Category Archives: salvation history

What Protestants believe

Image result for martin Luther nailing theses

Martin Luther nails his 95 Theses to the church door at Wittenberg

Romans 3:19-28,  Jeremiah 31:31-34

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At Hallowe’en  this year we shall be commemorating 500 years of the Reformation, for it was on 31st. October, the eve of All Saints Day, in 1517, that Martin Luther posted his famous 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. In those days the church door functioned as a kind of public notice board ( for those who could read). All kinds of public notices were nailed to the church door. So Martin Luther’s action was not the act of vandalism it might at first seem to be to us!

But why did Luther post this notice on Hallowe’en? Well, on the eve of All Saints Day the Castle Church was open to the public. People came to view the large collection of relics of the saints which were held there. It was believed that if you viewed these relics you could obtain a reduction in the time you would spend in Purgatory. In fact it was considered equivalent to buying an indulgence for your sins. So there was a significance in Luther choosing that day to put up his notice.

Well, I’m not going to go into Luther’s 95 Theses now, but I do want us to think about what the Reformation stands for. What does it mean to be a Protestant? In what ways do we differ from our Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters? In what I am now going to say I do not want anyone to see it as some kind of attack on non-protestants. It’s just that I believe strongly that we ought not to be ashamed of what we believe as Protestants. In these ecumenical times you quite often hear people expressing regret for the Reformation – as if it was an unnecessary splitting up of Christendom. Well, I don’t regret it. It was a necessary return to Biblical truth at a time when the Church had lost its way.

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Discarding the untrue

Reformation is about discarding those things which are not Biblical, and which are untrue, and at the same time holding on to Biblical truths which might have been forgotten over time. That is what Luther and Calvin and all the other Reformers were trying to do. And that is what we should be trying to do also.

So what were the things they discarded?

·   The sale of indulgences – you could pay money so that your sins would be forgiven and you would spend less time in purgatory ( it was thought).

·  The doctrine of Purgatory itself – it’s not taught in the Bible.

·  Praying to the saints.

·  Offering worship to the Virgin Mary

·  Praying for the souls of the dead

·  Bowing down to images of saints and angels

·  Bowing to the altar and worshipping the bread and wine of the Eucharist as the actual body and blood of God: the doctrine of transubstantiation.

·  The power of the priesthood, who were believed to be able to forgive people’s sins.

All these things were thrown out by the Reformers. (However, many of these practices were brought back into the Church of England with the Anglo-catholic movement of the C19th.) You will notice in Presbyterian churches we don’t offer prayers to the saints, or pray for the souls of the dead. Nor do we believe that the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper actually turn into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.

These are the things which we don’t do, but what are the things we do do ? Let’s not be too negative. We might, as Protestants, have a tendency to stress the things we protest about rather than the things we positively stand for. So I want to rectify that – here are the things the Protestant Reformation stressed,  the Biblical truths they rediscovered and emphasized:

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The priesthood of all believers

Before the Reformation if you wanted to get close to God you thought you had to go to a priest. You had to confess your sins to him. He alone had power to absolve you. He alone could bring God near to you and he did this by offering you the Host – the sacramental wafer which was the Body of Christ.

When you prayed you didn’t unusually pray directly to God the Father, or to the Son. You prayed to the Virgin Mary, or to one of the other saints, or to your guardian angel. They were closer to God – they would act as intermediaries between you and God.

When the Reformation came people realised the truth of the Apostle Paul’s words to Timothy :
 For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus. (1 Timothy 2:5)

So, in the name of Jesus you can pray directly to God. In Old Testament times only the priests could enter the Holy Place in the Temple to draw near to God. But now, under the New Covenant, we all have access to God.
In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence.  ( Ephesians 3:12 )

We are all priests. Hence the expression: “Priesthood of all believers”.

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Justification by faith

Before the Reformation you struggled hard to find peace with God. Luther himself had been a monk for many years. He had fasted and flagellated himself and prayed, and yet somehow never got right with God. He was aware of his sins and also became aware that none of these disciplines of fasting and penance could wash them away.

Then, one day as he was studying the Letter to the Romans he came upon this verse:
For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: The righteous will live by faith.
( Romans 1:17 )

Luther realised that it was only the grace of God which could save him. He threw himself on the mercy of God and trusted Christ for his forgiveness. Luther realised these great truths :  no need to make pilgrimages to the graves of the saints, no need to fast on Fridays, no need to flagellate himself, no need to pay the church for indulgences. All he had to do was truly repent of his sins and trust in Christ. This is the great liberating truth of our faith –  Jesus saves.

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Centrality of the Bible

“Scriptura sola” –  the Bible alone –  was the Reformers’ great motto. Before the Reformation you could only get the Bible in Latin. Only priests could read it and only they could interpret what it said. Also the tradition of the church was held to be of equal importance to the Bible.

So, if the Church taught about purgatory, and indulgences, and Mary being perpetually a virgin and sinless, and Papal authority,  these things must be true – even though they are not in the Bible!  With the coming of the Reformation people threw out these ideas as erroneous and returned to the pure teaching of the Bible. They also had it translated into the language of the people – German, French, English, Welsh – rather than in Latin.

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The Lord’s Supper as a memorial

Before the Reformation the Lord’s Supper was seen as the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. It was believed that the bread and wine actually changed into the Body and Blood of Christ. The priest offered the Body and Blood of Christ as a sacrifice at the altar  – just as the Old Testament priests offered the sacrificial animals. Every time the Mass was celebrated Christ was offered again for the sins of the world. But the Reformers realised the truth of these words from Hebrews:

Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself.  ( Hebrews 7:27)

The Lord’s Supper is a meal we share in memorial of our Lord. We take bread and wine as symbols of his Body and Blood. They remind us of his sacrifice on the cross. We do not sacrifice him again.

