These reflections help us look into the Bible to discover what God is saying to us today. We find Bible passages to read and questions to ponder. The themes are in the process of being listed in an index with each theme ultimately divided into seven sections. We hope to be completed soon.
All things work together for good, even imprisonment for Christ! We are not perfectly sure where Paul is in prison, but it matters not. The effect is the same. His incarceration may be unpleasant for him and frustrating too, but its benefits for others are manifold.
His testimony has gone forth to “the whole praetorian guard and to all the rest” (v.13). Paul never fails to grasp the opportunity to witness for Christ. Even his guards were subjected to the gospel. Do you remember when he had been thrown into prison in Philippi together with Silas, he sang hymns in the middle of the night, and when there was an earthquake and the prison guard was going to kill himself thinking the prisoners had escaped, Paul led him through to faith (Acts 16:25-34).
Similarly when Paul was on trial before Herod Agrippa and the Governor (Festus) he boldly spoke for Christ. And when under house arrest in Rome (Acts 28:16) he “welcomed all who came to him, preaching the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ … “ (Acts 28:30-31). Paul was nothing if not bold; he used every opportunity to commend Jesus Christ. What a challenge for us in our daily lives.
Another benefit of his imprisonment was that the Christians had been inspired by his testimony and had become bolder in preaching the gospel. Maybe Paul’s powerful presence had stifled others, but now with him ‘out of the way’ they were coming into their own. Unfortunately not all were doing it from the best of motives. Some were doing it for “love” (v.16), but others were scoring points over Paul (v.15). Yet Paul is big enough not to be concerned about his own status. He simply rejoices that “Christ is proclaimed” (v.18).
We learn from Paul that everything can be turned to advantage if we trust in God and love others.
Forgive me, O Lord, when I grumble. Teach me to see the positive in every situation, and use it to your glory. Amen.
1 How did Joseph see his slavery and imprisonment in Egypt?
“… he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion …” (v.6) RSV
Paul’s usual opening gambit in his letters is to say something positive about his readers. In this case the Philippians pose him no problem. They are doing pretty well in their faith journey. Though, as we shall see they had problems like troublers who were “enemies of the cross” (3:18), and the two women who were in conflict (4:2).
So Paul starts with affirming words and encouragement. He thanks them for supporting him while he is in prison. And he is full of praise for their “defence and confirmation of the gospel”. They are plainly “partakers of grace” (v.7) and are destined to stay the course (v.6).
The story as to how the Philippian church came into existence is told in Acts 16:11-40. There we read of Lydia’s conversion down by the riverside. Then the girl with the “spirit of divination” is delivered, which causes an uproar resulting in Paul and Silas being thrown into prison.
This is followed by a midnight earthquake and the conversion of the Jailor and his household. What a rip roaring start to the church in that city. Since then it had manifestly put down roots and grown. Thus Paul is writing to them from prison (again!) in order to guide and strengthen them.
There is one other reason that Paul is so thankful and encouraging at the start of this letter. Despite his imprisonment, he has discovered the secret of joy and contentment (4:10-13). No letter is as joyful as this one. Paul is obviously in a good place spiritually, and his joy is infectious.
His is a lesson for us. It is not our circumstances that will enable us to rejoice nor will they lead us to help others. Paul did some of his best work when in prison! Let us learn to rejoice and out of this abundance seek to bless others.
Thank you, Lord for those who encourage me. May I always speak good to those around me. Amen.
1 Was any other church in ‘Partnership’ (koinonia) (v.4)?
Over the last few weeks we have considered eight questions that the Israelites posed to God. We have also seen God’s responses. The result is that those with an honest and good heart realised the error of their ways. “Then those who feared the Lord spoke with one another; the Lord heeded and heard them …” (3:16). Thus the grace and mercy of God is revealed. Even though we may have been following God at a distance and allowing ourselves to go downhill spiritually, it is never too late. God will reason with us and try to bring us back into fellowship with him.
