Becoming ‘Born Again’ / Coming into the Light: May 2nd 2021

Joshua 21:20-22:34

Cities were allotted to the Levites (the priests) from all the remaining tribes of Israel. The Levites were to run the refuge cities, such as Shechem, where those accused of murder could shelter before a fair trial.

God had given Israel all the land he had sworn to their forefathers (v.43). The Israelites had acted in faith, conquered and settled there. How wonderful it is to work in partnership with God on a major project. God gave them rest on every side from their enemies. Every one of the Lord’s good promised to the house of Israel was fulfilled (v.45). Praise the Lord. If we become baptized and believe our Lord Jesus will fulfil his promise to us: ‘Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned’ (Mark 16:16).

The Reubenites, Gadites and half-tribe of Manasseh had faithfully battled for the other Israelite tribes to conquer the rest of the promised land even after they had been given territory of their own. They had faithfully fulfilled the promise they had made to Moses. They had riskily left their families behind on the other side of the Jordan in Gilead while they fought. I would assume that God supernaturally protected them while their fighting men were away or they could have been easy pickings for the Canaanites. Joshua blessed these soldiers for their faithful service and sent them home. They did not return empty-handed. They had accumulated massive herds of livestock, precious metals and other plunder taken from their enemies. When we are faithful to our word and work for God, we can also be blessed financially and materially. He warned these departing tribes not to forget God and to always: ‘love the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to obey his commands, to hold fast to him and to serve him with all your heart and all your soul’ (22:5).

It was an amicable parting of ways as these faithful fighters returned to Gilead but soon there was a massive misunderstanding between them and the rest of Israel. On their journey back home, they constructed for themselves am imposing altar on the Israelite side of the Jordan. This appeared to be scandalous. The only altar to God was meant to be the one before the official tabernacle. The other Israelites were scandalised and ‘gathered at Shiloh to go to war against them; (v.12). Fortunately, before the fighting started, the Israelites sent the son of the priest and a delegation from each of the other tribes to find out why they had done this. They assumed that the tribes in Gilead had already started worshipping demonic entities and this unauthorised new altar was for pagan worship but they wisely went on a fact-finding mission first. They had genuine concerns for their future having witnessed God’s wrath against those who were unfaithful to him.

The tribes who had returned to Gilead were mortified that they intentions had been misinterpreted. They had built this new altar, not for offering sacrifices, but to witness that they would only worship at the official Israelite sanctuary. It was just a replica in memory of the official one, a witness that, even though they lived far away on the other side of the river Jordan, they were still part of Israel worshipping the one God. Phinehas the priest and the leaders were relieved at this explanation and explained it to the rest of the Israelites. They were glad to hear this and war was averted.

The replica altar was given a name: ‘A Witness Between Is that the Lord is God’ (v.34).

It is refreshing to read of a society that is so concerned about not upsetting God. The Israelites had learned through hard experiences that things go much more smoothly for a country when people diligently follow God’s laws. Many of our politicians seem to have no such fear with their condonement of divorce, abortion and lack of respect for Sundays. We reap what we sow.

John 3:1-21

Nicodemus, from the Jewish ruling council came to see Jesus at night. He confirmed that all the council knew Jesus had come from God, ‘for no-one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him’ (v.2).

This is why there is no logic to people deciding to be an atheist / humanist / secularist. Jesus was a real historical figure who proved he was the son of God by performing amazing public miracles that were witnessed by thousands of people. If you do not believe in these historical facts, you stand condemned. People refuse to come to the light for fear that their evil deeds will be exposed by it. If you call evil things good and good things evil you will hate the light of truth and avoid it.

Here we have one of the most beautiful phrases in the Bible: ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life’ (3:16).

We now come to one of the most fascinating discussions in the Bible. Jesus cryptically said, ‘I tell you the truth, no-one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again’ (3:3).

Nicodemus was as puzzled as the rest of Christianity: ‘”How can a man be born again when he is old”, Nicodemus asked (v.4).

What does it mean to be a ‘born-again’ Christian and, as it is so vital, how does one become one?

