11. Uncertainties of Provision (1)

‘Living with Uncertainty’ Meditations: 11. Uncertainties of Provision (1)  

Gen 22:14   So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide.

Present Day: I write this particular study (for those who might come across it in the years ahead) in the early months of 2020, the year we suspect will go down in history as either the Year of the Great Coronavirus Pandemic, or the Year of the Great Coronavirus Panic. If I had written about God’s provision a few months ago, I guess most Christian readers would have read it with a big yawn. After all, we live in an age of immense abundance and so have no fears of running short. That was a few months ago. Since then we have seen reports of panic buying in both the UK and the USA, so much so, and creating so much government concern, that we even saw the American President on television at a press conference appealing to his people not to panic-buy.

Abraham: It is the incident involving Abraham going to sacrifice the miraculous child of promise, Isaac, that provokes the first reference to God being a provider. In his case it was simply the provision of a ram to use instead of his son, prefiguring Jesus being our lamb who is offered instead of us. But a Provider is one who supplies something to meet a need, whether it be Jesus to replace us at the Great Judgment or simply physical needs being met to preserve and continue life. It is the latter we will consider in this study.

Manna: It is the need of Israel in the wilderness on their way from Egypt to the Promised Land that has the Lord providing in a most incredible way with this miraculous “bread from heaven” (Gen 16:4), that appeared as ‘thin flakes like frost’, (v.14) “white like coriander seed and tasted like wafers made with honey.” (v.31)  I called it miraculous because

– it appeared every morning, except on the Sabbath,

– if you collected too much of it, the excess went off the next day,

– on the sixth day you collected twice as much to cover the Sabbath – which didn’t go off!

– it continued coming for forty years until they went to enter the Land.

It was supposed to have been a provision for a month or so until they entered the Land but when they refused and ended up wandering the desert it continued for the next forty years. No doubt, as they had herds of cattle and sheep they sometimes supplemented it with meat but it was God’s basic provision for them throughout that time.

Joseph: Special provision is meeting needs in special times of need and so the onset of a famine would be such a time. I suspect we rarely think of the story of Joseph in Genesis as a story about provision, but it is 100% that. God knows that in a couple of decades a famine is going to strike the whole of what we refer to as the Middle East. The story of Joseph is the story of God choosing a man who will be open to His prophetic leading and come up with divinely inspired wisdom so that in seven good years of abundance, cereal is saved in large quantities in order to feed the nations in seven years of famine. Whether we say God caused the famine or God simply knew it would happen, is really irrelevant. The key issue is that He provided for the world through His wisdom, a multiple provision if you like:

– the amazing circumstances that brought Joseph to power, that a number of times involved ‘the favour of the Lord’ opening the way up for him,

– the gift of interpretation of dreams that opened the door into the palace,

– the gift of wisdom to know how to handle the revelatory dreams,

– seven years of great abundance,

– grace and insight to understand God’s purposes and deal kindly with his brothers.

Elijah: During another such time,  through the life of Elijah, we see multiple examples of the Lord’s provision:

  1. Famine ushered in by the word of the Lord through Elijah (1 Kings 17:1)
  2. The famine would not have taken hold when the Lord tells Elijah that He will provide for him by ravens bringing food (1 Kings 17:4-6) while he lived in seclusion to the east of the Jordan
  3. When his supply of water there runs out the Lord instructs him to go north of Israel to Sidon where a widow will provide for him (1 Kings 17:7-10)
  4. She has run out of flour and oil but the Lord miraculously provides for her, and him! (v.12-16)
  5. A while later her son dies and Elijah restores him (v.17-24)
  6. In dealing with the prophets of Baal (v.19-41) fire consumes Elijah’s offering
  7. When it is all over, by Elijah’s word the rain comes (v.41,45)
  8. When Elijah flees Jezebel’s wrath, the Lord sends an angelic provider (1 Kings 19:5-8)
  9. The Lord also provides him with a successor (1 Kings 19:16)
  10. Yet he still brings a convicting word from the Lord to Ahab that brings him to repentance (1 Kings 21:17-29)
  11. Later Elijah challenges Ahaziah’s messengers about his unbelief (2 Kings 1:3-5)
  12. Again and again he receives protection against arrest (2 Kings 1:9-15)
  13. He gets a word condemning the king who dies (2 Kings 1:16,17)
  14. God sends a chariot of fire to take him home (2 Kings 2:11)

Summary: So how, in what situations full of uncertainty above, did God provide for Elijah, thus bringing certainty by His provision?

