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Archive for the ‘parables’ Category

Beautiful Stranger

Have you ever read Revelation 19 and wondered what it sounds like to hear “the voice of a great multitude, like the roar of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, crying out, “Hallelujah!””?

Last night I found out at Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, Swansea.  At their prayer meeting their singing raised the roof. I’ve never heard anything like it. It gave a new meaning to the phrase “prayer warriors.” So encouraging.

Steve Levy hosted, Paul Blackham was answering questions from the church and I was tagging along for the ride. One issue that really seemed to connect with the folks was that of Jesus, the Good Samaritan. So I thought I’d repost this one from 2008…

Jesus is Good Samaritan

Anyone else sick of the whole ‘Christ in the OT’ debate?  Man… some people just go on and on.

I’m announcing a new hobby horse – Christ in the NT.  In fact I think this is where you really see a preacher’s Christ-centredness.  We’ve had the rule drummed into us by now – Thou shalt ‘bridge to Christ’ at the end of an Old Testament sermon.  But does this ‘bridge’ come from convictions regarding Jesus the Word or is it simply a preaching convention that we slavishly follow?

Well you can probably guess at the answer by listening to a preacher’s New Testament sermons.  Now I fail at this all the time but I think the challenge for all of us is this: Is Jesus the Hero of the sermon on the mount or Mark 13 or the gifts passages or James?  And the issue for this mini-series – what about the parables?

Last time I looked at Matthew 13:44-46.  Who the man?  Jesus the Man.  He seeks and finds us and in His joy He purchases us.  All praise to Him.  As Piper likes to say ‘the Giver gets the glory’ and in this parable (contra Piper’s own interpretation of it) Jesus’ glory is on show as He gives up all for His treasured possession – the church.

In this post we’ll look briefly at the Good Samaritan: Luke 10:25-37

First notice this: the teacher of the law asks ‘Who is my neighbour?’  That’s what prompts the story.  At the end of the story Jesus asks ‘Who was neighbour to the guy left for dead?’ (v36).

This is such an important point to grasp.  The lawyer asks “Who is my neighbour?”  Jesus responds: “Who was a neighbour to the fallen man?” Get it?

Who does Jesus ask us, first of all, to identify with?  Not  the priest, the Levite or the Samaritan. First of all we are asked to see ourselves as the fallen man.

Why do I say ‘fallen’?  Well the man’s fallenness is triply-underlined in v30.  He “goes down from Jerusalem (this earthly counterpart of the heavenly Zion).  From there he heads towards the outskirts of the land (Jericho) which is due east of this mountain sanctuary (echoes of Eden).  This would involve a physical descent of about a thousand metres in the space of just 23 miles.  If that wasn’t bad enough, the man “falls” among robbers.  He’s stripped, plagued (literally that’s the Greek word), abandoned and half-dead.  That’s the man’s precidament and Jesus wants us to see it as our predicament.  So what hope do we have?

The priest?  Nope.  The Levite?  No chance.  The religious and the law are no help. What about a ‘certain Samaritan’ (mirroring the ‘certain man’ of v30)?  He’s not at all like the religious.  In fact the one who ‘comes to where the man is’ happens to be someone who would have equally been shunned by the priest and the Levite!

Yet this Samaritan ‘had compassion’ (v33).  In the New Testament this verb, which could be translated ‘was moved in his bowels with pity’, is used only of Jesus. (Matt. 9:36; 14:14; 15:32; 18:27; 20:34; Mk. 1:41; 6:34; 8:2; 9:22; Lk. 7:13; 10:33; 15:20) In every narrative passage Jesus is the subject of the verb and the three parables in which it’s used are the merciful King of Matthew 18 (v27), here and the father in the Two Sons (Lk 15:20).  More about that in the next post: Who’s the Daddy?

Well this Good Samaritan comes across the man left for dead and, for emphasis, we are twice told about him ‘coming’ to the man (v33 and 34).  The Outsider identifies with the spurned and wretched.

Now remember whose shoes we are in as Jesus tells this story.  We are meant to imagine ourselves as this brutalized man.  Now read v34:

He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own beast, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. `Look after him,’ he said, `and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

Now I don’t have to tell you what these things mean.  You’ve got blueletterbible – you can do your own biblical theology of oil (hint: The Spirit) and wine (His blood).  You all know that a denarius is a day’s wage (Matthew 20:2) and therefore the Samaritan will be returning on the third day.

And remember you’re meant to be putting yourself in the position of this fallen man, left for dead, unaided by religion, healed by a beautiful stranger and awaiting his return.  Are you there?  Have you felt those depths and appreciated those heights?  Well then, now:

You go and do likewise. (v37)

Don’t first conjure up the character of the Good Samaritan.  First, be the fallen man.  First experience his compassion and healing.  Then go and do likewise.