Do you remember his words through the prophet Isaiah? “Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord, though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow” (Isaiah 1:18). If God ever seems hard it is only because he is trying to bring us to our senses. Sometimes he has to ‘shout’. All he does stems from his indefatigable love. His desire is that we become his “special possession” (3:17), or, as another version translates it, “my jewels”.
Though I said ‘it is never too late’, I only meant that to apply to this lifetime. “For behold, the day comes, burning like an oven” (4:1). This decisive moment is doomsday for those who have hardened their heart, who have despised the Lord, and who have been “evildoers” (4:1). This is a warning. But it need not trouble any of us if we “fear his name” (4:2). This is not craven or ignorant fear. It is respect and awe. We do not want to disrespect, ignore or disobey. In no way do we take God lightly. We love and serve him with an all consuming passion!
The result will be incredible. God will bless us beyond our wildest dreams. We will “leap like calves from the stall” (4:3). His joy will well up within us. “The day” of the Lord will be “terrible” (4:5) for those who reject God’s love, but “great” (4:5) for those who respond to his love. The Lord will give us every opportunity to choose; he will send Elijah (or Malachi or some ‘prophet’) to warn us and to call us.
May I be ready for the Day, so that for many and me it may be a great day. Amen.
“Your words have been stout against me” (v.13) says God. It is amazing how puny man can be so bold in opposing God. The Israelites were a bit taken aback when they were accused of this: “How have we spoken against thee?” They had been committing the cardinal sins of grumbling and ingratitude. They basically felt it did not pay to try to be good and to follow God. It all seemed hard work and God was not blessing them. Remember our first session in Malachi; they asked, “How hast thou loved us?” (Malachi 1:2).
The Israelites were accustomed to resenting God. Way back in the time of Moses when God had brought them out of the Red (Reed) Sea and into the Wilderness, they grumbled all of ten times (Numbers 14:22-23) over various practical issues, like food and water, so that in the end God let them rot in the desert and not enter the Promised Land. This was not so much an arbitrary punishment as the inevitable result of adopting an unbelieving and grumbling spirit. It made them incapable of entering Canaan.
Nowadays people tend not to complain to God, they simply say that because they are not blessed in the way they think they should, that there is no God. The arrogance is palpable when paltry man shakes his fist at heaven and tells God that he does not exist. But if we do believe in God then we may be guilty of finding fault with him; we may even get angry with him. Job did that, but in the end he came to his senses and had to repent for speaking so rashly (see Explore More).
The third of the Ten Commandments is: “Take not the name of the Lord your God in vain” (Exodus 20:7). We can do this by swearing/cursing, of course. But more importantly we can do it by calling ourselves Christians and then not living up to that high calling. God is easily dishonoured by our lives. So our lives can “speak against God” (cf. v.13). Our desire should always be to bring honour to his name, and indeed to be the first to praise and thank him, even in the midst of difficult circumstances.
Thank you Lord that you never grumble about me. Help me never to grumble about you. Amen.
1 Read how Job repented after being angry with God.
“How shall we return? How are we robbing thee?” (vv.7-8) RSV
This is perhaps the best known part of Malachi: tithing! But note its context. This passage is not primarily about raising money or making everyone feel guilty. It is about repentance and returning to intimacy with God. “How shall we return?” is the question on the lips of Israel. It should be constantly on ours, for too easily and too often we drift away from our Lord. But when Israel asked the question there was a note of arrogance about it. They felt they did not need to return for they did not think that they had wandered off. Perhaps they even felt that if anyone had moved away in the relationship it was God!
God is quick to point out that of course it was they who had moved away, and the reason was that they were “robbing” (v.8) him. The Israelites were offended that they should be accused of robbing God. But as ever it was not their sins of commission that God was on about, but their sins of omission. They had not stripped the Temple of gold and silver, nor had they robbed priests of their candlesticks (see Les Miserables). No, they had not done wrong, but they had failed to do right, that was their trouble. They had robbed God by failing to give back to him a portion of all that he had given to them. The first reason for giving is not to meet need (however great that need may be), but to express love and gratitude to our Lord and Saviour. Then, and only then do we give to meet need.
