Bible Readings & Prayer Points
Since we began these readings in October 2009 we have read through the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and John but we have never read through Luke’s Gospel, so that is what we are going to begin this month.
Friday 1st April
This Gospel was written by Luke, whom Paul describes in Colossians 4:14 as ‘Our dear friend Luke, the doctor’. Luke was also the author of the Acts of the Apostles and both books are addressed to ‘Theophilus’. The Acts of the Apostles begins with these words, ‘In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven…’ In this way he describes the content of his Gospel. One important point to notice is the way in which the Gospel came to be written. Luke says that he has ‘carefully investigated everything from the beginning’ in order to ‘write an orderly account’. The writers of Scripture were carried along by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:21) but this does not mean that they heard words from heaven and wrote them down. Luke studied, investigated and wrote an orderly account. The Holy Spirit was guiding him but a normal process of research and writing took place, using his human skills. The end result is Scripture and as we read this book we should expect God to speak to us through it, by his Holy Spirit.
Saturday 2nd April
The second point to notice in these first four verses is that Luke tells Theophilus his reason for writing the Gospel: ‘so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught’. The facts concerning Jesus’ life, ministry and teaching, as well as his death, resurrection and ascension, were written to bring certainty, to help place the Christian convictions of Theophilus on a secure foundation. This is important for two reasons. First, it shows that the Christian faith is based upon certain historical facts and events. Over the years, there have been those who have argued that Christian faith can be maintained even if the incarnation or the resurrection or the miracles never happened. This is not true. Second, it shows that the Gospels were written for a purpose, namely, to strengthen the faith of believers. John said that his reason for writing a Gospel was ‘that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name’ (John 20:31). As we read this Gospel, we should expect our faith to be strengthened and our hearts encouraged.
Sunday 3rd April
These verses tell the story of how the birth of John the Baptist was foretold by the angel Gabriel. Zechariah was a priest, as both he and his wife Elizabeth were from the tribe of Levi, the priestly tribe. They were a godly couple, as we see in verse 6: ‘Both of them were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly’. Their great burden, however, was that Elizabeth was barren and they had no children. Indeed, this had been a matter of serious prayer for them. Imagine Zechariah’s shock when the angel appears to him, while he was serving in the temple, and tells him that his prayers have been answered and that Elizabeth was going to bear him a son. Then he is told how significant his son will be to the nation of Israel. John would be ‘great in the sight of the Lord’ and he would be ‘filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth’. More than that, he would help to turn people back to God and so ‘to make ready a people prepared for the Lord’. John the Baptist would have a significant place in the unfolding divine plan for the salvation of sinners. He was the one who would prepare the way for Jesus.
Monday 4th April
Unfortunately, Zechariah found it hard to believe what the angel said. After all, he and his wife were ‘well on in years’ (verse 7). From a human point of view, what the angel was saying seemed impossible. Zechariah wanted to know how he could be sure of this promise about a son. Then we have these striking words, ‘I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news’. The message that he was to have a son came directly from God and Zechariah should have believed and not doubted. As a result he was struck dumb until John was born. Despite being a faithful man of God, Zechariah had forgotten that with God all things are possible. Elizabeth duly became pregnant. Do we sometimes doubt God or doubt his Word? Do human calculations as to what is possible sometimes lead us to God’s promises?
Tuesday 5th April
Having just read of the promise that Zechariah and Elizabeth were to have a son to be named John, we now find the angel Gabriel bringing the promise of another child to be born, this time to Mary. Mary is told that she has found favour with God and will give birth to a son. Once again, the child is named: he is to be called Jesus. The difference between the message to Mary and the message to Zechariah concerns what is said about this child who is to be born. John was to turn people back to God but Jesus would be the Son of God and his kingdom would never end (see verses 32-33). God’s plan for the salvation of sinners centred on these two children, yet unborn. The one would be a voice calling in the wilderness for people to repent, pointing to Jesus as the promised Messiah. The other would call on people to put their faith in him and so be saved.
Wednesday 6th April
The message of Gabriel to Mary must have been profoundly shocking to a young Jewish girl, not yet married. She asks how his promise that she was to have a son can be true, since she is a virgin. Then the most dramatic message of all is given: the child would be conceived by the Holy Spirit and would be called the Son of God. To explain how God was incarnated as Jesus of Nazareth is complex and hard for our small human minds to grasp, so imagine how that mind-bending truth must have impacted Mary. She was to bear a child who would not be the son of Joseph but the Son of God! At this point we see something of the character of Mary, as we reflect on the different ways in which Zechariah and Mary responded to Gabriel’s message. Like Zechariah, Mary cannot fully understand what is happening but, rather than doubting the angel, she says, ‘I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said’ (verse 38). A simple faith in God and in his messenger. Do we have faith like that?
