A good Jewish boy

After the festival was over, while his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it… from Luke 2:41-52

When our two boys were still very small we went one day to look around a garden centre. It was a big, bustling place, set on a busy main road. What happened, all in the space of a few seconds, was every parent’s worst nightmare… “Where’s Christopher?” “I thought he was with you!” “No – I thought he was with you…” Aaaargh!!!

That first note of panic quickly gave way to frenzied searching, and, mercifully, the top of a little head was soon spotted bobbing merrily along through the crowds on the other side of the place. Nina went one way, I went another, and we managed to head him off and round him up before anything disastrous happened. Massive relief all round.

Joseph and Mary knew something of that feeling – though their son was rather older than ours. Having visited Jerusalem for the Passover festival with the twelve-year old Jesus, they were heading back to Galilee with friends and neighbours when they became aware that Jesus didn’t seem to be around. They had assumed that he was in the Nazareth party (a perfectly reasonable assumption to make in the kind of society in which they lived).

But no. So back they hurry to Jerusalem. And, sure enough, there they find him. What is he doing? He is “in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions” (2:46). When they tell him off for causing them anxiety he seems remarkably relaxed: “Surely you must have realised I would be in my father’s house? Where else did you imagine I might be?”

I wonder what it did to Joseph and Mary to hear him speak about “my father” – and to realise that it wasn’t Joseph he was talking about? Suddenly those long-ago events in Bethlehem took on a new and deeper meaning, and no doubt quite a painful one too. Did it bring especially to Mary’s mind the words of Simeon: “… a sword will pierce your own soul” (Luke 2:35)? No wonder she “stored all these things away in her heart” (verse 51).

This memorable story, given to us by Luke, stands alone in the gospel narrative; it’s a full twelve years after the Christmas accounts, and some eighteen years before the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. It’s just a tiny glimpse – though certainly a very vivid one – into Jesus’ early life.

Have you ever stopped to imagine what Jesus must have been like as a small boy? as a teenager? as a pupil in the local synagogue school? as the eldest child playing with his brothers and sisters? as an apprentice in the carpenter’s workshop?

Of course, we have only our imaginations to work with, for the Bible doesn’t give us any detailed information. We must be content with speculation.

But various thoughts spring to mind. Two particularly strike me. I’ll mention one now, and come back next time to the other.

First, then: Jesus had to learn, just like any ordinary child.

We need to resist the idea that from birth Jesus knew everything – that he was miraculously endowed with supernatural knowledge. The young boy in that circle of wise teachers in the temple showed, it seems, remarkable understanding; but Luke describes him “listening” and “asking questions”. Even as a full-grown man later there was a famous incident when he declared his own ignorance on a particular matter. (Look up Matthew 24:36 if that’s got you scratching your head.)

Putting it another way, Jesus was human as well as divine. Over two thousand years the church has never fully succeeded in explaining how that can be. But it is the clear teaching of the Bible, and we need to grasp it, especially at times when we feel most keenly our own weaknesses, limitations and humanity. Jesus the man doesn’t only help us from a lofty distance. No: to quote Stuart Townend’s lovely hymn, “he walked my road and he felt my pain,/Joys and sorrows that I know so well.” Is that a truth you need to take to heart as a comfort today?

We mustn’t, of course, put ourselves on the same level as Jesus, but as we think about his human limitations, an important question arises: How eager am I to learn and to grow? Do I, like him, have an appetite for God and his word? Am I prepared to take the time and trouble to get to know the Bible, to listen to reliable teachers, to try and mature in my understanding and knowledge?

Luke plainly tells us later (verse 52) that “Jesus grew in wisdom”. Could that be said also of me?

Perhaps there’s a new year resolution there just pleading to be adopted…?

Father, thank you that the Lord Jesus Christ was fully human as well as fully divine. Thank you that at times he was, like me, weary and tired, troubled and distressed. Thank you that there were things he didn’t know, and that he had to grow in wisdom. As I think about my own many weaknesses and limitations, help me to find comfort and strength in his humanity. Amen.

Not dead yet!

Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout… There was also a prophet, Anna… She was very old… She never left the temple but worshipped night and day, fasting and praying… Luke 2:25, 36-37

Thank God, I say, for Simeon and Anna!

