Just a Thought! – 7 December 2015

Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet…” (Matthew 1:22)

The Gospel of Matthew gives a number of reasons to be thankful this Christmas as it reminds us that the events associated with Jesus’ birth fulfilled at least eighty Old Testament prophecies. The statement in our verse above is a phrase that Matthew used a number of times throughout his gospel as he pointed out to his readers that many of the events he described fulfilled very specific prophecies. Let’s take a brief look at some of these ancient proclamations referred to in the first chapters of Matthew and see why they give us reason to celebrate.

Pre-Written History

  • As prophesied, the virgin Mary conceived and bore a son who was called Immanuel – God with us – a fulfilment of the prophecy in Isaiah 7:14 (cf. Matthew 1:21-23).
  • After His birth, wise men came from the East to offer their gifts to the new born King. Herod called the chief priests and scribes together and asked where the Messiah was going to be born. They responded by citing Micah 5:2 which named Bethlehem as the birthplace of the Christ (cf. Matthew 2:3-6).
  • Herod’s response in killing the young boys of Bethlehem was a fulfilment of two more prophecies found in Jeremiah 31:15 and Hosea 11:1 (cf. Matthew 2:15-18).
  • In the genealogy recorded in Matthew 1, we discover the fulfilment of several other Old Testament prophecies, such as Jesus being from the line of Abraham (Genesis 12:3), Isaac (Genesis 26:4), Jacob (Genesis 28:14), Judah (Genesis 49:8–12), Jesse (Isaiah 11:1), and David (Isaiah 9:7).

The Unique Saviour

Despite what many believe, the religions and religious leaders of the world cannot compare to Christ. He was not just another religious leader who lived a good life to make things better for others or was simply a good example for us on how to live. No! Jesus is unique in so many respects. He is the only person who ever lived who lived a perfectly sinless life – every other religious leader has been sinful and needed a Saviour. But Jesus did not need a saviour; He is the Saviour.

There are also no prophecies giving details about the birth of other religious leaders. Before Islam existed, there were no prophecies detailing the coming of Muhammad. The same with Mormonism and the Jehovah’s Witnesses – there were no prophecies concerning Joseph Smith or Charles Taze Russell. Even Siddhartha Gautama – the founder of Buddhism – arrived unannounced in the world. However, the Old Testament, proved to have been written centuries before Jesus came to earth, gives explicit details of Jesus’ coming and what He would do, which were all fulfilled at His birth, through His life, and at the cross.

So in the first two chapters of Matthew, we see that the one promised to the forefathers of the Jewish nation in various ways, who was foretold as being born of a virgin in a little town called Bethlehem, and that His coming would give rise to bitter agony as Herod sought His life – actually did come in the way foretold.

A Reason to Celebrate

This in itself gives reason to celebrate this Christmas, and not to celebrate as the world does either, but in a manner worthy of the one who came. Jesus is the reason and focus for the season.

This Christmas let it be a time not just of giving gifts to others, but a time of celebrating the ultimate gift that was given. Let it be a time of rejoicing in the fact that the promised Messiah came in the manner that was prophesied. Let it be a season of singing songs of praise and worship to the God who planned centuries earlier, the coming of the one who will take away the sins of those who live centuries later – you and me.

And if you are not a believer, I pray that this Christmas will become something greater than the commercial holiday that it is for many, and that you come to know Jesus as your own personal Saviour and Lord.

Just a Thought!

© 2015

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Just a Thought! – 30 November 2015

And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)

As we approach Christmas, let’s spend a few weeks looking at some of the amazing truths associated with this special time on our calendar in an effort to understand the true meaning for the season.

When Did Christmas Begin?

Have you ever wondered when Christmas began? Now I am not referring to the celebration on December 25, since we do not know exactly when He was born. Nor am I referring to the time in history when that date was decided upon as being the day to celebrate. Instead I am asking a different question, that is, when did the earthly life of Jesus Christ really begin?

John 1:14 tells us that “the Word (referring to Jesus Christ) became flesh and dwelt among us.” At what point does a person become flesh? Is it the day their born, or is it sometime earlier? And if it is earlier, is it in the third trimester or the second? Or is it at conception? The right answer is the last one. At the specific point in time when the women’s egg is fertilised, a person begins to exists. At that point, two living cells come together and transform into another living cell that from that point on can only be referred to as a person.

