By Faith (Hebrews 11:1-3,8-16)

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One of the toys our kids are currently collecting are small plastic pencil-top figures called Ooshies. There are two main ways to buy Ooshies. One way is in a multi-pack where you can see what characters you’re buying, except for a mystery Ooshie which is included. You can also buy single packs called ‘blind bags’ where you don’t know what you’re getting. In either case, buying Ooshies can be thought of as an act of faith because we are hoping for something good even though we can’t see exactly what we’re getting.

In some ways, this is the kind of faith the Letter to the Hebrews talks about in chapter 11. The author looks back at Old Testament heroes and shows how their faith meant that they lived their whole lives trusting in God’s promises to them even though they couldn’t see what they were hoping for.

Hebrews 11 teaches us some important things about the nature of Christian faith:

1. Faith is grounded and grows in God’s promises
The faith of the Old Testament people in Hebrews 11 was directed towards God’s promises to them. For example, God promised Abraham a land that his descendants would inherit. To Sarah, God promised a child. As Hebrews 11 looks back at the other Old Testament heroes, in every case their faith was connected a promise God gave them. It’s the same with us. Saving faith is always grounded in and grows from God’s promises to us in Jesus. As Paul writes in Romans 10:17, ‘faith comes from hearing … the Good News about Christ’ (NLT). For us and for our faith, then, hearing God’s promises in the Bible becomes vital to a living, active and saving faith.

2. Faith makes a difference to our lives
In every example that Hebrews gives, people’s lives were changed because of their faith in God’s promises. For Abraham the change was leaving his home and living in tents in the land God had promised him. The difference to Sarah’s life was having a child and becoming a mother at the age of 99. For the rest of the people in Hebrews 11, faith in God’s promises led to some sort of action. This is very different from an understanding of faith I come across sometimes which is more about intellectually agreeing with a church’s teachings or doctrines. Good teaching and doctrine are important in a church, but their purpose is always to point us to faith in God’s promises in the gospel which changes our lives.

3. Faith generates hope
The big difference faith in God’s promises made to all the people mentioned in Hebrews was that it gave them hope. Using the examples of Abraham and Sarah, both of them found hope when they believed what God had promised them. For Abraham, the hope was that his descendants would have a homeland. Sarah’s hope was that her shame would be removed through the birth of a child. For us, too, faith creates and sustains hope in our lives. When so many people in our society are struggling for something to hope in, when we trust in God’s promises and bring that good news to others, faith in those promises will lead to a greater hope in our lives and in the lives of the people around us.

4. Faith means trusting in what we can’t see
None of the people of faith in Hebrews 11 actually received what God had promised them. In verse 13 we read, ‘they did not receive what was promised,’ and again verse 39 states, ‘none of them received all that God had promised’ (NLT). This is the most difficult thing about faith – it’s trusting that something is real and living like it’s true even though we can’t see it and don’t fully experience it. This is especially hard in a culture which teaches that ‘seeing is believing’ and that if you can’t prove or have empirical evidence of something, then it doesn’t really exist. The very nature of Christian faith is that we hope for something and live like it’s true even though we can’t see it or prove it. The best we can do is look back at the ways in which God has kept his promises in the past. Based on that evidence, we can continue to hope that God will keep his promises to us in the same way that God kept his promises to all the people of the Old Testament. This is the purpose of Hebrews 11, and in fact all of the stories in the Bible: to encourage us in our faith. As we hear how God kept his promises to the people of the past, we can trust that God will keep his promises to us in the same way.

I have known people who say that living in the way of faith is easy because there are no absolute moral standards to reach and no rules that we have to follow. I disagree. Living by faith is much harder than a rule-based or self-help life because it asks us to trust God’s promises and live like they’re true, even though our experiences in life might indicate something different. Faith means hoping for what God promises, even though we can’t see it.

When I buy an Ooshie for my kids it’s an act of faith. We are hoping for something good, even though we can’t see what we’re getting. God makes us amazing, life-giving promises in Jesus. He asks us to trust him enough to live like what he promises is true, even though we might not be able to see what he promises us. As we read Hebrews 11 and look back at the heroes of faith from the Old Testament, God is showing us that he can be trusted so our faith can grow and we can bring the hope he gives to the people of the world, even when we can’t see it.