Of course, all our focus over the last few days has been on the baby Jesus, on Joseph and Mary, on the shepherds and the wise men (with perhaps just a sad, frowning nod towards King Herod?). And quite right too. But now – here they come, these two, slowly and quietly bringing up the rear, so to speak, and beautifully rounding off the Christmas story.

An old man and an old woman. Where do they fit in? Well, why not read through the story again? – just those few verses in Luke 2:22-38.

The essence is this. After a baby boy was circumcised “on the eighth day”, there were various “purification rites” required by the Jewish law for both the baby and the mother. These might not be completed for over a month, so it seems as if Joseph and Mary were in the vicinity of Jerusalem for some time.

When they went up to the temple to do what the law required, Simeon and Anna were there to greet them (though not necessarily together – they weren’t a couple).

Various things are said about Simeon…

He was “righteous and devout” – a godly man. He was “waiting for the consolation of Jerusalem” – which means he was eager to see God act in some very special way for his people Israel. “The Holy Spirit was on him”: that is, he was a man of deep spirituality. (He is never actually described as old, but his cheerful readiness to die suggests it – verse 29).

He took Jesus in his arms (can you picture him?) and prayed a prayer of thanksgiving over him, rejoicing in the fact that this baby was to be “a light for revelation to the gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel”. And he spoke a word of prophesy, focussing on Jesus’ history-making destiny – but also suggesting dark days to come, not least for Mary herself.

Anna too…

She was certainly very old indeed, and a widow. And she was a prophet. She was seen constantly around the temple precincts, always fasting, always praying, always worshipping. Like Simeon, she had things to say about Jesus, though we aren’t told what they were. And her words were for “all who were looking forward to the redemption of Israel”, not just for Joseph and Mary. Yes, she had a prophetic, preaching ministry.

I wonder how Joseph and Mary felt when, whether together or separately, these two striking people approached them, did what they did and said what they said?

My guess would be: massively encouraged. Remember, they have just come through a wonderful but bewildering few months. The whole thing must sometimes have seemed like a dream: and if the recent past was a roller-coaster, well, what about the immediate, not to mention the more distant, future…!

How they must have valued these solemn, joyful, radiant, Spirit-filled encounters! How reassured they must have been by the manner and bearing of these two elderly saints. How stabilising, how strengthening, how calming, it must have been to have the mysterious events of recent months confirmed by two such people!

We can only imagine the conversation between Joseph and Mary later that day, as they sat together over Jesus’ bed and as dark fell outside. But it’s inconceivable, surely, that either of them can ever have forgotten this episode.

All sorts of ideas come spinning off the story like lights off a catherine wheel. But apart from anything else it says this: there is a place for old people in the purposes of God. And so two simple questions arise…

First, does the church you belong to value elderly men and women of God? Or are they shunted to one side as “past their use-by date”? In our very natural emphasis on children and young people, are we guilty of neglecting those who, over many years, have gathered the kind of wisdom and experience which come no other way?

And second, a word for those (including me!) who are in, or are getting towards, the Simeon-Anna stage. Are we guilty of writing ourselves off? Have we subconsciously decided that God has nothing more for us to do? Yes? Well, it’s time to think again!

The role of Simeon and Anna was every bit as important in the Christmas story as that of the shepherds and the wise men, though we hear so much more about them. As long as God gives us another day of life, he has work for us to do! So let’s grab hold of that – and keep our sleeves rolled up.

To work, old man! To work, old woman!

Lord God, thank you that you value every type of person – clever and simple, rich and poor, talented and ordinary, young and old. Show me the place you have for me in your unfolding plans, and help me, by your Spirit, to live it out to the full. Amen.

Family values?

“Who are my mother and my brothers?” Jesus asked. Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” Mark 3:33-35

… to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God… John 1:12

When it comes to Christmas I am not (please believe me!) the “Bah! Humbug!” type. Not at all. A spot of fun and laughter, some nice food and drink, a present or two, not to mention some crackers and silly hats – you can count me in, no problem.

But I must admit that there are one or two things that I get a bit fed up with.

One of them is an over-emphasis on family. Anyone would think that the whole point of Christmas is the big jolly get-together round a table heaving with food, with at least half-a-dozen generations represented. This image is projected on card after card, in advert after advert, and on television show after television show.

Fair enough, Christmas does have a bearing on families. The story in the Bible is precisely the story of one – the family of Jesus. And, fair enough again, there can be great joy in families coming together to share a special time.

