“No one dared join them”

In Acts 5:12 the apostles were doing such amazing “miraculous signs and wonders” that “no one else dared join them,” verse 13 – “them” being the group of “believers meeting together in Solomon’s Colonnade” (verse 12).  

So here was the church, and such startling things were happening in it that it scared people. And not because the church was weird, because the second part of verse 13 says, “even though they (the believers) were highly regarded by the people.” So this was a case of people having trouble coming to terms with something they’d never witnessed before. It was all so stunningly different. 

And they weren’t the only ones to be stunned either. In verse 11, “Great fear seized the whole church,” because of the sudden and startling death of Ananias and Sapphira for lying (verses 5 and 10). It really rocked people back on their heels, because this was clear evidence of a power at work among them that meant business. So, no more pretence, folks, or trying to appear religious; those days are gone. 

It’s not surprising, then, that it sent ripples of fear through the religious hierarchy in Jerusalem too, because if anyone was guilty of trying to appear religious it was them. Jesus had certainly made that clear to them in Matthew 23, when he called them out for not practicing what they preached (verse 3), and “appearing to people as righteous but on the inside are full of hypocrisy and wickedness,” verse 28

They were just playing at being religious, because God wasn’t a real, living power to them. Well, that soon changed in the book of Acts as God gave the church some real power – the apostles healing everyone who asked in Acts 5:16, for instance. And did that ever get the attention of the religious pretenders, because in verse 18, “They arrested (all twelve) apostles and put them in the public jail.”  

But next day they discovered the apostles had all escaped, without the guards outside the locked door even noticing (verse 23). Worse still, someone reported the apostles were right back to teaching in the temple again. 

So this was scary stuff, because something obviously extraordinary had happened that these religious authorities didn’t dare admit to, and especially when Gamaliel stood up in verse 39 and said, “if this is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”

And how thrillingly scary that is, realizing it applies to us too, that nothing can stop the church today either. We are in that same church today, being given the same power by the same Holy Spirit, and for the same purpose, to “put the wind up people” so they realize there’s an extraordinary power at work on this planet, and there it is in plain view still thriving and still unstoppable, no matter how much violent opposition has been thrown at it.    

Wouldn’t it be great, then, if the church today cottoned on to what the church realized in Acts 4, that the words the Holy Spirit inspired King David to speak in Psalm 2:1-2 applied to them as well? “Why,” David asked in those two verses, putting it in my own words, “do all these windbags think they can take on God?” (Acts 4:25-26). Why do they think they can “conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you sent” (verse 27)? 

But they do think that, so “Lord, hear their threats, and give us, your servants, great boldness in preaching your word. Stretch out your hand with healing power; may miraculous signs and wonders be done through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” Give them a shot of your power enough to scare them into the reality of it, in other words. And God clearly appreciated their request because “After this prayer, the meeting place shook, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit. Then they preached the word of God with boldness,” verses 29-31

Scary stuff, because it is now clear, after centuries of persecution, that these verses are as real today as they were to the church in Acts 4. The best of atheists and haters of Christianity have never been able to wipe the church out. And that’s scary, because it’s proof of a power at work on this planet that is unstoppable in its purpose. 

And we are now the carriers and recipients of that power, and for the same purpose: It’s to wow this world with his power, clearly demonstrated in the church doing what the world cannot do. 

And that power is being made real every minute in the church, as we live a life so visibly and startlingly different to the world that it scares people enough to get their attention. Because what they see being lived in us are the obvious and only solutions to the world’s unsolvable problems.  

The revolutionary “one in heart and mind”

In Acts 4:32 “All the believers were one in heart and mind.” In any culture that would be a miracle, but here in Acts 4 it actually happened. It was clear evidence of the Holy Spirit at work in the church, creating something that had never been witnessed or created by any society so far. It was, to put it mildly, revolutionary. 

It was also an answer to Jesus’ prayer in John 17:20-21, that “those who believe in me….all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.”

“One in heart and mind” in Jesus’ definition, therefore, was a whole lot more than a group sharing the same beliefs, or partaking in a project together, or creating a community that shares the same interests. It meant being “one” like the Father and Jesus are one, a totally unique relationship based on the Father being “in” Jesus, and Jesus being ”in” his Father. 

