17. Bless the Opposition

Meditations in Romans, Ch.12-16 : 17:  Bless the Opposition

Rom 12:19   Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.

We have just seen Paul writing, If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” (v.18) and sometimes it is very difficult to leave at peace with everyone because there are sometimes those who seek to actively harm us and so, perhaps, it is with that in mind Paul continues, “Do not take revenge, my friends,” (v.19a) for if we do we become just like them but as we’ve already seen in other meditations our call is to not only live at peace but to pray for our enemies. How can you pray for someone and see to exact revenge on them?

But Paul has another reason for saying ‘don’t take revenge’ because if we try to we will be getting in the way of the Lord. He cites the Law: “for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.” (v.19c) Revenge is the prerogative of the Lord. He knows when it is due and the right way it should come and thus if we interfere we will not “leave room for God’s wrath.” (v.19b) We are to leave any repercussions coming back on those who attack us to the Lord. He deals with them far better than we can. It is a hard stand to take but we are not to come back against those who attack and seek to harm us. It is a real place where faith is required.

Indeed, Paul goes on, rather than seeking to harm your enemy, seek to do him or her good: “On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.” (v.20a,b quoting Prov 35:21)  What a witness that is! This certainly comes into that category of actions that Jesus spoke about when he said, “let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” (Mt 5:16) Helping your enemy is clearly one of those ‘good deeds’ that will reveal who you truly are and will reveal the Lord to watchers.

He concludes the quote with the next verse from Proverbs: “In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” (v.20c, quoting Prov 35:22) The origin of the phrase about heaping burning coals on a persons head was in respect of bringing a terrible punishment and pain on a guilty person. Here the good deeds returning to the attacker would strike his conscience and act as a form of punishment that would convict him. The Egyptians also had a similar thing where walking with such a bowl on your head was a sign of repentance and contrition, and so the same thing would be implied, that the good act being returned for the bad act would bring about repentance.

To summarise all this, Paul concludes, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (v.21)  The temptation when bad is done against us is to retaliate but if we so do, as we said above, we become just like our attackers and we join in doing evil. Their evil would thus overcome us as we succumb to evil by doing the same. No, says Paul, there is a better way, a more positive way and it is by doing good back to them. Not only may we convict their hearts but we stay in the place of righteousness. Good responses, good deeds will act like salt and will purify the situation (Mt 5:13), changing it for good. Again and again in world politics we see nation against nation, nation responding to violent nation with more and more violence and all that happens is that it gets worse and more and more people die. Instead someone needs to have the courage to say, “We will not retaliate, we will do good” and break into the violent cycle.

So what have we seen in this chapter. Let’s summarise it:

v.1-2  A call to consecration of body & transformation of mind

v.3     A call to humility

v.4-8  Encouragement to operate gifts of grace

v.9,10 Mini-exhortations to maintain right relationships with others

v.11,12 Ditto your spiritual life with God

v.13-21 Ditto in respect of relationships with all others in the world.

This has not been a chapter of deep theology but of immense practicality. Paul has another of this exhortation-packed pieces in 1 Thes 5:14 onwards. They are a Christian behaviour spectrum and brilliant for anyone launching out in the ways of meditation. You can ponder on each little bit achieving much value. They push us back into the arms of God, either by the exhortations about the spiritual life, or for the grace to live in harmony with the rest of mankind and especially those in the household of faith. There will be even more of this ‘behaviour focused teaching’ in the following chapters in Romans  and when we get to chapter 15 more reminders that most of us believers are Gentiles which is amazing. Well there are lots more wonderful things to see in Romans, so may I encourage you to press on with it.

16. Humility

Meditations in Romans, Ch.12: 16:  Humility

Rom 12:16-18   Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.

I have a feeling that if Paul was writing this chapter for a modern magazine, he might entitle it something like “Thirty Five ways of living at peace in today’s world”, or something similar, because it is a bit like that, a list of mini-exhortations about how to live as the children of God.

Moving on from responding to people we might prefer to push away, Paul then deals with how we should live our lives in such a manner that we are a blessing to others because ultimately, although he doesn’t say it, we too, like the Jews, are called to be a light to the rest of the world and are to reveal God to all others.

In a world where there is so often upset and conflict, Paul encourages us to be different: Live in harmony with one another.” (v.16a) I recently saw a TV program about a couple (he was an architect) who decided to build an ultra-modern house in a beautiful setting, a house that stood out as a pile of square boxes, in a row of houses that were old and traditional. More than that, somehow they had got planning permission to build about twenty feet in front of the previous building line so their house not only stood out but blocked the view either way. It was a statement of selfish lack of concern for anyone else and of course the neighbours were horrified.   To live in harmony with other people means we give consideration to them. The household that blasts out music all the time so loud it can be heard three quarters of the way down the street, is saying, ‘we don’t care about the rest of you. We don’t care if we take away your peace.’ Examples of failing to live in harmony. The household that grow massively developing Leylandi trees blocking out the light and views for the neighbours are failing to live in harmony. Living in harmony requires being considerate.