Or… leave Jesus out of it.  Spin it as a morality tale and end with: “Who was that masked man? No matter – just go and do likewise.”

See how important ‘Jesus in the NT’ is?

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And check out this preacher as he nails Jesus: the Good Samaritan

I was like a wounded man

Jesus came all the way down.

On a Friday evening, He died on a Roman cross

Early one Sunday morning He got up

How many of you believe – He got up?

Thank You, for being a Good Samaritan

Thank You, You didn’t have to do it

Thank You, for taking my feet out of the miry clay,

Thank You, for setting them on the rock

Thank you, for saving me,

Thank You, for binding up my wounds

Thank You, for healing my wounds

Thank You, for fighting my battles

Did He pick you up?

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Waking at 5 this morning, I head for Eastbourne’s seafront. Andy and I are filming some evangelistic videos and we wanted to shoot a timelapse sequence of sunrise.

We get there in plenty of time and point the camera East. It’s dark but in the frame you can see the pier and across the gloomy water is Hastings.

Andy pushes on to another job leaving me to take photos at 30 second intervals. It’s cold but invigorating, the sky is clear, the sea is still. Light is dawning and I’m praising God for the scenery when all of a sudden a golden ball of fire rises up out of the ocean… completely out of shot. In fact we were about 45 degrees out. Quite a mistake.

But here’s the thing, I watched the light of the world rise ‘in the wrong place’ and for about 5 seconds, maybe longer, I entertained the thought: “Maybe that’s not the sun.”

Hoping against hope that we’d framed things right, I was even prepared to think ‘Perhaps that orange light emerging from the sea is something else.’ I couldn’t imagine what, but maybe, just maybe, there was some coincidence at play here. This giant orb of light was a diversion. Surely the ‘real’ sun would rise in its ‘proper’ place. And this impostor would be revealed as a counterfeit.

Soon enough the orange fireball rose clear of the ocean and I had to admit: We got it wrong! So I sighed and swivelled the camera around to the right.

It’s scary how committed we are to maintaining our ‘frames’! I suppose we need to take a long hard look at the Light of the World, realise what’s most obviously true, and re-frame our vision to fit.

The Bible calls it repentance – it’s literally ‘a change of mind’. It’s being convinced of the glory of Christ and swivelling around your frame so that He’s at the centre.

The Light has dawned, the Kingdom has come, repent and believe the good news. (Mark 1:15)

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Continuing the theme of turning the parables right-side-up again, here’s the latest from the King’s English on “The Pearl of Great Price”…

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Recently a friend emailed me with a question.  He’s not yet a Christian but he’s been attending bible studies for a while.  The previous night they had used Christian-sounding language that he didn’t understand.  He wrote:

“They asked me if I had ever ‘given my life to God.’  I was unsure.  What does that mean?  Is it in the bible?”

I wonder how you would respond?

Every evangelical sinew in my body twinged: “Of course you need to give your life to God! What is a Christian if not someone who has given their life to God?? As it is written in the book of…”  Hmm.  That’s funny.  I’m usually pretty good at citing bible verses.  I can proof-text in my sleep.  But it took me a long time to come up with any “giving-your-life-to-God” language.

Eventually a couple of verses in Romans sprang to mind (6:13; 12:1).  But both of them assume that becoming a Christian has happened.  Even in these verses, “giving your life to God” is the response to salvation, not the way towards it.

And far, far more, the Scriptures speak of Christ giving His life for me! That’s the great theme of the bible. Whatever offerings we make to God, the good news is the other way around.  He offered His life for me!

With that in mind, let’s read a couple of parables that Jesus told.  And let’s see how to understand them:

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto treasure hid in a field; the which when a man hath found, he hideth, and for joy thereof goeth and selleth all that he hath, and buyeth that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls:  Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it.”  (Matthew 13:44-46)

Here is how I usually hear these stories explained:

The ‘treasure’ / ‘pearl of great price’ is Christ.  There He is – precious but passive.  Inert.  Waiting.

The ‘man’ / ‘merchant’ is us.  We are the spiritual seekers.  Active.  Adventurous. Sacrificial.

And – well done us! – we sell everything to gain the treasure of Jesus.

But I wonder whether such an interpretation misconstrues all the literary clues of the passage.  More worryingly, I fear it misconstrues the very nature of “the kingdom”.

“Treasured possession” is a famous way of describing the people of God (Exodus 19:5).

“The man” who is active throughout the parables of Matthew 13 is not us but Christ.

