For or against Jesus?


Jesus said, “… Whoever is not against you is for you… He who is not with me is against me…” Luke 9:50, Luke 11:23

“Oh, you can’t believe the Bible! – it’s full of contradictions!”

Have you ever had that said to you by a non-Christian friend? I wouldn’t be surprised. And this is just the kind of thing they have in mind: in the space of a couple of chapters Jesus seems to make two completely opposite statements. (The fact that one speaks of “you” and the other of “me” is neither here nor there, for Jesus and his disciples are united in purpose.)

Well, is Jesus contradicting himself, or is there a convincing explanation? I believe there is. 

It all comes down to that thing called “context” – in other words, the setting in which something occurs. Each of Jesus’ sayings is true, if we take note of their settings. Think of a modern example. Here are two sentences: “An hour is a very short time” and “An hour is a very long time”. How can those two statements be anything but glaringly contradictory! There is surely no way they can be reconciled.

But wait a minute. Suppose you have just been told “You have one hour to live…” – that first sentence would seem alarmingly true, the second one false. But suppose you have been told “It will be an hour before the next bus arrives…” – you would probably think the second sentence was disappointingly true and the first one false. See what I mean about context? And see how two totally contradictory statements can both be true?

So… what are the contexts in which Jesus says these two things?

First, “Whoever is not against you is for you.” If you go to Luke 9:49-50 you find that one of the twelve is telling Jesus about someone they had met who was using his name to cast out demons. And they are shocked. What a cheek! How dare somebody who is not “one of us” presume to do the work of Jesus! So “we tried to stop him.”

To which Jesus replies: No! You did wrong. All right, that man may not yet be an out-and-out disciple, but never mind. He was trying to do a good thing, and to do it in my name. Leave him alone! – for “whoever is not against you is for you”.

What do we learn from this? In essence, not to be hard or condemning of people who, while they may not be the kind of Christians we profess to be, are nonetheless genuine in their desire to serve God. The emotional charismatic, for example, mustn’t dismiss the stern Calvinist. The convinced baptist must accept as a fellow-disciple the person who advocates infant baptism. (I’m sure you can think of plenty of other examples.)

In other words, that first saying is true – as a lesson in tolerance.

So what about the second saying: “He who is not with me is against me”? If we go now to Luke 11:14-23 we find that Jesus is speaking in a completely different context, all about the absolute opposition of light and darkness, truth and falsehood, God and Satan. He is making clear that we are caught up in the middle of a life-or-death battle between these two forces. And his point is that in this battle there can be no neutrality. Try to be neutral – and you are in effect taking sides against Jesus. And so: “He who is not with me is against me.”

This also is true, then – as a solemn call to commitment.

So now the bit that really matters: Which of the two lessons do I personally need today? Am I, perhaps, a bit bigoted, a bit too ready to dismiss anyone who doesn’t see things just my way? Do I need Jesus’ lesson in humility? Or am I the kind of person who tries to sit on the fence when decision is called for? Is it time I responded to Jesus’ call to commitment and discipleship?

Only our own hearts can enable us to answer those questions. Why not stop right now, close your eyes, think very honestly, and then respond in prayer?

Lord Jesus, help me to be tolerant and accepting when that is what is called for, and to be unyielding and uncompromising when truth is at stake. (And, of course, the wisdom to know the difference!) Amen.
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The woman who took Jesus to task


Jesus said, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs”. “Yes, Lord,” the woman replied, “but even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs”. Then Jesus told her, “For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter…” Mark 7:24-31

I was, so I’m told, quite cheeky when I was a child. One of my earliest memories as a small boy was of my parents, my brother and myself on the top deck of a London bus. I must have done something I shouldn’t have, because my mother told me off and said I was “a naughty boy”. Whereupon I replied, quite loudly, “Well, it’s your fault – you had me!” I can picture my father now going quite red; he didn’t know whether to be cross or to laugh. (In the end it was bit of both, but I think the laughter came out on top.)

When a child gets a little cheeky – perhaps the more up to date word would be “lippy” – it means that they are developing character and individuality. And I think good parents take pleasure in it – as long, of course, as it’s within bounds and doesn’t slide into outright rudeness.

Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman – a Gentile, a non-Jew – raises various puzzling questions, but it also gives us a good example of a bit of cheek that brings delight.