But that’s the relationship on offer in the church, enabling ordinary human beings like you and me to be “one as we (Father and Jesus) are one,” verse 22. We too, then, can experience the “in” each other relationship that the Father and Jesus have. 

So, what makes such a relationship possible? Jesus answers that for us in verse 22 when he prays, “I have given them the glory that you gave me, (so) that they may be one as we are one.” There’s a “glory” needed, that Jesus himself gives us – the same glory, it so happens, that the Father gave to him in verse 24

And what is that glory? In verse 24 it’s defined as the love the Father has for Jesus, which Jesus then prayed for us to experience too, in verse 26, “that the love you (Father) have for me may be in them.” 

So, how is that glorious love of the Father for Jesus “in” us as well? Jesus explains how in the last sentence of his prayer, when he adds the statement, “and that I myself may be in them.”

There are extraordinary things being said here, that Jesus can make the glorious love his Father has for him real in us too, by actually living that Fatherly love he experiences “IN” us. This isn’t something we have to cook up for ourselves to make us “one in heart and mind,” therefore, it’s having the eternal Son of God make it happen in us, by living his OWN oneness of heart and mind with the Father in us personally.

But HOW does Jesus do that in us personally? By another extraordinary thing he talked about earlier in John 14. In verses 16-17 he said he’d “ask the Father”to give us “another Counselor….the Spirit of truth.” This Spirit would then “live with you and in you,” verse 17, enabling us to “realize,” verse 20, “that I (Jesus) am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.” 

The Holy Spirit helps us realize a wonderful secret, totally unknown to the world (verse 17), that it’s only in the union of God and human that this unique “one in heart and mind” happens. Jesus, for instance, is “in” – or in union with – the Father (verse 20), and that’s how he experiences it. And it’s only when we’re “in” or in union with Jesus, and Jesus being “in” and in union with us, that we experience it. 

And Jesus clearly explains what being “in union” means too: Jesus was in union with his Father because everything he said and did was in obedience to his Father (verses 10 and 24), just as we’re in union with Jesus when we obey him (verses 21 and 23). 

So that’s how this unique “one in heart and mind” is created in us. And it very quickly began to happen in the church – first in Acts 2:42-46, and again in Acts 4:32-35. The church found itself experiencing what the world had never experienced up to this point, or even knew was possible and available.

Being “one in heart and mind,” then, was not only miraculous, it was revolutionary, because it gave visible witness to something totally different happening to humans, that only happens to those who believe Jesus is alive and what he’s alive for.

Fellow children of a loving Father

In John 1:18, Jesus said “No one has ever seen God, but (or except for) God the only Son, who is at the Father’s side.” So Jesus has one advantage over us: he knows God. He knows what it’s like to be in the company of the Father forever. (John 1:2) – and what it’s like being loved by his Father for all eternity too (John 17:24). So, if anyone was to ask Jesus what he appreciates more than anything, his answer would likely be, “Knowing the Father” (John 17:25).

I can only imagine what it must be like in the Father’s company for a billion years. If I had been I’m sure I’d be able to “testify,” as Jesus did, “to what he has seen and heard” of the Father (John 3:32). I’d know firsthand, like Jesus does, what the Father is like, and, again like Jesus, know firsthand what it’s like being one of the Father’s much loved children (John 1:12-13). It could then become my speciality, just as it’s Jesus’ speciality (John 17:26), to help people come to know they’re the children of a loving Father as well. 

We were given that chance back in Genesis too, when God created us in his likeness, so that in partnership with him we could make this planet a glowing showcase of his wisdom and love. And in the process of doing that we’d come to know God intimately, as he walked and talked his plans with us, just as he began to do with that first man in Genesis 2. 

We had all that on offer, so that from Genesis and forever onwards we’d come to know the one true God as our Father. But it wasn’t to be, because we were convinced instead that “knowing good and evil” was all we needed to know about God and what he was like (Genesis 3:5). 

And when God set up Israel to know him through all kinds of miracles and firsthand experiences of his love and wisdom – and through that amazing display of his care for Israel to enable others to come to know him too (Deuteronomy 4:6-7) – Israel blew it as well, because they much preferred knowing “other gods” (Deuteronomy 31:20).