  1. a) Prophetic words changing the circumstances (1 – famine, 7 – rain)
  2. b) Prophetic words to individuals (10 – Ahab, 11,13 – Ahaziah)
  3. c) Miraculous provision of food (2 – ravens, 8 – an angel)
  4. d) General guidance (2 – go east, 3 – go north)
  5. e) Fire from heaven (6 – against false prophets, 12 – against arrest)
  6. f) Other miracles (4 – flour and oil, 5 – raising dead)
  7. g) Ongoing (9 – a successor, 14 – transport to heaven)

A combination that we might boil down to revelation (prophecy etc.) and miracles (power).

And So?  I remember the testimony of a man of God who was crying out to God, “Where is the God of Elijah?” and back from heaven came the challenge, “Where are the Elijahs?” The reality is that we may add a further list to clarify the point of this series, the uncertainties coming through the threats or spiritual apostasy that Elijah faced:

– unbelief in the nation and in kings, false prophets,

– threats brought by those rulers and spiritual deceivers, and threats to his very existence,

– the uncertainties of living in times of famine and personal shortage,

– the uncertainties of his role as a prophet.

I think the conclusion to all this about Elijah must be that he certainly was a somewhat scary guy to encounter, simply because God was so powerfully with him. The trouble about that is that it can disguise the uncertainties that he himself had, most clearly seen after Jezebel threatened him. If you were Elijah you certainly would have been able to look back at triumphs but that in no way detracts from the uncertainties that went with it.  But then serving God by faith is like that.

And Us? That leaves me pondering, is it a case of the greater the faith we have, the greater God can use us? I suppose the corollary to that must be if we have little faith, God will be restricted in using us. Ah, but Jesus said you only need faith the size of a mustard seed (i.e. tiny) to be able to move mountains! (Mt 17:20) Where does faith come from? By hearing (Rom 10:17) so the more we learn to listen – and then obey the little bit we’ve heard – the more we can be used by God. Awesome! Let’s go for it!

3. God?

Revisiting the Ten Commandments: 3. God?

Ex 20:1,2    And God spoke all these words: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.

Pause Up: We have just spent two studies setting the context for understanding and seeing how these Ten Commandments came into being but before we actually move on to consider the first of the ten commands we need to focus again on these two introductory verses because it is so easy to take words for granted and thus miss the amazing claims being made.

We have already observed the fact that the Bible record here in these verses shows us a God who communicates with us – and if you are a Jew or Christian you take that for granted, but in some other world religions they have gods or idols who stay silent and offer nothing to their adherents. But here in the Biblical record we have a God who made this world and who interacts with this world and speaks to individuals in this world. Before we move on to see God’s description of Himself in these verses, I want us to ponder on just how much revelation about God had been given as we see it in the first two books of the Bible. How, at least from the Bible, did they come to know God, what does the text tell us about Him?

Origins: We perhaps need to ponder on just how the Bible came to be written, how these two books came into being. I am going to take the view that traditional academics and scholars through most of the last few thousand years (excluding the effects of liberal German so-called theologians of the late nineteenth century) and suggest that initially history was passed on by word of mouth. But that is probably only part of the picture. It is thought by traditional scholars that Genesis was written by Moses and was likely to be a combination of that passed on by word of mouth and that communicated to him by the Lord in the Tabernacle over the forty years of Israel’s wanderings in the desert before they entered the Promised Land. It is for this reason that we find the use of LORD in capital letters in Genesis although the proper origin of it doesn’t appear until the third chapter of Exodus, which we’ll consider shortly.

