14. And So

Glory Out of Failure Meditations: 14. And So

2 Cor 3:18 we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.

Rom 12:2 be transformed by the renewing of your mind  

To Conclude:  Let’s pick up some of the threads we have followed in this series. We have been working on the Bible-based concept of the life of a believer in Christ, this person made new – and glorified, meaning something wonderful under the hand of God. Yet the truth is we all start from a place of failure, a place outside of the knowledge of God and it needs Him to draw us to Himself, convict us by His Spirit so that we see our need and turn to Him seeking forgiveness and a new life. Yes, that’s how it all starts off but that is only the beginning.

Varied Beginnings: Again, the truth is that everyone of us is a unique child of God. Some of us came to Him as children, others when we are older, some came out of life of almost simple goodness while others came out of lives of flagrant evil. Abram and David seem to just be good guys who get called by God. Jacob was a twister, a deceiver and a grabber from the outset. Joseph was a spoilt little rich boy, insensitive to others around him.  Moses was a prince in Egypt, only half sure of his background. However, the wonder is that He draw each of us, just like He drew each of them. We all have unique beginnings.

Varied Continuations: The thing about the Bible is that it is full of stories, stories of these individuals, their callings, their interactions with God, their struggles and their ongoing failures. And yet in the midst of the failures there is often a glimmer of faith. But these failures are rarely really serious and dramatic – yes Moses killed an Egyptian, David had Uriah killed – they are mostly misunderstandings, trying to work it out themselves, not yet trusting in God. Abram submits to Sarai’s prompting to get a son for a family name, earlier he had directed her to pretend to be his sister (and he does it again later), Jacob schemes to be a ‘someone’, schemes how to get rich, all the things we see in people so often in life. Joseph boasts about his spirituality, getting prophecies from heaven, Moses take the law into his own hand. In the New Testament, Peter constantly opens his mouth trying to ‘help Jesus’ and gets it wrong. Saul is totally zealous for the faith of his fathers but doesn’t realize it was only half the picture. John wants to help out by excluding possible imposters, calling down fire on unbelievers.  Stories and more stories. We all have stories; they are what we call our lives.

Various Paths: All of these varied stories are going somewhere. Half the time the ‘travellers’ don’t understand where they are, where they are going, why they are going, how they are going to get there. So often we aren’t even aware we have a destination we’re so taken up with the present day.  Abram had a vision of a land and a people but it was only tentative. Jacob had a self-centred goal and never realised he was to become the most famous Patriarch in the world. Joseph had dreams he didn’t understand and could never have seen the path ahead that took him to such prominence and importance. Moses thought he was royalty and never dreamt he would be a shepherd and eventually the most famous shepherd in the history of Israel, trained by forty years solitude in the desert. A young zealous Pharisee could never have dreamt that his experiences and travels and writings would have ended up as a large chunk of the most famous book in the world, by which millions would plot their courses through life.  A young brash fisherman minding his own business fishing for his father, could never have guessed at the years ahead that would eventually see him recording both amazing insights into the three most dramatic years of earth’s history, and then catching something of the incredible history of the end of it all.

And Us: We each came to Christ in different ways, we have blundered through the Christian life making different mistakes, taking different times to learn different things. We each have a unique beginning and a unique path to walk. Some of us have entered this path with lots of baggage from the past, others with very little. For some the path is relatively easy, for others incredibly difficult. Some will achieve great things, others not so much. We all come the same way and struggle with similar things but we all have the same Saviour, the same resources and the same end goal. Some of us catch the big picture with great detail, others potter through life with limited understanding, but all are much loved. Whether we realise it or not, there are certain key critical things about this walk. It is about relationship with Him, about learning who He is (the Provider), about our own inadequacies, shortcomings and needs and above all else, how much we are loved. I recently came across a quote by Dutch theologian Henri Nouwen: “God’s presence is often a hidden presence, a presence that needs to be discovered. The loud boisterous noises of the world make us deaf to the soft, gentle and loving voice of God.” Someone commented that he realized that “to encounter God means actively, intentionally and attentively seeking Him and the intimacy of His presence.” Undergirding it all is learning that He is there, He is here with us and He is here for us – despite our failures – and simply looks for our joyful responses whereby we stop, pause and listen to Him.   How wonderful.  

13. John – fisherman, fire-bringer, filled with love

Glory Out of Failure Meditations: 13. John – fisherman, fire-bringer, filled with love.

Mt 17:1 After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves

Lk 9:54 When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?”

1 Jn 3:1 See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!

And So:  So we draw near, I believe, to the end of this little series and perhaps there is no better place to conclude these thoughts than with the apostle John. I came across a quote the other day from a well known and respected apologist who commented that scholars are more and more realising that the John in the Gospels, the John of the Gospel and the John of the letters is all the same John, “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (Jn 13:23, also 20:2, 21:7,20). I’m glad about that because I believe the heart of John’s Gospel is the same heart that wrote John’s letters.  That comment about being “the disciple whom Jesus loved”  doesn’t necessarily mean he was more loved by Jesus than any of the others of the Twelve, but that he was especially aware of being loved. Describing himself like that four times in his Gospel says it must be the author of the Gospel writing about himself and that same love pours through his letters as well. Above all else John was conscious of Jesus’ love for them.