But in Hebrews 8:8 (quoting Jeremiah 31:31), “The time is (would be) coming” when, verse 11, “No longer will (people) say, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me.” And how would this come about? Verse 6, by the “ministry Jesus received.”

And what was Jesus’ ministry primarily focused on? Jesus himself explains in John 17:4 when he prays to his Father, “I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do.” And what was the “work” he completed? It’s summarized in four words in verse 6: “I have revealed you” – because, verse 3, “this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God…”

So how, exactly, has Jesus gone about helping us know our Father? Again, Jesus explains, this time in John 17:8, “For I gave them the words you gave me” – “them” in that verse referring to “those (disciples) whom you (Father) gave me out of the world” (verse 6). Through Jesus, therefore, we are hearing our Father speaking, so by “obeying” (verse 6) and “accepting” (verse 8) what Jesus said as coming from the Father, that’s how we come to know the Father as he truly is. 

There’s a second part to how Jesus helps us know the Father too, which he explains for us in verse 12, when he prayed, “While I was with them, I protected them and kept them safe by that name you gave me.” 

The name the Father gave Jesus was “Son” (“This is my Son whom I love,” Mark 9:7). So the Father sent his very own Son as our protector from “the evil one” John 17:15, to give us the best protection there is. We are utterly safe in Jesus’ care, because he has the power of his Father in him (verse 11). Which tells us something else wonderful about our Father too, in giving us Jesus to do that for us. 

Jesus’ job also included showing and explaining that the love the Father has for him is the same love the Father has for us, which Jesus expressed in verse 23, “you sent me (to show that you) have loved them even as you have loved me,“ So our loving Father sent Jesus to help us see and actually experience that love, just as Jesus has always experienced it “before the creation of the world,” verse 24

And this is the ministry of Jesus we can experience right now, because as Jesus himself prayed to the Father in verse 26, “I will continue to make you known to them in order that the love you have for me may be in them.“ Thanks to Jesus and his continuing ministry, therefore, our Father’s ultimate and supreme purpose of us coming to know him as our loving Father is being fulfilled in us too. 

Why was Jesus baptized?

In Matthew 3:13, “Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John.” Which seems a bit odd because John was baptizing “for repentance,” verse 11, and what did Jesus need to repent of? John also told the Pharisees and Sadducees in verses 7-8 to “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance,” and if they didn’t, verse 10, they’d be “cut down and thrown into the fire.” 

Repentance, then, was very much what John’s baptism was about, so when Jesus comes to be baptized it surprises John, because, being cousins of similar age growing up together, John had never seen Jesus do anything he needed to repent of. 

Knowing Jesus as well he did, then, John says to Jesus in verse 14, “Why do you come to me to be baptized? I should be baptized by you.“ But Jesus replies in verse 15, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.”  

But what did “fulfill all righteousness” mean? There’s a hint in the context, because as Jesus rises up from the water after John baptizes him, “heaven was opened” and “the Spirit of God descended like a dove and came to rest on Jesus” – the exact sign John had been given back in John 1:32-34 to help him identify Jesus as the “Son of God” (verse 34). Jesus being the Son of God is then confirmed in Matthew 3:17,when “a voice from heaven” says, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

It makes total sense, then, that being the Father’s much loved Son, Jesus wanted to fulfill everything his Father sent him to do. Which is exactly what Jesus did, because at the end of his ministry he was able to say to his Father in John 17:4, “I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do.” Everything Jesus said and did was directed toward that end, of completing and fulfilling his Father’s wishes.  

And note in verse 25, that Jesus addresses his Father as “Righteous Father.” 

As the Son of a “righteous” Father, therefore, Jesus wanted to complete, or fulfill, all the “righteousness” his righteous Father wanted him to do. Which explains why Jesus said at his baptism it was “proper” for him to fulfill all righteousness, because it was his greatest wish, as it was his Father’s greatest wish, that he complete every righteous thing his righteous Father had sent him for. No wonder the Father said at Jesus’ baptism, “This is my Son, whom I love,” because Jesus’ reason for all that he said and did was to complete and fulfill all the righteous work his righteous Father had sent him to do.    

