The Red Dragon

“Then I witnessed in heaven another significant event. I saw a large red dragon with seven heads and ten horns, with seven crowns on his heads. His tail swept away one-third of the stars in the sky, and he threw them to the earth….”
Revelation 12:3-4a 

No prizes for guessing who this red dragon is. John again knows he is witnessing another “significant event“. Something special is about to happen. The red dragon is large, we are told. And he has seven heads, ten horns, seven crowns and a tail. What is this all about? It is worth reading Daniel 7, which gives us some insight into John’s description of the devil, particularly with reference to the horns.

The dragon has always, Biblically, referred to satan. Theologians propose that the heads, horns and crowns all refer to the Roman Empire. Their theology suggests that the seven heads describe the seven mountains on which Rome was built, the ten horns were ten kingdoms into which the Roman Empire was divided and the seven crowns confirm the seven-fold foundation of Rome. The fact that the dragon was coloured red confirms, they say, that the Roman Empire was involved. But the Roman Empire came and went, and has been replaced by many different governmental and political scenarios over the years, covering Europe and the Middle East. Another possibility is that John had a flashback in his vision, seeing events that had already happened.

Regardless, though, of what John’s vision actually meant, what conclusion can we draw from this verse in his Revelation? The implication is that a world power, under the devil’s jurisdiction, was dominant. John saw the devil’s tail sweep away a third “of the stars in the sky“.  There seems to be hints in the Bible that a third of all the angels rebelled along with satan and were thrown out of Heaven, so perhaps that explains the reference to the stars. Incidentally, we note that the stars were thrown down onto the earth. The angels have fallen from holiness and purity into uncleanliness, and have become the demons that have aggravated and tormented mankind from the beginning. But overall we get a picture of a malevolent being, waiting for a baby to be born. 

The devil, with his angels, has caused unimaginable misery and distress to mankind from the very beginning. He started with Adam and Eve and hasn’t let up one bit ever since. He even tried to tempt Jesus but had to give up in the face of a superior Being. The Apostle Peter wrote about the malevolence of the devil in 1 Peter 5:8, “Stay alert! Watch out for your great enemy, the devil. He prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour”. We have been warned! The devil hates pilgrims like us, people who are blood-bought followers of Jesus, because we have declared our allegiance to God and His Kingdom, instead of the devil and his. Peter continued in the next verse, “Stand firm against him, and be strong in your faith. Remember that your family of believers all over the world is going through the same kind of suffering you are”. We refuse to be distracted by the tempting whispers of our enemy, instead adhering to God and His Word, with a spiritual super glue that withstands all attacks.

Dear God. Where else can we go other than into Your arms, embraced with love and grace? We praise and thank You today for all that You have done. Amen. 

The Gifts (2)

“Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers. Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do His work and build up the church, the body of Christ. This will continue until we all come to such unity in our faith and knowledge of God’s Son that we will be mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ.
‭‭Ephesians‬ ‭4:11-13‬ ‭NLT‬‬

Who or what is an Apostle? One thing for sure – it is not a stone effigy located in a dusty corner in a church building somewhere. Or a memorial encased in a reliquary containing a piece of bone or cloth, reputed to have at one time come from one of the original Apostles that we read about in the New Testament. Somewhere in a drawer I have some “apostle spoons” – spoons with a figure engraved or cast into the handle – an apostle isn’t that either. The apostles Christ gave to the church are alive and well and walking amongst us Christian pilgrims. According to Mr Google, the definition of the word “apostle” is “someone who is sent out”. So perhaps an apostle is sent out for the purpose of planting a new church. Or as a missionary to another land. Perhaps an apostle is responsible for the spiritual oversight of a number of independent churches, being each pastor’s pastor. And according to our verse today, apostles are a gift to the church. 

Similarly, the word “pastor” refers to someone who is in overall charge of a body of believers, a church somewhere. In some denominations they are referred to as “ministers”. A pastor cares for his congregation, listens to their problems, offers advice, visits and prays for the sick. A pastor usually combines his caring role with that of a teacher, and is responsibility for weekly sermons or messages, and perhaps Bible studies. A pastor administers the other church requirements such as taking funerals, or officiating at weddings. He looks after his “flock”, a role Christ knew would be needed as He builds His church.