But of course before the word was written down on scrolls by Moses, while it was still in word-of-mouth form, we need to ask what was known of God by the experience of those who had encounters with Him as recorded in Genesis. In the Garden of Eden there seems to be what is called a theophany, God appearing in human form to be able to communicate with Adam and Eve. In the periods following that we just don’t know how God communicated and interacted with the likes of Cain, Noah, etc. and perhaps it is only when we come to a much longer record of His interaction with Abram that we can really start to make some reasonable assumptions about the sort of ‘Being’ we dealing with. Here are some of those:

The Patriarchs: In Genesis. Watching the interaction between God and Abram, (who later is renamed Abraham), Isaac and Jacob and Joseph, I want to suggest we see:

  • A God who is Creator of all things.
  • A God who thus sees and knows and understands everything there is to know about us.
  • A God who has a purpose for the earth which stretches far into the future.
  • A God who reveals Himself to mankind very gradually.
  • A God who persists with our slowness to understand, yet works to mature us.
  • A God who can intervene in His material world and bring what we call ‘miraculous’ changes.
  • A God who knows the future and plans and purposes through His people to enable them to cope with it.
  • A God who works for the good of mankind and to draw mankind back to Him after the Fall.

Moses: When we come to the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy and the life of Moses and the embryonic Israel, I suggest we see the following:

  • A God who is all-powerful and can deal with arrogant despots and superstitious, occult-following nations.
  • A God of revelation who wishes to impart His plans and purposes to those who will listen.
  • A God who planned to bring a unique nation into being to reveal Himself to the world.
  • A God who has designed this world and knows best how mankind can ‘work’ and who works to convey that to us and to present standards to be followed, which if they are not, result in self-destruction.
  • A God who will discipline to bring correction and under dire circumstances will bring judgment on some to save His world for the others.

These latter things in Exodus are, of course, only just starting to become obvious at the time of the giving of the Law. Nevertheless the Lord has already communicated various things about Himself to Moses at the burning bush (see Ex 3)

Origin of LORD: In our starter verses there is no printing mistake in the capitalising of the word LORD when He says, “I am the LORD your God.”  To see why that is like that there you need to go back to Ex 3 where God first contacts Moses and describes Himself. First of all He says, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” (Ex 3:6) In other words, I am the God you have been told about who has had dealings with your patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. There is a continuity of history even at this stage.

But then, after Moses had asked His name, who he should tell the Israelites had sent him, He went on to say, “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: `I AM has sent me to you.’” (Ex 3:14) These things are repeated in the following verses and in your Bible there is a footnote that “the word for LORD (in capital letters) sounds like and may be derived from the Hebrew for I AM in verse 14.” Therefore, from then on, when God’s ‘name’ is used it is always in this form and may be taken as “The I AM” or, ‘the eternal one’, if you like. Verse 15 links the earlier v.6 with that later reference in verse 14. God identifies Himself not only as ‘the eternal one’, the one outside history, but also the God of the patriarchs, the God who has had dealings with men. He is the God who works outside of time AND into time-space history. So the ‘name’ from there on, that is printed, ‘LORD’, always conveys this sense – the Eternal One, the I AM, the One who always is.

Back to Abraham: We have just been suggesting that God reveals Himself, first to the Patriarchs of what became Israel, and then to Moses and then to all of the new nation of Israel. As an aside, there are some suggestions that He had already revealed himself to others. Studies of ancient Chinese suggest that they knew of this creator God who had the same characteristics as revealed to Israel.

But back in the Bible, earlier in Genesis, when Abram had just rescued Lot, we find the king of Jerusalem (otherwise known as Salem) came to him: “Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, and he blessed Abram, saying, “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth. And blessed be God Most High, who delivered your enemies into your hand.” (Gen 14:18-20) Note that he describes God as “Creator of heaven and earth”. There is clearly prior revelation here about the Lord, a unique being who is greater than anything or anyone else we can comprehend, who is the originator of everything we know in material and spiritual existence. THIS is the God we are introduced to in the Bible. We will consider some more of just who He is as we start to properly consider the first commandment in the next study.

