Posts Tagged ‘Scripture’

The literary structure of Mark 4:1-34

Have you ever heard a riddle that you just couldn’t understand? Here’s an example from the book, The Hobbit, which I would never get on my own: “Voiceless it cries, wingless flutters, toothless bites, mouthless mutters.” What is this? The wind.

Well today we are looking at how Jesus’ teaching is often hard to understand, especially his parables, which he used as riddles, and he teaches us that only those who listen carefully to him and work hard at it will discover his meaning. The two passages that we’re looking at today are 4:10-13 and 4:21-25.

By way of –


– remember that in our story so far Jesus has suffered a great deal of rejection:

  • When he healed and forgave the paralyzed man he was accused of blasphemy – 2:7
  • Because of his unique Sabbath practices we learn that the Pharisees sought “to destroy him” – 3:6
  • Then he was accused of being possessed by a demon and that his ministry was empowered by Satan – 3:22-30
  • Even his family rejected him, thinking he was “out of his mind” – 3:21

Two weeks ago we saw how all this rejection raised the question, ‘Why have so many not believed?’ And we heard Jesus’ answer in the parable of the seed and the soils. Many people have a spiritual condition of hardheartedness that won’t receive the good news of the kingdom.

But this rejection also brings about a change in Jesus’ approach. Now there are believers and unbelievers; insiders and outsiders. And in our verses today Jesus turns away from the outsiders – the Jewish leaders, the crowds, even his own family, to focus on the insiders; his disciples.

This is what we find in –

Mark 4:10-13

 – our first passage.

10And when he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables.

By “alone” it means that the crowds are gone. Jesus is now just with the 12 apostles and it says “those around him” or the broader group of disciples. These are the insiders (literally in 3:31-34).

So they ask Jesus “about the parables” that is, how to understand what he has just taught the crowd.

11And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God . . .”

So God has given them something (“has been given” is a divine passive). What is it? “The secret of the kingdom of God.” This refers to Jesus’ teaching, which speaks of who he is – the king, what the kingdom is like and how it comes into this world. It’s the insiders who receive this; those who gather around Jesus.

But then Jesus says something quite radical –

“. . . but for those outside everything is in parables, 12so that ‘they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.’”

Parables are often seen as illustrations that Jesus gives to make his teaching clearer, like sermon illustrations. Here Jesus tells us that the exact opposite is true. He uses parables , which are, as I said, like riddles or puzzles – to hide his meaning from the unbelieving; from outsiders. We can rightly ask, “What’s this all about?”

Well, he’s quoting a version of Isaiah 6:9-10 (It’s most similar to the Isaiah Targum). And just as in the context of Isaiah it’s a way of saying that God is judging those who have rejected him, here Jesus is saying that his parables are a judgment on those who reject him.

  • Parables further advance those who believe and gather around him because he gives them further insight and understanding into what they mean.
  • But parables keep at a distance those who reject Jesus, for no explanation is given.

He has shared the gospel with them and they have rejected it. So now they are held at a distance. And this is a judgment from God.

What he’s saying is that his teaching is concealed to outsiders, but is revealed to insiders. Turn to Mark 4:34. This verse says, “He did not speak to them (the crowd) without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything.”

Now don’t misunderstand. Any of these outsiders can leave behind their rejection of Jesus and become an insider if they want. But as long as they stay there they will get nothing further from Jesus. That this is true is seen in that Jesus’ family in chapter 3 rejects him, they are outsiders, but later they come to believe.

Then we come back to the insiders –

13And he said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables?

 Jesus challenges them to see if they understand the parable of the seed and the soils. If they can’t understand this one, which he seems to be saying is pretty easy, how will they understand any of them? And so he helps them by telling them what it means in vs. 14-20, which we have already looked at.

This brings us to our second passage –

Mark 4:21-25

All these sayings, which are parables in themselves – and might seem like they aren’t connected, teach a simple truth: It takes work to understand the teaching of Jesus.

Even though he speaks in parables, and in general his teaching can be hard to understand, Jesus really does want his teaching to be understood. He compares it to a lamp in v. 21 (also Matthew 5:15; Luke 8:16).

21And he said to them, “Is a lamp brought in to be put under a basket, or under a bed, and not on a stand?”

Just as a lamp is meant to shine out, so his teaching is meant to give light to all.

Jesus’ intention is expressed in v. 22 –

22For nothing is hidden except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret except to come to light.” (also Matthew 10:26; Luke 8:17; 12:22)

Everything Jesus hides, he wants to come to light. Everything he veils, he wants to be made known. But, we have to do some work. Jesus hides his teaching so that only  those who really seek after it will find it.

The two exhortations that come next tell us what we need to do –

23If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.” 24And he said to them, “Pay attention to what you hear.”

We need to listen. Today we would say, “pay attention to what you read,” since Jesus’ teaching is now written out in the Scriptures. Jesus is saying, ‘If you want to understand, you need to listen carefully. You need to put some effort into understanding what he’s saying.

And then comes an important principle –

24With the measure you use, it will be measured to you . . .”

Jesus uses this principle in other places (Matthew 7:2/Luke 6:38), but here the focus is on understanding his teaching. What he’s saying, is that there’s a relationship between the effort we put in – and the understanding we receive from God.

  • To say it another way, the amount of careful listening you put in – seeking, puzzling, discerning, studying – equals the amount of understanding you will get.
  • And likewise, the less of these things you do, the less understanding you receive.

But then, there’s the generosity of God for those who put in effort. The end of v. 24 says –

“. . . and still more will be added to you.”

So, if you pay attention and receive from God in proportion to your effort, God will give even more understanding on top of this; a surplus; an added bonus.

