And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39)
In the final chapters of the gospels, we read, with sadness, the details of Jesus’ death. However, in the midst of the darkness, there are beacons of light that shine brightly from Golgotha’s hill. Here are three of them.
The first is the repentance of the dying thief and Jesus’ word of hope to him:
“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” Luke 23:43
The second is related to a man called Simon; we read in Mark 15:21:
“A certain man from Cyrene, Simon, the father of Alexander and Rufus, was passing by on his way in from the country, and they forced him to carry the cross.” (Mark 15:21)
We can only imagine the impact that carrying Jesus’ cross had on Simon of Cyrene. Picture Jesus weakened from the scourgings, and faint from loss of blood. Perhaps at one point, He turned His bloodied face to Simon and uttered words of thanks to the one who was relieving Him of one of His burdens. I imagine that, arriving at Golgotha, Simon was not quick to return home. I can see him among the crowds of onlookers, mockers, and loved ones gathered at the scene watching and waiting to see this tragedy through to the end. Was Simon there when darkness covered the whole land from the sixth to the ninth hour? If so, he would have heard the pleading of Jesus, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do”. Luke 23:34. Then he would hear the final cry of triumph, “It is finished”. (John 19:30.) Perhaps only then he returned home.
Picture Simon, a subdued and solemn figure, entering his house, then sharing with his family the heart wrenching scenes of the day.
Although this is conjecture we do know that Mark, who mentioned Simon’s sons Rufus and Alexander in his gospel, was writing his narrative to Christians in Rome. Likewise, the apostle Paul, when writing his letter to the Romans says, “Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord; also his mother, who has been a mother to me as well.” (Romans 16:13). Many believe that Mark and Paul are referring to the same family. It would seem that all were impacted by the life of Jesus.
The third beacon of light is the reaction of the centurion to Jesus’ death:
“And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39)
Notice the centurion’s words; he saw ‘how’ Jesus died’. Friends, the lives of countless millions of people down through the ages have been affected by how Jesus lived and how Jesus died. The repentant thief, Simon of Cyrene and the centurion are just three of them.
The apostle Peter once wrote:
Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” (1 Peter 2:12)
Let us thank God today for the example Jesus set us in life and in death as ‘how’ to live... and let’s go and do likewise.
So Solomon did evil in the eyes of the Lord; he did not follow the Lord completely, as David his father had done. (1 Kings 11:6)
King Solomon was third King of Israel. He succeeded his father David who was known as ‘a man after God’s heart’. Although David did not always fully obey God, his heart was not rebellious and his lapses in moral judgement were followed by times of deep repentance. Unfortunately, the same could not be said of Solomon.
Solomon was blessed with special visitations from God. One night, God appeared to Solomon in a dream and gave him ‘a wise and discerning heart…..riches and honor.’ 1 Kings 3:12,13. This was no ordinary dream. What a blessing to bestow upon an individual!
Sometime later, we read of God coming again at night to Solomon, speaking to him and instructing him. One of those instructions has echoed down throughout the centuries and has given hope to nations:
When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people, if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land. (2 Chronicles 7:13-14)
However, in spite of God’s personal revelations to Solomon, we read in the key verse above that ‘he did not follow the Lord completely’. We also read that “King Solomon, however, loved many foreign women besides Pharaoh’s daughter—Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Sidonians and Hittites…. As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the Lord his God”. (1 Kings 11:1,4)
How could this happen? How could a man to whom God had drawn so close, go so badly wrong? Ironically, we can find the answer in a book that is traditionally attributed to Solomon.
Catch for us the foxes, the little foxes that ruin the vineyards, our vineyards that are in bloom. (Song of Solomon 2:14,15)
Solomon’s life had been blossoming. The news of his wealth, magnificence and wisdom had spread throughout the world. Solomon’s name was spoken of with awe and admiration. However, Solomon failed to pay attention to temptations that came upon him and, rather than ‘catch’ them, he entertained them and assimilated them into his life. They became part of his ‘vineyard’. He did not ‘follow the Lord completely’.
Like Solomon, we have been deeply blessed by God. Many enjoy the nearness of His blessed presence daily. It is a delight to wake each morning to peace and contentment. However, we must be watchful for the ‘little foxes’ that the devil will try to place in our vineyard. Perhaps already there is a ‘little fox’ that is trying to turn your eyes from your Saviour. Are you struggling with the challenge of complete honesty in financial dealings ? Or perhaps you are struggling to keep the foxes of resentment, bitterness or jealousy out of your vineyard. Oh the dangers of not following God completely!
