Friday, 23 October 2020

Miracle week: Day 5

 


George Mueller cared for orphans, in Bristol, in the 1800s.  His life was marked by amazing answers to prayer.  As can be seen in the following story.

One morning, all the plates and cups and bowls on the table were empty. There was no food in the larder and no money to buy food. The children were standing, waiting for their morning meal, when Müller said, “Children, you know we must be in time for school.” Then lifting up his hands he prayed, “Dear Father, we thank Thee for what Thou art going to give us to eat.”

There was a knock at the door. The baker stood there, and said, “Mr. Müller, I couldn’t sleep last night. Somehow, I felt you didn’t have bread for breakfast, and the Lord wanted me to send you some. So, I got up at 2 a.m. and baked some fresh bread and have brought it.”

Mr. Müller thanked the baker, and no sooner had he left, when there was a second knock at the door. It was the milkman. He announced that his milk cart had broken down right in front of the orphanage, and he would like to give the children his cans of fresh milk so he could empty his wagon and repair it. 

One night, in central Africa, Doctor Helen Roseveare worked hard helping a mother who was giving birth. Despite all her efforts the woman died leaving a tiny pre-mature baby and a two-year old daughter.

The staff had no incubator and so had difficulty keeping the new-born alive. So, one of the student midwives went for the box they had for such babies and the cotton wool the child would be wrapped in. Another went to stoke up the fire and fill a hot water-bottle. This young woman came back in distress to report that the hot water bottle had burst. It was the last hot-water bottle. All they could do was put the baby as near the fire as they safely could.

The following day Doctor Roseveare went for prayers at the adjoining orphanage. She told the children about the baby. She mentioned that this tiny child could die if it caught a chill. She also told them about the baby’s two-year-old sister.

During the prayer time at that orphanage one of the children, a ten-year old called Ruth, prayed a blunt prayer. ‘Please God send us a hot-water bottle. It’ll be no good tomorrow, God, the baby will be dead, so please send it this afternoon, and while you are about it, would you please send a dolly for the little girl so she know that you really love her?’

Helen Roseveare had to say amen but doubted anything would happen. She had been in Africa for four years and no one had yet sent a parcel from home. If someone did send a parcel why would they think of sending a hot-water bottle to the equator? 

Anyway, half-way through the afternoon a message came to Helen that there was a car at her front door of her house. By the time she got there she could see that a large parcel had arrived. She taught that she could not open the parcel alone and sent for the orphanage children. Excitement grew as the removed the string and paper. Helen lifted out coloured jumpers which she gave to the children. Then there were knitted bandages and raisins and sultanas. She cried as she pulled out a brand-new rubber hot water bottle. Ruth was sitting at the front of the children and exclaimed that ‘if God has sent the bottle, he must have sent the dolly too!’ Rummaging down to the bottom of the box she pulled out a small beautifully dressed doll. That parcel had been on its way for five whole months, packed by Roseveare’s former Sunday school class whose teacher had heard and obeyed God’s prompting to send a hot water bottle, even to the equator.

 


Thursday, 22 October 2020

Miracle week: Day 4

Miracles and the gospel

Be careful that in your desire to see God do miracles you do not take your eyes off the gospel. 

Remember the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31).  A heartless rich man ignores the righteous beggar at his gate, and he ends up in hell.  From hell he asks Abraham to send the beggar, called Lazarus, from heaven to his brothers to warn them, so that they will not also end up in hell.  Abraham tells the rich man that, ‘if they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, then will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead’ (31).  Moses and the Prophets was a reference to the Bible as it was at that time.  Abraham is saying that if you reject the word of God, you will not be brought to faith through a miracle.

Sometimes God uses sign and wonders to point people to the gospel.  However, often the gospel is shared without signs and wonders and that is sufficient to bring people to faith.  Signs and wonders can be a supplement with the gospel but never a replacement for the gospel.  If someone is resistant to the gospel, like the rich man’s brothers, then a sign or wonder will not wake them up.  We see this with another Lazarus, in John 11.  Jesus raised this Lazarus from the dead.  But that did not cause all those who witnessed this miracle to put their trust in Jesus.  Some believed, but others went away to plot about how they might kill Jesus (John 11:15-16).  People’s rejection of Jesus is less about a lack of evidence than a hardness of heart.   

