Paul’s Fire for the Purity of the Gospel.

As I come to my time with the Lord today my thoughts are filled with wonder at how vast, how holy, how almighty my God, Yahweh is – and the thought – how can this God, this mighty God be close to me, such a small, finite, created being? I had an earthly father like that – I hugely respected him, but never felt intimately close.

“So God says – listen – listen carefully – do you hear My heart beat? You can only hear the heartbeat of someone who is very close to you – yes I am huge and awesome and holy – but the wonder of the work of My Son Jesus is that He has bridged that gap and you can have that intimate closeness you are longing for – remember “in all things”, at all times I am working for your good, your sanctification, your ultimate glorification. Nothing can separate you from My love, I am always for you in the most complete way – and if I gave my Son Jesus on the cross for you, how much more will I give you all things you need for life and godliness. Come here my son – I want to give you a big hug”.

Today I am taking a break from reading in Acts, so that I can do some in depth reading of Galatians, which I am planning to preach from in August. So today I started with and overview and the first 10 vv. I like the little summary of the main themes in the SU commentary: “The sufficiency of Christ and His atoning work; and the dynamic of the Spirit – these are the leading themes of the epistle and give it timeless relevance as much needed in the twentieth century as in first-century Galatia.”

This is the only letter from Paul where he starts straight in, shooting from the hip as it were, because of his anger at their pollution of the gospel. Despite the huge problems in the Corinthian church, for instance, his tone at the opening of his letters to them is much kinder. So why don’t you read the first 10 vv of ch 1 and ask yourself what you can hear Paul saying about the gospel and those who are preaching another gospel, as he calls it, another gospel that is no gospel at all.

To me what stands out from the beginning is that the gospel is completely at God’s initiative, from the fact that Paul sees himself as called specifically to preach it, by God, (v 1) to the purpose and the completion of the gospel as being according to God’s will. (V 5). Its a beautiful concise summary from grace to glory through the rescuing work of Jesus from the present evil age, which I take to mean the old order of the Jews. But the next paragraph is what really jumps at you, the anger, the frustration at changing something so pure and beautiful into something which is useless. I can almost have a vision of someone going into the Louvre and taking a paint brush full of paint and swatting patches across the Mona Lisa, in so doing spoiling it to to the point of making it useless. The underlying painting is still there but the way it is now being presented changes it into a monstrosity, no longer artistic masterpiece. That sort of pollution would be obvious though, whereas the changes that are made to the gospel are usually much more subtle.

The Greek word which Paul uses to describe his anger is “anathema”. You will all know the English expression of something being an anathema. It means totally condemned, cursed and uselessly unacceptable. strong words to use against fellow Christians.

Lord what are you saying to me today? “As much as Paul was specifically commissioned, I have also given you a specific task, ie to teach and preach My gospel. Take the fire and determination of Paul to keep the gospel pure and share it’s precious message as well as you can”.

Does it ever concern you when you hear an adulterated version of the gospel? Can you actually pick up when a wrong gospel is being preached or even told to you. Maybe as we work through Galatians you could become more sensitive to the many ways it can be twisted.

Presenting Jesus to Intellectual Pagans.

I have overslept and feel rushed and disoriented – my mind threshing around as I try to become quiet – there is a scene floating before my eyes – a scene where the waves of the ocean are breaking on the rocks – tumultuous waves shooting spray high into the sky- the water churning, green-opaque – foaming and swirling – that is how my mind is feeling – all sorts of conversations and thoughts clamouring to be heard. “Help me Lord, to become quiet”. As I ask this I see a sunrise above the churning ocean – a beautiful sunrise with multiple colours and slowly it is dominating the scene and the Lord is showing me that in the presence and beauty of His holiness, the sea is no longer a factor. His presence and His love will settle it like a calm mist descending over it.

“Reflect on the beauty of My holiness – My otherness – in a positive way”. The words of the song fill my mind, “I pause at His gates once more and my heart and my spirit soar and I wish I could love you more”.

“You have My love and you have My holiness – your place is to reflect My holiness to those around you – My holiness is in My Spirit who indwells you. Allow My Spirit to demonstrate His fruit in your life – and My holiness will become like a blazing light – just remember this is not about trying to do this – it is about trusting Me to do this in and through you – when you slip – don’t try harder, just stop, confess and trust Me to change you and restore your reflection of Me. Remember too that one of the fruit of My Spirit is peace, which you were longing for earlier”.