In the first part of v. 25 Jesus says –

“For to the one who has, more will be given . . ..”

 The disciples are an example here. They have received the message of the kingdom and have gathered around Jesus and are asking questions. They have some understanding of his teaching and what he’s up to. So more is given. Jesus tells them what the parables mean.

But even for us today Jesus is promising that if we study carefully, the Spirit of God will help us to understand. An example of this is Peter when he confessed that Jesus was the Messiah. Jesus tells him that God revealed this to him (Matthew 16:17).

And then we have a warning. The last part of v. 25 says –

“. . . and from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” (For this whole saying see also Matthew 13:12/Luke 8:18; Matthew 25:29/Luke 19:26).

This is the other side of the coin, as it were, of God’s generosity. Those who don’t listen to Jesus, who put in no effort, will lose even what they have.

The examples here are the outsiders – those who have rejected Jesus. They have heard the good news of the kingdom but have not received it. So for these they get puzzles and riddles without explanation. They don’t receive anything else from Jesus. And like the seed on the hardened soil of the path the birds come and take it away. ‘Even what they have is taken away.

Let me end by asking us, we who are insiders –

Do you understand?

In contrast to outsiders, we have received the gift of Jesus’ teaching. Not just the parables but all that he taught as recorded in the gospels. We also have the Old Testament as background to understand it. And we have the rest of the New Testament that reflects back on it that helps us. And we are given the gift of the Spirit to lead and guide us as we interpret and apply his teaching to our lives.

What an amazing gift and treasure! Jesus says of his teaching in Mark 13:31, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” This is the gift we have.

But, are you putting in the work? Do you even read the Scriptures?

Are you content with what you already know? For there is much, much more than any of us will ever discover in one lifetime.

Are you hungry for more? Do you wrestle with it and struggle with it until you understand it?

Are you like the Bereans in Acts 17:11 who didn’t just take someone else’s word for it, but it says, “they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.”

The measure of effort you give is the measure of understanding you will get – plus more.

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Last week we looked at Being in tune with God. I tried to cast a vision of the Christian life as one in which we can hear God and do his will in any situation we find ourselves in. So we don’t just know God’s will in general, for instance, sharing the good news with people. We can also hear what God might want us to say or do in a specific situation, sharing with a particular person.

God is working all the time all around us. And so our goal is to be in synch with whatever God is up to in a given situation, so that we can be on board and be used by God to accomplish his will. So we need to tune in to God; we need to be listening, listening all the time; we need to be paying attention – so that we can be a part of what God is doing.

Jesus is our example of this in John 5:1-16. He healed the disabled man on the Sabbath because God specifically told him to, and so that’s exactly what he did. As he said, “My Father is working until now, and I am working” – John 5:17. And even though we don’t have the same level of relationship with the Father that Jesus has, we do have the Spirit and so we can also be led and guided by God in specific ways.

Well, if being in tune with God is the goal, how do we get there? This brings us to today’s topic, Getting in tune with God. And to begin with you need to –

Prepare yourself

If you get yourself tuned in, in general, then you will be ready to hear God when he wants to guide you in a very particular way. And right at the top of the list is to 1. Fully yield your heart to God.

I can say with great confidence that there is no way that you can be in tune with God if your heart is in rebellion against God; if you don’t submit to God fully; if you don’t even want to do God’s will.

You have to submit first. This means not only that you get rid of known, willful sin in your life, positively it means that you are committed to choose to do what God wants, even if it’s not what you want. Are you willing to do whatever God might say to you?

Once again, Jesus is our example. He was fully yielded to God. As he said in John 5:30 – “I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me.” Jesus didn’t act on his own; he acted in accord with God’s will. This is the way Jesus was always, and so he was ready when the Father told him to heal the disabled man on that particular day.

Well, we are to be fully yielded to God as well, so that our “will is to do God’s will,” as Jesus says in John 7:17. This is what we are supposed to be like. And when  we are fully yielded we put ourselves in a place spiritually where we can be led by God to do his will; where God can specifically guide us if he needs to.

2. Get to know God by immersing yourself in the Scriptures. God has revealed himself to us in the Scriptures. So know the Scriptures inside and out, and then you will know the general framework of what God’s will is in all things.

And what an opportunity this is! But do we take advantage of this? Do you spend time in the Word? Are you hungry to know more about God? Some Christians feel like after a while they know the basics and that’s enough. But there is so much more – it is so deep, and it gives life. In the Scriptures we come to know who God is and what God is like and how God works, and what God’s will is.

Again, Jesus is our example. In John 5:1-16 Jesus knew that as the Messiah he was to have a healing ministry because Isaiah 35:5-6 prophesied this. “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.” And he also knew that the forbidding of healing or receiving God’s salvation on the Sabbath was a human rule, not something Scripture forbade. So he knew the general framework of God’s will.

Well, we are to “have God’s word abiding in” us as well, as Jesus said in John 5:38, in the context of talking about the Old Testament. (He says this to the Jewish leaders, that they don’t have this, but they should have and we should as well.) And we are to have Jesus’ “words abiding” in us, as he says in John 15:7. So both the Old and New Testaments are covered here.

This prepares us to hear from God because we know who God is and what his will is in general. And our heart and mind become tuned in to this.

3. Get to know God by spending time in God’s presence. The Spirit of God lives within us and this is how God speaks to us and guides us more specifically.

And what a great privilege we have to be able to spend time in God’s presence by the Spirit! But do we take advantage of it? Do we spend time with God, not just praying but worshipping. And also listening to what God wants to say to us?

