I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified, who has spoken through the prophets.
- The Nicene Creed
I believe in the Holy Spirit: There is much appeal to the Holy Spirit in the Christianity of our day. Yet we are caused to enquire as to whether this is founded on a sound understanding of the third Person of the Trinity or is it due to the moving of the Spirit among us in a special way? Whenever God works there is always the occurrence of phenomena that are bogus and which take developments to an extreme. In his sovereign freedom God may work in ways and at times that are unexpected and new surges of life among the people of God can be upsetting to narrowness of mind and rigidity of form among believers, and more so to those who are purely nominal. And yet the modern day allegation that the Spirit has been absent and unrecognized through large tracts of past history does not seem to be true. Many believers and leaders of the historic church in all generations have had a very lively sense of the Holy Spirit and leaned upon him consciously and heavily. This is proven by the creeds and confessional statements of the church, and the theological, devotional, spiritual, and sermonic records bequeathed to us from the past. There is a rich heritage of vital faith in the Holy Spirit and much personal knowledge of him in personal life and witness.
There are also disturbing accounts of “ultra spiritual” cults, sects, and individuals that claimed the possession and guidance of the Spirit but their thought and behaviour has proved otherwise under the scrutiny of their belief and practice which has not proved holy or helpful. Fanaticism, formerly referred to as enthusiasm, has often presented itself under the guise of orthodoxy. Sometimes the Spirit is viewed as an added extra granted to special people of spiritual superiority and ability. The complex oneness of God is overlooked and the Spirit seems to exist and operate in a detached kind of way. He is seen as the agent, free agent, of novel truth and the one who adds extra verve to the life of the special Christian. This is to remove the Holy Spirit from the ground of his being in the divine Trinity. In substance he is God, and it seems to suggest that the Spirit can float above divine revelation in Scripture and suggest new ideas to those who are keen to listen to his promptings. So often he is identified with human emotions, feelings, whims and wishes that arise from natural desire and willing. It is a spiritual skill granted by God to discern the influences of the Lord and the impulses of the human Spirit. Perhaps when God is moving us most we are least aware and most normal in our psychological state and frame of mind so that we do not mangle his purposes or take credit for his working. The Spirit has come to shine the spotlight on the Lord Jesus and teach us of him, not to elevate us to special attention and importance, or to make us outstanding among our fellows.
The Spirit is Lord, one with the Father and the Son in perfect harmony and fulfilling agreed goals. One in nature, each person in the Godhead never departs from the eternal, inevitable policy of teamwork. God is diverse (plural) but not divided. The Spirit is the donor of life, natural and spiritual. He is God in fellowship with his creation sustaining it, blessing it, renewing it. Life continues and multiplies because he breathes upon all creatures, and he breathes new life into the elect through the Gospel. He generates and regenerates. When a human soul is reborn he is baptized in the Spirit, possesses the Spirit, is indwelt by the Spirit who is no “added extra” but the source and substance of the eternal life that has newly begun. The Spirit unifies the true people of God as their “common” energy and experience. They cannot exist or function without him. He distributes various gifts among them. They may be deficient in their compliance with the Spirit through distraction, carelessness, and neglect, but there is no special class among Christians. All are enlivened and inhabited by the Holy Spirit in varying degrees of conformity to his will.
The Spirit brings no new revelation but illuminates the one that has been given. For reasons of gratification, licence, and hubris many have claimed access to special disclosures of the Spirit that are extra-biblical or even in conflict with the Word of God written. Hence their thoughts and promptings become superior to the biblical text and warrants for irregular or irrational action. Our creed issues a safeguard against fantastic and false notions. The Spirit has spoken through the Prophets. Holy Scripture is his voice to which he opens our ear as we read, meditate, and listen to the testimony of prophets and apostles. The Spirit will never reverse that which has been recorded in the inspired canon, and he will never contradict or relax the revealed will of the Lord. He teaches through the Scriptures, grants understanding and insight, and enables application and obedience.
The greatest gifts of the Spirit are new life, understanding of truth, boldness to declare it, and perseverance in maintaining it, with protection from those forces that would tempt us to abandon or deny truth. The greatest evidence of the Spirit for us and within us is love and adoration for Christ of whom he came to testify and instruct, and the seal of his internal activity is the manifestation of Christ-likeness in character.
As God in our world, our lives, our minds and hearts, uniting his people with the Father, the Spirit is God in closest contact with us showing forth his saving love in Jesus Christ and enabling us to trust and delight in the Redeemer. Through the Spirit we believe and pray, and commune with Father and Son and as connecting link the Spirit ensures that we are in fellowship with the society of the Holy Trinity, lost in wonderment, filled with gratitude, gazing at a smiling Father, in mutual embrace with the Son, revelling in the life of the Spirit. Father and Son give themselves to us in the presence of the Spirit. He gives us link and likeness to God. For all his power and mercy we worship and glorify him. Our affection and adoration for God is threefold, equally rendered to the Father who decrees his purposes, the Son who does his will in creation and redemption, and the Spirit who delivers all divine blessings and gifts to us.
This wondrous privilege and companionship is enjoyed by all believers if only they would rise to full appreciation of it: The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. May this One God be with us all evermore.
Verse 67: Before I was troubled, I went wrong: but now I have kept thy word.
In the life of the believer affliction comes as a corrective. Trouble prompts us to think and test our ways. It is the application of the divine brakes in our wayward lives. Over-confidence, presumption, arrogance, and impulsiveness can be characteristics of the Christian when times are smooth and gratifying, and especially in early experience. The young author of the psalm is learning with what ease we stray from God in our false optimism and ambition. Blessing from God can make us boastful and also belittling of others. It is so easy to become puffed up and incautious, and to think our thoughts always run parallel to God’s. Self-confidence makes us susceptible to Satan’s subtle suggestions. The word has ceased to influence and guide us. Troubles are used by God to turn us back, especially when we do not realize we are on the wrong track. But now things are better for the writer. He has begun again to keep the word and finds that the word keeps him.
Verse 73: Thy hands have made me and fashioned me: O give me understanding, that I may learn thy commandments.
