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.