We read about the Twelve Apostles[1] in all four gospels. While John doesn’t mention the selection and calling of these men, he does refer to The Twelve several times. The Twelve[2] became the designated title for Jesus’ closest friends.

Choosing Twelve

Mark tells us that Jesus went up to a mountainside and called to him those he wanted, and they came to him. He appointed twelve—designating them apostles—that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach.

How would those left out have felt? Jesus recognised something we all need to learn: not everyone can be close to us. Jesus had hundreds of followers but only twelve apostles. And even amongst the Twelve, Jesus had three close friends – Peter, James and John – and John was his closest friend.

Luke mentions Jesus made these decisions after spending the night praying to God. It’s always wise to spend time in prayer before making important decisions.

The Unlikely

Jesus’ choice of twelve was a symbolic gesture. Initially, the people of Israel consisted of twelve tribes.

Four of the guys, Simon Peter and his brother Andrew, along with James and John, were fishermen. They would have been often ceremonially unclean because of their work, making them unlikely spiritual leaders. Add to that James and John’s fiery temper. Jesus called them Boanerges, the Aramaic term meaning “sons of thunder.”

Christianity.com describes James and John as “rough-hewn guys—amazing, colourful characters. They would not back away from a confrontation. In fact, they might even have looked forward to one. They could be very aggressive. And they also could be very insensitive.” On one occasion, Jesus was speaking about his impending death. The brothers asked, “Can we sit on either side of you in your kingdom?” Imagine you tell people you have one week to live, and they ask if they can have your car.

On another occasion, the brothers wanted to destroy an entire Samaritan town with fire. These guys were volatile young adults, but Jesus saw something in them that was worth choosing.

The Obscure

Philip was from Bethsaida, the same city Andrew and Peter were from. Philip was shy and introverted.

Nathanael was cynical. John writes that Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Nathanael asked, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” I understand Nathanael’s response because Nazareth was a small rural town of 500 – 1000 people, and Jesus was a common name, as it still is in Latin countries. It would be the same as me telling you that I’d found the Messiah, and his name is Bob from Mt. Isa. Jesus responded to Nathanael by declaring he had a clean spirit.

Two other disciples are obscure: James and Judas. These guys should not be confused with John’s brother, James, or Judas Iscariot. James is the son of Alphaeus and is identified in church tradition as James the Younger or James the Less. His brother is Matthew, the tax collector. Judas is also called Jude and Thaddaeus. He is the author of the little letter, Jude, tucked in before Revelation.

The Surprising

The final four apostles are unexpected inclusions in the Twelve for various reasons. Thomas is known for his pessimistic nature and reminds me of Eeyore, the gloomy donkey from Winnie the Pooh. For example, when the disciples learned about Lazarus’ death, Thomas said, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

Tax Collectors were despised amongst the Jewish population as Roman collaborators, so it was extraordinary that Jesus would welcome Matthew, knowing well that his inclusion would rattle the nerves of the other disciples and the population he was trying to reach.

Even more astounding was Simon the Zealot. Zealots were a Jewish sect noted for their uncompromising opposition to pagan Rome and the polytheism it professed. The Zealots were an aggressive political party who despised even Jews who sought peace with the Roman authorities. Extremists among the Zealots turned to terrorism and assassination and became known as Sicarii (“dagger men”).

Finally, Judas Iscariot. His last name indicates his hometown, a “man of Kerioth” in the Judean hill country. Judas was Jesus’ treasurer, a thief, and a traitor. I find it surprising that Jesus chose such a person, knowing he would be a betrayer.

The Lessons

We can learn some valuable lessons from Jesus’ choice of the Twelve. Firstly, God calls imperfect people.[3] The Bible is honest and tells human stories, warts and all. Many people in scripture wouldn’t be allowed in our churches! Have you ever thought God couldn’t use you? Think again!

Secondly, God calls different people. One of the most significant difficulties we all face is relational challenges, and Jesus selected The Twelve, fully aware of their various personalities and the resulting clashes. In my years of pastoring, I’ve seen many people leave the church because they fell out with a fellow believer. They naively go to another church only to experience the same thing. Most of the New Testament epistles address interpersonal conflict. Why do we think a church community would be any different today?

Finally, God empowers people with his Spirit. In scripture, we see the twelve ragtag apostles entirely revolutionised by the power of the Holy Spirit. They were transformed from Jesus-denying, fearful, deserting followers into brave believers speaking boldly in the face of persecution, performing miracles and leading a church of thousands. As followers of Jesus, we must rely on the Holy Spirit and allow him to transform us.

The End

What happened to The Twelve? All but two of them became martyrs for their faith – Judas committed suicide, and John died of old age:

  • James, the brother of John, was beheaded with a sword by King Herod
  • Thomas preached in India and was slain with an arrow.
  • Simon the Zealot and Judas, son of James, were crucified.
  • Nathanael was beaten, crucified, and then beheaded.
  • Andrew, Peter’s brother, was crucified.
  • Matthew was run through with a spear.
  • Philip was crucified and then stoned to death.
  • Peter was crucified upside down.
  • James, the son of Alphaeus, was stoned by the Jews.