You won’t find crucifixes in our churches because Christ is not still on the cross. Instead you will see the plain, empty cross – a sign that Christ has risen and is alive today.

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Conclusion
No, I can’t agree with those who decry the Reformation and seem to want to apologise for it. We cling to the truths rediscovered by Luther and the other Reformers. And a Reformed church is not just one which was reformed 500 years ago – it’s a church which is continually reforming – always looking for new insights in God’s word, and new ways to reach out with the Good News of Jesus Christ.

 

[An earlier version of this sermon was first blogged in 2008 under the title “Reformation”.]

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Filed under Faith, Grace, salvation history, The Church

“Whodunnit?”

Image result for empty tomb of jesus

Introduction
A few weeks ago I went to see the film “Risen”. In many ways this is an admirable film. It is virtually the only film about Jesus that adequately deals with the Resurrection. Many of the films about Jesus talk about his life and his death but hardly any even mention the Resurrection. This film concentrates on the Resurrection and that is a good thing. The film was advertised as being about a Roman Army officer who was asked to look into the disappearance of the body of Jesus. His job was to investigate, like a detective, to interview various people involved and find out what actually happened.

In the film here was a moving depiction of the Crucifixion and then the Roman officer started to interview the soldiers and other people involved. Eventually he meets with the risen Lord in Galilee and is convinced of the Resurrection. I realise that this is a fictionalised account but I think that if the makers of the film had had the Roman officer not meeting with the Risen Jesus himself, but only talking with the witnesses of the Resurrection, and then being convinced, that would have made a much better film. I can’t help feeling that the film makers have missed an opportunity. That’s my opinion – you might disagree. It could have been presented as a “whodunnit” detective mystery in ancient times! It would have been an opportunity to present the evidence for the Resurrection in a very lively and convincing way.

I’m now going to attempt to present that evidence in a similar way. Let’s imagine that we are detectives investigating the disappearance of the body of Jesus. Let us then interview various people who we were witnesses of what happened. Let’s find out “who done it”!
1) Our first Witnesses: Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus

“Yes we went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. We were both followers of Jesus but we had kept that a secret up to this point. But now we plucked up our courage and we asked Pilate if we could bury the body of Jesus. He gave us permission and we took him down from the cross and prepared him hastily for burial. There wasn’t much time – it was almost the start of the Sabbath when no work could be done. As we took down his body there was no doubt in our minds that he was indeed dead. When the soldier had pierced his side with a spear congealed blood and clear fluid had flowed out – a sure sign that the body has been dead for at least a few hours. He was stone cold when we took him down from the cross and put him in the tomb. We wrapped his body in a mixture of myrrh and aloes weighing about 100 pounds. And then we rolled the stone over the entrance of the tomb and left. It was the beginning of the Sabbath and no work could be done on that day.”
2) Our next witnesses: the Soldiers guarding the tomb

“On the Saturday morning we were told to guard the tomb of Jesus in case his disciples came to steal his body. You see, Jesus had actually said that he was going to rise again after three days, and the Chief Priests had asked Pilate to be allowed to guard the tomb. So on that Saturday morning we went into the tomb to check that his body was still there and then we rolled the stone back over the entrance and sealed it. This was done by stretching ropes across the entrance and sealing them with a lump of clay impressed with the Chief Priest’s seal. There was no way that anyone could move that stone without breaking the seal.

Then we watched and guarded the tomb. Early in the morning there was a great earthquake. And then, in a blinding shining light, an angelic being came down from Heaven and rolled the stone away. We were terrified! We could not move – we were like dead men. Eventually, when we came round, we ran off and told the Chief Priests what had happened. They were shocked and horrified but they got together with the elders of the people and together they came up with a concocted story. They give us money and told us to say that his disciples had come in the night and stolen his body while we were sleeping. But I tell you: we were not sleeping, we had watched all night long. We were afraid of getting in trouble with the Roman Governor but the the Chief Priests said that they would make everything right with him. We are telling the truth now. Don’t let us be punished.”
3) Our next witness: one of the Chief Priests

“To be honest, we have no idea what happened to the body of Jesus. His disciples are out and about telling everyone that he is alive. One of them, Simon Peter, spoke to a huge crowd on the day of Pentecost. He was claiming Jesus had risen from the dead. He talked about King David’s tomb being in the city of Jerusalem and King David’s body still lying there to this day. But he also said to them ‘the tomb of Jesus is empty, he has risen’. Well it is true that the tomb is empty – you can go and look at it. We Chief Priests have no way of explaining this. The soldiers came up with some story about an angel but we don’t know what to believe.

You Roman’s can’t explain it either. I would say to Pilate, ‘if you have his body then why don’t you just produce it. We haven’t got the body, but if we had it we certainly would produce it and scotch all these rumours’.”
4) Our next witness: one of his followers, Mary Magdalene

“I came to the tomb early on the Sunday morning with some other women. We were not aware that the Romans had set a guard and sealed the tomb and we were hoping to be able to roll the stone away ourselves and to put some extra spices on the body of Jesus. You see, there had not been enough time to adequately prepare his body because of the Sabbath.

But when we got there the tomb was empty, the stone was rolled away and angels appeared and told us that he was alive! And then, as we ran off, we met Jesus himself! He greeted us, and we worshipped him with joy.