At the same time we are consistently represented by impersonal and passive objects (i.e. the soils).

If these were two parables about us finding Christ they would be the only parables of their kind.  Elsewhere it is always we who are lost and Christ who seeks and saves.

Given these facts, surely the most natural interpretation is this:  Christ is the Man who gives everything to purchase the world so as to possess His church.  He is the great Seeker and He is the great Treasurer.  He is the great Rejoicer and He is the great Sacrificer of all.

“For the joy that was set before him, [Jesus] endured the cross.”  (Hebrews 12:2)

We are the purchased treasure, not valuable in ourselves but only in our Redeemer’s eyes.  He is the Glorious Giver, we are those bought at a price.  This is what the kingdom of heaven is like!

And yet… what happens when we opt for the first interpretation?

We become the great seekers.  We are the ones who treasure.  We are the great rejoicers and the ones who sacrifice all.  The weight is thrown back onto our shoulders.

What do we say to this?

Well, first, we ought to read the parables in context.  Shouldn’t our first assumption be that the main Actor of the chapter remains the same?

Second, we ought to understand the fundamentals of the gospel.  Isn’t it Christ who seeks and saves what is lost?  (Luke 19:10)  And don’t we love only because He first loved us?  (1 John 4:19)

Third, we ought to think about the nature of kingdom living.  Sustaining joy is a wonderful thing, but it flows from receiving Christ’s electing, sacrificial love.  There is a great danger of over-burdening the Christian when we insist that they play the role of the electing, rejoicing, sacrificing Seeker.  I learn my true place in the kingdom when I realise that I am not Chooser but chosen.  I am not Lover but beloved.  I am not Redeemer but purchased.  I am not Seeker but found. Then my heart is won, then I treasure Christ, then I rejoice, then I consider all things as loss for His sake.  But such a reaction is always just that – a reaction.  Christ is always the self-giving Actor.

So what did I say to my friend?

I told him that every Christian ought to say “I belong to God.”  If my friend couldn’t say that, then he probably wasn’t a Christian.

But here’s how we belong to God.  Not by “giving our lives to Him.”  Instead we look to Jesus on the cross and there we see the most incredible truth: He has purchased me at an incredible cost.  Keep looking there until you are won by His love.  Whatever response we make at that point is belated.  The ultimate and eternity-defining truth is this: He gave His life for meOf course I belong to Him.

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Where’s the turning point in the parable of the two sons?  (Yes, that again).

Is it ‘coming to himself’ in the pig-sty?

pig-sty

If that’s the turning point in the son’s life, repentance will look like weighing things up and choosing obedience.

What’s wrong with that?  Well for one it effectively makes the prodigal his own saviour. 

But aside from this.  Let’s think about how this paradigm would affect our understanding of ongoing repentance. 

Basically, if repentance happens in the sty, when we sin we will think, ‘Darn it, I’ve left the Father’s house, I’m away from His love.  But now I need to clean up my act, prepare my repentance speech and return to His service.’

But is that really the turning point of the story?  I’m not talking in terms of literary devices. I’m asking the question, What is the point that determines the prodigal’s fate?  What is the decisive moment for his life?  Is it ‘coming to himself’ in the sty?

No.  Of course not.  He could have devised the greatest repentance plan known to man and still been rightly shunned by his father.  The true turning point was the father’s embrace.

 

prodigal-son

 

The real change in the prodigal – both his change of status and of heart – truly happens in the arms of the father.  That’s where repentance occurs.

Imagine yourself in those arms.  You may have been sorry before, now you loathe youself.  Yet you cannot escape his love.  You had thought you stank in the sty.  Now you feel your stench to the core.  Yet you are held close.   You had composed a repentance speech.  Now your awareness of sin is overwhelming.  But you’re enfolded in grace.

This is true repentance – that which occurs in the Father’s embrace.  And this is where our ongoing repentance occurs. 

When we sin, do we consider ourselves to be in the pig sty – the long journey back home stretches ahead of us?  Or do we consider ourselves to be already in the Father’s arms?  There’s a big difference.

I remember speaking with a Christian man about his extra-marital affair from years earlier.  As he spoke about the pain of those memories I said to him “You realise that in the midst of the very worst of that, Jesus was rejoicing over you as a Bridegroom rejoices over His bride.”  He paused for a long time and said “That makes it a hundred times worse!”  I said “Yes it does.  A thousand times worse.”  We think that we manage to sin away in a corner somewhere.  No, no, no.  Just read 1 Corinthians 6:15-20 to see that we are very much united to Christ in our sin! 