Application: May I suggest we pray something like, “Lord God, you who are Creator of all things, we bow before you and worship you. Thank you that you have gradually revealed much about yourself through your word. Thank you that you know us, love us, and call us to yourself, just like you did with Abram. Thank you that you have plans and purposes for us that are good. Thank you that you understand that we are but like little children and are often slow to learn, but you love us, accept us as we are, and persevere with us. Thank you for this wonderful accepting and understanding love. Amen.”

7. God of Purpose: Introduction

Getting to Know God Meditations:  7. God of Purpose: Introduction   

Gen 12:2,3  “I will make you into a great nation,  and I will bless you; I will make your name great,  and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you,  and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth  will be blessed through you.”

Again?  We are sticking for the moment with references from that first book of the Bible, Genesis, and with the man, Abraham, who became known as the father of the nation of Israel. This is going to be the start, the introduction if you like, to this subject of the purposes that God has for the earth. Later we will go on and expand on this. When we understand the revealed purposes, we will understand something of God, and what we find may surprise some of us.

Abram is the first person in the Bible, the first historical figure, to enter into any form of long lasting relationship with God but, and here is the important issue, it is all initiated by God; this is a God-revealed thing that we are considering and what we are reading are words about God’s purposes, revealed to Abram. Look at the simplicity of what He says here to Abram: “I will make you into a great nation.” Why should that be? Why would God create a particular nation from this one man, why did Israel come into being? What was so important about them?

The Developing Revelation: A while after these opening words of chapter 12 of Genesis,  we find, in an ongoing conversation between Abram and God, the following: “God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations.”  (Gen 17:3) In the Bible you will find explanatory footnotes, indicating that Abram means ‘exalted father’ and Abraham means ‘father of many’. We have said previously Hebrew names frequently have a purposeful meaning. Along the way Abraham first had a son Ishmael via his servant maid when his wife did not appear able to conceive, and then later Isaac, miraculously by his wife long after child-bearing age. Ishmael became father of the Arab nations, Isaac father of Israel. But is that all this meant?

A while later God reiterated this: “Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him.”   (Gen 18:17,18) How could that be – and yet it is God’s purpose declared, to bless the whole earth somehow via this nation that would come into being.  We see this promise stated yet again in Gen 22:15-18, and then to Isaac in Gen 26:2-6, and then to Jacob in Gen 28:13,14.   Moving on, Moses was aware that God’s dealing with Israel would be heard by other nations – Ex 15:14-16, Num 14:13-17, Deut 2:24,25.

Deuteronomy is Moses’ talks to Israel before they enter the Promised Land and in it he reminds them what has happened to them and then gives them instructions how they are to live once they have entered into the Promised Land, Canaan: “See, I have taught you decrees and laws as the LORD my God commanded me, so that you may follow them in the land you are entering to take possession of it. Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.”  (Deut 4:5,6) He reiterates this in Deut 28:8-10.   When Joshua leads the nation he speaks to them similarly: “He did this so that all the peoples of the earth might know that the hand of the LORD is powerful and so that you might always fear the LORD your God.”  (Josh 4:24)  This awareness is seen in David and Solomon in subsequent years, it is their clear understanding of God’s purposes in respect of Israel.

Initial Goal: Let’s be quite clear what we have seen so far. It is clear that the first reason at least for the existence of Israel, and the way they are blessed by God, is to reveal something of God to the rest of the world. He constituted Israel as a nation and gave them ‘The Law’ which refers to the Ten Commandments plus a lot of other laws about how to live in peace and harmony as a nation.

Let’s make the note here that these laws were for them uniquely as an agrarian community but, even more importantly, a community that should be contrasted with the pagan communities surrounding it. This was not only by the fact they had a living relationship with God, but by the way they trusted Him and lived according to His guidelines and were blessed accordingly, and therefore some of the apparently really strange prohibitions that critics dig out, are against copying the cultic behaviour of those neighboring pagan nations.