We also have the prophets. We perhaps have a mental picture of an elderly man, stooping over a staff, dressed in something that resembles a sack with holes, and with a beard reaching his waist. But this can’t be further from the truth. Prophets are people who have a gift of bringing a message from God to His people. They dispense God-truths. They bring guidance and correction. They often disturb the status quo and bring fresh spiritual insights. Some even can see into the future, warning of world or church events to come. Sadly the prophet is often resented or misunderstood, because he or she advocates change, disturbing people who would prefer to stay in a place of spiritual comfort. 

The evangelist. Another important role mentioned by Paul in this Epistle. An evangelist brings good news. He or she preaches the Gospel at every opportunity. But in this role to the church, they train and enthuse others to join them. As Christians, we all have our messages. Our testimonies. Our stories of all that God has done for us. Evangelists help and encourage us to share what we have with others.

So in these “gifts”, often called the “five-fold ministries”, we see a picture of why Christ gave such gifts to the church. Where would we be without the men and women who perform these roles? No doubt, an undisciplined group of people who would soon stray to a place of spiritual danger. We thank God for these people, grateful for their diligence in helping us “be mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ.

But what do these “gifts” matter to us, in our pilgrimage through life? Surely, we might think, we could do just as well sat at home. Watching the God Channel or TBN. Looking up YouTube videos uploaded by famous preachers. Logging into Sunday church livestreams. We might even think that we don’t need input from such people, telling ourselves that we just need the Holy Spirit and our Bibles. It is true that there are Christians who try to live out their faith in this way. There are even Christians who have no choice, being imprisoned for being Christians in countries such as North Korea, without even a Bible. But none of this is God’s model for His church. If that wasn’t the case, Christ would not have needed to give these gifts to His church. In these verses there is the implicit message that God’s people were being equipped as a people together, a church or fellowship. 

There is a verse relevant to today’s theme in Hebrews 10:25. “And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of His return is drawing near”. Oh, by the way, we must be obedient to our “gifts”. It says in Hebrews 13:17 that we must, “Obey your spiritual leaders, and do what they say. Their work is to watch over your souls, and they are accountable to God. Give them reason to do this with joy and not with sorrow…”. Hmmm…

The Gifts (1)

“Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers. Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do His work and build up the church, the body of Christ. This will continue until we all come to such unity in our faith and knowledge of God’s Son that we will be mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ.
‭‭Ephesians‬ ‭4:11-13‬ ‭NLT‬‬

This is an important part of Paul’s letter, both to his readers in Ephesus and to Christians today. The first thing is that Christ, through His love and concern for His followers, gave important “gifts” to resource His future Bride, the church. These “gifts” for the Ephesian church were Spirit-filled men who each had a specific job to do in building up the church. The job titles listed – apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers – dovetailed together to form a support and training function, not just a leadership structure, for the health and development of this body of believers. But these “gifts” are timeless. They were not just for the early Church but instead portrayed a model for all the churches that were to follow in the ages to come. And so we Christians, regardless of where we are in our spiritual pilgrimage, should prick up our spiritual ears. We should look out for these special people, who Christ, in His divine wisdom, could see would be required. And while we are looking around us, we should take careful note of verse 12. These five “gifts” – the men and women who were and are apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers – were not supposed to do the work of the church themselves while the punters sat in the pews. Their role was to train up the church members to do the work God was asking them to do. You see, we each have a role to play in building up the church, “the body of Christ”. We cannot abdicate our own responsibilities and expect the minister to do everything.

So what is our role in building up the church? It is the same for us today as it was for the Ephesian church all those years ago. We all have a job description, which involves outward-looking responsibilities for evangelism and making disciples (Matthew 28:19), and also involves being unified with our fellow believers and the Christian community as a whole, as we can see from several verses in this Epistle. We must spend time reading the Word and praying, for our own spiritual health. Spending time with our wonderful Heavenly Father, sharing and communicating. Enjoying His presence in our lives.