At the start Jesus seems impatient, even tetchy and bad-tempered. The woman approaches him in distress – her daughter is troubled by an evil spirit – and he seems to rebuff her. Worse, he even seems to insult her: “It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs”.
A bit of a slap in the face, really. It was common in Jesus’ day for the Jews, God’s chosen people, to refer to the Gentiles as “dogs”. It doesn’t sound very nice today, and I don’t suppose it did then. 
 
How can we explain this? What Jesus meant was that the good news of the gospel was first and foremost for the Jewish people; only after that would it be extended to the Gentiles. In Matthew 10, where he sends the twelve apostles out to proclaim the coming of the kingdom of God, he explicitly tells them, “Don’t go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans…” Not that he didn’t care for or love the non-Jews – of course he did, as various other Gospel stories make clear. But he saw himself as first and foremost the Jewish Messiah sent to the Jewish people. It would then be their task to fulfil their role as “a light to lighten the Gentiles”.

Well, we don’t know how the woman felt on hearing Jesus’ words. (Personally, I’d like to think that he spoke with a smile on his face, making clear that he was putting her to the test, not meaning to hurt her.) But whatever, her reply is spirited, and a wonderful mix of humility and cheek. She says, in effect, “All right, Jesus, perhaps I am only a Gentile dog (there’s the humility). But look, does anybody ever complain if dogs go under the meal table to lick up the children’s scraps? Of course not! So why shouldn’t I come and seek a blessing from you (there’s the cheek)?” As if to say, “You’re not getting rid of me as easily as that!” She refuses to slink off like a whipped dog.

And Jesus is obviously delighted by this feisty, brazen response: “Well said! Off you go – you have got what you asked for!”

The Bible makes clear that we should always approach God with reverence and respect. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t also sometimes be bold and spirited, refusing to take no for an answer, even taking him to task. As long as our hearts are right, that brings him more pleasure than if we just give up. Is this a word for you today?

Dear Father, you are a God of compassion, love and power. Forgive me when my faith is too weak to hold you to your promises. Give me, please, the kind of impertinence that the Canaanite woman showed. Amen!

How to deal with guilt


If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness; therefore you are feared. Psalm 130:3-4

Here’s a question that requires strict honesty by way of reply: Do you ever harbour grudges? Carry chips on your shoulder? Allow things people have done to you, or said about you, to rankle months or even years after they happened?

I suspect that even the most easy-going of us might have to answer Yes. Even if we don’t allow our grievance to eat us up inside, deep down it is still there, working its poison. Yes, it’s very easy to “keep a record of sins”.

Well, the good news is that this is something God doesn’t do. I suppose that if anyone was entitled to, it would be him. But the Psalmist glories in the fact that the opposite is true: “With you there is forgiveness”. How we need to drive this great truth into our thick skulls – our God is a God who delights to forgive. Got it? Really got it?

I think there are at least three things
we need to do that follow from this.
 
First, accept God’s forgiveness with pleasure and delight. Don’t go on for ever carrying that burden of guilt. Bring it to God, lay it at his feet, tell him from the bottom of your heart how truly sorry you are… and you are free! Don’t keep returning to your guilt and picking over it like an old scab that is never allowed to heal. If God has blotted it out of his mind, well, why shouldn’t you do the same?

Second, move on from your failure with a new determination never to fail again. I think this is partly what the Psalmist means by “…therefore you are feared”. In some ways it seems a little odd to add those slightly sombre words to the lovely “…with you there is forgiveness”. Why should we fear such a God? But the fact is that sin and guilt are serious matters, and even God’s great love and mercy should not allow us to forget it. It also goes without saying, I hope, that we should put things right with the other person if we possibly can, making any amends that may be needed. Anyone who has had a massive debt wiped out will (hopefully!) be all the more determined never to get into such a position again.

Third, extend to others the same forgiveness God has extended to you: putting it simply, the forgiven person must become the forgiving person. Isn’t it hypocritical to receive forgiveness from God, only then to withhold it from someone else? Remember how we pray in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us the wrongs we have done, as we forgive others the wrongs they have done to us.” That second part is absolutely crucial.

Hatred breeds hatred. Vengeance breeds vengeance. That is the sorry story of our world. But the opposite is also true, thank God: love breeds love, and forgiveness breeds forgiveness.