Thursday 7th April
When Gabriel told Mary that she was going to have a child by the Holy Spirit, he also told her that her cousin Elizabeth was also expecting a baby. So Mary goes to visit Elizabeth. For Mary this visit was confirmation of what Gabriel had told her, for Elizabeth it was a joyous occasion. Never have two women been so blessed by God and so prepared for their place in history. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, ‘the baby leaped in her womb’. As Howard Marshall has said, ‘Here is the beginning of John’s witness to Jesus’. It is also worthy of comment that Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke from him. Notice her final words, ‘Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!’ Both of these women believed and both of them were blessed.
Friday 8th April
In these verses, we have one of the most famous hymns or poems in the Bible, Mary’s song to God, usually called ‘The Magnificat’. The hymn falls into four parts. The first part (verses 46-48) Mary praises God for his goodness to her as an individual. In the second part (verses 49-50) Mary praises God for his goodness to all who fear him. The third section (verses 51-53) tells us that God brings down the proud and the rich but lifts up the hungry and the humble. The fourth and final section (54-55) reminds us of God’s mighty acts on behalf of his chosen people. The Magnificat is a wonderful hymn of praise to God and is rather like some of the Psalms in style and content. Perhaps the main lesson we should take from these verses is that we, like Mary, should always be praising God for what he has done and reminding ourselves of God’s concern for the poor, the hungry and the oppressed.
Saturday 9th April
In Luke 1:5-25, we read that an angel had appeared to Zechariah while he was ministering in the temple, and announced to him that his wife Elizabeth was going to give birth to a son. Zechariah doubted that this was possible and so was struck dumb. In today’s passage, we see that there was much joy and celebration surrounding John’s birth. Elizabeth having previously been barren, this son was seen as a sign of God’s mercy and favour. Elizabeth herself was no doubt delighted for in those days it was considered to be most unfortunate (or worse) for a woman to have no children. On the eighth day, as was the Jewish custom, the child was circumcised, and those involved were about to name the child after his father. Elizabeth objected and said that he was to be named John – this was what the angel had specified. The people were not satisfied with this and turned to Zechariah, who immediately wrote down on a tablet, ‘His name is John’. This act of faith in what the angel had said was quite different from his previous doubting attitude, and so God opened his mouth and he was able to speak again.
Sunday 10th April
We read these verses again to notice a recurring theme which underlines much of the New Testament, namely, promise and fulfilment. In the first part of the chapter God made a promise to Zechariah and this was fulfilled in John’s birth. Promise and fulfilment. We could go back to the prophesy of Malachi and say that John’s birth was the fulfilment of a promise made there. This, of course, was the case also with the birth of Jesus, who fulfilled so many Old Testament prophecies. You see, our God is a God who keeps his promises. Unlike us. How many times have we promised to do something and then didn’t? We either change our minds, or we forget or we can’t be bothered or something like that. Isn’t it wonderful to know that our God keeps his promises? The importance of today’s passage lies in the fact that God, from all eternity, decided to bring salvation to his people. In order to do so certain things were necessary. The birth of John the Baptist was one of these things. God has a plan of salvation which we can trace through the Scriptures. If we read the story of the birth of John the Baptist but don’t see God’s plan of salvation lying behind that birth, then we miss the point altogether.
Monday 11th April
We looked at Mary’s song a few days ago and now we come to Zechariah’s song. When God opened his mouth so that he could speak again, he immediately began to worship. In this first part of his hymn, we see two things. First, notice that the beginning of the hymn (verses 68-75) clearly refers to Jesus, even although he was not yet born. It is not insignificant that verse 67 says, ‘Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied’. In other words, this was God speaking through Zechariah and announcing that the day of his salvation had come. What a thrill for those who had waited generations to see the Messiah. The second significant thing we see in Zechariah’s hymn is that all the glory is given to God who has ‘redeemed his people’ (verse 68). Long before, God had delivered his people from bondage in Egypt, now he was to deliver them out of bondage again – this time, bondage to sin. God himself takes the initiative in salvation. God is in heaven and all the world is in his hand. He is in control. He is Lord.