But why do we need these “gifts” of men and women, the apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers? Paul suggested they are there for “equipping” and “building”. Their individual Holy Spirit – led giftings are necessary to train us well for our roles. These men and women are pilgrims with a specific calling. Men and women who are further down the road of life than us, and who have many things to share for our benefit. We’ll look at their particular roles on another day. Their responsibility is to equip God’s people by giving them the tools and training they need “to do His work”. Our responsibility is to gain, through them, maturity, measuring up to Christ’s standards.

It is sad that after two years of lockdowns and social restrictions, many churches, at least in the UK, have become much smaller, dwindling in membership. Some people in these congregations have become used to attending virtual meetings on-line, or have decided that they prefer to spend their Sabbaths doing something else. But we cannot be Christians in splendid isolation; Jesus’ plan was for His followers to meet together. “They worshipped together at the Temple each day, met in homes for the Lord’s Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity—” (Acts 2:46). Two key words here in this verse are “together” and “shared”. Through meeting together we encourage one another, but we can also enjoy the input from Christ’s “gifts”, training and helping us. Cheering us on as Christ’s representatives for the work of His service.

God in His love and wisdom gave gifts to the church. We need them to equip and encourage us in our spiritual pilgrimage. And as we do God’s work in this sad, sinful and war-torn world we bring our messages of hope to the hopeless, communicating Christ’s concern for the lost all the better because of His gifts. Worth a big “thank You, Jesus”?

Up and Down

Notice that it says “he ascended.” This clearly means that Christ also descended to our lowly world. And the same one who descended is the one who ascended higher than all the heavens, so that he might fill the entire universe with himself.
‭‭Ephesians‬ ‭4:9-10‬ ‭NLT‬‬

At first sight, these two verses might seem a bit difficult to understand. They describe something that seems at odds with our understanding and experience. In the previous verse, verse 8, we read that Christ ascended somewhere. We know that happened because we read in Acts 1:9 that Jesus, “was taken up into a cloud while they were watching, and they could no longer see him.” Jesus ascended into Heaven, as witnessed by His disciples. And, as an aside, in Acts 1:11 we read that this is the way He will return. One day soon? We don’t of course know when this will be but happen it will.

Another question we have is, “Where did Jesus go to when He ascended?” The disciples saw Him reach the clouds but after that they lost sight of Him. So is He floating around somewhere above us, sitting on clouds, as some artists have portrayed? Perhaps a lot of the confusion we have is because we try and mix the physical and the spiritual. We know and believe, from other Scriptures, that Jesus is in Heaven. We read in 1 Peter 3:22, “Now Christ has gone to heaven. He is seated in the place of honour next to God, and all the angels and authorities and powers accept his authority.” 

Paul, in these verses in Ephesians, sets out a picture of Christ being able to move where He wishes throughout the entire physical and spiritual environment in which we live. More than that, Paul said He did this, “so that he might fill the entire universe with himself”. The Bible seems to provide a little glimpse that this “entire universe” consists of three heavens. There is the physical “heaven” that we can see in part, and which many of our scientists spend their lives in exploring with all the technology at their disposal; the physical universe we can see with its myriads of galaxies and stars. Then there is the “Heaven” where Jesus lives, as described by Peter in the verse quoted above. Where He is sitting on the right hand of God the Father. 

But we also read that the devil and his rebellious angels were cast out of Heaven down to earth (Ezekiel 28:17). Now satan is a spiritual being, so that is why we can’t see him wandering around our planet complete with a red suit, tail and horns holding a pitchfork and accompanied by similarly red-suited demons. But he and his cohorts are here spiritually, as we read in 1 Peter 5:8. “Stay alert! Watch out for your great enemy, the devil. He prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour.” But as a spiritual being, our enemy will be living somewhere. Some say in hell, but hell doesn’t exist yet – it doesn’t appear in God’s plan until He needs it at the time of the last judgement (Matthew 25:31-46, Revelation 20). So some theologians say that there is a “second heaven” where the devil lives with his minions. The third Heaven is where God lives; the place where Paul was taken up to – we can read his account in 2 Corinthians 12. He called it “Paradise”, as did Jesus to the repentant thief on the adjacent cross.

