22. God of Communication (1)

Getting to Know God Meditations:  22. God of Communication (1)

Heb 1:1.2   In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son 

Recap & Purpose:  I feel a little bit that there may be a feeling that we have gone full circle when we come to this study, after all in the first block of studies we had, 2. God of Record, 3. God of Self-Disclosure, 4. God of Intervention, 5. God of Gradual Revelation, and 6. God of Interaction, all of which in some way and another are really about God communicating. However in this and the next few studies I want to do three things: first, note the fact of all this communicating in the Old Testament, and then, second, consider God’s ultimate act of communication, His own Son, Jesus Christ, and finally, the acts of ‘hearing’ and then ‘listening’. If God ‘talks’ does it mean that people naturally hear?  I don’t think so! So, first of all let’s note the fact of all this communicating and see what we can learn from it.

God who speaks: From the earliest pages of Genesis we see this phenomena – God speaking to human beings, for example, “the Lord God commanded the man, “You are….” (Gen 2:16, the very first instance), then, “the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?” (Gen 3:9) and so conversation goes on. Later, “Then the Lord said to Cain…” (Gen 4:6), then “So God said to Noah…” (Gen 6:13) then, “Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them….” (Gen 9:1) then, “The Lord had said to Abram” (Gen 12:1) which takes us to the starting point in our earliest studies. Three things to note about these. First, they are all instances of God communicating with specific people using language. Second, some of those references lead on to full conversations. Third, those instances are relatively small amounts of the text, the bulk of which is descriptive about what was going on and why God did or said various things.

In that record of Genesis (and the following four books for that matter) there is a great deal of the record that stretches over hundreds of years that go into explaining how the Hebrew people (later becoming Israel) existed and had interactions with God. It is a reasonable question to ask who wrote these first five books. Later books were written either by key players or recorders who observed the key players, but over this period, who could have written such a coherent series of books?

The best, the most logical and most sensible of all the various answers that scholars come up with, I believe, are those that a number of modern scholars arrive at (who also conform to the ancient Jewish beliefs), that Moses ‘compiled’ these books, certainly having been there and been the key player for the second to fifth of the five books we refer to as the Pentateuch (the five writings) and had formed Genesis through a combination of the accounts passed down through the generations together with clarity and understanding added by God in the many, many hours Moses spent with God in the Tabernacle in the forty years he spent looking after Israel until they were ready to enter the Promised Land.

Ongoing Language: As the Bible goes on, the means of communicating changes and it is important to see how it does.   Initially it carries on as we have seen previously, for example, “the Lord said to Joshua,” (Josh 1:1) and then a little later, “And the Lord said to Joshua….” (Josh 3:7) but what is interesting is that Joshua leads Israel in ways that would have required instruction from the Lord but those instructions aren’t given to us; the recorder, I suggest, simply omits them as secondary issues that keep the action flowing. The key issues the recorder does include, for example, “At that time the Lord said to Joshua…” (Josh 5:2) is an instruction to ensure all the males were circumcised. Circumcision had been brought in with Abraham, possibly with health implications, but primarily as a sign and reminder to every Jewish male of their relationship with God. This had been an issue with Moses (see Ex 4:24-26) and was to be an ongoing requirement in Israel. Thus this instance is one of God bringing Israel in line with previously instructed requirements for them.  The ‘big’ instructions keep on being recorded, for example, “Then the Lord said to Joshua,” (Josh 6:2) as the Lord instructs Joshua how to take Jericho.

Different Means: As we work our way through these early books picking up on God speaking to the various key players, we probably ought to pick up on the various instances where God or His representatives turn up and speak through human form. Where it is God, theologians refer to these as theophanies (ancient Greek ‘appearance of god’). Otherwise they may be angelic beings in human form (e.g. Judg 6:11,12,22). In Gen 18 ‘three visitors’ turn up to speak to Abraham (Gen 18:1,2) who the text indicates represent God Himself, a theophany. When Joshua was approaching Jericho there is a strange incident when, “he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, “Are you for us or for our enemies?”  “Neither,” he replied, “but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.” Then Joshua fell facedown to the ground in reverence, and asked him, “What message does my Lord] have for his servant?” The commander of the Lord’s army replied, “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy.” And Joshua did so.” (Josh 5:13-15) The implication that is usually taken is that this ‘man’ is in fact an angel who appears to give Joshua a more tangible sense, if you like, of the Lord’s presence with him, fighting for him, as he is about to go into the first encounter in the Land.

And so these sorts of verbal encounter continue. When we get to Judges, Israelites asked the Lord, “Who of us is to go up first to fight against the Canaanites?” The Lord answered, “Judah shall go up; I have given the land into their hands.” (Judg 1:1,2) Judges is a particularly murky book, I tend to feel, full of illustrations of Israel getting it wrong. Perhaps it is because of this that the divine presence seems to step back, to be replaced by angelic interventions (see Judg 2:1, 5:23, 6:11, 13:3,6,9, etc.) The book of Ruth that follows is almost an aside to show how part of the Messianic family tree was filled in, but then come the main historical books.