Tuesday 12th April
As we come to the second part of Zechariah’s song, we see that a change takes place. In verses 68-75, Zechariah is speaking in general terms about salvation and deliverance but now, in verses 76-79, he begins to speak of his son John’s place in these mighty acts of God. God was going to make John a ‘prophet’ and he would ‘go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him’ (verse 76). The New Testament shows us that this is precisely what happened. John the Baptist called the people to repentance in preparation for the coming of Jesus. He was the voice crying in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him’. What was God doing in all of this? Part of the answer is contained in verse 77, ‘to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins’. In this way, the whole passage is brought round to salvation and the forgiveness of sin. Have you experienced this salvation and forgiveness?
Wednesday 13th April
One of the best-known stories in the Bible today. There is to be a census of the entire Roman world and so Joseph and Mary must go to Bethlehem to register. Joseph and Mary have been in Bethlehem all day, searching for somewhere to stay. The town is mobbed with people who have all come to register in the census. Mary, about to give birth, is tired and worried until finally a kindly innkeeper lets them sleep in the bottom of the house beside the animals. It is there, in a cold and dirty stable that Jesus is born. Unnoticed amid the business of the town, the most important birth which ever took place. This was the great fulfilment of God’s eternal purpose to bring about the salvation of a people for himself. God had taken flesh and been born as a man. Now Jesus begins the long journey to the Cross, the reason for his birth.
Thursday 14th April
Today we read the remarkable story of how some shepherds were told by an angel about the birth of Jesus. In verses 10-11 we read these words spoken by the angel to the shepherds: ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.’ The angel was bringing good news to these shepherds and through them, to the world. The second thing we learn from this verse is that the news will bring great joy. Now this wasn’t just the joy of Mary and Joseph at the birth of a child. It was the joy which was to come to the whole people of God when they heard the message that the Saviour was born. The angel put it very simply: there was good news of great joy for all the people because a Saviour had been born. Is he your Saviour today? If not, then open your hearts to him and welcome him in.
Friday 15th April
The message of the angel had a profound effect on these shepherds. Having been told that they would find the child in a manger, they immediately went to Bethlehem to find the child. We’re told that after they had seen the baby, they became evangelists! As Luke says, ‘When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them’. The natural reaction to their astonishing encounter with the angels and then with the baby Jesus was to tell everyone what they had seen and heard. Mary’s reaction was rather different, more subdued. We read that she ‘treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart’. Mary was storing up all kinds of startling information. Gabriel told her that she was going to give birth to a child by the Holy Spirit who would be called the Son of God, Elizabeth and Zechariah told her that her baby was to be the Lord and now shepherds were telling her that he was to be the Saviour.
Saturday 16th April
When Jesus was taken to be consecrated in the temple in Jerusalem, a fascinating encounter takes place. Simeon had been told by God that he would not die before seeing the messiah. When Mary and Joseph brought Jesus into the temple courts, Simeon knew that this was the messiah. He took the child in his arms and praised God. Notice what he says in verse 30: ‘For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.’ What had he seen? He had seen Jesus. Jesus was the salvation of the world and now he had come. Simeon also knew that his task would not be easy and that he would be ‘a sign that will be spoken against’. He also knew something of what the final part of messiah’s work would do to his mother Mary, ‘And a sword will pierce your own soul too’. Messiah had come but there was much trouble and pain ahead before he could cry from the Cross ‘it is finished’.
Sunday 17th April
There was another person in the temple, apart from Simeon, who plays a part in the story. This was Anna, a prophetess. We’re told that she ‘never left the temple but worshipped night and day, fasting and praying’. A godly old woman, she too was enabled by God to see and recognise the messiah. She spoke about the redemption of Jerusalem. This picks up on Isaiah 52:9, and reminds us of Zechariah’s words in Luke 1:68. Jesus would be a redeemer. In the meantime, as we see in verses 39-40, Jesus ‘grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him’. A redeemer he would be one day but, like every other child, he had to grow up and become strong before he was ready to be used for the redemption and salvation of sinners.
Monday 18th April
The four Gospels are not proper ‘biographies’ of Jesus. They tell us very little about his life. In fact, they are devoted almost completely to the last three years of his life, covering his public ministry and the events of death and resurrection. This being the case we know almost nothing about the early life of Jesus, with the exception of this one story we have read today. This takes place when Jesus was twelve years old, on the verge of Jewish manhood. He went with his parents to the Passover feast in Jerusalem but on the way home, they discovered he was missing. They found him in the temple and verses 46-47 speak volumes about his growth and maturity. The key words come when he asks why they were searching for him. He says, ‘Did you not know that I had to be in my Father’s house?’ (or, ‘about my Father’s business’ in some translations). It shows that, even at this age, Jesus was focussed on the things of God.