Some time later he also appeared to the other disciples. Numerous times over the last few weeks he has appeared to his followers. He showed himself first to the Apostles and then to others who believed in him. At one of his appearances there were at least five hundred of his followers who saw him. You can ask them if you don’t believe me. Or you could ask Peter, or John, or Thomas, or any of the other Apostles. I tell you: he’s alive! He has now gone back to heaven but he is alive. And he has filled us with his Holy Spirit so that we can go out to all the world with his good news.”
This then is the evidence of some of the witnesses
Conclusion

So then “who done it?” Who moved the stone? Who took the body, and what happened to it? Anyone who wishes to debunk the Resurrection has to answer these questions. The evidence of the witnesses indicates that an angel moved the stone, that God took the body and raised Jesus up to eternal life. He appeared to his followers for forty days and then ascended to his Father. At present he is seated at God’s right hand, from whence he shall return one day to judge the world.

I like to think that evidence such as this would have been enough to convince the most sceptical of Roman officers. It’s all there in the Bible. You know, you can’t explain it any other way, unless you’re going to make the Apostles and the Gospel Writers out to be liars. These were people who were prepared to die for their faith in the Risen Lord, and some of them actually were martyred. It would have been much easier for them to have escaped martyrdom by denying the Resurrection. But they couldn’t, because they knew it was true.
“Christ is risen: He is risen indeed!”

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Jacob’s Ladder

Image result for jacob at bethel

Genesis 28: 10-22

Introduction

In my last sermon we looked at the rivalry between Jacob and Esau. How Jacob was always grasping at what was not rightfully his, and how he cheated his brother out of their father’s blessing.

When that happened Esau was furious and Jacob had to flee. He was afraid that after the death of their father Esau would kill him. So, with his parents’ blessing, Jacob left home to go to Northern Mesopotamia, to the town of Haran where his uncle Laban lived. It was a long journey and involved crossing desolate and wild territories. Jacob left Beersheba in the south of the land and travelled for a day, until he came to a place that was at that time called Luz.

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A wonderful dream

The sun was setting, so Jacob stopped for the night. He was lonely and anxious about his future as he settled down in that desolate and seemingly God-forsaken spot. There was a large boulder there that Jacob put under his head – a very hard and unforgiving pillow on which to sleep.

Jacob was not happy, he was troubled and worried about his future. He realised that he had overstepped the mark in cheating his brother of the blessing. No, he wasn’t happy. But he was dead tired, and so he sank into a dreamless sleep, utterly exhausted.

But then, after he had rested for a while, Jacob had a dream. And what a wonderful dream it was! He saw in front of him a ladder, or stairway, leading right up to heaven. God’s angels – magnificent celestial beings – were going up the ladder and returning down to earth. Presumably they were bearing the prayers of God’s people up to heaven and returning with God’s blessings down to earth. And there, at the top of the ladder, stood the Lord himself! I don’t know what form the Lord took – maybe it was even the human form of the Son of God – but it was awesome to behold. And then the voice of God came to Jacob:

‘I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.’
(Genesis 28:13-15)

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God’s blessing on Jacob

God was promising a blessing to Jacob – a  blessing he certainly did not deserve – a blessing far greater that he could ever have imagined. It was a reaffirmation of the promises God has given to his grandfather Abraham, that all nations on earth would be blessed by his descendants. What’s more, all those descendents would be more numerous than the sands of the desert or the stars that you can see in the sky.

That promise to Jacob was fulfilled, and is still being fulfilled to this day. Jacob’s descendants became known as the Israelites or Jews, and they were God’s chosen people. Through them the Saviour of the World came. Yes, Jesus Christ was a direct descendant of Jacob.

The Israelites were a people who came into existence nearly 4000 years ago, and they are still with us today. King Frederick the Great once asked his physician Zimmermann. ‘Zimmermann, can you name me a single proof of the existence of God?’ The physician replied, ‘Your majesty, the Jews.’”
The mere existence of the Jews, four thousand years after God made his promise to Jacob, is a sign to us that God exists and that he keeps his promises.

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The House of God

When Jacob woke out of his sleep he was full of reverence and fear. He had thought that he was in a God-forsaken place, but in his dream he met with God.

He thought, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.’ He was afraid and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.’
Early the next morning Jacob took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it. He called that place Bethel though the city used to be called Luz.
(Genesis 28:16-19)

He has been unaware of God’s power in his life. Indeed, up to this point he’s gone through life as a young man not thinking about God at all. But now he has an encounter with the living God and he is filled with awe. He wants to worship, so that’s why he takes the stone that he had been using as a pillow and sets it up as a pillar. He annoints it with oil, sanctifying it as a shrine and a memorial to his meeting with God. And he called the place Bethel, which means House of God.
Later it became one of the places where the Tabernacle rested and where God was worshipped by the descendants of Jacob.

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Jacob’s vow

Jacob has encountered God and it has made a change in his life. He is on the way to becoming a new person, but he hasn’t got there yet. Still, he does dedicate himself from that time onwards to serving the Lord.

Then Jacob made a vow, saying, ‘If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father’s household, then the Lord will be my God and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God’s house, and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth.’
(Genesis 28:20-22)

This might seem to be a somewhat self-serving commitment to God. In effect Jacob is saying, “If God provides for me then I will worship him, and I’ll give him a tenth of everything I get.” It seems to be conditional on whether things will go well or badly for him. But at least it is a beginning, it’s a first step on the path towards full commitment to God.

Many people are rather like Jacob – they undergo some kind of religious experience and they make some kind of commitment to the Lord, but it is all rather depends on things going well for them in life. If things don’t go well then they will stray away from the Lord. In the Parable of the Sower Jesus talks about the seed which fell on the shallow ground. It sprang up quickly but then died when drought and adversity came. Some people are like that. Things go wrong in their lives, life gets difficult, and they stop worshipping God. They forgetful about the presence of God in their lives.

Anyway, Jacob was going to experience a good deal more hardship and suffering in his life, and two further encounters with God, before he became closer to being the person God wanted him to be. It would be a long journey before he wholely dedicated himself. But when he did, he received the new name of Israel.