But when? But when did John come to that awareness? Without going into the details, his Gospel is thought to have been written last of the four, possibly sixty-five years after Jesus died. John was now an old man, an elder of the church in Ephesus. As I have written many times in the past, I have observed that the older people get the sharper their long-term memory often is. They forget things of a couple of minutes ago, but the things of sixty years back start becoming clearer. I teach a ‘strengthening-your-memory’ class for elderly people, using long-term memories to bolster short-term memory. I imagine John with younger disciples in Ephesus and, as elderly people do, reminiscing about those three most dramatic years with Jesus, and as he does so, so it is that things come to mind that he realises the other three hadn’t given any attention to as they sought to anchor the bare bones of what happened. This is why his Gospel is so profound, so full of meaning, so full of the deeper things Jesus taught about himself.

The Apostle of Love: Whereas Matthew records the word ‘love’ 15 times (Mark only 7) and Luke 14 times, the word appear 39 times in John’s Gospel and 27 times in his relatively short first letter! John oozes love!  But did he become aware of Jesus’ love at the time or when he came to write the Gospel? We’ll never know, but the truth is that he was certainly aware of it by the time he wrote his Gospel all those years later: God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son,” (Jn 3:16) and, “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus,” (Jn 11:5) and, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end,” (Jn 13:1) and, “As I have loved you, so you must love one another,” (Jn 13:34, also 15:12), and “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you,” (Jn 15:9)

Back to the beginning: But this is supposed to be a series about failures being transformed into vessels holding His glory and so far we’ve been focusing on the end, the glory. Strangely there is not a great deal said about John. He’s presumably the younger brother always getting mentioned after James (e.g. Mt 4:21, 10:2, 17:1). Because there was something about them, Jesus names them ‘Sons of Thunder’ (Mk 3:17) and we see John’s less than full-of-grace early discipleship several times: “Teacher,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.” (Mk 9:38, Lk 9:49) and, “Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask,” (Mk 10:35) and finally, “When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” (Lk 9:54) I leave you to make your own assessment of those instances. To be fair, John and James were part of that innermost group of four chosen by Jesus who went in with Jesus to Jairus’s daughter (Jn 8:51), went up the mount of transfiguration with Jesus (Lk 9:28), were sent by Jesus to make Passover preparations (Lk 22:8) and went with Jesus to pray in Gethsemane (Mk 14:33). Nevertheless, the somewhat graceless testimony still stands for those early days. (NB. He never uses his own name in his Gospel)

So what changed? The years! John has witnessed Jesus’ death (Jn 19:26), he was there at Pentecost filled with the Spirit, he was with Peter involved in healing the beggar (Acts 3), arrested (Acts 4:1,3), spoke out (Acts 4:19), imparted the Spirit to the Samaritan believers (Acts 8:14,17), heard of his brother being killed (Acts 12:2), i.e. he was part of the ongoing ministry of Jesus through the apostles. Of the remaining eleven he was the only one not to be martyred although he was exiled to the prison island of Patmos. We are told he ended his life and ministry as an elder of Ephesus, as we’ve already noted, and so put all these things together and you have a brash young, somewhat insensitive and self-concerned young man, drawn into discipleship where, as the years passed he is drawn more and more into spiritual leadership until, eventually in old age, he is the sole survivor of the Twelve, and an utterly transformed man – by love.   

12. Paul: a classic example (2)

Glory Out of Failure Meditations: 12. Paul – a classic example (2)

Gal 1:13,14  I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it.  I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. 

1 Tim 1:15 Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst …. I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life.

Sincerity:  I remember, many years ago, hearing the great American evangelist, Billy Graham speak about an American Football player he once watched. There was a melee on the field but in all the confusion one man managed to grab the ball and take off with it. He ran the length of the pitch and the crowd was on their feet roaring. He was the most sincere man on the field as he touched the ball down. The only trouble was that in all the confusion he lost his bearings and ran in the wrong direction. The most sincere man on the field was running in the wrong direction! That so describes Saul who became Paul.

Paul’s Sincerity. Let’s just call him Paul for that is the name he is best known by.  Before his well-known Damascus road experience, meeting Jesus, he might best be described as seriously religious. He described this when writing to the Philippians: If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless. (Phil 3:4-6) What a pedigree! Family background – totally Jewish – a circumcised Jew. Spiritual background – a Pharisee, a keeper of the Law, a total law-keeper.  Devotional background – persecuting the church that he saw as a cult undermining Judaism. You can’t do better than that. If you had any doubt, you only have to look at his testimony to the Galatians: intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers.” (Gal 1:13,14) See the underlined words there. All out for suppressing the new cult, the Way, the church. Advancing up the spiritual and social ladder of Judaism beyond others of his own age. An almost rabid or fanatical defender of the faith – his faith.

God moves on: Fifty years before, that might have been highly commendable but God has come, preparing people through John the Baptist, drawing people through His Son; it’s a new day, God has been revealing the mystery that had been there for centuries in the prophetic scriptures, the hiddenness of the Messiah, now made clear and obvious with anyone with eyes to see.  But Paul’s eyes are clouded with tradition, with the past, it’s all he knows and there is no room for anything else.

Changes: But there is something here that believers need to learn – God moves on. It’s not that He changes, it’s not that the truth changes, it’s just simply that He continues to reveal that which was there all the time but which we hadn’t seen. I can remember when I was a young Christian and an itinerant preacher in the UK started teaching about ‘the body of Christ’. It had been there in the scriptures, but we just hadn’t seen it.

The Reformation: Back in the 16th century a German monk by the name of Martin Luther shook the religious world. As Wikipedia succinctly describes him, “Luther taught that salvation and, consequently, eternal life are not earned by good deeds but are received only as the free gift of God’s grace through the believer’s faith in Jesus Christ as redeemer from sin. His theology challenged the authority and office of the pope by teaching that the Bible is the only source of divinely revealed knowledge.” Seems simple to us today but not six hundred years ago. The Reformation restored Scripture to its proper place in the life of individuals and the church.

