18. The Way is Impossible

Transformation Meditations: 18.  The Way is Impossible

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.

I sense we are coming to an end of this interesting little series about how transformation takes place as an individual is apprehended by God and then changed.  I leave us with the reminder that becoming a Christian and living out the Christian life as it is shown in the New Testament, is impossible without the supernatural working of God.

We live in a world of ‘self-help’. Book stores are filled with self-help books and on the internet you can find multitudes of sites that basically say, “This is how you do it…” Where people are aware of it in Biblical terms is uncertain but unlikely, for they mostly do not see themselves in comparison to God or how God sees them, but they nevertheless do want something better for themselves than they are at present. Hence the ‘self-help’ industry. Unfortunately it strays into the Christian world. I have in mind one particular well known, very successful preacher-writer whose books and public teaching, when you consider it analytically, is nothing less than a self-help mantra. There is little there about Christian realities and Christian discipleship, it is simply the power of positive thinking. In a secular context I have taught that in the past, but the truth is that all such things are entirely superficial.

In this series (and even more in the previous series on Redemption) we have highlighted the problem that humanity has – we are self-centred and godless and this leads us on to us getting it wrong in life, i.e. we are unrighteous and unrighteousness flows from or is an expression of Sin. When you listen to, or read, this ‘self-help’ teaching, it epitomises this ‘self-centred and godless’ approach to life that defines Sin. We can think positively and work positively and be utterly godless in our self-centred approach to life.

“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”. Our verse above shows the lie of the self-help approach. The Message Version puts it, “we are transfigured much like the Messiah, our lives gradually becoming brighter and more beautiful as God enters our lives and we become like him.” I think that paraphrase goes a bit over the top and doesn’t actually emphasise what Paul is saying but it does paint a good picture – of Jesus being transfigured (see Mt 17:2) and us taking on the same glory as Jesus revealed. The Living Bible puts it, “we can be mirrors that brightly reflect the glory of the Lord. And as the Spirit of the Lord works within us, we become more and more like him.” Again a good picture  but neither pick up the sense of the NIV’s ‘contemplate’ or the NKJV’s “beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord,”  and the ESV’s, “beholding the glory of the Lord.” Each of these, shying away from merely reflecting the glory, point us towards considering a ‘gazing upon’ or ‘standing close to’ feeling that is a reality here.

The truth is that we are transformed, we are changed in three ways. First, because we enter into a relationship with Jesus and not a regime of rules of self-help, we are changed when we consciously spend time in his presence. This is where a ‘God’s presence awareness’ so-called ‘quiet time’ has been (and still should be) a simple teaching for discipleship. We will be changed in his presence as we spend time with him morning or evening. Second, because we will want to put content to our knowledge of the One we follow, we will spend time in his word, the Bible, and what we read will change us. Third, because his gift to us is his own Holy Spirit indwelling us, his presence within us will be working to bring continual change, continual transformation to our lives.

So we have looked at our need, the way that the Lord calls to us, disturbs us, breaks in on our complacent lives, challenges and convicts us and then, when we surrender, he justifies us, adopts us and empowers us, and we’ve just observed how the ongoing changes work.

We could also ponder on how the fact of our being justified and then of being adopted etc. also have transformation-power but I will leave that for you to ponder on in the days to come. It’s time to move on.

17. The Way is Surprising

Transformation Meditations: 17.  The Way is Surprising

Acts 9:3,4   As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

Paul’s encounter with the risen Lord Jesus on the road to Damascus presents us with an interesting reality about this subject of transformation, one which we might otherwise take for granted. Consider the big picture here. The Christian group, becoming named as ‘the Way’ (Acts 9:2) has recently arisen comprising good Jews who have apparently abandoned their heritage and culture and gone over to following a dead carpenter. They have been meeting together in Jerusalem of all places, the heart of Judaism, and their presence has been both a challenge to orthodox faith and has been attracting people away from their roots and their life focused more widely afield on the local synagogue.

Saul, as he was then, is a zealous Pharisee. He is a good Jew and even a Roman citizen, so a man of some standing. He is well taught, he knows his background and he is sure of his faith. He is also sure that this new ‘cult’ is wrong and doing harm to his people. When one of them is stoned for blasphemy, he is an active onlooker, approving the death (Acts 7:58). This cult must be stopped because it is undermining the people’s belief in the Law and in all aspects of Judaism. He joins in the persecution that breaks out against this new sect and takes temple guards (probably) and starts rounding up and imprisoning these new believers. (Acts 8:3). He is well known and so goes to the high priest and gets letters of authorization to go to his home town of Damascus and cleanse it of these heretics (Acts 9:1,2).  It is on his way to Damascus that suddenly a bright light flashed all around him, he fell to the ground and heard a voice, Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4) and Jesus reveals himself to him. He is left blinded and helpless and the rest, as they say, is history.