We also need to go on from a self-serving faith to one which clings to God in all the varied circumstances of life. One which submits to his will and wants nothing more than what God wants for us in this life.
We shall see what happened to Jacob later in another sermon.

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Conclusion
Meanwhile, let us take encouragement from the fact that there is a stairway or ladder between earth and heaven. And the angels of God ascend and descend upon it. There is a connection between earth and heaven – and that connection is a person. His name is Jesus and he is the Son of the Living God. Listen now to some words of Jesus himself from John’s Gospel.

Jesus said to Nathaniel, “I tell you now the truth, you shall see heaven open and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”
(John 2:51)

Surely Jesus was referring to the story of Jacob’s Ladder, with the angels ascending and descending upon it. He himself is that ladder – the Son of Man is the one upon whom the angels ascend and descend. Jesus is claiming himself to be the stairway or ladder to heaven, the link between Man and God, the means by which we are brought into God’s presence.

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“When I survey”: Good Friday meditation

 

Good Friday meditation at the Brecon Presbyterian Church

Mark 15:20-41

Introduction

Take a look at this cross. We are all looking a the same thing. We all see it illuminated by the same light. But we all view it from different angles.

“When I survey the wondrous cross” wrote Isaac Watts. And he saw in the Cross of Christ the greatest expression of love the world has ever seen. But not everyone sees it that way.

A s we “survey the wondrous Cross” we all view it through different “spectacles”.

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For some the view is blurred

This is because the spectacles are the wrong prescription. These people have never understood the Cross of Christ because no one has ever explained to them the significance of the death of Jesus. Their whole outlook on life is worldly and they never think of the Cross of Jesus at all. You see it on the faces of some people when they see us walking around the town, following a cross on Good Friday morning. You see a look of blank incomprehension.

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For some the view is hazy

This is because the glasses are fogged up or smeared with grease. I’m thinking about people who have been taught the Christian message. They know what the Cross of Jesus is all about, but they don’t view it properly because their minds are fogged with selfish desires or sinful lifestyles.

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For some the view is darkened

This is because they are wearing sunglasses. They view everything through the dark glasses of negativity. They can’t see the wonder of what God has done in Christ.
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And what about us?

We all tend to view the Cross of Christ from as different perspective – through different “spectacles”, as it were. Our individual view is conditioned by culture, prejudice, misleading impressions from our society and false teachings. So many people fail to realise what the cross of Jesus is all about.

On that first Good Friday the land was covered with darkness. Literal darkness, yes, but also symbolic – of the veil that was blinding eyes and clouding vision. Even those who loved Jesus – the women who so faithfully and bravely stood by the cross – even they could not see clearly through their tears. It was as if everyone at that scene, except Jesus, was wearing the wrong spectacles.
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Everyone looking at Jesus saw him in a different way:

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1) Some saw him as an enemy

The high priest tore his clothes. ‘Why do we need any more witnesses?’ he asked. ‘You have heard the blasphemy. What do you think?’
They all condemned him as worthy of death.
(Mark 14:63-64)

The chief priests condemned Jesus as a blasphemer who was worthy of death. Their eyes were so blurred with prejudice and jealousy and hatred that they could not see that his claims were true and that he was indeed God’s Son.

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2) Some saw him as a suitable victim

‘What shall I do, then, with the one you call the king of the Jews?’ Pilate asked them.
‘Crucify him!’ they shouted.
‘Why? What crime has he committed?’ asked Pilate.
But they shouted all the louder, ‘Crucify him!’
(Mark 15:12-14)

We do not know what was the crowd’s motive in wanting Jesus dead. They had been incited by rabble-rousers. The chief priest had employed men to stir up the crowd. A mob it is a very dangerous thing – it can be swayed one way or another. Mass hysteria can lead people to do the most dreadful things and can lead to the grossest miscarriages of Justice. As we see here: reason, and even basic common sense, went out of the window.

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3) Some saw him as a threat to their position

Pilate is an example of this:

Wanting to satisfy the crowd, Pilate released Barabbas to them. He had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.
(Mark 15:15)

He released Barabbas and had Jesus flogged and condemned. What Pilate did was expedient in one sense. He was afraid of the Jewish religious leaders would get him into trouble with Caesar if he let Jesus go.

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4) Some saw him as a joke

The soldiers did:
Again and again they struck him on the head with a staff and spat on him. Falling on their knees, they paid homage to him. And when they had mocked him, they took off the purple robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.
(Mark 15: 9-20)

They cruelly mocked him. Once again we wonder at the motive. What did Jesus ever done to harm them? Madness had come over the whole world. Their eyes were blinded – they could not see that he was a good man and a wise man. They treated him as a joke.

Increasingly, in television programmes and on the media, you see the figure of Jesus Christ being made a laughing stock and treated as a joke. They don’t do the same with Buddha or Muhammed – they wouldn’t dare – but Jesus Christ is fair game. All too often we stand by and say nothing.

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5) Some saw him as an object of pity

The women who stood by the cross and John the Apostle. They thought it was all over now. All their hopes were shattered: Jesus was dying. Their eyes were blinded with tears, they could not see clearly. They had forgotten his words about rising from the dead.

Into the midst of all this darkness there came a little glimmer of light. Amongst all these people who couldn’t see clearly there was one on whom the light was beginning to dawn.
6) One man saw him as the Son of God

The Roman centurion was the least likely person you would think who would recognise who Jesus was. This army officer had seen many crucifixions – he had been in charge of them. He had seen how most men died. And most of them were terrorists and murderers who deserved to die. They died with curses on their lips. But he had never seen anyone die in the way Jesus did.