Jesus is our example. He had “the Spirit without measure” – John 3:34. And we see the fruit of his time spent with the Father in John 5:20. “For the Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing.” He and the Father were in the closest of relationships. And so in any given situation he was ready to hear and act on what God said to him, just as when he healed the disabled man.

Well, we also receive the Spirit. As Jesus said the Spirit is our “helper” – John 14:16. And the Spirit “guides” us – John 16:13. So we need to spend time in God’s presence and allow God to also speak to us by the Spirit. And as we become sensitive to this, and through much practice, we grow in our ability to hear God; to be tuned in to the Spirit’s guidance and how this all works.

Well, these same three things that prepare us to hear from God, also help us to – 

Discern God’s leading

– when we hear God in everyday life situations. 1. A yielded heart can hear God more clearly. If you have ever tried to quiet your heart and mind; to unplug and sit in silence to hear God, you know it can be difficult. There are often many voices floating around in our minds. There is the flesh with its wrong desires, fears, or pride. There is our inner sense of of what we are working on, our “to do” list. And there is Satan, who seeks to lead us astray and can try to mimic God’s voice. How in all this can we discern God’s voice?

Well in the same verse that Jesus tells us about how our hearts are to be such that our “will is to do God’s will” he says, “If anyone’s will is to do God’s will, he will know whether (something) is from God” or not (John 7:17). In this case the point is whether what Jesus teaches is of God or not.

But the general point here is that if your heart is yielded, that is, you want to do God’s will – you “will know.” When your heart is in the right place you will better be able to discern God’s voice in the midst of other competing voices.

2. Test everything against the Scriptures. If we know the Scriptures inside and out, then we know the general framework of God’s will. And so if we hear something that goes against the Scriptures we know it is not of God. As Jesus said in John 10:35 – “Scripture cannot be broken.” This is a great help in discerning God’s voice.

3. Test everything against what you know God sounds like. From your own times alone with God you get to know what God’s voice and leading is like; how God’s voice is different than your own or any other voice; how God’s voice is crystal clear, strong and pure and comes from outside of yourself.

This experience helps you to know in the moment whether what you are hearing is from God, or not. You know, when someone calls you on the phone that you don’t talk to often, it can be hard to tell who it is. But if you talk on the phone all the time, you know exactly what their voice sounds like and don’t have to wonder at all.

And then finally,

Do what God tells you to do!

As we learned last week, we are not to just be doing things on our own. We are to be listening to what God might say to us in our various life situations. Well, once we hear God then we are to do exactly what God wants us to do. Just as Jesus did in John 5 when he healed the man on the Sabbath.

Two stories of this at work in my life . . ..

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Series: Be at peace with one another!

We are back into our series on Jesus’ teaching in the gospel of Mark. And today we begin in on a passage found in Mark 9:33-50, which will take us a few weeks to work our way through.

We’re gonna look specifically at vs. 33-37 this morning, focused on arguments about who’s the greatest in the church community. But before we jump in, let’s back up and look at –

The bigger picture

Mark 9:33-50 is a part of a yet larger section of teaching that comes between Jesus’ second and third prediction of his death. This is teaching for his disciples about living life after his death and resurrection – after Jesus is gone. It’s preparation for this. The first part of this has to do with the household of the church: Mark 9:33-50 – which is our focus. The second has to do with earthly households: Mark 10:1-31 (marriage – vs. 1-12; children – vs. 13-16; wealth – vs. 17-31).

Now let’s look a bit more at what Jesus says about –

The household of the church – Mark 9:33-50

You have a handout that outlines the passage. This is where we’ll be going in the next few weeks. The common theme is relationships in Jesus’ community of disciples. And the point of this whole passage is found at the very end, in  v. 50 – “Be at peace with one another.”

As you can see in your handout, he covers three relationship problems: arguing over who is the greatest, rejecting those who are not from your group and looking down on those who seem unimportant. Then he stresses in the clearest possible way the danger that awaits those who cause division and strife in his community in, what I am calling the three amputation sayings and the three salt sayings.

So this is what we are looking at and we begin with the first kind of conflict, the disciples arguing about –

Who’s the greatest?

v. 33 – “And they came to Capernaum. And when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you discussing on the way?’” Capernaum was Jesus’ home base. It was a fishing village on the  sea of Galilee.

Jesus checks in on his disciples to see what they were discussing. Maybe it was an especially intense conversation and he wants to see what’s going on.

v. 34 – “But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest.” They were silent because they knew better than to openly argue about such a thing.

Jesus has been teaching them about the coming of the kingdom of God and they expected to have an exalted place in that kingdom, based on their service to Jesus now.

And that expectation was right. As Jesus indicates in Matthew 19:28 – “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”

But who would have the highest place? Whose throne would be the best? Whose would be next to Jesus and whose would be furthest away?

v. 35 – “And he sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, ‘If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.’” Jesus sits down because this is what teachers did in that day. He has something to share with them about the true path to greatness – which is very different than what people in the world think.

The way to be great is to be “last of all and servant of all.” This is an important teaching that is repeated in different ways by Jesus:

  • Mark 10:43-44 – “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.”
  • Luke 22:26 – “Let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves.”
  • Matthew 23:11 – “The greatest among you shall be your servant.”

If in the world you become great by putting yourself forward to be recognized, clawing your way to the top while pushing others down, being arrogant and self-focused – in the kingdom you become great by lowering yourself and being the last of all.

If being great in the world means being served by others – in the kingdom being great means serving others.

Jesus is saying to his disciples – it’s OK to seek to be great, but you’re going about it in exactly the wrong way.

  • Don’t focus on raising yourself up and being recognized and served.
  • Focus on lowering yourself and serving others’ needs.