I would regard myself as ‘born again’ as I know God loves me, I love him, I find great joy in reading his word and want to live in a way that pleases him. However, looking back on my life when exactly was I ‘born again’?

I was baptized at the age of one. I went to a Christian school, which had prayers and hymns in assembly and weekly chapel services. My whole class studied the Bible for an O level in Divinity when I was fifteen. My parents occasionally took me to church. However, none of this stopped me carrying out teenage sins or gave me a burning urge to study Christianity further. I always knew that God existed and most days prayed the ‘Our Father’ prayer. The Mother Church would say that when I was baptized, even though I was an infant and knew virtually nothing about it, I would have been given the Holy Spirit, my personal sin would have been washed away and the Original sin I had inherited from Adam would also have gone. The reason I sinned when older was due to the typical human tendency to sin and evil termed ‘concupiscence’.

When I was forty, I visited the Sistine Chapel in Rome and suddenly the Holy Spirit convicted me of my sins. He convinced me that there would be judgement and I needed to get my faith life sorted. I joined a course and became a Catholic becoming confirmed at the Easter Vigil. Before and after this, I had a burning desire to find out more about God and Jesus. In theological terms, my confirmation would have strengthened me and activated the Holy Spirit within me to be a more powerful witness for Jesus. However, soon after becoming a fully active member of the church I became very sick and felt like I was dying. I made a dramatic recovery after a charismatic priest prayed a healing / deliverance prayer over me.

A couple of years later, I attended a ‘Baptism in the Spirit’ course and prayed to receive the Gifts of the Holy Spirit. A week later, I started to pray in the Spirit. However, I didn’t do it very much or for very long and started attending a church that was undynamic. A couple of years ago I was laid low by a spiritual attack and I only recovered after starting to also attend a charismatic Pentecostal church. I prayed ‘The Sinner’s prayer’ more than once: ‘Dear Lord Jesus, I am a sinner. I believe that you died and rose again from the dead to save me from my sins. I want to be with you forever. Forgive me all the sins I have committed against you. I open my heart to you and ask you to come into my heart and life and be my personal Saviour. In Jesus name. Amen’. God healed me from spiritual attack and drove out the enemy that was causing it. However, I still had issues with habitual sin. God finally strengthened me and sorted me out when I handed over the reins to him and started to pray in tongues for up to an hour a day. The temptation to commit sin melted away.

So looking back, I did receive a seed of the Holy Spirit at my infant baptism. This gradually grew until it burst into life during my trip to Rome. My confirmation made me a stronger enemy of the devil and he tried to snuff me out. The Holy Spirit started to activate more spiritual gifts inside me after my baptism in the Holy Spirit but the true process of sanctification only started once I gave up trying to conquer sin by myself and handed the reins over to God.

The one thing all Christians should agree on is that baptism is vital for salvation. A Christian friend, who feels she is born again, said to me ‘I don’t feel I need to be baptized’. But feelings are irreverent. You might ‘not feel’ you need to possess a valid visa to enter foreign countries but if you turn up on their border without one, you can be turned away. Heaven follows laws and justice. For all we know, there might be a demon with a list on a clipboard objecting to every one who turns up at the gate of heaven without the permanent stamp of baptism on their soul. Baptism permanently marks us as a child of God.

My Pentecostal friends would say that once you have said the ‘Sinners Prayer’ and really believed it you are saved. Also get baptized, get a Bible and read it. However, I am slightly concerned that if my friend thinks she is saved without yet going through the legalistic step of baptism, that our feelings might deceive us in this matter. The gift of eternal life is so precious, we should not skimp on any requirements that Jesus stipulated. Should we be the judge of whether we believe? Shouldn’t that be down to God’s judgement. My Catholic friends would say we cannot presume we are saved, we have to live and die in hope of God’s mercy on us but that might be too gloomy. Not many Catholics speak in tongues. If it was more common, this supernatural proof of the Holy Spirit living within us should give us full faith in our salvation because of Ephesians 1:13 – 14: ‘When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession – to the praise of his glory.’