So often such behaviour is a demonstration of self-centredness which is a cousin of pride. Hence Paul counsels, “Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.” (v.16b) Pride looks down on other people, may even despise them, thinks little of them, and certainly doesn’t want to have anything to do with such lesser beings! Many of us are what sociologists call ‘middle-class’ which means we have certain values and standards (although those have been eroded in recent years), often a strong work ethic and are tolerably well off. As the famous John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett sketch demonstrated, the tendency is for ‘the upper class’ to look down on the ‘middle class’ who look down on the ‘working class’. However, the moment we make such distinctions in our mind we put up barriers and God’s love sees no such barriers and wants to reach all men and women whoever they are. Paul is aware of all this and thus counsels about associating with people outside of your social grouping and not being conceited or proud about your own position. Again and again Scripture warns against this. Both James and Peter quote Proverbs 3:34 warning that, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (Jas 4:6, 1 Pet 5:5). In his famous ‘love passage’ Paul says, “Love is …. not proud.” (1 Cor 13:4)

But Paul is also aware that living in harmony is not always easy because other people are not always nice so he says, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil.” (v.17a) In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus picked up on having this right attitude: “You have heard that it was said, `Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.” (Mt 5:38-42) Everything he said there was about having a gracious response towards those who mistreat you. Without God’s grace we cannot be these people, yet this is our calling.

He continues, “Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody.” (v.17b) Now that is a near impossibility but we can at least aim for it. When Paul spoke about the gift that had been collected for the church in Jerusalem, he explained, “And we are sending along with him the brother who is praised by all the churches for his service to the gospel. What is more, he was chosen by the churches to accompany us as we carry the offering, which we administer in order to honor the Lord himself and to show our eagerness to help. We want to avoid any criticism of the way we administer this liberal gift. For we are taking pains to do what is right, not only in the eyes of the Lord but also in the eyes of men.” (2 Cor 8:18-21) He was sending Titus along with those who were taking the gift, as a guardian to ensure the safety of both the carriers and the gift, so there could be no room whatsoever for any criticism or gossip about potential wrong doing.

When Paul wrote to Timothy about elders (overseers) he declared, “He must also have a good reputation with outsiders.” (1 Tim 3:7) Reputation in the eyes of the world is important and so, Paul concludes, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” (v.18) If we are to be a light to the rest of the world it is important how we appear to them. Very often we appear insular and self-concerned and sometimes we don’t react well to those who disagree with us in ideas or behaviour. We aren’t called to agree with their godless, self-centred, unrighteous behaviour and lifestyles, but we are called to live at peace with them so that we maintain open channels of communication with them so that we have such channels through which the word and love of god may flow when the opportunity is there. Let’s bear that in mind always.

15. Identifying with Others

Meditations in Romans, Ch.12: 15:  Identifying with Others

Rom 12: 15   Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.

We said in a previous meditation that there is the temptation sometimes to push people away, people who for one reason or another don’t ‘fit’ with us or perhaps where we are at the moment. We’ve just seen in the previous meditation the tendency to push away those who persecute us and now when we come to this verse, I want to suggest that although this is a very different group of people (or two groups perhaps), there can still be that same tendency – if we re being honest with ourselves – to want to avoid, shun or even push away these people.

Paul’s next mini-exhortation(s) begins with something, Rejoice with those who rejoice”,  so mundane that we might, at first sight at least, think it is so easy, but the truth is that in both of these little exhortations there is a requirement to bring your heart in line with that of the other person and that isn’t always easy.

There are times when it will be easy for we will find a unity in also being blessed by a person, a thing or a circumstance in the same way as others around us, but supposing the cause of the rejoicing is not something particularly close to my heart. I have sometimes heard believers who pray for people in a particular part of the world, giving testimony on their behalf of things that have happened that appear blessings from God. Well yes, God does bless people all over the world, so what? But these blessings have blessed someone nearer to me, someone with whom I fellowship. It has meant something to them and they are rejoicing in it and if I come along like a little dark cloud, it can quench their pleasure which, at the very least, is a miserable thing to do! Rejoice with them!

Then there are those happy-go-lucky Christians who live in a make-believe world and for whom nothing ever goes wrong – or at least they would deny that it did – and so whom life is always wonderful and every time there is an opportunity for giving a testimony at church, they stand up and the rest of us groan. But hold on, they are rejoicing and as childlike as their faith may appear to be, it is faith and they are blessed (for the moment at least – next week they may be in the depths of despair!). But, hey, why rain on their party now. They are blessed by God, they are rejoicing and so why not join in and rejoice with them.

This leads us to face the horrible truth that actually people who are more blessed with God and life generally are sometimes sickening to be with. I was once going through a down time with God though did not realise it at the time. I had been filled with the spirit, exercised spiritual gifts, knew the joy of the Lord and then for some reason or other took on board teaching that denied these things, and so shut down. A little while went by before the Lord gracious dealt with me and in the same day, at intervals, put three ‘frothy Christians’ across my path (that’s how we see them don’t we). They were all people who I knew had been filled with the Spirit. By the end of the day I went before the Lord and said, “Lord, I have been stupid. I had your joy and rejected it. I know I can argue from both sides of the theological fence, but these three you have sent across my path have something I haven’t got and I would rather have the lives that they have than the way I’m feeling now. Please forgive me.” And He graciously restored me, filled me afresh and I knew again the joy of the Lord. So come on, do these ‘frothy’ people who cause you aggravation have something you don’t have, and is it time to do something about that?

