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Having posted most, though not all, of the readings for the three Lectionary years, it is now time to delve into the readings.

The readings for Sunday, December 6 — St Nicholas Day, incidentally — are in the following post:

Readings for the Second Sunday of Advent — Year B

You can read more about St Nicholas and his feast day below:

St Nicholas Day (much to learn about a man of great faith)

More on St Nicholas — feast day December 6

St Nicholas Day — December 6 (1970s celebrations in Germany)

Let us look at the Gospel reading for the Second Sunday of Advent in Year B (emphases mine):

Mark 1:1-8

1:1 The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

1:2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way;

1:3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’”

1:4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

1:5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

1:6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.

1:7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.

1:8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

John MacArthur preached an excellent sermon on these verses in 2009. Mark was the last book of the New Testament on which he preached.

Excerpts from ‘The Herald of the New King’ follow, emphases mine.

Unlike Matthew, who went into the full earthly genealogy of our Lord, Mark begins by stating ‘the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God’ (verse 1): no ifs, ands or buts.

That is because Matthew wrote for a Jewish audience and Mark wrote for the Gentiles, specifically, those in Rome:

He’s writing to Roman Christians – and, of course, Roman non-Christians – who will hear his history read. He is not concerned primarily about the Jews, so he doesn’t frontload his book with a lot of prophecies. He doesn’t make efforts to connect the arrival of Jesus with the Old Testament, say, by giving genealogies like Matthew and Luke are so careful to give. He doesn’t give specific prophesies about Jesus, such as the virgin birth, Bethlehem, called out of Egypt. And there are a number of prophesies that Matthew refers to and Luke refers to. None of those does Mark refer to in the beginning of his history. It is simply enough to say, “He is the Son of God.” He is the Son of God.

As Christians, we take for granted that Mark used the words ‘the good news’, but, interestingly, that phrase was also used of Roman emperors. Furthermore, the word in Greek is euaggelion, ‘of the gospel’:

This is an inscription from the Roman world. The date is 9 B.C. Okay? Before Christ. This is the inscription, “The Providence, which has ordered the whole of our life” – translated into English, obviously – “showing concern and zeal, has ordained the most perfect consummation for human life by giving it to Augustus, by filling him with virtue for doing the work of a benefactor among men and by sending in him, as it were, a savior for us and those who come after us, to make war to cease, to create order everywhere. The birthday of the god Augustus is the beginning for the world of the euaggelion” – of the gospel – “that has come to men through him.”

How interesting. They used the word euaggelion on that occasion, in that inscription, to describe the arrival of Caesar Augustus. Caesar Augustus is – “by the Providence,” it says – the one who will bring to us the work of a benefactor, the work of a savior, make war cease, create order everywhere. It is the arrival of a god. The good news, then, is that Augustus Caesar has arrived. That actual inscription was dedicated to him, apparently, on his birthday. Then, as a technical term again to refer to the ascendancy of the triumph of an emperor.

So, the Jews and the pagans would both see that word as signifying the arrival of a new monarch, and that would signify the arrival of a new era. And the new era would be an era of order and peace and salvation and blessing.

Mark intended for his story to describe a King that was not of this realm and to ensure it was understood as such:

This is the story of the new King who has arrived, who is about to inaugurate His kingdom and bring a new era of salvation, blessing, peace, and order to the world. One historical writer says, “The parallel between ‘evangel’” – or the gospel – “in the imperial cult and the Bible is Caesar and Christ, the emperor on the throne and the despised rabbi on the cross confront each other. Both are gospel to men. They have much in common, but they belong to two different worlds.”

So, Mark begins his historical account of the life of Jesus with language that would make his Roman readers know that the new and most glorious King has come, and He sets Himself against all other kings, including Caesar. He is the theme of this history. And this is only the beginning of His story. And what is His name? Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Jesus identifies His human name, Yeshua or Yehoshua in Hebrew – basically, Joshua – meaning Yahweh is salvation. Yehoshua – Yahweh is salvation. That’s His name. “Call Him Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins,” Matthew 1:21. His title – His name is Jesus, His title is Christ. That is not a name; that is not His last name. That’s a title. Royal title. The Anointed One. That’s what Messiah means. Christ and Messiah are the same thing. It means Anointed One. It’s a royal title. His human name is Jesus. His royal title is Messiah, the Anointed One. Simply King. And his lineage? He is the Son of God. One in nature with God, coeternal and coequal.

And thus does Mark introduce us to the beginning of the history of King Jesus. The beginning of the history of King Jesus, the Son of God. Not the Son of some other earthly monarch.

The next two verses refer to passages from the Old Testament. Just as earthly kings had family history, Mark wanted his audience to know that our Lord had been prophesied in Scripture:

No king ever arrived and said, “Hey, I’m the king, and I’m here.” The king always had a forerunner. The king always had an entourage. The king always had some coming before him to prepare the way and make the people ready, and then was appropriately introduced by someone who bore authenticity and authority to make that introduction.

So, Mark, consistent with the Gentile approach to how kings were announced, goes to the Old Testament for the only time in the beginning of his Gospel, not to find a prophecy about Jesus, but to find a prophecy about His herald, to give authenticity to His herald.