[1] Greek: apostelló means “to send on a defined mission by a superior.”

[2] From Romans onwards, other people, including women, are designated apostles.

[3] For some entertaining insight into the Twelve Apostles, read this amusing article.

On the one hand, the Gospel is broad and spacious, a message with its arms wide open welcoming all to come and receive God’s grace, mercy and the gift of eternal life.  The Gospel is open-hearted, it says, “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Acts 2:21).  

On the other hand, the longer you follow Jesus, the narrower the road gets. It’s like the Arts Centre tower in Melbourne – broad at the base thinner at the top!

Crowd Versus Disciple

Jesus frequently had large crowds following him. Sometimes he healed them, other times he taught them. His teaching to the masses was invariably tough as he laid down the cost of what being His disciple really meant. Frequently, when the crowd got too big, he’d thin it out by teaching tough.

Consider Mark 8:34 where Jesus “called the crowd to him along with his disciples.” In other words, there’s a difference between the two. Today there are many in the Christian crowd but, when it comes to the pointy end, fewer people put their hands up to be disciples.

True Disciples

What does it mean to be a disciple? The Greek word is mathetes. It’s the word from which we get our English word mathematics, which means, “to apply yourself to study, learning and knowledge.” Jesus frequently encouraged people to become his mathetes, his disciples who would use their mental effort to think things through, to count the cost of what it means to be his follower: somebody who applied themselves to study, learning and knowledge of the Scriptures, and the lifestyle they require. That is, a people who wouldn’t just know the Bible, they’d learn it and then live it out in their daily lives.

A disciple counts the cost of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. They ask themselves the question, “Is it worth it?” And they answer with a resounding YES!

On one occasion, large crowds were travelling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple … those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples(Luke 14:25-33).

Note the three kinds of people who Jesus says, “cannot be my disciples.” Those who love their family more than they love him; those who are not prepared to suffer hardship; and those who value possessions more than him. That is, if you hold onto your money and possessions even though you’d be well able to meet the needs of others, you cannot be Jesus’ disciple. Whatever a disciple has is always on call for the Master’s use.

A Disciple Counts The Cost

It’s hard teaching that’s just as necessary today as it has ever been. The contemporary church draws big crowds, but how many in that crowd have counted the cost to become a disciple? My guess is very few, just as it was in Jesus’ day. When he faced the cross, they all deserted. After the resurrection they started drifting back, by the day of Pentecost there were 120. Where was the crowd?

I was speaking to a Christian leader this week who specialises in church health. He told me the story of a pastor who was very proud of his large church, until God spoke to him and said, “your church isn’t big, it’s fat.” It’s easy for us to look at a big church and to think all is well. But is it a crowd or is that church making disciples?

Are You A Disciple?

Jesus frequently attempted to convert crowds into disciples. Sometimes it worked, but invariably the masses moved away. So, are you part of the Christian crowd or are you a disciple? Is Jesus your Lord? Does he have control of and access to everything you are and all you have? When things get tough will you leave too?



I’ve just concluded a six-week teaching series on The Lord’s Prayer at Bayside Church.  I’ve loved studying the world’s most well known prayer as well as teaching others its timeless truth.  The prayer ends, “… and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one” (or simply “from evil”)

It’s strange that Jesus would teach His people to ask God not to lead them into temptation when the Bible clearly teaches that He doesn’t tempt people?  Consider James 1:13-15, When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.”  In these verses the Bible plainly states that temptation occurs because of our own evil desires that are to be resisted rather than indulged.  God does not lead people into temptation so why should we pray for him not to?

The answer is found in what I consider to be a better paraphrase of this verse: “do not permit us to go into temptation” or “let us not sin when we are tempted.”

These renditions recognise five facts:

  1. The fact that God does not tempt anyone
  2. The fact that Jesus was tempted in every way like we are
  3. The fact that we all have a natural predisposition to go astray
  4. The fact that we need to pray about this tendency every day!
  5. The fact that prayerlessness will lead us into temptation

These truths are well illustrated in the events surrounding Jesus’ arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane.  He had already told his disciples that they would all fall away.  Peter was adamant that, even if the others did, he wouldn’t.  To that Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, today—yes, tonight—before the rooster crows twice you yourself will disown me three times” (Matt 26:34 NIV). Peter emphatically insisted that Jesus was wrong and so did the other disciples.

In the next scene Jesus and his followers go to Gethsemane.  He takes Peter, James and John with him to another part of the garden and confides in them that he is deeply distressed, troubled and overwhelmed with sorrow to such an extent that he feels it will kill him.  Jesus asks the three men to stay awake and be vigilant.  Jesus then goes a short distance away, falls on the ground and prays that the upcoming torture and crucifixion would be taken away from him.  He then returns to his disciples and finds them sleeping.  He quizzes Peter asking him if he couldn’t even stay awake, be vigilant and prayerful for an hour, after which he speaks these immortal words, “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matt 26:41 NIV).  This whole scene is repeated twice more until Judas betrays Jesus and the disciples flee.  Peter denies Jesus three times just as He predicted.

