November 2020

Locust crunching desert dweller – John the Baptist

One man, out of all humanity, only one man was chosen for the role of introducing God’s Saviour to the world. There was no royal decree, no political party announcement, no synagogue introduction classes, and no social media campaign. We know him simply as John the Baptist, who was not selected because of his stylish presentation, not for his public appeal, nor for his popularity.

John was no fashion statement, as he was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey (Mark 1:6). But John understood perfectly that he was paving the way for …the Christ, who is God over all… (Romans 9:5). There is much to learn from John’s method of introduction, as it laid the foundation for the very message Christ would proclaim.

Mark 1:4-7 gives the details, John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins… 7 And he preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. In Matthew 3:11, John adds, I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I… He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

Although John the Baptist must have appeared as a wild creature crawling from the desert with no social acumen, he skilfully introduced God’s Messiah. He didn’t rent a synagogue or coliseum to launch his campaign. No, he simply began proclaiming in the wilderness. He began with a terrible location in the desert. He had no marketing, no signage, no social media, no visual aids, and no sound system. But key to John’s method was the following: he publicly called for repentance from sin, he pronounced the divine supremacy of Jesus, and he explained the unique ministry of the Christ to input a person with either the Holy Spirit or eternal judgement.

You see, John was God’s man on God’s mission, and God supplied the hearers who were ready to respond. Everything else was secondary. This rugged specimen of humanity had willingness! And God’s purpose was fulfilled through willing John. Today, we often get so caught up with trying to make our ministry prosperous, that we miss Christ’s message all together. Well, John lacked it all. He came simply with a life set apart for God, a willing desire to do whatever was asked of him, and the simple courage to speak up. A right attitude flowing from a sanctified life were John’s only qualifications.

John also had the privilege of baptizing Jesus, and, immediately Jesus went up from the water, behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; 17 and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:16-17). God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were all present and active on that occasion. Imagine John’s reaction when the Father voiced His approval of His only begotten Son.

Jesus declared that among those born of women none is greater than John. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he (Luke 7:28). May we live sanctified lives, willing and ready to be used by God for proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ as Lord, nothing more, and nothing less.


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Significantly Faithful – Stephen

Often, it’s either our best or worst qualities which define us and get remembered. We humans are creatures of extremes, and its these extremes in character that make us aware of our need for Jesus Christ. Similarly, our extremes are often the very things God calls us to refine (sanctify) and use for His glory.

Significantly Faithful - StephenLittle is known of Stephen in Scripture except that which is of greatest value. We are robbed of all but the absolute best information of this man’s life as God stamped Stephen’s character into biblical history. Acts 6:5 records that the Christian community considered Stephen to be a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit. The world could not help but notice Stephen’s love for the Lord Jesus. It was these obvious character traits which qualified Stephen to serve with what we assume to be the first group of deacons.

The Lord saw fit to enable him to be full of grace and power, doing great wonders and signs among the people (Acts 6:8). By worldly standards, Stephen was a contradiction. While used powerfully by the Lord, he was selected for serving the widows and the daily distribution of food to the needy (Acts 6:1). Take note, spiritual influence for God comes wrapped in humility and a servant heart.

As is always the case, it did not take the enemy long to recognise the Lord’s character in Stephen, and the attack began. Acts 6:9-15 details the public confrontation by evil religious fanatics’ intent on silencing Stephen. They disputed publicly with him, but they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking. Failing this, they conspired false accusations, supported by false witnesses, then they dragged Stephen into a cooked-up court. While they vented their hatred at him in court, all who sat in the council saw that his (Stephen’s) face was like the face of an angel (Acts 6:15). Praise God, Stephen did not respond in the expected way, despite the seriousness of the situation.

Acts 7:2-53 recounts Stephen’s defence speech, which turned out to be no defence at all. Instead, this courageous Christian retold Israel’s rebellious history. It was direct, and it was cutting as he confronted his opponents. You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you (Acts 7:51). Grinding their teeth in rage, they noticed as Stephen full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:55-56).

Well, that was just too much for this idolatrous bunch. Blocking their ears, they cast him out of the city and stoned him (Acts 7:58). Interestingly, unsaved Saul, later to become the apostle Paul, was present and approving of this bogus execution (Acts 7:58; 8:1). As they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep (Acts 7:59-60). Faithfully gracious in the most extreme of sacrifices for Jesus, yet seeking forgiveness for his executioners, Stephen was ushered into the presence of His waiting Lord and Saviour.

By God’s grace, may our Saviour mould us to follow Stephen’s example of faithfulness and graciousness. May we set our minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth (Colossians 3:2), as we speak well of our Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ.