But then comes the question of mourning: “Mourn with those who mourn.” It sounds simple at first sight but it’s not. The problem (from my point of view) is that people mourn in all different sorts of ways and you have to let people be the people they are. I have lost my parents and my wife’s parents and I have mildly regretted their going, but they have all gone to heaven which is a gloriously better place, and knowing the difficulties with health they each struggled with, with that reality firmly in my heart and mind, my mourning was of a shallow emotional kind.

But I have taken funerals where the mourners come in sobbing their hearts our and although the service serves to bring a measure of comfort, afterwards I see them sobbing again – and they’ll probably carry on sobbing for weeks or month to come. For goodness sake, get over it, they’ve gone and there’s nothing you can do about it, live with it! Well no, that’s not empathising with where they are and it is not mourning with those who mourn. We may want to bring comfort but we cannot hasten the natural progress of these things.

I was always impressed with Job’s three friends when they first arrived. They just sat with him for a week, saying nothing, and that’s all he wanted, and often in these situation it is all we want. Comforting words, although well meant, don’t touch the awful ache in our hearts; only time and the Lord can deal with that. He is, after all, the God of all comfort (2 Cor 1:3). Sometimes people just want you to be there for them and that means standing with them and sharing what they feel without denying what they feel. A hug and a tear can often be more helpful than lots of well-meaning words.

So there we are, we are called to put aside what we’re feeling and join in with those around us who are either rejoicing or mourning. It means empathy and it means unity. In putting aside ‘self’ we bring into being an opportunity to build unity, love and acceptance of others. May it be so.

14. Reaching Out

Meditations in Romans, Ch.12: 14:  Reaching Out

Rom 12:14-15   Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.

There is a sense when sometimes we encounter people if we are honest we would rather push them away than get in close contact with them. Paul has just said, Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality,” (v.13) and that dealt with people generally in need and those travellers in specific need, needy people in general if you like, and they are no threat, just possibly a drain on our resources, physical and grace perhaps, and so depending on how strong we are feeling in the faith, we will reach out to them or shun them (that’s being honest!).

But then he turns to a group of people who we would definitely prefer to push out of our lives, those who persecute or oppose us. In the West, Christians are clearly a minority in whichever country you look, and with the ways of the world and the workings of Satan, hostility, opposition and even outright persecution will become more regular features of modern life unless the Lord turns up in revival.

Now I suspect that if the church was truly moving as Jesus in our communities, then we may find more acceptance rather than rejection, for blessing should be coming to any community as it did when Jesus turned up. Perhaps that is why in Acts we read of the church “enjoying the favor of all the people.” (Acts 2:47) and later on “No one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people.” (Acts 5:13)  The power and goodness of the Lord was clearly with the early church so that the common people thought much of them, even if they were scared because of the holy presence of God with that early church. So persecution isn’t the only option.

But persecution and opposition is so often an experience of the church. It has been throughout the period of church history and it still is in varying degree around the world. So what is to be our response to those who come against us? Is it to push them away or even flee from them? No, not according to both Paul and Jesus: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse,” says Paul and “I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” says Jesus (Mt 5:44)

When you ‘bless’ someone you seek God’s goodness for their lives. A ‘blessing’ is a prophetic declaration of good intent from heaven for that person. We sense God’s feeling or desire to bring good to this person and we declare it over them. That is what Paul says we are to do with those who persecute us. I have often wondered, when I have heard of the persecuted church around the world, are those believers actively seeking the goodness of God for those unbelieving persecutors? I similarly wonder if I would actively seek the good of those who, one day, might actively oppose me.

This is more than simply turning the cheek, this is actively looking to see them blessed – and that may simply mean for them to experience good from us even before we attempt to share the Gospel with them. Salvation is the ultimate good for them but before they can hear it, maybe their hearts need melting by God’s goodness and love expressed through us. Yes, there will be some who are so hardened and so in Satan’s clutches that they will not be moved by goodness coming to them, but there will be others who see and hear our responses and are moved by those right responses.  But this is more than just right actions on our part; this has to be a right heart first of all, a heart that doesn’t seek to push away, but a heart that seeks to reach out to those who are uttering falsehoods about us, or even taking action against us.

Perhaps the life of Saul who became Paul should act as an incentive for us. Here was a man who was actively persecuting the early believers, putting them in prison and assenting to their deaths (Acts 8:1). But Saul was utterly sincere – wrong but sincere. He believed that his position was the right one and the Christians were a heretical sect causing harm to Judaism. Thus those who oppose us may believe they are right and we are wrong. They may also have wrong motivations, feeling our righteousness reveals and is a threat to their unrighteousness, but whatever the motivation, the call is to bless them. They may be a Saul and they may turn back to God.

But Jesus was even more proactive in his teaching when he says love and pray for them. This does really need a heart turnaround to be able to do this. We have to see these people as those who God wants to bless and draw to Himself. Remember what we’ve said previously, no one is too hard for the Lord, and the apostle Paul is again a good illustration of this. Imagine you were a Christian in Damascus and the word comes to you that the persecutor Saul is coming to town. Fear or faith? Is this man too far beyond the reach of God? Could something change tomorrow so our lives will not be under threat from him when he arrives?  Is that a possibility? It definitely was a possibility – and it happened! Hallelujah!