But why would his Father include Jesus being baptized in “fulfilling all righteousness” as well, when John’s baptism was all about repentance? 

Jesus had no need to repent. But we do, because we fallway short of fulfilling the Father’s righteousness, and well short of acting like his children too. So Jesus going through a baptism of repentance was meant for us, not him, to show us what needs to be done for us to become proper sons and children of the Father too. And for us it begins with repentance, admitting that in both our words and actions we weren’t even close to fulfilling all the righteousness that a righteous God created us for, and we weren’t acting like his children either. 

And when that dawns on us, as it did on those stunned Jews in Acts 2:37 when they realized they’d just killed their Messiah, and they asked, “Brothers, what on earth do we do now?” – the first word that came out of Peter’s mouth was “Repent.” 

That’s because repentance is how the restoration of our relationship as our Father’s children begins, which leads to us wanting to live the righteous life he created us for, the ultimate goal being to hear our Father say of us, like he said of Jesus, “You are my children, whom I love; with you I’m well pleased.” 

This is what Jesus set his heart on fulfilling too, John 17:26, “I made you (Father) known….in order that the love you have for me may be in them.” In the fulfilling of all his Father’s righteousness, then, the desired result is us experiencing the same love of the Father that he’s always had for his Son. We realize, at last, just how much we are the loved children of a loving Father.

And that’s the journey the Father has us on. And to show us that the journey for every one of us begins with repentance, Jesus went through a baptism of repentance at the very beginning of his ministry too.  

We can do even “greater things” than Jesus?

In John 14:12, Jesus says to his disciples, “anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing,” which is amazing enough, but then he adds, “He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to my Father.”

But Jesus healed everyone who came to him for healing, and he raised at least two children who’d died back to life again, and Lazarus too. And how often has that happened in the church’s history? What time in the entire history of the church, in fact, have there been healings for everyone who asked for healing, and children brought back to life after they’d died?

In my own experience too, I’ve never seen healing for everyone who asked, nor have I witnessed somebody coming back to life again. I gather from stories I’ve read and heard that some people are healed, and maybe even resurrected, but that’s nowhere near doing “greater things” than Jesus.   

So has it been lack of faith on our part? Or is it because healing and raising people back to life again was only meant for Jesus’ day to prove he truly was the Messiah, and only for a brief time after that through his apostles and others in the book of Acts?

But if wholesale healing and being raised back to life again is not what Jesus meant by “greater things,” then what did he mean instead? 

Well, not to downplay how marvellous those healings and resurrections that Jesus did were, one has to ask what happened to all those people he healed and brought back to life again? They still had to die, right? Lazarus got his life back, but only to die a second time. And all those people Jesus healed, like lepers and people crippled and blind from birth, they died too. So the miracles Jesus did in his ministry were purely in the temporary, physical realm. They didn’t solve the problem of death. 

By “greater things,” then, was Jesus talking about something beyond the temporary and physical that did solve the problem of death? Yes, he was, because in John 11:25-26 he said, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” So there’s a type of “resurrection and life” Jesus is promising here that exists beyond death. Death doesn’t end them. Death doesn’t even affect them, because Jesus himself is the source of them, and he is permanent and eternal. 

And, what’s more, for simply believing what Jesus says in these two verses we can experience this permanent and eternal resurrection and life in the here and now.  

But how do we experience such an amazing miracle? Well, fortunately, Jesus explains that too, in John 5:24 – “I tell you the truth, that whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life….he has crossed over from death to life.” 

In other words, if we believe everything Jesus said and did was sourced by the great God, we will experience being raised to a whole new life now, the life that Jesus himself lives in his resurrected state. And that life for us never ends.   

And now the really good bit, that having “tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age” in this life now, Hebrews 6:5, we are then in a position to teach others about “crossing over from death” to this eternal, permanent resurrection life too.  

And that in Jesus’ own definition explains what he meant by the “greater things.” He’s talking about things eternal and permanent from believing in him being the source of them, which are so much greater than the miracles of temporary and physical healing and resurrection that he did. And not only can we experience personally what that eternal and permanent life is like now, we can help others learn about it now too. 