This therefore means that Christmas began nine-months before Bethlehem – at the point when the Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary and Jesus was conceived (see Luke 1:35). So in reality, the God-man Jesus, spent His first nine months on earth as a pre-born baby – fully alive, fully human and fully God. That is why the ancient creeds affirm that Jesus was “conceived of the Holy Spirit.”

John 1:14 may not be a text that you would usually consider at Christmas, but to be honest, without it, the rest of the Christmas story has no meaning.

The Glory of the Incarnation

God becoming man is referred to theologically as the Incarnation, and to be honest, it is a hard concept to fully understand. Even in the early church there were many debates about what it really meant. Some taught that Jesus wasn’t really a man, but that He just looked like a man – a teaching called Docetism from the Greek word dokeo, meaning “to seem”. Others taught that He had the body of a man but His soul was divine and not human. Still others said Jesus was two people in one body – sort of half-God and half-man. And unbelievers said it was all nonsense – that Jesus wasn’t God at all – and claimed that He was an ordinary person like you and me with a sin nature just like everyone else on planet earth.

But all those ideas are wrong and go against the clear teachings of Scripture. When Jesus was conceived in Mary’s womb, the infinite God took upon Himself something that was never part of His nature before, for in taking on the form of a tiny unborn baby boy, eternal God added humanity to His divine nature. This has to be the greatest miracle of all time that defies all logic and cannot be sufficiently explained. What makes it even more astounding is that even though God became man, He did not cease to be God. Though He added manhood to His being, He did not subtract His deity. He was 100% God and 100% man – the God-man.

So as Christmas draws near, spend some time pondering on the gloriousness of that truth. Consider what it means for mankind that the almighty God became man. That the knowledge of God was somehow contained within a human brain, and that the unconditional, everlasting love, poured out from a fleshly heart. Consider the very Word of God somehow being spoken through human lips, the mercy and healing power of God working through a human hand, and the dust of the earth being walked upon by human feet carrying God in the flesh.

All for the purpose of seeking and saving the lost (Luke 19:10). That’s you, me and billions of others like us.

Just a Thought!

© 2015

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Just a Thought! – 23 November 2015

Train up a child in the way he should go, even when he is old he will not depart from it.” (Proverbs 22:6)

I thought that I would end our short look at the use of the fig tree in the Bible, by looking at a verse in the Old Testament that you would not ordinarily associate with the fig tree, but when you understand its growth pattern, use and some Hebrew, the meaning of the above text becomes far richer and plainer to understand.

Join me as we look at this well-known verse often associated with parenting to see how it truly applies today.

The Gnarled, yet Useful Fig Tree

The first thing to consider here is the growth of a fig tree. Unlike most trees, the fig’s branches do not typically grow in an orderly fashion, but rather bend up and around in different directions, often turning back on themselves. Sometimes their growth is so gnarled that there seem to be branches growing in every possible open space on the branches they shoot out from. This also makes the fig tree a difficult one to climb.

The second thing to consider is one of the uses of the figs themselves. If you have ever raised children you will be aware that sometimes babies struggle when it comes to nursing. Some babies do not naturally want to be breastfed and take a lot of encouraging to do so, sometimes to the extent that mothers give up trying. However, in Biblical times, and even today in some cultures, when this happened, the wet-nurse would take a green fig, pinch the end, and then by squeezing the fig, squirt the white juice into the mouth of the baby. Because the juice would be rather bitter, this would cause the baby to pucker up, and then the baby would be put in the right position and would begin to feed. This was done every time that the mother struggled to get the baby to feed until eventually the baby would feed naturally.

The Promise

So what does this have to do with our verse in question?

First of all, like the fig tree, all children grow according to their own bend – according to the way that God has created them – each with their own unique characters and personalities. Sometimes those bends look good, sometimes rather gnarled like the tree.

But there is something else of significance here that we miss until we look at the Hebrew. The word translated as “train” in our verse is the Hebrew word for “squeeze”, so the phrase would be “Squeeze up a child”. But would you ever squeeze your child in order to make them take the right path? Well certainly not physically, I hope. However, when you apply the picture of the mother squeezing the fig, the verse takes on a richer meaning.