1 Samuel 1 is the natural historical flow on from Judges. Israel have Eli, an elderly priest presiding, a leader past his best and who eventually dies after his sons are killed on a foolhardy venture with Israel against their nearby enemies, the Philistines (see 1 Sam 4). Before this comes the account of Samuel’s birth and childhood, before he grew into manhood as Israel first prophet (after Moses), and where the Lord “at Shiloh…. revealed himself to Samuel through his word.” (1 Sam 3:21)

From now on there is a mixture of simple speech and, through the prophets that followed, came ‘the word of the Lord’. Our understanding of this, in line with modern prophetic gift, is that the individual suddenly has a sense of a word, a picture or a message that he (or she) is sure comes from the prompting of God. So in the ‘conversation mode’, we still see, for example, “When Samuel caught sight of Saul, the Lord said to him, “This is the man I spoke to you about; he will govern my people.” (1 Sam 9:17) In chapter 10 Samuel gives Saul, who is to be the new, first king of Israel, a prophetic word, or word of knowledge, telling him exactly what was going to happen in the coming hours (see 1 Sam 10:1-8) all of which happened (v.9). It had to be a revelation of God.

The Word of the Lord: This phraseology is first used in Gen 15:1 “After this, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: “Do not be afraid, Abram.” and is then found later in Exo 9:20,21 of those who “feared the word of the Lord,” and who ignored the word of the Lord meaning the word from God that Moses had passed on to Pharaoh. It also appears a number of other times in the following narratives, e.g. Num 3:16,51, Deut 5:5, 1 Sam 3:1.  In that latter reference it was noted, In those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions,” implying that much of the time that which was implied as having come from God came through visions – yet now rarely.  A few verses on we read, “Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord: The word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him,” (1 Sam 3:7) or as a paraphrase version puts it, “Samuel had never had a personal message from God yet.” As the historical narrative continues, and more prophets are in evidence the phrase is used more to indicate they sensed a specific prophetic message (speaking of the future) being given by God through them, e.g. 2 Sam 7:4, 27:11, 1 Kings 13:1, 15:29, 16:1,7,12, 34, 17:2,8,16, 21:28, 22:38, 2 Kings 1:17. In the major Prophets the sense is even stronger, for example in Jeremiah, e.g. Jer 1:2,4,11,13, 2:1,4,31, 6:10, 7:2, 8:9, 9:20, 13:1 etc. etc.

And So: So it is no wonder that the writer to the Hebrews (see the book of that name) declared, “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways,” (Heb 1:1) and then continues with those devastating words, “but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.” (Heb 1:2) Bizarrely, back at the end of the nineteenth century, liberal German theologians started propagating the idea that the supernatural could not happen, therefore prophecy could not happen, therefore God could not speak. Putting it in the light of what we have been considering in this study, it sounds ludicrous, even though it carried the minds of church leaders in the first third of the 20th century until scholars started rejecting the folly of what was being said, for the Bible is packed full of claims that God has spoken, God is a communicator. You either believe the Bible – for every single book either declares that truth or implies it,  it is a universal claim throughout the 66 books – or you don’t. If you don’t you are actually flying in the face of all the evidence. In the next study we will take this on to consider that verse 2 of Heb 1 and in the following one, the other side of this coin – hearing and listening.

21. God of Mystery

Getting to Know God Meditations:  21. God of Mystery

Psa 97:2   Clouds and thick darkness surround him

Isa 6:5  “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.”

Ezek 1:28  This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. When I saw it, I fell face down.

Lk 5:8 When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!”

Rev 4:2 At once I was in the Spirit, and there before me was a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it.

Conflict:  There is always a conflict between theologians, between those who say that God is beyond knowing and those who say He has revealed Himself to us so we can know.  I like the theologian who said that in the Bible we have incomplete knowledge, but sufficient knowledge. The fact is, as we have been seeking to show in these studies, that the Bible does reveal a lot about God; a lot but not everything by far.

Human Limitation: I think I did hint at this in an earlier study but if we go along with the philosopher’s definition of God as a unique Supreme Being greater than anyone or anything we know, then it is not surprising that we struggle to understand Him.  Similarly when Jesus said, “God is spirit,” (Jn 4:24) we all nod wisely but rarely does anyone ask, “What is spirit?”

Struggling to understand: My own weak definition is ‘energy with personality’, but I know that still doesn’t answer the question. It is something we accept because we can’t wrap our finite minds around something that appears infinite, for infinite goes beyond the bounds of material existence. We know about radio waves; they are all around us, they are what makes my radio, my TV, and my phone work. We cannot see them but physicists speaks of short wave and long wave and so on, and so they are all around us. Now suppose there is an energy all around us – everywhere but distinct from us and from every material thing – an energy that has personality, an energy that can move and change things in the material world, a personality that exhibits love, goodness and so on. Is that God?

God’s Attributes: I have steered clear of the attributes of God so far in this series, but theologians say the Bible shows God to be infinite (everywhere), everlasting (no beginning or end), all powerful (able to change anything in the material world), all knowing (conscious and aware of everything), all-wise (understanding everything in both the material and spiritual realms) and much more. But don’t these things fit into my definition of spirit as ‘energy with personality’? I don’t understand it but it seems to work. Well, it does for me!

More than the Greeks and Romans: Two of the world’s earlier major civilisations, the Greeks and the Romans, sometimes come over as a daft superstitious bunch. Both civilizations had their ‘gods’ but they were clearly of human imagination in that they exhibited all the human foibles and failures and were just more powerful versions of humans. More than that, to quote one historian, “pagan gods required only propitiation and beyond that had no interest in what humans did.” The God of the Bible is nearer the philosophers’ concept (resurrected last century in liberal theology circles) as ‘the ground of all being.’ But that is too impersonal because my definition speaks of personality (with thoughts, feelings, and behaviours) because the God we find revealed through the pages of scripture both feels and acts and communicates rationally.