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The final frontier of self – Part 4

Possibly the most seductive weapons against Christians are their own desires for self and self-preservation. Desires to satisfy self is one thing, but when selfishness is protected and preserved, it becomes a weapon that delivers staggering damage to Christian values and priorities. Once a sense of entitlement is given to self-desires, the sinful flesh wars to retain that position of authority. Surrendering the inner ruling throne of self to Jesus Christ as Lord is often fought against vigorously. Consequently, the battle rages between submissive obedience to Christ as Lord, or, to only put on the appearance of submissive obedience.

The final frontier of self – Part 4Into this bloodthirsty battle for the heart steps the Bible’s example of the scribes and Pharisees. Woe 5 – Mat 23:25 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.”
The public appearance of these religious leaders looked nice and righteous, but inside, they were evil. They looked religious and appeared to fear God because of their attention to detail. Yet, they were hypocrites because inside they were loaded with many sins of the heart that people could not see, but God saw it perfectly (1 Samuel 16:7).

In Matthew 23:25, Jesus identifies two prevailing sins. The first is obvious, their hypocrisy. Their double standards. Their untrustworthy two-faced character meant their outward living was just a mask covering their sinful hearts. Secondly, inside they were greedy and self-indulgent. Greed and self-indulgence are two expressions of the one sin – selfishness. These two sinful qualities work together to express the motives and desires of the heart that loves self-first.

Greed always looks for ways to get more for self. It makes no difference if it is looking for more attention from others, more freedoms, more authority, more possessions, or more money. Greed always demands more, often wanting what belongs to others, those things which it is not entitled to. Greed then creates ways of justifying and getting those things. Then, self-indulgence spends the things it accumulates on self. A self-indulgent heart has all its priorities upside down; it is always making excuses for neglecting others for the sake of self. Self comes first, and there is no room for anyone else, including God.

Jesus response is, “first clean the inside… that the outside also may be clean” (Matthew 23:26). Jesus’ point is this, right behaviour flows from a right heart. And only Jesus Christ can transform a sin-focused, self-preserving heart into one that desires to be ruled by Christ through righteous attitudes and behaviour. Only then, can the healthy heart produce healthy fruit.

Only Jesus Christ is able to save us from the many sins of self. Jesus saves us not because of works done by us in righteousness (self), but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5). Trusting that Jesus was loaded with our sin, and that He was judged and died in our place on the cross because of our sin, launches spiritual rebirth into a Christ-dominated life. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come (2 Corinthians 5:17). This spiritual transformation enabled Paul to say, the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world (Galatians 6:14), to me to live is Christ… (Philippians 1:21), and not self.

Only the Lord Jesus Christ can conquer and dethrone self with its recurring desire to rule your heart and behaviour. May we today, by faith, live Christ-dominated lives.


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Surviving Self – Part 3

Selfishness has the ability to change masks quickly and without warning. But the one thing that remains common to all masks is the self-indulgent desires motivating the activity. When self-preservation and self-vindication are high priorities, we know there’s trouble brewing.

Surviving Self - Part 3Woe 3 – Mat 23:16 “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, if anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.” The scribes and Pharisees were a creative bunch, using words to twist truth and confuse people into believing their lies. They justified lying in their own minds to remove accountability to others. They achieved this through a complex system of oaths and promises to one another which meant nothing.

It worked something like this. A person could lie as much as they wanted, just as long as they swore “by the temple” that they were telling the truth. A person was only held responsible to honour their oath if they swore “by the gold of the temple.” Listen to Jesus’ fierce response in Matthew 23:17, “you blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred?” Even by earthly standards, the temple is far greater in significance than the gold within it. This double standard method of speaking meant that you could not trust anything spoken by the scribes and Pharisees.

Similarly, they were masters at turning God’s priorities upside down to suit their own ends. They would change God’s values to become back to front, exalting the minor things while devaluing the important things.

Woe 4 – Mat 23:23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.”
Mint, dill, and cumin were common garden herbs used as kitchen spices and were not considered to be farm produce. That’s important, because under the Old Testament law all farm produce was to have a tithe (10 percent) paid to the treasury of Israel (Leviticus 27:30). But the scribes and Pharisees stretched the tithe tax on farm produce to include the household garden herbs such as mint, dill, and cumin. So, when picking herbs from the garden, people were expected to count out the leaves and seeds. One in every ten had to be put aside for God. This was painfully slow and required a great deal of precision and patience, particularly when counting seeds.

These corrupt leaders placed great emphasis on the details of insignificant tasks, while they “neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23). People soon got the idea that according to their leaders, God was not interested in the big things such as moral issues and personal righteousness.  But He was interested in the tiny things which were of no real value.

Such devious forms of self-righteousness can become powerfully manipulative, particularly in our relationships, where self may seek to justify all kinds of distorted Christian behaviour. As with Lucifer, and as was true of the scribes and Pharisees, self requires monitoring for infection of heart desires. Paul presents a really good thermometer for our relationships, “let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding” (Romans 14:19). Christ is active when mutual upbuilding is purposed into relationships and activities. This, instead of self, is what makes for peace in our relationships.

To be continued…

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