For this is what greatness means in the kingdom of God. And these God himself will raise up to be honored.

And then Jesus gives an illustration. v. 36 – “And he took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms . . .” Apparently the child is from the house where they are.

Remember that in biblical times children were not held in the same high regard as they are today in the West. They were often seen as no more than slaves, until they grew up. They had no power or social status. They were not put on a pedestal. They were on the bottom – lowly and last.

And so what does Jesus do? “Taking him in his arms” can also be translated as “embracing him.” Jesus hugs the child. A simple act of love; the giving of attention and affection. Jesus is saying, “This is what I’m talking about.”

Then he gives the lesson. vs. 36-37 – “. . . he said to them, ‘Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.’”

 To receive someone means to welcome them. To welcome them in the name of Jesus is to do this on behalf of Jesus; as his representative; as his servant.

Jesus is saying that greatness comes from accepting the lowest social status in order to serve others – in this case a child. You put yourself below the lowly one, so that you can love and minister to their needs. Instead of the lowly ones focusing on you and lifting you up, you focus on them and lift them up by serving them.

And what you will find is that you will not be serving no-bodies, you know, people who can’t help you out in return (Luke 1413-14), you will be serving Jesus and indeed the Father.

Let me ask the question, then –

How do we seek out worldly greatness?

How do we try to be better than others in our church community? It’s usually not open. Like the disciples we know that we shouldn’t openly pursue this. But we do have subtle ways of seeking to put ourselves above others.

Here’s an example: a pastor who’s focus is on success, defined as having a bigger and bigger church and being recognized by others; a kind of celebrity. In other words this pastor has a worldly definition of success. Now, it isn’t wrong to grow or to be recognized. But the point of ministry is to place yourself below others to serve them, not above them to be recognized. To lift them up, not to be lifted up.

A church member who wants a certain role. And so pushes to get it, manipulates, pressures and politicks for it. This is really just self-promotion – seeking the honor of the role, not seeking to serve others.

Rivalries between church members. You know, over who is more gifted, or more faithful? Rivalries for the admiration of other members, or agreement on key issues that the church is discussing – creating factions.

A church member who wants to be recognized. You have worked hard and no one seems to notice. And so you are angry and a little bitter. And so you start laying out hints to get others to notice you. Again it is not wrong to be recognized. And maybe others are failing to appreciate you. But it’s wrong to seek to be recognized or to set your heart on gaining that. That is the way of the world.

When we take up the agenda of worldly greatness we strain, damage and destroy our relationships with each other. And the church is weakened and distracted from doing what God calls us to do. Any group that is focused on such things is not going to be able to be focused on loving God and loving each other and serving God in the world. So you can see the importance of us having good relationships with each other.

Jesus’ word to us

Stop seeking worldly greatness among yourselves, and “be at peace with one another” – v. 50.

Only seek kingdom greatness, which will eliminate the conflict over who has the most status and who should be recognized.

And then let God exalt you at the right time. Don’t even worry about this. Keep on lowering yourself to serve and leave the agenda of recognition in God’s hands. It may not come until the final day, but wait for it. It will be worth it.

William Higgins

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The topic of finding God’s will is one for all of us to reflect on, and perhaps especially for our young people to consider as they have their whole lives before them. So I would like for us to focus on this today and also next week as well.

Ephesians 2:10 tells us “we are [God’s] workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” This tells us that God created each one of us and he has prepared beforehand things for us to do – “good works.” And so we all need to search after our place in God’s scheme of things, so that we can “walk in” these good works, as Paul says. What is it that God wants us to do? What is it that God wants you to do?

Now, let me begin by noting that –

A lot of God’s will is the same for all of us

 God wants all of us to live a life of righteousness, as this is taught in Scripture. And this can be quite specific:

  • Should I be in an adulterous relationship? No, this is not God’s will.
  • Should I marry an unbeliever? No.
  • Should I find a way to love my enemy? Yes.
  • Should I be true to my word? Yes.

Scripture teaches us these things and they are the same for everybody.

And secondly, God wants all of us to serve him and work for the kingdom. No exceptions! This is God’s will for all believers.

To say it another way, it is God’s will for each of us to: Love God with all our heart and to .ove our neighbor as ourselves.

Paul puts it like this – it is God’s “purpose” for each of us is “to be conformed to the image of his Son” – Romans 8:28-29. That is, we are all to live out Jesus’ teaching and follow his example in every situation in life that we find ourselves.

And these things are taught in Scripture. As Psalm 119:105 says, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” These things are clear and they apply to all of us, and to any specific situation we might find ourselves in. So Scripture shines a light on the path that we are to walk, showing us God’s will. (Now for sure there can be areas of application that become difficult, so that even in this area we need discernment at times. See – Ephesians 5:10; Philippians 1:9-10; Hebrews 5:14)

But there is also –

God’s specific will for you

Those things that God wants for you, that are unique to you and your situation; that have to do with why God made you and the gifts that God has given to you. This is what we are focusing on. Questions like:

  • How should I serve God? What is my place in the kingdom?
  • Should I marry? And if so, who?
  • Should I take a particular job? Or more broadly, which career?
  • Should I stay here or move?
  • Should I go for more schooling?

Now, let me say at this point, we can overdo this searching after God’s specific will so that you think you need to feel a mountain shake and hear a voice from God every time you do something. So if you go grocery shopping you are asking, “Lord, should I get the name brand or generic? Lord, what should I do?”

We can take this too far. And I have seen this kind of thing, and I don’t want to encourage it. I am really talking about important decisions; or where you are at a crossroads; or when your heart is stirring – and you think God is up to something.