Humility is the fruit of affliction in the truly Christian heart. Our folly is recognized and deeply rued. We are the handiwork of God, obviously in the material sense, but also in the conversion of the heart that senses its stupidity, cupidity, and the need to be curbed. Therefore, self-will is silly. We must look continually to our Maker for a well regulated life and thought pattern. Trouble reveals how headstrong we can be and that we are skilled in whimsy but not wisdom. Our supposed smartness is artless and we are bound to see ourselves after chastisement as learners – always and forever in this life.
Verse 74: They that fear thee will be glad when they see me: because I have put my trust in thy word.
There is always a mutual concern among believers: not a patronizing, controlling or critical attitude but a general delight in our common spiritual wellbeing. When divine discipline sobers the mind of a brother or sister in the Lord’s family there is generous rejoicing in the expression of beatitudes. A friend has been restored and is once again a source of blessing to others through his or her maturation. The more we communally trust and teach the word the more all are encouraged and confirmed in faith.
Verse 75: I know, O Lord that thy judgments are right: and that thou of very faithfulness hast caused me to be troubled.
Deliverance from divinely sent trouble corrects flawed opinions and attitudes and vindicates the wisdom of the Lord in providence and the moral and spiritual spheres. He proves himself to us, convincing us that he is right and faithful in all dealings. But only grace gives us this perception and enables its reception. “O Lord, correct me, but with judgment; not in thy anger, lest thou bring me to nothing” (Jeremiah 10:24. Psalm 6:1. BCP Introductory Sentences).
Verse 76: O let thy merciful kindness be my comfort: according to thy word unto thy servant.
Mercy is deeply appreciated after a season of affliction. It is seen to be just that - mercy! undeserved pity and infinite compassion. Affliction renders us appreciative. To find comfort in God is the ultimate good. It is granted to us in the word of his promise. “According to the word” is our life style, strength, and confidence. Everything we are and all that God is, meets in the place of holy rendezvous – the Scared Scriptures.
Verse 77: O let thy loving mercies come unto me, that I may live: for thy law is my delight.
Whenever God turns us around he affords us fresh views of his favourable aspects. It is better to taste of his goodness than feel the terrors of his disapproval. His loving overtures and embrace of those who stray are addictive and the essence of life and means of protection. Again, it is the word of God in guidance and guarantee that sustains the heart in gladness.
Verse 78: Let the proud be confounded, for they go wickedly about to destroy me: but I will be occupied in thy commandments.
Pride is the most objectionable thing in human nature. It haunts us and hangs around continually and it sickens the sanctified soul in the secrets of their own hearts. Overt pride that is fully indulged is the characteristic of the rebel and it repels the Lord. It makes people overbearing and exploitative. It is repugnant and rude. The young man of the psalm has his rivals and detractors. They may envy his potential and ridicule his faith which makes him modest and non-compliant with wickedness. Still, he will not regard them but preoccupy himself with God’s revelation, prescriptive and descriptive.
Verse 79: Let such as fear thee, and have known thy testimonies: be turned unto me.
The psalmist requests the fellowship of those who like-mindedly love the Lord through his word. Let him share his discoveries with them to mutual edification.
Verse 80: O let my heart be sound in thy statutes: that I be not ashamed.
The wanderer wants stability. He wants true and stabilizing understanding so that he will not be put to shame by sin and senseless behaviour.
Who among you fears the Lord? Who obeys the voice of His Servant? Who walks in darkness and has no light? Let him trust in the name of the Lord and rely upon his God. Isaiah 50: 10.
The prophet Isaiah approaches us with a crucial questionnaire. It is vital in defining the character of the believer and also in affording assurance in the experiences of life. There is no fanciful, illusory religion here. It is anchored in revelation and reality. It provides the foundation of saving faith and an antidote to anxiety. The beginning of a true knowledge of the Lord is fear, comprising a dread of his awesome majesty, a reverence for his name, a submission to his will, and an attraction to his goodness. There is respect for his might and amazement at his mercy.
God is altogether astounding and excellent. He is almighty and sovereign; strong and sweet; fair and favourable; just and compassionate. His sterling quality is righteousness. To the wicked he is terror. To the penitent and humble he is utterly trustworthy. He is unbending in his holy desires and detestations. The righteous tremble and yet run to him. The unrighteous tremble and run for a place of hiding.
Those who know God heed his Servant. He is appointed as the voice of the Lord. He comes to us as the Word and we identify him as the Son. His speech is divine. It is wisdom in the science of life and death and the way to salvation in coupling our hearts and minds to the heart and mind of God. He reveals God’s thoughts and trains ours in his sacred disciplines of knowledge, obedience, and adoration.
Isaiah addresses such folk as these – those who acknowledge God in his splendour and perfection manifested in his attributes and actions. These are they who search the will and the ways of the Lord in his supreme self-disclosure, His Servant par excellence – Jesus Christ! The God-fearer finds heavenly favour and all its benefits through the Son. There is divine purpose and human privilege wedded together in the knowledge of God and obedience to the Son. Our fear forges our union with God and our obedience to the words of the greatest of Prophets sustains the union. It is the union of faith which is God’s greatest gift and man’s greatest enjoyment.
Yet to these favoured ones Isaiah addresses a surprising question that may unsettle and astonish our religious sentimentality. “Who walks in darkness and has no light? Surely not convinced believers! In our naiveté, and especially in the newness of conversion, we tend to suspect that those who fear the Lord and heed the Son ought to be sure of a life of spiritual ease. What infinite powers are on our side, but Isaiah puts his finger on a common phenomenon in the lives of God’s children. The light of early Christian experience inevitably dims in the struggles of life and the believer begins a series of encounters with darkness.
Events bewilder, doubts assail, explanations are absent, and truths that anchor us are interrogated in a merciless way. Suffering, conflict, sin, adversity, disappointment, diminish our certainties and our courage. Evil is on the rampage and righteousness recedes and suddenly we find ourselves enveloped in a darkness that will not seem to roll back. Our way becomes hesitant, heavy, and hard. Why should this be for those who sincerely revere God and acknowledge his Son? Isaiah equips us for the time of trial.