Wednesday, 21 October 2020

Miracle week: Day 3

Should we expect miracles today?

In the fourth century the great church leader, Augustine, disparaged the idea of God healing in his day.  However, he came to change his mind, and he wrote, ‘it is only two years since we began keeping records here in Hippo and already, at the time of writing, we have seen over seventy attested miracles’  (in ‘The City of God’).

In the 1500s the greater reformer, Martin Luther, had not believed that miracles were for his day.  Then his friend, Philip Melanchthon, became seriously ill.  As Luther visited Melanchthon, he was prompted to write on his friend’s wall the words of Psalm 118:17: ‘I shall not die but shall live and tell the deeds of the Lord.’ Immediately Melanchthon began to show visible signs of recovery, and Luther believed this was a miracle.

In the book of Acts, we see miracles, but is our experience to be like that of Acts? 

There is a sense in which the book of Acts is unique.  We might read Acts and think that miracles always happen.  But in Acts we are focused in on the ministry of the apostles, and in Acts we have events which took place over thirty years condensed down to twenty-eight chapters. 

There was a special relationship between miracles and the apostles (Acts 2:43).  Signs, wonders and miracles were among the marks of an apostle (2 Corinthians 12:12).  In Acts 9, the people of Joppa could not raise Tabitha from the dead, but they sent for the apostle Peter who was in nearby Lydda, who came and raised her (Acts 9:32-43).  Acts is not necessarily describing the everyday experience of everyday Christians.     

Even in New Testament times miracles did not always happen.  It was an unhealed illness that led Paul to go to the uplands of Galatia (4:13).  Paul tells Timothy to take some wine for his stomach (1 Timothy 5:23).   Paul leaves his companion Trophimus behind in Miletus because Trophimus was ill (2 Timothy 4:20). 

However, writing to ordinary church members at Corinth, Paul talks of people being given the gifts of healing (1 Corinthians 12:9) and of an ability to perform miraculous powers (1 Corinthians 12:10).  James tells the church that if someone is sick, they should call the elders of the church to come and pray with them with the expectation that they will be healed (James 5:14).  It is not only apostles that perform miracles.  Indeed, Paul seems to see the miraculous as being a part of the church to the end of the age (1 Corinthians 13:10).  

How often should we expect the miraculous to occur?  Well, some of that will be related to our faith and expectation that God can and does do miracles today.  However, if a miracle we are praying for does not happen, that does not necessarily imply that we lacked faith.  In fact, miracles do not necessary mean that a person or church is spiritual.  Don’t assume that a church or a person experiencing miracles is more spiritual than any other church or person.  There will be those who say to Jesus, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophecy in your name and in your name drive out demons, and in your name preform many miracles?’  Yet Jesus will say, ‘I never knew you’ (Matthew 7:22-23).  We should give God the freedom to acts as he chooses.  We should delight in his ordinary and his spectacular blessings.  We should be open to miracles, but not demand them (Matthew 16:4).

It is worth noting that when the church is moving into a new area, miracles seem to occur with greater frequency.  John Stott wrote, ‘especially on the frontier of missions when a power encounter may need to be necessary to demonstrate the lordship of Christ miracles have been and are been reported.’  Could it be that as the church in the west continues to be surrounded by a hostile secularism that God will seek to halt this rot by demonstrating his miraculous power?

Tuesday, 20 October 2020

Miracle week: Day 2

 


Francis Schaeffer was one of the most respected evangelicals of the twentieth century.  His wife, Edith, recounts the following event that took place early in his ministry.

Francis and his young family faced a crisis.  They needed temporary accommodation during a time of transition, but they had very little money.  One day, while Francis was praying about this, he said to God, ‘where can we live, Lord?  Please show us!’  Immediately, in response to his prayer he heard an audible voice.  It wasn’t simply a voice in his mind, it was if another person had spoken.  The voice simply said, ‘Uncle Harrison’s house.’