More to think about:

  • I’ve heard it said that everyone has faith – what’s important is in what you have faith. Would you agree with that statement? Why or why not?
  • What do you have faith in? Why do you have faith in it? What does it promise you? Can it actually deliver what it promises?
  • As you read Hebrews 11, which is your favourite Old Testament character? Why is that person your favourite?
  • I’m suggesting there are four things we can learn about faith from Hebrews 11. What was the promise your favourite character received from God? What difference did it make to his/her life? How did s/he find hope through faith in the promise? Why did s/he never see what was promised?
  • What are some promises God makes you in Jesus?
  • What difference might having faith in those promises make in your life?
  • How might those promises give you a greater sense of hope?
  • How might you be able to live like those promises are true, even if you can’t see them?
  • Who is someone you know whose life might change for the better through faith in God’s promises to them? How might you be able to share a promise form God with them this week?
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First-Fruits (Deuteronomy 26:1-11)

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The people Moses was speaking to in Deuteronomy were not the same that he had led out of Egypt to receive God’s commands at Mount Sinai. That generation had died in the wilderness after failing to trust that God could do what he said he would do. Now, a new generation was about to inherit God’s promises and enter into the Promised Land. Before he handed the leadership of Israel over to Joshua, Moses addressed God’s people to prepare them for their entry into the Promised Land. The Book of Deuteronomy gives us Moses’ last address to the Israelites.

One of the instructions Moses gave to the Israelites was to bring the first produce of the land God was giving them to the place of worship and offer them to him (Deuteronomy 26:1-11). Often referred to as a ‘first-fruits’ offering, this was the way in which the Israelites were to thank God for the gift of the land. Thanking someone with words is good, but God wanted his people to show their thanks by offering to him the first and the best of what God had first given them.

We can hear these words of Moses as a rule or command to follow, but we can also understand the first-fruits offering as an act of faith. Through Moses’ words, we can hear God calling us to trust him enough to give him the first and best of what he has given us. Offering to God the first and best of what he has already given us is an act of faith for three reasons.

Firstly, when the Israelites gave back to God the first-fruits of each year’s crops, they showed that they believed that the land was a gift from God. He wanted his people to remember that he had given them the land and that every good thing the Israelites had was a gift from him. God didn’t give the land to them because they deserved it or had somehow earned it. Instead, God’s gift of the land to the people he had chosen was an act of grace, a gift given purely out of his love for his people.

In the same way, God asks us to give back to him the first and best of what he has given us to show that we recognize that every good thing comes from him. It is easy for us to have a sense of entitlement with the things we have. Whether we are talking about our time, energy, abilities, finances or other possessions, we can tend to think that they belong to us and we have the right to do whatever we like with them because we have earned them. God reminds us that all good things come from him, and he asks us to recognize him as the giver of everything in our lives by giving the first and best of what we have back to him.

Secondly, giving their first-fruits to God was an act of faith that God would give them enough to last for the coming year. In an agricultural society where people relied on what the land produced in order to survive, giving the first produce of the land back to God would have been risky because there was no guarantee that the subsequent produce would have been enough to last for the rest of the year. Giving the first produce, instead of hanging on to it until they were sure they had enough for the coming twelve months, was an act of faith that God would provide what they needed.

In the same way, we can often use what we think we need first and then give what’s left over to God. Whether we are talking time, energy, finances or abilities, we are more inclined to do what we think needs to get done first and then give what remains to God. The first-fruits offering challenges us to consider what we can give to God first in the faith that God will provide us with what we need for everything else. This is particularly true with our time. When we have a lot to do and the pressure’s on, we can easily ignore spending time with God by reading his Word, praying to him or worshiping with other believers in our faith community. However, as the source of every good thing we have, God asks us to trust him enough to put him first, to make spending time with him our first priority, in the faith that God will provide us with everything we need to do what he has called us to do.

Our third reason why giving God our first and best is one that the ancient Israelites didn’t have – God has already given his best for us and to us. When our relationship with God was broken because of sin, God gave his first and best for us in the person of Jesus. The Son of God prioritized us and the need to reconcile us with God so highly that he gave everything for us on the cross. Jesus didn’t spend his life thinking about himself and the things that would make him happy before giving whatever was left over for us. Jesus had the cross in his view right from the start of his ministry and willingly sacrificed everything out of love for us. In Jesus, God literally gave everything for us and to us so we can live in a new relationship with him as his children. Because God has already given his first and his best for us and to us, he asks us to trust him enough to do the same.

Giving the first and best of everything we have to God can mean making some significant changes in our lives. We might need to completely reorganize our priorities as we reorient ourselves towards God and trusting in his grace. Doing that isn’t easy and requires a deep and secure faith that God will provide us with every good thing we need for this life and the next through Jesus.

I wonder, though, what might our lives look like if we were able to make that change through God’s grace and goodness? How might our relationships look different if we prioritized what we could give to others over what we want to get from them? How might our communities, especially our churches, look different if we gave our first and best back to God, trusting in God’s grace-filled love for us? Would it be possible that people might encounter the goodness of God in us and find a God they could trust? If we could trust God enough to give him our first and our best, maybe others might encounter our God who gives everything, even his own life, to us and for us.