So back to our verses in Ephesians 4. Paul laid out for his readers a word picture of our almighty God and His omnipresence, throughout the entire, limitless and eternal physical and spiritual universe that he created. We will never get our human minds around its extent, but we can rest assured that because God is everywhere, He can be with each one of us right now. We are not alone. Jesus was right when He said in Matthew 28:20, “…I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” On our pilgrimage through life, we can feel His love and grace around us, lifting our spirits whatever the circumstances. Reminded that one day we too will ascend into Paradise, to join Jesus there. And able at any time to reach out to Him in prayer. Let’s finish today with the first three verses of Psalm 46. A great comfort and reassurance for wobbly pilgrims, as we are sometimes.

God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, 
though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging

Psalm 46:1-3 NIV

A Special Gift

“However, he has given each one of us a special gift through the generosity of Christ. That is why the Scriptures say, “When he ascended to the heights, he led a crowd of captives and gave gifts to his people.””
Ephesians‬ ‭4:7-8‬ ‭NLT‬‬

Jesus, the Son of God, is generous. I would say infinitely generous. There is no limit to His generosity. We read in our verses today that each of us has been given a gift through the generosity of Christ. But can you imagine being given a gift-wrapped package? Straight away, you notice that the wrapping paper isn’t that cheap stuff so thin that it tears as you look at it. This wrapping paper is of a quality fitting for a royal person. It looks as though it has been made of pure gold, sparkling with precious stones. But then you notice that in places on the package there are drops of blood. Before I get carried away any further with my analogy, Jesus’ generosity started with the greatest gift of all time at Calvary. There He gave His life for me, the very Son of God dying a horrible, blood-soaked death for the forgiveness of my sins. What a gift! What a Saviour! But I now stand before God as His child. A royal child of a Royal King. And I have this package in my hands. Jesus has just given it to me. Tremblingly, I start to open it, knowing that within is something special. It has to be so, because Jesus’ first gift was infinitely precious. Surely this gift will be something equally mind-boggling. And it is. 

I should say straight away, that this is no worldly gift. It’s not a gift-wrapped Rolex watch. Or some other such trinket. This is a special spiritual gift that dovetails into my natural giftings. What is it? Well, in three places in the New Testament there are lists of spiritual gifts.  Romans 12:6-8 lists prophesying, serving, teaching, encouraging, giving, leadership, and mercy. 1 Corinthians 12:4-11 contains wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miraculous powers, prophecy, discerning of spirits, speaking in tongues and interpretation of tongues. 1 Corinthians 12:28 includes a few more – healings, helps, leadership, speaking in other tongues. And for good measure, there are gifts listed in Ephesians 4:11, gifts given to the church including the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers, but more about them in a future blog.

When we open our package, what do we find? Perhaps our expectation is to find a golden key and a box marked “Spiritual Gift”. Opening it will tell us what our gift is. Or perhaps we hope to find something like a spiritual cheque book, with blank cheques signed by Jesus Himself. An impressive gift enabling us to go out and do amazing things for God. Or perhaps we open it and find nothing there. Disappointed, we turn to Jesus and ask the question – “Where is my special gift”? 

Spiritual gifts are distributed by the Holy Spirit. 1 Corinthians 12:11 says, “It is the one and only Spirit who distributes all these gifts. He alone decides which gift each person should have”. However, it is no good sitting back waiting for our spiritual gift to arrive via some Heavenly postman, spending our time unproductively complaining that we can’t serve God because we don’t have the right gifting. We all have a primary calling, which is to serve God in the ways He has ordained. And strangely, as we faithfully and willingly serve Him in every situation that comes our way, He will supply the gifts we need. So if we find ourselves in a situation where someone is sick, we can in faith reach out to God for the gift of healing. If we find someone in a quandary about an important decision that has to be made, we can in faith reach out for a word of knowledge, or wisdom. At other times, as we faithfully use our natural gifts to do what we do well, He will supply that additional spiritual tools we need. 

Let us be a thankful people, thanking God for all He has given us. The unlimited gifts of a generous and loving God, so freely given to those with the faith to ask.