In the same way that the squeezing of the fig in order to encourage the child to feed – so that the action and position becomes natural to the child – so too should parents train their children so that they would naturally follow the right path. Because each child is different, as a parent it is your responsibility to make sure that you do not impose the same regimen on each child, but train them according to their learning styles and thinking. Therefore if you want your child to grow up in the Lord, present Him to them according to their own natural bend and develop an intrinsic hunger in them for Christ. Applying laws and trying to impose strict behavioural patterns will not work, unless the child has an inner desire for God.

Therefore we could paraphrase this verse to read as: “Make intrinsic a hunger in a child according to the bend of the child and when he is old he will not depart from it”. Do you want your child to have a thirst for God? Do you want him or her to be secure in their faith so that when they leave home they will remain true? Then apply the principle of the fig tree to your child, and develop the inner desire for God in them. Faith is not an external force that causes change, but an internal desire, given and strengthened by God, yet often nurtured by man.

Just a Thought!

© 2015

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Just a Thought! – 16 November 2015

Now on the same occasion there were some present who reported to Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. And Jesus said to them, “Do you suppose that these Galileans were greater sinners than all other Galileans because they suffered this fate? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them were worse culprits than all the men who live in Jerusalem? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” And He began telling this parable: “A man had a fig tree which had been planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and did not find any. And he said to the vineyard-keeper, ‘Behold, for three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree without finding any. Cut it down! Why does it even use up the ground?’ And he answered and said to him, ‘Let it alone, sir, for this year too, until I dig around it and put in fertilizer; and if it bears fruit next year, fine; but if not, cut it down.’”” (Luke 13:1-9)

We continue to look at the symbolism of the fig tree in the New Testament to see what this humble tree can teach us about God and ourselves.

The Fruitless Fig Tree

Anyone who grows fruit tress will tell you that fruit trees do not always bear fruit. Some growing seasons are better than others. For example, the current drought we are experiencing in South Africa is having devastating effects on fruit and vegetable growth in the country. It does not matter how much one prunes or fertilises a tree, unless one waters it, that tree will never bear fruit. Any fruit it might produce will not be worth the effort of plucking it off the tree.

So when one comes to the above parable of the fig tree not bearing fruit and the farmer digging around it and fertilising it, we think nothing further about how he handles the situation. And to be honest, did you think anything about his watering the tree? Probably not, as that is something you would ordinarily expect of any decent farmer. After all, the tree was growing in a vineyard – a practice that was typical of Israeli farmers – and since Jesus says nothing about the vines not growing you think that all is as it should be except for the fig tree not bearing fruit.

But one thing we miss here, is that fig trees do not ordinarily require any fertilising to produce fruit. Remember the cursed fig tree from last time? It was growing on the side of the road, not tended in any way as far as we can tell, yet it was expected to have developed fruit despite that. It was expected that the tree in the vineyard would simply have born fruit without any more care provided than what it was already receiving from being in the vineyard in the first place. So why then the fertiliser? The vineyard worker was doing everything, even the unexpected, to encourage fruit.

The Promise

The point? Well look at it in context. Right before this parable Jesus was talking about repentance, and then uses the fig tree parable to illustrate a very important point about repentance.

In the same way that the vineyard worker will do everything to have the tree produce fruit, the Lord will do everything possible to encourage repentance, even if they never do. Irrespective of who they are, what they have or have not done, He will do even the unexpected. So at the end of the day, when the day of judgement comes, even if a person dies without ever knowing Christ, without ever repenting, it does not mean that Christ did nothing to encourage them to do so. He did everything possible. They are without excuse for not doing so.

The question then is, what are you doing to encourage repentance for the lost that you know? Are you digging round them, fertilising them, and doing everything in your power to encourage them to repent? I would like to encourage you to develop a heart for the lost that compares to heart that the vineyard worker had for the lowly fig tree. Christ cares about them and desire that none would perish (2 Peter 3:8). Do you?

Just a Thought!

© 2015

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Just a Thought! – 11 November 2015

Now in the morning, when He was returning to the city, He became hungry. Seeing a lone fig tree by the road, He came to it and found nothing on it except leaves only; and He said to it, “No longer shall there ever be any fruit from you.” And at once the fig tree withered. Seeing this, the disciples were amazed and asked, “How did the fig tree wither all at once?” And Jesus answered and said to them, “Truly I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ it will happen. And all things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive.”” (Matthew 21:18-22)

The fig tree is a symbol that is used a number of times throughout the Bible, and a significant number of those times is in the life of Jesus. Let’s look at the verses above and see what they teach us about God and ourselves.