But if it gets out of hand, this emphasis is simply wrong. And that’s exactly what often happens. Painful questions arise…

What about people who have no family? I know someone, now in old age, who has never had, so far as she is aware, a single relative. How do people like her feel?

What about families where there is a painful gap, an emptiness? – someone has gone away, or has to be in hospital, or simply has to be at work. Or, of course, someone has died…

What about the single, the divorced, the widowed? – rendered acutely aware of their solitude, their outsider status, in this merry atmosphere.

And what about families which are full of tension and even animosity? I knew a family once who had a door-mat with the message, not “Welcome to our home” or something similar, but “Oh no, not you again!” Only a joke, of course (they were lovely, welcoming people). But isn’t that exactly how many people feel as Christmas draws near and they face the prospect of having to be falsely nice to someone they really don’t like?

And, of course, reality never measures up to expectations. You eat and drink too much, so you get bloated, sluggish and tetchy, someone is felt to have taken the Scrabble game a touch too seriously, that bracing afternoon walk becomes a duty (insisted on by an infuriatingly bright uncle) rather than a pleasure – and the weather is cold and damp anyway. Oh dear…!

In the Bible, families are certainly important. But they are not all-important. Christianity is often mindlessly said to “uphold family values” (whatever they are). But is that really true? Not if we take the words of Jesus seriously – look back at the verses I have quoted from Mark 3.

And what about the boy Jesus in the Jerusalem temple? He spoke about “my father’s house” – but it wasn’t Joseph he was referring to. Worst of all (so to speak) are his words in Luke 14:26 – I’ll leave you to look them up; but be warned, the word “hate” appears in the context of family. Family values?

Yes, families matter: marriages matter, parenting matters, the mingling of different generations – all these things matter. But the family the Bible mainly focuses on is of a different kind altogether. It is “the family of God”, to which all who love and trust in Jesus belong. “To all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God,” as John 1:12 puts it.

Those two words – received and believed – are key. Literally, indeed, they are the key which opens the door into God’s eternal kingdom, God’s family which know no bounds.

So… if you are part of an ordinary human family, I do of course wish you great joy this Christmas. But if your family is far from the kind of ideal portrayed on the cards and in the adverts (and, in fact, even if it is that perfect), I remind you that you have a loving Father in heaven. He wants you to be part of his great family here on earth – and he has sent his own Son to make that possible.

Thank God for happy families! But thank him still more for his own wonderful, world-wide, eternal family.

May you and all yours – yes, including the grumpy ones – know God’s love and peace this Christmastime. Amen!

Ours to enjoy – and ours to share

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. John 1:5

Many years ago, when our two boys were quite small, we visited some caves in Derbyshire. We joined a little party of perhaps a dozen, led by a local guide. Once he had got us deep underground (scary!) he asked us if we would like to know what total darkness was like. Of course we all said we’d really love to (ahem).

So he switched off the dim electric lights that were rigged up around the place. And yes – it was dark all right… After a few moments we heard his disembodied voice: it told us that if we had to be in such total blackness for any length of time we would probably go mad. No bearings. No sense of orientation. No idea of what might be going on around us. Creepies and crawlies. You could believe it.

Then we heard the faint, scratchy sound of a match being struck. And what a relief it was. Just that tiny flame, and everything was changed.

The Bible loves the image of light shining in the darkness. What were the first words God is recorded as speaking when, according Genesis1:2, “darkness was over the surface of the deep”? Answer: “Let there be light.” That shows how vital light is.

In general, of course, the Bible doesn’t talk about physical darkness, but spiritual: the darkness of sin, ignorance and falsehood. And so it is that the coming of Jesus at Bethlehem is likened to light coming into the darkness: “The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world” (John 1:9).

And so it is too that anyone who has repented of their sin and trusted in Jesus has been “called out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9).

I do hope you can say “Yes, praise God, that’s me!”

What are we to do with this “wonderful light” in our lives? I suggest three things…

First, enjoy it.

The centuries-old “Westminster Catechism” (1647), a statement of basic beliefs, says that the reason we human beings exist is “to glorify God and to enjoy him for ever”.

I must admit that when I first heard that I was a little surprised. The people who drew up that document were sometimes known as “puritans”, and in many people’s minds that meant they were dour and stony-faced, severe kill-joys.