And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, ‘Surely this man was the Son of God!’
(Mark 15: 39)

“The Son of God” or “a son of God” or “a son of the gods”? We don’t exactly know what was going on in the mind of this pagan Roman. This man may have said more than he really understood, but what he said was true. The light begins to dawn on this man as he recognises Jesus as the Son of God.

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Conclusion

· To the crowd Jesus was a victim.

· To Pilate he was a threat.

· To the chief priests he was an enemy.

· To the soldiers he was a joke.

· To the women and men disciples he was their dying Lord.

· But to this centurion he was the Son of God.
When we realise this fact, we begin to see what a sacrifice Jesus made. We see how costly his death on the cross was. God sent his only Son into this sinful world so that we could be forgiven and put right with him.

“When I survey the wondrous Cross
on which the Prince of Glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss
And pour contempt on all my pride.”

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Caiaphas

Talk given at the Brecon churches Lent Group 2/3/ 2016

1) Tonight we shall look at Caiaphas who was the high priest at the time Jesus died. According to the historian Josephus, Caiaphas was appointed by the Romans as High Priest in AD18. At that time High Priests we’re both respected and despised by the Jewish population. Many people respected them for the religious role they played in the Temple sacrifices and as leaders of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council. But many other Jews despised the High Priests because of their close relationship with the Roman authorities. It was the Romans who appointed them and who could also depose them if they didn’t do the right thing. There are suspicions that the High Priests also took bribes from the Romans.

Caiaphas was son-in-law of Annas, who had been High Priest from 6 to 15 AD Five of the sons of Annas also served as High Priests – usually just for a few years at a time. So it was quite a clique – the family of Annas, his sons and his son-in-law Caiphas.

Caiaphas would have been very much a politician. If he wanted to keep in power he would have to walk a tightrope tween the Romans on the one hand and the Jews on the other. It was a balancing act. If he didn’t do what the Romans wanted they would immediately depose him and appoint one of the sons of Annas in his place. On the other hand: if he offended the Jews they would rebel – and once again the Romans would clamp down and get rid of Caiaphas. So it was, you might say, a no-win situation. On the other hand: it was an incredibly lucrative position to be in.

Caiaphas first appears in the Gospel narrative when the High Priests arranged a gathering of the Sanhedrin in reaction to the raising of Lazarus.

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2) John 11:45-53 New International Version – UK (NIVUK)

The plot to kill Jesus
45 Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. 46 But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. 47 Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin.

‘What are we accomplishing?’ they asked. ‘Here is this man performing many signs. 48 If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.’

49 Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, ‘You know nothing at all! 50 You do not realise that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.’

51 He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, 52 and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one. 53 So from that day on they plotted to take his life.

They were afraid that the Romans would destroy the Temple and the Jewish nation. If people started following Jesus and making him their king, then it would bring disaster upon the whole nation. Caiaphas came out with a brilliant, calculated, cynical solution. “It’s better,” he said, “for one to die for the people than for the whole nation to perish”. In saying this he was in no way motivated by any theological consideration. He didn’t believe Jesus to be the Messiah. He wasn’t thinking about the Suffering Servant, prophesied by Isaiah, who would die for the Nation. He was just thinking of a way out of the situation they were in. He was just making a cynical calculation. But John sees these words as prophetic. “Because Caiaphas was High Priest,” John says, “he acted as a prophet and predicted that Jesus would die for all the people – not just the Jews but the whole world”.

I don’t think Caiphas thought in this way or really understood the significance of his words, but within the providence of God those words were going to find their fulfillment on the Cross at Calvary.

All this happened just after the death and raising of Lazarus, a week or so before the events of Holy Week. We are meant to be looking at how Caiaphas acted during Holy Week – so let us move on.

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3) As the Passover approached one of the Twelve Apostle, Judas Iscariot, went to some of the Chief Priests and asked how much money they would give him if he would hand Jesus over to them. So they counted out 30 silver coins for Judas. We are not told whether Caiaphas was among the group of Chief Priests. It is unlikely that he was, for they were simply his underlings, and he was the High Priest. It is hardly likely he would soil his hands with such a dirty transaction as this. But he certainly knew all about it and he approved of it. It was he, after all, who had said that Jesus should die to save the nation.

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The next time we meet Caiaphas is after the arrest of Jesus
4) Matthew 26:57-68 New International Version – UK (NIVUK)

Jesus before the Sanhedrin
57 Those who had arrested Jesus took him to Caiaphas the high priest, where the teachers of the law and the elders had assembled. 58 But Peter followed him at a distance, right up to the courtyard of the high priest. He entered and sat down with the guards to see the outcome.

59 The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for false evidence against Jesus so that they could put him to death. 60 But they did not find any, though many false witnesses came forward.

Finally two came forward 61 and declared, ‘This fellow said, “I am able to destroy the temple of God and rebuild it in three days.”’

62 Then the high priest stood up and said to Jesus, ‘Are you not going to answer? What is this testimony that these men are bringing against you?’ 63 But Jesus remained silent.

The high priest said to him, ‘I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.’

64 ‘You have said so,’ Jesus replied. ‘But I say to all of you: from now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.’[a]

65 Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, ‘He has spoken blasphemy! Why do we need any more witnesses? Look, now you have heard the blasphemy. 66 What do you think?’

‘He is worthy of death,’ they answered.

67 Then they spat in his face and struck him with their fists. Others slapped him 68 and said, ‘Prophesy to us, Messiah. Who hit you?’

This was an entirely illegal trial, as it happened at night, contrary to the Rabbinic law.

All the chief priests were looking for false evidence against Jesus

They didn’t find any accusations that would stand up in court but eventually they got him on a charge of blasphemy. Caiaphas got him to say that he was the Son of God. And so, Jesus’s fate was sealed.