Just before we finish, you may not be suffering persecution and you may not see it coming, but if this word applies to those who are really, positively against us, how much more must it apply to those Christians with whom we do not get on? Whoever we feel uncomfortable with, the same thing applies – love, pray for and bless them! When we do that we may find the Lord moving to change both them and us.

I may have told this story somewhere in the many meditations somewhere before, but it is a good story and true. Once I had a man come to me and say, “I’m leaving the church.”  I asked why and he explained that in his house group there was a woman who just seemed to be utterly opposed to him and nothing he could do or say seemed to be able to change that and so, he concluded, “one of us needs to go, so I’ve decided it had better be me.” Well, I counselled him to not make any move just yet, but to determine to pray for this woman every day for the next month. Several months later the two of them appeared at my front door looking like love lost young people and simply said, “We’d like you to marry us please,” and they’ve lived many happy years together since! Put the person or people in God’s hands and look for His blessing on them; you never know what might happen!

13. Practice Hospitality

Meditations in Romans, Ch.12: 13:  Practice Hospitality

Rom 12:13   Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.

In this next block of what I have called mini-exhortations about how we respond to other people, we first considered sharing with those in need. Some link that with the next of these, “Practice hospitality” but I think this second one is bigger and more specific than simply providing for those who are needy.

Hospitality is usually simply defined as ‘the act, practice, or quality of being hospitable; providing solicitous entertainment of guests.’  Being hospitable was one of the required criteria for an elder or overseer: “Now the overseer must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable.” (1 Tim 3:2) and “he must be hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined.” (Titus 1:9) Thus it was considered a virtue to be exampled by those in leadership in the church.

The origins of the word suggest one who is ‘a friend of strangers’, as we see in Heb 13:2 – “Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it.” The apostle Peter wrote, “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms.” (1 Pet 4:8-10) We have shown the context here because it appears to come as an expression of love and care, using the resources you have to bless others.

The Biblical context for providing hospitality was usually in respect of providing for travelers. Unlike today where we can get on the internet and book a room in a hotel, in Biblical times providing overnight lodging was more difficult, as we note every Christmas when we think of Joseph and Mary who found there was no room at the inn. The earliest Biblical example of providing hospitality is probably Abram when the Lord, in the guise of three travelers, arrived where Abram had his tent set up: “The LORD appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground. He said, “If I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, do not pass your servant by. Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree. Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed and then go on your way–now that you have come to your servant.” (Gen 18:1-5) There ‘hospitality’ comprises providing washing facilities, opportunity to rest, and provision of food (and drink).

In the example of Moses, the absence of the offer of hospitality was noted by Reuel: “Now a priest of Midian had seven daughters, and they came to draw water and fill the troughs to water their father’s flock. Some shepherds came along and drove them away, but Moses got up and came to their rescue and watered their flock. When the girls returned to Reuel their father, he asked them, “Why have you returned so early today?” They answered, “An Egyptian rescued us from the shepherds. He even drew water for us and watered the flock.” “And where is he?” he asked his daughters. “Why did you leave him? Invite him to have something to eat.” (Ex 2:16-20) He considered them very remiss for not having invited Moses in. Such was the Eastern custom.

When Moses was spelling out the Law, his condemnation of the Ammonites and Moabites was not only because they had hired a seer against them, but because they had not practiced hospitality in respect of them: “No Ammonite or Moabite or any of his descendants may enter the assembly of the LORD, even down to the tenth generation. For they did not come to meet you with bread and water on your way when you came out of Egypt, and they hired Balaam son of Beor from Pethor in Aram Naharaim to pronounce a curse on you.” (Deut 23:3,4)

In the New Testament, Jesus expected hospitality would be provided for his disciples when he sent them out: “Whatever town or village you enter, search for some worthy person there and stay at his house until you leave.” (Mt 10:11) When Jesus rebuked Simon the Pharisee, it was in respect of his absence of hospitality: “Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet.” (Lk 7:44-46) Three expressions of good hospitality: provision for refreshing, a warm welcome and general blessing.

Providing hospitality for others, not only provides for their natural needs, it also generates care in such a way that fellowship flows and security ensues. Through providing hospitality we make others feel good and that builds relationships and makes the body stronger. Providing hospitality is not keeping up with the Jones’ by providing bigger and better food, but is about providing a warm and caring and loving environment for your guests, whereby they feel loved, cared for and blessed. The illustration of Mary and Martha (Lk 10:38-42) shows this clearly. One sister was concerned with appearing good by the quality of her provision, while the other made personal contact with Jesus the priority. Hospitality is more than providing food; it is also providing you.

12. More on Relationships

Meditations in Romans, Ch.12: 12:  More on Relationships

Rom 12:13  Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another

We move on to the next block of what I have called mini-exhortations because each one s short and pithy, and there are a lot of them. As with verses 9 and 10, these are verses about how we respond to other people, and there is so much here. Each one is a mine of truth waiting to be explored, a variety of facets for Christian living.