But no! They thought of almighty God himself as someone to be enjoyed. This reminds us that it’s good to follow Jesus, even if it isn’t always easy.

All right, enjoying God is a bit different from enjoying your team scoring a goal or listening to some favourite music – it’s a whole lot deeper. Living in the darkness of sin may promise us shallow enjoyment, the kind that is quickly gone. But living in the light of Jesus is satisfying and fulfilling: deeply and truly enjoyable.

May I ask: are you living in that light?

Second, reflect it.

I remember my surprise on learning at school that the moon has no light;  it is simply an enormous lump of rock. How come, then, that it shone so brightly? The answer, of course, is that it reflects the light of the sun.

That’s a perfect illustration of how we, hopefully, relate to Jesus. Of ourselves we have no light. But because the light of Jesus has shone on us, that light is reflected by us.

It’s a humbling thought that when people look at us they may see something of Jesus. Not that this happens automatically, because it’s possible for us to quench his light by continuing to live in darkness. But if we take seriously the challenge of holiness and purity, then the wonder is that it really can be so.

May I ask: do you seek and pray to reflect the light of Jesus?

Third, spread it.

The light of Jesus is for us to enjoy: yes. But it is not for us to keep to ourselves; it needs to be spread. Jesus spoke about the absurdity of a lamp being lit – and then placed under a bowl (Matthew 5:15). What would be the point of that?

The people around us need the light just as much as us. So it is our duty – and, of course, our joy – to spread it as far and wide as we can.

We do this by our Christlike living, as we have said. But we also do it by our words. As Christians we have a truth to communicate, and a story to tell. We need to look for opportunities to let people know who Jesus is, what he has done for us in dying and rising again, and how they too can come out of the darkness into his light.

May I ask: is this something you aim to do?

Why not look for an opportunity as Christmas approaches?

Lord Jesus, you said “I am the light of the world”. But you also said to your followers “You are the light of the world”. Please help me to really grasp that great double truth. Amen.

What makes for greatness?

Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin condemns any people. Proverbs 14:34 (NIV)

Righteousness makes a nation great; sin is a disgrace to any nation. Proverbs 14:34 (GNB)

We are well used by now to President Trump’s slogan: “Make America great again”. Just last week I saw it highjacked by some people in Britain who, I think, are pretty much on the same wave-length as him; they were carrying banners with the words, “Make Britain great again”.

Well, I suppose you can’t blame anyone for wanting the nation to which they belong to be great.

But that triggers the question: What is greatness? How do you define it? Is it material prosperity? Or influence throughout the world? Or a leading role in science and the arts? Or a particular form of government? Or what?

The Old Testament Book of Proverbs is in no doubt: to use the wording of the Good News Bible: “Righteousness makes a nation great”. As the NIV puts it, “Righteousness exalts a nation”.

But then you have to ask: What is righteousness? It’s a big word that can be defined in many ways. At the most basic level, to be righteous means to be right and to do right. But that leads immediately to yet another question: How do we know what “right” is? Who decides what is right? – and, by implication, also what is wrong?

Ultimately, the answer has to be: God alone. Who but he, the creator and sustainer of all things, who alone is perfect, pure and holy, can pronounce on matters of right and wrong? And if we measure ourselves, either individually or as nations, by his standard, which of us can possibly claim to be righteous?

In the Bible human righteousness is never seen as simply a matter of obeying laws or observing rules, important though that may be. No, at its heart is the idea of relationship: for only those who are in a relationship with God can have the slightest hope of loving righteousness and therefore displaying it. Relationship is key.

This is why, way back in Old Testament days, God called one particular nation – Israel – to enter into a covenant relationship with him, a relationship you could compare to a spiritual marriage. This was so that Israel could show to the world what God’s righteousness looks like in practice. In his law he taught them how he wanted them to live; and he sent them teachers and prophets to make the meaning clear.

But they failed in this great calling. By turning away from God’s law they got sucked into the unrighteousness of the world around them.

It was into this tragic situation that Jesus was born at the first Christmas. In his holy life the perfect righteousness of God was demonstrated – and the gospel message is just this: anyone who chooses to trust, love and follow him enters into and receives his righteousness as their own.

This is exactly what it means to be a “Christian” – a Christ-person. We can never be righteous of ourselves, however hard we strain and try. But by being gathered up, so to speak, into Jesus, his righteousness becomes ours.

