Belonging

Juxtaposition (Mark 1:11-20)

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Life is full of contrasting experiences! One moment we are celebrating something the next we can be plunged into hardship by a phone call or some unexpected trouble.  

In Mark 1:11-12, Jesus has a thoroughly human experience. One moment Jesus is basking in the love and affirmation of Father God, the next He is being sent by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan – juxtaposition.

You know the feeling, don’t you? Sunday you’re lost in worship, basking in the love of God, or you’ve just had a great time of personal devotion with bible reading prayer and worship and then BAM! 

Someone rear-ends your car in traffic, or something hits the news on the radio that plunges you into despair, or your cell phone buzzes with a message you really didn’t anticipate or need – juxtaposition. 

When this happens, we need to remember that our faith is not feelings. We know the God we were worshipping, delighting in and listening to. We know who has loved us and who had proclaimed that love. Feelings are fickle; they come and go, rise and fall, but our faith is anchored by something greater than feelings.

What anchored Jesus in the midst of this sudden change of atmosphere and experience?  

  1. Jesus knew WHO He was, and Jesus knew WHOSE He was. At His baptism, God the Father had confirmed this in an emphatic way through His words to Jesus (vs11).
  2. Jesus was filled with the Holy Spirit (Luke 4:1)
  3. Jesus knew Scripture and quoted it when Satan tempted and tested Him (Luke 4:9-13)

And what will anchor you when your life is thrown a serious curveball? I pray that it will be anchored by the same three things that anchored Jesus in his moment of contrasting circumstances.

Verse 12 reveals another surprising contrast. How can Scripture say that the Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan (see also Matthew 4:1)?  

We prefer to attribute bad or hard things to our own agency or the sinful agency of others or Satan himself. We are happy with language that places God with us in trials or working in trials, yet all synoptic Gospels ascribe Jesus’ guidance to the Holy Spirit!

God doesn’t just work in all things; God is sovereign over all things. God, the Holy Spirit, lead Jesus into this challenging time for the sake of the purposes of God in and through Jesus. Being tempted by Satan and being without food for 40days could not have been easy or pleasant at all for Jesus. And yet it was God Himself who sovereignly lead Jesus into those circumstances.

At present we are facing a world-wide pandemic, economies are shaking, people have lost their jobs in thousands, businesses are struggling, people are sick, and many have lost their lives. There seems to be hardship on every side, and yet one of the keys to thriving in this world-wide crisis is; “knowing that the same sovereignty that could stop the coronavirus, yet doesn’t, is the very sovereignty that sustains the soul in it.” – John Piper

Sometimes I think we want to let God off the hook for our tough life circumstances. We feel it is too conflicting to know that God could have been involved in our circumstances or don’t want God to be blamed for not relieving them. But then you can’t have it both ways! “If we try to rescue God from his sovereignty over suffering, we sacrifice his sovereignty to turn all things for good.” – John Piper

The Gospels report without any apology or embarrassment that God the Holy Spirit lead Jesus into this time of hardship and discomfort and testing by Satan, and God sustained Jesus in it too! Luke records also; “And Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee” (Luke 4:14). God, the Holy Spirit, never left Jesus from the time of His baptism, strengthening Him through his trial and temptation, and empowering Him in all His ministry (Acts 10:38).

Likewise, God will never leave you (Hebrews 13:5-6)! No matter what you face, no matter what He leads you into for His sovereign purposes, God the Holy Spirit will always be with you to enable and equip you to do God’s will in it all.

So in these times full of juxtaposed experiences, good things and hard things know this – God is sovereign in it all and God loves you and me with an everlasting love.

Ask the Holy Spirit to fill you again today, knowing; “how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:13)

Gareth is one of the elders at Reconciliation Road Church in Amanzimtoti, South Africa – click the link to get more information about our church.

The Centre of the Solar System (Mark 1:1-11)

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[In June/July for our church’s Bible Reading Plan we will be reading the Gospel of Mark. Join us…]

Mark’s Gospel begins with a succinct summary sentence outlining the big story of the book and also the main character in the story of the book – “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” [Mark 1:1]

This short book is an announcement (that’s what ‘gospel’ means essentially), a revelation about the most important person in the history of the world – Jesus.

The announcement is this – Jesus is the Messiah, the Anointed One, the Christ, the Son of God. All of this language meant that Jesus is the One the whole Old Testament anticipated, the One Israel was longing for.

