually at your weakest. The temptations that Satan offered to Jesus are the same strategies he uses the world over today and to devastating effect. So let’s learn from them to avoid the enemy’s pitfalls.
The necessity of temptation/suffering
The Bible links temptation with suffering as these following verses from Hebrews 2:17-18 demonstrate; "Therefore, in all things He (Jesus) had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For in that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted"
In verse one of Matthews account of Jesus' temptations it says he was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted (by Satan to sin) against the Father. In our eyes, that seems a strange thing for the Spirit of God to do but the Father had a purpose in mind.
Note what Hebrews 5:7-9 says about the purpose of temptation/sufferings of Christ – he learnt obedience – ‘who, in the days of His flesh, when He had offered up prayers and supplications, with vehement cries and tears to Him who was able to save Him from death, and was heard because of His godly fear, though He was a Son, yet He learned obedience by the things which He suffered. And having been perfected, He became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him’. The perfection of Jesus’ character, learning obedience. It’s easy to obey a command of God that poses no difficulty to us, but how easy is it to obey a command we are tempted to break? That’s when obedience is truly tested and learnt. If it was necessary for Jesus to be temptedin this way suely it is necessary for his followers also so we become like him in obedience.
Dependence and trust upon God
Another purpose for temptation/suffering is for us to learn how to depend on the goodness/faithfulness of God. we will see this in the life of Jesus as he prevailed over his trials.
Reflecting the nature & glory of God
Furthermore, temptations/sufferings give us the opportunity to somehow reflect the nature of God. Scriptures that would indicate this are 1 Peter 2: 18 – 24 and 1 Peter 4: 12 -16, James 1, Matthew 5: 43 - 48.
Perfection and molding of character
A further purpose for temptations/suffering is to perfect/mould our character (James 1 and Romans 5: 3 – 5) – ‘perseverance, patience, character and hope.’ Think of Abraham, Joseph, Moses, David, Job, the apostles and Paul. Didn't their trials polish the rough edges of their characters & help accomplish God's purpose for & through them?
It's also important to note that there is a reward for those who resist temptation (Matthew 5: 11 – 12, Job 42, Genesis 50: 19 - 21). Resisting it & remaining faithful to God is worth it.
By Mark Horgan. Mark works for the Mayo County Council in their Westport office & is also an Elder in Amazing Grace.
The spiritual gifts mentioned in 1 Corinthains 12:1-11 are not the only gifts mentioned in the New Testament but they have been the most controversial. Meaning no one debates whether the gift of service or teaching (Rom 12:6-8) is for today but Christians do disagree over whether some or all of these nine gifts are for today or not. We also need to understand that gifts like service & teaching are also spiritual gifts when they are empowered by the Holy Spirit. So it’s not so much that these gifts are more spiritual but that these particular ones in 1 Corinthians are all supernatural in nature. Five of them are revelatory (word of wisdom & knowledge, prophecy, distinguishing between spirits & interpretation of tongues) three of them are miraculous (faith, gifts of healings & working of miracles) & the other (tongues) is in a box of its own because of its uniqueness but is no less supernatural.
When it comes to the Holy Spirit, among Bible believing Christians there is general agreement on most aspects of his person & work. For example I have a little 18 page overview of the person & work of the Holy Spirit written by Kevin DeYoung. In it there are three pages covering spiritual gifts, one of those pages covers what Christians disagree on regarding the spiritual gifts of 1 Corinthians. So there are 17 out of 18 pages of general agreement & one page where we agree to differ. That is significant & important to emphasise. However with that said because of the nature of these gifts our disagreement also makes a significant difference to our expectation for Church & Christian living. As Sam Storms writes;
“Whether spiritual gifts are for today is not some secondary, peripheral issue that exists only for theologians to debate. It directly touches the very mission of the Church & how she lives out her calling. How we speak to the world, the way we encounter the enemy, the expectations with which we minister to the broken & wounded & despairing & bound up in how we answer the following questions: Shall we or shall we not be the Church of the Bible? Shall we or shall we not build the Church with the tools God has provided?”
Personally I can find nothing in Scripture to suggest these spiritual gifts were only for the time of the apostles or until the completion of Scripture. But I can find plenty to encourage us to desire these supernatural gifts. The odd person will refer to 1 Corinthians 13:8-12 to argue these gifts were temporary – only needed until the completion of Scripture. However the Corinthians would have had no such notion in their minds when they heard these words. They would have assumed, like most do today, that Paul was talking about the perfection of the coming kingdom. Even well known cessationists like John MacArthur acknowledge this. So it could be argued these verses in 1 Corinthians 13, along with others, only serve to enforce these gifts were expected to be in operation until the return of Christ & also help us to understand something of their nature & purpose.
In the opening verses of 1 Corinthians Paul writes in 1:6-7; “even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you—so that you are not lacking in any gift (charisma), as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” So right at the beginning of this letter spiritual gifts are spoken of in terms of something we need until the coming of Jesus. So in chapter 13 the Corinthians would have known Paul to be talking about the coming of the Lord – the time of completeness when spiritual gifts will no longer be needed for we will see face to face. It is also significant that Paul wrote to this same church “not to go beyond what is written” yet also in the very same letter commanded them to “Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy.” Paul’s warning in chapter 4:6 is clearly not meant to quench belief in revelatory or miraculous spiritual gifts. Ironically one has to go beyond what is written to argue revelatory & miraculous gifts are not for today.
It is because we believe in the final authority of Scripture that we are bound to believing the revelatory & miraculous gifts of the Spirit are for the church today – for the common good, for upbuilding, encouragement & consolation (1 Cor. 12:7; 14:3). These gifts are given to complement the final authority of Scripture not to compete with or add to it & therefore are to be regulated by it like all aspects of the Christian life. Think about it, it is only because we have the completed canon that we know anything about them, that we are commanded to earnestly desire them & that we are given careful instruction regarding how to regulate them. To reject them is to be in disagreement with the final authority of Scripture, yet ironically some do just that in the name of loyalty to Scripture – resigning them to the beginning of church history since the canon has now been completed. But if we can do so with this New Testament teaching what else can we do it with?
The reality is the exercise of spiritual gifts like prophecy is much safer now we do have the completed canon than it was beforehand, because we now have a final authority to test such things by. The Bible itself commands us; “Pursue love & eagerly desire spiritual gifts...” (1 Cor. 14:1). The Bible itself commands us; “Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thess 5:19-22). That is what the Bible as our final authority teaches regarding such gifts.
By John Fitzsimmons. Pastor at Amazing Grace Fellowship.