Suppose God was in the business of totting up all our misdeeds? As I look at my own life, I can only imagine him sitting there in heaven licking his pencil, so to speak, and adding yet another item to the grim list. By this time in my life he would need a pretty long piece of paper… As the Psalmist puts it, who indeed could stand? 

But that is exactly the way it isn’t. Here are three other Bible verses that drive home the same wonderful truth: “You will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7). “I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (Jeremiah 31). And: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins…” (1 John 1).

Don’t – please– spend too long analysing those verses. No! Just rejoice in them, grab hold of them with both hands, and run with them.


Lord God, the tally of my sins would be massive by now – it would need a computer to add them all up. So thank you for the free grace of your wonderful forgiveness. Help me to live every day in the joy of that forgiveness. And help me always to forgive any who I may feel have wronged me. Amen.

Light in the darkness


About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God.  Acts 16:25 

Well, what’s so special about that? All right, perhaps the timing – midnight – is a little unusual for a time of worship, but as long as they weren’t annoying the neighbours, why not?

You need to read back a few verses. Does this make any difference?… Paul and Silas have been “stripped” and “beaten”, they have been “severely flogged” and “thrown into prison”, they are in “the inner cell” (sounds nastily like a dungeon), and their feet are “fastened in the stocks”. Ah!

Luke, the writer of Acts, doesn’t spell out any more details. But I’m sure he could have mentioned the gloomy darkness, the cold, the damp, the smells (I doubt if there were en suite washing facilities and other hygienic provisions), probably spiders, not to mention rats and mice. And just the sheer pain and discomfort. Not  nice.

And yet they are singing and praising God. An obvious question arises: Would you – would I – have been doing the same? I can only say, speaking for myself, that I have my doubts.

The message is easy to understand even if hard to put into practice: faith in Christ should enable us to be cheerful and positive even in the hardest of circumstances. I’m sure that Paul and Silas will have consoled themselves with the thought that God’s hand was somehow in this turn of events (God does indeed “move in mysterious ways his wonders to perform”) and that good would ultimately come of it.

If you read on you find that that was exactly what happened. An earthquake strikes and everyone is in fear of their lives. The jailer, probably a semi-retired Roman centurion, hard-bitten and used to squalor and violence, is converted to Christ. An impromptu baptismal service takes place in the early hours of the morning. True, Paul and Silas feel it prudent to move on from Philippi – but never mind, they leave behind them an embryonic church (Paul wrote them a letter some time later – have you recently read his beautiful little Letter to the Philippians?).

There’s a detail I’m really glad Luke gives us: he goes out of his way to say that while Paul and Silas were having their prayer and praise session the other prisoners “were listening to them”. Can you picture that? I wonder what they thought? – “What’s that noise? Is somebody singing? Surely not!” Had such a sound ever been heard before in that horrible place? Cries of pain, yes. Shouts of rage, fury, frustration, perhaps. Sobs of despair, I suspect. But hymn-singing? Praying? This must surely have affected them. (Perhaps it explains why, when the doors flew open, none of the prisoners attempted to escape – they sensed that something very wonderful was taking place.)

What can I say? Just this, perhaps. May God help us to maintain our faith and positive spirits in all the circumstances that come our way. And may he also hear our prayers as we remember that even today there are many of God’s people in similarly horrible situations all around the world. 


Dear Father, forgive us when our faith fails us and we allow ourselves to be crushed under the weight of our circumstances. Help us to learn from the example of Paul and Silas. And please show mercy today to all who are suffering in our world for conscience’ sake. Amen.

When spiritual surgery is called for


Jesus said, “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away… And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go to hell”.   Matthew 5:29-30

A friendly warning: please don’t read any further if you are about to have your dinner…

There was a news story some years ago about a mountaineer who got his arm jammed in a crack in the rock. However hard he tried he just couldn’t get it free. Having pretty well exhausted himself with the effort, he faced up to the fact that he was going to die of hunger and cold. But then he had another idea: what if he took his knife and cut his arm off? That would free him all right! Not very pleasant, of course – but he was going to die anyway so, well, why not give it a try? Which is exactly what he did. And he lived to tell the tale.

There are times in life when we have to make a major and possibly a painful sacrifice in order to bring about a greater good. And that is what Jesus is talking about in this passage regarding our spiritual life: pluck out your eye! chop off your hand! Of course, his words aren’t to be taken in a strictly literal sense most of the time, but the point he is making is very clear: if you are keen to live a holy life, then you must be prepared to take yourself seriously in hand.