We stink of pig in the Father’s arms.  That’s a thousand times worse than stinking in the sty.  But it’s a million times better too. 

The point of our turning – and our life of turning and turning again to the Father – is in His unchanging embrace.  When you sin don’t imagine yourself alone in the sty.  You are there in His arms – reeking and held fast.  It’s a thousand times worse.  A million times better.

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We’ve talked about how Jesus is the Good Samaritan.  But seriously – this is how you preach it…

ht Fools Gold

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I was like a wounded man

Jesus came all the way down.

On a Friday evening, He died on a Roman cross

Early one Sunday morning He got up

How many of you believe – He got up?

Thank You, for being a Good Samaritan

Thank You, You didn’t have to do it

Thank You, for taking my feet out of the miry clay,

Thank You, for setting them on the rock

Thank you, for saving me,

Thank You, for binding up my wounds

Thank You, for healing my wounds

Thank You, for fighting my battles

Did He pick you up?

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…The younger brother came to himself and said, ‘My dad’s an old softy.  I reckon if I returned looking sufficiently contrite he’d bail me out.  It’s worth a try anyway.’ he reasoned. 

And so he rose and made the journey back to his father rehearsing his sorry-spiel along the way.  ‘Father, my father.  I know I messed up.  I know I don’t deserve anything from you.  You’d be well within your rights to shun me forever.  But, father, my father,  I’m throwing myself on your mercy.  Here I am, your son – and I know you’re a good dad – will you help me out?’ 

By the time he got to his father’s house his speech was pitch-perfect.  He rang the door-bell and waited.  Eventually he heard his father’s shuffling steps, then the locks turning in the door, one after the other – four in all.  At last it creaked open a crack and the old man squinted up at his son. 

‘Father, my father.  I know I messed up.  I know I don’t deserve anything…’ began the prodigal.  The father’s look began to thaw.  The speech was good.  Perhaps the best yet.  By the end the old man couldn’t help but blurt out, ‘Ah my son!  You certainly know how to tug at my heart strings.  What can I do for you?’ 

The son took a moment to congratulate himself on such powers of persuasion.  ‘Well, father,’ he said, ‘wild living ain’t cheap!  And Lord knows how I’m going to afford my ticket back to the far country…’

‘Far country?  You want to go back?’ asked the father, his face falling.

‘Well just for now.  Unfinished business you see.  But I’m definitely planning on returning…’

‘…Because, son, you know there’s always room for you here…’

‘Yes, sure. Absolutely dad.  And I know I’ll be returning.  Probably quite often.  But there’s things I need to do and, well, I need your help.’

‘How much?’

‘Well there’s the ticket.  Then I need the deposit on a new place.  I’ve found the perfect pad – downtown, the ladies love it.  But that’s another thing,’ he said chuckling, ‘they sure are expensive those women!’

‘How much?’ he asked again.

‘It’s hard to put a figure you know dad, it could be anything.’

They looked at each other for a minute.  The father broke the silence.

‘Blank cheque then?’

‘Blank cheque would be great!  Yeah thanks.  Phew.  You’re a real life-saver dad.  Wow.  I’d hug you, but I’m a bit smelly from the pigs.  Speaking of which, do you have any food?  Ham sandwich maybe?’

‘Ham sandwich??  Look, come inside.  I’ll kill the fattened calf.  Tonight we’ll feast!’

‘Gosh, dad.  That’s sweet but I really don’t have time.  Listen, I’ll just grab something from drive thru.  The cheque’s fine.  And, now that I think of it, don’t make it out to the family name.  I’ve changed it.  Yeah, too many people were associating me with you and… well.  You know…’

Within five minutes the younger son was heading back down the drive.  He spotted his brother in the field and, holding the cheque aloft, called out.  “Ciao bro’!  Enjoy the slaving!”  

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Meditating on Mark 4 has made me think about genuine Christian growth.  Gospel transformation is not like manufacture.  It’s agriculture.  It’s the word planted deep – fragile but potent, internal but outgoing, gradual but multiplying beyond all expectation.   

Anyway I wrote this kids song on the theme.  Fake Plastic Trees (Country Hoedown) (again, recorded on handheld voice recorder with Yamaha keyboard late at night trying to keep it down!  Anyway, you get the idea.) 

(The underlined word is the first beat of the bar):

Years ago my daddy said
You my son was born and bred
To grow the greatest fruit seen in the state.”
He left me seeds and plenty land
Fertiliser, by the bag
But that just takes too long, and I can’t wait (no sir)

Well – a short cut must be found
I aint diggin’ in the ground
Maybe fruit trees I can make
Don’t really matter if they’re fake

I’m stapling fruit upon the tree
Apple, mango and kiwi
Folks are laughing but I don’t know why
I’m glueing grapes onto the vine
Nailing up a clementine
While people laugh and holler, point and sigh.