And what is the righteousness like that we see in Jesus? Answer: just those qualities I hinted at earlier – holiness, purity, goodness, compassion, love. (Not to mention humility. Why else was he born as a human baby to nobody-parents and laid in a cattle-trough?) To be righteous, in the end, is to be Godlike, Christlike. It is to learn to love and humble ourselves before his cross, and to rejoice at his resurrection.

And what that means is this: If a nation – America, Britain, Russia, China, whoever – really wants to be “great”, then the place to start is by looking at the crucified and risen Jesus. All other greatness is, ultimately, hollow and empty, brittle and breakable, cheap and tawdry, vulgar and soiled. And destined one day to pass away. Just look at the ruins of once great empires scattered across the centuries of history: Rome, Greece, Britain… America?

We personally can’t make whatever nation we belong to “great again”. But what we can do – and what we must do – is to make known to those around us, by the way we live, by the people that we are, and by the good news that we proclaim, the true righteousness which has become ours in Jesus. (He himself referred to this as being “salt” and “light” in the world.) Let’s not forget that if it’s righteousness that makes a nation great, it’s also righteousness that makes a person great!

Is this the heart-beat of your life? Is this your consuming passion?

Thank you, Father, for the gift of your righteousness which has become mine in Jesus. Help me to live it out in my daily life, so that, small though I am, I can be a challenge and a hope to the nation in which you have placed me. Amen.

Always the same – and always changing

… lead us not into temptation… Matthew 6:13 (KJV)

… do not bring us to the time of trial… Matthew 6:13 (NRSV)

… do not bring us to hard testing… Matthew 6:13 (GNB)

… do not bring us to the test… Matthew 6:13 (NEB)

The Pope has recently authorised a change in the wording of this part of the Lord’s Prayer. He has accepted that the old version, using the word “temptation”, is misleading. If “temptation” means “enticement to sin”, why would a good and holy God even think of doing that?

So an alternative wording, which speaks of “trial” or “testing” rather than “temptation”, is now acceptable in Roman Catholic churches.

This change has been accepted for many years in many churches. (My copy o f the NEB (New English Bible), from which I have quoted above, was published in 1970, nearly fifty years ago.)

So there is nothing very controversial about the Pope’s pronouncement.

But the fact that it has been in the news has raised the whole issue of Bible translation, and it might be useful to focus on this, because I think many Christians have only very hazy ideas about why new translations come out from time to time. Some, in fact, feel quite uneasy about it.

One reason for this uneasiness is that the KJV (King James Version) used to be called “the Authorised Version” – and many people took this to mean that it was authorised by God.

But this is simply mistaken. In fact that word “authorised” applied not to God but to King James VI, who decided that the church needed a new Bible translation. This is why the title “King James Version” is far better than “Authorised Version”.

But the big question is: why does the church need new Bible translations anyway?

Two main reasons. First, because language changes. Words that meant one thing at one time might well have come to mean something very different just a decade or so later (try asking a 70-year old and a 7-year old what the word “mouse” means… you might get a surprise.)

Second, because experts in the field of ancient languages make discoveries that throw new light on what words might have meant in the original.

Both of these factors must be taken into account if a Bible translation is to be good.

To demonstrate how very difficult the art of translation – any translation, not just Bible translation – is, let me suggest an example…

You go into a French restaurant and order a meal. The waiter places your plate before you and says, “Bon appétit, monsieur/ madame”. Now, how do you translate “Bon appétit” into English? Well, it’s easy, isn’t it? “Bon” means “good” and “appétit” means “appetite”. Wahay! Sorted! “Good appetite.” What could be simpler?

Just one problem: “Good appetite” would in fact be a totally rubbish translation for the very simple reason that in English we just don’t say “Good appetite”, do we?

A good translation would depend on the kind of establishment you happen to be in. If it’s a fairly civilised place the waiter might say “Enjoy your meal” (or, these days, just “Enjoy” – urgh…). If you’re in yer local greasy spoon “Dig in” or “Grub’s up” might be more appropriate. But none of these seem remotely like “Bon appétit”. Probably you can think of other possibilities.

Go back to the Lord’s Prayer. It has come to us in the New Testament in a form of Greek which the experts call “Hellenistic” Greek, and which no-one speaks today. Likewise, the Old Testament has come to us in ancient Hebrew (with a smidgeon of another language called Aramaic).