And in so doing, that’s how we do greater things than Jesus. 

Jesus’ amazing promise in John 14

In John 14:12 Jesus says, “Anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing (and) even greater things, because I am going to the Father.”

What else can that mean other than trusting Jesus to do in our lives what he did in his? And because he’s going to his Father, he’ll also be in a position to enable us to do even greater things too.

And what “things” would Jesus be referring to? According to verse 10 it’s the things the Father was living, doing and speaking in and through him.  

One would expect some pretty amazing things being said and done by Jesus, then, right? And if I had the great Father God living, working and speaking in and through me, I’d be expecting some pretty amazing things to be happening too. I mean, we’re talking about the supreme intelligence and miracle-making power that planned and created the immensity of our universe.   

So putting verses 10 and 12 together we’ve got the supremely wise and mighty miracle-making Father working his magic through Jesus. It’s not surprising, then, that Jesus says in the first part of verse 11, “Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me.” What other conclusion could Jesus have come to, though, having personally experienced the mind and power of the Father living and working in him? And especially when miracles were what he’d expected from being “in the Father” too. He was “into” the Father for just that reason, though, to have the Father do these wonders through him. 

The problem was getting other people to believe it, because Jesus goes on to say in the second part of verse 11, “or at least believe on the evidence of the miracles themselves.” It seems that even the disciples he’d just spent over three years traipsing round the countryside with, who’d witnessed him doing the most amazing miracles, were still having trouble believing Jesus was speaking and acting on behalf of the Father, or that the Father was the energy and source behind everything Jesus said and did (verses 5-10). 

Jesus’ simple answer to them was, “But what about all those miracles I did?” And then he drops the real bombshell of proof in verse 12 when he says, “You know what? You can do miracles too. All you need do is trust me to do them through you. And, what’s more, I’m off to be with the Father so you’ll have two of us doing amazing things in and through you, so expect to do even greater than I did.” 

I’m not sure what thoughts would be raging through my head after hearing Jesus say that, but I could make a pretty good guess based on my personal reaction to what Jesus said next. Because he makes the most astounding promise in verse 13 when he says, “And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father.” 

Put that together with what Jesus has just said in verses 10 to 12, about the Father working and living in him, miracles being the obvious proof of it, Jesus was now making it clear to his disciples that he would now be the source of the same miracle-working power – in them. It would still be to the “glory of the Father,” of course, since the Father was the one who got this started and put Jesus in his position of power – so get the point as to where things would be going from here on out. 

From now on, or soon after Jesus ascended to his Father, Jesus would continue doing miracles by living in and working in his disciples. This is what the Father would set him up for when Jesus joined him. As Jesus’ disciples, then, expect Jesus to do miracles through them, just as he’d expected his Father to do miracles through him.  

The set up from now on for Jesus’ disciples, therefore, was this: Trust Jesus to do miracles in and through them, expecting him to do them too, as visible witness to his power – just as Jesus doing and expecting miracles from his Father gave visible witness to the Father’s power. 

And if it’s any consolation to us Christian disciples today, Jesus knew it would be hard for his disciples back then to wrap their minds round expecting him to do miracles through them. Which is probably why he repeated his promise in verse 14: “You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it,” and he means miracles.  

And it’s all to the Father’s glory too, when we’re trusting and expecting Jesus to do miracles in and through us, because the Father was the one who set it up this way in the first place.

So what thoughts or questions does that raise in your mind?…. 

Our journey to joy

“Joy to the world” is an upbeat song, but how, exactly, is joy to the world possible? Do we, like the song suggests, have to wait until Jesus returns at some time in the future? Or is joy possible now?

And what kind of joy are we talking about too? Is it optimism, “looking on the bright side of life,” thinking positive thoughts, being with friends having a good laugh together, watching comedians and funny movies, or being moved by Disney Christmas movies? 

Joy is defined as “a feeling of great pleasure and happiness,” but what in this world creates such a feeling? And is joy just a burst of happiness once in a while, or can it be long lasting and even a permanent part of our nature and outlook on life? 