The Withered Fig Tree

For many of us in the Western world, particularly for those of us who are not horticulturists, this story makes little to no sense until we learn more about the nature of the fig tree. There are a couple of significant clues in this text that deepen our understanding.

Firstly, “the city” – what city is Matthew referring to here? Well you only need to read a few verses before this one and you learn that the city in question is Jerusalem. The day before, Jesus had cleansed the temple, rightly accused the Jews of turning what should have been a house of prayer into a den of thieves, and then healed the blind and the lame (keep these events in mind as they are important to understanding our text).

Secondly, there was no fruit on the fig tree, only leaves. One thing we often do not realise is that fig trees that grow in the higher areas of Israel (over 750m above sea level), ALWAYS bear fruit and leaves together, at the same time. Jerusalem is situated just a little over 750m above sea level, therefore the fig tree should have had both leaves and fruit on it. Upon seeing the tree from a distance, being full of leaves, it was expected that it would also have fruit. But as Jesus approached the tree, He saw it had none. So Jesus cursed it, and it withered.

The Promise

Amazed at the withering, the disciples were intrigued as to what this meant, and so Jesus answered by talking about faith. These verses have so often been taken out of context in many ways – something that I will not go into now as it is not the purpose of my message.

What Jesus was doing here was demonstrating His authority. Remember the events before? The cleansing of the temple and the healings? In both situations, Jesus was demonstrating His authority. Firstly over the temple that was designed by His Father to be a place of prayer, and secondly over illness, even life and death itself.

Then, immediately following the cursing of the fig tree, when Jesus entered the temple He was challenged by the priests concerning His authority. Jesus did not answer directly but challenged their beliefs about His authority. Then He goes into two parables that illustrate this principle even more.

So what was happening here with the cursing of the fig tree was not so much an object lesson on how our own faith in our prayers can accomplish things, but rather the authority in whom our faith is based. Jesus was preparing the disciples for what was about to happen in the temple when His authority would be challenged – teaching them that they were to place their faith in the authority of Christ.

So, faith in prayer is not about how much faith you have, but is about IN WHOM you have faith – in Christ, in His authority, and in Him accomplishing His will when you pray. Christ is to be the object of your faith, not yourself or even your prayers. So next time you pray and are seeking an answer from God, make sure your faith is rightly placed – in Him and not in self. This is the lesson of the withered fig tree.

Just a Thought!

© 2015

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Just a Thought! – 2 November 2015

Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found Him of whom Moses in the Law and also the Prophets wrote – Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” … Jesus saw Nathanael coming to Him, and said of him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael said to Him, “How do You know me?” Jesus answered and said to him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” Nathanael answered Him, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God; You are the King of Israel.” Jesus answered and said to him, “Because I said to you that I saw you under the fig tree, do you believe? You will see greater things than these.” And He said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see the heavens opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”” (John 1:44, 46-51)

The above account tells of Jesus choosing Nathanael as one of his disciples after Philip, whom Jesus had just called, goes to find Nathanael. I would like to focus on one thing in this story that you would not expect to focus on. One thing that you probably would not ordinarily think about – something often overlooked, even misunderstood – yet adds much richness to one’s understanding of the text. I am talking about the fig tree.

Under the Fig Tree

An overlooked fact in the history of Israel, is that it was common place for Rabbi’s to teach their disciples under fig trees. In fact, a fig tree was customarily planted alongside any synagogue that was built and the children being taught law in the school at the synagogue were often taught under the fig tree by their Rabbi’s. This was primarily for two reasons: firstly because they provided good shade during the hot summer months, but also because the trees gave off a sweet fragrance that served as a reminder of the sweetness of the Law of God – the Law was meant to be something savoured and enjoyed, and not despised. Even the writer of Psalm 119 had this perspective when he wrote, “O how I love Your law! It is my meditation all the day” (v97).

So here in our text, when Jesus was referring to Nathanael sitting under the fig tree, He is not simply referring to Nathanael physically sitting under a fig tree when Philip found him to tell him about Jesus, but He is also referring to Nathanael’s learning and meditating on the law. Maybe Jesus was also referring to Nathanael’s childhood days, sitting with his Rabbi, learning the law. In short, Jesus was referring to Nathanael’s everyday, life-long desire to know the Law. This explains why Philip referred to Jesus the way he did when he described Jesus as “Him of whom Moses in the Law and also the Prophets wrote” – he was speaking to Nathanael in terms he was very familiar with. And Jesus’ earlier remark of Nathanael being “an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit” refers to Nathanael being a true Jew who not only desired and studied the Law, but also lived it.