5) Caiaphas was a completely heartless and cynical man. He held on to power by subterfuge and he wasn’t at all concerned about justice. He was the one who officiated in the Temple offering sacrifices to God – even entering the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement. It was the most sacred position in all the land, and yet he was a man who was quite willing to stoop to bribery, corruption and miscarriage of justice to get rid of Jesus.

The Son of God stood before him, and he had a chance of letting him go free. Caiaphas did not take that opportunity. Instead he accused Jesus of blasphemy and condemned him to death. So Jesus was sent off to Pilate to be executed by the Romans.

The historian Josephus described the High Priests of the family of Annas as “heartless when they sit in judgement”. He was right.

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Prayer

Lord save us from becoming like Caiaphas. Save us from treating holy things with disdain. Help those of us who are in paid ministry to see it as a holy calling, not a career path or a means of holding on to power. Help us all to recognise good when we see it and to always uphold justice and fairness in the world.

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The Future Glory

jerusalemtemple

Haggai 2: 1-9

Introduction

Our sermon today is about discouragement and encouragement.

(From Pastor Timothy Peck)
In recent years motivational posters have been very popular. You know what I mean: those posters with a photograph of a landscape or usually of an athlete with an inspirational saying underneath the picture. People hang them in their offices or in workplaces to motivate and encourage others.
Well, one company decided to put out some de-motivational posters:

• A poster for mistakes says, “It could be that the purpose of your life is only to serve as a warning to others.

• One for doubt says, “In the battle between you and the world, bet on the world.”

• A poster for humiliation says, “The harder you try, the dumber you look.”

• “If at first you don’t succeed, it could be that losing is just your style.”

• The poster for despair says, “It’s always darkest just before it goes pitch black.”
We really don’t need posters to help us be “de-motivated.” It is easier to be down and out or discouraged than it is to be positive, fresh and excited all the time.

You can imagine how Dr. Lenore Campbell felt when he went to see a patient who was coming out of anesthesia. He wrote in a medical journal that as he walked in the room some church bells sounded far off in the distance. The woman stirred and he heard her mutter, “I must be in heaven.” At that moment she looked up and saw him and said, “No, I can’t be. There’s Dr. Campbell.”

What sort of things do we get a discouraged about? Perhaps our health isn’t what it once was, our physical condition is not what it should be, our relationships with other people might have gone wrong. And then society is not what iPeople often yearn for the “good old days”.

Perhaps in our spiritual lives we also look back to some “mountain top experiences” – some occasions when we really felt the presence of God. Now we try to recapture those experiences and we find we can not. Perhaps God seems more distant now to us. Perhaps we face greater temptations and greater discouragements than we once did.

Well, let’s look at the message of Haggai, Chapter Two, v1 – 9. Because this was the experience of the people of Israel at that time – discouraged.

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(1) Past glories (v1 – 3)

On the twenty-first day of the seventh month, the word of the Lord came through the prophet Haggai: “Speak to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and to the remnant of the people. Ask them, ‘Who of you is left who saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Does it not seem to you like nothing?

The situation was that the Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed and the Jews had gone off to exile under the Babylon yoke. Finally the Babylonian empire had been destroyed and replaced by the Persian one. Then King Cyrus allowed the Jews to return to their land. In the reign of King Darius they were allowed to rebuild their Temple. The work had now been completed – the rebuilt temple was finished.

But what a pathetic sight it was compared with Solomon’s magnificent edifice! That had been overlaid with gold, silver and all kinds of precious materials. This temple, on the other hand, had been made out of the remains of the old one. The Babylonians had robbed it of all the gold and precious materials so all the Jews could do now was to gather together the old stones, cut new cedar logs and built with those materials. Any old people who remembered from their childhood what the original Temple looked like despised this new structure.
v3 ‘Who of you is left who saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Does it not seem to you like nothing?

So this was a great discouragement to the Jews: things were not as they had been in the former days. I think we can relate to this feeding. Do we not hear people harking back to the old days? –
perhaps we do it ourselves. Last year people were commemorating the 110th. anniversary of the Welsh revival of 1904-1905 led by Evan Roberts. Thousands were converted at that time and lives were transformed. “If only things were like that again”, we say.

And in more recent days we have also had thriving congregations. For example: the 1950s were the heyday for Sunday School attendance in Wales. Also, not so long ago people attended churches regularly. At one time there was a whole range of social activities centred around the Church or Chapel. For special services the churches were packed full. “Oh, the good old days!” What we have today is nothing like the former glory. “Does it not seem to you like nothing?”

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(2) Be strong (v 4-5)

But now a word of encouragement –
But now be strong, O Zerubbabel, declares the Lord.
Zerubbabel was the man who was leading the Jews in all this rebuilding work, the civil leader.
‘Be strong, O Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest. – he was the high priest – the spiritual leader of the people.
Be strong, all you people of the land,’ declares the Lord, ‘and work. For I am with you,’ declares the Lord Almighty. ……. And my Spirit remains among you. Do not fear.’

Is this not a word from God to us today? God is saying, “Don’t be discouraged, don’t give up, I am still with you My Spirit remains with you.” We might think, because we do not have all the spiritual manifestations of the revival, that God has removed his Spirit from us. But that is not so. Remember the parable about the growing seed? God’s Kingdom grows even when you can’t see it.

God calls as to work for him, not to be discouraged, but to be faithful. To do the work and to leave the outcome to him.
 “Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armour of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes,” wrote the apostle Paul from prison. (Ephesians 6: 10 – 11)

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(3) The future glory (v 6 – 9)

“Keep doing my work”, God says, “because I have plans to do great things in the future:
“This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘In a little while I will once more shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. I will shake all nations, and the desired of all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory,’ says the Lord Almighty.

