God’s True Community – Nehemiah 11. RBT Notes, 13th December

It’s all well and good building a city wall, and building the city, but it’s in vain unless people live there. Don’t picture Nehemiah’s Jerusalem as a hub of commerce and leisure. This city is just getting on its feet again. Life there is hard. Community, business, leisure, all will need to be started over. You could say, it would be easier to be a farmer living in one of the towns outside of the city, with your land and the opportunity to make money from it all close at hand, than a man working out how to survive in Jerusalem. This explains why it is that they had to call for volunteers to live in the city (v.1), and why those who did were commended by the people (v.2).
Reflect on this a little. These men and their families who are listed throughout the chapter are putting people over profit. They are putting the needs of building God’s kingdom above their natural desire for personal comfort and their own ambitions. They are saying no to the natural and entirely justifiable desire to earn a better living from the land, and are opting for the hard life of building a community according to the purposes of God.
Challenging? It should be to us as Christians. The parallels are clear with our discipleship, aren’t they? The kingdom depends on the sacrificial living of its servants. We can choose to live lives focused on personal gain or convenience – the Spirit will allow us to do that, but that is not His will, nor is it the work He delights to fill with His guidance and power. And on the last day, what will be giving account for? A life lived for others, or a life jealously guarded for ourselves, even for ourselves and our family? Heaven help us to trace the beauty of the servant life of the Lord Jesus Christ, and to beg for his Spirit to empower us for living for Him and His kingdom.
One man stands out in particular in this list: Mattaniah is the director who led the people in thanksgiving and prayer (v.17). His job, you might say, was joy, and urging others to find and sing out their joy in God’s covenant grace. As priests of the new covenant, we have the same commission: joy is there in Christ. Joy is discovered in serving Him, putting ourselves at a stretch for Him, and seeking to enrich others through our self emptying. This is the upside-down kingdom we are privileged to belong to. Make sure that you long to find grace in Christ, so that you may share  the riches of that grace with others.
A prayer to Pray
Lord, You were rich beyond all splendour, all of love’s  sake became so poor. And Your Word says that You left me an example, so that I may walk in Your footsteps. Fill me with a desire to bring lost people to Yourself, and to help to build a people into one body. Give me a driving ambition to serve Your people. Empower me to make that sacrifice. Amen.

True Ministry – 2 Corinthians 11. RBT Notes, 15th November

“Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord” (10.17). Paul knows where his confidence should be, when life gets tough, and he recommends that the Corinthians shift their own allegiances away from mere men to their Lord. We need the same challenge. It’s so much easier to put our trust in people who look impressive, and who seem to offer immediate solutions to our problems, and hope in our discouragement. Paul would counsel a little realism: a slavish devotion to leaders, however gifted they are, will lead ultimately to a deep, deep disappointment. It will only be a matter of time.

Until this church gets that important lesson, Paul cannot rest. Foolish, jealous, afraid (vv.1-3). Not words we associate with an Apostle, perhaps. Maybe we think of swan-like serenity, the appointed man of God gliding through his problems without any ripples. No, this leader is a Christian, not a Buddhist. He cares very deeply for those he serves. And care costs us emotional peace. He sees in them an alarming gullibility, as they are willing to look for and trust in the impressive, rather than the authentic (vv.4-6). Could we share their foolishness in this?

So here is authentic ministry: it refuses to put burdens on others (vv.7-12). A worldly, self-seeking leader is looking at the size of salary, and with it, the kudos of the position. A servant of Christ is looking to live without putting financial strain on others, even working to alleviate them further, and cares very little for titles or prestige. He does care, though, passionately about the work of God. Paul is not afraid to call out the Corinthians’ favourite leaders as insincere men, more the agents of Satan than of Christ (vv.13-15). And he doesn’t shrink from pulling back the curtain on just how much he has endured in the service of the Gospel (vv.16-33).

Here’s the recommendation: read vv.16-33 out loud, slowly and carefully. Let these sufferings sink in, and challenge you. They are the marks of authentic ministry. It’s your time, your comfort, your savings, your health, your status, your emotional equilibrium. It costs. It always will. The seed must die, Jesus said, of His own life. He was speaking about you, too. And like Him, your death will bring life to others. Let’s get living, like Paul, by dying.


