[Taken from the monthly Notes, March, 2013]
The parable of the workers in the vineyard [Matthew 20:1-16] is surely designed to evoke a reaction from readers in every age. The details are simple enough. A head of house seeks workers for a day, and hires them ‘early in the morning,’ offering a very fair and entirely just, “fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work”; a denarius being just that (v. 2). There would be nothing remarkable in the parable were it not that the master continued hiring throughout the day, even to as late as 5.00 pm, hiring on faith that he’d pay what was ‘right’. Then came the kicker: all labourers received the same—a denarius—a full day’s pay! What generosity! What kindness! The early workers were seriously aggrieved, no doubt arguing that if the master graciously was paying such an exorbitant rate for as little as an hour’s work, then surely he ought to be more gracious still and pay them considerably more than what they themselves had initially agreed was entirely proper. The master simply reminded them that he had been unjust to no-one and that it was his prerogative to show grace as he chose. And there the parable stopped, hanging, leaving Jesus’ hearers to make sense of it as best they could: a master who continues to call workers into his vineyard and who is at the same time just and generous, and workers, some of them anyway, who thought this grossly unfair. (No doubt the rest were overjoyed!!)
The kingdom of heaven is like this, Jesus said. His hearers would quickly associate the “vineyard” with that of Israel, God’s “special planting” of the Old Testament [e.g. see Isaiah 5:1-7]. The vineyard owner thus quickly identifies as God, so that obeying Him and working faithfully in order to seek a promised [read ‘covenanted’] reward was also reasonable enough. But the point of the parable was about grace, not works; grace that is free and overwhelming, and yet at the same time a grace that does not contradict the Owner’s promised word; grace that is independent of one’s works; grace that treats all alike however long the day in the vineyard has lasted; grace for all who come by faith in response to the summons to come; grace that is not to be grumbled against or begrudged to others; grace that draws our attention away from ourselves and always unto the magnanimity of the giver.
The Kingdom of heaven is like this, Jesus said; and it is, even as we realise that no one parable can exhaust all there is to know about the wonderful relationship God initiates with sinners, none of whom deserve, in any way, any good thing at all. As we come up to the Easter season, with its annual reminder of the historicity of the crucifixion, burial and resurrection of our Lord Jesus, we focus on something vitally important. We realise that if we want God to reward us on our merits and the quality of our obedience, then we shall have nothing. In our sin we have “done what we ought not to have done and left undone what we ought to have done,” as the old prayer put it. As we let the parable speak, none of us have ‘worked a full day’; none of us have fulfilled the Father’s stated requirements. If we are to receive anything good; it is all because of grace; grace which credits to us the same righteous reward that Jesus has merited. He alone is the faithful 6.00 o’clock worker!
How different is Jesus from the 6.00 am workers in the parable! They begrudged grace to those perceived as less worthy than themselves, whereas He delights to share His good things completely in eternal praise of the Father’s grace! He satisfies divine justice totally AND He makes divine grace possible in prefect harmony with that justice, so that no accusation against it can stand. Our reward is in Him!
Our calling is to acknowledge that grace and declare it to others, calling upon them to repent of their sin, come, and take a place in the vineyard before the day ends.
[The editorial this month comes from the book, By Grace Alone, by Sinclair Ferguson, published by Reformation Trust. Paragraphing has been altered to fit, but not the text, except where indicated by …]
Satan’s third fiery dart is his suggestion that despite our experience of forgiveness as Christians we still will face condemnation someday. How should we defend against this flaming arrow? What is the difference between accusation and condemnation? Condemnation takes place when an accusation against us proves to be well founded. … Satan constantly accuses believers. Though he has no power to condemn them—“there is no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1)—his goal is to make them feel condemned.
If Satan accuses me and I then respond: “you are right. I look within my heart and I see my sinfulness. I have no standing in God’s presence,” then Satan’s condemning words will overwhelm me and I will lose my enjoyment of the grace of God.
The truth is that, in myself, I am condemned, because I remain a sinner. That is why we sometimes mistakenly listen to Satan, and we are tempted to believe him rather than to believe God. We make the mistake of listening to his accusations based on our ongoing sinfulness. We lose sight of the righteousness of Christ. Having been accused and forgetting that our only righteousness is in Christ, we feel condemned. This is why it is important to rest our minds and hearts in the gospel that is outside us, on the righteousness that is in Christ that becomes ours by faith in Him…
Think of Simon Peter. He sinned. He denied his Lord. Isolated from Jesus and the other disciples, he must have longed for a hiding place. What fiery darts must have penetrated his conscience on that dark Jerusalem night. What self-condemning thoughts must have flooded his mind: “I didn’t have the courage to stand up for my Lord and now he is going to be crucified. There’s nothing I can do about it. There’s no way back for me. My situation is hopeless. I am lost.” That is a desolating experience. But sometimes Christian believers do say that.