In the fear of the Lord we defer to his wisdom No light means that there is no alternative to trust, the high calling of the faithful that glorifies him most. In the darkness the believer learns to exercise the vision of faith as opposed to sight and sense, and to discover that, come what may, he is not dispossessed of his God who stands with him. In the times that are tough Isaiah does not underplay the hardship but advises, “Let him trust in the Lord and rely upon his God”. If we think God is proving us in our perseverance let us also recognize that he is also proving his steadfast love to us in the eventual outcome of the period of darkness. He is working works that we do not see until the shining of the light. We do not really know the strength of his sure support until it has been tested. We do not know the strength of his connectedness to us until it is fully stretched.
It is a shock to us when darkness descends upon us in any way. It is reassuring to know that this is a familiar experience for many of God’s dear folk (see quotes from John Duncan). Superficial Christians are full of chastisement for embattled believers. This is partly due to ignorance of the severity of divine testings and partly due to fear of them. The purpose of God is that we must be educated to view things with the eye of faith that is illuminated by the word. To trust God by his word alone is to pay him the highest honour in depending upon his veracity alone. Darkness generates dependence. Dependence results ultimately in deliverance of a uniquely divine kind.
Look, all you who kindle a fire, who encircle yourself with sparks: walk in the light of your fire and in the sparks you have kindled – this you shall have from my hand: you shall lie down in torment. Isaiah 50: 11.
Darkness brings the temptation to kindle our own fire. It is a suggestion that must be resisted. It is unbelieving man who walks by the light of sparks; bright ideas that occur to him, or practical devices to mark the way of self-willed advance. False philosophy or phony religion are the characteristics of human self-reliance. Man kindles a strange fire of his own choosing. It resembles light but is not the true light. It appears as sparks of short term appeal and plausibility but it has no part in that stream of light that shines from heaven. It provides human speculation or superstition as futile answers to matter that is dark.
The sparks account for little points of light in human reason and behaviour, and are explanations as to why fundamental sceptics can sometimes seem to approximate to truth, but these points are spasmodic, volatile, and not integral to the waves of light that flow from divine illumination. Deceptive light is manufactured by the devil and he bedazzles his subjects with it, brandishing his torch to allure them into perilous paths that lead to the abyss. With his sparks the one who appears as an angel of light entrances those who yield to the lure of false teaching either as propagators or pupils. They devise their own guidance without any inclination to fear the Lord or heed the Son. It is better to be in darkness than to despise divine dispensations that are designed to foster genuine faith.
We must face the fact. God’s children may walk in darkness for a time, and at many times. It’s a truth contrary to glib and shallow religion, and its devotees may rebuke God’s afflicted ones in an air of spiritual superiority. He does not rebuke but counsels, “Rely!” It is the opening to a deeper and more assured knowledge of God who verifies his trustworthiness and vindicates the faithful who prove to be patient.
Mark 16: 1 – 8
Sunrise is usually regarded as a moment of fresh hope. It signals the possibility that a new day will herald a new beginning and dispel the darkness of doubt and fear. Yet the women who loved Jesus and approached his tomb were firmly set in a mood of mourning. What could console them when faced with the death of Jesus? Sad devotion compels them to anoint his body in the conviction that his death was permanent. It occurs to them that there exists a barrier to their intention – the impossibility of removing the stone that sealed the tomb. Their way forward is blocked.
Looking ahead can fill us with apprehension when we discount the involvement of the Lord. Heavy concerns and weighty anxieties beset us. We see immoveable objects in front of us and become downcast. We assume our difficulties to be set in stone and disastrous results to be inevitable. Of course if we review our past many of our most horrifying fears did not come to fruition. But it is our tendency sometimes to be worried about the future and imagine the worst. We approach it with a kind of cold dread.
Mark’s narrative of the resurrection shows us that God beats us to the situations that fill us with care. Even though the women set out very early, Christ’s rising again had preceded their journey to the tomb. They were preoccupied with death, sorrow, and difficulty, but when they arrived at Jesus’ burial place – wonder of wonders – the awesome stone that stood defiantly in their way had been moved away – rolled aside so effortlessly by divine power.
Jesus had risen and departed the sepulchre. Such a stupendous fact filled the women with great alarm. This was a mighty act of God. But in due course the raising of the Lord Jesus would fill the women, the disciples, and all believers down the generations with enormous hope and confidence. The women saw that death had been conquered and that its terrible grip had been broken.
The angel on the right hand side of the grave reassured them: Don’t be alarmed. He is not here. Jesus had burst the bonds of death. The seal that keeps us in death’s prison forever has been snapped open. The locks and chains have been torn apart and thrown away. The huge and ominous stone that traps the dead has been heaved from the entrance to the pit of the departed and light permitted to shine in. Christ is risen and death no longer final. Life beyond death is the effect of Jesus’ defeat of death’s great power. Believers participate in his life now and shall do so for ever.
But life changes here also. Huge stones and big burdens of perplexity, anxiety, fear and guilt are rolled away, shaken from men’s bodies. We bear them with a sense of futility and trepidation but the risen Christ has faced them before we have felt them and he removes the obstacles to joy to the believer’s glad relief. The miraculous event of Easter daybreak becomes a breakthrough for those who cling to Jesus. We begin to see that Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection were for us and our liberation.
First, to put us right with God through the donation of his righteousness and free us from condemnation, but also to put things right in our present life. In due course alarm for the witnesses to the empty tomb would be dispelled and relief and reassurance would come when they were reunited with the One who rose again. “He is going ahead of you into Galilee” the angel announces, “There you will see him”.
Jesus is ahead of us in our cares and Jesus is ahead to encourage us. When each day breaks Jesus has already noted what we shall encounter and he is beside the believer in whatever occurs. We may not feel it as other emotions surge within us but faith knows the promises of God and these will eventually console. And in his resurrection power and mercy Jesus also takes care of the past that haunts and disturbs us.