In this story Jesus teaches that attentive prayer is the best way to resist temptation.  That’s why he teaches, “do not permit us to go into temptation” or “let us not sin when we are tempted.”  Temptation is not sin, in fact Jesus faced all of the same temptations we do, yet he did not sin.  Our prayer in times of temptation should be for “Our Father” to give us the strength not to give into it and sin: “deliver us from evil” and also “deliver us from the evil one.” 

Luke’s account of this story gives insight into Satan’s part in temptation when Jesus warns Peter that Satan had asked to sift all of the disciples like wheat.  “But I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:32 NIV).

The evil one and evil often work together.  The answer is our alert and attentive prayer as well as Jesus’ constant prays for us.  Consider these two powerful verses from the Letter to the Hebrews:

Jesus is able, once and forever, to save those who come to God through him. He lives forever to intercede with God on their behalf. (Hebrews 7:25)

Let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most. (Hebrews 4:16)

One of the things I love about the Bible is its honesty.  It doesn’t shy away from people’s faults and failures – or successes.  It reports the good, the bad and the ugly.  I can imagine many of the Bible’s characters, if they were alive today, cringing at what God allowed to be written about them.  I mean we only want people to know the good stuff right?  There’s Noah saying, “Really God, did we have to mention the drunk and naked in the tent incident?”  Abraham would be concerned about reports of him lying – twice!  David would be mortified over the adultery with Bathsheba.  And I could go on about Moses the murderer, Paul the persecutor and Thomas the cynic but I’m sure you get the picture.

In its honesty, the Bible never shies away from the conflicts that happen between people – even good people, Christian people.  In fact, most of the New Testament letters were written to help people work through conflict situations in local churches.   One of the most helpful stories is the reported conflict between Paul and Barnabas (Acts 15:36-41) because it helps us address the question: “Who’s right, who’s wrong?”  Whenever there’s a conflict the temptation is for people to take sides (and sometimes one person is totally in the right and the other completely wrong).  But more often than not we need to sift through details, personalities, points of view, previous experiences and a host of other variables in order to get clarity on the truth.

These two great men – Paul and Barnabas – had been on a missionary trip together, teaching the Gospel and starting local churches.  They’d taken Barnabas’ cousin Mark with them but things had got too tough for the young man and “he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work” (Acts 15:38).

Sometime later Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us go back and visit the believers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing” (Acts 15:36).  Barnabas wanted to take Mark with them, but Paul didn’t think it wise to take him, because of his fickleness on the previous trip.  The result?  “They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the believers to the grace of the Lord. He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches” (Acts 15:39-41).

On the surface, it looks like the Bible sides with Paul, and Barnabas seems to fade from the picture.  But is that the case?  Who’s right, who’s wrong?  Paul was right in that Mark was young and inexperienced and had left them in the lurch on the first trip.  I understand his reticence to take him again so soon.  But Paul was also wrong because – as we will see – he failed to recognise the potential in this young man.  Barnabas was right because he did see the potential in Mark, but he was also wrong in that he most likely allowed the family relationship to cloud his judgment.  Remember that “Barnabas” is just a nickname.  His real name was Joseph but the apostles called him Barnabas, which means “Son of Encouragement.”  That’s the sort of guy he was.  You’d love to be around him because he always looked for the good in others – their potential rather than their problems.

The Bible eventually shows that both men were wrong and both were right.  God blessed Paul and Silas’ work of strengthening and planting local churches, while He also blessed the work of Barnabas who is recognised in Scripture as an apostle, a good man, a prophet and teacher and one through whom God worked miracles.  He faced persecution and risked his life for Jesus.  He was the one who saw Paul’s potential and sought him out to help at the Antioch Church.  And his ability to spot potential paid off when it came to Mark.

Later in the New Testament, we find out that Mark eventually became part of Paul’s apostolic team whom he sent to help the Colossian church writing to them to “welcome him.”  Sometime later Mark helped the apostle Peter who refers to Mark as “my son.”  It’s likely that Mark was with Peter working as a scribe for the Gospel that bears his name.  Mark’s Gospel is widely believed to be Peter’s recollection of the events of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.

At the end of Paul’s life, he wrote to Timothy, “Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry.”  Why was he helpful? Because Barnabas saw and developed Mark’s potential.  So who’s right, who’s wrong?  The answer is simple – both of them were.  The wise person will learn this lesson.

It’s a question I get asked a lot and I’m always happy to answer it – “So Rob, what books do you read?”  I know it’s a cliché but I genuinely do believe that “leaders are readers” and so, I make it a habit to read widely and regularly.  I also enjoy sharing my good reads with others.