Now the point of this story in this context is that people can be absolutely convinced they are in the right when rejecting the Bible, God, Jesus Christ and the Christian faith, totally convinced of their rightness – until they have some sort of Damascus road experience, and the thing about such an experience is that we never see it coming! There will be people around you, or maybe even public figures you know of, people who deride all forms of faith – today – but tomorrow as the Sovereign Lord God moves on them, surprise of surprises, they will be stopped in their tracks and changed.

Now we don’t know if deep down Saul was already having doubts about his questioning this new cult, we don’t know if God has already started to undermine his thinking, but it seems it needed a pretty dramatic experience on the way to Damascus to bring Saul to a halt. It was a thorough job and he was left blind and helpless. We noted in an earlier study how God apprehended Moses with the burning bush and commented how He so often puts things across our paths to start us thinking, but this is a stage beyond that, this is God moving sovereignly in such a powerful way that this individual is stopped in their tracks.

We might suggest that it is not common, but the Lord does do it when He sees the potential of the individual and knows the outcome, the transformation that will follow, will be truly world shattering. Next to Jesus, the apostle Paul is the most influential person for the Christian faith in the whole of the New Testament with the wide range of his writings. Not only did he become a church-planter par-excellence but he gave us writings that have formed the foundation of the church for two thousand years. Was Saul surprised by his life change? Oh, ever so slightly!!!!

16. The Way is Bumpy

Transformation Meditations: 16.  The Way is Bumpy

1 Cor 8:13 (NKJV)   Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never again eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.

We finished yesterday with the reminder of Paul’s exhortation in 1 Cor 10:12 together with the awareness that the context was in respect temptations: “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind,” (v.13) which rather implies that we all of us suffer temptations from time to time. The downside of that is the likelihood that some of us at least will give way to such temptations and sin.

The apostle John covers that: “I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ.” (1 Jn 2:1) Note his belief that we do not have to sin but it is likely some may from time to time trip over their spiritual feet and sin.  In our verse above from 1 Cor 8 it is clear that Paul is exhorting us not to do things that may make a weaker brother or sister stumble spiritually. The NIV puts it more strongly, “causes my brother or sister to fall into sin.”

Now the point that I would make here is that although we may like to think that the Christian path is easy and straight forward, the truth is that often it is far from that and in reality, it appears bumpy involving us stumbling, falling, and restarting. We would much prefer it was not that, but the evidence when observing the Christian community is that that is exactly how it is.

Now we need to be clear here, for we are not talking about apostasy where someone wholeheartedly turns away from Christ, or even backsliding where spiritual momentum ceases and even starts going backwards. The Bible suggests (Heb 6:4-6) for the former of those two that there is not a way back. Backsliding, according to my definition above, can be casual rather than purposeful and this needs an act of will (repentance) to reverse the backward trend. No, we are talking about that experience that is common to any Christian, where we do not get it quite right, think wrongly, speak wrongly and may even act wrongly – carelessly, uncharitably, unkindly, foolishly, one-off things hopefully, but things, when we are honest, we recognize are not right.

The path for such things is always the same, repentance, confessing it and saying sorry to God, and relying upon the work of Christ for forgiveness.  But these are the ingredients of this transformation that we have been considering.   The good news is that it is not a path where one strike and you’re out! The instruction from Jesus as we saw from the woman caught in adultery is, “Go and sin no more,” (Jn 8:11) which is what must be implied in John’s teaching in 1 Jn 2:1 that we noted above.

Our failures are never to be a time of casual acceptance or even of rejoicing when forgiven, but should be accompanied, I suggest, by a sober if not sombre awareness of our frailty and vulnerability to getting it wrong. The person for whom these words appear alien, is clearly someone who cannot face reality and truth about themselves, but the more we come to realize the security of Jesus’ love for us, the more we may be real about the Christian walk.

15. Change is Slow

Transformation Meditations: 15.  Change is slow

Rom 4:1   What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, discovered in this matter?

We live in an instant world, we want it ‘now!’ I wait impatiently for a latte and wonder why making coffee have to take minutes. I go out into my garden when I have planted seeds impatient to see the first sign of shoots. However, when it comes to spiritual matters I find a strange slowness. First of all I note it often takes a long while for people to turn to the Lord. OK, then there is this sudden burst of life that is the visible expression of being born again. I remember my own conversion, a year or more of unconscious seeking, then suddenly it all happened and I was a ‘new creation’ (2 Cor 5:17) and I thought I was there.