Like Solomon, we have a choice of what to do with the ‘little foxes’. We can choose to entertain their presence or we can choose to ‘follow the Lord completely’. Which will be your choice?
"Yet not as I will, but as you will.” (Matthew 26:39)
In the opening chapter of the book of Genesis, we read of a sumptuous garden that God planted. Eden was earth’s paradise and must have been beautiful beyond our wildest imaginings. When we enter the New Testament, in its first book, we read of two more gardens. One speaks of death, the other of life, yet both are inexorably linked.
The first of these gardens is called Gethsemane, an olive grove at the foot of the western slopes of the Mount of Olives. Jesus at times withdrew there with his disciples. On this occasion, a hush had descended upon the garden. The mood was somber, ominous. It was like no other ordinary night.
“Then Jesus... took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” (Matthew 26:37-38)
Peter, James and John managed to stay awake long enough to witness Jesus praying in an agony and saying “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” (Matthew 26:39)
A short time later, the hush was broken as soldiers descended upon the garden, taking with them the one who people hoped ‘would be the one to redeem Israel’ (Luke 24:21). The following hours would witness the trial, crucifixion and death of Christ and then ultimately his burial in the second garden.
We enter the second garden a few days later. Gone is the somber mood. This garden echoes with the glad pronouncement of the angel:
“He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay.” (Matthew 28:6)
Two gardens. Two very different scenes. The first is the gateway to death, the second the entrance to life. But the truth is that without the Garden of Gethsemane there would have have been no Garden of Resurrection. The second could not have been possible without the first.
How many times in life have we dreaded our Gethsemanes? How many times have we shrank away from speaking the word, ‘Yet not as I will, but as you will’? Maybe even now, you are facing a situation that you feel will tear a part of you to pieces. Maybe the pain and agony is even now almost unthinkable.
It’s at times like this that you must turn your thoughts to the other garden, the Garden of Resurrection. No-one who drinks the cup of suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane is denied entry to the joy in the Garden of Resurrection. One garden speaks of death, the other of life; if we want to enter the garden of life, we first need to visit the garden of death. Christ showed us the way. Let us joyfully follow him.
There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven. (Ecclesiastes 3:1)
Many years ago, a strange question was put to me. It was, ‘ How do you eat an elephant?’ Never having had the choice of this delicacy on the menu of any restaurant I had visited, I felt that I was at a bit of a disadvantage in answering this. After some fruitless consideration on my part, the questioner enlightened me by saying that it was easy to eat an elephant; you take ‘one bite at a time’. Since that day, I haven’t come across any Elephant Curry or 'Entrecôte au Éléphant’ on any menu, but I have found the principle, ‘one bite at a time’, to be an invaluable piece of advice for setting priorities and tackling what often seems to be an insurmountable mountain of work.
The Bible uses a slightly different term for speaking about priorities. The term used is ‘one thing'. Here are some examples.
One thing I ask from the Lord, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple. (Psalm 27:4)
The psalmist’s ‘one thing' here is a desire to be in the close presence of God throughout his life. He is very sure and definite about his priority.
“Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Mark 10:21)
There is a more sombre note to this ‘one thing’. A rich young man, purporting to have kept all the commandments since his youth, is facing the challenge of prioritising between the love of money and devotion to God.
”Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:41-42)
Mary is rightly prioritising her time. Poor Martha hasn’t quite tuned in to what is more important here and has allowed resentment to creep in against her sister.
Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:13-14)
The apostle Paul was steadfast in his priorities from the moment he met Christ on the Damascus Road. Gone were all other concerns. Only one thing would matter to him for the rest of his life and that would be to ‘press on’.
There are times when the Holy Spirit also draws near to us, as he drew near to the psalmist, the rich young man, Martha and Paul. Sometimes he draws near in great quietness and gentleness; other times, he comes with seeming more power. But, either way, he communicates clearly what God’s ‘one thing' is for our lives at any point in time. Sometimes, it’s not always what we would have chosen. Is there a ‘one thing’ that you have been struggling with lately? Do you identify with the rich young man and Martha and find this a challenge? If so, just think about this. Who do you think, of the four people mentioned above, was the happiest at the end of the day? Who went out into eternity with fewer regrets? As we seek to accept God’s ‘one thing’ for our lives, we will find our lives the richer, fuller and happier as a result.