Holy Spirit being Revealed: Possibly one of the greatest areas the Church has stumbled over has been in respect of the Holy Spirit. When we consider the history of the last hundred years we see experiential faith being upturned. The Los Angeles Azusa Street Revival in 1906 brought out into the open the place and role of the Holy Spirit. This teaching and experience restored the Holy Spirit to His proper place, but mostly stayed within Pentecostal churches. With the arrival of the 1960’s, a change came bringing a fresh awareness of the existence, experience, function and role of ‘the body of Christ’ as formed and created by the Spirit. The Charismatic Movement emphasized personal Spirit-filling and gifting, and our place within the body being taught and experienced in new ways.  

Sonship being Restored: At the very end of the 20th century a phenomena occurred that became known as the Toronto Blessing, a challenging manifestation of the power of the Spirit that, like all these things died away after several years after having dramatically touched and changed many (but not all) lives in the church. My own people after having been impacted by God couldn’t stop reading their Bibles, couldn’t wait for the next prayer meeting and couldn’t stop talking about the Lord. But here’s the thing, many churches weren’t touched, those who were suspicious, religious, wanting to retain control, just like Paul. After it died down I asked the Lord what it was all about. I believe He said, “I have been seeking to teach my people about sonship, about entering into a relationship of love and joy with me whereby they learn to minister in power both inside the church and outside it.” But we are always slow to learn and twenty years later we still (mostly) haven’t learned to do that.

The Glory? Paul’s greatest failure was being utterly sincere but going in the wrong direction. The things we witnessed in the Reformation and the various moves of God through the last century, reveal a church that was sincere but only part way there. As God brought the Bible to the fore, the place of His Spirit to the fore, the reality of Eph 4:12 ministries and 1 Cor 12 gifts to the fore, as expressions of the ‘body of Christ’, He has simply been showing us things that were always there but which we had simply not seen. So ‘glory’ is simply being taken from the place of shortcomings to a place of obedience, from a place of powerlessness to a place of power – provision and purpose – where we become ‘sons’ those who mature and enter into the family business, the family of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. What a privilege, what a wonder, what love, what joy! Let’s not feel we have to be in control, He’s much better at it than we are!   

11. Peter: a classic example (1)

Glory Out of Failure Meditations: 11. Peter – a classic example (1)

Jn 1:42 Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas” (which, when translated, is Peter).

Mt 16:18   I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. 

Moving on:  Not wanting to extend this series unduly, we now move into the New Testament and will take three men to demonstrate something more of this subject of glory coming out of failure. The first of these three is the apostle Peter. Now we have tended to consider these two opposites – failure and glory – as the beginning and end of life but the truth is that our lives are made up of many cameos, short appearances or happenings and they, as individual happenings, can involve failure leading to glory.

The Kaleidoscope of Peter: You know what a kaleidoscope is don’t you, a hand-held instrument that you look into and see multi-shapes and multi-colours and when you tap it they all change. I have to say I think that is what Peter’s life is like as we see it in the Gospels. He meets Jesus and is told he will be changed. He meets Jesus again in Galilee and realises Jesus is something else (Lk 5:8), a failed fisherman (5:5) who became a distraught believer – but a believer!  

Good turning bad: On one hand we think of Peter as the guy who opened his mouth to change feet, but sometimes when he opened his mouth it was to say amazing things, for example, You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” (Mt 16:16) or out on the Lake, “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.” (Mt 14:28) Spectacular!

However, in both instances that triumph did not last. In the first case, shortly afterwards Jesus was speaking about his death and, “Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!” (16:22) which received the stinging rebuke, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” (v.23) In the second instance, having stepped out in faith, “when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”  Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?” (14:30,31) You see what I meant about the kaleidoscope of his actions, constant change, good and not so good!

Good Heart, Good Works but Mistaken:  On the mount of Transfiguration we observe Peter the misguided helper: “Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (Mt 17:4) When questioned about temple tax, he wrongly defends Jesus (see Mt 17:24 -27) But he’s also the one who wasn’t afraid to ask questions of Jesus: “Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” (Mt 18:21) On another occasion we find, “Peter said, “Explain the parable to us.” (Mt 15:15) but for this is rebuked. Another time, “Peter answered him, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?” (Mt 15:15)

The peak of his bumbling discipleship is seen at the Last Supper. First he refuses to let Jesus wash his feet and then goes overboard on it (Jn 13:6-9) and then later on when Jesus is explaining what will happen Peter comes out with, “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will,” (Mt 26:33) and then, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you,” (v.35) but if we may describe these as examples of bumbling discipleship, a mix of good heart and misguided hopes, what follows is tragic and total failure. His threefold denial can be described as nothing other than calamitous failure.

God’s Grace: We did say earlier in this series that each of these instances reveal something of the wonder of God. No truer is this as in what follows in John 21 after Jesus has been raised from the dead. Without going into it in detail Jesus meets what must be a fearful and defensive Peter, knowing that Jesus knew what he had done (Lk 22:61), and challenges him whether he truly loves him. He confirms strongly that he does and it is at this point that basically Jesus commissions him to lead his church after he leaves them. Amazing! The bumbling total failure is commissioned to lead the new movement! That is grace.