Well – my fruit trees look okay
If you’re standing half a mile away
But – it makes it hard to chew
When your fruit is dipped in superglue

Once I thought to “grow” a plum
Stuck it on a pole with some chewing gum
My daddy saw me and he shook his head
Son you’ve gone and lost your mind
You’re an apple short of a crumble pie
Your tryin to create life from what is dead.”

Well – he looked me in the eye
He said “Son, I’ll give it one more try
Here’s my best advice to you
This is what you need to do”

Fruit takes time, leave it on the vine
Plant it deep, it grows up high
The life within will sprout, you can be sure
The seed has power, let it flower
Through the sun and through the shower
What you sow you’ll reap and so much more

Well my Pa is kinda wise
So I heeded his advice
I took my time and planted all his seed
Six months on it grew up slow
A hundred fold of what I sowed
More than all the fruit I’d ever need

Well – success I’d never had
When I listened to my dad
These the words that made a hit
Learn them well and don’t forgit

Fruit takes time, leave it on the vine
Plant it deep, it grows up high
The life within will sprout, you can be sure
The seed has power, let it flower
Through the sun and through the shower
What you sow you’ll reap and so much more

Well Jesus spoke about His word
It’s like a seed and when it’s heard
It goes down deep, get’s planted in our heart
Later on it sprouts up new
In joy and peace and goodness too
So listen to His word to play your part

Fruit so tender and so choice
When you listen to His voice
Learn the lesson from the seed
These the words that you should heed:

Fruit takes time, stay in the Vine
Plant it deep, it grows up high
The Life within will sprout, you can be sure
The Word has power, let it flower
Through the sun and through the shower
What you sow you’ll reap and so much more

Fruit takes time, stay in the Vine
Plant it deep, it grows up high
The Life within will sprout, you can be sure
The Word has power, let it flower
Through the sun and through the shower
What you sow you’ll reap and so much more

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Do you believe these words from Jesus:

Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, welcome it, and produce a crop–thirty, sixty or even a hundred times what was sown.  (Mark 4:20)

Christ’s promise for Christian fruitfulness is out of this world.  3000%, 6000% or 10 000% is an incredible yield.

Do I dare believe in this kind of growth?  To put it another way, Will I hear and welcome this word?

We would believe Jesus if He said “five times what was sown!”  We marvel at 300% yield.  We settle for two-fold growth.  But Jesus promises something so supernaturally grand we must ask, If I believed Jesus’ words about Jesus’ words how would I treat Jesus’ words? 

Well Mark 4:20 means I’d hear them and welcome them. 

Mark 4:10-12 means I’d hear them with Jesus at the centre – allowing them to draw me to Him.

Mark 4:15 means I’ll hear them prayerfully, recognizing the spiritual battle undertaken every time they’re heard.

Mark 4:16-17 means I’ll cling to them when trouble comes – allowing the trouble to drive me deeper into Christ in His word.

and

Mark 4:18 means I’ll be vigilant against wealth, worry and wanting as powers competing in my heart for attention.

But Jesus promises — PROMISES — that hearing and welcoming His word in this way will produce a transformation in our lives beyond belief.

How will the word produce transformation?  The way a seed produces growth.

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It will be:

Weak Looking but Powerful

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Internal but Outgoing

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Gradual but Multiplying

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First, Weak Looking but Powerful

Tim Keller tells the story of a man from the middle ages who was so terrified of meeting Jesus at the judgement that he commanded a giant marble slab to be put over his grave.  Apparently he did this so that, when everyone else was resurrected, he would stay down.  Well before the burial was complete and the slab was laid, an acorn fell into the grave. Over the years, a great tree grew, split the slab in two and moved it off the grave.

You might have thought, What chance does a little acorn have against a giant marble slab?  No contest, the acorn wins.  It looks so weak but it is more powerful than a team of horses.  Weak but powerful. 

Just like the Word.  You say a few words about Jesus, you speak truth into another person’s life and it looks pathetic.  And yet eternities are changed and lives are transformed. 

Second, Internal but Outgoing

Last week a friend of mine told me of the worst pain he’d ever felt in his life.  In the midst of it the words came to him: “My grace is sufficient for you for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor 12:9)  It enabled him to handle that pain with an astonishing peace.  Where did that word come from?  It had been planted there.  And it grew up later with an amazing power to comfort.  The word goes in and it comes out organically.  

This is not the parable of the Brick Supplier who drops off masonry to four different builders.  That would be a story about externals and effort and easily measurable growth.  But no, the word goes in like a seed and later, organically, it comes out.