This means that no-one – no, not me and not you – is qualified to pass an opinion on a modern Bible translation unless we have a mastery of these languages. Which certainly counts me out! – and probably you too.

And this in turn means that, whether we like it or not, we depend on those who have made these ancient languages their life-time study. Most such scholars are, of course, sincere Christians themselves, so we have every reason to trust their expertise, even though their translations will never be perfect.

In Matthew 6:13 the key Greek word is peirasmos (pay-raz-mos). Like many words in every language peirasmos is ambiguous – it can mean more than one thing. Did Jesus mean “temptation”, in the sense of being “enticed into sin”? Or did he mean “testing” in the sense of “trial”?

Ultimately, we simply cannot be sure – but for the reasons I mentioned at the beginning the weight of opinion has come down on the side of the latter alternative. Hence the Pope’s statement.

Forgive me if all this is old hat to you – but I hope there are some who might find it helpful. What matters is that the Bible is the word of God, and we are to treat it as such. But it didn’t descend fully formed from heaven in any fixed form!

So I suggest we make it our business to pray for those whose calling it is to study these things and to give us Bibles we can trust, use – and obey!

Father, thank you for your word in scripture. Please bless and give great wisdom to all those whose calling it is to put it into language which is both accurate and understandable. And please help me to read, mark, learn, inwardly digest – and above all, to obey. Amen.

A big bad “But”…

In the twentieth year of King Jeroboam of Israel, Asa began to reign over Judah; he reigned for forty-one years in Jerusalem… Asa did what was right in the sight of the Lord… But the high places were not taken away. Nevertheless, the heart of Asa was true to the Lord all his days. 1 Kings 15:9-14

Do you know Robert Louis Stevenson’s story Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde? It’s about a man who, for reasons we needn’t bother with here, has two totally distinct personalities, one polite, courteous and essentially good, the other demonically evil.

Even people who have never read the book (or seen any of the films made of it) will know what you mean if you talk about someone with a “Jekyll and Hyde personality”: it’s a person who is an incompatible mixture of light and darkness, someone who is a walking civil war.

Well, the truth is that we are all a bit like that, even those of us who sincerely want to follow Jesus. Outwardly we are probably all sweetness and light; but inwardly… ah, that, sadly, is a different story.

King Asa of Judah reminds me of Jekyll and Hyde. If you read the short account of him in 1 Kings 15 your heart warms to him straight away. He started a vigorous reform in Judah to do away with false worship and false gods. He even stood against his own mother because of her idolatry. His heart, we are told, “was true to the Lord all his days”.

But go then to 2 Chronicles 14-16. Here you get a much longer account of King Asa – and one which shows him up in far less rosy terms. (This, by the way, highlights the importance of not just picking bits out of the Bible, as we were thinking last time: we need, in the case of Asa, both 1 Kings and 2 Chronicles.)

Towards the end of his long reign it seems Asa badly lost his way. Instead of trusting whole-heartedly in God he makes an alliance with the pagan King Ben-hadad of Aram in order to gain victory in battle. When he is taken to task by the prophet Hanani he gets into a rage and “puts him in the stocks, in prison”. Even worse, “Asa inflicted cruelties on some of the people” (2 Chronicles 16:10). A sorry story.

Probably the comparison with Jekyll and Hyde isn’t really accurate, for you get the impression that Asa was fundamentally good at heart, but as he grew older it all went wrong. I suspect that by the end of his life he was a tormented soul, still knowing deep down what was right and good, and still wanting to do it, but unable to maintain his earlier trust in God and God alone.

I think there may be a tiny but very significant clue to his tragedy in 1 Kings 15:14: the little word “but” – “But the high places were not taken away.” In spite of all the good things he did, something vital was missing. (The “high places” were sites dotted round Judah where people went to offer prayer and sacrifices. That may sound fine; but because they were not under the supervision of the God-appointed priests in Jerusalem they easily became places of false, corrupt worship; which is exactly what happened.)

The question arises, “Why weren’t the high places taken away?” You might answer, “Well, there was lot to be done, and with the best will in the world Asa just never quite got round to it”. But wait a minute – Asa reigned for forty-one years! Did he really lack time?

I suspect that it wasn’t time that he lacked, but thoroughness. His heart was sound, all right; but, for whatever reason, he simply lacked the drive to carry through everything he knew he should.