But there was more. Mark wanted to include the story of John the Baptist, who preached of His imminent ministry:

With all the Old Testament texts that connect to Jesus Christ, Mark uses prophecy not about the new King at all, but about His forerunner, the one who is to proclaim His arrival. This would be in the kind of official structure of what people in the Gentile world will be used to.

MacArthur says that the Gentile believers in Rome would have known Isaiah’s prophecy:

So, there is coming a messenger. That’s identified in verse 2, “I send My messenger.” And he further identifies the messenger as someone who will be a voice crying in the wilderness. This is from the ancient prophets. He’s quoting from the ancient prophets, and he labels this from Isaiah the prophet. Certainly Isaiah was well-known to even Gentile Christians because of his vast book, much of which was centered on the arrival of Messiah, the servant of Jehovah, as Isaiah identifies Him. So, he draws prophecies out of Isaiah.

By the way, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all use – all use these prophecies to label John the Baptist as the fulfillment. John the Baptist is the fulfillment of these prophecies, and all four Gospel writers indicate that. “As it is written in Isaiah the prophet” – or preferably “as it has been written.” The new King is not a new plan; the new King is not an afterthought. This is the plan that God was working out in ancient times. The plan is one culminating in the arrival of the new King, Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

The Gentile readers need to know that the one who announced His arrival is the one prophesied by the ancient prophets, and by the notable prophet Isaiah from the Old Testament. He is an official, divinely commissioned herald for the new King. And so, he’s the one being described in these prophecies.

To be precise, verse 2 is from Malachi and verse 3 is from Isaiah:

Verse 2 is actually Malachi 3:1; and verse 3 is Isaiah chapter 40, verse 3. This is not an uncommon thing to do, to refer to only one of the Old Testament prophets, the more prominent one, the more notable one, and tuck in another prophecy by another prophet, since it was all the Word of God.

These prophecies go together so perfectly, and both refer to the same person, so they may have been frequently used together. Malachi is the introductory one; Isaiah is the more important one. But both are general references. If you go back, they’re – and this is something you need to know that New Testament writers do. Sometimes they quote exactly from the Hebrew; sometimes they quote from the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament; sometimes they make sort of a general reference to a text, and sometimes it’s an interpretive reference. Because remember now, the New Testament writers are inspired by God. And so, when they interpret an Old Testament text, they interpret that in an inspired way.

So, they always give the true interpretation of the text. Sometimes you’d directly quote it; sometimes it’s an interpretive quote. Here you have some interpretive quotation, certainly in the case of Malachi 3:1.

Isaiah 40:3 is part of the First Reading for this particular Sunday:

A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

MacArthur discusses Malachi 3:1:

Malachi 3:1 records, “Behold, I send My messenger” – and Malachi says – “before Me.” Here you have an interpretation of that, “Behold, I send My messenger ahead of You, who will prepare Your way.” Obviously, You and Your refers to the coming King. But before the King comes, ahead of Him comes the messenger. So, this is a prophecy that there will be one who comes before the King comes, whose job will be to prepare His way.

Like all prophets, this is a messenger. All prophets are proclaimers. He’s a preacher. He will make a strong call for people to prepare for the arrival of the new King. Malachi 3:1 is a direct reference to this messenger, this herald of the coming new King.

MacArthur then looks at Isaiah 40:3. Today’s First Reading is Isaiah 40:1-11:

from Isaiah chapter 40, the opening, and then down in verses 9 and 10, Isaiah prophesied the return of the Jews from the Babylonian captivity. He prophesied they would come back to Israel; they would go through the wilderness, and God would lead them. And when they arrived, God would be with them, and He would ascend to His throne, and again He would rule over them.

And so, in the near intention of that prophecy, He was talking about the return from the Babylonian captivity and the ascendancy of God to His sovereign place over a reconstituted Israel. And that would require making ready the way of the Lord. God would lead them back from captivity, would make the path for them, make the road for them, and they would head back, and God would be with them. In the future sense, one would come who would make the road ready for the new King. Make the road ready for the new King. And this, of course, is here associated with the forerunner of Jesus, namely John the Baptist. There was to come one who would herald the new King’s arrival, call people to prepare for His glorious ascent to His throne and the establishment of his kingdom of salvation, and blessing, and peace.

In verse 4, Mark says that John the Baptist — ‘the Baptiser’ — was ‘in the wilderness’, proclaiming baptism as a form of repentance.

John the Baptist lived in the desert:

… he appears in the wilderness, in the desert. In fact, in John 3:23, it places Him about 25 to 30 miles south of the Sea of Galilee, along the Jordan River. And up and down that river he went for the duration of his ministry, preaching out in the desert, away from all the cities and all the towns and all the people. He was in that wilderness, basically, his whole life. According to Luke 1:80, he spent his life in the wilderness. He was a wilderness guy. He was a desert man.

When God’s people repented in the Old Testament they were in the wilderness. Many of us consider wilderness to mean a forest, but in Scripture, it means desert. The Jews of John’s time would have understood the significance:

William Lane writes – and I think it’s well stated – “The summons to be baptized in the Jordan means that Israel must once more come to the wilderness. As Israel long ago had been separated from Egypt by a pilgrimage through the waters of the Red Sea, the nation is exhorted again to exercise separation. The people are called to a second exodus in preparation for a new covenant with God.

