Starving for truth from those who should be providing it

In Luke 16:19-31 Jesus tells the story of Lazarus and the rich man, which is so strange it made me wonder who Jesus was aiming at. 

Well, he’s just left off talking to the Pharisees “who loved money,” verse 14, and how they valued what people value, not what God values – and then they actually “justify” it too (verse 15). In other words, they were more interested in feeding themselves than they were the nation, and somehow in their own minds they thought that was OK. 

Which obviously fits the story of Lazarus and the rich man, the rich man being the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law who were supposed to be feeding the nation from God’s Word, and Lazarus representing the nation starving to be fed from God’s Word, and being totally ignored by their religious leaders who were pursuing money and power instead. 

In other words, the shepherds of Israel didn’t care one hoot about feeding their starving sheep, and we know from Ezekiel 34 how God felt about that. He nails the shepherds for exactly what the Pharisees were doing in Luke 16. In Ezekiel 34:2-3, God roars through Ezekiel, “Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves. Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock.” 

And reminiscent of Jesus’ previous story in Luke 15 about searching for the lost sheep, Ezekiel continues blasting the shepherds in Ezekiel 34:4-5, “You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost,” leaving those poor, lost, starving sheep of Israel to “become food for all the wild animals” instead. Or, in the case of Lazarus, leaving him at the rich man’s mansion gates, starving and covered in sores so raw that dogs took a liking to licking them (Luke 16:19-21). 

Well, in Luke 16 we see how God felt about that too, because in verses 22-23 we find the rich man in hell after he dies, which is exactly what Jesus threatened the Pharisees and teachers of the law – the shepherds of Israel in his day – with in Matthew 23:34 when he roared at them, “You snakes, you brood of vipers, how will you escape being condemned to hell?” 

And how does God respond when they’re in hell and in torment and begging for relief? Well, as Jesus tells it, Abraham tells the rich man that Lazarus is getting the comfort he needed that he didn’t get from the rich man, so it’s the rich man’s turn to know what it’s like to be in agony, and he can stay in hell to get his fill of it, which is all rather frightening for those claiming to be shepherds and pastors in any age who use religion to feather their own nests. They deserve an unending hell.  

And even if they’ve learnt their lesson and want to prevent it happening to others by having Lazarus warn them (verse 27), Abraham makes it clear that if those claiming to be shepherds and pastors didn’t get the message from Scripture what their job is, they won’t get it from someone who’s even been resurrected from the dead telling them what their job is. If they’re hooked already on using religion to gain power and money for themselves, rather than feed their flock, it’s an extremely dangerous position to be in. It’s like a virus has attacked their brain and they can’t escape it. 

As a shepherd, then, I think I’d want to take these verses very seriously, I have but one job to fulfill if I’m a pastor or shepherd, and that’s to feed my flock, just like Jesus told Peter to “Feed my sheep” in John 21:15-17. It’s not about building big, impressive church buildings, or going on missions, or trying to come up with splashy, music-churning church services to reach people’s emotions. It’s feeding people on God’s Word, like the main job of the pastors in Israel was to teach the Law and the Prophets (Luke 16:29), not create little empires around them that sucked the people dry of their time and money.   

It makes me wonder if the Christian church will ever shake itself from creating empires that make their leaders rich and drunk on power and money, because we certainly haven’t shaken ourselves of it yet. It makes Luke 16 highly relevant and very scary, therefore, for anyone looking to become a shepherd and teacher in the church. If his priority is not feeding his sheep by burying their noses in Scripture, and yet he’s taking a salary that’s enough to meet all his own physical needs and more from his flock’s hard-earned cash, and he’s only interested in being a big personality to get a following for himself and building his own little empire, he’s in the same spot as the rich man in Luke 16.

But at least he was warned by Luke 16, so he knows what track he should be on for his own safety and that of his flock too. Just feed the flock is all he’s being asked to do, and feed them so well that they are obviously content and at peace. And they won’t have wounds and sores bothering them, nor will they be vulnerable to or be bothered by other influences, nor will they likely stray or go elsewhere to be fed, because they are being fully fed where they are.

And to Jesus, as head of the church, what could be more pleasing to him than that?     

A little shrewdness in presenting the gospel wouldn’t go amiss

In Luke 16:1-9 Jesus tells the story of a financial manager about to lose his job for squandering his rich boss’s finances. So the manager cooks up a plan that will either make his boss want to keep him, or that will attract other people to hire him if he’s fired. 

So he contacts those in debt to the rich man and offers them a 20 to 50 per cent reduction in their payment – if, that is, they pay up immediately. They all happily pay up, so before his boss actually fires him the manager is able to stride into his boss’s office with a chunk of paid bills – not the complete amount paid, but it proved he could do a good job of managing money after all, and it saved his boss having to chase people to pay their debts too. 