An Early Fulfillment: The outworking of this ‘living according to His guidelines and being blessed accordingly’ is seen most amazingly in an incident in the reign of king Solomon.  The Queen of Sheba hears of all that is happening in Israel and so she comes on a state visit. Thus we see, “She said to the king, “The report I heard in my own country about your achievements and your wisdom is true. But I did not believe these things until I came and saw with my own eyes. Indeed, not even half was told me; in wisdom and wealth you have far exceeded the report I heard. How happy your people must be! How happy your officials, who continually stand before you and hear your wisdom! Praise be to the Lord your God, who has delighted in you and placed you on the throne of Israel. Because of the Lord’s eternal love for Israel, he has made you king to maintain justice and righteousness.” (1 Kings 10:6-9) What an incredible testimony. She is saying, I am amazed by all I see of your affluence and I can see that it is all what ‘The I AM God’ has done for you.

And Yet!  And yet, sadly, this is not typical and, in fact, this episode with the Queen of Sheba is almost unique occurrence (certainly in its impact on her). The tragedy is that so much of the time in the life of this nation – that became two nations – they turned away from God again and again and again and got into a mess. The book of Judges is the classic example of the record of this as we see a recurring cycle – Israel are at peace and are blessed by God, then they drift away from following Him and as a result they become vulnerable to enemy attacks from their neighbors, they get into severe difficulties, cry out to God, and He then sends them a deliverer, they return to peace and harmony, and so the cycle starts over again. It happens again and again. Years later, the prophet Isaiah would declare their failure: “We have not brought salvation to the earth, and the people of the world have not come to life.” (Isa 26:18)

A Second Goal? Now this isn’t stated but one cannot help wondering, from a human point of view, how this state of affairs could have carried on?  God has blessed this people, made them a strong nation, given them a wonderful fruitful land and done everything He could to establish them, and yet time and time again they mess up and turn away from Him and to idol worship and get into trouble. Why didn’t He just wipe them out and start with another nation? Well one of the things that the Bible teaches us is that God knows, He knows everything – He knows about everything and He knows what will come and how things will work out. So, we might ask, why did He create Israel if He knew they would mess up?

The obvious answer has to be so that we would have, under a microscope so to speak, an insight into human beings. It is not that Israel were uniquely bad or uniquely stupid – we all are! Israel only demonstrated what we are all like when we have the courage to be honest and face it.  The second goal, I may suggest therefore, is that God brought Israel into being to reveal to the world the sinful tendency of humanity in the world. Now that is the first time I have used that biblical word, ‘sin’ and so I had better explain it. Put most simply it means our propensity to be self-centred and godless which leads to wrong living, living contrary to God’s design for us (we’ll look at this more fully later).

Recap: OK, before we move on let’s just recap what I have suggested are the two initial goals for God creating the nation of Israel:

  1. To reveal Himself and His good intentions to the world,
  2. To reveal the sinful nature, tendency or propensity, of human beings.

Now these two goals lead on to an even bigger third goal, the ultimate goal that God has for mankind, not to condemn us but to save us from ourselves, but we will need more space for that so we’ll look some more at this in the next few studies. Stay with me as we continue to consider the God of Purpose!

3. God of Self-Disclosure

Getting to Know God Meditations:  3. God of Self-Disclosure

Ex 3:6  Then he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.”

Taken for Granted?  Do we, who are believers, take for granted what is happening in the verse above, and if you are a new seeker, I wonder if you realize the enormity of what is happening here? As a reminder to believers and to explain to newcomers, Moses is talking with God. This is Moses, otherwise known in more recent cinematic terms as the Prince of Egypt. He has messed up and ended up caring for sheep for forty years in the desert, hundreds of miles from his old home in Egypt. One day he has a strange experience. He sees a bush on fire and yet it is not being destroyed. He wanders over to take a look and at the point a voice from nowhere appears to speak to him, claiming to be the God of his forefathers.

Now here is the challenging thing. We are saying there is a God as described in the Bible and sometimes (not often) He speaks out loud. This God is a communicating God, a God who communicates with human beings – and that is the claim right the way through the entire Bible. He speaks in a variety of ways but the claim is He communicates. (If there is a God, a living Being, why shouldn’t He communicate?) Now when He communicates here, He is saying to Moses that He is the same God who had communicated with the men we now refer to as the Patriarchs, the fathers of Israel.