So, how do you find God’s specific will for you? I want us to look at –

Eight things you can do

 – that will help you to discern this. These are steps you can take to help you hear and receive what God wants to tell you. We will look at three of these today.

1. Get close to God. Think about it. Who will hear a person better, one standing nearby or far off? If you want to know what God has to say, you need to draw near to God. Who knows better what a person wants, their close friend or a stranger? Isn’t it obvious? If you want to know what God wants, you need to spend time with God in relationship.

Knowing God’s will for you, is first and foremost a matter of knowing God and being in relationship with God. Not just knowing a bit of information from God, but knowing God himself – who is most important above all.

Relationship with God involves many things, some of which we will talk about below, but certainly it means getting rid of our sin, which keeps us far from God.  Isaiah 59:2 says, “your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear.”

Does God seem distant? It may well because of the choices that you have made; the ways you have offended God and done wrong.

If this is true, repent and seek forgiveness. Clear up any issues in your relationship. And then spend time in with God. Be close to God. Walk with God. As James 4:8 says, “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” This is a promise from God.

When you are close to God you can hear what God has to say to you and you can know what he wants from you. This is the foundation for all else that follows.

2. Study the Scriptures. This is certainly a part of being close to God; of getting to know God.

Scripture guides us, not just in teaching us righteousness, but also by teaching us more generally –

  • God’s principles
  • God’s values
  • God’s character, or who God is
  • What God has done in the past, and
  • God’s promises to us for the future

And when we get to know all this from Scripture, it helps to guide us as we look at our own very specific situations.

Paul says in Romans 12:2, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind . . ..” He is saying, instead of being squeezed into the mold that the world puts on you and just fitting in, fill your mind with God’s values and truth. And then he goes on “. . . that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” A renewed mind gives you the perspective you need. So renew your mind in the things of God, fill it up with Scripture, and you will be able to test and discern what God’s will is in all kinds of different situations.

3. Listen for God’s voice. We hear what God has said and done in the Scriptures and this is our standard by which to judge all else. But we can also hear from God today. Amen? God is still speaking and acting today! And certainly any good relationship involves communication both ways.

  • We can hear God when we listen in our times of prayer. (Do you make time for this? Do you listen or just tell God what you need and then you’re done.)
  • We can hear God’s voice when the Spirit stirs within us. It is the great privilege of Christians that the Spirit of God lives within us. And Paul talks about Christians as ones who are “led by the Spirit” (Romans 8:14; Galatians 5:18).
  • We can also hear God’s voice as we read the Scriptures. That is, the Spirit can apply a passage to our specific circumstances, so that it comes alive and gives us the direction we need.

As we listen for God’s voice, let me say that this comes to us primarily in two ways:

An inner sense in our heart from God. This is non-verbal communication, which nonetheless communicates God’s intention to us.

  • If things are well and good it is a sense of peace, assurance and God’s presence. And example of this can be seen in Acts 15. After the Jerusalem council, James testified about the decision they made at the council, “it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us . . .” – Acts 15:28.
  • If things are not right, it is a sense of unrest, or turmoil. Paul talks about “grieving the Spirit” in Ephesians 4:30. This is something you can feel in your heart.

An inner voice from God. This voice comes from outside of ourselves. (It is not a part of our internal thinking). Yet it is heard deep in our heart. And it is clear, strong, pure and focused.

This is the “still, small voice” that Elijah heard when God spoke to him in  1 Kings 19:12. This is the voice Philip heard when he was told to speak to the Ethiopian eunuch. “And the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over and join this chariot’” – Acts 8:29.

So three things to begin with today on finding God’s will, all of which have to do with relationship with God. 1. Get close to God, 2. Study the Scriptures to get to know God, and 3. Listen for God’s voice. Next week we will continue on with steps: #4-#8.

William Higgins

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Well, perhaps you’ve heard of the groups that have been proclaiming that Jesus will return on May 21st – which is this Saturday. They seem to be everywhere. They’ve been talked about a lot in the media, and they have a robust presence through their signs, websites, RV caravans in the U.S. and even missionaries going to other countries to spread their message.

This is all based on one man who feels he has been given special insight into Scripture; insight that has been withheld for centuries. [familyradio.com/PDFS/nmk_en.pdf] He uses cryptic numbers and dates to find hidden messages in the Bible. For instance, he gives a speculative date for Noah’s flood and then using symbolic numbers he forecasts the end of all things.

Many have bought into this, and some of these have even left jobs and spent their savings because everything will end this Saturday, so, ‘Why bother with worldly concerns?’

This man also preaches that people in churches – like us, who don’t listen to and respond to his teaching about the end will be judged and condemned by God on the 21st.

This is nothing new. In fact this very man predicted the end would come on September 6, 1994. As one news article says, “On September 6, 1994, dozens of . . . believers gathered inside Alameda’s Veterans Memorial Building to await the return of Christ, an event [he] had promised for two years. Followers dressed children in their Sunday best and held Bibles open-faced toward heaven. But the world did not end. [He] allowed that he may have made a mathematical error. He spent the next decade running new calculations . . ..”  [sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2010/01/01/BA8V1AV589.DTL&feed=rss.news]

And there have been other groups that have set dates like this. The most famous example in American history is called ‘The Great Disappointment.’ The date was set for October 22, 1844. Some left jobs and responsibilities behind. But, of course, it didn’t happen. And people were certainly disappointed.

I want us to think about this today, and especially this group that says that Saturday is the big day – because this is an object lesson for us about listening to Scripture, and about how seriously we can get ourselves in trouble when we don’t.