Our Calling

“Therefore I, a prisoner for serving the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of your calling, for you have been called by God.”
Ephesians‬ ‭4:1‬ ‭NLT‬‬

What is our calling? We look at someone who is doing a job we feel ill-equipped for, or undesirous of, and say that that job must be a “calling”. For example, being a foreign missionary could be a “calling” because, from a worldly perspective, it’s not a job that would be considered as a step on a money-earning career. In my community there is an ICU nurse. She is a very caring person but admitted to me once that what she does is not glamorous or particularly financially rewarding – she considers her job to be a “calling”. 

But our Christian calling is clear, and is in response to our wonderful Saviour, Jesus Christ. We have to consider what we have been called from, and what we have been called to. Though we may immediately associate “calling” with a job or act of service to God, there’s something else that comes first. In 1 Peter 2:9 we read, “But you are not like that, for you are a chosen people. You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession. As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light.” We are called out of the darkness of sin and worldliness into the wonderful light of God’s presence. It is at Calvary that we make this transition, responding to God’s invitation to accept His Son as our Lord and Saviour. And once we start living in the “light”, in God’s kingdom, another calling emerges. In John 8:12, we read, “Jesus spoke to the people once more and said, “I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won’t have to walk in darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life.” Quite simply, we are called to follow Jesus, a personal “calling”, essential for the Christian pilgrim’s spiritual life and well being. Once saved through God’s love and grace we have only one overriding “calling” in life and that is to follow Him, walking in His light. So that is a major part of Paul’s appeal to his friends in Ephesus – in effect he was saying, don’t bottle it, don’t hide it, but live your lives the Jesus way. 

But what is the relevance of Paul once again mentioning his status as “a prisoner for serving the Lord”? I think he was saying two things. Firstly, he was pointing out that, by being in jail for his faith, he was making a very visible statement of his commitment to God. He was publicly saying that he was leading “a life worthy of [his] calling”. Secondly, he may have been giving a gentle hint to his friends, that they also, in living “a life worthy of [their] calling” might end up in a similar persecuted condition.

There is another meaning to the word “calling”. That is to do with how we spend our time, either in our employment or in our leisure time. And that boils down to our gifting and interests. For example, if I have an accounting qualification and faint at the sight of blood, then probably a “calling” to be a brain surgeon might not be quite right. Similarly, if I have a hobby that involves crafting knitwear, then wanting to spend my leisure time in collecting stamps might not be too rewarding. Personally, I don’t believe God will want us to do things or be people, that He hasn’t created us to be. But all our giftings are complementary, building the church of Jesus Christ into a composite, functioning entity.

So we are a chosen and called people, a grateful people saved through grace, ever willing to listen to His voice, hearing His call, as He leads us in our lives, day by day. Yes, it will involve being counter-cultural, but there is a day coming when we will hear those words, “Well done …”

Power and Imagination

“Now to Him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to His power that is at work within us, to Him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.”
Ephesians‬ ‭3:20-21‬ ‭NIVUK‬‬

Ephesians 3:20 is a verse that has impressed me, intrigued me, and challenged me over the years I have been a Christian pilgrim. Many times I have tried to get my mind around what Paul was saying, and what it means for me today. I keep coming back to this verse in my regular visits to this Epistle to the Ephesians. Straight away there is a temptation to look at this verse from a worldly point of view, imagining physics-defying feats of strength and courage. Although the power Paul mentioned can sometimes encroach into our physical world, such an interpretation was not what he had in mind when he wrote about God’s power. But was Paul really saying that this power, God’s power, is available and is to be applied in our own lives and the lives of the people, our family and friends and neighbours, around us? I think it does because God has one mission – the propagation of His love throughout mankind for His “glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever”. Every resource He supplies, His unlimited power, is designed with that in mind. This verse, I believe, is pivotal to Christian discipleship today. 

But it doesn’t stop there because God wants His servants to think outside the box. He wants people with the faith to use the power given to us to do tremendous works to further His kingdom. People with the faith of Jackie Pullinger, about whom I was reading recently. She embarked on a ship at the age of 21 praying as it reached each port about whether God wanted her to minister and serve Him there. She ended up in Hong Kong, working amongst so many needy people. Where drug addiction was rife. And through the power of the Holy Spirit she saw lives changed. The enemy’s frontiers were pushed back. Of course, we’re not all people like Jackie but we each have our own sphere of potential ministry and service.