This is how Pentecostals can be so certain that they are saved. Praying in Tongues prove that the Holy Spirit lives within us. His presence within us is a deposit guaranteeing our our inheritance. Acts 5:32 says: ‘We are witnesses of these things and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him’. Hallelujah.

God can do what he wants. If he wants to change any rules, that’s his prerogative. Jesus promised one of the criminals on the cross that he would be in paradise with Jesus that day and it was unlikely the criminal was baptized. We trust in God’s mercy for the souls of children who die before baptism including aborted children. Catholics even believe that unreached people, who have never heard the gospel message, can be saved if they live righteous lives and would have responded to the call to be baptized if they had been told of its necessity. All of us can live righteous lives in accordance with God’s laws that have been inscribed on everyone’s hearts. When Peter was preaching to the Gentile Cornelius, in Acts 10, the Holy Spirit came upon all in his household who heard his message. After they had received the Spirit and had began to speak in tongues and praise God, Peter then orders them to be baptized. So there appears to be no hard and fast rule. We do receive the Holy Spirit during baptism but we could also be ‘born again’ prior to this – either by devotedly asking Jesus to come into our lives or from hearing the word of God. Knowing that the Holy Spirit is inside us, that we have called on the name of the Lord and confessed ‘Jesus is Lord’ and knowing we have been baptized strengthens our faith so we know we are beloved children of God and will receive God’s gift of eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. Hallelujah.

Being ‘born again’ does seem to be more than infant baptism. It is an adult consenting encounter with the power of the Holy Spirit that enkindles the fire of faith within us empowering us to manifest the gifts and fruit of the Holy Spirit. We must be ‘born of the Spirit’ (3:8). There seems to be a single time in people’s lives when this happens and people do not forget this conversion experience. It is a memorable moment of transformation and turning fully to God. Speaking to dynamic Christians they can usually recall when it dawned on them that God exists and they wanted to worship him. My wife came this conclusion when she standing on a beautiful hill in the Cotswolds. There was wonderful light, a soft gentle breeze and the quiet peace of nature. The beauty and tranquillity of God’s creation touched her heart and she turned to him.

Jesus confirmed that no-one had yet gone into heaven apart from ‘the one who came from heaven’ (v.13) i.e. him. All the dead of the world up until Jesus’ crucifixion were stuck in hell. The righteous dead were released into heaven after Jesus died, descended into hell and preached the gospel to them. Moses in the desert lifted up a bronze serpent on a pole to save the Israelites from the wrath of God that had been unleashed to punish them for their sins. Jesus would be lifted up on the cross, so that if we look to him and believe in him, the wrath of God because of our sins will be transferred to him. Jesus paid the full ransom price for us once and for all through this precious blood. Jesus came to save us, not condemn us.

Psalm 55:1-11

David prayed for his prayers and pleas to be heard (v.1) He was being troubled by his thoughts. He was distraught and suffering (v.3).

Poor King David was in a bad way for someone of such unshakeable faith. He longed for the wings of a dove so that he could fly from his troubles (v.6). He wanted to hurry to his place of shelter. However, all of us – especially Kings – have to stand and face our demons and we get the strength to do this from the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit, the dove of peace, is within us. If we are distraught, we can flee to him by praying in tongues. Handing over our vocal cords to him so that he can pray the perfect prayer for us.

We have a massive advantage over King David we can know Jesus and he will come to live within us and give us shelter. Jesus said: ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light (Matt. 11:28-30).

Image: The Chosen press photos (press.thechosen.tv), CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Baptism of Jesus / Call of the Disciples: 30th April 2021

Joshua 17:1-18:28

The Israelites struck a blow for women’s rights as the daughters of the tribe of Manasseh received an inheritance among the sons (v.6).

The land of Gilead was assigned to the rest of the descendants of Manasseh. They went on to make a renowned rare, perfumed healing balm that inspired this beautiful song. The Balm of Gilead is interpreted as a spiritual medicine that is able to heal Israel (and sinners in general) i.e. Jesus’ Christ’s precious blood that he poured out for us on the cross.

