Welcome to the Mountjoy Ministries Blog

This blog was authored by Bryan W. Sheldon, author and Bible teacher. His books are listed below. The studies in the blog are offered in the desire that they may be helpful in directing readers to the truths contained in the Bible.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Christianity Considered 5

Experiencing the Gospel

So far in this series we have considered the facts of the gospel. That there was an individual named Jesus of Nazareth, that He was God walking this earth in human form—That He died on a cross at the hands of the Jews and the Romans—that He rose from the dead and returned to heaven in bodily form. Now we need to consider the experience of the gospel. We must look at those examples presented to us, of people whose lives were radically changed, when they placed their trust in what Jesus did when He lived, died and rose again.

It is Luke who provides us the most information in this respect, in the fifth book of the New Testament called, ‘The Acts of the Apostles’. The first seven chapters deal with events in Jerusalem after the ascension of Jesus. It details the birth of the Christian Church, with thousands converted and Peter at the heart of it all. It is right that the great sweeping movement of the Spirit of God should be recorded and we should be aware of the way the Church was born. But for our purpose we are more interested in how the gospel influenced individuals rather than large groups, and Luke, the consummate historian, includes in his record how the gospel changed the lives of individual men and women. For example, in chapters 8, 9 and 10 we have evidence of the effect of the gospel of Christ upon three men, an African statesman, a Jewish Rabbi and a Roman centurion.
The African Statesman.

Here is a man, evidently a person who had embraced the religion of the Jews, returning to Ethiopia where he held high office in government. He was in his chariot reading a scroll of Isaiah the prophet—that is, a portion of the sacred writings of the Jews. He had been up to Jerusalem to attend a festival, and bought the scroll while he was there. Philip, himself a new Christian, met with him and asked if he understood what he was reading. He was reading that part of the Isaiah prophecy that said, "In His humiliation He was deprived of justice. Who can speak of His descendants? For His life was taken from the earth.” (Acts 8:33,34) The Ethiopian asked Philip, "who is the writer referring to?" Philip explained, Isaiah was speaking of the Messiah who was to come and die for the sins of the Jews and the sins of the Gentiles, for “He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; … And the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all”. (Isaiah 53:5,6)

The Ethiopian, already educated regarding the Jewish Messiah—it had been the main subject of conversation and speculation while he had been in Jerusalem — was able to understand the principle of the substitutionary nature of the death of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God and Redeemer of Israel. He asked if he could become a Christian, and be baptized. Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” (Acts 8.37) The African responded in the affirmative, and was baptised there and then.

Emphasised in this conversion are certain important ingredients.

1. At the heart of the encounter is the Scriptures—he was reading his Bible.

2. The message he heard from Philip was regarding the substitutionary death of the Messiah upon the cross.

He demonstrated he had grasped what was involved and embraced it by asking for baptism (a rite that demonstrates a new start).

The Jewish Rabbi.

Saul of Tarsus, Rabbi and special envoy of the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, was given letters of authority to extradite and imprison any followers of Jesus who had fled to Damascus. He himself was to execute the extradition warrant. He was on this mission, and had almost reached Damascus when he had a traumatic experience. He was blinded by the glory of God, and heard a voice speaking to him out of heaven. It was Jesus Himself, asking “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” He fell to the ground and acknowledged that Jesus was alive and the true Messiah of Israel. He became a follower of Christ from that day on.

Emphasised in Saul’s conversion are the following.

1. The Lord Jesus Christ Himself, robed in the glory of God.

2. That He was alive and the resurrection really did take place.

3. Saul also demonstrated his commitment by being baptised.

The Roman Centurion.

The third conversion is that of Cornelius, a soldier in the employ of Rome, who was a ‘God-fearer’. He already had some knowledge of the Jewish religion, and demonstrated his generous disposition by acts of kindness and gifts of money to the local synagogue. Peter was instructed to visit him and preach the gospel. Peter, initially reluctant to visit a non-Jew, finally acceded and began to explain to Cornelius and his household something of the person and work of Jesus, the Messiah. But before Peter could come to the end of his sermon the Spirit of God had fallen on the assembled company, a clear witness that they had been accepted for salvation. This Gentile household was the first among the non-Jewish population to embrace Christianity.

The main points to identify here are as follows:

1. The Spirit of God (everyone in the household was affected by His presence.

2. The ascension of Christ because the Spirit of God was only available as Cornelius and his household experienced it, after the return of Jesus to heaven.

And again, the decision of the household members was seen in the rite of baptism. (Acts 10.47)

In summarising these three important personal conversions, there are some things to remark on.

The Bible makes them representative. The group is made up of a Jewish proselyte, a Jew and a Gentile. They also represent the three main population streams that rose from the sons of Noah, i.e. Ham, Shem and Japheth. If they are representative, I would suggest that the main ingredients needed to bring a soul from darkness to light, from death to life must be included here. So let’s pull the central features of the three experiences together.

The main features of the three experiences

(1) The Scriptures (the Bible, the Word of God), which was the both the start and the heart of the conversion of the African statesman.

(2) The Person and Work of Christ.