Revelations: Now most of the ‘encounters’ we have so far referred to in these studies come in the form of God ‘speaking’ to individuals (even if on one occasion there was a burning bush as a means of attraction) and so all we can do is go by the nature of the encounter and what is said by God in the encounter. Perhaps we will examine that more fully in the next study. However there are also instances (not many) where in visions there are revelations of heaven and of the presence of God. The Psa 97:2 reference – Clouds and thick darkness surround him – probably refers to the experience Israel first had with God at Mount Sinai where we read (Ex 19:16-18) that there was thick cloud or smoke covering the mountain, perhaps a simple demonstration that said, keep your distance.

Isaiah had a revelation of God (in some measure at least – see Isa 6) but no description of God is given – just Isaiah’s horrified response as he becomes aware of God’s holiness. Perhaps we might say the same thing occurred when the apostle Peter had an encounter with God in the form of Jesus (although he didn’t realize it at the time – see Lk 5:1-11) which left him shattered – this ‘man’ knew more than him and could miraculously do more than him, this was more than a mere man, and that sacred him silly. He became aware of ‘holiness’ which simply means being perfect and utterly different from anything else in Creation – and that IS scary.

Ezekiel is another who had a vision of the coming of God (see Ezek 1), in what is arguably the weirdest vision in the Bible (see it with Ezek 10 for more explanation). What is amazing about this ‘vision’ is the use of the word ‘like’ twenty times. He couldn’t say ‘this was’ but ‘this was like’. The reality defied description.  Similarly when the apostle John has his visions that make up Revelation, we see there the same thing, the use of ‘like’ seven times in the much shorter chapter 1.  The word ‘like’ appears fifty times in the book of Revelation so my concordance tells me.

The apostle Paul also gives us a hint of the mystery of God when he declares, “God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, 16 who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see. To him be honour and might forever.” (1 Tim 6:15,16) In verse 15 he exalts God as the only Ruler – note ‘only’ and capital letter ‘R’ – one who is above all other rulers, King of kings and Lord of lords – note the capital letters – who alone is immortal; when everyone else dies and decays, He alone remains utterly unchanged, and who lives in unapproachable light, implying He can never be seen or approached, He is THAT different.

In each of these encounters and descriptions, there is this sense of a totally ‘other’ God, a Being so incredible that human reason could not cope with it and thus human description failed. There is something about the greatness and what is referred to as the ‘glory’ of God that makes human encounter terminal, likely to be destroyed by presence not intention. Perhaps it was that which God wanted to convey when He gave Israel the plans for the Tabernacle (Ex 26) where there were two areas referred to as the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place (26:33), the latter being a place where the ark of the covenant was kept and only the chief priest could enter once a year after special sacrifices had been made. Again, the message was, keep your distance, God’s presence is dangerous!

And So? Let’s be grateful for the revelation of God throughout the Bible that, for most of the time, is manageable, but let’s remember that that is just His grace in seeking to communicate with us in ways for the most part we can handle. Let’s also never get so clever that we think we’ve got it all wrapped up. I suspect that the iceberg analogy is applicable: nine-tenths of it is below the water and cannot be seen, its enormity is hidden. So with God. Let’s conclude with Job’s conclusion that we saw early on: “My ears had heard of you  but now my eyes have seen you.  Therefore I despise myself  and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:5,6) The ‘seeing’ reference was either a vision or seeing in the sense of understanding. May our understanding be built out of all that is found in the Bible, while also realizing that although it is sufficient to build faith, it is incomplete. Humility is an outworking of this understanding. May we have it.

20. God of Transformation

Getting to Know God Meditations:  20. God of Transformation

Ezek 37:1-3   The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”  I said, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”

No Spectator God:  ‘Deists’ believe in a ‘God’ but one that sits outside of our existence, a mere spectator, having set the whole thing going. How far from the God of the Bible, which is perhaps why deists don’t believe in revelation because the whole book is about revelation. The God of the entire Bible is one who intervenes in this world, who interacts with this world, who seeks to redeem and restore this fallen world, and thus is a God of transformation.

Ezekiel: No more is this seen than in this vision that Ezekiel has that we find in chapter 37.  Ezekiel lived in the closing years of the existence of the southern kingdom (the northern kingdom had gone some 150 years beforehand). The kings of Judah at this time were a bad lot. The God of revelation had spoken to them again and again through Jeremiah in Jerusalem and Ezekiel in Babylon (he had been one of the early Jews to be taken there in exile by Nebuchadnezzar). God had called them again and again to put the nation straight, to deal with all the evil that there was there but they refused. Thus both Jeremiah and Ezekiel brought words of warning that destruction would come.

If you read their writings this is not for the faint-hearted; it is unrestricted horror. There was nothing surprising about this in some ways. Nebuchadnezzar was the all-powerful despot of the region and had already swept through the land and culled it of some of its leaders. (Daniel was one who got taken with his friends into the court of the king in Babylon where he became God’s mouthpiece to this and subsequent reigns in Babylon.  An amazing story – read the first 6 chapters of Daniel to see it.) When armies attacked and there was resistance, there would be fighting, even a siege, and there would be deaths; it is what men do to other men (and women and children – no exceptions in outright war!).

