All in this together – Galatians 6. RBT Notes, 23rd December

People of the Spirit? People called to express their faith in love? Then those people need to know the specifics of Spirit-led loving. Here, Paul gives us four:

1. Hold out grace to the broken sinner (v.1). Paul has restoration in view. That is only possible where there’s repentance. Where there is after sin, we need to work out how to bring that believer back into fellowship with the church, and that’s not highhandedly, but sensitively and carefully. Do we harbour grudges, or are we, as our Master taught us, willing to forgive seventy times seven times?

2. Serve each other (v.2). Kingdom life is shared life. Don’t be lazy, or exploit others (carry your own burdens, if you can, v.5), but don’t remove yourself from others’ needs. You were saved to serve. Are you serving?

3. Stay humble (v.3). Nothing has the temptation to puff us up like service. We serve, and we are tempted to feel smug and important. Servants are nobodies, and they never will be anybodies, at least, not this side of heaven. Remember this.

4. Thank the preacher (v.6). Go on, do it.

This is the Cross-centred life. Avoid it, and you will end up serving yourself, affectively sowing for this world’s uncertain and fleeting rewards. Such efforts come with a massive health warning (v.8). Instead, invest your life in serving other people in the name of Christ – that alone is work guaranteed to blossom in eternity (vv.9-10).

Paul closes with a final appeal, and a final warning (vv.11-18). These Galatians need to make a decisive break with their false teachers and their false message. They need to embrace the Cross: persecution will come with it, but Jesus will be theirs. Life will be hard, but it will be real life, given and guided by the Holy Spirit, a world away from empty religion.

The Letter to the Galatians is a gift. Through it God calls His church to stay close to Jesus, and to Him alone. In Him is life, and that life is the light of men.

 

A Prayer to Pray

Father, thankyou for the gift of Your radiant, triumphing Son. Please show me where I am tempted to slip into the rules of men, away from the freedom of Your grace. And may His life-giving death mean more and more to me as the years go on. Amen.

 

Rights – and Wrongs – Nehemiah 5. RBT Notes, 5th December

Where there’s work there are workers. Where there are workers, there are always people who are trying to exploit them, to make their own profit. Nehemiah has to see the harsh realities of this.

Right in the midst of the communal efforts of sweat and toil, Nehemiah becomes aware that things are desperately unfair. There is a shortage of food, and some are having to scavenge for food, others need to mortgage their property to stay alive, and others are taking out loans and even selling their children into slave labour, in order to have enough to eat (vv.2-5). What should have been an exercise in shared work and mutual support has quickly turned into a familiar story of self-interest from the rich, and a survival struggle for the poor.

Nehemiah is angry (v.6). Calling together the wealthy officials, Nehemiah calls them out over this heartless exploitation. There is an uncomfortable silence – “They could find nothing to say” (vv.7-9). The leader’s courageous stand of blunt honesty and clear command works, and they agree to return what they’ve taken, as well as the interest on payments (v.12), and he secures a promise on future dealings (v.13).

The Jerusalem community knows that Nehemiah is the right man to serve as governor (v.14). Eager though he is to lead them, Nehemiah knows that leaders are servants. he gets on with the work in hand, forgoes his allowance of good, and ensures that all are looked after (vv.15-18). His insistence that he must forgo his rights remind us of the Apostle Paul, serving the Gospel at his own expense and inconvenience. Moreover, we remember the Lord Jesus Christ, who became a servant of all, at the cost of His own life. This is service.

Who do you want to lead you? The Bible says that leadership is never a title, it is always a transparently commendable lifestyle. “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith” (Heb. 13.7). Leaders serve, and those who follow them are to dedicate themselves to serving others, too. This is life in the kingdom.

 

A Prayer to Pray

Lord, in a world of self-interest, teach me by Your Spirit to become last, and the servant of all. I confess that I enjoy people’s approval, and having things go my way. Give me integrity, Lord, that I may wish to serve my Saviour and those He died for, fired by His love, and eager to do good for the household of faith. Amen.