Third, Gradual but Muliplying

Think of this: within a single acorn lies all the genetic information required to produce not only an oak, but from that oak will come scores of new acorns.  And from them more trees with hundreds of acorns and so on.  Given enough time a single acorn could cover the whole earth in wood.

Luther knew this gradual but multiplying power.  When explaining how he opposed the whole Roman church he said this:

I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything.

 That’s the power of the word. 

So do we believe Jesus when He says, Thirty, Sixty, a Hundred-fold?

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This is from a sermon I preached on Mark 4:1-34:

Listen here

Read here

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Ok, no-one wants to touch Preaching Groups.  I respect that.

Let’s return to the parables.

By now we know.  Jesus is the man who found treasure, the merchant looking for fine pearls and He’s the good samaritan.  So now we turn to the most famous parable.

And what shall we call it?  The prodigal son?  Of course not, there are two sons.  Well then how about that for a title – the two sons?  Perhaps.  But are they really the focus?  Why not call it what Michael Ramsden tells us many oriental cultures call it: The parable of the running father.

Clearly it’s the father who is the hero of the story.  Going out to meet the younger and then the older son, the father’s deepest passion is to reconcile his estranged children to himself.

And both children definitely need to be reconciled.  The younger son may have asked for the inheritance but the older son also takes it when it’s offered (Luke 15:12).  They’ve both taken the fruits of the death of their father and have spurned their filial relationship with him.

Physical distance and a slave relationship characterizes both sons, it’s just more obvious with the prodigal.  The younger son puts a lot of distance between he and his father but the basis on which he returns is thoroughly calculating.  He plots to return as a hired hand and uses a form of repentance very reminiscent of Pharaoh’s counterfeit repentance in Exodus 10:16.  Everything in the story up until the father’s embrace shows that the prodigal prefers to be a slave at a distance than a son in the father’s arms.

And that is just as true of the older son.  We find him out in the field, refusing to go in (physical distance).  And again, how does he perceive his relationship to his father?  “All these years I’ve been slaving for you.” (v29)  Physical distance and a slave relationship mark both sons.  The only difference is how the two sons receive the approach of the father.  The one melts in the arms of his father, the other remains angry outside the house.

And now to turn to the title of this post: Who’s the daddy?

Well, you’ve heard it preached numerous times I’m guessing.  What did the preacher say?  The father is God right?  I mean it’s obvious isn’t it?  We call God ‘Father’ and here’s a story of a reconciling father – it must be God.

Well don’t forget how Luke 15 begins.

Now the tax collectors and “sinners” were all gathering round to hear Jesus. 2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners, and eats with them.” 3 Then Jesus told them this parable…  (Luke 15:1-3)

The occasion for the three stories – lost sheep, lost coin, reconciling father – is the grumbling of the Pharisees.  Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them, and the religious complain about it.  So then Jesus tells a story about a man who welcomes a sinner, eats with him, and someone complains about it.  Well now – who is the younger son?  The sinners and tax collectors of course.  Who is the older son?  The Pharisees and teachers of the law of course.  And who is the father who eats with one and is complained to by the other?  Jesus of course.

Jesus is the father.  Plain and simple.  Jesus is the father.  Jesus is the good shepherd (v4-7), he’s the good woman (v8-10), he’s the good father (v11-32).  It just seems blindingly obvious don’t you think?  And have we been confused on this simply because of the role ‘father’?  Well Jesus casts himself as father even in the Gospels – ‘Son, your sins are forgiven… Daughter, your faith has healed you.’  He has children (Is 8:18; 53:10; Heb 2:13; see also Luke 7:35).  If He can be a woman and even a mother hen, it’s not at all inappropriate for Him to be pictured as father.

But perhaos there’s this objection: Doesn’t this rob us of the story’s potential to reveal to us the Fatherhood of God.  Well no it shapes our understanding of it properly.  Surely we want to understand God the Father in God the Son.  And this parable helps us do that very well.  As we see Jesus running to the lost and eating with sinners we can hear Him saying “I do none of this by myself, I am doing only what I see My Father doing.”  But the fact remains we see the Fatherhood of God in Jesus, who is the central character – portrayed as father.  The story is about Jesus – the Jesus who goes out to reconcile both the religious and the irreligious to bring them in.