Last week I visited one of our Bayside Church connect groups for a Q&A evening.  I occasionally get invited to a connect group and always try to find the time to go along. One of questions was, “What are your top five books you have read and would recommend to others (aside from the Bible)?”  Rather than give the top five books though, I decided to share my “Top 5 Genres” and endorse some books in each one.  So here they are for you, my blog readers.  I hope you’ll find some wisdom and enjoyment in reading some of these recommendations.  Please note that I’ve not listed these genres in any particular order of importance.

  1. Novels

Due to my Christian faith and pastoral/teaching ministry, I tend to spend a lot of time in Bible study and reading books about the Bible so, for me, reading fiction is about getting my head into a completely different space.  I love getting lost in a good novel and particularly enjoy history and thrillers.  My favourite authors are Conn Iggulden, Ken Follett and John Grisham.  I love history and so Conn Iggulden is always a good read, as he weaves history together with believable fiction.  Check out the Emperor and Conqueror series about Julius Caesar and Genghis Khan.  His latest series is “The War of the Roses” and I’ve just downloaded those four books on Kindle.  Anything by Ken Follett is amazing but especially, “Pillars of the Earth” and “World Without End”. And all of John Grisham’s except for “A Painted House” which is one of those books that you keep reading expecting something to happen and then it ends!

  1. Spiritual Formation

By this I’m referring to “the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit and the various methods He uses to bring about spiritual growth in our lives”.

In our fast-paced world, it’s so important for Christians to nurture their soul and their relationship with Jesus.  I’ve found authors like Henri Nouwen, Thomas Merton, C.S. Lewis, Richard Rohr, Tim Keller and Philip Yancey to be so valuable in my own spiritual formation.  Their diligent study, deep relationship with Jesus and well-thought-through reflections on the realities of life, have greatly helped me; especially in the tough times where answers to questions can be in short supply.

  1. Biblical Culture & History

I love reading the Bible devotionally but I also like to study it in depth in order to find out the intended message to the original readers or hearers.  You simply can’t take a two to three thousand year old book that was written by different authors in three languages and various cultures, and expect to come up with a full understanding of the original intention of those authors, without some knowledge of the culture and history of Bible times.  A great help with this has been “The Bible Background Commentaries” in which the authors give the historical and cultural background of every verse in the Bible.  Craig S. Keener has written many helpful books on this subject, as has Kenneth E. Bailey and Thomas Cahill.  I’m currently reading Cahill’s, “The Gifts of the Jews”. Check out, “Misreading Scripture Through Western Eyes” by Brandon O’Brien and Randolph Richards and “The Bible Jesus Read” by Philip Yancey.  Rabbi Abraham Heschel is also a fascinating author.

  1. Personal Interest

I love reading books, magazines and articles on subjects I’m personally interested in as well as on hobbies – anything on fitness, history, movies, gardening, politics and international affairs – and books on puns of course 🙂

  1. Going deeper

Finally, I love to read books that help me go deeper in my faith, leadership and understanding of the Bible.  I’ve always found John Maxwell good on leadership.  The Counterpoints series (Zondervan Publishing) has over 30 titles by dozens of contributing authors from various theological backgrounds.  I’ve read about ten of these so far and they’ve given me a deeper understanding of theology, as well as a greater appreciation of Christians who hold different views on various subjects and why.

Well, that’s the answer to the question, “So Rob, what books do you read?”  I hope it’s helpful and that more than anything you enjoy reading and growing in every area of your life.

The New Testament tells us a great deal about Jesus’ birth, but little is told of his life from then until he started his ministry about the age of 30. We know from the Gospel record that Joseph and Mary travelled from Nazareth to Bethlehem where Jesus was born. By the time the wise men arrived, Jesus was a toddler and he lived with his parents in a house in Bethlehem.

“Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of Herod the king” (Matt 2:1). This means Jesus was born a couple of years before 4BC, as that’s the year Herod died. Due to the threats from King Herod, Joseph was warned to take Mary and Jesus to safety in Egypt. The gift of gold from the Magi would have been especially helpful to fund their journey as asylum seekers.

After 4BC, when Herod had died, Joseph once again received angelic instruction, this time to travel with his young family back to Israel. “But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene” (Matt 2:22). Archelaus was as cruel and treacherous as his father, and within a few months after his accession, he sent in his horsemen to disperse a multitude, and slew more than 3,000 men. Archelaus reigned from 4BC to 6AD and so it was during this time that Joseph, Mary and Jesus relocated to Nazareth and this is where Jesus “grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him.”

It would have been Joseph’s responsibility to teach the young Jesus in the religion of his people (Deut. 6:4-9), and then he would have learned to know and love God from his mother who would teach him to pray and to know the scriptures. Religious instruction was not confined to the home, however. With annual trips to the temple at Jerusalem and practical worship and teaching by the synagogue (Luke 4:16), week after week the boy Jesus heard the scripture in its original Hebrew form, followed by translation into Aramaic, and received instruction from it for daily conduct. Each synagogue established schools. Jesus would have attended school from about six years of age to be taught the scriptures (Luke 4:16-19) and reading and writing of the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek languages. And so Jesus grew, like any other child, from boyhood to manhood.