(i) In the first narrative, Philip preached to the Ethiopian the truths concerning ‘Jesus’, especially explaining the crucifixion since he was reading from Isaiah 53, the prophecy of the suffering servant of Jehovah.

(ii) In the second, Saul asked, ‘who are you, Lord?’ and was told, ‘I am Jesus’. This put the resurrection of Christ at the heart of the conversion. He had encountered the risen Christ, even though previously he had been convinced that stories of the resurrection were a fabrication of the imagination of the disciples.

(iii) In the third, Peter speaks of the death and resurrection of Jesus to the household of Cornelius, but it is His ascension that is the background to the gift of the Holy Spirit which was enjoyed by the Roman centurion and his family in the third of the three examples. (See Acts 2.33)

(3) The Spirit of God is active in all conversions, and is especially highlighted in the third of the above examples.

It could be that these are the essential elements in any true conversion.

In respect of the Word of God, Paul wrote, “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God”. (Rom.10.17). It is the Bible that provides the information that enables an intelligent response to the gospel.

In respect of the person and work of the Lord. Jesus, Son of God, died, was buried, rose again and returned to heaven so that those who personally accept His substitutionary death might also have eternal life and join Him in heaven.

In respect of the work of the Spirit of God. Jesus said, “Except a man be born of … the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God”. (John 3.5) It is the Spirit of God that enables a spiritual response to the appeal of the gospel.
In the next blog we will look at one or two more examples of people that embraced the gospel and had their lives changed for the better.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Christianity Considered 4 (Cont)

Jesus rose from the dead

But what kind of being was He?

Granted that Mary and the disciples met with someone, and granted that it was Jesus raised from the dead. But was He the same as before? Others had been raised from the dead, even after three days and three nights in the tomb, but it was only an extension to their earthly life. They died at a later date. What is different about this resurrection? What is different about this existence? Paul said it was the first of its kind. Jesus was the ‘firstfruits’ of this new experience. (1 Cor.15.20,23) By using the word ‘firstfruits’ he indicates that the raising of Jesus, while being the first, would be followed by others. And his examination of the whole subject illuminates the issue before us, for he asked and answered the questions that we are considering. He asked:

“How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?”

Paul says, what happened to Christ will happen to those who are His disciples. Those who are ‘in Christ’ will also know, at a future date, a similar resurrection. As Jesus was raised to die no more, so also those that are Christ’s, for He “will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like His glorious body”. (Phil. 3:21) The word is transform. We are to be transformed—but from what—to what? Paul answers by describing the differences between a terrestrial body and a spiritual body. (1 Cor. 15:42-44) Using the image of a seed being sown, he lists the contrasts between our current earthly bodies, and the body we will enjoy after the resurrection.

“The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable;
it is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory;
it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power;
it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.”

The new body will be immortal, glorious, powerful and spiritual, in contrast to the weak, decaying, mortal frame that we currently occupy. This is a remarkable contrast but has he got any evidence? Does he know of anyone who has gone through this transformation? Yes. Jesus! Paul says our new body will be like “His glorious body”. John, the beloved disciple, said, “we shall be like Him”, that is like the resurrected Jesus. (1 John 3.2) Well, let’s re-examine the eye-witness testimonies and ask some pertinent questions.
Where did He get His clothes?

The resurrected Jesus always appeared fully clothed, but brought through no clothes from His earthly life. He was crucified naked, (His regular clothes were taken by the Roman soldiers), and the grave clothes He was buried in were left in the tomb. This suggests that the spiritual body can either clothe itself, or give itself the appearance of being dressed. Even to the degree that to one, He was thought to be a gardener, to others He was thought to be a traveling Rabbi, and then again to others that He was a fisherman. And all these were His close companions.

Why did they not recognise Him at first?

There is something different, indeed something new, about the resurrection body. So much so, that though they saw Him, yet they did not know Him. But then, when He did or said something familiar - then they recognized Him. This applied, even to those who knew Him well.
Here are some examples.

Mary thought the stranger near the grave of Jesus was the gardener—initially not recognising Him. But when He said her name (the something familiar)—then she knew it was her Lord.

The two on the road to Emmaus spent some considerable time in His presence thinking He was a visitor to the area. Yet when He accepted their invitation to share a meal with them and said grace (the something familiar), they recognised Him.

The disciples in the boat did not recognise the stranger on the shore until they were instructed to repeat what they had done when Jesus had first called Peter (the something familiar). Then they were aware that it was Jesus.

And though He kept company with the disciples for nearly seven weeks, sometimes in public, He was never seen/recognised by any unbeliever. How remarkable!

How did He travel?

His body was a spiritual body. With the spirit as its engine, it appeared and disappeared at will. It travelled at His bidding anywhere and everywhere. He was seen in Jerusalem and Emmaus and Jerusalem again and Galilee and Jerusalem yet again, sometimes with hardly any time interval between. He entered rooms that were locked, without opening doors or windows. Even the force of gravity could not hold Him. Such are some of the abilities of the resurrection body.

A final question

Why is the resurrection so important? We will let Paul answer it. “But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty”. (1 Cor. 15:13,14) In other words, no resurrection—no salvation. But Christ did rise, and become the first to conquer death. Hallelujah!