A Prayer to Pray

Lord, I am so Corinthian, in what I want, and in how I look at others. Forgive me. Fix my eyes upon Jesus. Fill my vision with His love-driven sacrificial life. Teach me its beauty, and shape my life in its image. That others might find life in Him. Amen.

Grace Abounding – 2 Corinthians 9. RBT Notes, 11th November

You’ve got to love Gospel workers. Literally. Titus was set apart to serve the Gospel, and commissioned by the churches to take the gifts from the Gentile churches for the Jewish-background believers in Jerusalem, so Paul expected them to give him a warm welcome (8.16-24). In fact, Paul is hinting that the measure that they welcome Titus and his colleague with, and pass on their gift to them, is the proof of whether they have a Gospel faith (vv.3-4).

Of course, he’s right. What we do with our money to serve people we’ve never met, and how we treat Gospel servants we may never meet again, speaks volumes about our discipleship. Let’s look at our own lives: do we support missionaries, pray for and encourage them, when their ministries are conducted far away amongst other people? And will we part with our money sacrificially and cheerfully, to be a blessing to work whose fruit we will never ourselves see? Grace which abounds to us must work its way into grace which abounds to others. That’s the way of the Gospel.

So be generous. Invest your energies, money, love and ambition into seeing Gospel growth. The promise is that you’ll reap generously (v.6). Skimp on each of these, and the returns will be small. We should have a holy impatience with shoestring ministries, run by underpaid (and thereby exploited) workers, without adequate resources and sorely lacking the encouragement and input of God’s servants. No, give yourself to the Lord’s work, and the more you give, the more you discover that the God you give to is so abundant in His grace to meet your every need (vv.8-11). So what are we waiting for?

Christian service is always the opening of the heart to God (v.12), and it is always the opening of the heart to those in needs (v.13). Such ministry is also for the flourishing of relationships between believers (v.14). What a gift, then, it is to give to others; a gift, of course, which follows the most special one of all, Jesus Himself (v.15).


A Prayer to Pray

Father, thankyou for the indescribable gift of Your Son. Thankyou, too, for the massive privilege of being able to serve Him. I confess, so often I love the idea of service rather than the hard realities of costly choices and sacrifices of myself. Fix my heart on Your gift of love to me, teach me all that I have in Your Son, and then open my heart to You and to those who need Your abundant grace. Amen.


Love’s Labours Last – 2 Corinthians 8. RBT Notes, 10th November

How low will love for God send you? How much will you give up, go without, embrace and suffer? We serve an amazing God. Only our willingness to sacrifice for others in His Name shows if we’re really serving Him – and therefore, loving Him.

“I want to test the sincerity of your love” (v.8). We’re not above having our priorities and habits tested, are we? We don’t go on the defensive just because we’re asked to do hard things for the sake of the church, do we? If we do, it might be that our hearts are more full of self-justifying (and self-preserving) pride than they are full of love for Jesus Christ.  Take a look around you at those who are truly serving the Kingdom of God, and then take a look at yourself. You might learn something important.

The Macedonians believers were poor, but they weren’t trapped in their poverty – they gave out of it to benefit others, such was their love for Christ (vv.1-5). We should be challenged. Above all, the example of Christ is our supreme challenge, the Saviour who gladly left all of His riches in order to give Himself for others. Through His poverty, the dying love of that abandoned man, we have become rich (v.9).

So do it, won’t you? Serve, give, live the life. Refuse to be a fake, refuse to compromise, to cosset your life with stuff, money, comforts and distractions. Live this Gospel. Live it with others, and for others. God is not screwing your money out of you. No Christian leader of any integrity should ever try to do that. But don’t be mistaken: any authentic Pastor or leader is calling you to deep Gospel sacrifice, whilst striving to live it out, too. The Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, is calling and empowering You to live out His sacrificial life. It starts with small things, it’s always focused on people, and its aim is always the Glory of God. Only that life and its work will last. Live for anything else, or in any other way, and you might only have yourself to blame if that life you so love will slip through your fingers, to your eternal shame.