In searching for a decent answer it’s nice to know that Jesus offered a clue or two on the subject when he said, “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete” in John 15:11. Whatever he said, then, has the power to create joy, and the same joy he experienced as a human too. He dropped the same clue in John 17:13 as well: “I say these things, so that they they may have the full measure of my joy within them.” And he meant in this life now, not having to wait until a future life. 

And even when faced with having to die a horrible death on the cross his joy wasn’t shaken (Hebrews 12:2), so there’s a depth to the joy Jesus personally experienced – and offers to us too – that can survive the worst nightmares we face or imagine. 

But how on earth is that possible in a world like ours that has us constantly living in fear and trepidation as to what we’ll be hit with next, financially, weather-wise, or pandemic? And if we have children and grandchildren, it’s difficult feeling joy knowing what they might be facing when they’re our age. 

Fortunately, Peter wades in on these disturbing thoughts too, when he writes in I Peter 1:6, “In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.” So Peter accepts that life can be hell at times, with hits coming from all sorts of directions, but we can still “greatly rejoice.” Really? How?

Well, from what Peter also writes, it sounds like joy is a journey. “Greatly rejoicing” comes with growing realization. It starts in verse 3 with the realization that we have an amazing Father God who opened up a whole new life and hope to us in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, because Jesus is now able to live his life in us (John 17:26), and we get to feel and experience it every day too.  

That then leads to the next step on our journey to joy – in the realization that we have “an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade – kept in heaven for you,” verse 4, because, verse 5, we “are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.” So the resurrected Jesus has secured our future as well. 

In the meantime our trust will be tested, yes, but the “result,” verse 7, will be “praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed.” So even suffering and stretching our faith ’til it feels like it will snap translates into joy – as Jesus makes his shielding power real to us in our present worries and trials. 

Hopefully it dawns on us, then, that both our present day living and our eternal future are totally safe in the resurrected Jesus’ care, because those two steps are meant to happen and become real to us on our journey to joy. 

And as they become real to us, so does Jesus, which brings us to the third step on our journey to joy, described by Peter in verse 8. And it’s here that we grasp the real and only source of true joy: it’s a person. It’s Jesus, and the realization of how much he loves us – today and for all eternity. And with that realization, verse 8, “Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy.” And why is that? Because, verse 9, “you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of (your) souls.” 

We are literally experiencing (and in full too) what we believe and trust in Jesus for, which is the totally new birth and new life that our Father opened up to us in resurrecting Jesus from the dead. It becomes so real in our everyday experience that it makes the future look very bright indeed. And what greater source of joy can there be than that, especially when we realize that journey never ends too. 

Witnessing to Jesus – but how can we in a pandemic?

It’s a trifle difficult being a visible witness to Jesus in a pandemic lockdown, where contact with people outside one’s “bubble” is not recommended. We’re confined instead to people we already know, who already know us. And to even say “Hi” to a stranger on my daily walk is not exactly popular or made easy by having to pass each other at an eight foot distance. And no chummy chats with neighbours either.

Our lives are anything but visible, therefore, unless we’re among those Christians who flout the pandemic regulations, demanding the right to meet together in church, and end up making the headlines in social and other media.  They’re a visible witness, all right, but not quite what Jesus was getting at, I would think. 

So how do – or how can – Christians witness to Jesus in a pandemic?  A snippet out of a recent letter – supported and shared by 38 pastors – was a real eye-opener for me, and very encouraging too. Here is what they wrote:

All of us are committed to obeying Christ’s command to “love your neighbour” (Luke 10:27) in and through our worship practices, which means that we will not be gathering for in-person worship on Christmas Eve.

This decision, while difficult, is consistent with the decisions of countless Christian communities across the millennia to put the welfare of others above our own wants, desires, and rights. In fact, the willingness of Christians to prioritize the needs of others during previous pandemics contributed significantly to the growth of the Christian movement in the ancient world. 

In both the Antonine Plague of the second century and the Plague of Cyprian in the third, Christians became renowned for the extreme lengths to which they would go to care for the sick, not only among their own ranks, but also those of other faiths.