Outworking: We see this being outworked in Acts (72 times his name appears there). He leads the others after Jesus leaves (Acts 1), he speaks out under the anointing of the Spirit and five thousand are saved (Acts 2), he and John heal a lame beggar (Acts 3), he preaches to the authorities (Acts 4), he has an amazing healing presence (see Acts 5:15), he goes with John to Samaria to impart the Spirit to new believers (Acts 8), he heals Aeneas (Acts 9), he preaches to the Gentiles in the house of Cornelius (Acts 10), he explains to the Council in Jerusalem (Acts 11),  and so it goes on. What we are not told in Acts, but tradition strongly holds, is that eventually Peter was martyred by crucifixion. A transformed man.

And Us? Peter must be a great encouragement to us for in many ways he portrays so many of us. We bumble along in the faith with good hearts, often misunderstanding what God is doing, often making good proclamations, but often getting it wrong, often asking questions, often wondering how to proceed. And dare we confess we sometimes get it very wrong and yet, and here is the most wonderful thing, God is still there, encouraging us, picking us up when we fall, straightening us out when we get confused and mixed up, loving us when we appear unlovely. That is what Peter shows us, but dare we identify with him at the end of John’s Gospel and declare our love and in this way lay ourselves open to being totally available for the Lord to take us and use us however he will?  Dare we do that? Risk it!   

10. David taking the medicine

Glory Out of Failure Meditations: 10. David taking the medicine

2 Sam 12:13 Then David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.”

Glory?  Our title of this series speaks of ‘glory’ meaning the wonder that God brings into human lives, delivering them failure to a place of splendour as the angelic world looks on (see Eph 3:10), but the truth is that when you look at mankind we are all different and therefore some of us encounter the Lord when we are young, others when we are older, some demonstrate gracefulness from an early age, some have it worked into them over decades. So not everyone starts from a place of obvious failure but may demonstrate failure as they proceed through life and so for them, the ‘glory’ is revealed in the way they respond to God’s correction. David is one such person.

David’s early days: We first encounter David when he is called to be anointed by Samuel and all we are initially told is that He was glowing with health and had a fine appearance and handsome features.”  (1 Sam 16:12). We did get a hint about him earlier on when Samuel spoke about him prophetically, “the Lord has sought out a man after his own heart.” (1 Sam 13:14) When he is anointed by Samuel we read, “from that day on the Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon David.” (1 Sam 16:13) He has a good reputation for soon after we hear him described as, “a son of Jesse of Bethlehem who knows how to play the lyre. He is a brave man and a warrior. He speaks well and is a fine-looking man. And the Lord is with him.” (1 Sam 16:18) His own testimony is God focused and bold and full of faith (see (1 Sam 17:34-37) and killing Goliath is the first sign of his godly prowess and he is so successful as a warrior that he is promoted by Saul (1 Sam 18:5). His story is long and involved but eventually he becomes king over Judah and later over all Israel. His reign is one of triumph and splendour.

But then:  But then comes the incident with Bathsheba and his lust leads to murder (see 2 Sam 11) but the Lord holds him accountable and Nathan challenges him over it (2 Sam 12:1-8). Now perhaps we take for granted his response but in the light of the situation it is a good response. He acknowledges his sin and acknowledges that it is against God. One of the lessons we have to learn along the path of the Christian life is that all sins are sins against God. Jesus conveyed it in the parable of the prodigal son who cried, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.” (Lk 15:18)

So Obvious?  Is this lesson so obvious? It is certainly not one the surrounding world knows about and, indeed, there are many Christians who either are so insecure they dare not acknowledge their failures or even if they do they try to suppress their feelings about them and hope the guilt goes away. The apostle John’s teaching, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness,” (1 Jn 1:9) are merely words we skim over on the page and have not become real for many. Acknowledgment, confession, and repentance are crucial things for the believer to learn.

Slow Learners: From my own personal experience I suggest there are various stages that many of us go through, either because we are slow learners or because in our insecurity it takes a while to be able to confess the truth. I have had at least two occasions in the past where, as a pastor, I have been sinned against and, looking back, I think I handled neither of them as well as could have been. But I felt hurt in both cases and I withdrew. I blamed these two sets of people (for there were couples involved in both cases) for, indeed, they were guilty. That hurt stayed with me a long time, but I handled it – I thought.  Having been taught we should not let such things blight us, I eventually forgave them (I thought). I came to a place of peace over both past situations. Time passed and when the Lord saw I had arrived at the place where He could speak and I would hear it, He began to show me that although in both cases I had shown some good traits, nevertheless as a leader the buck stops with me. The truth was in both cases when a crisis occurred, it happened because I had not had the grace to wisely and graciously get alongside these people and bring healing and help that they both needed. I had failed.  Yes, there was sin on their part, but equally, although different, on my part. But here’s the thing, it took ten years to come to that recognition, ten years to come into a place of security where I could face the truth and get the grace! Glory comes in some strange ways sometimes!

David Again: David takes his medicine; he takes what is coming as God’s discipline. When his son by his sin with Bathsheba dies, he cleans up and worships God (2 Sam 12:20) and in comforting Bathsheba, Solomon is conceived and a whole new future for Israel is opened up. When he flees Absalom and Shimei curses him he refuses to see it as anything other than from the Lord (2 Sam 16:5-12). Later when David succumbed to pride and numbered his men and was given three choices of judgment for it, we see a wise decision: “Let me fall into the hands of the Lord, for his mercy is very great; but do not let me fall into human hands.” (1 Chron 21:13) His trust in the mercy of God stands out. If he has to be disciplined let it be God who does it, for he trusts Him.

And Us? The lessons here are about maturity and about facing who we are, especially when we fail. The answer is not to wallow in guilt but to remember this is why Jesus died – for my sin. I am less than perfect (see 1 Jn 2:1) and maturity is owning up to that and accepting God’s correction, as long as it takes!  This is also the glory of the working of God in His children.