Sequential History: And thus we are faced with sequential history, events following on from one another, not events that are free standing, we might say, but events that have direct links. In Genesis chapter 12 we are introduced to a pagan, a Semite who originated in Ur in Mesopotamia, a man who became referred to as “Abraham the Hebrew” (Gen 14:13). The origins of this word ‘Hebrew’ are unclear but the basis means ‘cross over  or pass through’. Later Joshua said of him, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Long ago your ancestors, including Terah the father of Abraham and Nahor, lived beyond the Euphrates River and worshiped other gods. But I took your father Abraham from the land beyond the Euphrates and led him throughout Canaan and gave him many descendants. I gave him Isaac, and to Isaac I gave Jacob and Esau.” (Josh 24:2-4) The river appears to be the Euphrates.

This Joshua was the army commander who led Israel after Moses eventually died. Note again there is this historical flow in what he says: Abram, who God renamed Abraham, had a son Isaac, who had two sons Jacob and Esau and God renamed Jacob, Israel. Israel had twelve sons and as their families grew and developed they became a nation we now call Israel. But here’s another challenging thing: in what Joshua says, he maintains God spoke and declared He was the reason these families, and this nation, existed. When you read the story in detail in Genesis chapter 12 on, you can see why this claim is made. It is history, but history that includes the activity of God and that activity includes speaking, as well as a number of other things. The idea of a God who stands back and just watches this world is alien to the Bible, this God interacts with human beings.

More Self-Disclosure: Now in that same account of Moses at the burning bush we find Moses going on to ask a very pertinent question, pertinent in a world full of superstition and lots of ‘gods’, Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?” (Ex 3:13)Now if I was just making up this story I would have God say to Moses, “Just say God sent you, that should be enough,” but He doesn’t, He says something I could never have dreamed up: God said to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’” (Ex 3:14) As if that isn’t bad enough, He goes on, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you.’” (v.15)

Now there is a footnote in the Bible that the translators have put in, in respect of the word LORD seen there in capital letters, The Hebrew for Lord sounds like and may be related to the Hebrew for I am in verse 14.” There was a custom in the Hebrew language for names to have meanings conveyed by words with similar sounds. Put most simply, whenever the word LORD appears in the Bible in the capital letters it is shorthand for “I am who I am”. So what are we to make of “I AM”? I would suggest, in line with the rest of the teaching of the Bible that it is God’s shorthand for saying, “I am eternal – I am, I always am, I always was, I always will be – I am outside of time.”

Now if we think about this some more, it is also like God is saying, “I am utterly different from all the ‘gods’ people make up”.  Perhaps you know something of the later gods of Greece and later the gods of Rome, figures with very human fallible characteristics.  One well known atheist has said something like, “If there wasn’t a god, human beings would have to invent one, it’s what they have always done.” So, yes, the nations of what we call the Middle East had their ‘gods’ and the voice speaking to Moses is essentially saying, “Don’t even think of me in the same breath! I am the Eternal One, the One who has always existed and always will exist.” I said in the first study that philosophers will say that the definition of God has to be One for whom there can be no one greater, and perhaps we should add, who is beyond our comprehension in that He has no beginning and no end.

Limited Self-Disclosure: We have simply started, in a very basic way, thinking about the fact that the Bible shows God revealing Himself to mankind in the ways we find in the Bible, but we have to say that it is very limited. Yes, He is eternal, yes, He does communicate and we will go on to see He is very much a God of Purpose, and that is all very clear from what we find in the Bible. There is also a great deal more of Him that can be found out by reading the Bible – as we will go on to do – but the fact of the matter is that even with all of what great books of theology might say, we know very little of who God is.

Why? Because my mind cannot grasp what eternal means. I know the definition but I cannot (and you cannot) comprehend the fact of a Being that has no beginning and no end. Young searchers often want to ask such questions as, ‘Well, how did God come into being, everything has a beginning?’ I have no idea, I just said I don’t know what eternal means, I cannot comprehend it. Having said there is a great deal of mystery surrounding the Being that we are constantly referring to as God (with a capital G) that doesn’t mean we are completely in the dark, for the point is that the Bible is all about God’s self-disclosure, His revelation of Himself, and there is a lot of it – and that is what (hopefully) this series is all about. Stay with me and we’ll see where it goes, and I hope you will find it happens in a way that is satisfactory, even though it cannot answer every possible question, I hope it will answer a lot of the questions that usually arise.