The thing is Uncle Harrison had never given the Schaeffer’s anything.  It seemed very unlikely that he would offer his house to them to live in.  Yet, because the voice had been so startling and direct, Francis felt that he had better obey it, and so he asked his uncle.

He wrote to his uncle, asking him what he intended to do with his house the next year.  To his astonishment, Uncle Harrison replied that he planned to live with his brother for the next year and would like the Schaffer’s to live at his house, free of charge.

This prayer proved to be a turning point in the Schaffer’s lives, and later Edith would say that the clarity of that voice helped them through one of their most difficult years.

What are miracles?

In the Bible we are given three different terms for miracles: ‘signs’ (pointing to a deeper truth), ‘wonders’ (causing people to be amazed at what God has done) and ‘miracles/mighty works’ (where God works in an unusual and powerful way).  Tim Chester defines a miracle as, ‘amazing acts of power, through which God reveals his power and rescues his people.’

But is there a danger in focusing on miracles?

Yes, there can be.  For example, we can be so obsessed with the unusual acts of God that we forget the more ordinary, but equally amazing, acts of God. 

I have read credible accounts of people being raised from the dead.  That is spectacular.  But it is no more amazing than when God brings a person to new life in Christ.  The apostle Paul tells us that before we have a living relationship with God through Jesus, we are spiritually dead (Ephesians 2:1).  It is a wonderful act of mercy when God raises the physically dead to life.  In fact, given that God created the whole universe, we shouldn’t be all that surprised.  The apostle Paul asked King Agrippa, ‘why should anyone consider it incredible that God raises the dead?’ (Acts 26:8).  But those who are raised from physical death to physical life will physically die again.  Whereas being born again means that we live, even though we physically die (John 11:25).  Let’s rejoice with the angels at the mighty work of God bringing sinful people like us to repentance (Luke 15:7).

So often God answers our prayers in ways that simply don’t stand out.  God may choose to heal through the hand of a surgeon.  But that does not mean that he is any less merciful or powerful than if he had healed without the hand of the surgeon.  In Psalm 136, the psalmist speaks of the God, ‘whose love endures for ever’.  This God does great wonders (verse 4a), including the wonder of creation (verse 5-9).  This God preformed wonders as he delivered his people from slavery in Egypt and gave them the Promised Land (verses 10-24).  But this God also does a wonder in ‘giving food to every creature’ (verse 25a), therefore we are to give thanks to the God of heaven (verse 26a).  Don’t forget to see the gracious hand of God in all his spectacular and seemingly ordinary ways!

I think that those Christians who spend all their time talking about miracles, can have the same problem as those Christians who are sceptical of any claim of God’s miraculous activity—their God is too small!  We need to see God in all his everyday acts, and also not doubt God when he acts in very unusual ways.

Monday, 19 October 2020

Miracle week: Day 1


Stephen Lungu is a respected Zimbabwean Bible teacher.  In his book, ‘Out of the Black Shadows’, he tells the story of how he met his wife.

Stephen was praying one day when he had what might be called a ‘waking vision’.  In that vision he saw a girl in a loose-fitting blue dress, who was holding a Bible, that was upside down and at Acts 26.  Acts 26 was a passage that God had used in a significant way in Stephen’s life.  He had this vision two more times over the next two years.

A couple of years later, someone suggested to Stephen that he might like to meet a particular girl by the name of Rachel.  I think this person thought that they might make a nice couple.

On one occasion, Stephen was giving a talk in another part of Zimbabwe.  After his talk he got in a conversation with a young man.  As they were talking, he noticed a girl, like the girl in his vision, wearing a loose-fitting blue dress, that happened to be holding a Bible, upside down at Acts 26.

A day or two later, Stephen decided to call at the house of the young man that he had been talking to.  When he arrived a houseboy informed Stephen that the young man was out.  But into the room walked a girl.  It was the girl who had been in the blue dress.  She was the young man’s sister.  Her name was Rachel.  The very same Rachel that another friend said Stephen should meet.  Today, they are married.