Who Jesus is, is the big story of this whole book. Not surprisingly, therefore, Jesus is the main, or central character. Friend, Jesus isn’t just the big story and central character of this book, Jesus is the BIG STORY in all of human history.  

And so, any life that is not centred around the BIG STORY that is in turn centred around Jesus Christ the Messiah, who He is and what He came to do – is a life that is missing the whole point of life.

John Piper said; “The majesty of Christ is like the sun at the centre of the solar system of your life. The massive sun, 333 000 times the mass of the earth, holds all the planets in orbit, even little Pluto, 3.6 billion miles away. So it is with the supremacy of Christ in your life. All the planets of your life – your sexuality and desires, your commitments and beliefs, your aspirations and dreams, your attitudes and convictions, your habits and disciplines, your solitude and relationships, your labour and leisure, your thinking and feeling – all the planets of your life are held in orbit by the greatness and gravity and blazing brightness of the supremacy of Christ at the centre of your life. If he ceases to be the bright, blazing, satisfying beauty at the centre of your life the planets will fly into confusion, a hundred things will be out of control, and sooner or later they will crash into destruction.”

I urge you to consider this question right now; ‘Is Jesus and His supremacy truly the centre of my life?’  

The honest answer to that question will determine whether all the various ‘planets of your life’ are at risk of crashing into each other or being lost in outer space. Or whether all the things that comprise the solar system of your life are in their proper orbit in relation to one another and God, because Jesus is in His proper place at the centre of your life.

The writer of this Gospel wanted his readers, wants you and I to know that Jesus Christ is God’s Son, is the promised Messiah!

How amazing that we get to read the Bible thousands of years later. And yet these words, written down by John Mark in association with Peter, still come to us with potency & revelation.

Prayer: I urge you to stop now and to ask the Holy Spirit to speak to you as you read the Gospel of Mark. Ask the Holy Spirit to help you see Jesus afresh and hear Jesus’ voice to you in the present so that Jesus will be at the centre of your life’s solar system.

[Mark 1:2-8] John the Baptist had a unique role that no one else had before him, and no one had since. John the Baptist got to announce who Jesus was, came to prepare the way for the One the people of the day had been waiting for. His whole job was to point people to Jesus.

And in that way, although John the baptist was a little like the last of the Old Testament prophets, he was also like the first Christ Follower – pointing people to Jesus.

Our role as Christ-Followers is not to rescue everyone we meet, not to try to be their deliverer or saviour but to point them to the ONE who is their Saviour – Jesus.

At one point John the disciple records that John the Baptist said of Jesus; “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30) and in our passage for today in vs8 John tells those he is baptising that Jesus is greater than he is and that Jesus will do greater things [Mark 1:7-8]. In this way, John the Baptist is a great example to you and I. Our role is to make much of Jesus, to point people to Jesus.

Often we baulk from sharing our faith or the good news about Jesus with someone because we have an over-realised sense of responsibility for the person’s faith.  

John the Baptist reminds us, that our job is to point people to Jesus, not to be Jesus! We do this in normal life and conversations about the One who is at the centre of our life’s solar system! There is no pressure on us to know everything or convince anyone – our job is to simply point people to Jesus as and when God gives us the opportunities to do so in a manner that is authentic and not contrived.

[Mark 1:9-11] These verses record Jesus’ baptism in water by John the baptist. We see the Christian theology of the Trinity here in these verses. Jesus the Son is being baptised, God the Father rips open the sky and speaks audibly to Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit descends from heaven onto Jesus like a dove!  

In Jesus’ baptism, we see that the whole of the Godhead was intimately involved in the life and ministry of Jesus. Jesus’ ministry flowed from this moment in which His identity and sense of belonging were confirmed by God the Father; “You are my beloved Son; with you, I am well pleased.” These words of love and affirmation and the anointing of the Holy Spirit that went with them catapulted Jesus into His earthly ministry and all that will follow in this Gospel.

We, like Jesus, need to know WHO we are and WHOSE we are before we will do anything great for God. We, like Jesus, also need the empowering of the Holy Spirit if we will accomplish anything of significance for God. And if you know Romans 8, you will know that those two needs are connected as one. When we are filled with the Holy Spirit, the Spirit in us declares to us that we truly are the beloved children of God most high.