In my reading in Acts I have reached Acts 17:16-34, the description of Paul’s interactions with the pagan Greeks in Athens. Having visited the agora or marketplace myself in Athens, I visualize Paul meeting with various groups, who are discussing the philosophies of the time and earnestly presenting the case for Christ. Why don’t you read through vv 22 – 31 and see if you can pick up the flow of Paul’s presentation, remembering he is now speaking to people who have no previous knowledge of the Jewish faith and see how he links into their discussions. This is a very concise summary by Luke so virtually every word and every concept counts.

Once again I am struck by the absolute certainty of the statement by Paul that, having created every person on earth, God “determines the times set for us and the exact places where we should live”. v 26. But I notice something important just after that. God did this for a purpose, see it? God did this so that men would seek Him and perhaps reach out to Him. Hmmmm. How does that fit into my and many other people’s thinking about God’s providence? I am again encouraged by the outright statement and reminder of my security in vs 28 “In him we live and move and have our being”. and following that the encouraging reminder of our status as His “offspring”.

The last thing that I see, which surprises me, is the fact that Jesus is presented as “Judge” not as Saviour, which is confirmed by His resurrection. vv 30-31. Why would that be? I wonder.

I am reminded of a sunny day on a farm East of Pretoria, where I had gone to meet with “Woodie”, my devastated best friend from varsity. He had walked out of his family and was lodging on a colleague’s farm. It was an amazing experience because he was a complete pagan. He had absolutely no knowledge of the bible and the biblical story. Jesus was just a vague name to him. For two hours I started at he beginning and fed his hungry heart with the good news of the gospel. What a privilege. Twenty five years later he passed away with the name of Jesus on his lips, a firm believer and lover of Jesus his personal Saviour, having returned many years earlier and become reconciled to his family.

What was Jesus saying to me this morning? Two grandchildren families are gearing up to leave SA and this was a real encouragement as I realized that no matter what their plans may be there is a loving hand which will be setting times and place, hard as it is to say goodbye.

Again the wonder of God’s providence. What a comfort in these troubled times, when that frees us to focus on Him and His holiness and reflecting that to the world rather, than pessimism and gloom.

God’s Way, Often Puzzling, Never Wrong.

The beautiful song that Lilly posted on our Wattsapp blog site, resonated with me this morning. “Be still, wait, be still and know that I am God”.

Be still – Be still is the starting point – to quieten all the conversations I have with myself, all the voices clamouring for my attention – Be still though – for a purpose to “Know that I am God – in the quiet with all the distractions out of the way you can truly come to know Me”.

In my mind’s eye I am in the Karoo on a warm summer evening – the sun has set in blazing glory and the night comes as black velvet stretched across the sky, studded with stars like multiple jewels – absolute quiet – except for an animal’s call in the distance. I lie down on my back and look up enveloped by this warm blanket, and God speaks “the quiet here enables you to really experience My presence – the inky blackness is soft and warm and envelops you with my love”. I see a star becoming brighter and brighter, “I am your light – just sense My nearness and receive from Me, I am a giving God – I have so much to give you – I give you absolutely everything you need for life and godliness – I have so much to give you, if you would only receive it – My love is overwhelming, My Spirit all powerful – I am constantly giving to you, just learn to receive and to do that you need to be truly still – practice that”.

I have been reading Acts ch 16 and today I focus on the last part vv 16-40. Why don’t you read through the passage and decide who the main characters are (besides Paul and Silas of course), and why they are.

Well I believe that the jailer and his family are the main characters, because the main melodic line has been the extension of the church in all the diverse ways that God works. Here we have perhaps the least likely family in Philippi to be saved. Not only the head of the house but the his whole family. Would the Lord go to such lengths as to let Paul and Silas be flogged and jailed just so that one family could be saved? Well I am sure there were far more people saved and this was just one instance, to make Luke’s point, apart from other benefits which we can only guess at. I am once again struck by how wide, how long and how deep God’s ways are, how inscrutable they are and to what lengths He has gone time and again over history to save those who have been elected for eternal life.