And, I have to admit, that’s where his story strikes uncomfortably at my heart… Yours too, perhaps. As you search your heart and examine your life, do you see there a big, ugly “But”? Yes, you’re a genuine, sincere Christian. Yes, you want to please and serve God. Yes, you are happy to worship, pray and evangelise. But

If we fail to deal with that “but”, I’m not suggesting that we will lose our salvation. But there are, I think, two things we will lose.

First, our peace of mind. Like Paul in Romans 7:14-25 we will feel ourselves to be “wretched” because we are torn in two.

And second, we will lose our effectiveness for God. Putting it another way, our cutting edge will be blunted.

I’ve focussed on Jekyll and Hyde. But perhaps the idea of an “Achilles’ heel” fits even better. Never mind the origin of this expression; what it means is “a weakness in spite of overall strength, which can lead to downfall” (to quote one dictionary).

I think that fits Asa almost perfectly. And the question is: Does it fit you and me too?

Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. Amen.

How not to read the Bible

Then the devil took him [Jesus] to the holy city and set him on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you…’ ” Matthew 4:6

I wrote last time about the way the Bible can be misused – using the example of the woman who disagreed with her minister’s sermon by quoting Matthew 7:1: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged”. She took this one Bible verse as trumping, so to speak, anything else the Bible might say on the matter of judging.

Our theme was judging; but the story raises also the much wider issue of exactly how we should read the Bible. Or, more to the point, how we shouldn’t read it.

You may know the corny old story of the man who was desperate to get guidance from God on a decision he had to make. Believing the Bible to be the word of God, he decided to let it lead him. So he said a prayer, closed his eyes, opened his Bible, and put his finger on the page. When he opened his eyes he read “Judas went out and hanged himself.” He felt this wasn’t quite right for him, so he decided to try again. This time: “Go and do likewise”. Oh dear! So he tried a third time. And – ? “What you do, do quickly”. (He didn’t make a fourth attempt.)

I don’t vouch for the truth of that story. But it makes the point. God has not given us the Bible to be a kind of lucky (or, in this case, unlucky) dip. That just isn’t the kind of book it is. Even the devil can, as Shakespeare put it, “cite scripture for his purpose” – a reference, I imagine, to our passage today, where the devil tempts Jesus with the perfectly true words “It is written…” (quoting Psalm 91).

As Christians we believe that the Bible is God’s divinely inspired word. No problem. But it is also human words, for God has chosen to speak through human authors. And it is important that those words, seen in their human character, should be understood and interpreted accordingly.

So where does this lead us? I suggest three things to keep in mind…

  1. Don’t wrench Bible verses out of context!

Whenever we read a Bible passage we should aim to understand it, initially, on its own terms. At what point in Bible history was it written? Who is the human writer and who is he addressing? What is the background against which the words are spoken? Seeing Bible passages in their overall context is vital if we are to understand them correctly.

Certainly, there may be times when God, by his Spirit, gives us, out of the blue, a Bible verse which is just perfect for us. And that’s great. But that is for God, in his wisdom, to do; it is not for us to presume upon.

  1. Ask the question: What sort of writing is this?

Is it poetry? history? letters? proverbs? doctrine? prophecy? Remember, different kinds of literature must be read in different ways. Would you read a car maintenance manual the same way you would read a book of poetry? Or a novel the same way you read a cook book? No? But they’re all books, aren’t they!

In the same way you would be very foolish to read 1 Samuel in the same way you read the Book of Revelation, or Job in the same way you read Mark’s Gospel.

  1. Always read out of the Bible, not into it.

By which I mean: Don’t come to a Bible text or passage with your own preconceived idea of what it says, and then try and shoe-horn that idea into the passage. No; let the passage say what it wants to say, not what you want it to say. We can sometimes be guilty of finding our favourite doctrines in passages that in fact have nothing to do with them.

In short, read the Bible passage in question in its most natural sense; run a mile from anything that comes across as contrived or artificial.

Learning to read like this isn’t necessarily easy. If we mean business with God’s word it’s a good idea to get hold of reliable Bible commentaries and other books which fill in the background for us.