9. Saul – not always glory

Glory Out of Failure Meditations: 9. Saul – not always glory.

1 Sam 9:17   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.”

2 Sam 15:26   You have rejected the word of the Lord, and the Lord has rejected you as king over Israel!”

Why Saul?  As we work our way through the Bible, picking up illustrations of those who were taken from failure to glory, when we come to Saul we have to realise that it doesn’t always work like this. The truth is that people only end up transformed when they have encountered God and responded positively to Him. It may sound too obvious to mention but it applies to all of us all of the time – if we do not respond to the Lord we will not be changed in the ways He wants to change us. And remember, what we said, He doesn’t want to change us because He is fed up with us, but simply because He loves us and wants better for us than we have at the present. Saul demonstrates this, demonstrates that the end is not always glorious.   

Saul’s Background: In many ways Saul has everything going for him. His father is “a man of standing” (1 Sam 9:1) and Saul himself is described as, a handsome a young man as could be found anywhere in Israel, and he was a head taller than anyone else.” (v.2) He lives in the time of the judges while Samul the prophet is judging (ruling) the nation but the nation has asked to be given a king. God has told Samuel about Saul (v.15,16) so when Saul comes looking for his father’s lost donkeys, he encounters Samuel who invites him to a meal and then, next morning, Samuel anoints him and prophesies over him. (1 Sam 10:1-7). As he left Samuel, “God changed Saul’s heart,” (v.9). Now we are not told what that actually means but we may take it that Saul feels differently about himself.  On his way home he finds himself caught up in prophesying (v.10). Subsequently Samuel calls Israel together and Saul is chosen by lot to be king (see v.17-24). Now we should note that while that process was going on, Saul had hidden himself away. Despite what had happened to him so far, he was indicating his desire to reject his destiny. Nevertheless, he is exactly the sort of man – big and tough – that Israel wanted for their king. He is chosen as king.

Failure No.1: He continues working for his father (see 1 Sam 11:5) until there is an enemy attack and when he hears of it, “the Spirit of God came powerfully upon him, and he burned with anger.” (v.6) He calls Israel together and delivers them from their invader (v.7-11). Consequently he is confirmed as king of Israel (v.12-15). Now this had all happened quickly and then when Saul’s son, Jonathan, provoked the Philistines to come against them with a mighty force, Saul took it upon himself to act as priest and present offerings to God, obviously to get God on their side (as if He wasn’t already!), a role that should only be taken by God’s spiritual representative. For this he is rebuked by Samuel (v.13,14) and is told his reign will not endure and God will look for a man after his own heart (v.14).

Failure No.2: Later Saul is told by Samuel to destroy their enemy, the Amalekites, but this he fails to do. (see 1 Sam 15:1-9) and is again rebuked by Samuel (see esp. v.28) saying He will be taking the kingdom from him. When Saul says, “I have sinned. But please honor me before the elders of my people and before Israel; come back with me, so that I may worship the Lord your God,” (v.30) that doesn’t have any sense of repentance about it, more of manipulation for his own sake.

The End for Saul: There is much more in 1 Samuel that involves both Saul and David but tragically at the end of it, Saul is killed in a battle with the Philistines (1 Sam 31:1-6) but ironically it is an Amalekite who claims his death (2 Sam 1:8). David graciously laments the deaths of Saul and Jonathan, despite all the tribulation Saul had brought on David’s life (see second half of 1 Sam) but however you look at it, it is not a glorious end.

Lessons: It is a strange story. Behind it all the Lord chooses Saul because he fits exactly what Israel are asking for, a good looking, tall and strong guy. It is almost as if the lesson is being conveyed that outward appearance is not what counts – as He reiterates when He has Samuel anointing David (1 Sam 16). The fact that the Lord chooses him to serve, gives him prophecy and then fulfils it and twice fills hm with the Spirit, shows us that this too is not enough. God can do all He will on His part but the outcome is dependent on our heart. If it is a heart that is obedient to God’s Law, His calling, and His instructions, then there is hope, but in the absence of these, there is no hope. The transformations that we have been talking about will simply not come about. Perhaps more than any other Old Testament story, this one reveals the truth that the all-important issue is the issue of the heart, the inclination towards God – or not.  Jesus taught, “Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me,” (Jn 14:21)  The apostle John obviously understood this when he wrote, “Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person,” (1 Jn 2:4) and much of his letter is about obedience being the sign of love for God. Obedience and allowing God to change us is crucial if we are to be transformed from being failures to glorious children of God. May it be so.  

8. Moses – the folly of good intentions

Glory Out of Failure Meditations: 8. Moses – the folly of good intentions

Ex 2:11,15  One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to where his own people were and watched them at their hard labor….. Moses fled from Pharaoh and went to live in Midian

Num 12:3  Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth

Ex 3:10  I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt

And Moses?  I really identify with both Jacob and Moses (perhaps a little with Joseph). I’m a child of God and God has blessed me immensely and yet as I look back I realize I have been a schemer, a grabber who has so often been more concerned about myself than about others who need my love and concern. I note also that, like Moses I have often been someone full of good intentions (for God and His kingdom) but not always with the wisdom and grace that only He can provide. So let’s have a look at Moses. At the beginning of the Jacob story I wrote, if you look for an example in the Bible of someone who started out as a self-centred disaster but ended up as a glorious man of God, you can’t do better than look at Jacob.  Well I believe Moses outshines Jacob in this respect.