Does this matter?  Well yes.  What if the story is spun in the usual manner – i.e. the father = God and those who come to their senses will get back into his good books?  Well if that’s the story then we’ve just described Islam not the gospel. Kenneth Bailey puts the case for the Muslim interpretation like this (h/t Matt Finn)

“Their case can be stated thus: In this parable the Father obviously represents God while the younger son represents humankind. The son leaves home, gets into trouble and finally decides to return to his Father. He “yistaghfir Allah” (he seeks the forgiveness of God). On arrival the Father welcomes the son and thus demonstrates that he, the father, is “rahman wa rahim” (merciful and compassionate). There is no cross and no incarnation, no “son of God” and “no saviour”, no “word that becomes flesh” and no “way of salvation”, no death and no resurrection, no mediator and no mediation. The son needs no help to return home. The result is obvious. Jesus is a good Muslim who in this parable affirms Muslim theology. The heart of the Christian faith is thus denied by the very prophet Christianity claims to follow. Islam with neither a cross nor a saviour preserves the true message of the prophet Jesus”.

The Cross and the Prodigal, Kenneth Bailey, p15

But no, Jesus is at the very centre of this drama.  And His reconciliation is unlike anything Allah could or would offer.  He goes out, He bears the shame, He pleads, He appears weak and He celebrates sinners.  This is not prompted by the sinner’s repentance, which was calculating at best, but by His own reconciling love.  Take this together with the other two stories which form a single ‘parable’ according to verse 3 and what do you have?  You have (as Barth put it) the father going into the far country to hoist the lost onto his shoulders and bring them home.  Luke 15 is no Christ-less, cross-less forgiveness tale.  Christ and His cross is the heart of it all.

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Matt’s posts on the parable are great.

Michael Ramsden’s sermon is extraordinary preaching (though, if I’m picky, a bit vague on the point at issue here)

Keller’s sermon is wonderful (though, again, not as straightforward on this point as I’d like).

Here’s my attempt at a Luke 15 sermon

Audio Download

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Anyone else sick of the whole ‘Christ in the OT’ debate?  Man… some people just go on and on.

I’m announcing a new hobby horse – Christ in the NT.  In fact I think this is where you really see a preacher’s Christ-centredness.  We’ve had the rule drummed into us by now – Thou shalt ‘bridge to Christ’ at the end of an Old Testament sermon.  But does this ‘bridge’ come from convictions regarding Jesus the Word or is it simply a preaching convention that we slavishly follow? 

Well you can probably guess at the answer by listening to a preacher’s New Testament sermons.  Now I fail at this all the time but I think the challenge for all of us is this: Is Jesus the Hero of the sermon on the mount or Mark 13 or the gifts passages or James?  And the issue for this mini-series – what about the parables? 

Last time I looked at Matthew 13:44-46.  Who the man?  Jesus the Man.  He seeks and finds us and in His joy He purchases us.  All praise to Him.  As Piper likes to say ‘the Giver gets the glory’ and in this parable (contra Piper’s own interpretation of it) Jesus’ glory is on show as He gives up all for His treasured possession – the church.

In this post we’ll look briefly at the Good Samaritan: Luke 10:25-37 

First notice this: the teacher of the law asks ‘Who is my neighbour?’  This prompts the story.  At the end of the story Jesus asks Who was neighbour to the guy left for dead? (v36).  So now, think about this:  With whom is Jesus asking us to identify?  The priest? Levite? Samaritan?  No.  Not first of all.  First of all we are asked to see ourselves as the man left for dead.  And from his perspective we are to assess who is a good neighbour.  Here’s the first clue – we’re meant to put ourselves in the shoes of the fallen man.

Why do I say ‘fallen’?  Well the man’s fallenness is triply-underlined in v30.  He “goes down from Jerusalem (this earthly counterpart of the heavenly Zion).  He’s heading towards the outskirts of the land (Jericho) which is due east of this mountain sanctuary (echoes of Eden).  This would involve a physical descent of about a thousand metres in the space of just 23 miles.  If that wasn’t bad enough, the man “falls” among robbers.  He’s stripped, plagued (literally that’s the greek word), abandoned and half-dead.  That’s the man’s precidament and Jesus wants us to see it as our predicament.  So what hope do we have?

The priest?  Nope.  The Levite?  No chance.  What about a ‘certain Samaritan’ (mirroring the ‘certain man’ of v30)?  He’s not at all like the religious.  In fact the one who ‘comes to where the man is’ happens to be someone who’d equally have been shunned by the priest and Levite! 

Yet this Samaritan ‘had compassion’ (v33).  In the New Testament this verb, which could be translated ‘he was moved in his bowels with pity’, is used only of Jesus. (Matt. 9:36; 14:14; 15:32; 18:27; 20:34; Mk. 1:41; 6:34; 8:2; 9:22; Lk. 7:13; 10:33; 15:20) In every narrative passage Jesus is the subject of the verb and the three parables in which it’s used are the merciful King of Matthew 18 (v27), here and the father in the Two Sons (Lk 15:20).  More about that in the next post.