Many years later I realize the transformation has been incredibly slow in reality; the change from being godless to godly, from unbeliever to believer happened in a moment but the reality has taken time if I am honest. Paul uses Abraham as an illustration of the faith that justifies that he had been speaking about in Rom 3 and now opens up on this man in Rom 4. When I ponder on Abram who became Abraham, it is in fact a slow story, a story of waiting, a story hanging on to the promises of God, a story of unfulfilled desires which the writer to the Hebrews spoke about: he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” (Heb 11:10)

But the, he continues, “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, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth.” (v.13) Not only is this transformation slow, it is also incomplete for its fulfilment will not be on this earth but in eternity.

So, we are held in tension by two things that the Bible shows us. First, that Jesus does expect his disciples to grow and to change and one of the biggest changes has to be to grow in faith. This is witnessed by his quite often chiding his disciples for their little faith. He expects our faith to grow. Second, there is this thing that growth will always be slow to be sure.

Why this surprises us, I’m not quite sure because we don’t expect our children to grow up overnight (although sometimes the passing of the years so quickly does make it feel like that) and we don’t expect plants in the garden to grow that fast and we don’t expect harvest to come the day after sowing! The practical outworking of this should, I suggest, first mean we don’t be too hard on ourselves and recognise that we are (to use an expression I find myself often using) ‘a work in progress’ and Jesus still loves us with our immaturity.

Second it should also mean that we are not too hard on other people around us in church for they, too, are ‘works in progress’ and although we might sometimes wish more of them, we perhaps need to take into account their backgrounds, their present life struggles and so on. That is not an excuse to ignore the call to ‘grow up’ but it is a call for compassionate understanding. Yes, the Lord is in the business of our transformation but that may be slower than we thought. We are all prone to having to combat temptations which is why Paul said, So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” (1 Cor 10:12) And that will lead us on to our next point in our next study.

14. It starts & finishes with love

Transformation Meditations: 14.  It starts & finishes with love

Lk 19:5,6   When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.

There are those who would see being a Christian is all about being a ‘nice’ person, about doing ‘good things’, about following rules. The New Testament shows another picture.  No more clearly is this seen than in the account of Zacchaeus encountering Jesus. Zacchaeus is a chief tax collector. He oversees other tax collectors over a large area. He works for the Romans and almost certainly he is corrupt and hated by the common people. There is nothing ‘religious’ about him and yet for some reason or other, he wants to see Jesus when he comes to his town. His problem is that he is a small person and the big crowd, although hating him, don’t fear him and so are not going to let him push his way to the front. It is likely, as well, that in his position he would not want to be seen doing that, and so he takes the only way through this problem, he climbs a tree so he can see over the crowd and possibly not be noticed. There is nothing about what we know of him so far that would suggest us calling him a spiritual seeker.

Yesterday we saw Jesus’ grace reaching out to the woman caught in adultery. I suspect her sin was fairly minor in comparison to the probable multiple sins of this chief tax collector. However, Jesus arrives within the vicinity of the tree in which Zacchaeus is watching and, as our verse above shows, invites himself to Zacchaeus’s home.  Zacchaeus’s response is perhaps, for those of us who have read a Bible for many years and have heard thousands of sermons, something we take for granted but it is in fact quite remarkable. If you think about this, Zacchaeus could have responded with hostility at having been brought to the attention of the crowd who might now be muttering behind their hands and sniggering at the vision of this little notorious man up a tree: All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.” (v.7)

But something, and it is not obvious from the text, does something to Zacchaeus that makes him just shin down the tree and smilingly go with Jesus to his home. It gets even more remarkable when they are sitting at table: Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount,” at which point his tax collector friends who were also no doubt there, must have been left spluttering. But Jesus takes these words at face value and responds, Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.”  i.e. a man of faith, a man who has responded positively to the overtures of God. What is it that can possibly have transformed Zacchaeus in so few minutes? Jesus has not preached at him and demanded nothing of him other than he be allowed into his home.

The answer has got to be that when Zacchaeus looked down on Jesus he saw no cynicism, no rebuke, no challenge, merely an open-hearted loving acceptance. Suddenly, I suggest, a new world appeared in front of him, one so different to his own with such utterly different values to those that he had lived by, and the love that shone from Jesus face grabbed his heart and he came down from his high perch and joined Jesus in his world. No, it’s not rules, no it’s not being religious, ‘good’ or ‘nice’, it is letting the love of Jesus transform you from the inside out. Hallelujah!