The Future: So Ezekiel has been getting these words from God that suggest that the days are drawing very near for the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of the entire nation brought about by Nebuchadnezzar’s next invasion.  It is clear from his writings that he sees it all coming. It looks like the end of Judah in the same way that Israel (the northern ten tribes) had been removed from the map back in 722BC.  He doesn’t know it for certain but the southern kingdom will cease in 587BC when Jerusalem and its temple is destroyed. Yet within himself, he knows it is coming. He grieves over the certainty of what is about to happen – and then he gets this vision.

The Challenge: A vision, unlike a dream that you get when you are asleep, occurs when you are awake and conscious but suddenly everything before you disappears and you just see the revelation. He sees himself in a valley and the floor of this valley is covered with dry bones. It is the picture of a graveyard where no one has been buried, what happens after a great battle and the invading army has left and the land is now empty. The birds come and pick the carcasses clean. There is nothing left of the inhabitants of the land except their dry bones. As he gazes with horror, I suspect, on all of these bones, God’s voice comes to him: “Can these bones live?” (v.3a)

A Wise Response: I like Ezekiel’s answer, it is an answer of wisdom.  Trying to be smart, we might have said, “Oh yes, Lord, you can do anything,” but Ezekiel knows it is not so much a matter of God’s power and ability but God’s will. He simply says, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.” (v.3b) God has the power, God can do it, but does He want to do it. There is about to be – and this vision corresponds to it – a mighty act of judgment on this ungodly kingdom by another ungodly, but more powerful, kingdom. The sinfulness of mankind will bring about what God has warned them about. It will happen but after it, what? Is it the utter end of this ‘experiment’ by God with a chosen nation that has refused to let Him  lead them into blessing after blessing (except in the early days under David and then Solomon and once or twice afterwards), is this the end of Israel?  What is God going to say about these dry bones, these ‘left-overs’ of Israel?

New Life, New Future: We won’t work our way through what follows but God instructs Ezekiel to prophesy over these bones, life, breath from God, tendons and flesh to cover them again (v.5-10)  and they will rise up again as a vast army.  It happens as he does and then comes the word of explanation: “Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.’” (v.11-14)

See the things He says through Ezekiel:

  • “I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them;
  • I will bring you back to the land of Israel.
  • Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord,
  • I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and
  • I will settle you in your own land.
  • Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.’”

And, remember, this is all spoken before the destruction comes. God will sovereignly move to restore Israel to the Land. His plans, that we saw in earlier studies to use Israel in a variety of way, have not changed. Israel will still be there in some four hundred years when the time is ripe for Jesus to come!

Overview: But what we see here is also a picture of God’s intents for mankind. As we’ve seen before – and again it was through Ezekiel – He doesn’t delight in deaths of people, He wants them to return to Him so that a relationship with Him can be lived out and He can further express His love to us. This is the ongoing message of the Bible. It was a purpose stated from before time began and reiterated again and again and again through the pages of the Bible. God does not want us to remain in the mess we so often create for ourselves, but wants to restore us to lives of peace, harmony, blessing, provision, safety and security. This is the end result of His restoring work.

The terrible thing about this, we should never forget, is that even the weakest of us can resist His will, for He never forces it upon us. All of this goodness is there for the taking but it only comes as the outworking of the relationship with Him for He is peace, He is love, He is goodness and we share all those things as we share in Him.  May we learn that.

19. God of Inclusion (2)

Getting to Know God Meditations:  19. God of Inclusion (2)

Acts 8:27   So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of the Kandake (which means “queen of the Ethiopians”). This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship,”

Recap:  We have started to consider what, to some, may appear a strange verse in one of Isaiah’s prophecies:   Let no foreigner who is bound to the Lord say,  “The Lord will surely exclude me from his people.” And let no eunuch complain,  “I am only a dry tree.” (Isa 56:3) and we noted that although the Law initially excluded any person not part of ‘God’s people’ or any ‘damaged person’ from entering into close encounters with God for the sake of ceremonial purity, it did not mean that such people were excluded from God’s love. The prophecy had gone on to say that any such person whose heart was for God was accepted by God.

I went on to suggest that it doesn’t matter what our background is, what our history is, even what we feel about ourselves, as long as our heart is for God, He is for us. It doesn’t matter what colour you have, what culture you come from, how you view yourself in this world today, God sees your heart for Him and like the case of the prodigal son we mentioned two studies back, God is there with arms open wide to welcome you. Now the reason I have carried on this theme into a second study, is that I wanted to remind us of the various incidents in both Old and New Testaments that bear witness to what we have been saying so far.

Rahab: Rahab was a prostitute who lived in Jericho (Josh 2:1) when Israel first entered the Land. Joshua sent spies into the land who went into Jericho and were hidden by Rahab, it is clear from the story (read it in Josh 2:1-24). This same Rahab, Matthew shows in in his genealogy in Mt 1 eventually married Salmon and was the mother of Boaz who married Ruth, another foreigner, whose son was Obed whose son was Jesse whose son was the famous king David (see Matt 1:5,6). Both Rahab and Ruth were two aliens, foreigners whose hearts were knit to God’s and became part of Israel and part of the Messianic family tree!  Not merely included but part of God’s greater purpose. It is interesting that in that genealogy in Matthew, a Gospel written with a clear Jewish male emphasis, almost with a bias if you like, in a male dominated culture, Matthew includes four women (see Mt 1:3,5,6) all who come from dubious circumstances. It is almost as if God was saying, no one is excluded from my love, from my plans, if they knit their heart to me.