A Prayer to Pray

Lord, You were rich beyond all splendour, all for love’s sake became so poor. This is my God, in Whose sweet praise I all my days could gladly spend. Lord of the Cross of shame, fill my cold heart aflame, with love for You, my Saviour and my Master. Kindle a flame of sacred love upon the altar of my heart. Amen.


No small Life – 2 Corinthians 6. RBT Notes, 8th November

You can waste grace. Yes you can. We can treat grace as something we relied on once, but now we can manage life relying on our own experience and skills. We can feel that grace is something for the future, when we’re old, or when a crisis comes. Either way, if that’s you, then heed the warning; you might be wandering your way out of the Christian life. Discipleship is a moment by moment reliance upon the grace of God. The day for trusting and following is today (v.1-2).

This message couldn’t be more urgent. And so its messengers cannot work too hard, or sacrifice too much, for others to grasp it. Look at Paul. What you read in vv.3-10 is no misery-fest. Paul isn’t seeking pity, nor applause, nor a pay-rise. He’s saying, “this is how the Gospel compels me. This is the life I’m privileged to live. It’s not easy – in fact, it often feels terrible; but I can do nothing else, because the message of Christ is so important. And what I do, I do in the power of the grace of God.”

Read back over that list, and let those hardships register: violence, prison, slander, rejection, poverty, insecurity. And then trace of life of Christ in Paul, and see endurance, love, joy, eternal wealth. Be realistic, not romantic, about your discipleship: if you want to love and serve Jesus much, you must be prepared to suffer much. You will. But thereagain, your love for Jesus will find depths of reality you didn’t know were possible. Paul has no greater joy than when God’s people open their hearts to the Gospel and join its servants in sacrificial living (vv.11-13). How about you?

If the Gospel is this precious, and compelling, we must be sure to guard our hearts for Christ alone. For all that we share with those who aren’t saved, if a love for them steals our hearts, we really are in trouble (vv.14-15). This is not a council of separation, of believers having only Christian friends. What nonsense, and what a disaster if that happens! It is, though, a command that we keep our hearts for Christ first. God is not glorified when we give our hearts and lives to anyone in His place (vv.16-18). All true children of the Father hear His command.




The Way to Heaven – 2 Corinthians 5. RBT Notes, 7th November

Paul is desperate to get home. Not home as comfy bed and favourite DVDs, but home as the destination of all true Christians, heaven. Call him gloomy, or escapist, but every Christian taught by the Spirit knows that being with Christ is better by far (Phil. 1.23). How about you? You don’t want to stay any longer in this world of sin and suffering than you really have to, do you?

This world promises much, but delivers little. One day we will be with Jesus body and soul. That is the very purpose of our redemption, and the reason why we have the Spirit as a deposit (vv.1-5). He will take us there. So, we look forward to the reward of faith, to true sight at last, in our heavenly home. And until we get there, we look forward to living lives which are fruitful for Christ. We dare not get distracted, turned aside and absorbed by selfish pleasures. We will give an account for whether we have invested our lives in the Gospel, or squandered them on ourselves. (vv.6-9).

If we are to avoid the shame of wasting our discipleship, we need to know the Gospel, deeply and well. We need to know that our lives have been purchased at a great price, that we must fear our Lord, and we must feel a holy compulsion by the love which died to save us, and to which we belong (vv.11-15). That love truly changes us.

How big a change, then? It changes our attitudes to other people (v.16) – we now know that everyone needs the love of Jesus. It changes our attitudes to our own lives – we have been made utterly new by the saving love of Christ (v.17). It changes our attitude to God – He gave His own Son up to death in an act of deep, deep sacrificial love to deal with our sins (vv.18-19). It changes our attitude to our lives’ purposes – we are ambassadors of this reconciling love (vv.18-20). And the message for the world, and for the church? “Be reconciled to God” (v.20). Whatever sins are alienating you from God, deal with them, deal with them now, in God’s Presence, and by His power. His righteousness means more than heaven and earth – and it’s offered to you.


A Prayer to Prayer

Lord, I say with the psalmist, how majestic is Your Name. Your righteousness is all that I need, and it’s given for me. I come again, confessing my sin, and clinging to the Cross. Give me grace to believe, to rejoice, and to stay close to your grace, daily feeling my need of it. Teach this sinner that all he needs is truly in Jesus. Amen.