Mary Magdalene can testify to that. Her notoriety as a sinner is erased. Her wrong doings are forgiven. A woman of ill repute is favoured to swear to the reality of Jesus’ emergence from the grave when even the testimony of a good woman was not credited as public evidence. The Sun of righteousness had risen and the beams of his compassion shone upon her and warmed her heart.
And guilt-ridden Peter, filled with dolefulness and remorse at his denial of Jesus repeatedly – what of him now that Jesus is returned from the dead? What may he expect before his risen Lord? The Saviour’s tenderness to the boastful coward is revealed in the angel’s instruction: But go, tell the disciples – and Peter (verse seven). Peter is singled out for special mention and compassion by the Lord he so wickedly grieved.
The comment is another clue to the fact that Peter is the voice behind Mark’s gospel. It is the compilation of interviews with the apostle – frank and duly ashamed.
Jesus rose again. It is a triumph to his glory.
Jesus rose again and opened heaven to believers and granted them eternal life.
Jesus rose again to win our forgiveness and woo us to his side.
Jesus rose again to share his life with us – and share in our lives – and remove our stumbling blocks to confident faith, freedom, and joy.
Jesus is risen, and the more we absorb that glorious truth, the more and more our hopes continue to rise in adversity, spiritual warfare, and anticipation of our death.
The divinity of Christ finds its surest proof in his resurrection [Romans 1:4]. Christ’s sovereignty also depends on his resurrection [Romans 14:9]. Again, our justification hangs on Christ’s resurrection [Romans 4:25]. Our very regeneration depends on his resurrection [1 Peter 1:3]. And most certainly our ultimate resurrection rests here [Romans 8:11]. The silver thread of resurrection runs through all the blessings, from regeneration onward to our eternal glory, and binds them together. - Charles Spurgeon.
We have in a risen Saviour the proofs of power beyond the most dreaded of all hostile powers – the power of death. As sure as Christ is risen, we are not in our sins. - John “Rabbi” Duncan.
The resurrection is the cornerstone of our faith, the foundation of our hope, the guarantee of everlasting life. It seals the strength and reliability of the One who saves us.
The gospel of Luke enumerates the false accusations made against the Lord Jesus for which he was wrongfully condemned. These accusations were based on outright lies on the one hand and the misconstruing of his words on the other. Jesus neither subverted the nation nor refused the payment of taxes to Caesar. He averred that what was Caesar’s was to be given to him. In every way as a citizen of Judea Jesus was unimpeachable.
His innocence was amply declared following the malicious allegations made against him. In verse four Pilate announced, “I find no basis for a charge against this man”. As the priests and people intensified their anger toward Jesus, Pilate, having handed him over to Herod for further questioning gave their united verdict.
“You brought me this man as one who was inciting the people to rebellion. I have examined him in your presence and have found no basis for your charges against him. Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us; as you can see, he has done nothing to deserve death” (verses 13-15). This testimony is very telling. The Herods seemed to be a paranoid lot and would brook no hint of rivalry. Pilate, like- wise, would feel no compunction in putting down rebellion. If these expert noses could not sniff trouble from Jesus then the opposition came entirely from the religious leaders and their sympathizers. It was a matter of envy and prejudice.
After the cry for the release of Barabbas instead of Jesus, the preference for the criminal rather than the blameless, Pilate re-iterated his finding that Jesus was indeed innocent. “Why? What crime has this man committed? I have found in him no grounds for the death penalty” (verse 22). The felons either side of Jesus discussed their fate and one of them berated Jesus for not delivering them from death. “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!” This blasphemy was answered by the other criminal, “Don’t you fear God, since you are under the same sentence. We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong” (verses 39-42). Finally, the centurion standing by praised God and said, “Surely this was a righteous man” (verse 47). Had Jesus fame for goodness spread among the fellow officers of the centurion whose servant Jesus had healed? (Luke 7:1-10).
The testimony to Jesus’ innocence is overwhelming among those who observed him closely. He suffered in our stead for our guilt. This is the apostolic witness recorded in the word of God. Says Peter, “For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God” (1 Peter 3:18). Paul declares, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree” (Galatians 3:13). The Saviour died to avert divine wrath from us: “He is the atoning (propitiatory) sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2). By trust in Christ’s substitutionary death we are justified and take on his innocence. Easter marks the great exchange. Jesus is lifted up on the cross to cancel our condemnation and beckon us to the gift of his righteousness wherein we shall be found acceptable to the Father. He is our refuge against the abandonment he endured in the place of criminal outcasts.
How often in Holy Scripture the cup of wine is a symbol for the wrath of God.
The long suffering Job, speaking of man’s punishment for sin, says, “Let his own eyes see his destruction; let him drink of the wrath of the Almighty” (Job 21:20). In Psalm 75 the language is very vivid: “But it is God who judges: he brings one down, and exalts another. In the hand of the Lord is a cup full of foaming wine mixed with spices: he pours it out, and all the wicked of the earth drink it down to its very dregs” (verses 7-8). Writing of God’s rejection of his errant people the psalmist observes, “You have shown your people desperate times; you have given us wine that makes us stagger” (Psalm 60:3). The prophet Isaiah is startlingly graphic: “Awake, awake! Rise up, O Jerusalem, you who have drunk from the hand of the Lord the cup of his wrath, you who have drained to its dregs the goblet that makes men stagger” (Isaiah 51:17). Jeremiah is similarly dramatic in his enunciation of the Lord’s anger, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, said to me: ‘Take from my hand this cup filled with the wine of my wrath and make all the nations to whom I send you drink it, they will stagger and go mad because of the sword I will send among them” (Jeremiah 25:15-16).
The cup of wrath is the baleful beverage the unrepentant wicked will be compelled to drink. It comes from the hand of the Lord. It is a full measure of wrath, for sinners must ingest God’s strong indignation. It is vintage long withheld in the vat of divine forbearance but when it is poured it foams with fury. It must be endured for as long as God determines, until the last dreg. Its effect will be destabilizing and perhaps even destructive. Divine wrath is a wine to be avoided. But how do helpless recalcitrant sinners avoid the goblet of death?