Naaman: Naaman was a Syrian army general, an enemy of Israel who used to plunder Israel, but Naaman caught leprosy and in the desperation of the situation went to Israel to seek out the prophet Elisha to be healed (see 2 Kings 5). He was healed and afterward he goes to Elisha with the testimony, “Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Israel.” (5:15) and he leaves making commitment noises and is clearly accepted by Elisha. An amazing story when you think about it!  An enemy of Israel who God graciously heals!

Jesus: When we come to the Gospels we find Jesus crossing the boundaries of Jewish propriety:

–  meeting and dining with tax-collectors (corrupt traitors to Judaism, working for the Romans and making money for themselves) (Mt 9:10, Lk 19:1-10)

– meeting and dining with so-called ‘sinners’ (the low life of society) (Mt 11:19)

– interacting with a dubious Samaritan woman (Jews didn’t talk with Samaritans and a Jewish man would not talk publicly with a woman (Jn 4:4-30),

– he blessed Romans, and their servants (the foreign enemy) (Mt 8:5-13)

– he touched and healed lepers (the great ‘unclean’) (Mt 8:1-4)

Thus we see Jesus, the Son of God, the image or expression of God, crossing boundaries others would not cross, moral/social boundaries, boundaries with foreigners and enemies, boundaries of health and hygiene – all to reach the lost and basically to say, ‘God loves you!’  None who come to him are excluded, pushed away or rejected.

The Ethiopian Eunuch: Everything about this story surrounding our starter verse, is remarkable. Listen to the description of this man: “And there was an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure. He had come to Jerusalem to worship” (Acts 8:27 ESV)  First, he was an Ethiopian, an African, a foreigner to Israel; second he was a eunuch. We’ve been there – excluded by the Law of Moses, yet loved by God according to Isaiah; third, he was a high official, a dignitary, distinctly different from working class Jesus; fourth, he came to Jerusalem to worship, he was a seeker of the God of Israel. But what about the exclusion bit? Well the Temple was run by Sadducees, a pretty liberal lot, and they weren’t going to turn away a high dignitary from another nation.  Before the story finishes (see Acts 8:26-40) the man becomes a believer and is even baptized before he goes on his way. Yet again, the God who does not exclude ‘foreigners’ and ‘eunuchs’. This story seems tailor-made for Isa 56!

And Us? Before we finish this study we have to ask the question: how do we feel about ourselves and God?  First, ourselves.  Do we write ourselves off because we are ashamed of our background, ashamed of our personal history, ashamed of our failures, ashamed of how we view ourselves, all things perhaps that go against the usual tide of Christian acceptance? Don’t we realize that God accepts all of us, whatever all these things are? God seeks to draw me closer to Himself despite my failures, despite my inadequacies and all He looks for is a heart that yearns for Him. The rest is inconsequential.

Second, others. Do we write others off for these same reasons – their background, their history, their failures, their quirky personalities? Have we forgotten that God is a God of redemption and that means not only that we were redeemed when we turned to Christ but that He is constantly working throughout our lives to redeem us, save us from our messes, get us into a good place where our hearts are open to Him for Him to bring all His goodness and blessing into our lives. Us and all those around us! Whoever they are!

Recap: These two studies have shown us the God who includes the outcasts. We have seen it in

  • Isaiah’s words in chapter 56
  • the experience of a variety of people in both Old and New Testaments
  • the expression of God’s love and acceptance in Jesus.

The world may have outcasts but the kingdom of God doesn’t. All it needs is a heart seeking after God and that’s it – included! The door is opened and the saving work of Christ on the Cross applied. Beginning of story!  Amen? Amen!

18. God of Inclusion (1)

Getting to Know God Meditations:  18. God of Inclusion (1)

Isa 56:3   Let no foreigner who is bound to the Lord say,  “The Lord will surely exclude me from his people.” And let no eunuch complain,  “I am only a dry tree.”

Whole World:  Back in the earlier studies about God of Purpose we noted that God called Israel into being to act as a means of revealing Him to the rest of the world, and then as a background into which He would bring His Son, both objectives of which were designed for the whole world. Again and again this message seeps through the whole narrative – God loves the whole world! Now it may be, and I am sure it is, that some people, either by ignorant misunderstanding of perhaps the way a Sunday School conveyed things when they were little, think the whole thing about God is ‘Jewish’. To refute that, we have to reiterate the ‘for the whole world’ thing and add the reminder that after the first century or so, the collective growing worldwide Church was more and more Gentile, i.e. non-Jew. We might add that although the whole of the Old Testament is important, as Gentiles we are no longer required to follow the specifically Jewish commands; Jesus has fulfilled the Law in every aspect and neither that nor Temple worship is a requirement for the believer since Jesus.

Excluded Groups: The amazing thing about the Bible is that as you read it through, yes it may be a different culture, a different historical period, a different area of geography, but nevertheless in the midst of the language that fits all those things, comes truth that is heart churning. The danger for the world in this respect, when Israel were at their peak (say in Solomon’s day perhaps) was to think what I said above – this God is Jewish, He’s the God only of Israel, but our verse above today challenged that: Let no foreigner who is bound to the Lord say,  “The Lord will surely exclude me from his people.” And let no eunuch complain,  “I am only a dry tree.”  Foreigners and eunuch’s were two classes of people who might have felt that, and we’ll see why in a moment. The Message Version paraphrase puts it, “Make sure no outsider who now follows God ever has occasion to say, ‘God put me in second-class. I don’t really belong.’ And make sure no physically mutilated person is ever made to think, ‘I’m damaged goods. I don’t really belong.’”  Wow!