Paul starts this block with Share with God’s people who are in need.” (v.13a) In the sixth of this series we noted the following but it is worth repeating: “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?” (1 Jn 3:17) Jesus used meeting material needs as an indication of spiritual life and relationship: “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” (Mt 25:35,36)  So there we have the New Testament Church teaching first from the apostle John and then from Jesus. We are a body and members of the body care for one another but Jesus took it further to imply that we care for all who cross our path and are needy – the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless, the poor, the sick and the prisoner. Today, in the UK at least, institutional society meets all these needs, yet there is still room for the Christians to bless others.

Yet Paul’s focus here is specifically on the Christian Church – “God’s people” – where if we see needs we meet them as we are able.  It was a mark of the early church that they cared for one another: “All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.” (Acts 2:44,45)  As they grew in numbers and they set up ‘programs’ to meet the needs of the needy among them, they had difficulties: “In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food.” (Acts 6:1) and thus they had to organize more carefully (Acts 6:3-6).

Sometimes we can get institutional in our thinking and we need freeing from that. I once had a lady in the church come to me as its main leader and share her concern for another lady who did outreach lunches from her home and who was short of tea towels. Couldn’t the church buy some for her, was the question asked of me. Of course, I replied, but what a lovely opportunity for you to bless her personally by getting them for her. ‘Need’ can be a very varied thing and a person ‘in need’ may simply be someone who doesn’t have the resources you do and doesn’t feel able to spend on a particular thing in their life. Over the years I am aware that I have given money to someone who need to go to Agricultural college, money to someone to have a holiday, someone money to go on a Bible retreat. None of those things are ‘basics’ of life but they were things that became ‘needs’ in the light of the will of God for that person, what He wanted to do to bless their life. Yes, as a church we gave to people with more basic needs, on one occasion we took a young man to a supermarket when he was out of work and told him to totally fill up the trolley with food for his family. Needs can be many and varied and our means of meeting them equally so.

On one occasion, as a church we were planning to take the church away for a weekend retreat but we knew that we had many people living on state benefits who just could not afford the cost of such a weekend. As we prayed about what to do, the Lord gave us the wisdom. We went to the church and told them in two month’s time we would take a one-off free-will offering. All we asked them to do was, in that two months, ask the Lord how much He wanted them each to put it. It could be nothing, it could be one pound, five pounds, fifty pounds or whatever He said. When the day come, without any fanfare or winding people up, we simply took the offering in the middle of the Sunday morning service. It came to twice as much as we actually needed to cover every man, woman and child in the church – including a couple of unsaved husbands who had trouble believing it.  The extra we put away for the next retreat. The needs of ‘the poor’ were met.

In this day of state benefits and institutional caring, it is so easy to dismiss this exhortation and we say, “We don’t have the needy with us any longer,” but that is so untrue and especially so in days of financial difficulty in this second decade of the twenty first century.  Needy people mean anyone who is struggling to make ends meet and whose lives are restricted because of it. If we have more resources than they do, this word comes to us.

But the key issue is what does God the Holy Spirit say to us? It is also so easy to become guilt-ridden because of these things and He doesn’t want that. Why not enter into a new faith dimension where you ask the Lord to put on your heart people He wants you to bless in this way – and then how He wants you to bless them. Sometimes it is right to give anonymously but sometimes it is right to give face to face to bless the person and build your relationship with them. It’s who HE wants to bless and HOW He wants you to bless. Why not ask Him now.

11. Maintaining the Faith (4)

Meditations in Romans, Ch.12: 11:  Maintaining the Faith (4)

Rom 12:11,12   Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervour, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.

We continue considering the second group of four mini-exhortations which move to our relationship with the Lord. The first of those exhortations was about zeal, fervour and serving God,  the second mini-exhortation was about being, “Be joyful in hope,”  and the third was about being “patient in affliction”

Which brings us to the fourth of this little group: “(Be) faithful in prayer.”  How simple and yet how dynamic! But that is true of each of these four, just a few words but they say so much. The first thing that strikes me about this, and although it is true of each of them, I realise I don’t think I have picked it up yet, is that this needs saying. The reality is that for each of these things we can flag and so need Paul’s encouragement to keep on with them. How easy it is to let zeal flag under the materialistic and atheistic pressures of life in the modern West. How easy it is to lose hope, to be frustrated, angry and jaded in affliction, and now, to give up on prayer.

Prayer, as I have found myself saying so many times when writing these meditations, is something much spoken about but so often so little done. Prayer is one of the greatest mysteries in the Christian life. Why pray when God knows every word you speak even before you utter them? The simple answer is that fathers like hearing their children even when they know exactly what they are going to ask for. Why pray when we have a sovereign God who is all powerful and can do what He likes? Why should we dare tell the all-wise God what He ought to do? The answer seems to be because we need to talk out things before the Lord, to come in line with His will. As we pray so we come to a realization of what it is He wants. I find that when I start thinking about it, I have so many questions. For example, if I don’t pray will God stop moving? I’m sure the answer is no. Then there is will the prayers of five hundred people be more effective than if five people pray?  That raises the question, what does ‘effective’ mean?  What is effective prayer? The answer the scripture seems to tell me is that which is in line with His will and starts its life in heaven.