The Canaanites put up strong resistance in areas that they were determined not to give up (v.12), However, when the Israelites grew stronger, they subjected the Canaanites to forced labour (v.13). The Canaanites were a sophisticated fighting force and had iron chariots (v.16) – formidably effective when fighting on a plain. Joshua encouraged the people of Joseph: ‘You are numerous and very powerful’ (v.17). They would be able to conquer the land with God’s help despite the chariots of their enemies.

The tent of meeting was set up at Shiloh (18:1). Seven tribes were still to receive an inheritance and so three men from each tribe were sent out to survey the land. It would then be split into seven parts and allocated by lot. The only proviso was that the tribe of Joseph would remain in the North and Judah would remain in the South. Joshua showed his wisdom and trust in the Lord. Casting lots, in the presence of the Lord, would ensure that the land was allocated as God desired. God can influence the role of the dice when required. Amongst my many sins as a teenager, I used to play the role-playing game: ‘Dungeons and Dragons‘. I have since renounced and repented of such activities. Before starting, you have to choose to play as one of 12 character classes, such as fighters, clerics or sorcerers (I told you this was a dodgy activity). You then make decisions, while imagining you are this fantasy character, about how to progress in various adventures (made up by an imaginative friend, termed a ‘Dungeon Master’). The idea is to progress through various adventures, nurturing your character, making him (or her) stronger and gathering treasure by battling legendary creatures. The outcome of fights are determined by rolling various strangely-shaped multicoloured dice. I always choose to be a paladin – a charismatic / fancy type of knight. I was always particularly attracted to the word ‘charisma’. One day, our ‘Dungeon Master’ was in a particularly vindictive mood and set up our adventure so we would have to fight the powerful demon, Asmodeus, one of the Biblical big-hitters in the book of Tobit. He basically wanted to kill off all our characters whom we had nurtured for months. I waded into battle – a certain suicide mission as I would have to roll sixes continually on a normal dice to win. However, there was an option to invoke the angel Gabriel for help in the battle and, lo and behold, after asking for angelic assistance every time I rolled the dice in fantasy ‘combat’ with the demon, I rolled a six. I rolled about twenty sixes in a row and defeated this virtually invincible foe. The probability of this occurring is infinitesimally small. Someone was controlling the outcome of those dice rolls to show that when I ask for help, evil can be defeated no matter how impossible it seems. There are other forces in the room when people play games like this. Don’t do it kids, stick to less ‘spiritual’ games. I would say ‘Monopoly’ but that combines being immoral with being incredibly dull. Maybe kick a football around outside instead.

John 1:29-51

John the Baptist saw Jesus coming towards him and proclaimed ‘Look the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’ The Holy Spirit residing in John gave him a prophetic word of knowledge allowing him to tell the future of his holy relative. The blood of the Passover lambs applied to the door frames and lintels of the Israelites’ houses in Egypt protected them from death as the destroying angel passed over. Jesus’ blood saves us from our sins, destroying death and opening the gates of heaven for us.

Even though Jesus was born six months after John, Jesus was ‘before him’ (v.30) as ‘he was with God in the beginning’ of all things (v.2).

John revealed the reason he had been baptizing. It was so that Jesus ‘might be revealed to Israel’ (v.31). John had seen the Holy Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on Jesus. John testified that Jesus ‘is the Son of God’ (v.34). Jesus was 100% God and 100% human – a unique mathematical mystery.

Some pastors say that Jesus didn’t perform any miracles before the Holy Spirit descended on him at his baptism. I don’t think we can be so sure as Jesus was 100% filled with the Holy Spirit from the time of his conception. If he didn’t perform miracles in his ‘hidden years’, it would have been because he freely chose to lay aside his supernatural Godly powers until he was publicly revealed as the Son of God. We will find out more of the story when we get to heaven. I remember Monty Python publishing an amusing school report for God that complained about Him parting the waters of the swimming pool, ‘which was both unsporting and dangerous’: https://friarminor.blogspot.com/2009/09/monty-pythons-report-card-for-god.html

Andrew was the first disciple to follow Jesus. Verse 35 shows that he was originally John’s disciple but went after Jesus when John identified him as ‘the Lamb of God’. I have visited Saint Andrew’s tomb in Edinburgh cathedral. The first thing that Andrew did after finding Jesus was to find his brother, Simon and tell him ‘We have found the Messiah’ (v.41). Andrew brought his brother to Jesus, who renamed him ‘Peter’, which translates as rock. It is one of our roles as disciples to bring people to meet Christ. Jesus will have a great future mapped out for them.