In 1527, as the Bubonic Plague entered Wittenberg, the German Reformer Martin Luther not only urged his congregation to care for the sick, but also criticized those who disdained precautions in order “to prove how independent they are.” In contrast to behaviour he described as “tempting God,” Luther vowed, “I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine, and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance infect and pollute others, and so cause their death as a result of my negligence.”

So while our celebrations of Christmas will be different than we had imagined or hoped for this year, we believe they are in keeping with the Christian Church’s insistence to put the needs of others before our own. 

More importantly, we believe the decision not to gather inside our sanctuaries this Christmas Eve out of regard for the health and safety of our neighbours is in keeping with the spirit of the One whose birth we celebrate, the One who declared that he “came not to be served, but to serve” (Matthew 20:28), and instructed his disciples to “love one another, just as I have loved you” (John 13:34). End quote.

Think of all the pandemic regulations and anti-regulation protests that would have been unnecessary if at the heart of our reasoning about what we should or shouldn’t do was condensed to just that one simple statement and motive of “loving our neighbour.”  

And fortunately there are Christians and entire denominations that have made the originator of that statement a vislble and obvious witness to how simple and superior God’s way is. 

Personally, therefore, I thank those 38 kindred pastors, and would, if I could, add my name to theirs.  

Because now I have the clue I was looking for, on “How to be a witness to Jesus in the middle of a pesky pandemic.” 

“Bah humbug” to religion and all its rules and rituals

What we humans want to know is, “Do we matter?” – and if God exists do we matter to him? And for those in serious search of knowing they matter there has been one well worn road to travel on, and that’s been religion with all its rules and rituals to make our gods take notice of us.  

When Jesus turned up, however, he offered another road, an alternative route, that he was that road to knowing we matter, and that we matter to God. Or as he phrased it, he was “the way, the truth and the life.” And on the way to explaining what he meant by that he took several swipes at those pushing religion with its man-made traditions and regulations, because religion made people feel they only mattered if they followed every rule and ritual that religious tradition required.

What Jesus showed his disciples instead was proof that they mattered without the need for religion and its rituals and rules. And how did he do it? He did it through his prayers to his Father, because in the way Jesus prayed it was clear he was talking to someone he knew he mattered a great deal to.  

So in Luke 11:1 one of his disciples asked Jesus to help them experience that too. But in verses 2-4 Jesus startles them by starting their prayer with “Our Father,” using the Aramaic word “Abba” for Father, a term of affection and trust a Jewish child would use when asking his parents a question, or asking for help, or wanting to snuggle. 

To Jesus’ Jewish disciples this was shocking, because they’d been used to a God with strict laws and rituals he expected them to obey as his chosen people. But here’s Jesus saying God is an “Abba,” a Father who loves hearing from humans who see themselves as his children with free access to him all the time, no strings attached or conditions to meet. 

This would be tough for his disciples to understand, though, so Jesus offers them a hypothetical situation to chew on in verse 5: “Suppose,” Jesus says, “you have a friend you visit at midnight to ask for three loaves of bread,  because you have a guest but no food in your house to feed him with.”

The homeowner, however, replies: “Hey it’s late, buddy, I’ve locked the house up already and we’re all in bed, so I’m not getting up just to give you some bread.” The man outside, however, doesn’t give up, and clearly he doesn’t feel bad about not giving up either. 

But what made him so bold? I mean, could I do that to a friend – knock on his door at midnight asking for a tiny favour, and not stop knocking until he responded?

Well, yes I could if I knew my friend was OK with me doing it, having already made it clear I could enter his house any time without knocking, and if I’m hungry go open his fridge and help myself – because that’s the kind of friendship he wants with me. He loves a relationship with such freedom in it.   

And this is the point Jesus is getting across, that we have an Abba Father who loves that kind of relationship too. He’s not like the reluctant friend. Instead, he appreciates us coming boldly to him at any time for any request for help, and feeling utterly free to “ask” because we know, verses 9-10, “it will be given to you….For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks the door will be opened.”

Do we get the impression from Jesus’ illustration, then, that we matter a great deal to this Abba Father? And enough that we feel free to knock on our Father’s door at any time of night or day for the tiniest favour because that’s what he loves us doing, having learnt from Jesus’ prayers how much we matter to him.

