March 2024

A Friday like no other

For many Jerusalem citizens, it was just another Passover Friday, crowded streets, the hustle and bustle of the temple, possibly another public debacle between the Pharisees and Jesus, and more Roman crucifixions. But for the Jewish rulers, this Passover was the culmination of intense hatred, many failed traps for Jesus, much planning, and 30 pieces of silver invested in Judas.

Jesus, now in Roman custody and being dragged through their judicial system, stands waiting for a verdict. As for the Jewish conspirators, they had worked the early morning crowd into a frenzy at the sixth and final bogus trial. These Jewish rulers managed to apply sufficient leverage upon Pilate to secure the death penalty for innocent Jesus. Weak Pilot washes his hands as if that could relinquish his guilt, releases Barabbas, has Jesus flogged, then hands Him over to be crucified.

Hours later, following three hours of late morning darkness, and having accomplished all that His Father willed, crucified Jesus said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit (John 19:30).

Now, two men step into the scene that had been in the peripheral up to this point. After these things Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus, and Pilate gave him permission. So he came and took away his body. Nicodemus also, who earlier had come to Jesus by night (John 3), came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds in weight. So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews. Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid. So because of the Jewish day of Preparation, since the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus there (John 19:38-42).

Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, up to this point, had been influenced by fear of Jesus’ enemies. Especially Nicodemus, as he was a high ranking Jew, a member of the Sanhedrin, and Israel’s lead teacher. He potentially had a great deal to lose if he was found to be a sympathiser of Jesus.

But now, having witnessed the barbaric actions of both the Jewish rulers and Roman governance against the Son of God, these two men’s faith fuels newfound courage. Having been confronted by the day’s extraordinary events, they conclude that Jesus was indeed “the Christ.” Their hearts must have been pounding from a strange mixture of fear, love, grief, and belief, to inspire their boldness to risk an audience with Pilate and being found out by their treacherous fellow Jews.

This was no simple task. Unaided, the two of them had to lift the heavy cross with Jesus’ butchered body still nailed to it, lay it on the ground, and extract the large metal nails from Jesus’ hands and feet. We can only imagine the difficulty of this labour of love, considering that possibly there would have been Roman soldiers posted on watch over the three crosses. If so, no doubt Joseph and Nicodemus would have been abused for their service to their Lord.

Compassionate courage compelled these two men to step outside of their comfort for Jesus. Instead of remaining in the background as earlier, they now step up to do the lonely job, to bury their Lord. Imagine their elation when two mornings later they learn that Jesus is alive! May these qualities be true of each of us.

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The Extraordinary Nature of Unity

Whenever I read Romans chapter 16, I can’t help but wonder what it must have been like for Tertius, who served as Paul’s secretary by writing as Paul dictated. These closing verses reveal a close nit group of men who worked well together with the apostle Paul. Timothy, Lucius, Jason, Sosipater, Tertius, Gaius, Erastus, and Quartus, must have been a formidable team living and serving Christ within the larger church body in Corinth at the time (Romans 16:21-23).

As with all of us, circumstances, relationships, and places we call home, would change over time for these men. However, for this season in their lives, they had the privilege of working together with the apostle Paul for the cause of the gospel. In particular, I’m thinking of the human effort required to enable Paul to write this lengthy, and extremely detailed letter to the church in Rome. This was not merely a courteous letter between friends, but the most precise and thorough explanation of gospel doctrines found in the New Testament.

Obviously, due to the length of this letter to the Romans, it would have required multiple sittings. There would have been times of discussion and prayer, questions would have been directed at Paul from at least Tertius, if not other onlookers. From at least these eight men, there would have been the need for clarification, as Paul revealed the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith (Romans 16:25-26).

A part of me flickers with envy, as I consider the privilege that group had. Yet, today, serving Christ in unity is no less important, or less of a privilege. As we live in an age of individualism, it’s easy for a self-centred attitude to be counterproductive in the body of Christ. Plus, individualism can easily become weaponised to divide and permanently damage the ministry and testimony of Christ. Which Paul points out in Galatians 5:15, if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another. Instead, through love serve one another (Gal 5:13), humbly considering others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others (Philippians 2:2-4). Which is the example Christ left us (Php 2:5-8).

Can you imagine what Romans would have read like, or if it would have even got written, if Paul and these eight men were engaged in a cold war with each other? Which is why Paul prayed for the believers in Rome with such pointed passion. May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God (Romans 15:5-7).

God’s glory is the primary reason for sacrificing pride for the purpose of maintaining sweet relationships in the body of Christ. All other legitimate benefits flowing from unity are secondary to His glory.

Likewise, the apostle Peter wrote of this powerful component in church life. Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind (1 Peter 3:8). May we today, give thanks for the many blessings that flow from united brothers and sisters in Christ, and may we strive to be among them.

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Lessons from a withered hand

Matthew chapter 12 records a spicey little encounter between Jesus, a man with a withered hand, and the Pharisees (Matthew 12:9-14). This snappy little event unfolded inside a local synagogue, enabled by an innocent bystander who had a withered hand. Deceitfully ceasing the opportunity, the Pharisees tried yet again to trap Jesus in His words. Hoping to identify some inconsistency or contradiction with their laws, they ask Jesus, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” (Mat 12:10). As the Pharisees considered healing to be “work,” they hoped to accuse Jesus of breaking their sabbath rules of rest.