Giving is then not a chore nor even an obligation, but a joy and a privilege. St Paul speaks often about giving (as indeed does Jesus). He writes not about tithing (which incidentally is not mentioned in the New Testament), but about generous and proportional giving. Above all he states that “God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7). As we give God promises us much in return: “I will open the windows of heaven for you and pour down on you an overflowing blessing” (v.10). If we rob God, we rob ourselves.
Take my silver, take my gold. Not a mite would I withhold. All things come from you O Lord, and of thine own do I give thee. Amen.
When we weary the Lord with our words, we weary him both with what we say and with the number of words we use. Do we think we will be heard for our “many words” (Matthew 6:7)? We love arguing and justifying. God is not usually impressed with our logic, but he is much more impressed with our heart. He sees the heart and he sees our actions, for these speak to him more loudly than heaps of words.
In today’s reading the Lord is wearied not only by Israel’s endless talk but also by their defence of evil! They were arguing that “everyone who does evil is good in the sight of the Lord, and he delights in them” (v.17). This is not quite the same as calling ‘evil’ ‘good’. If they had done so then they would have been guilty of “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 12:31).
However, their wrong belief was that people who do evil things are nevertheless good in God’s sight. In other words God is not troubled or offended by evil behaviour. He winks at it and continues to pour out his love and blessing on such evildoers. This attitude robs God of justice and morality. God hates sin and evil behaviour even if he continues to love the sinner. But even that love cannot bring blessing or benefit to the evildoer. God does not have the wool pulled over his eyes, for as St Paul says: “Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap.” (Galatians 6:7).
That’s life. Call it karma or what you will, evil has its inevitable consequences. We cannot appeal to God to ignore our deeds and bless us. There is only one way to open ourselves to his blessing and that is to admit our evil and to cry for his grace and mercy. We deserve nothing; we merit nothing except judgement. But we can be assured of God’s loving kindness and his desire to forgive.
Lord, forgive me when I weary you with many words and wrong ideas. May I come in humility and trust. Amen.
The fourth question that God answers through Malachi concerns divorce. The men cannot understand why God is not accepting their offerings. They pray, they plead, they carry out their religious observance, and yet the heavens are as brass. Why does God not answer? Why is he not pleased with them?
Maybe we too would want to ask: “Why does he not?” (v.14). Once again the answer is clear and it may catch us off guard. We don’t find a perceptive truth easy to accept. God’s answer to their question was that they were not being faithful to their wives. They were using the Law of Moses as an easy get-out clause for their marriage vows.
Many years later Jesus accused the Pharisees of a similar misuse of the Law. Some, under the school of Hillel, were very liberal and said the man could divorce his wife for more or less any and every reason e.g. burning the cakes. Shammai’s school of thought was tighter but gave ‘indecency’ (pornea) as a valid cause for divorce. However both of them gave some reason that justified a man divorcing his wife. In other words he bore no guilt. Jesus corrected this by saying that divorce is always against the way things were meant to be, and so there is always guilt and regret.
God therefore said, “I hate divorce” (v.16). Hopefully everyone hates divorce. It is hurtful and it is destructive. However, it does not mean that God does not allow divorce. He manifestly does, and for some it can be release into a new and more fruitful future. But even if that is so, it does not justify divorce or make it less than hateful. Divorce always comes about because of human sin. This sin is not just confined to the couple but may arise because of a badly arranged marriage, or in-law pressures or financial constraints. Whatever the reason(s), the cause is summed up by Jesus as “hardness of heart” (Matthew 19:7-8).
If we want God’s blessings to flow and want to be in a fruitful relationship with our Lord then we must look to our human relationships, and especially the marital one.
Save our marriages, O Lord, and bless us. Amen.