Moses’ Background: As with Joseph it all starts with the family background. Moses is first and foremost an Israelite. Strictly speaking he shouldn’t even be alive, for Pharaoh had given orders for all Israelite baby boys to be killed at birth (Ex 1:16) but the Hebrew midwives had refused. Thus Moses was born and his mother hid him. To cut the story short, he ends up as son to the daughter of Pharaoh (see Ex 2:1-10) and so grows up as a prince of Egypt. When he is forty (Acts 7:23) he visited his people, ends up killing one of the slave masters and has to flee Egypt (see Ex 2:11-16), ending up in Midian where he acts as a shepherd for a Midianite priest for another forty years. By any measurement, he has blown it. An unwise action in a hasty moment has meant he has thrown away all the possibilities as a prince of Egypt and has fallen to the bottom of the social ladder – as a shepherd. What a fall!

But God…: There it is, the picture of mankind. Eve thinks it will be fine to disregard God’s instructions and does her own thing, leading Adam astray as well. Sin enters the world and everything is different. Centuries later Moses disregards anything he might have learned about not killing (see Gen 9:5,6) and takes a life. In both cases the consequences are immense and, at first sight, the future is hopeless. For Moses the future is empty except for sheep! He has no future except life in the wilderness. And then God turns up. Isn’t that it how it is with every human being? We tend to settle, to grow accustomed to the life we have – in the wilderness. In fact it is so normal we don’t even realise it is a wilderness, but it certainly isn’t the place God has in mind for our destiny.

But why? But why should God turn up and choose Moses to deliver his people out of slavery out of the power of what must be one of the world’s greatest despots? If you were head of an HR department looking for an employee to carry out one of the most difficult jobs going, surely you wouldn’t choose a total failure, someone at the bottom of the social scale? I mean, the guy is a loser from the start, and how is a scruffy shepherd going to look before the riches and pomp of Pharaoh? But perhaps the fact that he is a scruffy nobody means that he will be able to infiltrate Egypt under the watchful eyes of Pharaoh’s slave masters? But no, it’s stupid, even if he gets within a mile of Pharaoh, what then? No it’s a hopeless task, it’s utterly pointless sending this loser on this errand!

Requirements: But now think about what we know of how the story pans out, what we can learn about these things. What happened? God instructed Moses, gave him a couple of simple starter-miracles to impress his own people, then instructions of what to do in respect of Pharaoh, Moses spoke, Pharaoh hardened his heart, and God performed ten miracles of judgment and Pharaoh caves in and Israel are delivered. So, within that summary, what was required of Moses? He needs to be obedient and perform a couple of miraculous signs he’s already done before, and then he is obedient and simply tells Pharaoh what God has told him to say. It’s that simple – when you have faith! And here’s the thing, God knows all things, and that includes the future, what Moses is capable of, what Moses can do with a bit of encouragement. God knows Moses’ potential and that’s all that matters, so all that previous Human Resources stuff counts for nothing.

And Us? So God scours humanity and spots you and me – and He knows!  He knows what we’re capable of; in fact before the foundation of the world, He looked into the future of human existence and saw that given the circumstances, we would hear of Jesus and respond. He looked at us and knew our potential. He didn’t choose you because you were good, but because you were you. Yes, a failure, yes with the potential of messing up, with the propensity to reason it out and act wrongly, but also the potential to hear Him, respond to Him and bit by bit change. Works in progress. Be grateful you haven’t got an Israel to deliver but be alert to the Spirit, be alert to what God has on His heart for you – and then get on and do it. He’s the miracle worker, the world changer and because He loves you, He wants you to play a part in it. What fun!    

7. Joseph – spoilt brat to godly ruler

Glory Out of Failure Meditations: 7. Joseph – spoilt brat to godly ruler

Gen 37:2   Joseph, a young man of seventeen, was tending the flocks with his brothers, the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah, his father’s wives, and he brought their father a bad report about them.

Gen 50:20  You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.

More on Jacob:  The story of Joseph really starts with Jacob – before time has worked wisdom, grace and revelation into him. Yes, he’s old and he has a favourite, Joseph, but it goes right back to when Jacob was tricked into marrying both Leah and Rachel (see Gen 29) – and Rachel hadn’t been able to have children, it seemed (Gen 30:1) and so she had given him Bilhah, her servant to have two sons on her behalf. Leah meanwhile had already had four sons! When Leah stops producing she sees how important children are to Jacob so copies her sister and had given Jacob Zilpah, her servant, to do the same and she also produces two sons.  Next, Leah starts producing again and has two sons and a daughter. Meanwhile Rachel still appeared barren but because she had been Jacob’s first love he is grieved and so when she does eventually conceive and Joseph is born he is doubly blessed and spoils the boy. A little while later Rachel conceives but dies bearing Benjamin the last of the twelve sons of Israel (Gen35:16-18). Perhaps that made Jacob even more loving of Joseph. He gives him an ornate robe, a fashion statement if you like, and thus his brothers hate him for all this.  

Young Joseph: Our opening verse speaks volumes. Joseph is looking after their many flocks – with the sons of the two servant women and he tells on them. We don’t know what but there is obviously bad feeling in the family setup. He is seventeen, a spoilt teenager surrounded by jealous older brothers. they hated him and could not speak a kind word to him.” (Gen 37:4)Wisdom says keep your mouth shut and your head down but Joseph is a teenager and they are not normally known for their wisdom, so when he starts getting prophetic dreams, he blurts them out, regardless how it might make the rest of the family feel. (Gen 37:5-11) So, it’s not terribly surprising what ensues – his brothers selling him off to slave traders and the whole process gets under way whereby, fourteen years later, he is second in command to the king of Egypt.