First, let’s listen to the Scriptures, which teach that –

No one knows when Jesus will return

Turn to Mark 13, if you will. Jesus address this topic here head on. Speaking of his second coming he says, “But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” – Mark 13:32. The phrase “that day or that hour” speaks to the issue of timing, when Jesus will return. And then he says clearly “no one knows.”

And then the next part I teach in the catechism class (it’s so basic and clear that beginning Bible students know it):

  • If the angels don’t know the time, you can be sure that neither you nor anyone else knows.
  • And if the Son, that is, our Lord Jesus, doesn’t know the time of his return, you can certainly be sure that no human knows.

Are we really supposed to believe that anyone knows more than Jesus – about his own return!!! Only the Father knows the time.

Moving down to v. 33, Jesus says, plainly, “You do not know when the time will come.” And then look at v. 35. Speaking of his coming, Jesus said,  “. . . you do not know when the master of the house will come.” This man says he knows. Jesus says to him and everyone,  “you do not know.” In the space of 3 verses Jesus says this three times – “no one knows” “you do not know,” “you do not know!”

And think about it. This last verse comes from the parable of the servants. The master goes away and puts his servants in charge. The point of this parable is to teach us to be ready and alert for Jesus’ return. Why? Precisely because we don’t know when Jesus the master will return. These people think that if we know a particular date it promotes being ready. But this is the opposite of Jesus’ message.

If you know the exact date, why be ready until the day before? Live your life like you want. The servants can sleep all they want, as long as they wake up on the day they know their mater will return. Their teaching undoes the very logic of the clear message of Jesus to be ready and awake at all times because it can happen at any time.

As if this were not enough, Jesus also teaches us that we should not even try to find a date. He warned us ahead of time that some would try. In Acts 1:7, regarding the coming of the kingdom, Jesus says, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority.” So why do people try – when Jesus says, don’t? There is no possible reason to nullify our Lord’s word. As he said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” – Mark 13:31.

So after all the calculations and corrections and charts from this man, as my title says today, we still don’t know when Jesus will return.

So let me say to you today with utmost confidence that there is nothing to what this group is saying about Saturday. Not because I know – no one does. I can’t rule out May 21, or any day for that matter. But Jesus did say “the Son of man is coming at an hour you do not expect” – Luke 12:40. So therefore May 21st is an unlikely day for Jesus to return.

The serious consequences of not listening to Scripture

When we don’t listen to Scripture and make it our standard we are susceptible to false teaching. This is a reminder to us that false teaching is alive and well. And we are called to avoid it. But we are vulnerable when we don’t listen to Scripture or when we give that responsibility over to some teacher and we just listen to what they say.

Jesus himself said concerning the coming of the end, “And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray” – Matthew 24:11. He knew people would take advantage of others with regard to his second coming. And so we are to be careful.

Jesus gives this warning in Luke 21:8 – “See that you are not led astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is at hand!’ Do not go after them.” We have already seen the Scripture is clear that no one knows when Jesus will return. And any time someone sets aside the clear teaching of Scripture – the very words of Jesus – they take up the role of a false teacher.

  • These people say, “the time is at hand” – this Saturday.
  • But Jesus warns us and says, “Do not go after them.”

And as your shepherd I am reminding you of your Lord’s teaching and warning you, “do not go after them.”

Also, when we don’t listen to the clear teaching of Scripture we become a stumbling block to others. Most of those swept up in this don’t know much if anything about the Scriptures. They are just following someone that they think does know. And they will be greatly disillusioned when nothing happens on Saturday. It will cause them to question their faith; to doubt Jesus; to doubt the Scriptures.

What I am saying is that the leaders of this movement are causing these believers to stumble; to fall off the path; to lose their way.

Jesus talked about this, and the seriousness of this in Mark 9:42. “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.” Let me just say that drowning is not the way I want to die – and certainly not with a large stone around my neck. But Jesus says that it will be a worse judgment than this.

This reminds us of what James says, “Not many of you should become teachers, my sisters and brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” – James 3:1.

All who don’t listen to Scripture and then, as in our case, set themselves up as the teacher that everyone should just listen to, and mislead others with false teaching will be judged. This is very serious.

Finally, when we don’t listen to Scripture, and then act on this, as in this case setting a date for the end against Jesus’ clear warning we defame God’s holy name.

Here I am talking about unbelievers. As Christians we are not to “misuse God’s name.” This is the third of the ten commandments (Exodus 20:7). Rather, Jesus teaches us to pray every day for God’s name to be “hallowed” or honored (Matthew 6:9).

And we bear God’s name. We are called by his name. And when we act in ways that bring ridicule to our faith, we bring ridicule to the Name that we bear.

Israel did this (Ezekiel 36:22). As Paul said, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you” -Romans 2:24. And Christians have done this. And now these people are doing this. For when nothing happens on Saturday in the eyes of many, Christian faith will have been shown to be foolish and false. “Here we go, once again. Those Christians are sitting on hills waiting for Jesus. Don’t they know by now that it won’t happen.”

It gives God a bad name, even though God is not behind this and Jesus forbids it. Indeed, there are already Atheist parties planned so that they can celebrate when nothing happens and mock the faith of these people, and Christian faith in general.

This is a serious thing. For the third commandment ends with these words – “The Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name” – Exodus 20:3 (NRSV).

The message

So as I said this is a kind of object lesson for us, of what not to do. And what will happen because of it. In this particular case it has to do with the return of Jesus and the resurrection. But it could play out in other areas of our faith as well.

The lesson is, listen to the Scriptures! Listen to Jesus. Because when you don’t, it gets you into all kinds of trouble. And you will see this play out this very week. As it does, remember what we have looked at today from the Scriptures.