Charles Spurgeon was a great Baptist preacher in London in the late eighteen-hundreds.  On a number of occasions God would give him insights into situations.  For example, one time, when Spurgeon was speaking to a number of thousands of people in the Exeter Hall in London, he stopped and looked down at a young man and said, ‘young man, the gloves you are wearing are not your own, you stole them from your employer.’  After the service, the young man asked to speak to him.  He confessed, ‘it is the first time I have robbed from my employer, and I won’t do it again.  You won’t expose me sir, will you?  It would kill my mother if she thought that I had become a thief.’




Monday, 12 October 2020

The Heart of Christ


Imagine a compassionate doctor decides that he wants to help a far-off tribe.  Now this tribe is struggling against a deadly but preventable disease.  The doctor arrives to them with his vaccines.  But the people don’t like him and refuse to take his medicine.  It breaks his heart.  Then some brave men and women come forward.  They let him treat them and they become well.  Now how does the doctor feel?  He feels great joy!  In the same way, Jesus, our heavenly physician, feels great joy when our hostility towards him is broken and we come to him for our cure (illustration adapted from Dane Ortland).  It pleases Christ to forgive you!

Born in Norfolk in 1600, Thomas Goodwin grew up somewhat religious.  That all wore off when he went as a student to Cambridge.  However, when he was twenty, he heard a funeral sermon that made him deeply concerned for his spiritual state.  It took him time, but he came to truly feel the gospel.  Goodwin’s dying words were, ‘Christ cannot love me better than he doth.  I think I cannot love Christ better than I do; I am swallowed up with in God … Now I shall be ever with the Lord.’

Where does such confidence in the love of Jesus come from?  For Goodwin, it came from realising Christ’s love for him.  This is what we will see as we examine his most popular work: ‘The Heart of Christ’. 

1.     The tenderness of Christ on earth

When we look at Christ in the four gospels, we see someone who is meek, gentle, approachable and tender.  Goodwin explains that now that ‘he is in heaven, his heart remains as graciously inclined to sinners that come to him, as ever on earth.’  He has not weakened in love now that he is in heaven.

We see this tenderness when we look at his address to the disciples in the upper room on the night he was betrayed.  How amazing that our Lord, knowing what lay ahead of him, chose to care so kindly for the disciples.  After all, he is the one with the greater trial before him.  He is the one that could be demanding that they to minister to him.  Yet he is moved with compassion when he thinks of what the next hours will be like for them and he takes the opportunity to both show his love and speak words of comfort.

He tells them that he will come back for them.  I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also (John 14:3).  Goodwin explains that it ‘is as if he had said, “The truth is, I cannot live without you, I shall never be quiet till I have you where I am, so that we may never part again; that is the reason of it.  Heaven shall not hold me, nor my Father’s company, if I have not you with me, my heart is so set upon you; and if I have any glory, you shall have part of it.’ 

Not only will he come back for them, but, in the meantime, he will send the Comforter, the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit, ‘will comfort you better than I should do with my bodily presence.’  If ‘you will listen to him, and not grieve him,’ he will tell you, ‘nothing but stories of my love ...’

It is not just before the crucifixion that Jesus speaks of his love for his disciples, he demonstrates his love to them after he was raised from the dead. 

How those the disciples had let him down!  They slept in the Garden of Gethsemane after he had asked them to pray.  Peter had denied him with oaths and curses.  Then when Jesus was placed in the tomb the disciples acted with unbelief—they had seen him do miracles, they had heard him teach on his death and resurrection, yet they refused to believe him.  It would be understandable if having witnessed them fail in him in his sufferings he remained distant from them when he rose in glory.  We might understand if his first message for these disciples was to be irate with them.  Instead, he tells Mary Magdalene, ‘Go tell my brothers’ (John 20:17).  Even though they had been ashamed of him, he is not ashamed to call them brothers (Hebrews 2:11).

The Bible ends with an invitation to experience such love: ‘The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!”  And let those who hear say, “Come”.  And let anyone who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price’ (Revelation 22:17).

2.     The tenderness of Christ in heaven

Having looked at the tenderness of Christ on earth, Goodwin now focuses on the tenderness of the risen Christ in heaven.  In particular, he looks at a verse from the book of Hebrews, and Jesus’ role as heavenly high priest representing us before the Father. ‘For we have not a high priest which cannot be touched with the feelings of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like we are, yet without sin.  Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need’ (Hebrews 4:15-16).  When we are tempted, we can look for strengthening grace.  When we fall, we seek the Father’s unfailing mercy through Jesus. 