This is the big trouble with bad habits: when we first become aware of them, we are determined to root them out of our lives; but as time goes by they tend to grow on us. We get used to them. We forget they are bad at all. They gradually become, well, normal. Where at first we reacted with shame and disgust, now we just shrug our shoulders.

As I am typing this there is an ugly brown stain in the ceiling paper above my head. Some time ago we had a slight leak which, while it caused no serious damage, did manage to get through. It was in fact fixed quite quickly, and I made up my mind that in a week or two I would get some paint and touch up the blotch. Well, that was probably about a year ago now… That stain somehow seems to have become acceptable.

Is there something in your life, or mine, which needs rooting out? A bad habit? A wrong attitude? A prejudice? A secret sin? It may seem quite a small thing. It may be something that you have got thoroughly used to. But, if you stop and think about it, you know very well that it is marring your life and damaging your relationship with our holy God. Well, perhaps it’s time for what I can only call an act of spiritual surgery – a spiritual amputation perhaps.

The Christian life is a wonderful life – indeed, it is true and authentic life. But it isn’t easy. Jesus never said it would be. It’s not a hobby or a pastime, it isn’t just a bit of icing on the cake of life. No, it’s a deeply serious business, and one which has eternal consequences. So why not read again Jesus’ solemn words and ask the question: What is this saying to me? What is God saying to me?

Lord Jesus, you didn’t sacrifice just a part of yourself when you died on the cross, but you gave your very self for me. Please show me, through the Holy Spirit, anything that needs putting right in my life, and give me the determination and commitment to do whatever needs to be done, however hard it may be. Amen.

All about eating honey


Eat honey… for it is good; honey from the comb is sweet to your taste. Proverbs 24:13

I once dropped a slice of toast and honey on the floor – and you’ll never guessed what happened. It landed honey side up. Wahay! I thought, this really is my lucky day.

Well, I don’t know if you like honey. But I hope you do, because the Bible says you should eat it! Mind you, I can’t quite believe that on the judgement day God is going to look disapprovingly at anyone and say, “Well, I’m very sorry, but as I scrutinise your life on earth I can’t help noticing that you haven’t been eating honey regularly. Would you care to explain this failure of obedience?” I think God may be a little more interested in issues such as pride, honesty, holiness, greed, anger, moral purity of every kind, don’t you?

I love the Book of Proverbs. It’s great for dipping into. There are some very profound and thought-provoking verses – and some others which, if I am to be completely honest, seem odd, even a bit, well, loopy. And this is one: why would God tell people to eat honey, of all things?

One thing is certain: this isn’t a text which is intended to be taken literally – though I suspect that somewhere in the world there is a “Universal Church of the Faithful Honey-Eaters” or some such thing. (Round our part of London there are a number of rather wacky-sounding churches; which shows what absurdities can arise if we insist on interpreting every verse of the Bible in a strictly literal way.) No: this is a verse intended to spark off a train of thoughts. Let me tell you some of mine.

First, does it speak to us about our diet in general? Honey is a health-giving food. Perhaps we are to use this verse to help us reflect on our dietary habits. Are we healthy eaters? We live in a world where junk food is everywhere available, and obesity is reaching epidemic proportions. How many of us are guilty of damaging our bodies through bad eating habits? The New Testament tells us that if we are Christians our bodies are “temples of the Holy Spirit”. Shouldn’t we take care then to look after them well?

Second, does it speak to us about enjoying the good things of life? Honey is sweet and energising (see 1 Samuel 14!). It is, if you like, a luxury food. So perhaps God is telling us that there is nothing wrong with the occasional treat. Life is pretty grey if we never have special things to look forward to. In the last few years a fashion for “pampering” has arisen – encouraging people (mainly women, but I don’t see why it shouldn’t also apply to men) to take a break from the grind of life and indulge in a little healthy indulgence. 
Does anyone reading this need to take a break and have a bit of “me time”? Jesus wasn’t ashamed to go to dinner parties; indeed, he was even accused (falsely, of course) of over-indulging in alcohol: Mathew 11:19. God doesn’t require of his people that we should be sour and stone-faced. (Mind you, we need to remember this verse’s twin in Proverbs 25:16…)

Third, and this is surely the main point, is this verse speaking about wisdom? I quoted Proverbs 24:13 – but what about the very next verse? “Know also that wisdom is sweet to your soul…” Ah! It seems that the writer is using honey as a metaphor for wisdom. Just as honey is good for your body and your spirits, so wisdom is good for your soul. 