Nathanael’s life was one dedicated to the study of and meditation on the Law of God. He devoted his life to knowing the Word of God.

The Promise

Jesus’ final words in our text were that Nathanael would witness far greater things. Not greater than Jesus having knowledge about where Nathanael was sitting, as is typically thought, but rather that he would now get to witness with his own eyes the things he had been studying and learning about “under the fig tree”. What a privilege. What a great reward for his faithfulness to studying the Word.

The same should be true of your own life. Are you dedicated to diligent, daily study of God’s Word like Nathanael? Do you read the Bible with greater intent and purpose than just a quick five-minute devotional from a book, often with a verse taken out of context? Are you like Nathanael who like Ezra “set his heart to study the law of the LORD and to practice it” (Ezra 7:10)?

If not, I would like to encourage you today to ask God’s help to begin to do so, and to make a conscientious effort to set time aside every day to sit under your own fig tree. When you do, you will begin to see even greater things in your life, like Nathanael, as the Word begins to take effect in your day-to-day life and faith.

Just a Thought!

© 2015

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Just a Thought! – 21 October 2015

Opening his mouth, Peter said: “I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him” … While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message. All the circumcised believers who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. For they were hearing them speaking with tongues and exalting God. Then Peter answered, “Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?” And he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to stay on for a few days.” (Acts 10:34-35; 44-48)

We now reach the purpose of the account of Cornelius’ conversion in the book of Acts. We will not look at the events between Peter leaving Joppa and our verses above due to space constraints and that they are mostly a retelling the story from personal perspectives. Let’s look closer at the lesson Peter and those with him learned.

God is Not Impartial

We already saw elements of this previously, but I would like to focus on a few more aspects to this fact directly from our verses. Firstly, think about who makes the statement of God’s impartiality, Peter. He was a Jew, and a rather pious one it would seem. In the verses leading up to this he even mentioned that it was out of the ordinary for a Jew to be in a gentile’s house, but as a result of the lesson with the animals, Peter learned that it was good and right for him to be visiting Cornelius. But more than that, remember what we learned about Caesarea Maritima right at the very beginning – this was a very pagan city. When Herod the Great built it, it was a “mini-Rome” as it were, in the heart of Israel. Yet despite that, Peter obeyed God and crossed into Gentile territory for the sake of the Gospel. This was a huge sacrifice for him.

Added to this, the Jews that were with Peter were amazed that the Holy Spirit came upon Gentiles. This was something that was not meant to happen according to their way of thinking. Yahweh was the God of the Jews, which meant that His Spirit was meant for them only. Yet here He is being poured out on the Gentiles. This was a visible sign to the Jewish believers that God was not working according to their expectation, but rather according to His agenda, and was yet another fulfilment of the promise of the Holy Spirit being poured out on all mankind in Joel 2:28 (cf. Acts 2).

Finally notice too Peter’s final response, that of encouraging the baptism of the new Gentile believers. Not only were they given the gifts of salvation and the Holy Spirit, but were also entitled to identify themselves as believers along with the saved Jews. From this point onwards, Jewish and Gentile believers are one big family in Christ. All who are saved as His children.

The Lesson

The lesson for us here is three-fold. Firstly that we are to approach salvation as being something that all people have access to. God is no respector of nationality, race, gender, social or economic status, etc. when it comes to salvation. All mankind stands before Him as sinners (cf. Romans 3:23) who will one day face judgement, be found guilty, and pay the price (cf. Romans 6:23). However, God has made a way for all mankind – to come to Him in repentance, putting one’s faith in Christ, believing in His death and resurrection. All mankind has the right to be baptised and welcomed into the family of Christ on their conversion.

It also implies some action on our part – to go out and “make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). We are to evangelise – to tell others about Christ and pray that the Spirit will do His work in them like He did for the Gentiles in Caesarea Maritima.

One final implication, it means too that we should be caring for our Jewish neighbours. That they too will see the light and recognise Jesus as the Messiah promised in their Scriptures. We have a responsibility – let’s do it!

Just a Thought!

© 2015

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