More to think about:

  • What do you think is more important in life – what you give to others or what you get from them? Explain why you think that way…
  • In your relationships with people, do you tend to think more about what you can get from them or what you can give to them? Why do you think you do that?
  • What do you think about viewing giving to God as an act of faith? What do you like or not like about the idea?
  • How might you see different aspects of your life differently if you viewed every good think you have, even those things you complain about, as a gift from our God who loves you?
  • How might your life be different if you could be 100% sure that God was always going to provide you with what you needed? Would you live differently? Explain why…
  • What is your reaction to the idea that Jesus gave everything for you on the cross because he loves you that much? Might that help you see yourself differently? Might it help you see your life differently? Explain why…
  • What is one way you can give God your first or best this week: Spending time with him first thing each morning in prayer or reading your Bible? Making worship a higher priority? Giving of yourself to a ministry of your church? Commit to it for a week or two and see what happens…

God’s Nearby Word (Deuteronomy 30:9-14)

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In last week’s message, I left our church with a couple of questions:

  • In what area of your life would you like to know more of God’s peace?
  • With whom can you share God’s peace this week?

I wonder how they went answering or even thinking about these questions. Were they able to identify areas of their lives where they hoped for a greater sense of God’s peace? Were they able to share the peace of God which passes all human understanding (Philippians 4:7) with someone they know who needs it?

A couple of people during the week asked me where they can find the kind of peace that we were talking about. It’s a fair question. Sometimes it can be hard to find peace in the middle of the chaos, craziness and confusion of life with all of its stresses, worries and anxieties. Where do we go to find God’s peace?

It’s a question that can be asked of all the fruits God promises to produce in our lives through the Holy Spirit. Where do we find the love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control that God promises his Spirit will produce in our lives (Galatians 5:22,23)?

There are lots of courses, seminars, workshops and practices that people offer to help us find this kinds of life. For a lot of people, they can seem out of reach and impossible to find, so we can settle for lives that are a long way from what we hope they could be, and from what God promises they can be.

In Deuteronomy 30:9-14, however, God promises us a better life. Moses was addressing the nation of Israel at the end of their 40 years wandering in the wilderness, just before they were about to cross the Jordan River and take possession of the Promised Land under Joshua. Moses gave the Israelites a choice between ‘life and death, between blessings and curses’ (Deuteronomy 30:19 NLT). Either their future would be a good one, full of the life that God had promised them, or it would be pain and struggle. Moses urged the Israelites to ‘choose life’ so that they and their descendants might live.

Many of us who grew up in the 1980s might remember the t-shirts that were in fashion for a while that featured the slogan ‘Choose Life!’ I wasn’t a fan of the band that made them popular, but it struck me then, as it does now, that our world is looking for the very thing that Moses was promising the Israelites – life! Jesus promised the same thing when he told his followers that he came to give them ‘a rich and satisfying life’ (John 10:10 NLT). The New Testament talks a lot about what this life looks like, but I’m going to take as my starting point what Paul says about the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5 – that the life Moses and Jesus promise us is immersed in and overflowing with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. This is the life God promises us and wants to give us through his Spirit, not just for our benefit but so others can find life in God’s grace through us as well.

What Moses told the Israelites in Deuteronomy 30:11-14 is that this life isn’t hard for us to understand and it’s not beyond our reach. It isn’t up in heaven so someone has to get it to bring it down to us, and it isn’t across the oceans so someone has to go to find it. Instead, Moses tells us that we can find the life God promises us in his message to us, in the Word of God, which is very close at hand. In fact, the message contained in God’s Word is already on our lips and in our hearts so we can follow it and find life in it.

We can find the life God has for us in the message of the Bible. We have a tendency to want to over-complicate the Bible’s message, but it is actually very simple. For example, we hear it when an expert in the Law of Moses asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus points him to the two-sided command to love God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind, and to love our neighbours as ourselves (Luke 10:25-28). Jesus says the same thing in Matthew 22:34-40 and Mark 12:28-34. John gives us his version of the way to life when Jesus gives his followers a new command, to love each other in the same way that he loves us (John 13:34). Paul’s version of the way to life can be summarised by what he wrote to the Galatians, that the only thing that counts for those who are in Christ Jesus is faith in a loving a grace-filled God which shows itself in love for others (Galatians 5:6). All of these passages are saying basically the same thing – that the path to life as God intends is by loving the God who loves us enough to sacrifice everything for us, trusting in his perfect and infinite love, and then loving other people in the same way in the freedom that faith brings.