It was the resolve of the Lord Jesus to take from the hand of the Lord the cup that was meant from us. The drink of damnation was to be consumed by him. In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus sipped the wrath that he fully swallowed on the cross.
He anticipated its most bitter taste and recoiled from the lip of the cup. “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22: 42). Jesus staggered at the prospect of receiving the wrath of God and sensing the Father’s desertion of him. Blood became the perspiration of unimaginable terror.
But in our stead the Saviour wills to quaff the wrath of God. His sacrifice is propitiatory. Through it he makes peace with God on our behalf: the Father and the Son collaborate in the appeasement of divine justice. The Father gives the Son who will take away the sins of the world – those sins that are confessed everywhere. Easter marks the great exchange. Jesus lifts the cup that is rightfully ours to his lips so that we may choose the cup of salvation, rejoicing with the poet, “I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord” (Psalm 116:13). And David exhorts us to emulate him in drinking this cup to the full, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows” (Psalm 23:5). Truly, Paul calls the chalice of salvation “the cup of thanksgiving” (1 Corinthians 10:16) for in it the wine of fury is changed into the wine of gladness. And it is passed to us by Christ’s own hand.
1 Peter 5: 5b - 11
The Bible is not in the nature of a mere religious text book, the fruit of human invention and speculation with sage things to say about divine and human nature, offering a programme for life and relationships in the manner of a handy reference work it is useful to have placed on a shelf for moments of curiosity or need of practical advice. Holy Scripture emerges from personal contact or connection with God and is the record of inspired thought, experience of the Lord, and illuminated observation of his works and ways. God touches and teaches certain chosen witnesses to testify to what they see mentally and actually, and understand from communion with God and guided reflection upon incidents in their own life. God makes himself known to the authors of the Bible in various ways. They are made close to him through gracious access to his presence, and from that rapport of friendship they speak of revealed objective truths that are heartfelt realities perceived by the mind and confirmed through events. Prophets and apostles declare the God of grace who met them in their sin and need and demonstrated his reliability and sufficiency. They heard him in their hearts through his personal address, and took note of his acts, and everything they relate is in terms of personal confession from a place of intimacy with the Lord and special comprehension. He not only disclosed himself to them but dealt with them, and the words of Scripture come to us from lives lived under the Lord’s hand and at his side. When the penmen of the Scriptures speak of the Lord they are not surmising or theorizing in an ingenious and plausible way, but telling us what they know so that we may know it too, as a reality to rely upon. The prophets heard God and the apostles saw Jesus and their combined message commends itself as eminently authentic. When we hold and heed the Bible we are receiving the word of witnesses - a personal word from persons proximate to the Lord, apprised of his will, and spectators of his marvellous deeds.
So when Peter imparts his pastoral advice to the recipients of his letter it is not just a catena of sound ideas to which everyone can nod in agreement if so disposed. His wisdom emerges from candour concerning his own sin and folly and the subsequent care he has received from the Chief Shepherd of the Lord’s people. If it were speculation or commendable notions we might, after due consideration, set it aside as not measuring up to our particular concepts and circumstances. But Peter is speaking from his own history and the indisputable divine pastoral action towards a man conspicuously flawed in his character and sinful in his tendencies. Peter is admitting that the Lord is his true remedy for all his cares, crises, and crimes, and therefore every believer without exception may be candid before God and place their whole confidence in him. Peter, the failure under pressure, in writing his letter is fulfilling his vocation restored to him at his reinstatement by the Lord Jesus i.e. “Feed my sheep” (John 21: 15-19), and doing as the Saviour commanded, “Strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:31). Can any pastoral ministry be effective without personal knowledge of sin and weakness, and personal experience of forgiveness and grace? Pastoral care is not simply theoretical or gained merely from a textbook. It is the wise application of common human experience and self-knowledge ministered to by the proven grace of God outlined and assured in the gospel and imprinted upon the pastor’s own heart through a life of neediness and knowledge of one’s own corruption. This was the style of Peter’s ministry through his sensitive and widespread correspondence. He is not the expert dolling out wisdom from on high, but the rascal delivered from the depths. His exhortation is humble, contrite and convinced, for God’s mercy toward him has made it so. If mercy can reach and restore the very worst then its invitation is valid for all.
Peter, in his letter to the afflicted and soon to be severely tested reader, ministers the very mercy he himself has received and tried. All that he gives has been gained through his association with the Lord Jesus. He is the humble under-shepherd sharing what he has been granted by the Head Shepherd. None of this timely counsel emerges from his own insight, strength and success as a disciple. He has no sense of celebrity and superiority. He is not pontificating from his astute reflection upon the problems and perplexities of human situations, nor is he only offering the results of keen Bible study, though he is capable of both. It is perfectly proper to make sense of the doctrine of our holy faith for our rational comprehension and coherent witness, but purely intellectual approaches rarely suffice when folk find themselves in the furnace of affliction. Peter supplies encouragements from experience and observation that fit the promises and precepts of the word and confirm them to be trustworthy through the raw and sore trials of actual life as we encounter them. We are not delivered by slick formulae and superficial prayers but by solid faith sustained by grace, informed by revelation, and expressed through persistent petition.