So, just as Jesus started His earthly mission for God with God affirming WHO He was and WHOSE He was, with the infilling of the Holy Spirit – so too this is what we need Christ-Followers.

So ask God the Father, ask the Holy Spirit to come upon you now, to confirm to you WHO you are and WHOSE you are and pray for the enabling power of the Holy Spirit for today and every day. Amen.

Gareth is one of the elders at Reconciliation Road Church in Amanzimtoti, South Africa – click the link to get more information about our church.

Gospel Metamorphosis (Philemon 8-16)

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You know, sometimes we don’t need a super-star to look at in Scripture! Don’t get me wrong, super-stars are fabulous, but we tend to create a “special” category for them, and if we are honest we often don’t feel we can relate to someone in that category.

And as a result, their lives can tend not to motivate us.

Listening or reading people like Tim Keller or John Piper I sometimes wonder if I should do something else! Their stellar gifts can seem quite out of reach, leaving me prone to feeling demotivated in comparison.

What about you? Do you know that feeling?

Yet, Scripture is full of some pretty ‘ordinary’ people, people so similar to us, weak people, people who made mistakes, not so famous people – but all transformed by God and used by God in some way or another!

In today’s passage, we are introduced to just such a person Onesimus. We know about him from this letter that the Apostle Paul wrote to a church leader called Philemon, who leads a church that meets in his house in Colossae.

What’s the back story?

Paul seems to have lead Philemon to faith in Jesus (vs19). And having believed in Jesus Philemon’s life was transformed. His faith in and love for Jesus was known (vs5), and this love for Jesus led Philemon to love his fellow believers. So much so that he was known as one who refreshed and revived other people’s hearts (vs4-7) and now he and his whole family were living their whole lives for God’s mission with a church even meeting in their house (vs2).

But not everything was rosy!  There was someone Philemon found difficult to love. Someone he had little time for. There is always someone isn’t there.  That itchy neck person, that person who did THAT thing…!

For Philemon, THAT GUY’s name was; Onesimus.

He had been a slave of Philemon’s, he worked for him, but apparently wasn’t a very good or honourable employee.

Onesimus was so bad that although his name means ‘useful’ (vs11), it seems like he was nicknamed ‘useless’ by Philemon.

He wasn’t just ‘useless’ to his master, on top of this bad work ethic, it seems like Onesimus had also stolen from his master (vs18-19).

So, Onesimus was either dismissed & sent away by Philemon or, more likely; he ran away as such criminal actions against an owner would have been harshly treated in that society. Either way, Onesimus somehow ends up with Paul in Rome, where Paul has been imprisoned for the Gospel.

Maybe Onesimus remembered hearing Paul preach in the church that met in Philemon’s house; maybe he remembered hearing the letters that were read out containing the liberating truth of the Gospel? Maybe he longed for such freedom from guilt and shame for himself…?

Whatever it was, Onesimus finds Paul in Rome in prison, and Paul ends up leading him to faith in Christ, or Paul restores him to faith in Christ in Rome while in prison.

And because of that we now have this very personal letter in our bibles, so what can we learn from it. So what can we learn from this letter, this story?

1. The Gospel gives identity & belonging

Having run away, having stolen, having been called ‘useless’ when your name actually means ‘useful’, Onesimus must have had some real identity issues. Low self-esteem, nothing to be proud of, no hope for a future, a criminal on the run…!

But all that is about to change. You see the Gospel doesn’t just change our eternal address it transforms who we are!

“The Gospel doesn’t just change

our eternal address it transforms who we are!”

We don’t know anything about Onesimus’ nationality or parents, but it is highly likely that he was a foreigner probably brought to the Roman empire through war or slave-traders.

As a slave, Onesimus would not have much in the way of protection from exploitation/abuse would not have had much in the way of rights or any privilege.

But in the Gospel Onesimus becomes a son 3x over!

  • The son of his human dad
  • A son of God
  • A son of Paul, his spiritual dad! (vs10) “I appeal to you for my child.”

The Gospel transforms identity/belonging, so much so that Paul says that when he sends Onesimus back to Philemon (carrying this letter we are reading), he says that he is, in fact, sending “my very heart”! (vs12)

This useless slave who had messed up monumentally – because of the Gospel becomes a beloved son 3x!