It isn’t a complicated message. It’s something we can call understand. It’s right here, in the words of Scripture, on our lips and in our hearts, so we can obey it by trusting Jesus in all the circumstances of our lives and living like what it promises is true.

This is the way to find real peace in our lives, in our relationships, and in our communities. This is the way to find the life that Jesus died and is risen again to give us. The message of Scripture is the way the Holy Spirit will lead us into the truth of God’s love for us so we can be growing in his love and producing the fruit of faith in our lives. Like the Israelites listening to Moses, God gives us a choice. As people he has adopted and set free, God asks us to choose between life and death, blessings and curses. The way to life to the full which Jesus came to give us can be found by following in the way of faith and love that he teaches. We find this way through the words of the Bible – hearing them explained in worship, discussing them with others in small groups, and listening to God on our own.

So where do we go from here? Do we continue to live our lives as they are, without the hope of anything getting better? Or do we open our Bibles together, listen to what God has to say to us, learn to live in the way of faith and love from Jesus, and find the life God intends for us…?

Living Free (Galatians 5:1,13-25)

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I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say that every aspect of our lives has rules. We might call them different names, or try to present them in various ways, but in one way or another every part of our lives carry expectations or requirements for what we should or should not do.

I can understand, then, why people see Christianity the same way. It is our natural human tendency to want to know what we can get away with, what we’re allowed or not allowed to do, and then either conform or rebel against them. The main way people from outside the church perceive the Christian message is that if you’re a good person you’ll go to heaven when you die, but if you’re a bad person you’ll go to hell. It’s tragic that I’ve met people inside the church who think something similar: if you keep the rules you’ll go to heaven, but if you break the rules you’ll go to hell.

The beauty and the scandal of the Christian message is that the rules don’t determine our relationship with God or our place in God’s kingdom. If they did, we’d all be in deep trouble because we’ve all sinned and fallen short of who God wants us to be and what God wants us to do (Romans 3:23). Instead, God brings about a new way of living in relationship with him as members of his Kingdom through faith in Jesus (Romans 3:28). God loves us and accepts us because of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection for us, not because we keep the rules.

What that means is that God can’t love us any more if we keep the rules, and he won’t love us any less if we break the rules!

This faith gives us freedom. This is Paul’s main point in his letter to the Galatian church. There were people there who were making the Christian message and membership in the Kingdom of God conditional on whether or not people kept the rules, in particular the Old Testament rule about circumcision. Paul’s main idea in Galatians is that ‘in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love’ (Galatians 5:6 NIV). Living as a Christian is not about keeping or breaking the rules. The only thing that counts is trusting that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection gives us a new relationship with God as his children and living out that faith in Christ-like love for other people.

The big danger of this message is that we like using our freedom for our own benefit. Paul recognises this so he writes, ‘You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love’ (v13 NLT). When we use our freedom for our own gain or in selfish ways, we forfeit our freedom because we become slaves to sin again instead of living as God’s free people. The way to exercise our freedom is to use it to trust in Jesus’ love for us and love others in the way that Jesus has loved us.

That is why it is so important to be recognizing the love of Jesus in our lives and remaining in Jesus’ love (see John 15:4). As we grow in his love for us, the Holy Spirit equips us to love others in the same way. We won’t need rules to tell us how to love others because love will flow freely and naturally. Love isn’t something that you can command. It flows from the experience of being loved. As we learn the way of Jesus’ love, the Holy Spirit will guide us in this love so we can extend this love to other people.

That’s why Paul tells us to ‘let the Holy Spirit guide our lives’ (v16a), to be ‘directed by the Spirit’ (v18) and to be ‘living by the Spirit’ as we ‘follow the Spirit’s leading in every part of our lives’ (v25). Living in faith and love doesn’t come naturally for us. Our natural tendency is to trust ourselves more than to trust in Jesus. We tend to want what suits us instead of loving others. So we need the Spirit’s guidance and leading in our lives so we can trust Jesus and love others in every aspect of our lives.

This is different to looking for the Holy Spirit to tell us what to do in life. If being guided by the Spirit means looking for God to tell us to do one thing or not do another, this can easily become another set of rules to live by. The freedom Paul talks about isn’t looking for the Holy Spirit to tells us what to do. It’s looking for the Spirit’s guidance in living in faith and love in all of our life’s circumstances.