14. The Rich Man & Lazarus

Meditating on the Parables of Luke: 14. The Rich Man & Lazarus

Luke 16:19-31:  “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores. The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’ But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’ He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, 28 for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’  “‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

Comment:  I confess I find this one of the most uncomfortable of Jesus’ parables because it has a variety of challenging facets to it, and also because the way Jesus tells is, with historical names being used, it feels almost like history (although it isn’t) and that somehow seems more challenging as well.

Content:

  • there was a rich man who lived in luxury.
  • there was also a beggar named Lazarus, who was physically a mess because of ill-health, no doubt from under nourishment.
  • eventually he died and was taken to the underworld where Abraham now dwelt.
  • the rich man also died and was carried to the fire of the underworld, yet he was able to look up and see both Abraham and Lazarus.
  • he cried to Abraham to let Lazarus come and bring him ease from his agony.
  • Abraham reminded him of how it had been on earth and is now reversed.
  • He pointed out that there was a great divide so here was no crossing over.
  • so the rich man pleaded that Lazarus be sent back to the rich man’s family to warn them so they would not end up here.
  • Abraham simply points out they have the Law and the Prophets.
  • The rich man says this is not enough; if someone from the dead goes to them, they will believe.
  • Abraham challenges that; if they won’t listen to God’s provision already they won’t be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.

Elements for consideration: Because of the strange nature of this story, we perhaps need to try and understand the various parts of it.

  1. i) Pre-death: a rich man who cares little for the beggar at his gate,
  2. ii) Death: Abraham, the father of faith is surely, we would say, in heaven with God. The alternative, where the rich man ends up, is what is called Hades or Hell. However, Jewish understanding was that there were divisions within Sheol (see below).

An Aside: Hell: It is worth pausing to consider definitions. Sheol, a Hebrew word used in the Old Testament, is normally simply defined as ‘the state or resting place of the dead.’ When the Hebrew scriptures were translated into Greek, ‘Hades’ was substituted for ‘Sheol’. Hades is similarly ‘the state or resting place of the dead’. Gehenna, a Greek word used in the New Testament, is ‘the destination of the wicked’, and derives its name from a deep ravine south of Jerusalem, the “Valley of (the Sons of) Hinnom” (Hebrew ge hinnom). Some point out that this was an ongoing rubbish dump where rubbish was burned but, please consider, it could only continue burning as long as material was thrown in. As such it was not eternal. It is more a picture of destruction. In the case of all three, origins and usage are NOT clear.

Sheol Divided: The New Bible Dictionary states, “In the later Jewish literature we meet with the idea of divisions within Sheol for the wicked and the righteous, in which each experiences a foretaste of his final destiny (Enoch 22:1-14). This idea appears to underlie the image of the parable of Dives and Lazarus in the New Testament.”

  1. The book of Enoch is described as an ancient religious work that predates Jesus and would be known by the Jews of Jesus’ day. Jesus’ use of the parable mentioned above may therefore simply be using Jewish understanding of the day to convey certain truths:
  • We end up in a place determined by our present lives
  • That ‘place’ is really somewhere to be avoided.
  • Once we die there is no swapping over.

The Bigger Picture: In Revelation, references to the lake of fire (believed by many to represent Hell) are interesting. In Rev 19:20,21, The two of them (the beast & false prophet) were thrown alive into the fiery lake of burning sulfur. The rest of them were killed with the sword that came out of the mouth of the rider on the horse. i.e. with the coming of the King of Kings, Jesus, the beast and false prophet are thrown into the lake but their followers (humans), rebellious people, are killed by the word of God!

In Rev 20:9,10, “they marched across the breadth of the earth and surrounded the camp of God’s people, the city he loves. But fire came down from heaven and devoured them. And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.

i.e. The human armies are killed by fire from heaven but Satan is cast into the fire where he joins the beast and the false prophet – for ever.