God is going to shake things. Historically this happened when Alexander the Great defeated the Persian empire. In doing so he created a new world, a Hellenistic world which eventually became the Roman world and which prepared the way for the coming of the Messiah. Jesus was born into a world which had already been shaken by great political turmoil and was now ready to receive his gospel.

But it doesn’t just speak of history – it speaks of our future too. These words will find their greatest fulfillment when Christ comes for the second time. The Book of Daniel and the Book of Revelation both tell us of great tribulations, of political and international upheavals, before the end of the world. Jesus himself spoke of wars and rumours of wars, as well as earthquakes and natural disasters, all coming before the end times. Then Jesus will return – “the desire of all nations” as Haggai calls him.

“And I will fill this house with glory, says the Lord.”
The glory that is to come is the glory of the New Jerusalem.

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Conclusion

v 8 – “The silver is mine and the gold is mine” – Solomon’s Temple had been covered with gold and silver. But what was it worth? It had been stolen by the Babylonians. It belonged to God anyway. And he can provide greater wealth. The glory of his Kingdom will far outshine that of earthly gold and silver.
“And in this place I will grant peace, declares the Lord almighty.” His coming Kingdom will be one of peace and love.

What a wonderful prospect! Things can only get better. No need to be discouraged however hard things are going here on earth. All the work we do now will find its fulfilment and its reward in God’s eternal Kingdom.

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Howell Harris

 

[A sermon marking the 300th. anniversary of the birth of Howell Harris,  preached at the Brecon Presbyerian Church.]

Introduction

On Palm Sunday 1735 a young man was sitting in the congregation of Talgarth Parish Church. He was a bright young man who had been appointed as school master in the nearby parish of Langasty. Although he was fond of socializing with other young men – gambling, drinking and chasing after girls – he was also seriously minded. He believed in God and had become aware that his sins were a stumbling block – were separating him from God, his Creator. Because of this awareness this young man had never taken Communion – he didn’t feel worthy. On that Palm Sunday the Vicar, announcing that there would be a Communion Service the following Sunday, said that he knew there were many people who did not come to the Communion because they felt they were not fit to partake of it. He went on to say, ‘If you are not fit to take Communion you are not fit to pray, if you are not fit to pray you are not fit to live, and if you are not fit to live you are not fit to die’.

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Conversion

That young man, Howell Harris, was devastated, and as he went home he resolved to improve his life. Over the next few days he tried hard, but without much success. Nonetheless he did feel encouraged enough to take Communion for the first time on the following Sunday, which was Easter Day. But his heart was still full of guilty feelings. He would spend hours each day praying privately in the belfry of Llangasty church (where he was schoolmaster). During these prayer sessions he cried out to God and asked for his sins to be forgiven. Howell desperately wanted assurance that those sins were taken away. His prayer was answered seven weeks later, on Whit Sunday, when he came to receive Communion again. There he received assurance of Christ dying to take away his sins. In his own words:

‘At the table, Christ bleeding on the Cross was kept before my eyes constantly; and strength was given to me to believe that I was receiving pardon on account of that blood. I lost my burden; I went home leaping for joy, and I said to my neighbour who was sad, Why are you sad? I know my sins have been forgiven!”

Some weeks later he was praying again in Llangasty church belfry when he experienced a baptism of the Holy Spirit which equipped him for the great work God had called him to. Again , in his own words:

On June 18, 1735, being in secret prayer, I felt suddenly my heart melting within me like wax before the fire with love to God my Savior. I felt not only love and peace, but also a longing to be dissolved and to be with Christ, and there was a cry in my inmost soul with which I was totally unacquainted before. It was this–“Abba, Father; Abba, Father.” I could not help calling God my Father: I knew that I was His child, and that He loved me; my soul being filled and satiated, cried, “It is enough–I am satisfied; give me strength, and I will follow Thee through fire and water.” I could now say that I was happy indeed. There was in me a well of water, springing up into everlasting life; yea, the love of God was shed abroad in my heart by the Holy Ghost.’

In November of that year he went up to Oxford to train for Holy Orders. But the atmosphere of St Mary’s Hall, Oxford, was not to his liking – the place was far too worldly and unspiritual – so he soon returned home. Howell Harris never became an ordained clergyman in the Church of England but remained a layman in that church all his life.

So, instead of studying theology he began to hold small meetings for worship in his home, and then in neighbouring cottages and farms. At first he just visited the sick and read to them from various devotional books or from the Prayer Book. He had such a lively way of reading – filled with spirit and fire – that people started to flock to him just to hear him reading. Then he started adding his own comments and exhortations to the readings. His words were full of fire and eventually he abandoned the book and started preaching and exhorting people in the open air.
He preached entirely without notes, and with no prior preparation as to the topic on which he would speak. He spoke as he felt the Holy Spirit led him. People continued to flock to hear him and hundreds were converted through his ministry. He also faced great opposition from some of those who came to heckle him, and even throw refuse and stones at the preacher.

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Methodist Societies

Over the years Howell Harris and his colleagues ( the other early Methodist leaders such as William Williams, the hymnist, and Daniel Rowland) set up Methodist Societies throughout Wales. The purpose of these societies was to make up for the deficiencies of the Established Church. At that time very often a clergyman would not even live in his parish. He might have several parishes in different parts of the country and appoint an assistant to do the work. But often the work was not done at all. Services were held only occasionally and the Sacrament hardly ever given. The people received hardly any instruction in the Christian faith and superstition and ungodliness were rife among the people of Wales.