As a parent, I am always telling my young children what to do or not do. However, I don’t want to tell them what they should or shouldn’t do for the rest of their lives. As they grow and mature, I hope that they will do what is right and good on their own because they love me and they what to do what is right and good. This is living in freedom – not doing good because they have to or because I tell them to, but just because they can. Living in the freedom that Jesus gives is the same. I hear Paul saying that our loving heavenly Father wants to free us from having to be told what to do. God wants us to trust him and his love for us in Jesus so we live in love for others. This is what we call becoming mature followers of Jesus.

A couple of weeks ago I talked about Jesus promising to send us the Spirit of truth to guide us into truth. One way we can understand God’s truth into which the Holy Spirit wants to lead us is that God wants us to live as his free, mature children. This freedom and maturity don’t mean living by a set of rules or being told what to do. The freedom Jesus wants us to live in is faith and love – trusting that his life, death and resurrection brings us into a new relationship with God as his children whom he loves, and loving other people in the same way Jesus loves us.

Keeping the rules won’t make God love you any more. Breaking the rules can’t make God love you any less. All that matters now is trusting that good news, and expressing that faith in Christ-like love for others.

More to think about:

  • How do you understand the idea of ‘freedom’? What does it look like in your life?
  • From what you know of the Christian message, do you think of it more about following rules or living in freedom? Can you explain why?
  • what do you think Paul means when he writes, ‘It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery’ (Galatians 5:1 NIV)? What do you think the ‘freedom’ is that he is talking about?
  • How is the ‘freedom’ Paul writes about similar or different to how you usually think about freedom?
  • What is your reaction to the statement that ‘Keeping the rules can’t make God love you any more and breaking the rules won’t make God love you any less’? Would you agree or disagree with it? Explain why…
  • How is living in faith and love (Galatians 5:6b) different from living by a set of rules? Which way would you prefer to live? Why?
  • How might your life look different if your starting point in any decision was to ask  the Holy Spirit to lead you in the way of faith and love by trusting Jesus and loving others? How might your relationships be different? How might your church be different?

Our Guide Into Truth (John 16:12-15)

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There was time when truth was simple. We were taught certain things at home, in school and at church that were pretty much consistent with each other and provided us with a degree of certainty about life. In our post-modern times, however, that has all changed. We are surrounded by a wide range of different ideas about who we are, our place in the world and what life is all about. This isn’t a bad thing because it can open us up to a much fuller and richer life in a lot of ways. However, working out what is true or not becomes a lot more complicated when a wide assortment of ideas and worldviews present us with conflicting messages.

One of the tools people use to work out what is truth for them is what they experience. When different voices give different messages about what is true, then people can rely on their personal experience to help them decide which can be trusted. For example, if an advertisement for a particular type of drink is telling me that one product tastes better, but another ad is telling me that their product has more flavour, then the best way to work out who is telling the truth is to try each of them. Our experience of those products will help us decide which is truth.

John talks a lot about truth in his gospel. If you’re wrestling with questions about truth, it’s worth reading John’s gospel and listening for the times when John refers to truth or raises questions about truth. It tells us that people were struggling with what was true in Jesus’ day as well as our own. Throughout his gospel, John points to Jesus as embodying God’s truth for us. then, in John 16:12-15, Jesus promises to send the Spirit of truth who will guide his followers ‘into all truth’ (v13a NLT).

It’s important to recognise that there are different kinds of truth, so we need to understand what sort of truth Jesus was talking about. For example, mathematical truths such as 2+2=4 are different from historical truths, such as Captain James Cook discovered Australia (which was what I was taught as a child, but which we know now isn’t the whole truth). Philosophical, religious and spiritual truths are different again, so we can’t just use ‘truth’ as a blanket term for every kind of truth.

When Jesus promised that the Spirit of truth will guide us into ‘all truth’, he was talking about the truth about God, our relationship with God, and how that relationship can shape the way in which we understand ourselves, others, our world and our place in it. One of the reasons why the Bible is such a large book is because this truth can be understood in a variety of ways and from a number of different perspectives. However, the basic truth of the Bible into which the Spirit of truth guides us is the good news of Jesus.

One way this truth can be expressed is what Paul writes in Romans 5:1 – ‘since we have been made right in God’s sight by faith, we have peace with God because of what Jesus Christ our Lord has done for us’ (NLT). Through Paul’s words, the Spirit of truth guides us into the truth that we have been made right, or justified, by Jesus through faith in him. What this means is that everything that was wrong or broken about us has been put right through Jesus’ death and resurrection for us. Because we are made right again through faith in Jesus, we now have peace with God. God is not angry, disappointed or unhappy with us. God isn’t ignoring us or is apathetic towards us. Instead, because of what Jesus has done for us, we are in a new relationship with our Creator who accepts us, loves us, values us and cares for us as we are. As I said, the Bible communicates this truth in lots of different ways, but it is the good news of God’s unconditional love and grace for us in Jesus which is the truth the Holy Spirit guides us into.

