Revelation 3:20

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On Sunday the preacher, who is church planting in a Middle Eastern city, gave me a new insight into this verse.

He has been reading Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, by Kenneth Bailey, and one of the insights from it that he shared with us was to do with hospitality.

In the West we honour people by inviting them to our homes to eat with us. The guest has higher honour than the host. In the Middle East, however, it’s the host who is honoured – you honour someone by going to his home and eating with him. So when Jesus told Zacchaeus “I’m coming to your house for tea” (as the children’s song puts it), he wasn’t being oddly presumptuous and seeking to invade Zacchaeus’ space, he was showing him great honour, indicating that although no one else would have dreamed of associating with him, Jesus held him in high esteem.

The same is true of this verse. We tend to read it as Jesus asking to be allowed into our lives, as though we are the ones in the position of power, and we are choosing whether or not to honour him. In fact, he is the one with all the power, and he is, incredibly, amazingly (especially given the fact that in the preceding verses he has been telling the audience how wretched and shameful they are) choosing to bestow on us the great honour of entering our home to eat with us.

What a shift in perspective!

[Updated to correct some typos – sorry for any confusion!]

Psalm 133

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We were looking at the theme of unity in my small group the other night, and read this Psalm as part of it. I’ve read it before, but always just skimmed through and never really understood it, but when you stop and think about it, it is a beautiful picture.

The oil on Aaron’s head is the oil of his anointing as a priest (see Ex 29:4-9). When Christians are united, God’s anointing pours down over the whole body of Christ.

The dew on Mount Zion represents God’s life-giving blessings, new and fresh every morning, watering all the people of God and bringing forth fruitfulness.

When we are united, each of us individually and all of us corporately are anointed, commissioned and made fruitful. What an incredible promise (and what a warning about disunity – it doesn’t just hamper the effectiveness of the group you’re bringing disunity to, but affects your own anointing and fruitfulness, too)!

Nehemiah 6:3

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I’ve been reflecting a lot recently on what a difference it makes to a person’s life when they understand their place in the bigger picture of the spread of history and God’s plan.

I’m reading Terry Virgo’s book ‘The Tide is Turning’, part of which is a study of the life of Nehemiah. Yesterday I was reading about how Nehemiah overcame all the opposition thrown at him. One of the points was taken from this verse. Nehemiah knew the task he had been given and thus was able to recognise distractions when they were thrown at him.

But then Terry went on to say this:

Perhaps the phrase “I am doing a great work. I cannot come down,” reminds you of another man? His opponents said to Him, “If you are some great one, why don’t you come down?” From the cross he would have answered,  “I am doing a great work. I will not come down.”

What a connection! Knowing what he was up there for gave Jesus the strength to stay the course in the midst of agonising torture. Knowing what he was up there for gave Nehemiah the strength to stay the course amidst distractions, mockery, insults and slander. Knowing what we are here for should similarly give us the strength to stay our own courses when the going gets tough – or even just mundane or tedious.

Jonah 2:6

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We’re studying Jonah in church at the moment, and last week was on Jonah’s prayer from the belly of the fish.

Jonah had been in the fish three days and three nights at this point. There was no sign that he was ever going to get out. His situation was just as hopeless as it had been… and yet, Jonah declared that God had saved him.

Jonah’s salvation was evident in his change of heart, not his change of circumstances. He didn’t rely on everything looking and feeling good externally as proof of his salvation, but found freedom within the problems.

Philippians 1:23-24

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A friend challenged me recently on whether I am more focused on my own fulfilment/happiness and getting my own needs met than I am on meeting the needs of others.

It’s one of those provocations that has rumbled around ever since, and cropped up again in my Bible reading today.

Verse 21 is very familiar to me, but if you’d asked, I’d have said that the question was just left hanging – an unsolvable dilemma which Paul ultimately left in the hands of God. I’d never taken in these next verses.

Paul came to the realisation that though death would be preferable to him, that wouldn’t best serve the needs of those in the Philippian church. He chose to go on living for their sakes – and didn’t do it begrudgingly, but with great joy.

It was his joy to surrender his own will and serve them. What a challenge!

Matthew 27:62-64

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This was one of the readings at church this Easter Sunday – I’d never noticed before that the guard was put on the tomb because the *chief priests and Pharisees* had heard what Jesus had been teaching and had understood it.

The disciples hadn’t grasped that Jesus had been trying to tell them he had to die but would rise again on the third day, but his enemies had. The disciples had recognised him as the Christ, but still hadn’t connected that with the prophecies about what the Messiah would look like (perhaps because many of them were uneducated labourers, not the educated religious elite).