The Methodists set about to reform this situation through their societies. All the members of the societies remained in the Church of England and attended the Parish Church whenever there were services but the society meetings provided their main spiritual nourishment. At these meetings people would share their spiritual experiences, confess their sins and seek to put right defects in their lives. Methodist “Exhorters” were appointed to supervise the societies and to encourage the people.

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The words of Whitefield

To get a lively first-hand account of the ministry and character of Howell Harris in his early years let us listen to the words of George Whitfield, leader of English Calvinistic Methodism. Whitfield himself had been led to take up outdoor preaching by the example of Howell Harris. This is what he says:

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‘After I came from [preaching in the Judges] Seat, I was much refreshed with the sight of my dear Brother Howell Harris, whom, though I knew not in person, I have long since loved in…Christ, and have often felt my soul drawn out in prayer in his behalf.

‘A burning and shining light has he been in those parts; a Barrier against profaneness and immorality, and an indefatigable promoter of the true Gospel of Jesus Christ. ‘He is now about twenty five years of age. Twice he has applied (being every way qualified) for holy orders; but was refused, under a false pretence, that he was not of age. ‘About a Month ago he offered himself again, but was put off. Upon this, he was, and is still resolved to go on in his work…

‘For these three years…he has discoursed almost twice every day for three or four hours together… ‘Many alehouse people, fiddlers, harpers etc sadly cry out against him for spoiling their business. ‘He has been made the subject of numbers of sermons, has been threatened with public prosecutions, and had Constables sent to apprehend him.

‘But God has blessed him with inflexible courage; instantaneous strength has been communicated to him from above; and he still continues to go on from conquering to conquer.

‘He is of a most catholic Spirit, loves all that love our Lord Jesus Christ, and therefore, he is [described] by Bigots as a Dissenter.
‘…Many call, and own him as their spiritual Father, and, I believe, would lay down their Lives for his sake.

‘He discourses generally in a Field; but at other times in a house, from a wall, a table, or any thing else. He has established nearly thirty Societies in South Wales, and still his sphere of action is enlarged daily. He is full of faith, and the Holy Ghost.

‘When I first saw him, my heart was knit closely to him. I wanted to catch some of his fire, and gave him the right hand of fellowship with my whole heart.
‘After I had saluted him…we spent the remainder of the evening in taking sweet council together, and telling one another what God had done for our souls.
‘My heart was still drawn out towards him more and more. A divine and strong sympathy seemed to be between us, and I was resolved to promote his interest with all my might. ‘Accordingly we took an Account of the several Societies, and agreed on such Measures as seemed most conducive to promote the common interest of our Lord.

‘After much comfortable and encouraging Discourse with each other, we kneeled down and prayed…
‘This done, we eat a little Supper, and then, after singing a Hymn, we went to Bed, praising and blessing God for bringing us Face to Face.
‘I doubt not but Satan envied our Happiness. But, I hope, by the help of God we shall make his Kingdom shake.’

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The Trefeca Family

Howell Harris travelled the length and breadth of Wales (and into England as well) preaching the good news and building up the fellowships. He worked so hard that by the age of 38 he was in his own words ‘sick in body and tired in mind’. He retired to his home hamlet of Trefeca when he set up his unique Christian community – the Trefeca Family. Harris had fallen out with some of the other Methodist leaders and so he concentrated on developing the work at Trefeca. (Later in his life he was reconciled to Rowland and the other leaders he had fallen out with.)
The community at Trefeca consisted of men, women and children who lived as individual families in the neighbouring cottages. Every day they met together to worship, to pray, to study the BibIe and to work communally. It was not a monastic community – there were no vows of celibacy. The work consisted of farming the land and carrying out various trades such as spinning, weaving, blacksmithing, carpentry, book binding and printing. Howell together with his famous brother Joseph developed new methods of agriculture on the land belonging to the community and together were founder members of the Brecknock Agricultural Society – the first Agricultural Society in the world.
Lady Huntingdon’s Connection

Howell Harris was a friend of Selena, Countess of Huntingdon and she established a college for training young men for the ministry at Trefeca, within walking distance of Harris’s community. She placed it there because she wanted her students to be near to Howell Harris, where they could be encouraged and catch something of his fire. Lady Huntingdon’s students went on to be ministers of churches within what was known as Lady Huntingdon’s Connection. This denomination still exists to this day as a non-conformist church. In Brecon the house in the Struet (where the Cobbles Coffee Shop is now), known as Huntingdon House, was formerly one of the chapels of Lady Huntingdon’s Connexion. Lady Huntingdon used her influence in society to extend the cause of Christ and was a great friend and help to Howell Harris.

Howell Harris died at the age of 64 and his influence is shown by the fact that more than 20,000 people attended his funeral.

This is not a complete outline of his life. I have said nothing of his wife and daughter, or of his two famous brothers, or of his relations with other Methodist leaders or with Madam Sydney Griffith of Cefn Amlwch.

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Conclusion

What then can we learn from him?

· His persistence and his devotion to the Lord in the face of opposition.

· His love for the people of Wales (and England) and his desire for them to know God.

· His ability to inspire and organise the setting up of Methodist Societies throughout Wales – which ultimately led to the formation of our own denomination ( The Presbyterian Church of Wales).

· His complete enthusiasm for the faith.

· His dependence on the Holy Spirit for power.

· His ecumenical spirit, whereby he would work with Christians of all denominations as long as they loved the Lord

· His broad interests in agriculture, medicine and in national life. I have not said much about these but it is evident that he was far from being a narrow minded bigot with no interests outside religion.

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( I am endebted to the websites

http://lexloiz.wordpress.com/ 2009/08/29/george-whitefield-meets-howell-harris/

http://www.misterrichardson.com/ hhrev.html

And to the Howell Harris Museum Guide Book for information.)

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