In all of life, and especially in the midst of any ordeal, Peter reminds us to gird up with humility. The man of pride and self-exaggerated spiritual and moral prowess in his boastfulness before Jesus (Mark 14:29ff) remembers his craven collapse when faced with personal danger, and thinks again upon the habitual lowliness of the Messiah as he serves his loved ones, even to the point of death, in the symbolic attire of the most insignificant slave. Jesus wears an apron to show that the work of redemption and soul-cleansing is messy business (John 13:14). Ministered to by the humble One, how can God’s people be proud? It is a criminal contradiction of the character of God and causes God to be our adversary (v5). Arrogance elongates our trials until humility is created. Under the mighty hand of God, which orders providence, we abase ourselves in patient reliance until he decides to deliver in his own time. The waiting and the trusting can only emerge from the humbling that renounces self-importance in the scheme of things and our supposed sufficiency in the solution of things that are disagreeable. When the apostle urges us to be watchful he remembers how he was ambushed by his own hubris and then how he slept through the Saviour’s agony in the garden. Peter is sensitive to the danger of spiritual somnolence and complacency and as to how easily we may be caught off guard by temptation and tiredness, hence acting hastily or not as we should to our own disgrace and anguish of conscience, and the disadvantage of others. Sifted by Satan and mauled by the devil (Luke 22:31) Peter can warn us of the predatory activity of the evil one as he terrifies and wounds us with the roar and rage of a lion. Knowing the hurts and hazards of the Christian life, our weakness and waywardness, Peter can comfort us with the truth of the prevailing love and pity of God that rescues us from trouble and restores us in our treachery. Guilty of the heinous sin of denying the Son of God deliberately and repeatedly, Peter receives afresh mercy and ministry. It is a pledge to us of perpetual hope in all conditions. We give way to neither pride nor panic. Grace guarantees glory. God’s promise ensures our security; his power confers steadfastness. Of all this Peter is living proof, and eternal proof, for his effective pastoral care and correction exercised by the Lord is committed to the eternal record of God’s unfailing grace, the canon of Scripture, and therefore we may take consolation from the pastoral advice of Peter – the one who knows what he is talking about.
Mark 10: 13 – 16
People were bringing little children to Jesus: Our Lord must have had a reputation for being both approachable and gentle. For all of his fame, authoritative teaching and actions ordinary people were not deterred from coming to him, and there was no sense of embarrassment in presenting their little ones to him. Public figures can be daunting but Jesus gave no signs of administering a rebuff. The comers were confident of a welcome.
to have him touch them: The encounter with Jesus was neither remote nor formal but warmly reverent. The demeanour of the Saviour was inviting and his touch was desired and generously given without hesitation. Jesus’ work of redemption was hands on: hands on the needy and outcast; hands on the cross bar of a Roman gibbet.
but the disciples rebuked them: Men on a mission can be instinctively dismissive. Self- importance can attach itself to important undertakings and it may be an exercise of petty power to exclude access to a prominent person or leader. Besides, in the view of the disciples, babes in arms are more likely to be carried by women and people of importance do not need to be besieged by mothers and infants. Their station in life is inferior and a man making his mark on the populace should not be at risk of humiliation at attracting such unimpressive company. Jesus needed protection from feminine intrusion and crying children. He had big matters to attend to: large crowds to address, miracles to perform, and elite opposition to deal with. He shouldn’t have to perform nursery duty.
When Jesus saw this he was indignant: Jesus was displeased with the behaviour of the disciples and he issued an immediate rebuke. Their scale of priorities differed to his. The folk milling around him were not unimportant but central to his purpose. There were no VIPs in the Redeemer’s reckoning. The housewife and the helpless were not to be treated with rejection or condescension. He knew a mother’s care, and a child’s place in the covenant community recognized for centuries from Abraham on. He was not about to dissolve valued Jewish institutions – the family living in corporate faith.
Let the little children come to me: The word “let” doubles as an invitation and strong command. Israel is inclusive of children. They are a gift of the Lord and are to be nurtured in his knowledge. The way to the Lord is open to little children. His touch is conveyed through godly parental care and his truth is to accompany the diet of mother’s milk until the young one can participate in the breaking of bread. Jesus’ fondness for the family of the redeemed was expressed in the term “little”. It was a term of endearment and a recognition of dependence. The noun “children” in this context is most definitely a reference to babes in arms and possibly even infants still held to the breast for nourishment from the mother. Such are not to be turned away. Jesus bids them come even though they cannot make their own way. They are so weak that they have to be brought even though they have no power to comply with the Lord’s instruction, or to meet any condition of entry to his presence. By whatever instrumentality he uses grace brings us to God. Word, Spirit, witness carry us to him by his fatherly power. “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away” (John 6:37). Babyhood has a lot to teach proud adulthood about the ways of God.
Do not hinder them: No barriers are to be erected between little children and the Lord as if his grace cannot be extended to them presently or prospectively. For a while little children are purely recipients of goodness and gifts of nourishment and kindness. They serve no use and deserve no rewards. The love bestowed upon them is unearned and unconditional. They have no status, exhibit no virtues, can boast of no attainments. The life they live is utterly free and guaranteed by parental affection and obligation. Jesus is suggesting something vital for us to consider here. He is gently demolishing our sense of pride and performance, and all things we suppose commend us to God and win his approval. The babes at the breast are saying something opposite to our proud thoughts and pretensions. When we are given to Jesus, for we are supernaturally drawn to him, we bring nothing. We have no claims – no credit balance to speak of. We are as weak and reliant as infants. Everything depends on Abba – Father dear. We are brought powerless to Jesus by grace, and obedient, responsible co-operation with our heavenly parent begins and grows through the donation of his strength and righteousness. We move gradually, as it were, from bottle to bread to beef as we live out our lives before him and for him.
for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these: This is the crowning statement that the Lord Jesus makes concerning infant privileges among the true people of God. The kingdom belongs to such as these. “Such” means that we cannot determine for ourselves which children, as children, specifically inherit the kingdom or are heirs prospectively, but we joyfully hold to the promises that believers raising children Christianly will see the Lord’s promises fulfilled in them. Baptism obliges us to obedience and faith in both sponsor and candidate. We grip the promises of the kingdom in the sacrament and pray for their realization. Our hearts are filled with great and good hope.
The kingdom of God embraces all the saving mercies that God can bring into human life and experience in this world and all the blessings of the next. The people of God may be regenerated by the Spirit at any age and at any time. New birth may precede baptism, accompany it, or follow the ordinance. The ritual washing points to the cleansing blood of Jesus that we are brought by grace to confide in.
I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will not enter it: The words of Christ are emphatic – “I tell you”. They amount to a “verily” and are incontestably true. Infants are receivers without credit or contribution. They are passive except for their wailing cries for their necessary wants. When we receive Jesus it is not due to our bright idea or ability. The initiative is always God’s in infants and adults. When adults are brought to faith by grace they admit their helplessness and total dependence upon God. We have nothing of which to boast. Again, nothing of worth to bring. Rather we have much to rue, regret, and seek forgiveness for.