Tuesday 19th April
Here we have the ministry of John the Baptist described. He preached ‘a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’ (verse 3). He self-consciously used the words of Isaiah 40:3-5 as a statement to describe his ministry. He truly was ‘a voice of one calling in the desert, “Prepare the way for the Lord…”’. John had one clear vision, he was to prepare the way for messiah. In doing so, he called people to repent and turn back to God. In this passage he confronts various people, answers their questions and tells them to produce fruit in keeping with repentance. In particular, he made it clear that to be an Israelite descended from Abraham was not enough. Matthew tells the same story in slightly different words, giving us more of a picture of the Baptist: ‘John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt round his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptised by him in the Jordan River’. (Matthew 3:4-6). What an impact this man made!
Wednesday 20th April
Given the crowds he was attracting and the power of his message, many people began to wonder if John was the messiah for whom they were waiting. John rejects this idea and makes it quite clear that the messiah was still to come. When messiah did come, he said, the baptism would not be with water but ‘with the Holy Spirit and with fire’. Jesus himself was baptised by John in the Jordan river. We read in verses 21-22: ‘When all the people were being baptised, Jesus was baptised too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”’ Notice these two things. First, at his baptism the Holy Spirit came upon him. Second, he received the blessing and approval of his Father in heaven. Now he was ready to begin his public ministry.
Thursday 21st April
Jesus was ‘about 30’ when he began his ministry. At this significant point in the Gospel, a genealogy is given. We might have expected this to come right at the beginning of the Gospel, as part of the story of Jesus’ birth but it comes here instead. Genealogies form an important part of biblical history due to the importance of knowing that people were true Israelites and could trace their lineage back to Abraham. If we compare this genealogy with Matthew 1, it raises various problems of consistency but we have to remember that the practice of the day was different from ours. Sometimes only the key figures were mentioned (often skipping several generations) and sometimes they used literary structures which are unfamiliar today. The interesting point about this genealogy is that it does not just go back to Abraham but to Adam and then to God. It might be that Luke is picking up on the idea that Jesus is the ‘last Adam’ (1 Corinthians 15:45) and therefore has significance beyond Israel, for all humanity.
Friday 22nd April
After his baptism, when the Holy Spirit came upon him, Jesus was then led out into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. John Knox, in a sermon on the temptations of Jesus, makes the important point that temptation does not separate us from God. If the Son of God could be tempted, then clearly temptations do not separate us from God. Indeed the temptations help to remind us of God’s love and grace as he protects us against all the assaults of Satan. Sin separates us from God but not temptations. As Knox says in that sermon, when we are tempted we are really following in the footsteps Jesus. We are not the first to be tempted, our Lord has been there before us. Remember Hebrews 4:15: ‘For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin.’ Do you see the point? He is able to sympathise with our weaknesses and to intercede for us before the throne of God. He has been there! When we are tempted we must seek God’s strength to help us resist, as Jesus did.
Saturday 23rd April
Early in his public ministry, after his baptism and temptations and after spending some time in Galilee, Jesus returns to Nazareth, his home town. On the Sabbath, Jesus was asked to read the Scriptures in the synagogue. He read Isaiah 61:1-2 and then made this dramatic claim: ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing’. There are two things we can take from this. First, Jesus was claiming to be the messiah. Isaiah 61 was recognised as a ‘messianic’ passage, one which referred to the messiah who would come from God. By saying that the passage had been fulfilled in their hearing, Jesus was making an astonishing claim. Second, Jesus was describing his ministry in terms of the work of the Holy Spirit. In verse 18, Jesus quotes Isaiah 61: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me…’ Jesus was saying that, because he had been endowed with the Holy Spirit, he was able to do the great things of which they had heard. At this point we read in verse 22, ‘All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips’. As we shall see tomorrow, that would soon change.
Sunday 24th April
Having read the Scriptures, Jesus went on to address the synagogue. He knew what they were thinking: do here in Nazareth some of the miracles you have done in Capernaum. We know, however, from Matthew 13:54-58, that when he went to Nazareth, ‘he did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith’. What really angered them, as we see in verses 25-27, was that he spoke of how God had worked among the Gentiles. This was like a red rag to a bull. Notice what happened, ‘All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him down the cliff. But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way’. They were quite happy to admire him and sing his praises when he claimed to be the messiah but one positive word about God working among the Gentiles and they try to kill him!
Monday 25th April
This passage speaks to us of two things which marked out the ministry of Jesus, namely, authority and power. When he taught in the synagogue in Capernaum we are told that, ‘they were amazed at his teaching, because his message had authority’. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 7:28-29, we have the same thing: ‘the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law’. This man was different and people could see the difference, his teaching had authority. We know that he spoke with authority because he was the Son of God and had come from the Father but they did not yet know that. There was also power in his ministry: power to cast out evil spirits, power to heal, even power to raise the dead. No wonder that, ‘the news about him spread throughout the surrounding area’. Do we accept the authority of Jesus and so believe what he taught? Have we experienced his power to transform lives?