When they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone out, sitting at Jesus’ feet, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. (Luke 8:35)
The story of Jesus healing the demon possessed man in the Gerasenes doesn’t immediately come to mind when thinking of the Easter story, yet this is a wonderful example of part of what Christ’s death and resurrection means for mankind.
As we picture the scene, it’s impossible not to feel a compassion for this man who the devil has so cruelly tormented. Not only was this a spiritual torment but his mind was deranged, he would have been exhausted with emotional pain and his body would have been injured, sick and weary. Every part of him was affected. What a terrible plight for a man who had been created for God’s purposes.
But the end of the story is not tragedy but rather an awesome display of Jesus’ power. He cast the ‘Legion’ of demons that was inhabiting the man into a whole herd of pigs, demonstrating to the people the magnitude of the force that was possessing this wretched man. He was also making it clear that one man is more valuable than many swine and that his desire was to heal this man’s mind, spirit, body and emotions. He was declaring his ability to make mankind whole... completely whole. This is just one part of what Easter means for humanity.
There is much more to being whole than just release from bondage. When we read of the angel Gabriel appearing to Joseph in a dream, he speaks about Mary saying:
"She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins." (Matthew 1:21)
In Hebrew, the name ‘Jesus’ is ‘Yeshua’ which means ‘to save’ or ‘to rescue’. Sometimes Christians can concentrate on what Christ has saved us from; the fact that we are saved from the punishment of sin and that we are allowed to enter heaven after death. But friends, salvation is much more than this... much, much more! It’s also about what Christ has saved us ‘to’. It’s about restoring that relationship with the Godhead that was marred by the fall. It’s about entering into it in this life, now, today and not waiting until we are in heaven. We read:
‘Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.’ (John 17:3)
How much richer our lives would be, if we would avail ourselves of what the saving work of Christ has opened to us and make it a priority to daily deepen our relationship with God.
Rescue, deliverance, healing, redemption... and restoration. This is Easter’s treasure.
"Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened’.
The 12th of April 2021 will be a date that will go down in English history; it’s the day of the great unlock!! Millions of people will have access to shops and services that they haven’t had so far this year. However, 12th April marks another historical event. It will be 60 years since man first broke free from the confines of his home planet and completed one orbit of the earth. It was a gargantuan achievement by a young Russian Cosmonaut called Yuri Gagarin.
To fit in with atheistic propaganda, on his return to earth, Gagarin was deliberately misquoted as saying, "I looked and looked and looked, but I didn’t see God.”. However, Gagarin was a devout Christian, having been baptised in the Russian Orthodox church. What he actually said was, “An astronaut cannot be suspended in space and not have God in his mind and his heart.” Gagarin was the first of many Christian astronauts that would make the journey into space, travel beyond earth’s orbit and eventually walk on the moon.
Astronaut John Glen, one of America’s Mercury 7 astronauts, once proclaimed from orbit:
"To look out at this kind of creation and not believe in God is, to me, impossible.”
Astronaut Frank Borman, Apollo 8 commander, looked at the earth from 250,000 miles away and radioed back a message to earth, quoting Genesis: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” He later explained, “I had an enormous feeling that there had to be a power greater than any of us – that there was a God, that there was indeed a beginning.”
James Irwin of Apollo 15 was a backslidden Christian when he walked on the moon in 1971. He described the lunar mission as a revelation. He said “I felt the power of God as I’d never felt it before.” He later left NASA and became an evangelical minister and he devoted the rest of his life to "spreading the good news of Jesus Christ.”
You and I may never have the privilege of finding the awesome presence of God in space, but the prophet Jeremiah said:
"Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart. I will be found by you, declares the LORD”. (Jeremiah 29:12-1)
God’s heart beats with a longing for His children to seek Him and find Him right here on planet earth. Over the past year, we have been stripped of a multitude of opportunities to occupy or entertain ourselves and in its place we have been given ‘time’. Time to seek God to a depth many have perhaps never done before. However, there is a danger that as the world slowly attempts to move forward to regain its semblance of ‘normality', that you let go some of the intensity of seeking the face of God that you have known. There is a danger that you will allow some of the pre-Covid activities to once again take up a disproportionate amount of your time.