Jesus, knowing the Pharisees intent, and realising the opportunity to teach onlookers, plus to do a life changing miracle for the withered handed man, goes along with it. Typical of Jesus when confronted by the Pharisees, he answers them with another question. He said to them, “Which one of you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out? (Matthew 12:11). Realising the many Sabbath rules created by the Pharisees which surpassed the Old Testament law, Jesus personalises the issue, aiming for their hearts.

They should have realised that Jesus wasn’t about to approve of people disobeying God’s law, nor was He going to give authority to religious, manmade rules. Jesus knew, as did the Pharisees, Deuteronomy 22:4 (NIV), If you see your fellow Israelite’s donkey or ox fallen on the road, do not ignore it. Help the owner get it to its feet. However, according to the Pharisees rules, this would be considered work, and not to be done on the sabbath. The Pharisees had elevated their rules to such a heightened authority, that rules came before the wellbeing of animals and people. There was no way that Jesus was going to approve of such a system.

Masterfully, Jesus answers His question for the antagonistic Pharisees. Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:12). Everyone present would have understood Jesus correct application of God’s law while also recognising the foolishness of manmade religious rules that leave no room for compassion. People are of infinitely greater worth! Here, Jesus qualifies healing as “good,” and yes, it can be done on the sabbath. So, in front of everyone, Jesus instructs the man to “Stretch out your hand.” And the man stretched it out, and it was restored, healthy like the other (Matthew 12:13).

Obvious to everyone, would have been that this was an effortless miracle performed by Jesus. No physical work of any kind was necessary, yet in that moment of time, Jesus did heal the withered hand. Once again, the self-righteous Pharisees were ensnared by their own trap. But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him (Matthew 12:14). Rather than accept the lesson from Jesus with humility, these religious leaders dived deeper into their hypocrisy. Blinded by their evil motives and intensions, they were happy to devise wicked plans (Proverbs 6:18) in violation of God’s law by planning to kill Jesus.

While it’s easy to see the Pharisees faults, we like they, find it easy to confuse our priorities and values in our Christian walk. The Pharisees would have been better to pray the prayer of David in Psalm 19:13, Keep your servant also from wilful sins; may they not rule over me. May this be our prayer today. May love for Christ and others motivate us to never permit sin the authority it seeks.

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The Joy of Grace

In the Christian life, there are few joys that compare with walking through life with another believer/s in the attitude and determination of God’s grace. Jesus called this discipleship, and it can apply to one on one, or one to many relationships. It happens when the gracious authority of Jesus Christ is at the controlling center of the relationship.

While it is God’s grace that freely offers salvation, it is equally God’s grace which secures and assures of eternal life. However, it’s also the Lord’s grace which transforms our earthly relationships. Paul points to the church as being the place where His glorious grace… has blessed us in the Beloved (Ephesians 1:6). The assembly of God’s people is the body of Christ, where the most beloved of all God’s creation, get to experience and manifest His glorious grace. And it is glorious because it places the very heart of God on display through the lives of transformed people.

It shouldn’t surprise us then, when instructed to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (2 Peter 3:18). Grace is not an end in itself. Grace is the means through which greater things are accomplished. This is true in all aspects of the gospel, from being chosen before the foundation of the world, to welcoming and accepting one another in the family of God. The apostle Peter is right, there should be ongoing development of our grace to others which is in proportion to our growing knowledge of Jesus Christ. Just as our knowledge of Christ should not be allowed to stagnate, neither should His grace working through us become stagnant.

You see, grace overcomes personal prejudice, it fails to see offensive diversity as barriers, and it  looks to the soul of the recipient as being in need of the loving truth of Jesus Christ. Often, it’s the gracious manner of a believer that opens the heart’s door for the gospel to be listened to. Similarly, it is grace that steps out of individual comfort for the sake of standing with a fellow believer who is struggling with life. Grace takes off our tinted glasses which so often prevent us seeing anothers’ need.

It was grace which enabled Jesus to connect with people that others avoided. Think of the Samaritan woman at the well of Jacob, who said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans (John 4:9). Those the Jewish religious society prohibited contact with, Jesus graciously engaged with. There was Zacchaeus sitting up a tree in Luke 19:2, He was a chief tax collector and was rich. And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” So Zacchaeus hurried and came down and received Jesus joyfully (Luke 19:5-6). Meanwhile, Jesus’ antagonists grumbled, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner” (Luke 19:7).

Grace enables Christlike interaction with others without compromising truth or values. Grace is sufficient to strengthen the weak (2 Corinthians 12:9). Grace motivates believers to restore a stumbling child of God in a spirit of gentleness and to bear one another’s burdens without prejudice (Galatians 6:1-2). This wonderful quality inspires us to speak only such as is good for building up… that it may give grace to those who hear (Ephesians 4:29). It’s a joy to dispense grace, just as it’s a joy to receive it. May Jesus’ grace be seen in us today for His glory.

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