Lessons? Remember this is about going from failure to glory, so let’s observe the low points so far. Number one, don’t have favourites on the family; it only provides grounds for jealousy. Second, recognise teenagers for what they are, young, often brash, full of hope and careless of others (not always but often). So don’t expect too much of them, don’t burden them with expectations beyond their years. Third, realise they can hear God, they may appear more spiritual than you, even though immature. Enough for the moment.

Maturing Joseph: Now here comes the big lesson. Our second starter verse shows us how Joseph has changed. He is now all powerful and could easily have meted out vengeance on his brothers who are now in his power, but instead he graciously reassures them it is all right, for he’s come to see that the hand of God was on him, God was there working through all these past events to bring him to the place where, with more revelation from God, he could act as saviour for the whole Middle East.  He now understands what the original prophetic dreams meant but it was not to be for his glory that they were bowing before him, but simply to recognise what God has achieved.

The Big Lesson: So hold on to your seat, here is the big lesson that comes through all this. God chooses us, knowing we are imperfect but spends the rest of our lives changing us. Not because He’s fed up with us but because He wants something better for us. Those changes we call ‘sanctification’, His ongoing work by His Spirit to change us into the image of Christ. Where our hearts are open to Him, He simply speaks to us, either through His written word which he uses for, teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,” (2 Tim 3:16) or by the whispered word of His Spirit from within us. Where He sees we are set in our ways or not yet open to listen, He will step back and let the ways of the fallen world in on our lives so that we are put under pressure that, like the Potter of Jeremiah 18, reforms us and conforms us to the likeness of Jesus in the way we live, act and react.

This is exactly what happened to Joseph as the bad attitudes of his brothers put him into slavery which led to prison, during which both times the Lord was with Him giving him favour as his character was being formed to take on authority and responsibility.   Eventually that prepared him to be able to hear God to bring His words of wisdom into the situation involving a widespread famine, to save the whole region, and to rule over the administration of all of that. Who could have foreseen that when he was say, sixteen? Who would have guessed how those two prophetic dreams would have worked out in such a much greater manner than might have been obvious when he spoke them out?   

And Us?  Dare we face our imperfections that God is working on, recognizing that He has bigger and better things for each of us? Can we receive them with open hearts or do we have to go through a Potter’s wheel experience where He uses the world to conform us?  

(We’ll have a week’s break and then return here)

6. Jacob – Twister turned True

Glory Out of Failure Meditations: 6. Jacob – a twister turned true

Gen 25:26  After this, his brother came out, with his hand grasping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob.

Gen 32:26 Then the man said, ‘Let me go, for it is daybreak.’ But Jacob replied, ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me.’

Gen 35:10 God said to him, ‘Your name is Jacob, but you will no longer be called Jacob; your name will be Israel.’ So he named him Israel.

Where we are: If you look for an example in the Bible of someone who started out as a self-centred disaster but ended up as a glorious man of God, you can’t do better than look at Jacob. That summarises what we are seeking to achieve in this series. We observed a number of lessons that come through Abraham but in many ways he always seems to me to have just been ‘a nice guy’. That cannot be said of Jacob.

Expressions of ‘Self’:

Example 1: Twins tend to be born one at a time but in this case it is almost as if Jacob is saying to Esau, ‘I’m not letting you be the first born, I’m coming with you!” Of course it may be pure chance (!!!) that he happened to be clinging onto Esau’s heel but Isaac and Rebekah were both prophetic people and somehow this seemed significant so they named him Jacob, which your footnote will tell you means “he grasps the heel”. A bit unkind that, it seems, to rub it in – he’s a grabber!   

Example 2: But then he is, for when they are growing up, (Gen 25:27-34) Esau the hunter comes in tired and Jacob uses that to get him to handover the birthright. Now to us that may appear insignificant but in those days the older son became the inheritor of the father’s estate but now Esau gives that right up. So Esau despised his birthright.” (v.34) Jacob the grabber took the opportunity of his brother’s indifference to the family calling, to grab it.

Example 3: It is reinforced later when he gets Isaac to bless him (Gen 27), another highly significant prophetic ritual of those days. This time, with Rebekah’s egging on, he grabs the family name. Now we’ve commented before that these negative things always have negative consequences and in this case it is that Esau is so angry that Jacob has to flee and go to Haran to live with his uncle.

Example 4: On the way he has a dream and the Lord gives the blessing of Abraham – over him! It is an amazing thing but when he wakes up he says If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father’s household, then the Lord will be my God.” (Gen 28:20,21). It is totally self-centred. OK God, if you want to be my God then look after me and prosper me. He foolishly hasn’t taken in God’s promise which is to bless him and that means every aspect of his life.   

Example 5: His dealings with Laban, his uncle, are too long and convoluted to detail here (read Gen 29-31) but they are as bad as each other, but Jacob is out to grab what he can and thus becomes very rich and prosperous but ends up having to flee back home. Again note the negative consequences.

Confronted by God: There comes a time in life when the Lord – who sees our potential – knows it needs a confrontation with him. That happens in the middle of the night on the way home (see Gen 32:22-30) God asks him, “What is your name?” (v.27) He wants to hear him acknowledge it – “I’m the twister, the grabber,” and when He hears it He changes it to Israel, which means “he struggles with God.” He wrestled with God and would not give up so God gives him one of the most famous names in history, a slightly enigmatic or puzzling name. Was it a good thing that he prevailed with God or is it a reminder that the twister, the grabber, even struggled with God declaring, “I will not let you go unless you bless me” ? (v.26) Pretty gutsy!  It seems a two-sided name that reminds us of both our background and our future possibilities with God.