There’s been a lot of conjecture of what Jesus did during these years. Some say he travelled to Britain to further his education while others suggest he went to India. Within a century of the life of the apostles some wrote that, in his youth, Jesus had a fit of bad temper and struck a companion with death. When accused he cursed his opponents with blindness. Others suggested Jesus mocked his teachers and when they told him off for making clay birds in play on the Sabbath, he caused them to fly. These and many other legends clearly contradict the Bible’s statement that Jesus was without sin.

There is no evidence that Jesus travelled further afield than Jerusalem.  Jesus grew up in Nazareth which archaeology shows it to be a small and very poor village.  The world’s Saviour was not reared in the Bible belt. The inhabitants of Nazareth were notorious for their wickedness. This is proved by the proverbial saying, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” (John 1:46). Jesus is proof that good things can come out of bad places.

It’s likely that Joseph died while Jesus was quite young but even if he were still around, the eldest son of a poor family would have been helping them survive in a subsistence peasant culture.  If Joseph were dead then Jesus would have been working to support his mother and his six younger siblings. Jesus probably worked as a carpenter (Mark 6:3) in Galilee from the age of 12 till 30. Most of the carpentry jobs were in Sepphoris, a village located in the central Galilee region of Israel, six kilometers from Nazareth. Jesus was also a carpenter’s son (Matthew 13:55) or a “tekton”, the Greek word describing a builder, a stoneworker or mason.

Every year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the Festival of the Passover. Only men were required to go so the fact that Mary went shows us how committed she was to her faith in God. Luke’s gospel records one such trip to the Passover Festival when Jesus was twelve years old, “After the festival was over, while his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it … After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.” “Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he was saying to them. Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.” This account shows Jesus’ self-awareness and well as mindfulness of his mission. In this regard it’s interesting to note that at least some of Jesus’ younger years would have been filled with feelings of “being different.” Although I don’t doubt that he enjoyed boyish things when he was younger he was also increasingly aware of who he was and why he was on earth from age 12. This no doubt caused conflict with his siblings – something that is reflected in the gospel accounts when Jesus had begun his ministry (John 7:3-5; Mark 3:21).

The following year at age 13 Jesus would reach Bar Mitzvah – the age of maturity. Most of the customs for Bar Mitzvah ceremonies originated only recently and were not around in the days of the Temple. So Jesus probably did not HAVE a Bar Mitzvah ceremony though he did BECOME Bar Mitzvah at 13. The term teenager wasn’t used until the 1920s in America. Before then adulthood – and the responsibilities that go with it – was assumed from age 13 for boys and 12 for girls.

From this age, as well as working in his craft and supporting his family, it’s likely that Jesus studied with the Pharisees. Jesus was very different to John the Baptist who had his spiritual preparation in the desert. Jesus’ days were filled with hard work, home life and social interaction. As a result we constantly read in the gospels about Jesus being welcomed into people’s homes and lives. Children adored him. He certainly wasn’t a soured-faced religious recluse. His teachings show a man who was well acquainted with his world including nature, history, work, finance, faith, and people from all walks of life.

As he got older it’s likely he took on some responsibilities in the local synagogue that may well have included the public reading and teaching of Scripture. So about the age of 30 – the stage of readiness for the priesthood – Jesus began his public ministry which was only a success because of the disciplined years of formation he had undergone as a child and a young man. We can take many lessons from this not least that a good work ethic is an essential quality for success and satisfaction. Another lesson is that we shouldn’t be in a hurry when it comes to the plan of God for our life. There are no shortcuts. Spend as much time as necessary for God to work in you according to His good pleasure.

Ash Wednesday, a day of fasting, is the first day of Lent in Western Christianity. It occurs 40 days before Easter (excluding Sundays) and is observed by many Christians.

Lent had its origins in Jesus’ 40 days of fasting in the desert, where he overcame three key areas of temptation (Matthew 4:1-11); denying Himself instant gratification, the approval of people and a shortcut to the plan of God. John the Apostle summarised these temptations as “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (1 John 2:16). Jesus’ fast was in preparation of the ministry He was on earth to complete – the salvation of all. The purpose of Lent is to fast for 40 days as preparation for Easter. Sunday’s are not included because Sunday is seen as a commemoration of the Day of Christ’s resurrection and so it should be a feast day and not a fast day!

Ash Wednesday derives its name from the practice of blessing ashes made from palm branches blessed on the previous year’s Palm Sunday and placing them on the heads of participants to the accompaniment of the words “Repent, and believe in the Gospel” or “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Both of these statements are vital truths in the Christian faith, in which we are reminded of our sinfulness and mortality, and thus our need for a Saviour. The simple good news is that through Jesus’ death and resurrection there is forgiveness for all sins, all guilt and all punishment.