“As the people heed John’s call and go out to him in the desert, far more is involved than contrition and confession. They return to a place of judgment, the wilderness, where the status of Israel as God’s beloved son must be reestablished in the exchange of pride for humility. The willingness to return to the wilderness signifies the acknowledgement of Israel’s history as one of disobedience and rebellion, and a desire to begin once more. Let’s go back to the wilderness, before we ever came into the land, and start all over again.”

With regard to baptism, the only time it featured in Jewish ceremonies was when a Gentile fully converted to that faith:

The Jews had ceremonial washings, no baptisms except for proselyte baptism.

Therefore, for John to call upon the Jews to be baptised was an unusual request, as that ceremony was only for Gentile converts. Gentiles were outside of the Covenant, so they had to be fully cleansed in order to be brought into it. The Jews considered Gentiles to be spiritually unclean. One can imagine the tension this must have caused Jews who listened to John’s message:

So, a Jew would be saying, by doing that kind of one-time symbolic baptism, “I’m no better than a Gentile. I am no better than a Gentile. I am no more ready to meet the new King, I am no more ready for God to ascend to His throne, I am no more ready for God to establish His kingdom and make me a part of it than a Gentile.” That is a huge admission, for the Jews had been trained pretty much to resent and hate the Gentiles and think of them as outside the covenant.

MacArthur discusses the importance of repentance, which involves a genuine turning away from sin:

He’s calling the Jews to declare themselves no better than Gentiles, to turn many of the hearts of the people toward righteousness, away from rebellion, as Luke 1 put it. And to mark that repentance, that deliberate metanoia which means a turning, a genuine turning. They would need to bring forth the fruit of repentance. Do you remember how John the Baptist said that? Matthew 3:8 records it; Luke 3:8 records it. Luke says, “Bring forth fruits fitting for repentance.” Prove it. The first step would be to be willing to undergo a proselyte baptism and view yourself as if you were no better than a Gentile. Radical, radical repentance. And this was the message that came from God to John, Luke 3:2, “The Word of the Lord came to him,” and this is what He said. This is not baptism in Jesus’ name. We know that because John the Baptist’s followers were later baptized by Paul in Jesus’ name, according to Acts 19.

John’s message worked. We might find that surprising, yet, as MacArthur explains, no one wanted to be left out of the Messiah’s kingdom to come, so they followed along (verse 5):

He was a judgment preacher – fierce judgment preacher. That’s what drove the people to want to deal with their sins. The fear that when the Messiah finally came, when the new King ascended to His throne and established His kingdom, they’d be on the outside looking in. And so, he was a judgment preacher. Judgment was coming. But while God was a God of judgment, He was also a God of grace, and He offered forgiveness of sins for those who repented.

Well, everybody practically wanted to be a part of the Messiah’s kingdom. They didn’t want to get left out. They knew their own heart’s sinfulness. So, according to verse 5, all the country of Judea was going out to him, all the people of Jerusalem. They were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins. This looks like a national revival.

Verse 6 describes John’s primitive appearance and way of life. This would have been according to Nazirite vows that some men took. Paul took Nazirite vows, but for him and most Jewish men, those were only temporary. Samson, Samuel and John the Baptist took lifelong Nazirite vows. In John’s case, this was prophesied. Luke 1:5-17 has the story of John’s conception and the angel’s prophecy of how he would live.

This post of mine has more information about Nazirite vows:

Luke 1:5-17 – Zachary, Zechariah, John the Baptist, Nazirites, incense, Aaron’s lineage, priesthood

See what the angel said to Zechariah, John’s father, in Luke 1:13:17. Abstinence was part of the Nazirite vow:

13But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. 14And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. 16And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, 17and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”

John knew that he was merely the messenger for the Messiah, Jesus Christ. He knew his role was to prepare people for His ministry among them.

He said that Jesus was ‘powerful’ and that he was unworthy of undoing his sandals (verse 7).

He also added that his baptism was of water but that the baptism that Christ would bring was one ‘of the Holy Spirit’ (verse 8).

MacArthur notes that John never pointed to himself, but to the Lord:

he points to Christ; he points to Church; he points to Christ. Never points to himself. John 3:30, “I must decrease, He must increase.” This is a model for any preacher. Don’t identify with the people, identify with the prophets. Don’t look like the people; look like the prophets. Maintain the dignity of that office handed down. And don’t point to yourself; point to Christ.

“After me the One” – literally definite article – “After me the One is coming who is mightier than I.” How mighty is He? He’s the Lord; He’s Yahweh; He’s Kurios; He’s God the Son; He’s the King – King Jesus. How far above me is He? Huh.

Here’s the negative. “He is so much mightier than I, that I’m not fit to stoop down and untie the thong of His sandals.” You know what? That was the lowest possible job that any servant could have. That was it. That was the bottom. If you were the servant who untied your master’s sandals, you were the scum of the scum of the scum. Dirty feet.

Old quotes from Hebrew sources. “A Hebrew slave must not wash the feet of his master, nor put his shoes on him.” That’s beneath the dignity of a Hebrew slave. Another one, “All services which a slave does for his master, a pupil should do for his teacher, with the exception of undoing his shoes.”

John says, “I’m below the people who do that. I’m not even up to the level of those who would untie His shoes. That’s how low I am.”