Another example of an action by God, which at first sight may seem counterproductive: In the end of ch 15 Paul and Barnabas have a serious disagreement about taking Mark with them, to the point that they separated. What a tragedy we say, but then as a result of that split we suddenly have two evangelistic teams instead of one and yes, later Mark is more than vindicated.

Then there is something else. Taking this story of the jailer as a standard rather than a description, many folk have held the view that it was sufficient for the head of the house (the jailer) to come to faith and for the rest of family to then be baptised, for them all to be saved. (From this the doctrine of infant baptism arose in many denominations). Luke makes a point at the end of vs 34, however that the whole family had come to believe and that is why they were saved. No external rite can save one.

Paul and Silas obviously trusted in God’s overall control of their situation so completely that they could actually be singing praises to Him, despite their adversity, being flogged and feet bound in stocks etc. It would have been so easy to run away when they were released or find a way for revenge, instead they stayed and spoke the “word of the Lord” to the jailer and his whole family (v 32), with eternal results.

As I listen to Jesus’ voice I consider my reaction to adversity. I have a choice: – I can grumble, plan revenge or a way out, complain to whoever will listen, enjoy the sympathy I get when I tell how much I have suffered. – Or alternatively I can ask, what is God doing in this situation? – What opportunity is He giving me, for personal growth or for witness ? How can I glorify Him?

I have so much to learn, how about you?

The True Gospel Affirmed.

Fire – I see a fire – a burning furnace – intense heat. “What you are seeing is My gospel – My Gospel is more powerful than the greatest furnace – I created all the suns and stars – all of them together are less powerful than My Gospel. My Gospel has filled your heart and thoughts – continue to care for it, continue to teach it – not only to people so that they may understand it and be saved, but for every aspect of their lives – for every aspect of your life – understand and teach the true gospel and how it transforms lives – how it truly sets people free, not just initially – but every day – helping each person to live by My power through my grace, in My love – not trying to live in their own power (your own power), not trying to live to please me, not trying to jump through self-imposed hoops – but in a pure relationship of trust – remember trust before action, trust always comes first”.

In Acts ch 15, Luke describes in narrative form, how the elements of the gospel were first clarified and defined in the early church. This is a vital section, because perhaps the greatest problem in the church then and ever since then is the pollution of the pure gospel of grace. A drifting away from the simplicity yet magnificent power of the pure Gospel of Jesus. Up till now in Acts there have been various expressions used to describe the people who were being saved. They are described as hearing the testimony or message believing or accepting it. cf Acts 6:10, 10:43, 11:21, 13:48. Now in ch 15, the Lord arranged a confrontation between those who were saying that you can only be true Christian, i.o.w. “saved”, if you are also circumcised and keep the law of Moses.

I say the Lord arranged it because He is firstly always in control, but secondly it was a pathway to defining that the gospel is completely free, requiring no additional conditions so that this decision could be recorded for every generation from then on. So here we read in 15:11 “We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus we are saved, just as we are”. just before that he said “He purified their hearts by faith”, demonstrating the basic benefit of the gospel of complete forgiveness of sin: v 9 b. Overarching these two statements is the plain statement which seals and defines the real conversion of the unbeliever: “God, who knows the heart, showed He accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them”.

There was one additional instruction, v 20, but it should not be seen as a condition of salvation. It had to do with the social interaction of the new Christians in Antioch and the the Jewish believers. In those days there were no restaurants as we understand them, people’s social life in many cases took place in the pagan temples where meals were served and people could interact with each other. This was intolerable to the Jewish believers and also undesirable for the Gentile believers and so the warning not to participate in these feasts.

Although circumcision was a huge issue then it is not any more, yet there are vast denominations that hold baptism (especially infant baptism) as a requirement for salvation. But that is not nearly the only example of an additional requirement that people are expected to do to be saved. More recently, for instance, speaking in tongues was in vogue as sign that you had been “baptized in the Spirit”‘ a synonym for being “born-again”. Then there are groups and even denominations that demand the laying on of hands, usually by a specific person as a requirement and there are many other less formal examples.

Please understand me clearly, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with these practices, it is the laying down of one or more of them as a requirement for salvation that changes the gospel to no gospel at all.

For many years I believed, without voicing it that when I died God would measure my life and if more than 50% was good it meant I would qualify to go to heaven. When I returned from the weekend in Noordhoek, where I met the Lord, I was asked at the church bible study to give my testimony. I can clearly remember my reply. “Its free, I have discovered that it is completely free!” I kept saying it over and over, while tears were running down my cheeks..