13. It’s all grace

Transformation Meditations: 13.  It’s all grace

Jn 8:11   Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

The story of the woman caught in adultery (Jn 8:2-11) who was brought before Jesus is remarkable in a number of ways. Perhaps the most and obvious thing that is remarkable about it is the insincerity of the Pharisees who brought this woman to Jesus. They point out two facts to Jesus: first, that she has been caught in adultery and, second, that the Law of Moses commands her to be stoned.

There are two problems there. First, it takes two to commit adultery, so where is the guilty man? This feels very one-sided. Second the Law didn’t actually demand stoning, it did demand the death penalty, but it is assumed that the Pharisees added the means, which was probably right but nevertheless gruesome. John, in an aside, makes his own commentary on what was going on: They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.” (v.6)

If the first remarkable thing is the insincerity of the Pharisees, the second is the gentle way Jesus dealt with them. We have to leave it to Matthew to record Jesus’ denunciation of their hypocrisy (Mt 23:13,15,23,25,27,29) calling them blind guides (23:16 etc.).  Remarkably here Jesus gives them an easy way out: “But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.” (v.6-8) Confrontational? Not really. The result: “At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there.” (v.9) Excellent.

The third remarkable thing here is the way Jesus then dealt with this woman (who we must assume is guilty): “Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir,” she said. “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.” (v.10,11) We must note two important things from this in our search in respect of transformation.

First, we DO need transforming. For this woman, adultery was not God’s design. She must stop this relationship; it is that simple. That is what Jesus wants her to do, that is the will of God for her. That is what Jesus is most concerned about.

Second, Jesus’ refusal to condemn her – although she is guilty – is an act of pure grace and mercy. From the Old Testament one of my favourite verses is, I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent and live!” (Ezek 18:32 and also 18:23 and 33:11)

Now we must add a third thing. How can Jesus just ignore her sin? He doesn’t, he wants her to stop it. Assuming she does, isn’t she still guilty of a major sin that deserves punishment. Yes she is, but Jesus took that punishment on the Cross, punishment for every sin committed by every repentant sinner. Transformation requires repentance and it requires the work of Christ on the Cross. Once those two things are applied to a life, the way is open for life transformation. Hallelujah!

11. He disturbs our ‘peace’

Transformation Meditations: 11.  He disturbs our ‘peace’

Ex 3:2,3   Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.”

The process of us being brought to the Lord and then transformed, that is what this is all about. In the previous two studies we remembered the life of Jacob that stands out as a good example of why we need the Lord, and then that of Abram, to see that anything that takes place in our lives to do with God is initiated by God who comes to us and speaks and calls us to leave the old life to enter into a new world with Him.

But there is something else that I have observed through the years as I have watched my own life and the lives of people around me, and it is the way the Lord comes and disturbs our life in some way to catch our attention so that we will listen to Him.

Moses at the burning bush is a classic example of this. For forty years he has become settled in the life of a nomadic shepherd in the desert and wilderness areas of Midian on the Sinai Peninsula, and now God sees it is time to start His strategy to release Israel out of Egypt and He wants Moses to be His figurehead to achieve that. But the problem is that Moses is stuck in his way of thinking – a lifetime ago he had been a Prince of Egypt, but he had thrown that away in one rash moment when he struck and killed an Egyptian taskmaster. Now he was a nobody and was almost certainly set in that thought, and God had to break into that, so He sets a bush on fire but in such a way that the bush is not destroyed. Moses sees it, pauses up and goes and has a look and it at that moment that the Lord speaks to Him.

Now I am not going to list all the various ways that the Lord does this with us, but perhaps just suggest one or two of the most common ones: our job gets terminated and our comfortable life style is put under threat, or an illness strikes and for a moment at least our life is under threat, or a longstanding relationship starts going sour. Sometimes He just puts things of interest into our minds that result in questions or circumstances arising that lead on to us hearing Him.

In my case I was interested in communication on one hand and interested in going out with a particular girl on the other. The communicator-interest had led me to a Billy Graham Crusade in 1966 to see what made this mass communicator tick, but I had left unscathed. When he came back to London in 1967 I saw this as an opportunity to take out this Christian girl who had steadfastly resisted my advances. We went together and, as they say, the rest is history! God spoke, I heard, repented, believed, prayed and was transformed.

If you want to become a people watcher for God, watch the lives of people around you and watch out for their comfortable, cozy lives being disturbed by something or someone. Sometimes the Lord uses us as His ‘burning bush’. People see our lives and we stand out as different and the Holy Spirit uses us to bug them.  When people start asking questions, it’s a sign that He is disturbing their peace and getting ready to present the challenge to them. It’s all part of the process of transformation. Hallelujah!