Foreigners? These are any people who come from a different background or a different culture. If you were an observer of Israel back in their good days, you might have thought, “Wow, these people are different from me – I am different from them. Their God wouldn’t be concerned for me for if He exists and if He is really there for them, it is obvious that He is only for this little clique or nation.”  And isn’t that what people say today? “Oh, I went to that church once; they are different from the rest of us. They meet in strange old buildings, they sing strange songs and chants, they use formulated prayers and swing incense and their leaders dress strangely and their top leaders dress in such strange finery that they make me feel an inferior being. A God who wants all this wouldn’t want me.”  Wrong! It’s not about the trappings, the strange behaviour and strange dress that parts of the church need to prop up their faith, it’s all about heart, as we shall see soon.

Eunuchs? Whoever talks about eunuchs today, what do men who have been castrated (probably to work in a hareem – see Esther 1:10-) have to do with religion? Well, yes, that’s the point, that’s what they would have thought, especially if they had been told that by an Israelite quoting the Law: “No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the Lord,” (Deut 23:1) which the Message Version has as, “No eunuch is to enter the congregation of God,”  or as the old King James Version quaintly puts it, “He that is wounded in the stones, or hath his privy member cut off, shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord.”  Right!  Ha, I hear a critic leaping into the fray, a contradiction! Didn’t we say the Bible was full of contradictions!

Let’s note two thing about this.  First, the Deuteronomy exclusion was not nationalistic but was designed to point out an attitude that was to be held, that God is holy and if you want to be part of the ceremonial, nothing and no one less than a legitimate and whole Israelite could do that. It was part of the ‘God is holy’ teaching. The ‘assembly’ or ‘congregation’ meant a specific gathering in the presence of holy God to be witnessed by the world. The second thing is that simply because someone was excluded from the ceremony that does not mean they were excluded from God’s love. Perhaps Isaiah’s word was to counter the false assumption that might have arisen that only the worthy, only the perfect, could encounter God. Quite often later scripture clarifies earlier scripture or corrects erroneous thinking about earlier teaching. The latter simply clarifies the former. We might note that Isaiah (and later Jesus) was particularly good at this. A little later in chapter 58 he castigates those who follow a form of religion, apparently seeking God, fasting and praying as if that was all that needed. No, says Isaiah, a right heart before God is what He wants.

Moving On: So Isaiah is bringing God’s word that neither someone from a different culture nor someone who, for whatever reason, feels they are less than perfect, is excluded from entering into a relationship with God. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you are from, whatever your background, whatever your history, you are not excluded by God. But notice the wording: Let no foreigner who is bound to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely exclude me from his people.” Strange words – “bound to the Lord”. The Message paraphrase speaks of the, outsider who now follows God,” while the modern NLT says, “foreigners who commit themselves to the Lord.” The clear indication is this refers to people from other places who have heard of God and find their hearts knit with His. Put most simply, anyone who desires to follow and serve the Lord and enter into a relationship with Him will not be pushed away by Him. A similar description was given of eunuchs who sought to follow the Law as much as they could, to seek to please God, they too would not be pushed away from Him.

And So? There is much more to say here so we will continue it in the next study but let’s note what we have seen so far:

  • a common (but wrong) attitude that if you were not a Jew you were therefore excluded from a relationship with God,
  • that may arise in those who come from a different culture or those who for whatever reason feel they are disqualified,
  • but God’s word of inclusion comes to both groups.

In the next study we will examine this some more and see examples of people in the Scripture that this was applied to.

17. God of Under-girding Love

Getting to Know God Meditations:  17. God of Under-girding Love

1 Jn 4:8,16   God is love

Ex 34:6,7 “the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.”

God is Love?  The apostle John said it most simply: “God is love”. Notice He IS love, not love is God, but He IS love, everything about Him is love. It has to mean that everything He thinks, says or does is an expression of love.  This love under-girds everything that happens to do with God! When He revealed Himself to Moses (one of the early revelations about the character and nature of God) see the descriptions above, especially “abounding in love”. Abounding suggests overflowing with, excessively so. Now this is a challenge when we come to read the Bible because it means we need to read what happens through this filter and sometimes ask, “How is what is happening here, an expression of love?” and when we do that we will start thinking more intelligently and with much more understanding, not only of God but of ourselves, the human race.

But what about…? Now let’s face the elephant in the room, as they often say today, the big thing lurking in the background that we prefer to ignore. Christians try to ignore this ‘elephant’, this enormous thing in the background, which is the complaint of the atheistic skeptic, “If your God is a God of love, how come He is involved in genocide, wiping out whole nations, men, women and children?” I confess I struggle with the hypocrisy of this in the light of a period of recent history where it was recognized that for the greater good, whole cities were bombed into extinction almost, by both sides (Coventry and Dresden), and entire populations wiped out twice by H-bombs in Japan. But that is a bigger story but the lesson is still basic: in this fallen world we sometimes have to choose the lesser of two evils. Evils yes, but the only path through horror to reduce it.