Please forgive me if you feel I am repeating what I have said previously. It is because this is such an important subject that we cannot stress it enough, especially in the light of what I sensed God was saying to me earlier and in the light of the vast pollution in what is taught as the gospel throughout many churches.

So what do I glean as Jesus’ message to me today? Very clearly that I need to keep asking myself if I am trusting in Jesus’ death on the cross as the only means to salvation and am I living that freedom out in my every day life?

Why don’t you examine yourself again today, as you should do regularly? (2 Cor 13:5)

Continued dynamics of Kingdom growth.

Be still and know – the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is here with you – through Jesus. Remember the mountain-top meeting? “This is My beloved Son, listen to Him.”

Peace is the word that floods my mind – “not as the world gives it, but peace IN Me – I have come to bring Peace and Rest – that is what the Sabbath celebration was to be a reminder of – My Rest which I give you – the world is restless – everyone is so busy, so occupied, so distracted, even when they are trying to rest, but in Me you find true peace – representing the harmony you have with Me. Even when the waves are rolling towards you – they won’t engulf you – you are held safe in My peace.”

I see a stormy sea with huge breaking swells and then in the midst a strong light shining down and where it is shining the water is totally calm – there is Jesus beckoning – “Come here into my peace – you will only find it here with Me – here IN Me = listen to Me”. I am still and I receive your peace dear Lord.

I start reading in Acts Ch 14, intending to read only the first 7 vv, however the narrative carries me along and I end up reading the whole chapter. There is a lot going on, but as I sort of stand back, I am once again struck by the interest and progress the preaching of the gospel brings and yet each time the growing specter of violent opposition. Without discussing the chapter in detail, a few things grabbed my attention.

Firstly the little word at the beginning of vs 3 – “so”. “But the Jews who refused to believe stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers. So Paul and Barnabas spent considerable time there”. Its almost as if the very opposition of these people spurred Paul and Barnabas on to make disciples, spending some time there to see that these people who believed were also grounded in their faith and would not be distracted once they left.

Then there is the reminder of the importance of the exercising of faith. Luke says in Vs 9: ‘Paul, while he was preaching looked at the crippled man and “seeing that he had faith to be healed (remember the Greek word for heal is the same as save or be made complete – ‘sozo’), called out to him…” Here is the continued enigma of our response to the gospel both in terms of physical as well as spiritual completion He had faith when he heard Paul’s message. In the same way we need to exercise faith, yet we cannot do this without the intervention of the very one in whom we are to have faith in. This is a mystery we will only be able to understand when we meet the Lord face to face. Also in vs 23 the people who constitute the new church are described as those who had put their trust in the Lord. Trust is the key element of our relationship with Jesus, it is the dynamic connection between us and God Himself.

Another vs struck me, especially in the light of a request by Elise to pray for rain in the critically drought stricken Eastern Cape, Port Elizabeth area – vs 17 “He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in seasons; He provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy”. So yes everything we have is a gift form God because of the Lord’s kindness to us. But then what happens when we don’t receive rain? A sign of God withholding His kindness? There can be a lot written about drought as it is played out in the Old Testament, however it seems to me that the withholding of His blessing at any time is something that God does for a variety of reasons which we may not necessarily grasp. But maybe though, in today’s context, could mainly be intended to teach us continued humble dependence on Him and to help us to grow in that vital trust. Something like allowing the new converts of Paul in our passage today to experience serious opposition. This is also a strong reminder to the many who feel totally independent from God. They need to see they do not have complete control over their whole lives as they presume, that on the contrary their whole lives are actually completely in God’s hands, under His control. We understand we fall short of understanding everything, like with the Covid pandemic, but the one thing that does stand out clearly: God wants us to join Him in His team in growing His kingdom and we can all do this by exercising the huge gift of prayer, which lifts us up onto a different plane into His very presence, as it were..

For me Jesus seems to be reminding me of the fact that we live in a world of turmoil and many would seek to blame God for it, however in all this there is the huge desire by God that we join Him in the ‘campaign for the kingdom, by every means possible, starting with prayer high on the list.

So my friends how many of your thoughts and purposes are aimed at being part of that great commission? We never need to be stagnant.