The boss is impressed with his manager’s understanding of people, and for using it to make everyone “eternally grateful” to him (verse 9), including the boss himself. And it proved that even though the manager had made a mess of things he could actually be trusted. He’d allowed himself to veer off course, yes, but given the chance he’d got himself back on track. In other words, his heart was in the right place, he really did want to serve his boss, and here was the proof of it, even if it was partly about saving his own skin too.  

The Pharisees listening in sneered, however, which is ironic because they too had veered off course in their management of God’s riches, like his law, which they‘d turned into a benefit for themselves in power and money (verse 14). They’d also added so many unnecessary extras to the law that it had become a burden to people driving them away from God rather than to him, which, according to Jesus, had made people “twice as much a son of hell as you (teachers of the law and Pharisees) are,” Matthew 23:2 and 15. 

So in Matthew 23:33 Jesus threatens them with dire consequences (“How will you escape being condemned to hell?”), just as the rich man threatened his manager with the loss of his job. What, then, should the Pharisees have done, or could they have done, not only to save their own skins, but to come up with a solution that would make everyone “eternally grateful” to them, including God?    

Well, they could’ve taken a leaf out of Jesus’ story in Luke 16. They could have used their obvious skill at influencing people to convince their fellow Jews to listen to Jesus, because Jesus was all about forgiveness of sins and lifting the burdens off people, and imagine how eternally grateful people who felt so weighed down and guilty would have been to the Pharisees for doing that. How utterly stupid the Pharisees were, then, because in not doing that they would lose all the power and money they held so dear (Matthew 23:38).

But turning people to Jesus would require a heart in the right place, of serving God and their fellow Jews, which the Pharisees and teachers of the law didn’t have, made obvious by their response to Jesus’ story. They couldn’t even see the value of the rich man’s manager using his skill at influencing people to turn the loss of his job into something everyone appreciated him for.  

It made me think of the people in my life who made me eternally grateful to them for making the gospel message so attractive in its lifting of burdens off me, that drew me to God and not away from him. I think of the people who very cleverly knew how to get through to me, and used their skill (like Nathan did with David in helping him repent in 2 Samuel 12:1-13) to get me on the right track when I was veering off course. 

And isn’t that the skill we all need as Christians in the presentation of the gospel, that we’re “as wise as serpents, but harmless as doves,” Matthew 10:16? Wouldn’t you love to hear someone say to you, “Am I ever glad you got to me the way you did, and stopped me heading off in the wrong direction,” as in James 5:19-20. It takes a shrewd understanding of what makes people tick and knowing what will get through to them, but that’s exactly what Jesus was getting at in Luke 16.  

In other words, how can we present the true gospel in such a way that people cannot resist it, that also makes them eternally grateful to us for knowing how to get through to people, and using our skill for their benefit? It’s like Jesus said in Luke 16, that a little shrewdness has its uses too.  

How different the kingdom of God is to religion

In Luke 15:3-10 Jesus tells the stories of the lost sheep and the lost coin. In context it’s his answer to the Pharisees criticizing him for happily mixing with tax collectors and “sinners,” verse 2. “But so what if I’m mixing with these people,” is Jesus’ basic reply, “when we’re talking about the lost being found,” verse 31, and sinners repenting (verse 10).

What’s interesting here is that people who were viewed as rejects by the religious leaders were very happy listening to what Jesus had to say (verse 1). Which isn’t surprising, because he willingly welcomed them to chat with him and eat together (verse 2). He valued their company, no matter what their profession, or their weaknesses, or their odd ideas.

And it was that approach he took with people that made them like him, trust him, and figure that such a nice man must have a nice brain with good things to say too. So they willingly sat with him to hear him out. 

That obviously wasn’t the approach the Pharisees and teachers had taken, though, because people were sitting and eating with Jesus, and not with them. Which is probably for the good, because the Pharisees’ reason for living and the reason for their religion was a real turn off, because they weren’t concerned for people at all. And this is what Jesus is exposing here. Jesus uses the deep desire of a shepherd to recover a lost sheep – and the frantic search by a woman for a lost coin and wanting friends and family to share their joy at finding what they’d lost – to show what the Pharisees were totally lacking in their lives. They simply wanted people converted to their religious ideals, and gaining power and money in the process.

And when people didn’t fit in with their ideals they either tried to force them to comply, or they isolated and marginalized them. They weren’t the least bit interested in trying to help people feel valued or worth even talking to. It was a horribly arrogant approach to people, and it was unsettling too, because if you wandered off like a wayward sheep and got into trouble the Pharisees wouldn’t come looking for you, because they didn’t care.   

So I have to wonder what my version of Christianity has done to me. Has it made me so disdainful of certain people that it won’t let me value them, or want to help them? If it has then what hope have I got of helping them repent of some obvious sin or weakness they have, or want to look into Christianity, or want to gather round to listen to what I have to say? But the Pharisees were so wrapped up in their religious ideals and how superior their religion made them feel, that they couldn’t see that. 