Tuesday 26th April
Jesus ministry continues with more healing and more casting out of evil spirits, beginning with Peter’s mother-in-law. Soon all the sick people in the surrounding area were being brought to him and he healed them. Notice, however, verses 42-44. Jesus went off by himself to pray very early in the morning. The result of this was a clear decision regarding his priorities. They went to find Jesus, to persuade him not to leave them but Jesus was clear in his reply (verse 43): ‘I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent’. This is one of the most important sayings of Jesus for a proper understanding of his ministry. Jesus’ primary purpose was to preach. The healing miracles and so on were intended to demonstrate his authority and power and so identify him as the Son of God but his real mission was to preach the good news of the kingdom of God.
Wednesday 27th April
Jesus uses Peter’s boat as an offshore pulpit and then tells him to go fishing. Peter is reluctant, having worked all night and caught nothing but reluctantly agrees. He and his companions are astonished by the huge catch and Peter fell at Jesus’ knees. Notice he immediately says, ‘Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man’. He knew that he was in the presence of someone who was holy and who was from God. When we come into the presence of God we should be conscious of our sin, in contrast to the holiness of God. Jesus’ response is to call Peter and his companions to follow him and become his disciples. Instead of catching fish, they would ‘catch men’. Isn’t it wonderful that Jesus chose ordinary, rough fishermen to be his first disciples? We might feel inadequate to serve Christ and no doubt they did too but Jesus told them not to be afraid, just to follow.
Thursday 28th April
This story shows how a healing miracle and its consequences actually made it more difficult for Jesus to preach. Nevertheless, despite its unfortunate consequences, we can see the love and compassion of Christ in the healing of the leper. In this incident, there are only two characters: the first is an untouchable, conscious of his own state, earnestly desiring to be cleansed and humble enough to ask for that cleansing, believing that Christ had the power to heal. The other figure is the compassionate figure of Christ himself. The older versions of the Bible tell us that Jesus was ‘moved with pity’. He didn’t flinch from touching the loathsomeness of the man’s leprosy. This leper reached out to Jesus in faith and Jesus, full of compassion, responded to that faith and healed the man. We could almost say that this story is a parable or summary of the Christian gospel. If we come to Christ, recognising our sin and our need to be cleansed from it; and if we recognise that only Christ is able to do this, then Jesus will respond to us as he did to the leper and we too shall be healed. If we have never come to the place where Christ is waiting to cleanse us from sin, then we have never begun to live!
Friday 29th April
We read these verses again today to make a more general point about obedience. The law laid down certain things which had to be done by a leper who was cleansed and Jesus told the man to do this but he also instructed him to tell no-one of what had happened. Unfortunately, the man disobeyed. We see this more clearly in Mark’s version of the story (Mark 1:40-45). The result of this was ‘that Jesus could no longer openly enter a town, but was out in desolate places’. One writer draws a general principle from this: ‘disobedience to the express command of Christ, even if undertaken from the best possible motives, can lead only to a hampering and a hindering of Christ’s work’. No doubt the leper acted from the best of motives. He had been healed and he wanted to tell everyone the good news. The problem was that the one who healed him, had told him not to do this. We must obey God, speaking by his Spirit through his Word, even if we think we know better.
Saturday 30th April
This incident took place a few days later, when Jesus was in a house in Capernaum preaching to the people. As Luke tells us, Pharisees and teachers of the law from a wide area had also gathered to hear him. The man who was paralysed had some friends who carried him to Jesus. Finding no way through the crowd, and being both determined and creative, they climbed on to the roof and lowered their friend to the feet of Jesus. Jesus saw their faith and said to the paralytic ‘your sins are forgiven.’ Jesus was not saying that the man’s sins caused his illness, rather he was using this man to demonstrate something very important. Jesus was not simply concerned to heal bodies, his main concern was to bring forgiveness and to save souls. When Jesus spoke about the forgiveness of sins, the teachers of the law immediately objected, although they did not at first give voice to their objection. Jesus knew what they were thinking and challenged them. The religious leaders were quite clear in their minds that only God can forgive sins and they were right! It is perfectly true that only God can forgive sins but, of course, what they did not know (or refused to recognise) is that Jesus is God. The religious leaders could not accept was that Jesus himself was God in the flesh. But the ordinary people believed and they praised God.