Well, that’s the picture, but what’s the reality? Verse 8. Why am I so different? Why are we so infinitely separated? “Because I baptize you with water; but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

“All I can do is stick you in the water; He can transform you on the inside.” This refers to the soul-transforming work of salvation, being born of the water and the Spirit. This is not some Pentecostal second baptism; this is the washing of regeneration and the renewing of the Holy Spirit of Titus 3. This is the new covenant: purification, cleansing, transformation, regeneration, new birth.

John says, “I can’t do that. Only God gives the Holy Spirit. So, the new King, He will give you the Holy Spirit.” With the Holy Spirit comes salvation, sanctification, service.

John MacArthur’s sermon adds more meaning to the Advent message of repentance and to John the Baptist’s ministry.

The content of Advent sermons can be difficult for today’s pewsitter to accept — provided the clergyman (or woman) giving the sermon is true to the Bible.

For example, this year — Year C — the First Sunday of Advent gives us Luke’s account of Jesus’s words on His Second Coming. I was really looking forward to going to Sunday worship to hear about that.

But, no. Instead, we heard about the Creation Story in Genesis juxtaposed with John 1, the arrival of the Light of the World — the usual Christmas Day reading. The young ordained Anglican priest told us — a group of oldsters — that God really loves humanity, and we have nothing to worry about from Him. As we are all long in the tooth, we remember fire and brimstone sermons.

My takeaways from the old days were, ‘God loves humanity — His creation, made in His image — but He hates sin’. The Bible is all about this message, from cover to cover.

Advent readings follow a sequence for a reason. The sermons are supposed to match each Sunday’s theme, intended to get us to repent — ‘turn around’ — from our worldly ways before Christmas.

Therefore, it was a relief to read two reflections for Gaudete Sunday, the Third Week of Advent, from fellow Anglicans: an Episcopalian and an Anglican priest.

My reader undergroundpewster, the author of Not Another Episcopal Church Blog, wrote his reflections of John the Baptist’s message to his numerous and diverse followers (Luke 3:7-18). Although Gaudete Sunday is one of joy, John the Baptist called his followers ‘you brood of vipers’, warning them of ‘the wrath to come’ if they did not repent. And, he said of Jesus:

His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.

Undergroundpewster wrote (emphasis in the original):

Good news like, “but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Hmm…

With good news like that, who needs bad news?

Then he directed us to an excellent sermon at Crossway by Pastor Paul David Tripp, which explains why Jesus is the Good News (an excerpt follows, emphases mine).

It is all about humanity’s sins (bad news) for which Jesus sacrificed Himself in a once and perfect oblation on the Cross (Good News). Emphases mine below:

Sure, you can run from a bad relationship, you can quit a bad job, you can move from a dangerous neighborhood, and you can leave a dysfunctional church, but you have no ability whatsoever to escape yourself. You and I simply have no ability to rescue ourselves from the greatest danger in our lives. This means that without the birth of Jesus, we are doomed to be destroyed by the danger that lurks inside us from the moment of our first breath.

You don’t need to look far in the Bible to know what this danger is. Its stain is on every page of Scripture. Romans 3:23 exposes this danger with a few simple words: ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.’ Sin is the bad news of the Christmas story. Jesus didn’t come to earth to do a preaching tour or to hang out with us for a while; he came on a radical mission of moral rescue

He came to rescue us because he knew that we couldn’t rescue ourselves. He knew that sin separates us from God and leaves us guilty before him. He knew that sin makes us active enemies against God, and what he says is good, right, and true. He knew that sin blinds us to the gravity of our condition and our dire need for help. He knew that sin causes us to replace worship of God with an unending catalog of created things that capture the deepest allegiances of our hearts. He knew that sin renders all of us unable to live as we were designed to live. And he knew that sin was the final terminal disease that, without help, would kill us all.

The Revd Paul David Tripp holds a DMin from the well regarded Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. Sermons from Reformed — Calvinist — pastors are always useful in reminding us why we need to repent: so that we might share eternal life with God and His Son Jesus Christ.

So, going back to the sermon at my church, yes, God loves humanity, but God really hates the sins that humans commit because of Original Sin. We cannot help ourselves, as the Bible tells us. Therefore, it is misleading for a young cleric to say, ‘God loves humans — nothing to worry about, folks’.

The second helpful sermon comes from an Anglican vicar in England, The Revd Vic Van Den Bergh, author of Vic the Vicar! Vic also had a post on the meaning of Luke 3:7-18, which puts repentance into perspective. Vic addresses his thoughts to present-day Christians, who are, after all, supposed to walking in Christ’s ways.

Excerpts follow:

Are we producing fruit ‘in keeping with our repentance’? Does the gratitude for our salvation have any substance in the way we live or do we think that attending church, wearing a cross (fish), and dropping money in the offering makes us fit for heaven?

Do you think the crowds were asking themselves how much bad stuff they were laying up alongside, or instead of, the treasures they should have been storing up in heaven?  Yet this is what John was calling them to focus on. John was calling them (and us) to look at the ways they (we) can raise their game and live differently

He didn’t tell anyone that God wanted them to be happy doing what they saw as fit and right to do (regardless of what the Bible might teach). He didn’t tell them to give more money – because God doesn’t want your money, He wants your hearts and lives filled with love and generosity in things, actions, and in spirit.