The next day Jesus finds Philip and asks him to follow him. Philip found Nathanael (who many people think is the same person as Bartholomew) and told him to ‘come and see Jesus’ (v.46). Church tradition is that Nathanael / Bartholomew later carried a translation of Matthew’s gospel to India.

Nathanael was sceptical about Jesus when he heard that he was from Nazareth. ‘Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” (v.46). My wife pours a similar amount of light-hearted scorn on me for growing up in Essex. Nazareth did not have a good reputation see: https://www.gotquestions.org/Matthew-2-23-Jesus-Nazarene.html

Jesus was able to instantly assess Nathanael’s character, ‘Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false’ (v.47). He had seen him under a fig tree before Philip had called him.

Nathanael blurted out, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel’ (v.49). Both Jesus and these early disciples are all being moved by the Holy Spirit to utter prophetic words of knowledge.

Jesus saw in Nathanael some of the qualities of the patriarch Jacob and promised him the same sort of vision that Jacob had experienced: ‘You shall see heaven open and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man’ (v.51).

It is touching to read how these disciples started their life with Jesus and remember how they kept their faith until their violent deaths. Saint Andrew was crucified on 30 November 60AD, by order of the Roman governor Aegeas. He was tied to an X-shaped cross in Greece, and this is represented by the white cross on the Scottish flag. Saint Peter was crucified upside down in Rome during the reign of the tyrannical Emperor Nero. Saint Philip was scourged and crucified in Egypt. Nathanael / Bartholomew the apostle was either flayed alive and beheaded in Armenia or crucified upside down (head downward) like Saint Peter. Even if they could have foreseen their eventual appaling fate, this men would still have chosen to follow Jesus. https://www.sunstar.com.ph/article/64320/Local-News/How-did-the-apostles-die

Many people go on holidays and unwisely visit temples that are not Christian – from which you can bring back unholy oppressing spirits. It is much better to visit great Christian cathedrals and shrines when you are are abroad. So far in my life, I have visited various magnificent cathedrals preserving the relics of Saints Peter, Mark and Andrew. I have also visited the relatively simple grave of Saint Patrick in Northern Ireland that was being guarded by an impressive raven. I would love to visit Santiago de Compostela in Spain to visit the tomb of Saint James. Why go on holiday and just bake on a beach when you can enhance your Christian faith by seeing that these heroes of faith were real people? They battled for Jesus and heroically died for their faith. As far as God is concerned, they are still alive They will intercede for us in heaven, we just have to think about them and ask them in prayer.

Proverbs 10

The book of Proverbs often mentions wisdom. God had bestowed Solomon with more wisdom than anyone else on the planet but Solomon still messed up his life – through being seduced by his hundreds of foreign wives to worship their deities.

Before his fall from grace, his temporarily righteous mouth did bring forth wisdom (v.1)

The mouth of the wicked knows only what is perverse. We may have strange thoughts pop into our minds during the day. Lewd jokes or scurrilous gossip. We should bat these thoughts away in the name of Jesus as they only take on a life of their own when we actually vocalise them. With the help of the Holy Spirit we can know what is fitting to say.

God hates people who cheat others (11:1). We should be guided by our integrity.

Our wealth will be no use to us when faced with death or the end of the world. We will only be rescued by righteousness, which we have obtained through the precious blood of Christ. This righteousness makes a straight way for us and delivers us from death and decay. Christ’s righteousness will rescue us from trouble. Our hope does not perish when we die, we hope for everlasting life through the mercy of God because of our belief in his son, Jesus.

Image: Ottavio Vannini (1585-c. 1643), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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