So now we look at the state of the nation because of their attitude. It made hundreds of people follow Jesus wherever he went, and for a whole section of the nation to seek him out. Which meant that these people were turning to God, not through religion, take note, but through a man with God’s heart. And what a lovely picture of God’s heart it was, illustrated in Jesus’ stories of a shepherd dropping everything to go find a silly sheep that thought it knew better, and then happily carrying its exhausted body on his shoulders back to the comfort and protection of the flock. Or like the woman looking everywhere for that lost coin and wanting to share her utter joy with friends when she found it. This was so different to what religious people were like. 

But it was supposed to be different because this was the kingdom of God in operation, the driving force of which is a Father who loves his children so much he sent his Son to go search us out, get us out of our tangles, and help our exhausted, battered minds and bodies recover in the company of his church, where we find a huge welcome and rejoicing that we’re there with them. The lost has been found, and now we can be bandaged up and made to feel we totally belong as an equal too.     

Three things came to mind from Luke 15, then: first, that the kingdom of God Jesus came to announce is very different to religion in its attitude toward people. Second, that it’s the meek who inherit the earth, or the meek who’ll be the ones ruling in the kingdom of God in the future, because they care for people and that’s God’s heart. And thirdly, a question, as to how this picture of God stopping everything to go save the lost ties in with the Christian idea that God will throw sinners and rejects into hell to burn forever.

Baptism with the Holy Spirit: What difference does it make?

“I baptize you with water,” John the Baptist said, “but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit,” Mark 1:8. So what’s the difference between the two baptisms, and does it matter?

It certainly mattered to Paul when he discovered some disciples in Ephesus in Acts 19:1-2, because the big question on Paul’s mind was, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” No, they replied, they’d never “even heard that there is a Holy Spirit,” which made Paul wonder what baptism they’d received instead.

“John’s baptism,” they said, which to Paul was all well and good as a “baptism to repentance,” but far more important was belief in Jesus, verse 4. So they were all baptized again, this time “into the name of the Lord Jesus,” at which point “the Holy Spirit came on them,” verse 5.

But what difference did the Holy Spirit coming on them make? There’s a clue in verse 13. Some Jewish exorcists were using “the name of the Lord Jesus” to try and rid people of evil spirits. But it hadn’t worked (verse 15-16). To have power over evil, the name of Jesus wasn’t enough. More was needed. But what?

A famous sorcerer in Acts 8 knew the answer to that. He’d watched many of his followers being baptized when they heard about “the name of Jesus Christ,” verse 12. He was even baptized himself (verse 15). But when Peter and John arrived, “they prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit had not yet come upon them; they had simply been baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus,” verses 15-16.

So, again, the name of Jesus wasn’t enough. More was needed, and Simon the sorcerer saw what it was. When he “saw that the Spirit was given at the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money and said, ‘Give me also this ability so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit’.”

Simon knew where the power was. It was in the Holy Spirit, and if he could lay his hands on people like the apostles did and that kind of power was released in people, how much more famous Simon could be. He’d watched Philip even cast out evil spirits and heal paralytics (verse 7), so think of the power the Holy Spirit would give him too.

HE knew what difference the Holy Spirit makes. The Spirit has the power to cure anything that ails us. A baptism to repentance doesn’t do that, nor does baptism in the name of Jesus. It’s only by receiving the Spirit AS WELL that power over evil and the damage it has done to us is possible.

Why do we need the Holy Spirit?

We need the Holy Spirit because the Spirit makes Christ’s love real (Ephesians 3:16-19). And to Paul that was a burning passion, that we understand Christ’s love for us so well that we’ll trust our lives to Christ like a woman trusts her life to a man in marriage (2 Corinthians 11:2).

Paul knew what the Holy Spirit would then do in people who could love and trust Jesus like that. The Spirit would “transform (them) into Christ’s likeness with ever-increasing glory,” 2 Corinthians 3:18. Just as the workings inside the body of a young, gangly girl transform her into a poised and beautiful woman, so does the Holy Spirit work inside us to grow us up into the beauty and likeness of Christ in everything (Ephesians 4:13-15).

We can “live a life of love, just as Christ loved us,” Ephesians 5:1. Imagine being a person like that – where nothing but “what is helpful for building others up according to their needs” is what we think about and say to people, Ephesians 4:29. But this is where the Holy Spirit comes in. I can’t make myself into such a person, but the Spirit can, and wants to.