He told the people before him to live a godly and righteous life in the things and the places they were returning to after the show – and that is exactly what the prophecy of Malachi some four hundred years before called the people to do. And they didn’t and so, with the arrival about to be made public, John is trying to get the people to get their lives in order so they look at least a little bit presentable. This is not a harsh rebuttal but an act of generosity for it’s giving those hearing his words the chance to turn around (that’s a clever use of ‘repent’ innit?) – and this is what we are also doing when we encourage people to change their lives before it’s too late.

Living our lives well, looking and sounding and acting like Jesus, in the world is one of the most important witnesses we can make to our being people of faith. You don’t need a dog collar or a title or a medal – you need to exhibit the generous heart of God and that needs a cross – and gratitude, rejoicing in the freedom from sin and reconciliation with the godhead that that brings. Here we find the fruits of gladness become made real in our generous and right living. It’s so simple really, isn’t it?

He explains why even such a harsh message should bring us joy on Gaudete Sunday (December 16):

rejoicing is the natural response to the fact that God has taken away the punishment of his people and has ‘turned back’ their enemy. The reality in the words of Zephaniah given some time around 620 BC is the same reality that Jesus’ death on the cross brings for the Christian too. Jesus’ death brings defeat for our enemy (satan) and he (Jesus) bears in His body the punishment for us. He takes our place. What love. What generosity to pay a bill that wasn’t His to be paying! Jesus is the mighty warrior who saves; them one who no longer rebukes but rejoices over us with songs of deliverance.

And the Apostle Paul gets into the act with his letter to the church in Phillipi, a communication which I think affirms all we have here, for when he says, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice,” he is nodding towards the fact that to rejoice is a choice of attitude. It is the expression of our gratitude for all God has given and done for us

Let us bear this message in mind as we celebrate Christmas with friends and family.

Regardless of desirable gifts and sumptuous feasts coming up on Tuesday, one thing should stay in our minds as we contemplate the Christ Child in the crib: Jesus is our eternal Lord and Saviour, who paid the bill ‘that wasn’t His to be paying!’ Rejoice!

Bible evangewomanblogspotcomThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy have omitted — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Acts 19:17-20

17 And this became known to all the residents of Ephesus, both Jews and Greeks. And fear fell upon them all, and the name of the Lord Jesus was extolled. 18 Also many of those who were now believers came, confessing and divulging their practices. 19 And a number of those who had practiced magic arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all. And they counted the value of them and found it came to fifty thousand pieces of silver. 20 So the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily.

——————————————————————————————————————————

Last week’s entry discussed the seven sons of Sceva, who travelled in and around Ephesus earning money by performing exorcisms. Sceva was a Jewish high priest, so it is bemusing to read that his sons engaged in such activity, as these were not true exorcisms. Two of the sons had the wits scared out of them when attempting to perform an exorcism on a man with a demon. The evil spirit — which said it knew Jesus and recognised Paul but not them — worked through the man to overpower the two sons, driving them out of the house naked and bloody.

The moral of that episode shows Satan is no friend of humankind. He has no use for man other than to sin, and, as that reading shows, he can turn on mankind immediately.

The Ephesians — Jews and Gentiles alike — were shocked by what happened (verse 17). ‘All’ were afraid. Luke, the author of Acts, says that they extolled the name of the Lord Jesus.

Interestingly, a number of new Christians publicly confessed their magic practices (verse 18). They were not forced to do so, but they were so overcome by what had happened that they wanted to make a clean break of their sin of casting magic spells.

Matthew Henry’s commentary says that these new Christians were not as discerning as other converts (emphases mine):

Many that had believed and were baptized, but had not then been so particular as they might have been in the confession of their sins, were so terrified with these instances of the magnifying of the name of Jesus Christ that they came to Paul, or some of the other ministers that were with him, and confessed what evil lives they had led, and what a great deal of secret wickedness their own consciences charged them with, which the world knew not of–secret frauds and secret filthiness; they showed their deeds, took shame to themselves and gave glory to God and warning to others. These confessions were not extorted from them, but were voluntary, for the ease of their consciences, upon which the late miracles had struck a terror.

This is important:

Note, Where there is true contrition for sin there will be an ingenuous confession of sin to God in every prayer, and to man whom we have offended when the case requires it.

John MacArthur raises an important point about magic spells and divulging magic practices. This isn’t about card tricks or rabbits in hats, but more along the lines of ‘magick’. He thinks that among the converted Christians were people who converted after the sons of Sceva incident:

It’s a perfect participle, the word “believed,” and it could mean those who had already believed and had already been Christians but had never given up their magic, or it could mean those who were then saved and then came and confessed. Either possibility. But anyway, these people who believed came, confessed, and showed their deeds. A most interesting phrase. “Showed their deeds” means they came and revealed their spells. According to magic theory, the only good spell is the one that’s secret, and once you divulge the secret, the spell’s no good. So everybody came and told all the secrets. They were giving up all their magic. Giving it up. The whole satanic game was over. They saw the truth of the power of Jesus; and they saw that magic didn’t work, and in comparison to His name it was absolutely impotentThe Name of the Lord Jesus was magnified, and when the Name of the Lord Jesus is magnified, people will believe. You hear that? It’s right. His Name was magnified in verse 17, and people believed and confessed, and their lives were transformed.