So, “Bah humbug” to religion with all its rules and rituals, because Jesus made it clear in his prayers that we have a Father who loves us feeling utterly free as his children to ask him for anything we need and at any time of day or night, without having to use religion to get him to take notice of us. 

Because we matter that much to him.   

Advent = THREE salvations?

If ever proof was needed that God loves us it’s in Advent, which pictures God not only saving us once, or twice, but three times. Three salvations – past, present, and future – which tie in very nicely with the three “comings” of Jesus that Advent pictures too. 

The first coming of Jesus ties in with our first salvation, when Jesus died to save all humanity from eternal death. Jesus then told his disciples he would come back to them after his death (in a second coming), to enable them to experience a second salvation, described in Acts 3:26 as “turning each of you from your wicked ways.” Paul also talked about Jesus returning at a later time (his third coming) to begin a third salvation that would “bring all things in heaven and earth together under one head, even Christ,” Ephesians 1:10.

So that makes three comings of Jesus with three salvations – the first when Christ died, the second that we’re living in right now, and the third when Jesus comes again in the future. And the purposes of all three salvations are made clear too: the purpose of the first was forgiveness; the purpose of the second is transformation; and the purpose of the third will be restoration (Acts 3:21).

The first salvation has already been done, completed by Jesus on the cross at his first coming, sealed in Jesus’ own statement, “It is finished” (John 19:30). The second salvation is a work in progress right now in Jesus’ second coming, in which those who believe in the first salvation of forgiveness in Jesus’ death “are being transformed into Jesus’ likeness with ever increasing glory,” 2 Corinthians 3:18. The third salvation kicks in at Jesus’ third coming, when, in partnership with those transformed into his likeness, Jesus readies this planet and all humans who’ve ever lived for God himself to dwell here to put a final stop to “death, mourning, crying and pain,” Revelation 21:3-4.

So that’s three salvations tying in with Jesus’ coming to us at three different times and in three different ways, or in three different roles, as Saviour first of all, as our High Priest now, and as King of kings in his full glory later. It’s no coincidence, then, that all three of Jesus’ roles were revealed very soon after Jesus was born, when foreigners from the east arrived with three gifts for the baby Jesus: gold, frankincense and myrrh. Myrrh might seem strange, because it was used as an embalming resin for dead people, but it tied in perfectly with Jesus’ role as our Saviour dying to save us from eternal death.

The second gift was frankincense, which seems like an odd gift for a baby too, but frankincense played an essential part in the high priest’s job on the Day of Atonement for the cleansing of Israel from all their sins (Leviticus 16:12-13, 30). And that tied in perfectly with the role Jesus would play as high priest too (Hebrews 4:14-16), in cleansing us now from all “our wicked ways” (Acts 3:26). 

The third gift of gold was the primary choice of gift for kings, so it’s no surprise that gold was given to Jesus, and by people who knew Jesus filled the role of a king (Matthew 2:2). So that’s three gifts for the baby Jesus that perfectly illustrated and recognized the three roles Jesus would play, as our Saviour, High Priest, and King. 

So now we have three separate comings of Jesus for three different salvations, and three gifts illustrating the three roles of Jesus. But for those who accept Jesus’ first role and first coming as Saviour, it is the second role and second salvation that Jesus brings in his second coming that becomes the all important one, because it is part and parcel of the second season of Jesus’ ministry that we’re living in right now, in which Jesus as our High Priest is there for us every second of every day to fill us with himself (Colossians 2:9-10). 

The first season of Jesus’ ministry was fulfilled in his human life and death, providing the forgiveness and clean slate we’d need for receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit. It would then be the work of the Spirit in the second season of Jesus’ ministry to transform us into the likeness of Christ in preparation for the third season in Jesus’ ministry at his third coming when we partner with him in restoring “everything” (Acts 3:21) to the way God originally meant it to be. 

So we now have three seasons in Jesus’ ministry too, and each one tying in perfectly with the three roles Jesus fulfills through his three comings. And all of them picturing God’s love for us, in not only saving us once, or twice, but three times. And all nicely wrapped up for us in just one word: Advent.