Ash Wednesday was originally called “the day of ashes.” It is first mentioned in the earliest copies of the Gregorian Sacramentary and probably dates back to at least the 8th Century. One of the earliest descriptions of Ash Wednesday is found in the writings of the Anglo-Saxon abbot Aelfric (955-1020). In his “Lives of the Saints” he writes, “We read in the books both in the Old Law and in the New that the men who repented of their sins bestrewed themselves with ashes and clothed their bodies with sackcloth. Now let us do this little at the beginning of our Lent that we strew ashes upon our heads to signify that we ought to repent of our sins during the Lenten fast.”

Sackcloth and ashes (or dirt/dust) are mentioned 23 times in the Hebrew Scriptures and four times in the New Testament. As Aelfric suggests, the pouring of ashes on one’s body (and dressing in sackcloth, a very rough material made from goats’ hair) was an ancient practise as an outer manifestation of inner repentance or mourning. In the New Testament, Jesus mentions the practise in Matthew 11:21: “Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.”

The practise of the Ash Wednesday tradition – or the season of Lent – is meaningless, even hypocritical, unless there is a corresponding inner repentance and change of behaviour. This is made clear in Isaiah 58:5-7 when God says,

“Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for a man to humble himself? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying on sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD? “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter– when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?”

The true fasting that God requires is that His people would go without something in order to give to others who have little or nothing. Fasting is not just self-denial but rather a way of bringing equality into a world where the gap between the rich and the poor is getting wider.

With that in mind, I encourage you at this time of year to remember what Jesus has done for each one of us. He has paid the death penalty on the cross; He took the punishment for our wrongdoing upon Himself; He rose again – defeating death, giving eternal life and offering a full pardon to all who place their faith in Him. During Lent you can draw close to Jesus and look for ways in which you – by denying yourself – can bring some life and joy into the lives of others and provide for those who are doing it tough. As Jesus said, “when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters [the hungry, the thirsty, the sick, the prisoner, the foreigner] you were doing it to me!

Since becoming a Christian at the age of 19, I’ve always loved it when the church expresses its God-given unity. God loves it too!  In Psalm 133 He says, How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!” 

Unity here refers to harmony; the opposite is disarray, confusion and chaos.  I’ve been to churches like that – and workplaces and families. It’s not a pretty sight. But unity doesn’t equal uniformity. “Harmony” is a musical term that refers to different notes being played or sung together. When the right notes are heard together there is harmony and it sounds great. But when the wrong notes are played together you get discord and that sounds like nails scraping down a blackboard.  Unity doesn’t mean that we’re all the same it just means that we “play well together!”

The result of unity is always blessing (something that makes you happy, contented and joyful). The Psalmist says that unity is like precious oil poured on the head … running down on Aaron’s beard, down on the collar of his robe.” Anointing with oil was common on festivals and joyous occasions. In Scripture oil has become a symbol of joy, abundance and fragrance. The abundance of aromatic oil would fill the whole atmosphere with a magnificent aroma. Unity in a church, a workplace or a family brings joy and smells great!

So unity is like oil and it’s also like dew: It is as if the dew of Hermon were falling on Mount Zion.”  Mount Hermon is the highest point in Israel (over 2,200 metres above sea level). Mount Zion on the other hand is just a small hill. By implication a big mountain would naturally receive a larger amount of dew than a small hill, but “when God’s people live together in unity … it is as if the dew of Hermon were falling on Mount Zion.” The blessing outweighs the size; there is abundance.

It’s there in the place of unity that God bestows or commands His blessing; and it’s a command that will be carried out! You live under the commanded blessing of God when you live in unity with those around you. And so, “if it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” (Rom 12:18).

Unity doesn’t mean that we all agree on everything. It doesn’t mean that we’re all the same. It means that we work through the issues, we choose to love each other despite our differences and we focus on the things we have in common: we are redeemed by the same Saviour; we serve the same Master; we cherish the same hope; we’re looking forward to the same heaven; we’re subject to the same trials, temptations, and sorrows; we have the same comfort and we’re focused in the same direction.

Unity was so important to Jesus that He prayed for the unity of His Church (John 13 and 17). But when we look around at much of the church today, it would be easy to get the idea that Jesus doesn’t always get His prayers answered. Christians in local congregations often have trouble getting along together; to say nothing of reaching across denominational, stylistic and doctrinal boundaries. How tragic this is when we consider the power of unity and love amongst believers:

“That the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:21)

“To let the world know that you sent me and have loved them …” (John 17:23)

All men will know that you are my disciples that you are my disciples if you love one another.” (John 13:35)

Christian unity is the single most powerful key in reaching people with the Good News of Jesus. The world around us is supposed to get an understanding of how much God loves them by looking at the way God’s people love one another. No wonder unity has been so ferociously attacked over the centuries; no wonder it’s so hard to encourage God’s people to gather in unity.

I am under no illusion that this blog will cause the whole church to suddenly unite in answer to Jesus’ prayer; but maybe some of this will be food for thought that will cause us to look again at the power of unity.


I’ve heard many Christian people over the years – including preachers – talk about how God calls us to live a “selfless” life. But is that true? Is that what the Bible demands? I would like to suggest not.

It’s true that Jesus taught self-denial: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

The Bible also teaches self-control as one of the products of the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives (see Galatians 5:23).