The Man of God: The end of the story of Jacob is remarkable – he blesses Pharaoh (Gen 47:8-10). He is of such a stature that he dares bless the ruler of the mighty nation of Egypt. But then we see him prophetically blessing Joseph’s two sons – not in the order Joseph expected; it is an example of prophetic sensitivity. (Gen 48). But then he goes on, before he dies, and prophetically blesses all his sons (Gen 49). He is now a spiritual giver. The grabber has become a giver with amazing sensitivity. Incredible!

And Us? Remember Jesus, the ‘friend of sinners’ (Lk 7:34), remember how he accepted Zacchaeus, that crooked chief tax collector (Lk 19). Our saviour loves sinners, and that is good news because go into any church and it is full of sinners – oh yes, redeemed but still with the propensity to trip over our feet and get it wrong. We still have the Jacob-propensity to look out for number one, to think in every situation how it will affect ‘me’. We still have the propensity to scheme, to think how we can work things for our best. We may not be as blatant as Jacob, but we still do it. And then every now and then we have a wrestling match with God and He says, “Give in, stop rejecting me, stop striving to achieve and realize that my desires are to bless you more than you want to be blessed!” Oh yes, be honest, we’re very much like Jacob so often. Our insecurities mean we struggle to be first out, get the family blessing, achieve in business (or even in church) while all the time God IS wanting to bless us but is hindered by our struggles. Be at peace in who you are and rejoice in His intents for you. Be blessed and become a blesser, a giver of goodness.   

5. Abraham – Glory

Glory Out of Failure Meditations: 5. Abraham – glory

Gen 22:8  Abraham answered, ‘God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.’

Gen 24:3  I want you to swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and the God of earth, that you will not get a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I am living,

Where we are: We’ve been observing Abram, a childless pagan, called by God to go to Canaan and become a nation that will bless the world. Pretty amazing! Yet he is clearly an embryonic believer and gets it wrong – he doesn’t realise God will provide food for him in a famine, or protection for him in Egypt, he only half obeys the call to go, by taking Lot and then having to rescue him, he believes God when He says he will have children but goes along with Sarai to use his maid to achieve that, with more negative consequences. We haven’t majored on this but we should note that each of our half obediences or trying to help God out have negative consequences. It’s not the way to go.

One more failure: Before we get to the ‘glory bits’ we need to note just one more failure. Yes, it is important to face up to our failures, not to heap guilt on others or ourselves but to observe goals we need to go for in dealing with such things.   The account involving Abimelek in Gen 20 that occurred in the far south (the Negev) is almost an exact retake of what happened in Egypt, and necessitated God coming to Abimelek in a dream to put it right. As at this point Abram has still not learnt that God is there to protect him. But isn’t that like us so often, we worry about ‘what might happen’ instead of trusting in God, leaning on Him for protection?

Trust: But then Isaac is born (Gen 21) and then we find Abraham making a treaty with Abimelek, who is shown to be a Philistine (21:32). He was not only very rich, which we’ve seen earlier, but he is now one who deals with leaders of other nations. But then comes the big test of sacrificing Isaac (Gen 22). It becomes clear that God did not desire Isaac’s death but simply wanted to see how much Abraham had learnt. He trusts God and perhaps, even while he is preparing to take Isaac to be sacrificed, he is sure God will provide a substitute, and his words, God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son,” (v8) was a literal belief that didn’t refer to Isaac. Yet he was willing to proceed to the point of sacrifice and the writer to the Hebrews declares, “Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead.” (Heb 11:19). However we see it, he now trusts God to provide.

Confidence: Move on a bit and Isaac has grown up and Abraham is getting ‘very old’ (24:1). In what follows we see him sending his servant to his own people with the instruction, “I want you to swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and the God of earth, that you will not get a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I am living, but will go to my country and my own relatives and get a wife for my son Isaac.” (24:3,4) Note first his description of God. He has learnt who it was who had called him and been with him throughout all these years.  But then note that he has come to understand that his family is special, called of God, and he is not to go mixing it with the local pagans. Isaac is to have a wife from his own people.  Listen to his instructions: “The Lord, the God of heaven, who brought me out of my father’s household and my native land and who spoke to me and promised me on oath, saying, “To your offspring I will give this land”– he will send his angel before you so that you can get a wife for my son from there.” (24:7) i.e. this God who I have learned about will provide a wife for my son! He is confident in God’s provision for his family. As you follow the story you see that the servant too understands that God has led him, God is providing for his master just as his master had said He would.

James in his letter writes, “‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,’ and he was called God’s friend.” (Jas 2:23) reflecting the Old Testament record (see 2 Chron 20:7 & Isa 41:8). We so often focus on the wonder of Abraham believing and that being credited as righteousness, but the equally big issue is the relationship he had with God whereby there is this threefold testimony to him being God’s friend. ‘Friend’ conveys warmth, intimacy, closeness, openness. That is the wonder of what has come about in this man’s life. Yes, he has believed God, yes, he has been enabled to have the son of promise, yes he has become rich and important, but more than all that, he is God’s friend!

And us? Jesus said to his disciples, “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” (Jn 15:15) When he called them they were disciples, followers, learning to be servants, but as the years went on, it went further than that as Jesus shared his heart with them. How about you and me? Are we still just disciples or has our relationship with the Lord developed whereby he shares with us and we share with him and there is a sense of intimacy? This is the glory that can be revealed in us, that we mere human beings can be called friends of Almighty God! It doesn’t depend on the circumstances – in fact the circumstances help deepen the relationship – it just depends on the two of us, Him and me. We know that this is what He wants. Do I appreciate it, work at it, enjoy it?