But there are three things about this verse that get to me. The first is that God wants me to ask Him what He wants to do through me. Paul said that of course God is able to do far more than we ask – he used the word “immeasurably” – but God still wants us to ask. That’s the way we engage with Him and His Spirit. It is our openness to Him, and desire to serve, that allows His power to be used in whatever situation He requires. It’s our willingness to say, “Yes, Lord” when He prompts us to take the next step in our service to Him. A man called Ananias was in such a place when the Holy Spirit asked him to find a guy called Paul who was praying, blinded by an encounter with Jesus on the Damascus Road, and to pray for him, that his sight would be restored. That wasn’t just a light bulb moment in Ananias’s life – he was ready and prepared, open for his next God-assignment. He had already asked God to use him for the furtherance of His kingdom. We can read the full story in Acts 9. 

The second thing is that God wants us to use our imaginations. So often in our churches and congregations we are bounded by walls and stained glass, by a liturgy more suitable to a Victorian era, out of touch with the real world outside the walls. We’re cut off in splendid isolation, perhaps feeling holy but nevertheless totally ineffective in dispensing His power. A god-breathed imagination will open doors and windows into the very souls of our communities and families. It is only as we use our imaginations that opportunities will start to emerge from the fog of our pre-conceived ideas and conditions. To just sit in a pew, week after week, requires no imagination at all.

The third thing is that we have all the power we need – it is right there within us. But where and how should it be used? There is an answer to this question in Acts 1:8. “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth”. Note that the receipt of the power is followed by an action – being witnesses of Jesus. I believe this verse is highly significant, because it contains the last recorded spoken words of Jesus before He ascended into Heaven. And this didn’t mean just talking about Him, or doing Bible studies on the parables. Or sitting in our pews listening to eloquent sermons about His birth at Christmas, or His death and resurrection at Easter. Jesus was a real action man. He didn’t spend His time in pastoring the people in His local synagogue. He was out and about using His power to invite people into His kingdom. What Jesus said in Luke 5:31-32 is interesting. “Jesus answered them, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners and need to repent.””. 

But back to our verse, Ephesians 3:20. God’s chosen method of reaching humanity is through pilgrims like you and me. Through willing people who dare to ask God what their next assignment is. Through open people with an active, God-breathed, imagination; who dare to think outside the box, who dare to break the mould, who dare to use their faith to leverage the power that is within them. People like Isaiah – we read about his encounter with God in the Temple in Isaiah 6:8 – “Then I heard the Lord asking, “Whom should I send as a messenger to this people? Who will go for us?” I said, “Here I am. Send me.””. Let us be asking and imagining pilgrims in our service for God.

Just one more thing – “to Him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations”. All we do is to, and for, His glory. With deeply thankful hearts for all He has done for us.

Completeness

May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God.
Ephesians 3:19 NLT

The love of Christ. Just the very thought of it drove Paul to his knees in that prison cell. And he once again prays for his Ephesian friends, that his experience of the love of Christ would be experienced by them as well. But you can just imagine him shaking his head, sadly, appreciating and understanding that Christ’s love would be too much for them to fully understand. But he comforted himself with the thought that as they grew in the Christ-love-experience, they would grow in completeness, experiencing the “fullness of life and power that comes from God“. 

Have we experienced the love of Christ? Has it permeated into our lives, changing who we are and what we do? Are we grumpy pilgrims who have shut out the love of Christ from our lives, being bounded and constrained instead by our sinful natures? Or are we renewed people, with Christ’s love displacing the selfishness and anger that can so easily grow inside of us? Are we a people who are experiencing “all the fullness of life and power that comes from God”

I suppose it boils down to the question, what is filling our lives? Paul wanted his friends to be filled with everything that God had for them. He wanted them to live a life worthy of their calling. He wanted them to experience the power of God working through their lives, as they acted as “salt and light” in their communities. Nothing has changed in the centuries between Paul’s letter and today. The prayer Paul prayed for his friends has echoed through time, touching countless people throughout the world. And it is still alive and active in our own lives. The path before us has been well-trodden by many pilgrims over the years and as we place our feet in their footsteps, let us feel the love of Christ, allowing the Holy Spirit to work within us, as He did with them.