We need the Holy Spirit to guide us into this truth because faith in the gospel doesn’t come naturally with us. There are people I know who have been part of the church their whole lives who still live with a deep sense of guilt or fear. We all need the Spirit of truth to be guiding us into the truth of God’s grace and love so we can live free from guilt, fear, shame or regret, and find the joy, peace, love and hope that Jesus gives us through the Holy Spirit.

As the Spirit of truth guides us into the truth of the gospel, then he also begins to guide others into the truth of God’s grace through us. Earlier I talked about how our experiences help to shape our understanding of truth. As the Holy Spirit guides us in the truth of the gospel, it shapes our relationships and faith communities so people can experience the reality of grace and Christ-like love in us. Through our relationships with each other, the words we speak to and about each other, and a culture of grace in our churches, the Holy Spirit can guide people into the truth of God’s grace by giving them the experience of grace. However good my messages, the church’s worship or our programs may or may not be, if people don’t experience the reality of the gospel in their relationship with us, then it won’t be true for them. However, when people are experiencing grace in relationship and community with us, then the Spirit of truth can guide them into the truth of God’s grace through us.

This becomes especially important in our ministry with the younger people of our congregation. What the Growing Young conversation essentially is about is how we can give others, especially our younger people, an experience of the truth of God’s grace in their relationship with us and our congregation so the Spirit of truth can guide them into the truth of the gospel. In a world where our young people come into contact with so many different ideas which claim to be true, when they experience the truth of God’s grace and love in relationship with us, then the Spirit of truth can guide them into the truth of the gospel and it will become true for them in a life-changing way.

Talking about truth is hard because there are any different kinds of truths and everyone thinks their version of the truth is the right one. I’m really thankful that Jesus promised to send his Spirit of truth to us to guide us into the truth of God’s grace and love for us in Jesus. As the Holy Spirit guides us into the truth of the gospel, the Spirit of truth will also grow and equip us so that he can guide other people, our young people especially, into the truth of the gospel.

More to think about:

  • How do you generally understand ‘truth’? Do you see truth in a simple way or as a more complex idea? Can you give an example of that?
  • To what degree do your experiences shape your understanding of truth? Are there times when your understanding of truth has depended on something you experienced? Have you ever believed that something was true even though your experiences gave you a different message?
  • In what ways have your experiences in the church or in life shaped your views on the truth of the Bible? In what ways have they been good or helpful? How might they have not been good or helpful?
  • How do you understand ‘the truth of the Bible’? What does that mean to you?
  • What is your view on thinking about the ‘truth of the Bible’ as specifically the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection for us? Is that too narrow? How can it help you understand the rest of the story of the Bible?
  • Do you find it easy or difficult to believe in the good news of Jesus? Can you explain why?
  • Have you ever asked the Holy Spirit to guide you into God’s truth? If you have, what happened? If you haven’t, would you be willing to try it?
  • How can you help someone experience the truth of God’s grace and love by showing them grace and Christ-like love today?

Dynamic Faith (Luke 24:44-53; Acts 1:1-11)

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The Apostle Luke gives us two versions of the story of Jesus’ ascension. One thing Luke 24:44-53 and Acts 1:1-11 have in common is that both of them have Jesus promising his disciples that they will receive power from the Holy Spirit. Christians celebrate the ascension of Jesus because he returned to the presence of his Father in order to be with his followers around the world and throughout time, and to give us power through his Spirit.

We can understand the word ‘power’ in a few different ways. Coming from Adelaide, a lot of people immediately think of one of our local Australian Football League teams, Port Adelaide Power. When many people of my generation and younger hear the word ‘power’ we often think of governments or other authority figures who use their ‘power’ for their own benefit or to control others. However, when the Bible talks about ‘power’ it means something different.

The New Testament word for ‘power’ is the same word from which we get our English words ‘dynamic’, ‘dynamo’ and ‘dynamite’. It means strength or an active force which makes things happen. When Jesus promised his followers that they would receive power from the Holy Spirit, he was telling them that he would send them his Spirit to give them the ability or strength they would need in order to do the work he was sending them to do.

There is a lot we could discuss about the power of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers, but right now I want to focus on the task Jesus gave to his disciples at his ascension. In both Luke’s gospel and the book of Acts, Jesus told his disciples that they would be his witnesses. The Holy Spirit was to give them what they needed to witness to Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection, and to bring the message of repentance and forgiveness of sins to all people.