If our haughtiness is not reduced to humbleness we shall never enter the kingdom. It is the truly childlike in spirit that the Saviour takes into his arms. The impotent are graced by him. The undeserving are rewarded. Our approach to our mighty Saviour in the consciousness of our need is always characterized by the attitude and awareness of being “little ones”. With that self-designation in our minds we are safe, loved, provided, and cared for by the One who never drives comers of any sort away. Such a fact drives us to him and prayer for all whom we love. May grace prevail.
Our feelings fluctuate and they can be dangerous indications as to reality. To “feel good” is an addictive desire and we live in a culture that panders to feeling. The obsessive cultivation of feeling is an unhealthy preoccupation with self. We cannot avoid feelings but we should not artificially foster feelings with a fixation on our internal condition and the pursuit of gratifying stimulation. To do so would be to live a life that is fiendishly self absorbed and non-caring about others and the world around us. Feelings are not primarily to promote our happiness but to make us sensitive to all that we encounter pleasant or unpleasant. Through them we identify with our environment and we gain a sense of the personal situations of the people we meet, their states of joy or sadness, well being or suffering, prosperity or need. Feelings are to make us thoughtful and responsive and in our human relationships they are meant to build up fellow-feeling. We are not coldly mechanical (may we be spared our threatening subservience to technology), but warmly alive. Sensation is to heighten appreciation, to create affinity, to kindle sympathy, to excite love for what is worthy and hatred for that which is wrong. Feeling is a fire in the soul set aflame by our senses or mental sensibilities. Feelings may be caused by experience, observation, or an idea. They were intended to register reality but since our divorce from Truth and our incapacity to recognize it reliably, feeling, like fire, may be a good servant but a bad master. We are to treat our feelings with caution.
Feelings are not infallible guides to objective awareness or moral correctness. They often confuse our judgment and fuel our prejudices. Christian spirituality ought to be wary of feelings and ensure that they are kept in proportion with faith, mature understanding and balanced outlook upon all facts brought to our attention. Some folk have a propensity to wallow in emotion while others, fearful of excess, detach themselves from feeling and concentrate on purity of thought in a forbidding fashion. Christian temperament can present itself as over-exuberant or icily unattractive. True faith is neither excitable nor frigid. It combines knowledge and thoughtfulness, experience and emotion. It affects the whole person – intellect and heart, and truth determines what touches us and as to how much. There is the input of divine revelation and the impulse of divine love. Christians place their faith in God’s word, and its power is felt because their hearts are indwelt – by the author and interpreter of that word.
Right feeling is forged by the word. It springs from the word and is assessed by the word. But feeling is not to become an idol, a substitute for the word, a censor of the word, a guide to the word, and it will never run counter to the word or contradict it. It is governed by the word. It is a bonus attached to faith in the word. It is not always an accompaniment to the speech of God but as truth is pondered so feeling may be produced. But it is not to be sought as a priority, an indulgence. The Bible is not a Mother Hubbard’s cupboard for the supply of selfish sensation. It is a rich store for our edification and establishment in the faith and the knowledge of God, who may withhold or withdraw comforts when we are simply doting upon ourselves for our own cosiness and self-concern. Scripture entices us to look away from self and to fix our gaze on God and neighbour. Raptures and ecstasies may come our way as gifts of encouragement to the soul, foretastes of heaven, and intimations of the loveliness of the Lord, but the tendency of the human spirit is to find satisfaction in sensation and not in the Sender. We adopt methods to gain the pleasure without regard for the presence of God, in whom we are to delight, feeling or no feeling. Love is a delight and a discipline. The principal aim in this life is the promotion of holiness so that we may live before God forever. To that end our experiences will be both choice and chastening.
However just as we shall be moved by godly principles as believers so too the goodness of God towards us will give rise to godly feeling that authenticates the sincerity of faith and certifies it to ourselves. Feeling may visit us from time to time as a witness to the faith we possess and exercise. Feelings nourish the emotional side of our personality and if they are in accord with the truth of Scripture and the facts of salvation we may enjoy truth not only as it is notionally perceived but also as it is emotionally felt. We may take these sensations as affectionate touches and kisses from the Redeemer. They convey the sweetness of communion with him. No one describes felt fellowship with the Lord better than Bernard of Clairvaux. None of his musings are fanciful. They are founded in the word, portray the Lord Jesus with accuracy and appeal, and foster the piety that is appropriate. It is easy to see why the founders of Protestantism adored Bernard and those who shun Romanism should share much precious time with Bernard who transcends our differences and foreshadows the essence of Reformed doctrine to emerge centuries later. Christ has been with his people in every century and we should seek those folk out and converse with them through their written and recorded legacies.
We should feel the truth we treasure in our hearts. We should feel the beauty of Christ and our love towards him. Our union with him is vital and intimate. His love penetrates to the heart and pervades our whole being. Our unbelief and misconceptions block the warmth of the affection with which he approaches us. Weak faith makes us unfeeling. Strengthened faith fortifies us with dependable feeling. Wesley’s Aldergate experience was not as definitive as he claimed, and sometimes admitted, but “the strangely warmed heart” was a token of favour from the God who had chosen and preserved him for ministry. William Grimshaw only embarked upon ministry after a confirmatory personal experience conferred by God in response to earnest prayer. John Calvin of “the surrendered heart” testified to the necessity of true feeling: And it will not be enough for the mind to be illumined by the Spirit of God unless the heart is also strengthened and supported by his power”. Those are wrong, he says, “who in considering faith identify it with a bare and simple assent arising out of knowledge, and leave out confidence and assurance of heart. In both ways, therefore, faith is a singular gift of God, both in that the mind of man is purged so as to be able to taste the truth of God and in that his heart is established therein”. Calvin spelt out truth and it was felt truth in accord with his comment on David, “David sings of that divine goodness which, when felt in the godly heart, is sweeter and more desirable than life itself” [Psalm 63:3].