Misunderstandings: Part of our confusion – the negative question above – comes from an inability to read scripture comprehensively. For example, the above accusation arises again and again in respect of the incident that was part of the whole Exodus scenario where Israel are told to oust the occupants of Canaan. Now I have never yet come across a critic who has carefully read the entire Pentateuch (the first five books, and for good measure add Joshua) for if they had they would know that the instructions from God to Israel contain the words “drive out” over thirty times and the words about ‘wiping out’ less than half a dozen times. The full picture is that God’s intent was for the land to be cleared. Most people in the area heard of the might of this people (over a million) moving through the lands and fear went ahead of them, fear that was designed to get the enemy to flee. God’s primary intent was that the occupants would be driven out of the land and only if they resisted and fought Israel would the normal effects of war follow (death for all involved – talk to people who experienced the Blitz in London in the last World War!).

Discipline or Judgment: Again another aspect of this same cavilling criticism comes in the form of, “Is the God of the New Testament different from the God of the Old Testament, one a God of love, the other a God of judgment? The Old Testament seems full of His judgments!” Well, actually so is the New, but let’s examine the language that is being used. ‘Discipline’ means to bring about correction. Discipline may or may not be part of so-called ‘judgement’. Now I researched for a book entitled “The Judgments of a Loving God” and investigated every judgement in the Bible that originated with God (be careful, some acts of destruction were not God originated, but people originated). Let me tell you some of my careful conclusions.

First, we may categorize judgments in two ways: a) as ‘disciplinary judgments’  that are designed to bring about change of behaviour, and don’t focus on death, and b) terminal judgments or judgments of the last resort, that bring death.

Disciplinary judgments: These, I would suggest from the record, showing the principle in Rom 1:24-32, where we find such words as “God gave them over to” which implies God lifted off His hand of restraint or protection (that we so often take for granted) from mankind or a part of it. The result is that either i) the sin that was running rampant is allowed total free reign so that it implodes upon itself until people repent (which is happening in the West at the present), or ii) His hand of protection is removed from His people so that they stand on their own, as their current behaviour indicates they want to, and become vulnerable to attacks from surrounding enemy neighbours, until they repent. We see this latter cycle again and again, we’ve already noted, in the book of Judges. Note in both cases the pain that comes in such instances is not from God but from increasing sin or the behaviour of other sinful people. We so often blame God in such situations but the reality is that He just steps back and lets the effects of our own sinful behaviour run amok.

Terminal Judgments: These are ones where people die, apparently at the hand of God. People do die at the hands of other humans sometimes in disciplinary judgments but that is the work of sin and not God. Where there are terminal judgments, apparently brought by the hand of God, I have given these a sub-label of ‘judgments of the last resort’ because it appears that nothing else God could do would restrain or control the situation to halt the destruction that mankind was already bringing on itself. Again and again in such cases we need to investigate carefully what was going on and see the awfulness of the pagan practices or behaviour that God was acting against to limit the self-destruction that was going on – and which was spreading like a cancer.

Over-riding Principles: Because these criticisms seem to arise again and again, even among the poorly read Christian community, I find I have to write these things again and again, and again and again I have to declare Scripture and say, think about what it says. Where there are general criticisms against the God of love, just think of the wonderful world He has given us (which we abuse) and observe in Scripture the wonderful things He did for His people, despite their constant failings. Where there is a song of praise and expressions about God’s love, they are so often linked to His acts of redemption and salvation generally, for example, “Show me the wonders of your great love, you who save by your right hand those who take refuge in you from their foes,” (Psa 17:7) or  “Who among the gods is like you, O LORD? …. “In your unfailing love you will lead the people you have redeemed.” (Ex 11:13,15).

However, the big declarations of God’s intent come through the mouth of the great prophet Ezekiel: Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign Lord. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?” (Ezek 18:23),  and, “Why will you die, people of Israel? For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent and live!” (Ezek 18:31,32) and, “‘As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live.” (Ezek 33:11) which perhaps is also captured by the apostle Peter in his second letter: “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Pet 3:9) supported by his later words, “Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation.” (v.15)

And So? The Bible speaks of God as a God of love. That love is often shown by restraint, is always shown by His grace and His provision (both of which we need to consider more fully in the days ahead), is sometimes seen in the way He steps back and allows us to do our own thing until we come to our own senses, and rarely by His acts where life is forfeited for the good of the greater population (always after much time has been given for change of behaviour and attitude to come about after many warnings had been given).

Always at the conclusion of such a study as this, I feel we need to remind ourselves of Jesus’ amazing parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-24) where the son demands his rightful inheritance, goes and wastes it until he is left envying the pigs in his care for the food they have. There are two primary aspects of the parable: first the son, representing us and our folly in rejecting the Father, and then the amazing father, representing God, who allows the son his demands, allows him to ruin his life, but welcomes him back with open loving arms the moment he decides to return. THAT is the God of love we see throughout the Bible.

16. God of Eternity

Getting to Know God Meditations:  16. God of Eternity

Titus 1:1-3   to further the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness— in the hope of eternal life, which God, who does not lie, promised before the beginning of time, and which now at his appointed season he has brought to light

Continuation:  In the last two studies we have considered something of the variety that we find in the Bible, but variety is not the only wonder that the seeker of truth finds in the Bible, it is the depth or intensity or almost unbelievable wonder that so often comes out of simple reflection of what is before us. We noted in the previous study that part of the New Testament is made up of letters from various leading apostles of the day. Perhaps we have taken a lot for granted here. An apostle was ‘a called and sent one’, a man called by Jesus, called by God, to take the message of the gospel and establish and build what was to become, ‘the Church’.