Just Care – Nehemiah 1. RBT Notes, 29th November

Grace makes you care. Gone are the days when you would have shrugged off other peoples’ struggles as their own problems, and nothing for you to worry about. Grace is the involvement of a compassionate God in your life. That grace forges compassion in you for others. Their needs are your concern.

Nehemiah knew that judgment fell on his people through the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar. He knew that they had received what they deserved from a holy God. He finds himself far away, in the comforts of the Persian palace, the new superpower who had conquered Babylon. When news comes from his homeland – and it’s bad news – Nehemiah doesn’t sigh and settle back into his cozy life: he sits down and weeps (vv.1-4).

There is a place for tears in the Christian life. Sometimes the Lord wants to see them far more than He wants to hear our words. If we don’t care, what value do our prayers have? And what meaning, anyway?

Nehemiah is broken by the news that his countrymen are in distress.  These are people he has never met, hundreds of miles away, but he loves them deeply. He fasts, prays and pleads with God for them. He feels their sins and his own, and begs for God’s mercy (vv.5-7). As he reflects on their wickedness, for Nehemiah it’s as if these sins have just been committed.

He knows that God has been just. He knows, too, that God has plans. In fact, he knows that God has plans for His city of Jerusalem. He knows that its welfare is crucial for the very Kingdom of God (v.9). Without Jerusalem there can be no future for the Kingdom.

And so, Nehemiah prays. What does he pray for? Success (v.11). What sort? We don’t yet know. We do know, though, that his plan is shaped by his compassion. Compassion cares. Compassion weeps, prays, steps forwards, wants to get involved, embraces risk.

So, the challenge of this chapter? Care. Care about God’s people, His purposes. Care about your sins. Do not harden your heart against tears, confession or service. Care. And do it.

 

A Prayer to Pray

Lord, You have my heart. But so often I want to snatch it back, to hide it, and harden it. Lord, teach me to care, make me care. Teach me how in Your Son You are so compassionate towards me. And lead me in ways which astonish me, to be a caring, broken-hearted and loving disciple. 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.

 

Seeing Salvation – 2 Corinthians 2. RBT Notes, 2nd November

Paul loves the whole church. His heart is heavy with their needs, and with the needs of individual members. In vv.1-11 he is all too aware of the heartache about one brother who’s been disciplined for his sin. He has written to them about this situation already (v.3), and he knows that the church’s pain has not gone away, nor this man’s. Sin in the church is real, and must be dealt with. Equally, the grace of forgiveness must be shared with all who truly repent. Now Paul wants to see this penitent brother restored.

The Gospel which saves is also the Gospel which divides. Paul is called to a ministry which will not make him popular with many. That is a part of cross-bearing, for Paul and for every true believer. Discipleship means belonging to Christ. Paul compares it to being a captive slave, brought in procession behind the conqueror for all to see (v.14). So now he follows the real Conqueror, Jesus. The purpose of following is fruitfulness: as the Gospel is seen and heard, people discover “the fragrance of life” (v.16). They find Jesus Christ for themselves.  No wonder Paul perseveres with his suffering life and ministry! No wonder he longs that the Corinthians know that this work is not all pretence, not all front, but true Christianity lived out of a full and sincere heart (vv.16-17).

And still some hate us. Jesus promised it (Jn. 15.18). Faithfulness does sometimes invite hatred. Who wants to be “the smell of death” (v.15), rejected and despised, written off as an enemy of society? Jesus didn’t, nor should we. It might well happen, though, even from our nearest and dearest. Maybe Jesus is calling us to a deeper, truer discipleship – whatever the cost.

 

A Prayer to Pray

Lord, I am naturally a comfort-seeking coward. Prize my selfish hands off all I hold dear which gets in the way of Your service. Thrill me with Your grace, and change me by it. I give myself again to You, the Lord of the only triumph that ever matters. Amen.