William Higgins

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We are talking about our congregation’s future today. And I want to begin with a bit of recent history. Leadership has been working at ways for our congregation to move forward for quite a while now. Long before the two services plan was offered. And after it wasn’t accepted, we certainly have worked hard. Many hours of meetings. For myself, and I am sure others, many more hours of thinking and praying and working at this.

This is important because it is about vision for the future; our future. And it’s important that any group, our own church included, has a sense of direction and purpose; that we know we are going somewhere and somewhere good. Of course, you can never control the future and what will happen. But at least with a plan you can be intentional about setting a direction and moving toward some specific goals.

As Elders and church council members I believe we have come to a point of clarity on moving forward, although we will ask for your blessing at our annual meeting in July. (And you will be able to see the details then).

But before we get to moving forward,  first –

Some words of encouragement

I guess it’s just a part of human nature that it’s much easier to see the negative in things rather than the good. Right? We often focus on all that we should be doing better as a congregation; all the areas we are weak in compared to other churches. We don’t often think about what we do well, and where we are gifted; where God has blessed us.

Let me give you some examples of this, and then I will let you give some as well:

  • Our children and young people – what a good group we have, and we want to invest in their lives.
  • Our musical gifts and worship times
  • We have many who are willing to work with their hands to serve others – service trips, MDS, helping members with needs.
  • We have many people who are highly committed and work hard at serving the Lord. And I thank God for each one.
  • We like to have fun with each other – eating, hanging out, joking, laughing.

Also mentioned by the congregation –  our Pastor (and, of course, I joked that I would pay Dale for saying that after the service). We have many good teachers in our congregation. And we are a multi-generational church.

These are all precious gifts from God. And we should be thankful to be in a congregation so blessed!

Brothers and sisters, let’s have a good image of ourselves. Not because we are anything, but because God is good to us. And let’s build on these good things as we move forward.

Now let’s talk about the future. First of all, we want to –

1. Make involvement in ministry the center of our church

Romans 12:4-6 says, “For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them . . ..”

Everyone of us has gifts and abilities, given by God. And as Paul says, we want you to use them!

So we want to shake up how we are organized. We don’t want to focus on administration so much and simply coming to meetings (too much of which can suck the life out of the best of us). We want to focus on a number of ministry teams, building on what we already have, and having a flexible structure so that as God leads, others can be formed.

For instance we are now working on creating a “Hospitality Team” which will focus on welcoming visitors, and also will bring together other roles we already have that are related to this. We want to make this a focal point of ministry. And we want to do it well.

Each such ministry team will be led by someone who has gifts and a passion in that area of ministry. And they will be encouraged to give leadership and be creative. And then we will recruit others to help out, who also have gifts and a desire to serve in that area.

So this change is about unleashing people to serve out of their strengths. Because when people are acting out of their gifts and their passions, the work, although it can be hard and time consuming – is life giving. There is joy in it!

So there is a change in organization involved, but we also want to shake up our thinking about ministry.

  • Under the supervision of the Elders, we want to give leaders freedom to lead and be creative.
  • We want to get everyone involved in some way or another with ministry – according to the grace that God has given them. This should be seen as normal, not exceptional – from our seniors all the way to our youth.
  • And we want to learn to be flexible. If people come forward with a vision and gifts, new ministry teams can be put together. And if there is no longer a vision or a person wanting to serve, the team can cease. We need to learn to ask. ‘Where is God working among us?’ ’Where is God stirring up vision and giving us people with gifts?’ And we need to pursue this.

Second and just briefly, we want to –

2. Be prepared in practical ways for growth

This comes as an expression of our faith – that God will work among us.

So we will be working at putting in place a five year plan for our building and grounds. We have at various times bumped up against the limitations of our facilities, since I have been here and even before.

As we grow, as God works among us, we want to have a pathway in place; a roadmap for how to move forward and what steps are involved. We want to be ready.

We make this plan in faith, and we will enact it a step at time, as there is need. Whether it’s in five years or not.

Alright, having put in place a way for people to use their gifts in ministry, and having in place a plan for what might come of it, third, and most importantly, we want to –

3. Invite God to work through us

Psalm 127:1 says, “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.” I know I certainly don’t want to labor in vain. So we need to seek God.

God is the key. Because it is God alone who brings real growth, and fruit that remains. As Paul says, it is “God who gives the growth” – 1 Corinthians 3:7.

How this works is a mystery to us. As Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.” – Mark 4:26-29.

We just tend the garden, but God has to act to bring life and growth. So this is a matter of prayer and seeking after God.

This is what I believe

I believe if you aren’t moving forward, you are moving backward. There is no neutral in the Christian life.

I believe that if we just focus on being comfortable and doing things like we always have – we’re gonna find ourselves a few years from now asking, ‘Why don’t we have any new people?’

I believe God wants to move among us; that God wants to do something special among us.

I believe that God has given each of us gifts for his kingdom which he can use to move among us. And that none of us will find true joy until we do serve the Lord. Because this is what we were created for.

I believe that God wants to touch people’s lives through us. And that there are people out there waiting for us to kick it into high gear, so that they will be touched and transformed and turned into those who minister to others as well.

What I am asking of you

I am asking you to believe that God can and will work in us and through us in powerful new ways. In other words, I am asking you to have faith; to be excited; to have expectation; to be looking forward to what God will do among us.

I am asking you to be committed; to give more priority to this church body than to other activities, worthwhile as they may be. I am asking you to invest yourself in this congregation; your time and your resources.

