Bible exposition

Bible Study - Luke 6:17-26

Let’s try to answer some questions about Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

Is Luke’s Sermon on the Mount the same as Matthew’s or from some other occasion?

It is a mistake to see it as a Sermon on a Plain. Jesus has been praying in a mountain about the selection of his twelve apostles. He has called them to himself and now descends to a level place (on the mountain) where he meets with the crowds.

Is Jesus addressing the disciples or the crowds?

The picture Luke paints of the occasion is interesting. There are the twelve newly appointed apostles, a great number of disciples, and a representative gathering of the laos (people) of Israel from all over the land and beyond. Jesus is invested with power – truly the Messiah amidst his people. The Beatitudes have special reference to disciples (“having raised his eyes on his disciples”), but are heard by all.

Who are those who are pronounced happy? Are they four different categories of person or one?

Jesus characterizes his disciples (more than the twelve) as “poor-hungry-weeping”. This is how Israel in exile understood itself; God was the protector of the helpless and now the nation had fallen into that state. Through Isaiah God had promised that be would save poor, hungry, mourning Zion. But that raised the question whether all Israel would be saved, or only some. In the fourth beatitude Jesus identifies true “poor-hungry-weeping Zion” as those who are hated, excluded and insulted because of their association with the suffering Son of Man.

How can these people be said to be happy?

True disciples will be happy - when Messiah establishes his kingdom and all forms of poverty and need are abolished. They are happy now because they know their sufferings are light and momentary and will give way to something glorious: they rejoice in what will be. Christians are consoled when they suffer rejection because of Jesus, because they know their reward is great in heaven. I don’t think this means when they go to heaven, but that good things are stored up for them now and later with God, who is in heaven.

Who does Jesus address as rich, well-fed and laughing?

These are those who can be characterized as opposite to disciples. Remember that Jesus is addressing the whole people with disciples mingled amongst them. Each person needed to decide for himself or herself whether he or she would believe Jesus’ gospel and stand by the Son of Man and suffer exclusion for his sake, or to seek acceptance from those with influence. Jesus implies that these latter are a non-Israel whose fate is to lose even the good things they now enjoy, and whose laughter will turn to bitter tears on the day the kingdom is revealed in all its fullness.

So what is going on here?

Jesus is announcing the coming of the kingdom for Israel but warning that it will only be enjoyed by those who stand with him in the time of his rejection and suffering. Those who prefer what this world has to offer above the promises of the kingdom will ultimately lose everything, but those who go on believing the gospel will inherit Israel’s restoration future where poverty, hunger and unhappiness will be things of the past. Jesus is dividing the people.

Bible Study – Matthew 10:32-36

Mark Calder is Rector of the Anglican Church in Noosa, QLD

I invite you to read one of the very challenging statements of Jesus in Matthew 10:32-36. On first reading, this is so upsetting. It’s very provocative. The inference is that Jesus has come to divide the human family — the closest and most loving of relationships. But isn’t Jesus called the Prince of Peace? Surely he did come to bring peace! Didn’t the angels proclaim at his birth in Luke 2 – ‘Glory to God in the highest and peace to those on whom his favour rests’?
Of course, we understand from elsewhere in our Bibles, that Jesus came so that through his perfect life and sacrificial death we might have peace with God. We also take on board what else we know of God’s will for us and for families. He is responsible for what we could argue is the greatest of all divine inventions, and he commands us to honour our mother and father and to love and care for our children. So then, how do we understand Jesus’ teaching here? Let’s explore:

Matthew 13 24ff - Co-existing with Compromise

Every generation has its “isms” which stand opposed to Christ’s message and threaten to relegate Christianity to the history books. “Islamism” and big S Secularism worry us most today. The media tries desperately to convince us that Islam is a religion of peace. Most Muslims are peaceful; the religion itself proclaims peace upon the house of Islam, but in the “house of war” – well the name says it all. By big S Secularism I mean not the separation of church and state, but the attempt to create a world culture with God removed. These two “isms” are happy to see Christianity in decline, and sometime they appear to prevail. There are other problems, of course. The biggest challenges are apathy and revisionist versions of Christianity within our churches.

How Christians respond will depend in part on how threatened we feel. The Parable of the Weeds in Matthew 13 helps us see how Jesus felt about opposition.