As I look at the church today I see lots of wonderful people – loving, enthusiastic, committed. But I sometimes think that wise people – people with the ability to work through situations and bring God’s perspective to bear on them – are in rather short supply. And not only in the church, of course, but in this troubled and restless world as a whole, wise people are desperately needed.

But how do we get wisdom? In essence, by prayer and serious reflection on God’s word. Do you take seriously the command to become wise?

Perhaps you can come up with some other applications of this funny little verse. Please let me know if you do. But whatever, if one day I have the chance of meeting you, I’ll hope to shake a rather sticky hand…

Lord God, thank you for filling this beautiful world with good and enjoyable things. Help me to make use of them in a Christ-like way – and, most of all, may I grow in wisdom day by day. Amen.

When someone loses their way


My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth, and someone should bring them back, remember this: whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins. James 5:19-20

Is there anyone you have missed from church recently? Anyone you have heard is in difficulties over their faith? Anyone who has got into bad ways? As James puts it here, anyone who has “wandered from the truth”?

It happens. Oh yes, it happens. Over my lifetime work as a pastor I have seen it many times. It is both very sad and also very difficult to deal with. 

Well, it may come as at least something of a consolation that it happened in the early church as well. I suppose the supreme example is Judas: presumably (imagine this!) there was a time when he walked gladly with Jesus and his fellow-apostles. But think too of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5) who were seduced into greed, and through that into lying. Or the little-known Demas, who “loved this world” – what a sad contrast there is between Colossians 4:14 and 2 Timothy 4:9-10. Even during Jesus’ earthly ministry, quite apart from Judas, there were disciples who voted against him with their feet (John 6:66); they “turned back and no longer followed him”.

We could spend a long time asking why this happens. But what would be the point? Every case is unique, and the reasons are many and varied. The fact is that it does happen, whether we like it or not, and so the only question that really matters is: what are we doing about it?

In our verse James assumes that we will do something. And we need to notice that this isn’t the responsibility only of the minister or pastor; those completely general words “someone” and “whoever” are very important. They mean you and me. Indeed, in some cases the “professional” may not be the best person to act.

So the question again: is there anyone in your circle who has got into this situation? And if there is, what are you doing about it? – apart, that is, from praying. It’s easy to shrug your shoulders and get busy with other admittedly important things. It’s easy to think, if only subconsciously, “Oh, so-and-so can deal with that”. But this is to abdicate our responsibility. 

If this sounds a bit grim, please notice something that James implies: to do this, though it may be hard, is a great and joyful thing – to “save someone from death and to cover over a multitude of sins”, no less! We aren’t just “bringing them back to church”! And surely it’s far better to try and fail than not to try at all?

“But how do I go about it?” you say. Good question. And the answer is that there is no set way. Certain possibilities are obvious: a phone call, text message or email that simply expresses concern: “I’ve missed you? Are you all right?” Sometimes an eyeball to eyeball confrontation may be called for: “Jack, I really need to talk to you – will you let me?” Perhaps a completely out of the blue visit: awkward, yes, but it could be effective.

The vital thing, however we go about it, is that we do so prayerfully, lovingly and humbly. Paul can help us here: “If someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently…” Well, that sounds fair enough, especially that beautiful word “gently”. But then he adds “… But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted” (Galatians 6:1).

In other words, when we set about trying to restore the sinner, we don’t do so from a height of supposed superiority. Oh no, we do so as sinners ourselves, aware that next time it could be us in need of this treatment. “If you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” (1 Corinthians 10:12).

One of the greatest New Testament stories is how Jesus restored Simon Peter after his three-fold denial before the crucifixion (John 21). All right, Peter had lapsed under pressure rather than brazenly renouncing Jesus. But it was a very serious, and a repeated, lapse. Yet Jesus is all love and tenderness for him. 

What better example could we wish for? Is it time to get busy in seeking to “bring someone back”?

Lord Jesus, forgive my indifference and coldness of heart towards those who lose their way. Thank you for those who have shepherded me along the way – help me to do the same for others. Amen.