1 See how Jesus taught divorce was not God’s original plan.
“How have we despised thy name? How have we polluted it?” (vv.6-7) RSV
We have so far considered the sin of Israel, and how they were woefully unaware of God’s goodness to them. We now turn to the sin of the priests. Their job was to offer sacrifices to God on behalf of the people. As far as they are aware they have done nothing wrong: “How have we despised thy name?” Once again we note that pained, self-righteous tone.
God answers them fairly and squarely. They have been offering substandard sacrifices. They have given second or even third best to God. They obviously did not think it mattered if they offered blind, lame or sick animals to God. After all, they probably reasoned, the sacrifice is going to be burnt so what’s the difference?
However, God is not impressed. They have “polluted it” (v.7). The offering of a sacrifice is not an opportunity to bribe God or impress him, but it is an opportunity to show gratitude and love. It is also a unique chance to fulfil God’s contract for the forgiveness of sins. The terms that God has laid down are that the sacrifices should be perfect.
These perfect sacrifices are, as we know, a foreshadowing of the sacrifice of Christ “who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God” (Hebrews 9:14). Jesus was, as Peter puts it, “a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Peter 1:19).
Jesus gave himself for us, so that we in our turn might give ourselves (all that we are and all that we have) in response to him. We should give nothing less than the best we have. We give the cream not the skim. We give the first fruits not the last fruits. Let our giving (in whatever form that may be) honour our Lord; may we not “despise his name” (v.6).
Lord, you have been so generous, patient, forgiving and giving to me. Help me O Lord to respond in like manner. Forgive me when I became mean. Amen.
1 Who would not offer to God that which cost him nothing?
We now start to traverse the book of the prophet Malachi. It is framed around eight questions posed by people to the Lord. The general tone of the questions is that of perplexity and hurt. The people feel that God is being rather unfair. They plead ignorance as to their own failures. Sometimes we can reach a state of sublime innocence when in fact we are far from guiltless. Our conscience can have become used to our low spiritual state, and we need awakening.
The first question they lob to God is, “How hast thou loved us?” (v.2). They feel that they owe little to God since he has not done anything particularly noteworthy for them. When put like that it sounds rude and ungrateful. But to them it seemed fully justified.
God’s answer, however, may still not sound that convincing to us. Basically he is saying that he has “laid waste (v.3) their wayward neighbour “Esau” (v.2). So, they who are descended from Jacob have been protected, whilst their “brother” (v.2) Esau has been judged. As a result of this, they should be grateful to the Lord and say, “Great is the Lord, beyond the border of Israel” (v.5).
Whatever we may think about this argument we need to learn that often the Lord has blessed us by preserving us from danger. Just because we were not aware of the danger does not negate his active protection. The very fact that we are alive and well is sufficient reason to be grateful and to be convinced that he loves us.
Also, we can look at others around us and realise how fortunate we are. The lives of many others are far, far worse than our own life. How we need to cultivate a spirit of gratitude, a spirit that counts our blessings. As Paul says: “There is great gain in godliness with contentment” (1 Timothy 6:6) – see Explore More.
Thank you Lord that you continually watch over me and provide for me. Grant me a grateful heart . Amen.
“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven”(v.23) RSV
One of the areas in which we need healing is in broken relationships and in guilt. Perhaps we are in danger of thinking that healing of physical ailments or deliverance from evil powers is more difficult and more impressive. But we would be wrong. Do you remember when the paralytic man was let down through the roof by his friends? When he lay before Jesus the first thing to be addressed was not his paralysis, but his sins.
His friends had brought him presumably in order for his physical problem(s) to be dealt with. But Jesus tackled the more difficult and the more pressing problem of his sins. It was only by the by, in order to prove that he had the authority to forgive sins that Jesus told the man to stand up.
This is why Jesus gave the disciples, in our passage today, the authority and the commission to deliver people from the bondage of their sins and guilt. He said: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (v.23). We are to do the same today.