The role of the high priest involved compassion towards those who had sinned.  Every high priest is selected from among the people and is appointed to represent the people in matters related to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.  He is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray, since he himself is subject to weakness (Hebrews 5:1-2).  Mercy towards sinners is a part of the qualifications of the high priest, and Jesus is uniquely qualified as our heavenly high priest.  Not only does he show mercy to those who act in ignorance but those who sin with a high hand.  ‘Jesus deals gently and only gently with all sinners who come to him, irrespective of their particular offense and how heinous it is’ (Dane Ortland). 

But how can Jesus sympathise with my falling into sin, after all he was without sin?  He doesn’t know the shame of failure.  He doesn’t know what it feels like to fall into the same trap again and again.  He didn’t have a sinful nature enticing him to sin (James 1:14-15).  Yet Jesus was tempted in every way, just as we are, and I think it is fair to say that though we may not understand everything about how temptation worked on him, the temptations he resisted were severe than any we will face.  While he may not have given in, he knew the tug of sin, and so is sympathetic towards sinners.  

Conclusion

So, you have fallen again, you turned on the computer and looked at those images.  Maybe you remembered what they said about you, and you became bitter with them, again.  You opened the fridge and pigged out, again.  You didn’t keep that secret and gossiped, again.  Again, you find yourself being harsh and critical.  Again, you lost your cool and said things you should not have.  How do you feel about yourself now?  You despise your weakness, you feel a failure, and you think there is no hope.

But how does Jesus think about you in your failure?  Near the end of the book, Goodwin writes, ‘your very sins move him to pity more than anger … even as the heart of a father is to a child that hath some loathsome disease, or as one to a member of his body that hath the leprosy, he hates not the member, for it is his flesh, but the disease, and that provokes him to pity the part affected the more.’

As you sit there feeling defeated remember that Christ is moved with a feeling of pity towards you.  He still loves you.  He will not huff with you.  You may not feel ashamed to look at him, but he beckons you to come.  Come to the throne of grace, where you can find grace and mercy in your time of need.

Remember the doctor in our opening illustration.  He wanted to see those people cured.  Christ wants us to approach him for race and mercy in our time of need.  Delight his heart by coming to him!

 

Prayer from the Valley of Vision

Love to Jesus

If I love you my soul shall seek you, but can I seek you unless my love to you is kep alive to this end?

Do I love you because you are good, and can alone do me good?

It is fitting that you should not regard me, for I am vile and selfish; yet I seek you, and when I find you there is no wrath to devour me, but only sweet love.

You stand as a rock between the scorching sun and my soul, and I live under the cool lee-side as one elect.

When my mind acts without you it spins nothing but deceit and delusion;

When my affections act without you nothing is seen but dead works, O how I need you to abide in me, for I have no natural eyes to see you, but I live by faith in one whose face to me is brighter than a thousand suns!

When I see that all sin is in me, all shame belongs to me; let me know that all good is in you, all glory is yours.

Keep me from the error of thinking you do appear gloriously when some strange light fills my heart, as if that were the glorious activity of grace, but let me see that the truest revelation of yourself is when you eclipse all my personal glory and all the honour, pleasure and good of this world.

The Son breaks out in glory when he shows himself as one who outshines all creation, makes men and women poor in spirit, and helps them to find their good in him. 

Grant that I may distrust myself, to see my all in you. 

Sunday, 23 August 2020

Acts 7:54-8:4 'The Inconvient Truth'

Acts 7:54-8:4 ‘The Inconvenient Truth’

The Welsh preacher Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote that ‘anyone who thinks he deserves heaven is not a Christian.  But for anyone who knows that he deserves hell there is hope.’

Sadly, we are surrounded by people who assume that they deserve heaven.  If you ask them why, they will say, ‘because I am a good person.’  They have not faced their sinfulness and have no idea of the holiness of God.

For them, the gospel has to become bad news before it will be good news.