So yes, we can have lots of questions and often few answers, but at the end of the day there is something inside me (the Holy Spirit!) that makes it seem natural at times to want to talk to God. However the fact that Paul feels it is necessary to encourage us to be “faithful in prayer” suggests that it is so easy not to pray that our ‘natural’ tendency will be to stop praying. So, for a moment, let’s consider some of the New Testament exhortations to pray. If we pray for no other reason that we’re told to, that’s not too bad.

The Gospels start off with the challenging, “But I tell you: Love your enemiesI and pray for those who persecute you,” (Mt 5:44) and when Jesus says, “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites,” (Mt 6:5) he is speaking to a culture that does pray. Prayer was clearly a part of the culture of the people of God. “After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray,” (Mt 14:23) is just one example of the fact that Jesus prayed on his own sometimes. “Then little children were brought to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them,” (Mt 19:13) is an example of a practice of Jesus, to pray over others. Into Acts we find, “About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray,” (Acts 10:9) which shows us that Peter seems to have maintained it as a regular practice.  Later we find, “All the disciples and their wives and children accompanied us out of the city, and there on the beach we knelt to pray,” (Acts 21:5) which suggests that before setting off on a further leg of his journey, Paul and his companions prayed (and perhaps for those they were leaving). Paul wrote to the church at Rome, “his Son, is my witness how constantly I remember you in my prayers at all times,” (Rom 1:9) which is quite amazing because he had never been there yet.

In Paul’s letters, prayer is a frequent subject: “We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us.” (Rom 8:26) “if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my mind.” (1 Cor 14:14,15) “pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.” (Eph 6:18) “pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances.” (1 Thes 5:17,18)

In James’ letter we also find, “Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise. Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up.” (Jas 5:13-15)

Peter in his first letter taught, “Therefore be clear minded and self-controlled so that you can pray.” (1 Pet 4:7) John in his first letter taught, “If anyone sees his brother commit a sin that does not lead to death, he should pray and God will give him life.” (1 Jn 5:16) Jude in his letter taught, “But you, dear friends, build yourselves up in your most holy faith and pray in the Holy Spirit.” (Jude 20)

So prayer may be a mystery but it was taught by Jesus and his apostles and they all did it. For whatever the reasons may be to pray, apart from simple obedience to Scripture, the Biblical teaching is pray. Satan, the world, sin, tiredness etc. etc. will suggest we don’t pray which is why Paul now exhorts us – be faithful in prayer, i.e. keep at it, do it!

10. Maintaining the Faith (3)

Meditations in Romans, Ch.12: 10:  Maintaining the Faith (3)

Rom 12:11,12   Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.

We have been considering the second group of four mini-exhortations which move from focusing on relationships with other Christians to our relationship with the Lord. The first of those exhortations was about zeal, fervour and serving God, about maintaining a bright and vibrant spiritual life if you like, that comes from obedience to the prompting and leading of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer and the second mini-exhortation was about being, “ joyful in hope.”

Which now brings us to the third of these mini-exhortations about our relationship with the Lord: “(Be) patient in affliction” Some translations speak of ‘tribulation’, ‘trials’ or ‘trouble’. If we examine all these words they will fill out the picture here. When you are ‘afflicted’ something comes upon you, normally something unpleasant. ‘Tribulation’ is about suffering adversity or difficulties. ‘Trials’ in scripture are things that test our faith and ‘trouble’ is simply difficulties.

Now the intriguing thing about this exhortation is that Paul expects there to be affliction or adversity in life, which counters those who say the Christian life will always be easy. It won’t. We live in a Fallen World where things go wrong and where sinful mankind and enemy powers hinder and work against us. That’s not taking into account that we ourselves sometimes get it wrong and bring trouble on ourselves. So sometimes life WILL be difficult!

But when Paul counsels “Be patient” he is implying that this affliction or adversity will not last. Being patient suggests we are waiting until something happens and in this case it is that the affliction or adversity comes to an end. Jesus said to his disciples, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (Jn 16:33)  In the world we WILL have trouble but that doesn’t mean that we cannot have his peace and we are to rest in his love and in the knowledge that he is Lord over all things. Some times he seems to hold back and allow the enemy reign but ultimately he will keep and preserve us in his love, even if it means we lose our life in the process.

Jesus warned the church at Smyrna, “Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.” (Rev 2:10) That is amazing! Jesus knew it was going to happen and allowed it to happen. He allowed it to test his people and he knew that it would be of limited duration.

But it isn’t always like that: Stephen was martyred (Acts 7:59,60) as was James (Acts 12:2) while Peter was miraculously released from prison (Acts 12:6-10). We should also remember that of the eleven surviving apostles (after Judas committed suicide) ten of them died for their faith. Only John died of old age – and that after a period of exile on Patmos (Rev 1:9). Down through the centuries of the history of the Christian Church there have been thousands and thousands who have been put to death for their faith. In Revelation we find these sobering words: “When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and brothers who were to be killed as they had been was completed,” (Rev 6:9-11) and this in the light of the Lamb who is in control undoing the scroll of the end times, seen in chapter 5.

A little later in Revelation we find, “After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb… “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” (Rev 7:9,14) There are a large number of believers who will pass through the period known as The Great Tribulation. Whatever it is, it will be difficult and we are told to stand firm in such a time. Speaking of that time, Jesus said to his disciples, “Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved.” (Mt 24:9-13) A hard time, but it will be possible to stand firm!