Perhaps it is a good exercise to personalise this verse. To adapt it to become our personal prayer. To allow our thinking to turn away from a few Christians in a past time, to instead touch us today. The prayer would look something like this, “May [I] experience the love of Christ, though it is too great [for me] to understand fully. Then [I] will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God“. And perhaps add something like “Please help me to fully understand Your love, allowing it to transform my life this day and forever”. This is a prayer that, if prayed sincerely, God will never fail to answer. Amen.

Christ In Our Hearts

“Then, by constantly using your faith, the life of Christ will be released deep inside you, and the resting place of his love will become the very source and root of your life.”
Ephesians 3:17 TPT
“Then Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him. Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong.”
Ephesians 3:17 NLT

We’re going to camp for a second day at Ephesians 3:17, and look at a second Bible version, the New Living Translation. Paul prayed that through their faith, Christ would live within the hearts of his friends in Ephesus. That through their faith, His life would be present and active in their lives. This was life-changing stuff for a people steeped in the religions of their day. The Jews didn’t believe that Jesus was the promised Messiah, the Christ. The Gentiles in Ephesus lived in a religious world dominated by the Roman and Greek god-pantheons and in particular worshipped their very own Artemis. But through Paul’s ministry, both the Jews and Gentiles had come to accept the truth about the saving grace of God and had taken the step of faith, repenting of their sins and accepting that Jesus was the Christ and was their Lord and Saviour. 

In the previous verse in this chapter, Paul prayed that the Ephesians would experience the power of God’s glorious riches in their lives. And he then adds a joining word introducing us into verse 17, the word “Then“. The NIV starts this verse with “So that“. Was Paul therefore saying to the Ephesians that, because they have all this power, explosive and supernatural power at that, potentially available within them, that they in effect could provide a home for Christ? There are many verses in the Bible about Christ living within us. Here’s just two of them from the Epistles. Romans 8:11a “The Spirit of God, who raised Jesus from the dead, lives in you…” And Galatians 2:20a, “My old self has been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me….”. And Jesus said in John 15:4, “Remain in me, and I will remain in you. For a branch cannot produce fruit if it is severed from the vine, and you cannot be fruitful unless you remain in me.” And in case we doubt the power that is available to us, how much power do we think would be needed to raise someone from the dead into eternal life? And it lives within us, just waiting to be “unveiled“. 

So today, is it realistic for us pilgrims to expect to have Christ live within each of us, as it was in the Ephesian church? What Paul was saying was that we can enjoy an intimate relationship with Jesus, as He lives within us by the power of the Holy Spirit. A relationship of love and trust. A relationship where Jesus can lead and guide us in our daily lives. So, for example, faced with a situation that perhaps would have at one time invoked a negative response, we now respond with compassion and grace. Increasingly, we see Jesus moulding and transforming our lives, making us more like Him. And over time, our love of Jesus will increase more and more, keeping us strong. Not forgetting, of course, that we have this “explosive power” waiting to be revealed.

This power that we have implied within us, has to be released through faith. Jesus living within us  directs and focuses the power in many different ways, and it becomes more apparent and effective as He works through us through faith. In the Ephesian church, in that society and culture, the early Christians needed the power to stand firm in the face of intense persecution. And the evidence for that power was shown through the growth of the Christian Church, that turned the world of that time upside down, in the process resetting history into His-story. I am writing this blog post just having heard that Russia has invaded Ukraine. The same power that impacted the First Century world is still available to us in the 21st Century world. Jesus is the same “yesterday, today and forever”. He is the Prince of Peace. So we pray for our leaders, for world events, for our persecuted brothers and sisters, in faith that the power within us can make a difference. And as we pray God is listening.