Where will you look when there is no way back for you? Paul’s answer is exactly the same as Peter’s: “Christ Jesus, who died, who was raised to life, is at the right hand of God, and is interceding for me.”
Immediately after Peter denied his Lord a third time, Jesus turned and looked at him and “Peter remembered the word of the Lord.” (Luke 22:61). Was it this word: “Simon, Simon! Indeed, Satan has asked for you, that he may sift you a wheat. But I have prayed for you, that your faith should not fail; and when you have returned to Me, strengthen your brethren” (Luke 22:31-32)?
Christ’s sacrifice for our sin was finished in His death on the cross. But His ministry did not cease then, when He rose from the grave or even when He ascended to. the right hand of the Father. No, Jesus’ ministry continues even now. He is present with His Father on our behalf. He is interceding for us. What a relief to know this when you have made a mess of life, when you feel the accusations of Satan and condemn yourself. You are ashamed to go into the presence of God. You go to church and look around thinking you are a hypocrite. You feel a failure—indeed you have failed. Remember, then, that Jesus is at the right hand of the Father. Remember that He is there for your sake. He died for you once; He intercedes for you forever.
[Taken form the monthly Notes, for January, 2013] From the moment our alarm clocks jolt us awake in the morning to the last flicker of eyelids as we doze off to sleep, our lives are measured by time. Sometimes we may wish it were not so but the inevitable flow of time is something we cannot avoid; it is inherent in the fact of creation and is part of all that God declared Good. When God created plant and animals, he did so with the capacity to grow and to reproduce and he provided all the mechanisms towards that end. This takes time. Seeds do not set in an instant, just as babies take time to grow in the womb, and it is the same for all living things. He even created the means of measuring time [Gen 1:14]. Our ability to refine these measures and calculate to nano- and pico- seconds is simply one example of the ability to “rule” and “subdue” mentioned in Gen 1:28. Wanting things to go faster and better and higher is not inherently wrong.
Of course, time has no meaning for a God who IS, eternally; who does not change nor have any need to because he is ever sufficient, and knows all things. We can therefore say that time itself is a product of creation and that God is sovereign over time in all its outworking. Now sin can be seen in many ways, but among all that it is it is a challenge to the sovereignty of God. So, for sinners, God’s rule over time is something rebelled against as with all his other constraints, [e.g. his 10 Commandments]. For sinful humanity, the spring to “faster and better” is now the glory of man and the gratification of self. [For one example, see Gen 9:1-7 with 11:4ff ]. What we know as impatience is simply the way our rebellion against God’s rule of his created order shows itself. “I want it NOW because I am to be served when I want!”
God, not man, is the God of the instantaneous. He can effect by decree in an instant what would normally take a lifetime [or more] to achieve. But he often does not, regardless of how hard we pray for the instantaneous! This surely is not to frustrate us but to remind us that he ordains that normally things happen as a result of due process and his appointed means. As in creation, so with our re-creation. Our justification is the act of instant; our sanctification is a work that takes time.
There are many good things we are to desire and to desire more of. We desire the evangelisation of our neighbourhood and of every nation, and the translation of the scriptures into every language. We generally understand that all these things take time and we pray and live accordingly. But we must not forget that own spiritual growth also takes time. If we desire to grow in our knowledge of and love for Jesus, to have mastery over temptation, to be increasingly transformed by the renewal of our minds, and so on, we must not separate our desire for these things from the means that God has appointed for us to achieve these things [See e.g. 1 Peter 2:1-3, Heb 5:14]. There are no instant short-cuts and the instruction of Psalm 37:7 Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him… is not encouraging passivity or laziness.
Yes we all should desire more, but patiently, in the ways God has appointed. Yes, the work of grace in us can seem slow, but if it is God’s work and done his way, we must not [impatiently!] despise it. Impatience declares that we know better, that we have a better method, or that God is somehow inadequate in my special situation. Not surprisingly, such an attitude grieves the Holy Spirit and causes us to miss seeing so many of God’s blessings. We shrivel. When God tells us that the fruit of his Spirit is “love, joy, peace patience, … “ he is simply telling us that he has freed us from the demands of our and others’ timetables, and from the short-term lure of human wisdom. That is the way to live steadfastly and at peace, for the long term.
[originally published in the Monthly Notes, December, 2012]
Last year, all of Australia participated in the national census. Though tedious at the time, the data gathered provided useful information for statisticians and planners from various government departments and industry. It also highlights the great variety [some say “inequality” but that is a loaded term] that exists among suburbs within the Greater Melbourne area. There are “expensive” suburbs, and “cheaper” ones; old, quiet, leafy ones and new subdivisions with hardly a tree in sight. Some suburbs have good social infrastructure; others leave people depressingly alone. Some suburbs are mono-cultural, whereas others are so diverse there seems to be no unifying element at all, while still others are in such a state of transition that no-one knows what they will be like in 10 years time. One of the great changes is the influx of people whose heritage is neither European, Ango-Saxon nor Celtic. In the midst of all this change, the Church is called to continue the witness to Jesus Christ.