Neither of these things means that we are to be selfless though. In fact the Bible also teaches us to look after our own needs as well as the needs of our family. The apostle Paul was very blunt when he wrote, “Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim 5:8).
Paul hit the nail on the head when he was writing to the Macedonian Christians from prison: “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4).

There it is – look after your own interests, just don’t stop there! And that’s the problem. Most people just look after their own interests. The Bible doesn’t teach against leading a selfless life, it teaches against living a selfish one. The Bible has much to say about having a good work ethic, being a good employer / employee, providing for your own needs. There’s nothing selfless about that. But we’re instructed to want more than enough. One of the most selfish statements I hear is, “I just want enough to get by.” Sometimes it’s said by people with a sense of pride like, “See how little I need. See how holy I am.” But God wants us to have more than enough to get by so that not only will our needs be met but we have some left over so that we can meet the needs of others. Consider this verse in 2 Corinthians 9 where the whole chapter (and the next one) deal exclusively with money: “Moreover, God has the power to provide you with every gracious gift in abundance, so that always in every way you will have all you need yourselves and be able to provide abundantly for every good cause …”

All you need yourselves AND be able to provide abundantly for every good cause. That’s not selfless and it’s not selfish either. Daniel Goleman put it this way in his book Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships, “Self-absorption in all its forms kills empathy, let alone compassion. When we focus on ourselves, our world contracts as our problems and preoccupations loom large. But when we focus on others, our world expands. Our own problems drift to the periphery of the mind and so seem smaller, and we increase our capacity for connection – or compassionate action.”

Much of the First World is embroiled in selfishness. Like Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky said, “I say let the world go to hell, but I should always have my tea.” We may be shocked by such honesty but do our lives reflect anything different? In 1998 the United Nations put out a statement that if everyone in the developed world gave the cost of a cappuccino each week to combat world poverty we would be able to eradicate poverty completely. The fact that 14 years later poverty is still rife is testament to the fact that most people live selfishly. For just $4 per week poverty could be banished. It starts with you and me. Will you take the challenge? Don’t be selfless – but don’t be selfish either!

Recent studies have concluded that the expression of gratitude can have profound and positive effects on our health, our moods and our relationships.  As doctors Blaire and Rita Justice reported for the University of Texas Health Science Centre, “a growing body of research shows that gratitude is truly amazing in its physical and psychosocial benefits.”

Out of recent studies where group one was encouraged to focus daily on things they were grateful for, and group two focused on things that displeased them, the “gratitude” group:

* Felt better about their lives
* Were 25% happier
* Reported fewer health complaints
* Exercised, on average, one and a half hours more
* Were more likely to offer emotional support or help others who were facing a personal problem (i.e. gratitude increased their goodwill towards others)
* Reported more hours of sleep each night and were more refreshed when they awoke.
* Experienced more satisfaction with their lives as a whole, were more optimistic about the future, and were more connected with others.
* Were less likely to feel depressed (several studies have shown depression to be inversely correlated to gratitude)

Dr John Gottman at the University of Washington has been researching marriages for two decades. The conclusion of all that research is that unless a couple is able to maintain a high ratio of positive to negative encounters (5:1 or greater), it is likely the marriage will end.  The formula is that for every negative expression (a complaint, put-down, expression of anger) there needs to be about five positive ones (smiles, compliments, laughter, expression of appreciation and gratitude).  Now there’s something to practice!

“If you’ve forgotten the language of gratitude, you’ll never be on speaking terms with happiness,” so here are three simple things you can start practicing in order to develop an attitude of gratitude:

1. Keep a daily journal of three things you are grateful for. This works really well just before you go to bed.
2. Make it a practice to tell your spouse, partner or friend something you appreciate about them every day.
3. Look in the mirror while you’re brushing your teeth and think about something you have done well or something you like about yourself.

When you cultivate an attitude of gratitude things don’t just look better – they actually get better.  Thankfulness feels good, it’s good for you and it’s a blessing for the people around you too.

One of America’s leading churches came to this realisation back in 2007 after conducting extensive research amongst its people to see how effective the church was at making disciples of Jesus.  Willow Creek Community Church Senior Pastor Bill Hybels said, “We made a mistake. What we should have done when people crossed the line of faith and become Christians, we should have started telling people and teaching people that they have to take responsibility to become self-feeders. We should have gotten people, taught people, how to read their Bible between services, how to do the spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own.”

In other words, spiritual growth doesn't happen best by becoming dependent on elaborate church programs but through the age-old spiritual practices of prayer, bible reading, and relationships.

That’s why this year we’re focusing on teaching people the daily devotional approach to the Bible.  This method is concerned with what the Bible has to say ~ especially what it has to say to me personally. What does the Bible tell me about God? Jesus? The church? My relation to the world? What does it tell me about what to believe? About how to act? About social responsibilities? How can the Bible help make me closer to God? How does it help me to live? Daily devotions help us to read the Bible in order to find out what to believe and how to live our life in a way that is pleasing to God and the best for others and us.