Verse 19 relates their edifying method of repentance. They gathered together and burnt their magic books — scrolls. Although the books were worth 50,000 pieces of silver — tens of thousands of pounds/dollars/euros in today’s money — they didn’t sell the books and give the proceeds to the church or to the poor. No. They destroyed them so a) they would not be tempted to look at them again and b) to prevent others from delving inside.

Henry has a good analysis:

It is taken for granted that they were convinced of the evil of these curious arts, and resolved to deal in them no longer; but they did not think this enough unless they burnt their books. (1.) Thus they showed a holy indignation at the sins they had been guilty of; as the idolaters, when they were brought to repentance, said to their idols, Get you hence (Isaiah 30:22), and cast even those of silver and gold to the moles and to the bats, Isaiah 2:20. They thus took a pious revenge on those things that had been the instruments of sin to them, and proclaimed the force of their convictions of the evil of it, and that those very things were now detectable to them, as much as ever they had been delectable. (2.) Thus they showed their resolution never to return to the use of those arts, and the books which related to them, again. They were so fully convinced of the evil and danger of them that they would not throw the books by, within reach of a recall, upon supposition that it was possible they might change their mind; but, being stedfastly resolved never to make use of them, they burnt them. (3.) Thus they put away a temptation to return to them again. Had they kept the books by them, there was danger lest, when the heat of the present conviction was over, they should have the curiosity to look into them, and so be in danger of liking them and loving them again, and therefore they burnt them. Note, Those that truly repent of sin will keep themselves as far as possible from the occasions of it. (4.) Thus they prevented their doing mischief to others. If Judas had been by he would have said, “Sell them, and give the money to the poor;” or, “Buy Bibles and good books with it.” But then who could tell into whose hands these dangerous books might fall, and what mischief might be done by them? it was therefore the safest course to commit them all to the flames. Those that are recovered from sin themselves will do all they can to keep others from falling into it, and will be much more afraid of laying an occasion of sin in the way of others. (5.) Thus they showed a contempt of the wealth of this world; for the price of the books was cast up, probably by those that persuaded them not to burn them, and it was found to be fifty thousand pieces of silver, which some compute to be fifteen hundred pounds of our money. It is probable that the books were scarce, perhaps prohibited, and therefore dear. Probably they had cost them so much; yet, being the devil’s books, though they had been so foolish as to buy them, they did not think this would justify them in being so wicked as to sell them again. (6.) Thus they publicly testified their joy for their conversion from these wicked practices, as Matthew did by the great feast he made when Christ had called him from the receipt of custom. These converts joined together in making this bonfire, and made it before all men. They might have burnt the books privately, every one in his own house, but they chose to do it together, by consent, and to do it at the high cross (as we say), that Christ and his grace in them might be the more magnified, and all about them the more edified.

MacArthur says the bonfire lasted for a long time:

… the interesting thing, the word “burned” is imperfect. They kept on burning. I don’t know how long the bonfire lasted. But they kept burning.

The result was that the Gospel story not only circulated — but also prevailed — all the more, in fact, ‘mightily’ (verse 20).

There is a lesson here for today’s Christians — especially clergy. By erring in making the Gospel about social justice and identity politics whilst excusing every sin in the book, we are doing our fellow man a disservice in denying him the eternal truth of Jesus Christ.

Our two commentators were/are tied to the truth of the Gospel.

Do we see that today? Not often enough.

MacArthur is one of the rare exceptions. His church, Grace Church in southern California, is packed on Sundays. People hunger for the truth, not a sermon akin to a newspaper editorial! Of verse 20, he says:

In your life, where the Word of God dominates, there’s victory. You know that in this church, as long as the Word of God dominates, there’ll be victory. That’s the pattern. That’s the pattern. The church established with the Word, the individual established with the Word is clean and victorious over the enemy.

Henry tells us:

It is a blessed sight to see the word of God growing and prevailing mightily, as it did here. 1. To see it grow extensively, by the addition of many to the church. When still more and more are wrought upon by the gospel, and wrought up into a conformity to it, then it grows; when those that were least likely to yield to it, and that had been most stiff in their opposition to it, are captivated and brought into obedience to it, then it may be said to grow mightily. 2. To see it prevail extensively, by the advancement in knowledge and grace of those that are added to the church; when strong corruptions are mortified, vicious habits changed, evil customs of long standing broken off, and pleasant, gainful, fashionable sins are abandoned, then it prevails mightily; and Christ in it goes on conquering and to conquer.

I pray that our clergy turn from their theological error — likely learned at seminary — and preach the truth of Jesus Christ as Saviour and Redeemer. Only then will the Church prevail once more.

Next time — Acts 19:21-22

Bible treehuggercomThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy have omitted — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Acts 19:11-16

The Sons of Sceva

11 And God was doing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, 12 so that even handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were carried away to the sick, and their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them. 13 Then some of the itinerant Jewish exorcists undertook to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, “I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims.” 14 Seven sons of a Jewish high priest named Sceva were doing this. 15 But the evil spirit answered them, “Jesus I know, and Paul I recognize, but who are you?” 16 And the man in whom was the evil spirit leaped on them, mastered all[a] of them and overpowered them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded.