Loving people may cost you their love

Seven men were chosen to serve the widows of the church.  One of them was Stephen.  He was an attractive person, being described as being full of grace, full of the Holy Spirit and full of faith.  He preformed signs and wonders and spoke about Jesus with wisdom and power.

Some people stirred up trouble for him.  The said that he was speaking against Moses and the temple.  This is significant because the death sentence was restricted to the decree of the Roman governor, with one exception: the Jewish ruling council (Sanhedrin) was allowed carry out the death sentence in cases where people were found guilty of acting or speaking against the temple.  Stephen was brought before the Sanhedrin and addresses the High Priest.  As he spoke to them, his face shone like an angel (6:15). 

He explains to the High Priest that God does not need the temple.  God spoke to Abraham in Mesopotamia, to Moses in Sinai and preformed miracles in Egypt.  The Old Testament tells us that God does not dwell in houses made of human hands.  The temple had a purpose, but when Jesus died the veil separating the holy place from the holy of holies was torn in two.  There is no need to go on pilgrimages to holy sites, because when we know Jesus, we are invited to approach the throne of grace with confidence (Hebrews 4:16).  Indeed, our bodies are now temples of the Holy Spirit.

Stephen is very blunt with his listeners.  He calls them stiff-necked and claims that they resist the Holy Spirit.  He implicated them in the death of God’s promised Messiah.  Instead of falling to their knees and asking, ‘what must we do to be saved?’, they reacted with great hostility and gnashed their teeth at him.

The truth is that they are not the only people to resist the Holy Spirit.  Paul’s letter to the Romans tells us that the sinful mind is hostile to God (Romans 8:7).  The natural human response to the gospel is to oppose it or simply dismiss it.  Tell people that Jesus is a great teacher and they might admire him.  Speak of his loving nature and they might be fond of him.  But explain that our sin is so serious in God’s sight that nothing other than the death of God’s beloved Son could pay its price and they get uncomfortable.  Show them that there is no other name under heaven given by which people must be saved and they will call you intolerant.

If we love people, we must tell them the truth.  But that does not mean that they will always take this truth well.  In fact, loving people with the truth may cost you their love.  They may simply say that they no longer want to be friends with people who think they deserve to go to hell.

Ask God for the courage to speak

One of the key verses about sharing your faith in the book of Acts is found in chapter four.  There the church was under pressure, they prayed, they were filled with the Holy Spirit and they spoke with Word of God with courage (4:31).  Look at the courage of Stephen when he is filled with the Holy Spirit.  Look at his love, as he echoes Jesus’ words from the cross, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’

While his enemies look at Stephen with hatred, he looks up to heave and sees the glory of God, and Jesus standing at God’s right hand.  Why is Jesus standing (normally he is shown sitting at God’s right hand)?  Various suggestions have been made.  Part of it may that he is getting ready to welcome Jesus into his presence.

While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus receive my spirit.”  Whatever the circumstances of the Christian’s death the comfort is that to be apart from the body is to be at home with the Lord—Jesus’ receives our Spirit.  We then will wait for that glorious day when we will receive our resurrection bodies and live for ever in the new heaven and the new earth.  Then Stephen falls asleep.  It almost seems peaceful.

Don’t forget to get to the good News

The puritan, John Owen wrote, ‘Grace will not seem high until we are brought low.’  He also said, ‘God does not take it well to be limited by us in anything, least of all in his grace’.

Look who was there.  Saul, who would later become the apostle Paul, was there giving his approval.  He then arranges to persecute the church.  Saul has done nothing to deserve the life changing love of Jesus.  Think of what Jesus sees as he looks on Stephen dying and Paul smirking.  There was nothing in Saul that deserved the love of Jesus.  There was nothing in us that deserved the love of Jesus.  It is grace from beginning to end.  It was an answer to Stephen’s prayer.  This chief of sinners would soon be central to the story of Acts.

Conclusion

To finish, just look at the last verse we read.  The ordinary folks, like you and me, were scattered, and they brough the good news of Jesus with them wherever they went.  This is our great privilege.  We warn people of God’s judgement against sin, we ask God to fill us with the Holy Spirit so that we would have the courage to do that, and we point from our sin to Jesus’ cross where Jesus shed his blood to cleanse the worst of us and the worst in us.