Our Article 17 speaks of “sweet, pleasant, and unspeakable comfort to godly persons, and such as feel in themselves the working of the Spirit of Christ”. At depth there is the witness of the Spirit in the believer’s life engendered by the promises and the possession of the Spirit within. George Whitefield counselled that we should seek “a felt Christ”: Never leave off watching, reading, praying, striving, till you experimentally find Christ Jesus formed within you… What I have been chiefly concerned about is, lest any should rest in bare speculative knowledge, and not experience the power of them (doctrines) in their own hearts...Thousands of [white] people only believe in their heads, and therefore are no more Christians than those who never heard of Jesus Christ at all…Every day he fills me with himself, and sometimes brings me even upon the confines of eternity…. He daily manifests himself to my soul, and causes me to feel my dependence on his free grace and sovereign love. This is the kingdom of God within us. May God nurture us in such faith, and nourish us with like feeling.
Perhaps the shortest sermon ever published (it was included humorously in an anthology of sermons in the 1980’s) was that spoken by John Ruskin in his early childhood: “Little children! Be Good!”. That brief injunction could engender endless debate. It could be simply the recognition that we are obliged to be good without addressing the “how”, or it might also imply the assumption that we are capable of being good and ought to get on with it. Was Ruskin’s concise address moralistic or evangelical in tone? The little chap was brought up in an evangelical household but his later teaching, together with the constitution for the St. George’s Guild, evinced his belief that human goodness was the result of noble moral effort well within the capacity of human nature, perhaps with some assistance from God. Ruskin’s homily points to the great divide that separates professors of the Christian faith. All conclude that believers are meant to be good. The issue controverted is as to whether our goodness is natural and self-generated, with more or less help from God where necessary, or whether our goodness is supernatural in origin and imparted as a gift of divine grace. The obligation to be good is undisputed, but the capability is debated strenuously.
Our collects are gems of theological insight converted into prayer. They are worthy of our meditation and facilitate effective supplication. They express our deepest spiritual needs and identify the perfections of God as the source of supply. Thus they are candid as to our dependence and confident as to God’s mercy knowing that he will satisfy our genuine wants. The collects are patently honest about the human condition and immensely hopeful concerning the divine provision. They help to mould a mature and well-rounded spirituality that is well informed and not misguided and dangerously self-centred, fuelling prayer that is filled with wrong expectations.
Every collect is God honouring, God-centred, and absolutely accurate in its analysis of our spiritual destitution and moral helplessness. They delineate our predicament as sinners but they do not devastate us. At the point of self-despair they avert our attention to the deliverance of God, his willingness and ability to help us. Contemplating and praying the collects is an exercise in the encouragement and nourishing of our souls. We are drawing on the legacy of spiritual masters who wish us well as is indicated by their pious bequests. Prayer requires purity of desire and clarity of vision, the right intent and understanding in asking, the true knowledge of ourselves and the right apprehensions of God, and these the collects create within us, showing us the source of our concern and the solution which flows from God’s concern for us. Manuals of prayer may indeed be helpful. The range of our collects is educating us in this joyful discipline without us being especially conscious of the process. Right thought arising from sincere hearts is what the collects seek to inspire and they form an orthodox approach to the Lord that has a right estimate of the parties involved in this holy dialogue – we the petitioners, and he the gracious responder ready to lavish mercies liberally.
Every collect is a journey of faith that firms up our faith with its aptness of expression and suitability to our situation. Each frames our desires without misreading possibilities, knowing that God alone is the answer to our appeals, and that all consequent benefit is all of God. We cry from impotence and emptiness. Every godly attitude that brings an alteration to our character is wrought by him, and every good action in our conduct is enabled by him, and all credit is attributed to grace. This is the marvel of salvation. It performs the renovation of our desires that produces compliance with the pleasure of God, and there is no conflict between grace and works, because grace is the cause and ongoing energy of good works in the renewed self. Works are not our contribution to salvation but rather the effects, evidence, and fruits.
The exhortation and impulse to be good can only be realized by grace. The grace is a gift, but it never fails to be exercised because it is a living power implanted within the renewed soul. Regenerated desire results in holy living and righteous action. The urge to be, and do, good cannot be repressed. The new nature surges forward, incited by the Spirit. The desires and affections of a new heart cannot be denied. The heart must be what it has become, the centre of operations within a person now bent on pleasing God through divinely given disposition.
This is the conviction of our collects as a collection. They know that the bent to do good is absent from the natural heart and must be a bestowal of God. Each one is an urgent appeal, a strong request, for the gift of grace A right spirit must be donated and inserted by God. Without proper intent, motive, and desire nothing produced by human nature can be essentially good, even though to human observation it may apparently be so. But the searcher of hearts knows the reality, and those convicted of the evil and selfish bias of our nature concur with the divine verdict. We cannot do any thing that is good because our intent is perverse. Our hearts are corrupt. It is not merely a matter of incompetence or finding difficulty in doing good, it is actually unwillingness because our preferences and disposition are askew. We are afflicted with moral incapacity. We just happen to love sin and self, and this fact excludes the possibility of pleasing God. We will always, by nature, eliminate him from our reckoning and the formation of our choices. We are averse to his nature, hostile to holiness, and cannot help but protest at his Lordship. It is not that all the barriers to goodness are entirely outside us. The greatest obstacle is within us. We do not want God or goodness. We prefer our will to his, and our will must be renewed and re-inclined towards his. A different “pleasure principle” has to prevail and that can only come from God. The collects equate goodness with the will of God and his will is unattractive to us. It doesn’t satisfy our longings and so the Lord must enable us to prefer and perform his will, making it our own.
The collects accord with Holy Scripture in its assessment and appreciation of the human situation, consequent helplessness, and need for grace as the initiator and maintainer of goodness. We are utterly dependent but not despondent. What we lack the Lord loves to supply. The truth never turns us away, but serves to turn us away from self and to God. That is why truth may be transformed into prayer. The moment we recognize our insufficiency we reach out to him. Our poverty drives us to his promises. These the collects always hold forth and help us to embrace.
The sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God. Romans 8: 7 – 8.
For it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose. Philippians 2: 13.
He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. Philippians 1: 6