It’s a sad fact that many individual lives have been ruined because of a sincere but misguided understanding of a single Bible verse. (An extreme example is the early church leader who was tormented by lustful thoughts. He decided to deal with this by taking Matthew 5:27-30 strictly literally. I’ll leave you to guess what part of his anatomy he removed…)

So… Value the Bible! Cherish it! Look to it to receive the word of God! But be wary too. Satan too can use it – and he loves to deceive…

Lord God, thank you for giving us your word in scripture. Please help me to value and appreciate it – and, by your Spirit, to understand it and apply it correctly. Amen.

Is it ever right to judge?

Jesus said, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged”. Matthew 7:1

The minister stood at the church door to greet people after the service. The sermon hadn’t been an easy one to preach. He had spoken about sexual morality, and had stressed particularly the biblical ideal of marriage – one man and one woman, for life – and he knew that not everyone would take it kindly.

(He knew too, of course, that the ideal is exactly that: an ideal. And that God is compassionate and forgiving towards those who may have failed to achieve it.)

One woman had just a very brief comment to make: “I prefer to live my life according to Matthew 7:1. Goodbye.” By which she meant, of course: “I believe in not making judgments on the way other people live their lives.”

Was her frosty comment right?

In one sense, of course, yes. We should not judge others in the sense of condemning them. We are all sinners, so the sins we should take most seriously are… our own. Jesus goes on to make this clear in his words about the speck of sawdust and the plank: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?… You hypocrite…” Point taken!  Ultimately, God alone is qualified to judge.

But in another sense she was wrong. Taking Matthew 7:1 as a stand-alone text – treating it as if it says everything that needs to be said – simply creates chaos.

Somebody has calculated that the Bible as a whole contains 31,102 verses (depending on which version you use), so if that minister had had the chance he could well have replied to the woman, “Er, yes, of course, Matthew 7:1 is great verse – but what about the Bible’s other 31,101 verses? What about verses that put a different angle on the matter – shouldn’t they be taken into account as well?”

For if you take Matthew 7:1 as the only word on the subject of judging, it implies that there are no rights and wrongs at all. Somebody commits murder? Oh dear, that’s bad – but, of course, Jesus says I mustn’t judge them. Somebody operates an internet scam and robs people of millions of pounds? Mmm, that sounds pretty dodgy as well. But of course Jesus says I mustn’t judge them…

Fact: some things are right and some things are wrong. And we shouldn’t shy away from saying so.

Jesus himself wasn’t afraid to point this out: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!” (Matthew 23:13) Not exactly non-judgmental, that, eh?

In the early days of the church Simon Peter had to deal with a case of gross dishonesty by a couple called Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11). So what did he say: “Ananias and Sapphira, you have done a seriously bad thing – but of course I am forbidden by the Lord Jesus to judge you”? Er, no. No: he spoke some quite frightening words: “… how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit…?” Non-judgmental?

A little later Saul (before he became known as Paul) was confronted on the island of Cyprus by “a sorcerer and false prophet named Bar-Jesus” (Acts 13:6-12). This man comes in for similar rough treatment: “You are a child of the devil and an enemy of everything that is right!” Again, non-judgmental?

The fact is that when we see evil and wickedness, whether in others or mainly in ourselves, something is wrong if we don’t recognise it as such.

But, having said that, shouldn’t our main reaction be one of sorrow?

This, I think, is what Jesus meant in the Sermon on the Mount when he said, “Blessed are those who mourn” (Matthew 5:4). He wasn’t talking about bereaved people or people attending a funeral; he was talking about people who shake their heads in sadness as they look into the darkness in their own hearts, and as they survey the sorry state of our world – the lies, the corruption, the greed, the vice and immorality, the violence.

Such people aren’t self-righteous or “holier-than-thou”; no, they are people who have looked a little into the heart of God, who have been moved by the beauty and purity they have seen there, and who long for things to be different. They are people who pray, as Jesus taught us: “May your kingdom come, may your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10) – and who add “including in my heart”.

Is that a prayer you can pray with sincerity? If it is, I think that means you can stand up for what is right, and denounce what is wrong, without being guilty of judging others where you shouldn’t.

Lord God, save me from fault-finding, criticising and condemning others. Help me to see clearly my own sins and failings – but at the same time not to be afraid to uphold what is good, right and true. Amen.

(This topic raises another important issue – how easy it is, like that woman at the church door, to misuse the Bible. I think it might be helpful to have a think about that next – so hopefully I’ll see you next Wednesday!)