The word ‘absolution’ is often misunderstood. Some people think that it means a priest is essential for the forgiveness of sins. But the priest (or indeed any Christian) is only the conveyor of God’s forgiveness. ‘Absolution’ is best illustrated in this way. A man in prison has a pardon issued by the King. However that pardon is only made effective when it is delivered and applied. The prisoner hears the footsteps of one approaching his cell who has the written pardon in his hand. That person unlocks the door and says: “You have been pardoned and I have come to set you free.”
The Church and Christians have the task of announcing forgiveness, speaking as the very mouthpiece of God. This ministry is not usurping God, but bringing his liberating forgiveness to those to whom we speak. We are told to “Say the Word”.
Thank you Lord for those who have assured me of your forgiveness. May I be bold in confirming that forgiveness to others. Amen.
“in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk” (v.6) RSV
For three years the disciples had been with Jesus and seen him heal the sick, cast out demons and raise the dead. While he was alive they started to do the same works themselves. First he sent out the Twelve on a mission (Matthew 10:5-8), and then he sent out the Seventy-Two (Luke 10:1-9). But now he had gone (in his physical form), and they were having to continue his ministry inspired by his Holy Spirit.
Jesus had told them they would be able to do the works he had done, and indeed they would do even greater works (John 14:12). However, it is not so easy to continue with the same confidence when the Master has gone. Yet the disciples did continue to do the works of Jesus. The Holy Spirit gave them the boldness and the confidence.
So here we have the story of the healing of the lame man who sat daily at the gate called Beautiful outside the Temple. Peter and John were on their way into the Temple to pray, but on this occasion they were prompted to stop and encounter the beggar. At first the man was not looking for, or believing in, healing; he wanted money. But Peter and John encouraged by the Spirit elicited faith and hope in him. They said the word: “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk” (v.6). They further encouraged the man by giving him a helping hand. The man responded in faith and obedience. He rose, walked and leaped in the air!
Now, it is essential to note how Peter explains how he had the authority to say the word. It was not because of his and John’s own “power of piety” (v.12). They were not special saints or innately gifted. They were simply operating in obedience to Christ’s commission. They had directed the man’s attention to Jesus Christ and proclaimed that he would receive healing through him.
We too (modern day disciples) are required to do the same. We are to point people to Christ and then say the word as if we are Christ (we are his mouthpiece), and then stand back to see the power of God at work.
Thank you Lord for your mighty power. Thank you for all who minister in Jesus’ name. May the world come to believe. Amen.
There are three recorded raisings from the dead performed by Jesus. We have already considered one: “Lazarus, come out” (John 11:43). The second is the widow of Nain’s son: “Young man, I say to you, arise” (Luke 7:14). And the third, which we consider this week, Jairus’ daughter: “Talitha cumi” which means “Little girl, I say to you, arise” (v.41). Surely the consistency of working cannot be missed, nor can it be coincidental. Each time Jesus gives a short word of command. This word is heard, received and responded to.
But as ever, faith is the prerequisite. Without faith it is not only impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6), but it is more or less impossible for God to work through us. A world in rebellion and unbelief stifles God’s activity.
Jesus had to work hard to create the ambience of faith in order for the little girl to be brought back to life. Jairus, her father, had to overcome his status as a ruler of the local synagogue. Not only did he have to risk the disapproval of his congregation, but he also came in abject humility to fall at the feet of Jesus. This man expressed true love for his daughter; he would do anything for her. And the direction of his hope was Jesus.
All was well at first, Jesus “went with him” (v.24), but then disaster struck. Jesus was diverted and distracted with the needs of the woman who had been haemorrhaging for the past twelve years (the same length of time that Jairus’ daughter had been living). During this delay news came of the girl’s death. But Jesus strengthened the father’s faith, “Do not fear, only believe” (v.36). When they arrived at the house, Jesus put out all the unbelievers and scornful mourners. He took with him his strongest (in faith) disciples and the child’s parents. Their combined faith and love enabled Jesus to exercise that confident authority over all evil: “Little girl, I say to you, arise” (v.41).
Thank you Lord for those who are strong in faith. May we encourage one another so that we can become channels of your power to heal and save. Amen.