Before finishing we must remember the apostle Paul himself who testified: “To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor 12:7-9) There he recorded  personal affliction, something from the enemy that he found troubling in himself which he cried out to the Lord for removal – yet he was told that God’s grace was sufficient for him, and he also realised it was to stop him becoming proud because of the great revelations he had received.   Remember, the call is to be patient in this affliction. It IS limited in duration and God’s grace will ALWAYS be there to help you cope. That is His promise.

9. Maintaining the Faith (2)

Meditations in Romans, Ch.12: 9:  Maintaining the Faith (2)

Rom 12:11,12   Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervour, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.

We started considering the second group of four mini-exhortations which move from focusing on relationships with other Christians to our relationship with the Lord. The first of those exhortations was about zeal, fervour and serving God, about maintaining a bright and vibrant spiritual life if you like, that comes from obedience to the prompting and leading of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer.

The second mini-exhortation simply says, “Be joyful in hope.”  Hope is all about the future and the truth is the Christian is always looking to the future as well as living in the present. This is another of those things where there are two aspects to the Christian life and if you only have one you are missing out. Yes, we are called to live in the present and the danger can be that we are so dissatisfied with the present and look for something better in the future that we fail to enjoy all of the Lord’s provision and goodness here and now. But living in the present is only one part of our lives; there should be and always will be a ‘future dimension’ for the Christian who is alert to their Lord.

This ‘future dimension’ again has two goals. The first one is in respect of the person I am changing to become. We have recently noted at one point, the fact that our lives are a process where God is changing us into the likeness of Jesus, but it is a gradual thing (2 Cor 3:18). The truth of the Christian life is that it should be changing all the time as we allow the Lord to work in us and make us more and more like Jesus. Many of us forget this, but this is a central truth that is taught in the New Testament.  The second goal is that we are looking forward to eternal life, the life that goes on with God in heaven after we die here on earth. However hard and however difficult life is while we are here on earth, and especially if we have to suffer illness or disability, we know that there is coming a time when we will be made anew and given a new body in heaven where there is no pain and no tears or anguish.

But all of this is in the future and, if I am honest, the reality of this future dimension varies and comes and goes, so there may be times when I am very much aware that I have a different future and times when I forget it. But, I suggest, we think more about it when we realise the limitations and frustrations of our present life, when age, infirmity, illness or whatever press in and make life difficult. Perhaps it is when we look at the church or at one another’s lives and long for something better in the future. Speaking of Abraham, the writer to the Hebrews said, “he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God,” (Heb 11:10) and then of Old Testament people of faith in general he wrote, “All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country–a heavenly one.” (Heb 11:13-16)

Thus all of us live with a certain measure of frustration with the present world. We see the sinfulness of mankind, we see the folly of human beings making godless decisions that only bring hurt, confusion and more upset, especially as nations struggle with one another and bigger nations threaten smaller nations, and so-called ‘world leaders’ struggle to know what to do as they look down on smaller nations behaving badly. In the lifetime of most of us, we have seen big nations fighting for or over Iraq, over Pakistan and over Syria and again and again question marks are raised as to the wisdom of courses chosen by ‘world leaders’. At a domestic level we watch the dissolution of marriage, the removal of boundaries around male and female and so much more and we look on and wonder, “Where is all this going?” We live with the frustration of the folly of sin, and sometimes we ourselves give way for a moment and say or do foolish things and need to receive God’s forgiveness all over again.

And all the while we have, deep down, this yearning for something better and the reason we have it is because the Holy Spirit is working within us to reveal just what is going on now and to give us a glimmer of something better in the future.

Hope is all about the future and Christian hope is a strong assurance of what WILL come. But the call is to “be joyful in hope.” There are the Christian futurologists who talk about the world getting worse and worse towards the Last Day, and with their pronouncements seems to come a heavy gloom but Paul calls us to be joyful and there are a number of reasons to be so.

Number One: whatever the future holds, we know that we are established in God’s love by the work of Christ on the Cross and the presence of His Holy Spirit in our lives. That love, as Paul shows in Romans 8 means that nothing can separate us from this wonder.  Number Two: as we just noted, we have the Holy Spirit within us and He is working out God’s plans and purposes in and through us and that also is a wonderful thing.  Number Three: as we have been saying all through this meditation, God is working towards something better for us who are His children and we can be confident in that. Whatever happens to the rest of the world, your future and mine is assured by the work of Christ. Hallelujah!

So, whatever clouds the world seeks to waft over our horizon – be joyful! He is with you and will never leave or forsake you and His plans for you will not be thwarted!  Remember Solomon declared, “The path of the righteous is like the first gleam of dawn, shining ever brighter till the full light of day.” (Prov 4:18) That is the reality of God’s purposes for you and me. The world may be getting darker for godless, self-centred sinners, but for the righteous, the children of God,  the path just gets brighter, and it does so because we get nearer and nearer to meeting with God and His purpose is that His glory shines in and through us and before us more and more. May it be so!

8. Maintaining the Faith

Meditations in Romans, Ch.12: 8:  Maintaining the Faith

Rom 12:11,12   Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervour, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.