Don’t let that happen; make a commitment to hold on to what you have received. 'Call upon God’ frequently; seek Him, search for Him. There’s a spiritual universe out there that Jesus Christ wants you to explore with Him.
"We should be better Christians if we were more alone, waiting upon God.” C H Spurgeon
‘For the third time he (Pilate) demanded, ‘Why? What crime has he committed? I have found no reason to sentence him to death. So, I will have him flogged, then I will release him’. But the mob shouted louder and louder, demanding that Jesus be crucified’ (Luke 23:22,23)
It’s interesting how one word in English can transmit so much meaning. ‘Almost’ is one of these words.
I’ll never forget the finals of a swimming event in the 2012 Olympics. The young man who came third was beaming from ear to ear with delight as the bronze medal was placed around neck. Not so the athlete who came in second. He had been crying profusely because his medal was only silver. He had almost won the gold. But almost wasn’t good enough. His disappointment was watched by all the world.
We’ve all experienced ‘an almost’ in our lives at some time or another. For example, the time we almost passed our driving test but braked too suddenly at the end. Or the time when we thought we would pass an important exam, almost getting the desired grade, but not quite.
‘Almost’ can carry with it a sense of failure, frustration, disappointment or regret. Goals are not achieved. Dreams are not realised. In extreme cases, tragedy, sadness and loss ensues.
In Acts 26, we read about the Apostle Paul speaking passionately to Festus, King Agrippa and Bernice, Agrippa’s sister. Paul pours his heart into explaining the gospel to these three high ranking individuals. Famously, at one point, King Agrippa says to Paul, “You almost persuaded me to become a Christian.” (Acts 26:28). Sadly, it was only ‘almost’. I wonder if King Agrippa ever did place his trust fully in Christ.
However, perhaps the most tragic ‘almost’ comes hours before Jesus is crucified. As one writer has put it:
“Pilate almost performed what would have been history’s greatest act of mercy. He almost pardoned the Prince of Peace. Almost. He had the power. He had the choice. He wore the signet ring. But other voices prevailed’.*
As a result of Pilate’s ‘almost’, Jesus was crucified.
When I was a young Christian, we were encouraged to pray publicly in meetings. Our leaders knew the benefit this would be to us spiritually, but many of us found it a daunting task to begin with. I well remember the nights, as we turned to prayer, that I sat on the edge of the bench, willing myself to stand and pray. Sometimes I made it to my feet and rejoiced in the sense of God that would meet me in that act of obedience, but alas, other times, I almost made it- almost, but not quite. The feeling was not so pleasant then.
Some almosts are final; there is no going back. Pilate made his decision, and he did not go back. However, other almosts need not be the final word. Thankfully, for me, there came a day, where I was able to stand to my feet and pray publicly rather than almost getting there.
Is there an ‘almost’ in your life today? If so, take heart: ‘almost’ today can be ‘achieved’ tomorrow.
*On Calvary’s Hill, Max Lucado
“He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again.” (Mark 8:13)
When I was a child, I sometimes watched films that related to the Second World War. In some of these films, you would see trains arriving into stations with soldiers returning from battle. Hundreds of soldiers were on the trains. The platforms were also densely packed with mothers, fathers, wives, sisters, brothers and children waiting eagerly for a first glimpse of their returning loved one. Each soldier was a hero.
Recently I was reading again the resurrection account of Jesus in Mark’s gospel. It’s actually an account that saddens me every time I read it. I imagine you must think that this is a strange comment to make about the resurrection! Let me explain why.
We read that after the Sabbath had ended, some of the women who had accompanied Jesus went out and bought spices so they could ‘anoint the body of Jesus’ (Mark 16:1). The women who approached the tomb, approached it with no thought of resurrection in mind. They obviously had no thought of Jesus returning in triumph over death, and hell and satan. Despite Jesus telling them on a number of occasions that He would rise again, there was no-one to welcome Him back from the battle that changed the destiny of humanity.
I’m sure that after the resurrection both the apostles and the women would have loved to have turned back the clock, imagining themselves making their way through the faint, dawn light with anticipation in their hearts to the tomb where the body of Jesus lay. Alas, that’s not how it happened. Jesus returned to ‘an empty platform’.