It is significant that Paul also uses the word for ‘power’ when he talks about what the gospel of Jesus can do in a person’s life. In Romans 1:16 he writes that the good news of Jesus is ‘the power of God at work’ (NLT). In the same way, in 1 Corinthians 1:18 Paul writes that the message of the cross is ‘the very power of God’ (NLT) for all who are being saved. These passages tell us that the Holy Spirit uses the good news of Jesus to work the power of God in us so we can be Jesus’ witnesses to the world.

The idea of witnessing to Jesus can be scary for a lot of Christians for a range of reasons. There have been a lot of programs and campaigns developed to try to help churches be more effective in our witnessing. I’m wondering, though, based on what Jesus says in the ascension stories, whether being his witnesses might be a lot simpler that we might think it is.

If the gospel is the way God gives us the Holy Spirit’s power, then it seems to me that living in the good news of Jesus would give us Holy Spirit power to witness to what Jesus has done for us. For example, Jesus says in Luke’s gospel that we will bring the message of repentance and forgiveness to all nations. When the Holy Spirit gives us the power to receive this forgiveness through faith, then the Spirit would also give us the power to forgive others in the same way. Witnessing to Jesus, then, means forgiving people who have wronged us in the Holy Spirit’s power just like God has forgiven us.

We can witness to Jesus in other ways, too. When the Holy Spirit gives us the power to believe that God loves us for Jesus’s sake, then the Holy Spirit also gives us the power to love others in the way Jesus teaches. When the Holy Spirit gives us the power to trust in God’s grace for us in Jesus, then the Holy Spirit also gives us the power to extend that same grace to others. When the Holy Spirit gives us the power to trust that God accepts us because of what Jesus has done for us, then the Holy Spirit also gives us the power to accept others in the same way. I could go on and on, going through each of the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22,23) or Paul’s definition of Love (1 Corinthians 13:4-8a) to show how the Holy Spirit gives us the power to trust in God’s goodness and the power to display his goodness in our lives and in our relationships.

The ways in which we live our lives and treat other people are much more authentic and effective ways to witness to Jesus than preaching on a street corner or knocking on doors. There will be times when we will be asked to explain why we live in ways that are different to other people (see 1 Peter 3:15) but even then Jesus promises us that the Holy Spirit will give us the words to say (see Matthew 10:19; Mark 13:11; Luke 12:11). We really don’t need to stress about being Jesus’ witnesses because the Holy Spirit will give us the power we need in whatever opportunities God might give to us.

I would encourage anyone who is intimidated by the possibility of witnessing to others to start with the gospel. Where do we need God’s grace in our lives? Are we looking for forgiveness or healing? Are we lacking love, acceptance, hope or something else in our lives? When we find what we need in Jesus, in his suffering and death for us, or in his resurrection from the dead, God encounters us through the gospel, giving us his Holy Spirit and the power we need to witness to Jesus, not as a theological idea but as our lived reality.

Obviously there’s a lot more that can be said about the power of the Holy Spirit’s power in our lives, but that’s for other times. As we celebrate the ascension of Jesus, it is good for us to remember that we are witnesses to his grace and love in the world. Jesus sends us the Holy Spirit who gives us the power to both believe in his grace and to live out his grace in all our relationships.

That can be a powerful witness.

More to think about:

  • What do you think of when you hear the word ‘power’? Does it usually mean something good for you or not? Explain why…
  • What comes to mind when you hear people talk about the ‘power of the Holy Spirit’? In what ways have people told you the Holy Spirit’s power is shown?
  • Do you find it easy or difficult to witness to Jesus? Why is that?
  • What do you think about the idea that the way we live our lives can be a powerful witness to Jesus? Would you agree or disagree? Explain why…
  • Believing in the gospel does not come naturally for people, but we need the Holy Spirit’s power to believe. Would you agree or disagree? Give reasons for your thoughts.
  • Sometimes the most effective witness to Jesus we can give is how we treat people and by forgiving, loving, accepting and showing grace to them just like Jesus does to us. Do you agree that we need the Holy Spirit’s power to do that? Explain why…
  • To whom can you witness to Jesus by forgiving, loving, accepting or showing grace in some form to this week? Don’t forget to ask for the Holy Spirit’s power if/when it gets difficult…

Listening to Jesus – Again (John 10:22-30)

 

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A few months ago I flew to Melbourne for a day to talk with people about a position I was offered there. After arriving at the airport which is on one side of the city, I needed to drive to the church offices on the opposite side of Melbourne. I don’t know my way around Melbourne very well, so I hired a GPS with my rental car. I knew that I needed to listen carefully to the GPS as it guided me through the busy Melbourne streets if I was to arrive at my destination. If I didn’t pay proper attention to it, I knew I would get lost.