Well this Good Samaritan comes across the man left for dead and for emphasis we are twice told about him ‘coming’ to the man (v33 and 34).  The Outsider identifies with the spurned and wretched.

Now remember whose shoes we are in as Jesus tells this story.  We are meant to imagine ourselves as this brutalized man.  Now read v34:

He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own beast, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. `Look after him,’ he said, `and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

Now I don’t have to tell you what these things mean.  You’ve got blueletterbible – you can do your own biblical theology of oil, wine, etc.  But remember you’re meant to be putting yourself in the position of this fallen man, left for dead, unaided by religion, healed by an extraordinary stranger and awaiting his return.  Are you there?  Have you felt those depths and appreciated those heights?  Well then, now:

You go and do likewise. (v37)

Don’t first conjure up the character of the good samaritan.  First be the fallen man.  First experience the healing of this Beautiful Stranger.  Then go and do likewise.

Or… leave Jesus out of it.  Spin it as a morality tale and end with “Who was that masked man? No matter – just go and do likewise.”  

See how important ‘Jesus in the NT’ is?

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So what are these parables about?

Matthew 13:44-46: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.”

I remember John Piper taking quite a long time (in Desiring God??) to argue that the man is us, the treasure is Christ and so we should joyfully give up all for Him.  In fact I often read or hear Piper returning to these parables and this interpretation of them.  I think it’s at least emblematic of three Piper distinctives:

1) treasuring Christ

2) joy as the atmosphere and motivation of our wholehearted service.

3) the gospel is not about Christ making much of us but freeing us to make much of Him

 

Now I have learnt as much from John Piper as I have from any contemporary Christian leader and I thank God for him.  Funnily enough though, it was his own arguments concerning the parables that convinced me of the other interpretation.  That is, the seeking man is Christ (just as Christ is the man throughout Matt 13), the found treasure is the church (eg Ex 19:6) and the world is the field (just as the world is the field throughout Matt 13).  Perhaps what tipped the balance most for me was the thought: if these were two parables about us finding Christ (rather than the other way around) they would be the only parables of their kind.  Elsewhere it is always we who are lost and Christ who seeks and saves. 

If this second interpretation is correct then it’s about Christ giving all to buy the world so as to possess His church.  He is the great Seeker and He is the great Treasurer.  He is the great Rejoicer and He is the great Sacrificer of all. 

What happens when we go with the Piper interpretation?  We become the great seekers, we are the ones who treasure, we are the great rejoicers and the ones who sacrifice all.  The weight is thrown back onto our shoulders.  Now to encourage us in this gargantuan work, this sustaining power is held out to us: We are told to prize and value and esteem and treasure and glory in the inestimable value of Christ.  In that joy will we find the strength to give all for the possession of Christ.  But we are assured that this is the way it has to be because the gospel is definitely not about Christ making much of us.  It’s about us being freed to make much of Him.  In fact I think it’s this conviction (grounded in Piper’s views of the self-centred divine glory) that underlies his interpretation of the parables.

What do we say to this? 

Well, first, just read the parables in context.  Shouldn’t we assume that the main Actor of the chapter remains the same? 

Second, ask questions about the gospel.  Isn’t Christ meant to be the active one?  Aren’t we the ones acted upon?  The lost who are found?  And don’t we love because He first loved us?

Third, ask questions about the nature of God’s glory.  In the radical othercentredness of the triune life, isn’t God’s eternal glory precisely in making much of the Other?  Isn’t it entirely fitting that this immanent love spills over in the economy of grace such that God is indeed glorified in His self-emptying exaltation of His people?  When we understand the trinitarian glory of God, don’t we then realize just how glorifying it is for Christ to make much of us?  (And even to do so when people don’t respond!)

Fourth, ask questions about the nature of the Christian life.  Sustaining joy is a wonderful thing, but doesn’t it flow from receiving Christ’s electing, sacrificial love first?  Doesn’t it overburden the Christian to put them in the role of the electing, sacrificing seeker?

Just some questions.  Let me state again, I’m a Piper fan.  I’ve listened to hundreds of talks, read loads of his books.  Once I even described myself as ‘a big fan’ to his face (bowel shudderingly embarrassing!). 

It wasn’t even my intention to write about Piper.  This post was meant to be the introduction to a mini-series on Christ in the parables.  Well, it is that too.  This is part one.  Christ is the man.  He is the merchant. 

There.  Point made.

Up next, the Good Samaritan, then the Two Sons.

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