———————————————————————————————————————

Those who are familiar with the Book of Acts, which St Luke wrote, know that sorcery was not unknown as an attack on the earliest churches:

Acts 8:14-25 – Philip, Simon Magus, sorcery, money, divine gifts, God, Holy Spirit, Peter, John

Acts 13:4-7 – Barnabas, Saul of Tarsus, John Mark, Cyprus, Sergius Paulus, Bar-Jesus, Elymas

Acts 13:8-12 — Paul, Elymas, magician, sorcerer, Paulus Sergius, conversion, blindness, miracle, doctrine, Cyprus

Acts 16:16-18 — Paul and the fortune-telling slave girl in Philippi; he drove an evil spirit out of her

In last week’s entry about Paul’s ministry in Ephesus, the Apostle had to withdraw from the synagogue because of all the evil Jewish resistors spoke against the truth about Christ Jesus.

This week’s passage, which immediately follows in Acts 19, reveals that the spiritual situation grew worse in Ephesus. This is not the whole story, which will conclude in next week’s post.

We see here that a great spiritual tension was building between good and evil.

On the good side, God worked through Paul to work ‘extraordinary miracles’ (verse 11).

Was this the first time or were these particular healing miracles? Matthew Henry’s commentary has this analysis (emphases mine below):

I wonder we have not read of any miracle wrought by Paul since the casting of the evil spirit out of the damsel at Philippi; why did he not work miracles at Thessalonica, Berea, and Athens? Or, if he did, why are they not recorded? Was the success of the gospel, without miracles in the kingdom of nature, itself such a miracle in the kingdom of grace, and the divine power which went along with it such a proof of its divine original, that there needed no other? It is certain that at Corinth he wrought many miracles, though Luke has recorded none, for he tells them (2 Corinthians 12:12) that the signs of his apostleship were among them, in wonders and mighty deeds. But here at Ephesus we have a general account of the proofs of this kind which he gave his divine mission. 1. They were special miracles–Dynameis ou tychousas. God exerted powers that were not according to the common course of nature: Virtutes non vulgares. Things were done which could by no means be ascribed either to chance or second causes. Or, they were not only (as all miracles are) out of the common road, but they were even uncommon miracles, such miracles as had not been wrought by the hands of any other of the apostles. The opposers of the gospel were so prejudiced that any miracles would not serve their turn; therefore God wrought virtutes non quaslibet (so they render it), something above the common road of miracles. 2. It was not Paul that wrought them (What is Paul, and what is Apollos?) but it was God that wrought them by the hand of Paul. He was but the instrument, God was the principal agent.

These miracles were so extraordinary that when people touched Paul’s skin with garments and took them home to their loved ones afflicted by illness or demons, those ailing were also cured (verse 12). That was truly extraordinary.

Thinking back to Christ’s ministry, the lady with the 12-year haemorrhage was cured when she touched His garment. If there were other instances, the Gospel writers did not record them.

Returning to Paul as a conduit for God’s healing power, John MacArthur says that the people pressing garments against him did not understand that God was working through the Apostle. They thought he had some sort of personal power, similar to that of a magician or sorcerer:

The people in Ephesus were very, very superstitious. And when they saw these miracles going on, coming out of Paul, they assumed the power was Paul’s.

MacArthur says that people picked up handkerchiefs which Paul used to wipe his brow while making tents:

the word “handkerchief” means “sweat cloth.” Those people who work, artisans or anybody in the crafts or anybody who did manual labor in those days, carried about these cloths with which they would wipe their brow and sometimes tie around their head. Well, they got Paul’s old, dirty, crummy sweat cloths! And they attached so much healing power to Paul, they figured if they get ahold of those sweat cloths, that that could work the same thing for them. And you know what? In spite of their superstition, God went ahead and did His miracles! Because God was in the business of confirming the Word, and He never let their superstitions violate what He was gonna do.

Seeing this, some Jewish exorcists who travelled from town to town to perform notional exorcisms for money, thought they could replicate divine healing miracles by invoking Jesus’s name (verse 13). These were not converts. They were just going to use what they thought was a magic incantation. Henry describes their appeal in that era. They were around in Jesus’s time, too:

They strolled about to tell people their fortunes, and pretended by spells and charms to cure diseases, and bring people to themselves that were melancholy or distracted. They called themselves exorcists, because in doing their tricks they used forms of adjuration, by such and such commanding names. The superstitious Jews, to put a reputation upon these magic arts, wickedly attributed the invention of them to Solomon. So Josephus (Antiq. 8. 45-46) says that Solomon composed charms by which diseases were cured, and devils driven out so as never to return; and that these operations continued common among the Jews to his time. And Christ seems to refer to this (Matthew 12:27), By whom do your children cast them out?

MacArthur gives us the origin for the historian Josephus’s claim:

in the Book of Tobit, the heart and liver of a miraculously caught fish are burned in the ashes of incense, and the resulting smell and smoke are supposed to drive away the demons. Josephus, who was a very intelligent person, a noted Jewish historian, told of a cure in which a demon was drawn through the nostrils of a demoniac by the use of magic root supposedly prescribed by Solomon. And there are other rabbinical writers who reflect the same fanciful magic superstitions.