Sometimes census data can be helpful. A study of demography can suggest to local congregations how they might prayerfully engage in evangelism. Sometimes it can be a hindrance: especially as some church growth theories encourage churches to niche-market themselves by identifying a particular group and to target them only. This might sound like good pragmatic advice until we remember that it is inherent in the gospel that social divisions are broken down, not reinforced. As Paul wrote to the Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). The context is clear; when it comes to our status in Christ, all human distinctions such as social class, nationality, wealth and sexuality should make no difference to us because they make no difference to God. Success in evangelism is never given on the basis of statistics or class. The Gospel’s power is in Christ, and Him alone. This is why the apostle James [2:1-9] spoke so severely against what he called “favouritism”. It was a basic denial of the sufficiency of Christ, and to show such favouritism was a serious sin — akin to breaking any and all of the 10 Commandments!
In one sense, it is inevitable that congregations take on something of the ethos of the suburbs in which they exist, or the ethos of the majority of attendees. Our task is to ensure that this ethos does not close out visitors but opens up to embrace them. As the gospel is for all nations, it is able to break down dividing walls created by culture, language, place, education, time, wealth, etc. This is what the early Church found so hard to accept. For centuries, Gentiles who came to faith in God had to commit themselves to becoming covenanted members of the nation of Israel. Once the work of Christ was finished, all these requirements were done away with [Acts 10-11] and Jews and Gentiles stood on an equal footing. All one in Christ Jesus! As a result, the Church should be the one place in a fallen world where the variety that our different backgrounds represent does not deliberately alienate others.
The suburbs which surround our Church buildings are changing rapidly, but the Gospel we have to bring does not. As we ponder our calling, let us never forget the wonder that the Son of God who was born in Bethlehem as a result of a census, is the One who gives us the basis to rise above every variation in background and culture that modern censuses show. As we have occasion to welcome others, we are to do so with great joy, even if doing so takes us out of our comfort zone. In receiving them it is as if we were receiving Jesus Christ Himself[Matt 25:40]!
When Jesus spoke his parables, he did not do so to make his message easier to grasp at the time. This is a misunderstanding, based in part on modern assumptions that the intent of any “illustration” must surely have been to clarify, not to cause further curiosity. But as superficially appealing as this assumption might be, it simply ignores the straightforward testimony of the Biblical text. Jesus himself said that the purpose of parables was not to clarify, and to make that point, quoted some strong words from the prophet Isaiah [6:9-10] which implied that the purpose of a parable might even be to obscure! Even His disciples were puzzled. [See Matthew 13:10,36]
So, if not even Jesus’ disciples could understand the point of the parables without a special briefing session, what was the point of a parable? Why say something that was deliberately obscure, and then cry out, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear?” How could someone be held to account for not comprehending something that needed more explanation? It sounds perverse.
All this has to be kept in its context. The parables were deliberately obtuse but this was not intended to be perverse, but tantalising! Those who heard the parables would know that they had heard something profound: they just did not have the right key to work out what it all meant. Jesus knew that. When the disciples came to Jesus and asked what they meant, he began to give them the keys they needed: the one who sows is the Son of Man, the seed is the Word of God, the enemy is the devil, there is a harvest at the end of the age, and so on. But even then, just as also in Isaiah’s day, Jesus knew that they needed more before His words would be understood. This ‘more’ he gave them after his resurrection as he explained to His disciples the whole thrust of the Old Testament, His identity as the Son of Man, and His place in the world-wide saving purposes of God.
We can know all this in advance as we come to a parable. We therefore have a great advantage over the original hearers: we know how “the story of Jesus” ends. We know of the cross, the resurrection, and Jesus’ subsequent ascension into heaven. We know that He is going to come back. We also know of the place of the Word of God and the wonderful work of the Holy Spirit whom Jesus sent in the fullness of time at Pentecost to be with every believer in a gracious and personal way. Now, and only now, can we return to the idea of a parable as a help to our understanding. Once we have the key, but not before, the central meaning of a parable becomes “obvious”. [So, if we share a parable with someone who does not know Jesus, we must also show how it is to be understood in His unique context.]
So, how shall we use the parables for ourselves? The way Jesus intended! They are to stir up questions, as we ponder on how a particular illustration fits the kingdom of heaven and our place in it. They send us to other part of the Bible. They ask us questions as well as give answers; e.g. which soil do our lives parallel [Matt 13:18-23] and are we properly dressed [Matt 22:12]? They increase our faith when we “don’t seem to see any results” after all our evangelism. They increase our patience, but at the same time stir our zeal.
One thing is clear. So many parables warn of separation, rejection & darkness that we cannot miss the point: a false faith is of no value now or on Judgment Day. It is as useful as a weed! So, when Jesus celebrates His great Supper [another parable] at the end of history, make sure you are there on His terms! [Matt 22:1-14]