How I must “grieve the Holy Spirit,” verse 30– or break the Spirit’s heart – when I forget I have the HOLY GOD living and breathing his life in me all the time. God has made himself as intimate to me as he can, by actually “sealing” himself inside me (verse 30). He’s willingly stuck himself inside me for life, with no escape. He has no intention of escaping either, because now that he’s in me he can do what it takes to repair all the damage, suture up the wounds, do a heart transplant and pump his life into my bloodstream. And I’ve got that now working inside me, simply for believing Christ really does love me and I trust him.

That was all it took for the door to my spirit to open up to the Holy Spirit. “Believe in the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ,” Acts 8:12, and because of that belief the Holy Spirit “comes upon us,” verse 16-17. Now the power begins – transformation, healing, and growing us up into an entirely new creation from the inside out, unrecognizable from the “infants” we used to be “blown here and there by every wind of doctrine and the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming,” Ephesians 4:14.

No more are we the easily influenced youngsters we were. We’re being grown up to become wise, strong and beautiful, fit to be the wife of Christ himself (2 Corinthians 11:2). And it’s the Holy Spirit’s great pleasure to do that for everyone.

Confident, free, and no worries in this world? How?

There are two Covenants and two ministries being compared in 2 Corinthians 3, and both of them are called “glorious” by Paul – which seems a little strange, because how could a ministry that “brought death” and “condemns men” (verses 7 and 9) be glorious?

Paul’s talking about the Old Covenant that was “engraved in letters on stone” (verse 7). He called it a Covenant “of the letter,” but, he says, “the letter kills” (verse 6) – which doesn’t sound very glorious at all. He also says its “radiance was fading away” (verse 13), so it wasn’t even meant to last either. It was just a temporary arrangement that condemned and killed people.

But it clearly served a glorious purpose as a comparison to the New Covenant, which Paul called a Covenant “of the Spirit,” and it’s so much “greater” than the Old Covenant (verse 11) that “what was glorious has no glory now in comparison with the surpassing glory” of the New.

But how is this new ministry so surpassing in its glory? Because, verse 3, it’s “written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” – and whatever the Spirit is writing on human hearts it “gives life” (verse 6), it “brings righteousness” (verse 9), and it “lasts” (verse 11).

And it’s all being done by God himself, because, Paul writes in verse 17, “the Lord is the Spirit.” The Spirit, therefore, is not only “the Spirit OF the living God” (verse 3), the Spirit IS God. The Spirit is “Lord” too, so in the New Covenant it is God himself who is ministering to us. Everything in our lives now “comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit,” verse 18.

This is why the New Covenant is so much greater than the Old Covenant; it’s because none of it depends on our doing. We “are BEING transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory.” This is something the Spirit Lord is doing to us. It’s not like the Old Covenant where blessings of any kind depended entirely on the obedience of the individual or the nation. This is the New Covenant where the blessings of life, righteousness and gradual transformation into “the Lord’s glory” (verse 18) all come from the Spirit Lord, and do not depend on anything we do.

That’s why “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom,” because in the New Covenant the Spirit is totally in charge of our lives, and he is doing the job of transforming our hearts perfectly. “Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold,” verse 12. We can walk through life in this world every day utterly “confident” (verse 4). We have no worries. We are free.

What’s it like to be “born of the Spirit”?

I got my first real whiff of what being “born again” is like when our 6 year old granddaughter came to stay with us for a week. She was ecstatically happy to be with us, and for the life of me I couldn’t work out why. I’m a doddery old codger now and not much fun to be with, and I can’t run around like I used to. I’m risking injury just walking fast.

When she came to stay, therefore, I wondered what on earth we could do together to keep her occupied. She had the energy of three nuclear power stations, while I tottered in her wake on worn out batteries. Would she be so bored by Day 2 that she’d be crying for home?

By Day 6, however, she was still happy. She scampered down the front path each morning as happily as she did on Day 1. To her, it didn’t matter where we were going either, because wherever Granpy was going was just fine with her. And if all Granpy could manage was a trip to the Library where he collapsed in exhaustion with a newspaper, it was still fine, because for her being together was enough.

Her trust and contentment in whatever we did together was a joy – and a revelation, too, because this was John 3. In that chapter, Jesus is telling Nicodemus what being born again is like, and comes up with this remarkable explanation in verse 8: “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

When I’m born of the Spirit I have no idea where the Spirit’s taking me, just like my granddaughter had no idea where I was taking her each day. It was no problem for her, though. Granpy knew where he was going, and that’s all that mattered. She could scamper into each day in total trust and contentment. And that’s what it’s like being born of the Spirit. The Spirit knows where he’s going, so what else matters? And every morning it’s the same. Out we go together, the Spirit and I, just like I did with my granddaughter.

And Jesus said it would be like this in John 14:16-18, too. The Spirit would live with us and be with us forever. Every moment of every day, then, we’d have a Spirit guide. Where he’s going, we do not know, but he knows – and for my granddaughter with me as her guide – that was all that mattered.