We have noted that these verses are made up of a bunch of quick-fire exhortations, the first group of four of which we might suggest are all about right relationships, or right attitudes towards one another. The second group of four we are calling, ‘Maintaining the Faith’ because they move from focusing on relationships with other Christians to our relationship with the Lord. Two dangers in the Christian life are that we either become so focused on the social side of the faith that we forget it’s all about relationship with the Lord, or we so focus on our spiritual contact with the Lord, we forget there is a whole social dimension or outworking of the faith. If we focus on only one side then we miss out on 50% of what the Faith is all about.

So here Paul brings the balance of the way we work out what we might call the spiritual side of the equation. The first of these four mini spiritual exhortations says, Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord.” (v.11) Now this one suggests three components of spiritual faith – zeal, fervor and serving God.

A dictionary definition of “zeal” is ‘intense enthusiasm, as in working for a cause; ardent endeavor or devotion.’ Now there are those people who like to appear ‘respectable Christians’ and who decry any form of emotion expressed as ‘emotionalism’ and imply that is something bad, but that does not conform to what the Bible teaches. Paul is saying, according to this definition, “Never be lacking in intense enthusiasm or ardent devotion”. We will be ‘enthusiastic’ or zealous about our faith when the wonder of it has really moved our hearts. We will have ‘ardent devotion’ when we realise the wonder of what Jesus has done for us and how much God loves us.

“Fervor”, the second of those three components, is another way of expression the same thing. A dictionary defines ‘fervor’ as ‘great warmth of emotion; ardor; zeal.“Spiritual fervor” is that warmth of emotion that is felt towards the Lord and, again, we will feel this when we see and understand what the Bible says God has done for us in His expression of His love towards us, and the Holy Spirit touches our hearts, revealing the reality of it.

“Serving God”, the third of these three components to this first of these four spiritual exhortations, is simply the outworking of that zeal and fervor. The key reality of the Christian faith is that God has called us to Himself to be transformed into the likeness of Jesus (see 2 Cor 3:18) and that is in character and in service. We not only take on his character but we also enter into and share in his ministry or service. A verse we regularly quote is, “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Eph 2:10) Jesus said, “You are the light of the world. ….. let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” (Mt 5:14,16) We aren’t called to become like Jesus so that we may hide away in a corner (or a spiritual ghetto) but that we shine in His world and reveal Him. We do this when we respond to the prompting of the Holy Spirit and do what He puts before us. This may be sharing about Jesus, it may be offering to pray for another (including praying for healing), it may be listening to another and offering wisdom as God gives it, or it may simply be offering help and expressing goodness.

Before we move away from this first triple-expression spiritual exhortation, (and we’ll see the other three spiritual exhortations in the next meditation) we would do well to see this exhortation in a wider sphere.

In chapters 2 and 3 of the book of Revelation, Jesus comes to seven churches in Asia Minor and points out to them things that need putting right. Some of the things are in respect to specific people or problems that were occurring in that first century but in two of them there are two warnings that fit in here. To the church in Ephesus, after praising them for a number of really good things, he warns, “Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love.” (Rev 2:4)  This was a church that lost that first fervor or warmth of emotion for the Lord. The other warning that fits here was to the church at Laodicea, where Jesus said, “you are lukewarm–neither hot nor cold. (Rev 3:16) Again this speaks of lack of zeal or fervor. They have sunk into what can only be described as tedious and boring Christianity! It is mundane and almost lifeless. Oh that they were on fire for God!

There will be this zeal, this fervor, this passion, when we are open and obedient to the Holy Spirit and things happen. When God speaks, we hear and respond in obedience and He does things that are thrilling. When we see God moving in and through us that is thrilling.  On one occasion after the disciples had been sent out to do ministry in pairs, we find, “The seventy-two returned with joy and said, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.” (Lk 10:17) It was thrilling what happened and I suspect they couldn’t wait to get out and do some more. How do you think the disciples felt after they had participated in the feeding of the five thousand and the feeding of the four thousand?  Thrilled, excited and amazed!  Zeal and passion can come when we simply read and realise the wonder but, I suggest, it is best fueled by simple obedience to the prompting of the Holy Spirit, because then we step out and do His bidding and see Him moving in and through us. I remember John Wimber once telling about how a young (I think teenage) girl prayed for healing under his guidance and saw a physical change take place before her eyes. He commented, “She was hooked!”  It is thrilling to be involved with Jesus in whatever it is he wants to lead you into, and ‘serving God’ is not a hard thing.

When we realise how wonderful Jesus is, how wonderful God’s love for us is, we won’t be afraid to venture out at His bidding. To conclude, remember the parable Jesus told: “a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his property to them. To one he gave five talents of money, to another two talents, and to another one talent, each according to his ability.” (Mt 25:14,15)  The scary words are “according to his ability”. Jesus hands out according to the faith level he finds in us, how we have so far responded to His word. He concluded with the teaching, “everyone who has will be given more.” (v.29) God gives according to what he sees we do with what He has already given. Do we have to stick with a small amount of faith? No, we can ask Him to enlarge it, but it’s all about what IN REALITY we think of God, for one man who did nothing with what he had been given, except bury it and maintain it, said, “I knew that you are a hard man.” (v.24) Rubbish! To the one who doubled his five, the master declared, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’”  THAT is what the Lord wants to happen! Zeal, fervor, serving the Lord.  Then joy!