One last thought, for pilgrims, from this verse. We read that “Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong.” The picture is of a tree, which has a root system that provides nourishment and stability to the trunk, branches and leaves above the ground. The nourishment, in the form of water and minerals, combines with the chemistry that goes on in the leaves, to provide all that is needed for growth. And the stability comes from having roots that go so deep, and are so resilient, that no matter what storms are present, the tree stands firm. As the tree grows, so does its root system. In my local woods several trees have been uprooted by the recent storms, victims of an unstable root system that could not support them. The picture is clear – through our faith, we grow taller and stronger day by day. Our roots in Christ also grow to keep us stable and nourished, no matter what the storms of life throw at us. Without faith, we won’t have the resilience to stand firm in the face of adversity, and will end up like the fallen trees in my local woods – dead and decaying. So we pray and invite Christ to make His home in our hearts. But are we making room for Him?

Faith

Then, by constantly using your faith, the life of Christ will be released deep inside you, and the resting place of his love will become the very source and root of your life.
Ephesians 3:17 TPT

The Passion Translation of our verse today picks up the theme of faith, which we looked at in yesterday’s blog post. We build up our faith muscles “by constantly using [our] faith“. Day by day, as we continue through life, we encounter situations that need the grace and love of God. And through faith we reach out to our loving Heavenly Father through prayer. For His answers, for His remedies, for the “supernatural strength” and “explosive power” that we read about in Ephesians 3:16. Through prayer we enter into God’s presence and bring before Him the needs and situations before us. So we pray for guidance when making a difficult decision. We pray for a sick friend or relative, for healing. We pray for all sorts of things. So we, in faith, leave the situation with our Heavenly Father, who knows what is best. And “by constantly using [our] faith” we will become more and more in tune with our Father in Heaven, and able to look at the situation before us through His eyes. There are times when the situation before us is beyond what we have faith for. We pray anyway, and also pray for the gift of faith, so that the outcome is as God wants it to be. Jesus reminded us of the importance of faith in the outcome to our prayers. He said in Matthew 9:29, “Then he touched their eyes and said, ‘According to your faith let it be done to you’”. (Emphasis mine). 

There is a discipline that us pilgrims would be well advised to follow. That is to keep a journal of our prayers. A notebook where we can write down our prayers of faith. And then keep them updated with God’s answers to our prayers. When we realise empirically that God answers prayers it is very faith building. I look back over my life and see many occasions where God has answered my prayers of faith. The answers might not have been what I had hoped, but answered they were. The Godless cynic might have put down my experiences to coincidence. But there have been too many “coincidences” for me to accept that. Instead I call them “God-incidences”, because they are so real to me. To me, they are obviously answers to my prayers from my loving Heavenly Father. And I am so grateful to Him for His care and interest in me and my prayers.

One of the most misunderstood topics of prayer is the prayer for sick people. In my personal experience this is a place where ordinary pilgrims like me fear to tread. A complex area where we find answers to prayer often don’t deliver what we would perhaps expect, or hope for. We scrutinise the Scriptures and particularly the Gospels where Jesus healed so many sick people, to see if there is a formula or methodology we could adopt. But there isn’t of course. God is never bound by human thinking. There are many complex issues involved. For example, some people don’t want to be healed – Jesus asked the disabled man at the Pool of Bethesda just that question. We read in John 5:6, “When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?”. Another situation might have involved sin. In Matthew 9:2 perhaps Jesus discerned that the more important issue was forgiveness for the man’s sins. “Some men brought to him a paralyzed man, lying on a mat. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the man, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.”. Note that in this case the man’s friends had faith that Jesus could resolve their friend’s problem. But regardless of what the issues are, we still pray for the sick. There are two verses in James 5 that are often quoted, “Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven.“. Another key verse is from Isaiah 53, “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.”. Jesus took on our infirmities, sicknesses and sins so that we are healed, body, soul and spirit.

One last thought about praying for healing – we are blessed by an incredible Health Service here in the UK. Many complain about it but behind the scenes dedicated men and women are compassionately using their skills – personal, medical and technical – to dispense God’s healing power. And we have faith in their abilities, and thank God for them. 

Let us never give up praying. And praying with all the faith we have, to a loving Heavenly Father who cares for us. One last Scripture about faith, from that great faith chapter in Hebrews. “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.“. God loves it when we pray in faith. I want to please Him, don’t you?