The kingdom of heaven, he said, is like a man who sowed his field with good seed, but an enemy came at night and over-sowed the crop with weeds. You can imagine the dismay of the farmer and his servants when the plants appeared. The only thing for it was a mammoth weeding exercise. Anyone who has had any experience of gardening knows this is the best thing to do. So the farmer’s decision to do nothing is more than surprising: “Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.” It sounds like a lot of work for what is bound to be a very meager return. I think any farmer listening may have scratched his head and remembered that after all Jesus was trained as a carpenter!

Bible Study – 2 Samuel 7

God’s Modus Operandi

Mark Peterson is the Music Minister at Holy Trinity Church, Adelaide

Do you enjoy vision-setting meetings?  Perhaps brainstorming, or presentations of vision, mission and key values?  Sometimes these events invigorate me; other times they bore me.

If King David was casting a vision for Israel, 2 Samuel 7 describes a stunning and sudden overturning of the strategy. 

He was settled in a palace, and the Lord had given him rest from his enemies.  It was time for some development on the domestic front.  Admirably, God’s chosen king chooses to honour God.  He will build him a house that would be more appropriate than the travelling tent.  The king is established in Jerusalem: now the Lord needs a temple. 

The Lord, however, wipes the whiteboard.  Actually, this is not the plan.  I will tell you the plan.  You will not build me a house; I will build you a house, and it will never be destroyed. 

Bible Study - John 11

“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” (John 11:32.) Mary’s words to Jesus when he finally arrives in Bethany, three days later than requested and four days after Lazarus has been put in the tomb, carry all the pain and disappointment of one who feels that the Lord has completely let her down. Martha manages to retain some hope in Jesus’ ability to do something for her brother, though she doesn’t seem to know what, exactly (11:21-24); Mary, though, voices no such hope: We called you, you didn’t turn up, and now it’s too late.

What Mary and Martha don’t know, however, is why Jesus didn’t come earlier, as soon as they sent word to him of Lazarus’s illness. It wasn’t, as they might imagine, due to distraction, or procrastination, or laziness; it was in fact, paradoxically, due to love: “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days.” (11:5-6.) Notice carefully what is being said there – it’s not despite the fact that Jesus loved them that he waited (though some translations, most notably the NRSV, render it this way); it’s specifically because he loved them that he waited. Out of his love for this family, Jesus didn’t come immediately, arriving in time to heal Lazarus’s sickness. Rather, he hung back longer where he was, on the other side of the Jordan, so as to allow Lazarus to die.

And this raises the obvious question of how that could possibly have been the more loving course to take. Surely the more compassionate response would have been to act immediately on Mary and Martha’s message, spare them from grief and spare Lazarus from death. What kind of love would stand back and allow this horrible thing to take place? The answer is given to us by Jesus himself: it is a love that intends to display a greater glory. When he is informed of Lazarus’s illness, right before John tells us that love motivated his delay, Jesus says “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory, so that God’s Son may be glorified through it” (11:4). Jesus will love Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, not by keeping them from such a painful event, but by letting it come, because he deems that they will more clearly see who he is as he rescues them from the midst of the mess, than if he keeps the mess from overwhelming them in the first place. And giving them a clearer view of who he is – that is the most loving thing he can do for them, or for anyone.

Of course, as Jesus arrives in Bethany, all this is hidden from Mary. Jesus doesn’t explain his purposes to her. She doesn’t see someone acting out of love towards her and her family, she only sees a Lord who apparently shelved her request, neglected to show up when he was needed, and failed her brother. But in a few moments she will accompany him to the tomb, and as he calls the dead man out, she will see the fuller glory of the one whose word can not only heal the sick, but can give life to the dead – the word of the one who has life in himself (5:25-26).  

Now at this point, it would be tempting to draw a simplistic theodicy from all of this – to see tragedy as something purposed by God in a straightforward way for his glory, and therefore as something which, while we might not recognise it at the time, is essentially good. We ought to resist that temptation. The fact that Jesus weeps and feels rage in the face of death (11:33, 35) shows that death remains in itself an unqualified evil, even as Jesus uses it as the occasion of his glory. Rather, as Jesus allows Lazarus to die and then raises him, that death comes to magnify the Son’s glory, not as we might – as a willing and obedient servant with a positive place in the Father’s purposes – but rather as, in those purposes, it is entirely trampled down. It is only in its defeat and negation that death serves the glory of the Son. And indeed, the defeat which begins beside the tomb of Lazarus will be concluded in several chapter’s time, after the Father has glorified his Son in his death, and he himself emerges from the tomb – this time with the bands of death left behind (cp. 11:44; 20:6-7), and its power definitively broken.