Meet Paul: Paul, or Saul as he was originally known, was a Jew but a Roman citizen of some standing, a leading Pharisee, part of the conservative group of upholders of the Law of Moses, and in the midst of his self-appointed calling to hunt out and imprison these Christian heretics who were upsetting Judaism after Jesus had died, he had been apprehended by Jesus from heaven and had his life completely turned around. From then on he became the greatest advocate of the Christian cause, the greatest proclaimer of the gospel message and became probably the primary leader for taking the gospel into other nearby lands.

To Titus: See our header verse today. What would happen was that while he was travelling or maybe at a particular location, Paul would write either to colleagues (Timothy & Titus) or to churches he has already established to further encourage them. Titus was clearly another apostle who traveled with Paul but Paul has left him on Crete (see 1:5) when they had been there, in order to continue the work of building the Christian groups established there. Now Paul wants to write to Titus to encourage him in his teaching (see 2:1-) and to get ready to come and join Paul, helping others along the way (see 3:12,13). These letters always come in an historical context and we do well to remind ourselves of these with each letter to enhance understanding.

The Bigger Dynamic: Yet apart from the purposes of the various letters, what we find again and again are what seem like little glimmers of light, of revelation, that seems so simple at first sight, but which bursts forth into our consciousness to provide the most staggering challenges of revelation.  So here we have this letter about teaching and encouragement, but the dynamic bursts upon us even in the greeting at the beginning of it.

Paul starts off the letter, as he so often did, declaring his own credentials, if you like: “Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ.” (v.1a) That is who he is, how he sees himself, a servant of God, called by Jesus to be an apostle. Whether he says it for his own benefit, or Titus’s or ours, doesn’t matter. The point is that what we have before us is because in time-space history this man had an encounter with God that transformed him (see Acts 9:1-19). It is clear that it is not just the initial encounter that convinced Paul, but the ongoing events when he reached Damascus and then the amazing things God did through him in the years that followed. He knew the power of God working in his life that took his testimony way beyond the intellectual level. This was a very bright man, but his testimony and his ministry could not be explained in any other way than he had encountered the living God and knew His ongoing life-changing power in his ministry (see, for example Acts 19:11,12).

The Explosive Panorama: But see the words that follow that initial description, that we have as our header verses:   to further the faith of God’s elect – i.e. to strengthen and build up the faith of the Christians on Crete –  and their knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness – i.e. but not only their faith but also their understanding of the truth in Christ that leads to godly living — in the hope of eternal life, – i.e. that is accompanied by the hope of eternal life, life with God after life on this planet – which God, who does not lie, promised before the beginning of time, – wow! Where did that come from??? All of this has been promised by God from before this material world and existence came into being! God has planned this before he bought the world into existence!

Before Time?  This salvation through Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was planned from before time began??? Well in Paul’s writings I usually quote seven references that are specific to Christ that say that everything about his human life and ministry were planned before Creation, before anything material was made.  Again and again this same concept comes through Paul’s writings, for example, “we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began,” (1 Cor 2:7) and, “he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight,” (Eph 1:4) and, “This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time,” (2 Tim 1:9).

Believable Paul? Ah, says the skeptic, but this is just one man. Well, no. Jesus himself referred to his life with the Father before time began (Jn 17:5,24), the apostle Peter declared the same thing (1 Pet 1:20), and the apostle John saw it in Revelation (Rev 13:8). In the midst of the writings of Paul we get hints about the time Paul had with God and the revelation he received from Him (Many think his words about such revelation at the beginning of 2 Cor 12 referred to himself indirectly). Revelation, wisdom, insight, understanding, call it what you will, this comes to the believer who experiences the presence of God, who waits on Him and knows a flow from heaven.

We referred in the previous study to the apostle John who, in his old age, reflected back on all he had seen and heard in those three incredible years earlier in his life when he had walked with Christ, ending with being able to give the testimony, “From the very first day, we were there, taking it all in—we heard it with our own ears, saw it with our own eyes, verified it with our own hands. The Word of Life appeared right before our eyes; we saw it happen! And now we’re telling you in most sober prose that what we witnessed was, incredibly, this: The infinite Life of God himself took shape before us. We saw it, we heard it, and now we’re telling you so you can experience it along with us, this experience of communion with the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ.” (1q Jn 1:1-4 Msg version paraphrase)

Paul hadn’t been there, although we don’t know if he had watched from afar so to speak, but after he encountered the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus and was transformed, he entered a life of revelation, a life with a heart open to listen to God. What was amazing was that Paul immediately started preaching about Jesus and the gospel, without having been taught it by any man and was thus able to testify,  I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.” (Gal 1:11,12) and one can only say that it matched that which was being preached by the other apostles. Moreover, the Lord clearly supported and inspired his ministry for he was the cause of many turning to the Lord and many churches being established. More than most, we can say the proof of his beliefs can be seen in the fruitfulness of his life. To conclude our starter verses, they go on, “God…. has brought to light through the preaching entrusted to me by the command of God our Saviour.” i.e. my preaching and its effect prove the truth of this.

And So?  So we have seen a further expression of the variety of this Bible but in it we have seen the extended revelation about God and His purposes. We said in an earlier study that it is impossible with our finite minds to really comprehend ‘eternal’ or ‘everlasting’ but here in this study we have been told that God’s plans originated outside of time as the Godhead saw the consequences of giving us free will and what needed to be done to save us from those consequences. More of that in the following studies.