More than this, Paul writes to Philemon, an important man, a church leader a homeowner and Paul writes of how Onesimus has become to both of them (the apostle Paul and this leader) – a fellow brother (vs16) in Christ!

Our faith in Christ, our adoption as children of God, creates a new relationship of love & equality of value between us, a connection that is deep and eternal – brothers and sisters in Christ! Equal in the Lord.

The Gospel gives us a value that transcends social barriers that previously defined and divided us! This is so real for the apostle Paul that he writes to Philemon instructing him to receive Onesimus ‘AS YOU WOULD RECEIVE ME’ (vs16-17).

  • I don’t know how you see yourself today.
  • I don’t know if you can identify a bit with Onesimus?
  • I don’t know if your identity feels like it is intact or in tatters?
  • I don’t know if you feel useless, ashamed of things you’ve done or failed at?
  • I don’t know if you feel like you don’t belong anywhere because of your family situation or a lack of a father or lack of parents….?

But what I DO KNOW is that the Gospel, the good news about Jesus transforms your identity and your sense of belonging!

  • God wants you to belong!
  • God wants you to KNOW Him as Father
  • God wants to give you spiritual fathers and mothers, spiritual brothers and sisters wants to give you a place of honour in His household – the church.

The Gospel gives us identity & belonging!

2. The Gospel gives us purpose!

Rejection is a terrible thing. Imagine being called ‘useless’! Maybe you’ve been, or you are still at times called ‘useless’ by someone, a boss, a friend or family member…

As a rejected, runaway slave and fugitive – Onesimus seems purposeless. Seems like he is useless – having no useful purpose at all in life.

But having encountered Paul and the Gospel Paul writes; ‘formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.’ (vs11)

Paul wants Onesimus to continue to stay to help him with the mission of Jesus but sends him back to be of help to the church back in Colossae.

When Jesus begins to change us from the inside out, little by little, our character starts changing too. We begin to become trustworthy, faithful, reliable, on-time, helpful…

The Gospel is incredibly down-to-earth, practical!

It doesn’t just change our eternal address but changes everything in our lives – it makes us useful, helpful, reliable to others and in God’s service.

Onesimus was set free from slavery by the Gospel, but what was he set free for?   Following Christ set him free from sin but in addition, set him free for good works (Ephesians 2:10) that God had prepared in advance for him to do. And so Onesimus becomes useful to in God’s church/kingdom (vs11). He gets a purpose!

Are you looking for purpose?  

The Gospel is what gives you purpose. Onesimus was floundering until he found Christ! And as you follow Christ, as you begin to serve others because you serve Christ – your life too will get purpose, and your character will get transformed.

3. Transformation by Spiritual Fathering Mothering

It’s worth asking; ‘How did this all happen for Onesimus?” This all happened because the Gospel restored him not just to his heavenly Father but also gave him a spiritual dad too! Paul picked up on this guy, who was a bit of a wreck probably by the time he got to him.

Paul didn’t get too hung up with his own life challenges while he himself was in prison. Paul wasn’t too self-absorbed so that he missed the moment, rather he saw the young man in front of him in need of help! What a (personal challenge to us)

And so, Paul involved himself, fathering Onesimus in the Lord, in the Gospel – Paul loved him as a son. Paul spoke life, hope, faith and a future over him calling him ‘useful’ restoring dignity to him. More than this as we shall read in the verses that follow, Paul advocated/mediated for him, was willing to pay for him, trusted him.

Who is God calling you to invest your life into? Could you be used by God to redeem a life, from useless to useful, from rejected to beloved? Who is your Onesimus?

Conclusion & Application

  • What’s God saying to you today?
  • Are you like Onesimus in some way? Do you feel like you have lost your way, you’re ashamed, have messed-up, feel lonely, purposeless or lacking hope…? God wants to redeem your life, put you back together again! Pray now and ask God to begin a metamorphic process of Gospel transformation in your life. Reach out to a spiritual father/mother to walk with you today.
  • Or have you walked with God for some time already, God has put you back together and so you’ve made some progress (not that we are ever totally right this side of heaven). Who is your Onesimus? Who is God calling you to invest your life into to see some other people’s lives transformed by the Gospel? What are you waiting for? Reach out to them today.

Gareth is one of the elders at Reconciliation Road Church in Amanzimtoti, South Africa – click the link to get more information about our church.