Finally, I am asking you to use your gifts. Find out what they are, and then don’t be shy. Be teachable, but be bold to step out and serve.

William Higgins

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We’re talking about prayer again today. Last week we looked at fasting as a prayer amplifier. That is, a way of increasing the effectiveness of our prayers. In the words of Isaiah 58:4, a way of making our “voice to be heard on high.”

We saw how fasting makes our prayers more effective because it’s a way of humbling ourselves before God when we pray. And when we are lowly, we are closer to God; when we are truly humble, we gain God’s favor.

This week we look at almsgiving as a prayer amplifier. Let’s start with –

Some basics on alms

And we begin with the question what are “alms”? It’s not a common word today. It means giving aid to the poor and needy. The word comes from a Greek word whose root means “mercy” or “compassion.”

Isaiah 58:7 gives a good description of almsgiving. It means “to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; (and) when you see the naked, to cover him.”  Jesus gives a number of examples of alms in his teaching on the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:35-36. “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.”

Alms in the Law. Giving to the poor was encouraged for individuals in the Law. For instance lending money to the needy (Deuteronomy 15:11). And these loans were forgiven every seven years, which means some of them became gifts.

But the Law also required alms of everyone at points. The third year tithes (Deuteronomy 14:28-29) were stored up and used to feed Levites, immigrants, orphans and widows. And harvest was left in the field (Leviticus 19:9) in order for the needy to gather it and have something to eat.

Alms in later Judaism grew in importance. Giving alms was considered second in importance only to study of the Law (or Scripture). It was considered greater than all other commandments. It even became Synonymous with the word “righteousness” it was so highly esteemed.

We are to give to the needy

If there might have been a question about fasting, there is no dispute about this. It is an expression of love for the person in need, and it is an expression of righteousness on our part.

Jesus taught about giving alms a lot. Here is just one example, “Sell your possessions and give alms” or give to the poor – Luke 12:33. He is saying, take of your excess and help those who don’t have enough.

Paul also taught giving alms, “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.” –  Galatians 6:10. ‘Doing good’ is another way to say helping the needy.

Jesus also practiced giving alms – John 13:29. As did Paul, as we see in the case of the Jerusalem offering for the poor in Jerusalem – 1 Corinthians 16:1-3.

There are a number of –

Scriptural promises

– connected to giving alms, and I want us to see some of these.

  • Proverbs 22:9 – “Whoever has a bountiful eye will be blessed, for he shares his bread with the poor.”
  • Proverbs 28:27 – “Whoever gives to the poor will not want, but he who hides his eyes will get many a curse.”
  • Psalm 41:1 – “Blessed is the one who considers the poor! In the day of trouble the Lord delivers him.”
  • Psalm 112:5 – “It is well with the one who deals generously and lends.”
  • Proverbs 14:21 – “Whoever despises his neighbor is a sinner, but blessed is he who is generous to the poor.”

Alms as a prayer amplifier

The connection of prayer and the giving alms to the blessings in these promises comes out in several places:

1. Matthew 6:2-5. Here alms are spoken of as a way of seeking the reward of God’s attention or favor. And in this passage it is linked to prayer and also fasting. This is, in fact, why these three things are grouped together by Jesus. Prayer is seeking God and giving alms and fasting are prayer amplifiers.

2. Isaiah 58. We looked at this last week because it also talks about fasting. v. 7 says if you give alms, that is, if you help the hungry, help the homeless and clothe the naked, then v. 9 says, “Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’” Your voice will, for sure, be heard on high by God – v. 4.

3. Acts 10. In this example of Cornelius the connection between alms and prayer comes out clearly. v. 2 says that Cornelius was “a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God.”

Then one day an angel came to him and said in v. 4 – “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God.” As Cornelius recounts this in v. 31 the angel said, “your prayer has been heard and your alms have been remembered before God.”

So God answered his prayers, sending Peter to him to preach the gospel. And this great favor came to him, in part, because of his almsgiving and prayer. As the verses say, your alms have been remembered. And so when he prayed God heard his prayers and blessed him.

Why do alms make our prayers more effective?

The basic idea is that when we give alms it pleases God very much; it gains God’s favor. There are several different ways of saying this:

1. Giving alms is lending to the Lord. And God will repay you, when you call out in your time of trouble. Proverbs 19:17 says, “Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed.”

2. Almsgiving is a sacrifice that gains God’s favor. The language in Acts 10 is sacrificial language, his alms “ascended as a memorial before God.” It is like a burnt offering in the Old Testament, the smoke of which went up into heaven before God.

Hebrews 13:16 uses similar imagery. It says, “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.” After receiving a gift of alms, Paul says in Philippians 4:18-19 – “I am well supplied, having received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God.”

3. The prayers of the righteous carry more weight. James 5:16 says, “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.” And almsgiving is very righteous. As we saw, often the word for alms was synonymous with the word for righteousness, the association was so close.

Let me end with a caution on giving alms from Jesus.

Beware of false seeking

In other words, don’t give alms in order to seek the attention of people; to show that you are spiritual or righteous. We always have a way of taking something good and then making it self-centered. And this is the case here.

Jesus said in Matthew 6:2 – “When you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.” Jesus is saying, they will get nothing from God because they already got what they wanted – the people’s attention.

Rather, Jesus says in Matthew 6:3-4 – “But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

When we give to help others (besides showing love for the person in need) we are to focus on getting God’s attention alone; or pleasing God. And then God will see what we do in secret, and remember it. And when we call out in our time of need – our prayers will be amplified. The intensity of our concern will be fully conveyed to God for consideration. As I said last week, this doesn’t force God’s hand but it makes sure that we are heard and fully considered by God.

William Higgins

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