Now, it may have been true that in the Old Testament time, demons were expelled through prayer, fasting, if Matthew 17:21 is true and if it is belonging in the manuscript. It may be true, and I’m sure God did answer prayer and demons were cast out in the Old Testament.

The men trying this incantation in Ephesus were the seven sons of a Jewish high priest, Sceva (verse 14). It did not work for them, because a) they had no belief in Jesus and b) were preying on the vulnerable in their trade. Henry explains:

They said, We adjure you by Jesus whom Paul preaches; not, “whom we believe in, or depend upon, or have any authority from,” but whom Paul preaches; as if they had said, “We will try what that name will do.”

However, the evil spirit answered them, saying that it knew Jesus and recognised Paul, but asked who they were (verse 15).

Worse came when the man with the evil spirit leapt up and overpowered the phony exorcists. The evil spirit worked through the afflicted man to the extent that the charlatans were injured and left his house naked (verse 16).

MacArthur says that not all seven sons of Sceva were in the house when the incident happened:

the old manuscript also includes the word “both” here, which indicates there were probably only two of the seven there. “And overcame them both and prevailed against them.” The demon was powerful, strong. And they fled out of the house naked and bleeding. Wounded.

MacArthur says that Satan played a violent trick on them, even though they were his servants. That incident further demonstrates that Satan is no friend of humankind.

Matthew Henry concludes with this:

This is written for a warning to all those who name the name of Christ, but do not depart from iniquity. The same enemy that overcomes them with his temptations will overcome them with his terrors; and their adjuring him in Christ’s name to let them alone will be no security to them.

Both commentators say that there is only one way to overcome Satan — lively faith and true repentance.

Henry has the short version:

If we resist the devil by a true and lively faith in Christ, he will flee from us; but if we think to resist him by the bare using of Christ’s name, or any part of his word, as a spell or charm, he will prevail against us.

MacArthur’s version is longer, based on personal experience:

We had this illustrated to us when we were working with this one girl who had all these devils that were speaking, and all this thing was going on, and the phenomenon was very unusual; and I tried to cast those demons out. “Get out!” You know? “Name of the Word!” They didn’t go. Some of the other guys on the staff tried, and they couldn’t do it either, which made me feel better. But none of us could get ’em out.

Let me give you a simple statement. All of the efforts to cast out demons are useless if that person doesn’t confess and repent of sin. Okay? Listen to this, then. If the person confesses and repents of sin, all of the efforts to cast out demons are unnecessary. So if you want to be real clear about it, it’s never a question of casting out the demons. It’s a question of repenting of the sins. If the person involved repents of the sin that allowed Satan to get a grip on them, then you don’t need somebody there doing all this other stuff. If they won’t repent of the sin, then it doesn’t matter what you do! You stand there ’til you’re blue in the face trying to cast out demons; but if that person’s harboring prolonged sin in their life, those demons have a place. Well, that’s all we’re trying to say.

Today, many Christians have become so preoccupied with Satan and so preoccupied with demons, and now Christians are having these new deliverance ministries that are growing up where you can go and get delivered. One guy had to pay $3,500.00 to get delivered. Found out he didn’t get delivered at all; he got bilked

And you say, “Well, you mean that we should never have Christians come around and pray?” Yeah, well, maybe that’s all right, but maybe they ought to be really talking about sin, not demons. Maybe we need to rebuking sin; maybe we need to be getting people to deal with sin.

I think so many times this whole thing of demons is a big copout. “Well, the demon made me do it, the demon made me do it.” Satan. You’re not dealing with your own sin. You’re not dealing with the issue of your nature. Your old sin nature. Confession, repentance, submission to the Word, submission to the Spirit removes the power of Satan.

Just another thought on this. Of all of the ministries of the body, of all of the responsibilities that we have toward one another, there is no statement or command to go around and cast demons out of each other! It says love one another, teach one another, edify one another, admonish one another, nurture one another, comfort one another, build up one another, reprove one another, rebuke one another, and so forth and so forth and so forth; but it doesn’t say cast demons out of one another.

That’s – beloved, I can comfort you and so forth and so on, but you don’t need me to take care of Satan in your life. I can’t do that, ’cause I can’t be holy for you. You got it? That’s your problem! Now, I can rebuke your sin, and I can give you wise counsel about your sin, and I can admonish you about your sin, but I can’t be holy for you. And if you’re gonna deal with Satan, that’s yours to do! And if I do all the exorcism in the world in the Name of Jesus Christ and there’s still harbored in your life, it’s unnecessary – I mean, it’s ineffective – and if there’s no sin in your life, then it’s unnecessary. If you have confessed and repented and submitted to the Truth of God, you’re clean.

Oh, you don’t have anything to fear. No. You have all victory over Satan

I don’t need to worry – I can’t do much about demons in you, but every man can about himself. That’s the issue. The apostolic day was confirming the Word; that was different. Today, every Christian has the resources to take care of his own problem. But I don’t think we can walk up to unbelievers and cast demons out. If an unbeliever comes to Jesus Christ, He alone can cleanse. By faith.

I hope this gives people a nugget of truth about overcoming serious sin and Satan.

What happened afterwards in Ephesus will be the subject of next week’s post.

Next time — Acts 19:17-20

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