We can all feel a bit lost at times. Some can feel like there’s no way out of feeling lost and alone. There are a lot of voices in our society that promise to be able to lead us into a full and satisfying life. Any promise of help to guide us into something better can sound like good news to us as we search for meaning in our lives, or a sense of identity, belonging or purpose.

Jesus comes to us to lead us into a better life when he says, ‘My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life’ (John 10:27,28a NLT). Jesus knows that life can be hard and he also knows what it will take to get us through it, to be able to find ourselves, our place in the world and a reason to live. Like my GPS guided me through the streets of Melbourne, Jesus can guide us through the craziness and confusion of life to find security and peace. Jesus is able to do this because he has lived the human experience, he has suffered at the hands of the worst life can throw at us, and he has emerged victorious in his resurrection. As the One who suffered, was crucified and now is risen from the dead, Jesus teaches us to listen to him, to follow him, and to find the life that God intended for us from the beginning.

What makes the voice of Jesus different from the others I’ve heard is that speaks unconditional grace to me. Every voice I’ve heard which promises life has told me that I can find the life I want if I make my life all about me. They talk about what I have to do, how I can achieve what I hope for, what I can have if I place myself at the centre of my existence and make everything about me.

When we listen to the voice of Jesus, though, he teaches a different path. In the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus teaches us that the way to find life is to put God at the centre of our lives by loving him with all our hearts, minds, bodies and souls, and loving others as ourselves (Matthew 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:25-28). In John’s gospel Jesus, teaches us to love others in the same way that he loves us (John 13:34,35). That means that we can only love others when Jesus’ love is at the centre of our lives, shaping us and all we do. Paul explains the way of Jesus as living in faith and love (Galatians 5:6) – trusting that God will give us with everything our hearts, minds and bodies need for life in this world and the next for the sake of Jesus so we can focus on the needs of others. The New Testament talks a lot about the way of Jesus to help us apply it to different situations of our lives, but it can be understood most simply as trusting Jesus with every aspect of our lives by keeping him in the centre of our lives, and learning to love others in the same way that he loves us.

What makes the way of Jesus so difficult for us is that it is completely counter-intuitive. The voices which tell us that we can do it ourselves connect with people because we like to keep ourselves at the centre of our lives and think that we can find our own way. Jesus is the only voice I’ve heard that offers to do for me what I can’t do for myself. Learning to listen to his voice and trust what he says enough to live like it’s true isn’t easy for any of us. That’s why living as a disciple of Jesus, following the way of faith and love he teaches, is really hard for us. However, Jesus promises that when we listen to him like sheep listen to their shepherd and follow in his way, he will lead us into a better life which will never end.

A couple of weeks ago we listened to John telling us that he wrote his gospel so that we might believe in Jesus as the Messiah and find life in his name (John 20:31). I asked how I can help you find that life. In John 10:27,28 Jesus tells us that finding life begins with listening to him. We’ve talked a fair bit about listening to Jesus in our congregation recent months. I wonder how many of us are taking the time to listen to him, or how well we’re hearing Jesus’ words of grace and truth to us.

So I would like to make an offer to people who are connected with our church. If you are feeling lost, or if you know someone who is feeling lost, or even if you would like to explore the life Jesus promises us more, I would like to start meeting with you to learn to listen to Jesus through the words of the Bible, so that we can be following him together as he leads us into the life he has for us. Of course, I can’t meet with everyone individually on a regular basis, but if you want to learn to listen to Jesus to follow him into the life he has for us, let me know and we can look for a way to do that together.

The GPS I hired in Melbourne got me to where I was going. I need Jesus every day to guide me in his way of faith and love so I can find the life God has for me. We can all feel a bit lost at times. As we travel through life together, by listening to Jesus’ words of grace and truth and following in his way of faith and love, God will bring us into his life which is stronger than death and which never ends.

More to think about:

  • Do you use a GPS to find where you need to go? Why / why not?
  • What are some of the ways you have heard people say we can find a better life? Do you think they are right? Explain why you think that…
  • Do you make time to listen to Jesus’ voice regularly? Why / why not?
  • There are different ways people say we can listen to Jesus’ voice. What might be helpful or not helpful about learning to listen to Jesus’ voice in the Bible?
  • I’ve suggested that the simplest way to understand the way Jesus teaches is faith in him and love for others. Do you think that is an accurate way of summarizing the teaches of Jesus and the New Testament? Explain your reasons for that…
  • How might your life be different if you put Jesus at the centre and learned to live in his way of faith and love? What might change? How might life be better? How might it be worse?
  • How can I help you to listen to Jesus’ voice and follow him…?