Then, after Jesus’ resurrection, He appeared to several people. Even with this evidence, the disciples didn’t believe their reports. Mark goes on to tell us that Jesus appeared to them and ‘rebuked them for their stubborn unbelief’ (Mark 16:14). Then we read some truly remarkable words. Despite their failure, Jesus said to them, ‘Go into all the world and preach the Good News to everyone’ (Mark 16:15). That, my friends, is forgiveness in action!!
Jesus did not relegate the unbelievers to a back seat for the rest of their lives. He had a plan for each of them and encouraged them to move forward into it. As Billy Graham once said,
“In one bold stroke, forgiveness obliterates the past and permits us to enter the land of new beginnings.”
That’s exactly what God wants to do for each one of us when we fail Him. Life is too short to sit down and indulge in a pity party. If you have failed Him in some way recently, go to Him and confess your sin, accept His forgiveness and begin to enter your land of new beginnings.
"Let me here your voice for your voice is sweet" (Song of Solomon 2:14)
In a number of occasions in the gospels, the answers Jesus gave to his opponents’ questions left them speechless.
Mark’s gospel records that, when being grilled by the Saducees concerning marriage in the afterlife, Jesus replied, “Your mistake is that you don’t know the Scriptures, and you don’t know the power of God.” Mark 12:24. Jesus then proceeds to open scripture and truth to them.
On another occasion in Mathew 12, Jesus and his disciples were walking through a grain field on the Sabbath, picking grain as they went along because they were hungry. Confronted by the Pharisees, Jesus once again points to their own scriptures and enlighten their darkened minds.
I love these parts in scripture. The sound of triumph resonates as Jesus unveils truth. His enemies are confounded. Who among them can challenge these revelations?
However, although the Saducees and Pharisees were incensed by Jesus’ teaching, the opposite was true of the common people; they flocked to hear him. They were willing to sit down on the ground for hours on end to listen to the rabbi whose teaching brought with it something new, something vibrant; it brought a challenge and it brought hope.
In Mark 12:37 we read,
“The large crowd listened to him with great delight.”
Unlike the preaching of the Saducees and Pharisees, whose words were often harsh and accompanied by heavy burdens, Jesus’ words were liberating for those who applied them in their lives. What a feast it must have been for them spiritually! What a breath of fresh air! Many a spirit must have come alive in those sessions.
However, that wasn’t just for two millennia ago. With each new day that dawns, God is waiting to speak to us also. He knows what we need to hear each day. He knows when we need words of comfort and healing. He knows when we need a rebuke or a reminder. He is ready to give encouragement and assurance.
Friends, with such a treasure available, make sure to take time today, and every day, to hear His voice.
As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. (Luke 9:51)
Before the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in AD 70, tens of thousands of Jews made their way three times a year to Jerusalem to attend the feasts of Sukkot (Tabernacles), Pesach (Passover) and Shavuot (Pentecost). These are known as the pilgrim festivals in Judaism. Although there was solemnity in their worship, it was also a time of celebration, joy and feasting where the pilgrims met family members and friends that they possibly had not seen for months.
However, for Jesus, as he made His way to Jerusalem for what was to be the final week of his life, already the shadow of the cross was upon Him. There was no thought of joyous family reunions, no times of feasting and no times of refreshing. For Him, it would be false accusations, an angry mob, flogging, a crown of thorns, and finally death by crucifixion. Yet, despite this, he ‘resolutely set out for Jerusalem.’ Some may have asked, “Why set yourself on a collision course with people who want to kill you?” Well, we are told the answer to that in Hebrews:
For the joy set before him he endured the cross... (Heb 12:2)
The joy for Jesus was not in meeting up with friends and family; it wasn’t the anticipation of shared meals and companionship. It was the joy of knowing that you and I would spend eternity with Him and His Father in Heaven.
Many years ago, I was sharing with my minister, Mary Black, about a cross that I was facing in my life. It made life seem dark and lifeless. A source of joy was being sucked from me. I have never forgotten her words to me at that time. She said, “It’s at times like this that you need to believe in the resurrection.” A short time later, I joyfully discovered for myself that the words she spoke were true.
Are you facing a ‘Jerusalem’ right now, a cross that is bringing suffering and pain? Friend, don’t try and run from your Jerusalem. Do what Jesus did and set you face resolutely towards the cross. Remember that Jerusalem was also the place of resurrection. It was so for Jesus, and it can be so for you also.
“To trust God in the light is nothing, but trust Him in the dark...that is faith.” C H Spurgeon
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