When Willow Creek were looking for help with this they turned to Wayne Cordeiro, Senior Pastor of New Hope church in Honolulu. Many years ago Wayne developed the SOAP method of Bible reading.  Watch this video where he explains how to do daily devotions using SOAP.

I’ve taught SOAP daily devotions several times over the years at Bayside Church, but it’s time to refresh it and teach it again and get everyone on the same page ~ literally!

In a nutshell, SOAP in as acrostic that works like this:

S – Scripture – From your daily reading write down a verse or two that particularly speaks to you.

O – Observation – Write a brief observation from this verse as to what you see in it.

A – Application – What truth can you apply to your life from this scripture?  How will you be different today because of what you have just read? (Use words like: me, myself & I)

P – Prayer – Finish your time by writing a prayer using the verse(s) through which God has spoken to you.  Then take the scripture with you through the day; read it regularly and meditate on its truth.

Here’s an example from my own journal:

S: “Do not be afraid Zacharias, for your petition has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son…” (Luke 1:13)

O: Zacharias, as a priest of God, was going about his daily work of serving God and His people.  Zacharias and his wife were elderly, and his wife Elizabeth was also barren.  This was no doubt a point of distress and disappointment to them both and a matter of regular prayer that, until now, had gone unanswered.  But that was about to change… “For your petition has been heard!”

A: A lack of immediate response to my prayers does not mean that God hasn’t heard me.  It does mean that the time has not yet arrived to answer them.  As I continually and faithfully serve God and His people each day, God will answer my prayers at the right time and in the best way ~ not just to bless me, but also to bless others.

P: Jesus, help me to exercise faith and patience in life and not to see divine delays as unanswered prayer.  Amen

When reading the Bible, look for lessons to be learned, examples to be followed, promises to be enjoyed and Jesus to be revealed.

Finally, here are some things to help you on your disciplined journey of feeding yourself on God’s Word.

Download the reading plan from the Bayside Church website or download the New Hope Oahu App.

Don’t try and read the whole reading every day (unless you want to).  Read until you get something and then start journaling.  Make it work for you – don’t bite off more than you can chew.  Better to read, remember and practice one verse than to read and forget four chapters!

If you’re new to the Christian faith focus on the New Testament readings and Psalms.  If you find something that you want to study further, make a note of it and go back to it when you have more time.  If you miss a day, skip it.  Don’t try and catch up.  Make it doable so that it is a blessing not a burden.  The goal of your time with God is to grow closer to Him. It’s not to check off your list. You can get together and “SOAP” with others too.  Take an hour ~ 20 minutes to read, 20 minutes to journal, 20 minutes to share.

The Christian life is not rocket science.  It’s wonderful to belong to a vibrant Christian community and to be taught God’s Word on a regular basis, but who would only want to eat once a week?  Learn to feed yourself on God’s Word everyday, put your roots deep down into eternal truth and become steadfast, immovable, and always abounding in the Lord's work!

“It’s not MY fault – it’s someone else’s.”

“I can’t help it – this is the way I’ve always been!”

Ever heard these statements?  Ever said them yourself?

We live in a world where personal responsibility is often sadly lacking.  It starts from childhood.  I went upstairs in our home a few nights ago and found several lights had been left on.  I asked our two eldest daughters who was responsible.  “Not me,” said one.  “Not me,” said the other.  It appears the lights had left themselves on!  No one was responsible.

This attitude was promoted recently by the study Hardwired for Chocolate and Hybrid Cars? The study examined “a wide range of consumer judgment and decision-making phenomenon and discover(ed) that many – though not all of them – are in fact heritable or influenced by genetic factors.”

The authors tested the preferences of 180 twins and discovered that people seem to inherit the following tendencies:
• To choose a compromise option and avoid extremes
• To select sure gains over gambles
• A preference for an easy but non-rewarding task over an enjoyable challenging one
• To look for the best option available.

They also found that likings for specific products seemed to be genetically related: chocolate, mustard, hybrid cars, science fiction movies and jazz.

I’m sure this is good news to chocolate lovers – including my wife!  When I open a block of chocolate it lasts me for weeks.  I eat one or two squares and that’s enough.  A chocolate lover – like Christie – cannot relate to such self-control!  But it doesn’t matter.  You can’t help it.  You’ve inherited this weakness.  Just blame your parents!

In Bible times the nation of Israel used a proverb that blamed their parents thus relieving themselves of personal responsibility.  The proverb is found in Ezekiel 18:2 – “The fathers eat sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.”
God’s response to Israel was that this proverb was incorrect and was to not be used anymore:

“As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, you will no longer quote this proverb in Israel … the soul who sins is the one who will die.”  In other words, YOU are personally accountable!

This does not deny that we have all inherited various traits and behaviours from our parents – and passed some (good and bad) onto our children.  But no matter what we have inherited we are still responsible for the way we behave each day.

So, if you’ve been guilty of blaming your parents – stop it!  Take personal responsibility for your life and the way you live it.