Jesus’ enemies understood who he was and what the implications of his death and even an apparent resurrection would mean. His friends and closest followers didn’t. They thought the story was over; the Pharisees knew there was more to come.

Ironically, the Pharisees’ actions actually helped to strengthen the evidence for the resurrection when it did happen – had they not requested the seal and the guard, they could have argued that Jesus’ body had been stolen, but their own efforts worked to demonstrate the truth!

A friend recently drew my attention to this article by Polly Toynbee, in which she vents her disgust at the “repugnant… notion of the Christ who took our sins upon himself and sacrificed his body in agony to save our souls,” and its representation through Aslan in the Narnia stories:

“Children are supposed to fall in love with the hypnotic Aslan, though he is not a character: he is pure, raw, awesome power. He is an emblem for everything an atheist objects to in religion. … Without an Aslan, there is no one here but ourselves to suffer for our sins, no one to redeem us but ourselves: we are obliged to settle our own disputes and do what we can.”

Sometimes Jesus’ enemies still understand him and the point of Easter better than his friends. 

Mark 8:33

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Another of those little details I’ve always missed. It sounds as though maybe Jesus was beginning to be persuaded by Peter. I’m picturing them walking ahead a little, heads close together, Peter talking earnestly, persuasively, and Jesus beginning, just beginning to think ‘What if…?’

But then he turns round to look at the other disciples. He sees his ‘sheep without a shepherd’, he sees their sin and their lostness, and he is filled with love for them. He knows that the only way they can be made whole is through his sacrifice, and in his love for them he finds again the strength to go through with his Father’s plan. He recognises Peter’s whisperings for what they are – another temptation from the enemy, and he rebukes him as such.

I might be reading too much into this – maybe it’s heresy to speculate that Jesus began to be deceived even for a moment, but we are told that he was tempted in every way. It does seem as though the change came when he looked at the other disciples, though. It can be very persuasive to listen to one voice, particularly when it seems to be advocating that which would be good and right for us. When we turn and focus on the task we have been given, though (or even better, on God himself), we regain God’s perspective and can recognise the temptation for what it is.

Genesis 27:11-12

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It really is amazing what a terrible person Jacob was, and yet God chose him as the one through whom his promise to Abraham would be fulfilled and through whom all nations on earth would be blessed!

Look at this – even when he knew his mother’s plan was wrong, his concern wasn’t that they shouldn’t do it but that they might get found out and reap the consequences! ‘We might appear to be tricking him’? Well yes, that’s because you would be tricking him! There’s no ‘appear’ about it!

Amazing that God uses us despite the deceitful, manipulative, impure motives of our hearts, and accomplishes his purposes anyway!

Luke 2:46

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This verse was in one of the readings in church yesterday, and it struck me for the first time to wonder exactly where Mary and Joseph were looking for those three days.

I’ve been to Jerusalem; it’s not that big. I imagine a parent seeking a lost child would try to think where he might go, try to remember the things he most enjoyed doing, the places he most enjoyed seeing, the people he most enjoyed visiting… Apparently there were three days’ worth of things Jesus had enjoyed in this little, bustling town.

That’s consistent with what we read about him in later life; this Jesus who ‘came eating and drinking’, who was more likely to be at a dinner party with ‘sinners’ than sitting in the temple courts debating with the scholars.

It also seems to suggest Mary and Joseph’s place in the social strata of Jerusalem – none of the friends whose doors they frantically knocked asking if they’d seen Jesus said ‘my husband said he was in the Temple courts yesterday’. Jesus must have gone back to someone’s home in the evenings and slept somewhere, but no one Mary and Joseph knew had seen him or even, it appears, heard tell of this young prodigy who was causing such a stir.

But how did it take them so long to even think to look in the temple for this child who they knew was the promised Messiah? Had it become commonplace to them to have Emmanuel with them? Had they forgotten who he was? Had he simply enjoyed every part of the Passover feast so much that they couldn’t narrow it down to his favourite places?

I wonder…

John 14:16

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Even Jesus had to pray for things he knew God was going to do – he had total assurance that the Holy Spirit would be sent (and in fact talks about him in the present tense in v17), but he still has to ask the Father.

Prayer is such a mystery, isn’t it? I’m often tempted to think I don’t really need to pray as God’s will will be done anyway – why would the almighty God be swayed by my little prayers? But Jesus wasn’t trying to change God’s mind, just asking for that which was already planned.

Fascinating!