Bible Study - 1 John 3:16-24

Michael Flynn is the Vicar of St Columb’s Hawthorn, Vic.

Last year I had the privilege of speaking at the Melbourne Diocesan Curate’s conference on the charges given in the ordinal. We considered how the charge, ‘Be a pastor after the pattern of Christ the Great Shepherd, who laid down his life for the sheep’, can become a heavy burden in long-term ordained ministry and we turned to 1 John 3:16-24 for wisdom.

The key text is: This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. (1 John 3:16). The context of the apostle John’s letter is schism. The church had split, people had left (2:19) but those who had left were still in the local community accusing and misleading those who remained in the church. John’s treatment for a difficult pastoral situation is to provide theological guidance based on tested authority (1.1-4) because we need meaning that is reliable. That is how we hope. John provides four interwoven tests of genuine Christianity to encourage those who remain. Three are observable tests and one is a subjective test. They are:

1. The social test or test of love. Love is defined as the love God showed us in Christ - self sacrificial love. (2:9-11; 3:13,16-18; 4:10-12)

2. The theological test of Christology and Incarnation. That Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ the Son of God. Or, to put that another way, the Jesus of history is the Christ of faith. (2:22,23; 3:23; 4:1-6)

3. The moral test. John is realistic; where there is pastoral and theological confusion there will be moral failure. (1:8-10; 2:3-6; 3:7-10)

4. The subjective experience of the Holy Spirit and answered prayer. (3:21,22,24)

What is of interest to pastors under pressure is how John applies these tests to our consciences and motivations. In 3:16-21 John is practical and unsentimental about love. Love means to share possessions, because that is literally to lay down life by giving up livelihood (time and the possessions gained by our time) to serve others. John applies the cross of Christ, the atonement, directly to his people as a model of Christian living (3:18). He then goes on to apply this evidence of practical, atoning love to his people’s consciences. The living out of atoning love, by the practical sharing of material possessions and giving life is evidence to our consciences that we belong to Christ.

This is a hard thought for biblical believers as we are nervous of any hint that our works may contribute to our salvation. Our mental habit is to discount the value of the Christ-like works we do but, it turns out, that is to dishonour the work of God. John is clear; our attempt to imitate the atonement of Christ in practical love is not evidence that we can save ourselves. In 2:2, Jesus alone is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, in 4:19 we love only because he first loved us. However, our love is evidence that we have been saved, that God is at work in and with us. So, when our hearts condemn us (3:21) we can set out hearts at rest in his presence (3:19). This is akin to the kind of spiritual self-talk we see modelled in the Psalms, when the Psalmist gathers up the evidence of God’s promises and actions to rebuke his discouraged soul (eg. Psalms 37, 42). In 1 John, part of God’s action is the stumbling practical love he enables us to do; we can speak to our conscience even when it wavers and condemns us and tell it no, we belong here, in the presence of the living God.

Because having an argument with your conscience is one of the toughest, long-term debates we ever have — especially if others around us are also accusing us (2:26), John adds to the evidence of sacrificial love the evidence of belief; belief that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. He weaves together the social test (love as Christ loved) and the theological test (what we believe about Jesus, 3:23) into a practical outcome; that we will see answered prayer in the life of the church (3:22) and experience the presence of Christ through his Holy Spirit (3:24. It is worth noting that for John this fourth subjective test accompanies the objective ones or it is not true. 2:20-27).

I am deeply encouraged that though John was not writing to perfect people (2:1) in a perfect church, nevertheless their hard won growth in Christ seen in the tests of sacrificial love, theological understanding, moral effort and the experience of God’s Spirit can be held up to their consciences as evidence of God amongst them. Ladies and gentlemen, here is how to measure ministry success. Here is help for sustaining the long-term work of laying down our lives for the sheep. Rebuke your conscience.

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