Now, in Rev 20:13-15 we read, “each person was judged according to what he had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.

Note it does NOT say ‘where they suffer for eternity’.

Fire: Consider, fire is an element that utterly destroys what it engulfs. The fire in the Valley of Hinnom burnt up and completely destroyed the rubbish thrown there. Wherever fire comes down from heaven it destroys. The only exceptions that specifically go against that are ones we have already seen involving Satan, the Beast and the False Prophet – all demonic spirit (fallen angel) beings.

References to “weeping and gnashing of teeth” is simply used to convey how abhorrent this destruction should be to us where those who are destroyed miss out on all the wonder of eternity with God that the New Testament conveys. Similarly The few references to “where the fire never goes out” e.g. Mk 9:43 simply says the risk of that judgment is always there waiting for the rebellious. The emphasis is on the fire (the means of destruction) not the punishment (effect on people).

Back to the Parable: So it is probable that Jesus is using Jewish understanding of these things. The previous parable, of the shrewd manager challenged ethics. This one likewise challenges behaviour – concern for the poor – and both suggest that the ongoing behaviour indicates a set heart that precludes a person from entering heaven. The parable brings a strong warning to ensure that whatever relationship we claim to have with God, is shown to be real in the way it is worked out expressing the love, care of compassion of Christ for those around us, and that we cannot do without his grace expressed in and through us. May it be so.

Snapshots: Day 62

Snapshots: Day 62

The Snapshot: “Moses took the bones of Joseph with him.” (Ex 13:19) Wow! Weird! No, because Joseph had made his people promise to take his bones back to Canaan when they returned. Yet that had been some four hundred years earlier, but time did not worry Joseph. God had warned Abraham it would take that long (Gen 15:13) and Joseph believed God. Moreover he realized something of the significance of being back in the Land, the Land of Promise, the land of future hope, the land of identity, so much so that he had to be there – even if it was just his bones!  Wow, that is faith, that is understanding!  That is a challenge to us. Do I see God’s big picture, do I see my part in it, do I see how important it is that I be where He wants the action to be?

Further Consideration: ‘The Land’ played a most significant part in the life and experience of Israel; it was the place of encounter with God, the place where God would bless His people. Today we, the vast majority of the Church – the Gentiles – do not have a physical land, (yes, Jewish Christians may still look to Israel as their homeland) and so for us the Bible speaks of our ‘land’ as ‘the kingdom of God’, a place, a location, an experience wherever God is manifest in and through us.

Perhaps ‘the kingdom’ is another of those doctrines that needs emphasizing across the Church today. If instead of majoring on our different expressions of ‘church’ we instead majored on the kingdom of God, we would stop being inward looking as we focus on ‘our’ denomination. group or stream, and instead focus on working out the will of God that He desires for us today.

Abraham clearly heard God’s word about the future of what would become a nation, and their taking possession of this land of Canaan in the centuries to come, and obviously passed that word on to Isaac who passed it on to Jacob who told his twelve sons about it. Joseph, through all his trials, became a man of God who understood the ways of God (some of which were clearly passed on by his elderly father, Jacob – remember the responsibility of parents we saw in the last study) and part of that understanding involved the significance of ‘the Land’.

When Joseph had others promise to take his bones back to the Land, he was allying himself with the declared will of God. What was amazing was that that promise was conveyed down the generations so that when they did eventually leave Egypt, they took Joseph’s remains with them. Amazing! So the questions that must follow. Do we see the same significance in ‘the kingdom of God’? Do we put that kingdom – the will of God – at the head of our agenda? Do we work at this for the long-term goal of creating something real for future generations? Well?

Snapshots: Day 24

Snapshots: Day 24

The Snapshot: “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac.” You are a God like all the other gods who demand child sacrifice? No I am not. Then why do you want me to kill Isaac? I don’t. But you said….  I simply said take him. But you said sacrifice him? I want you to be willing to give him up. But isn’t that the same as killing him? No, I simply want you to learn to trust me. And you will raise him from the dead? If that’s how you want to see it. Very well, here he is. Stop. But you said…. No, I said learn to trust me with those most precious to you. Then you don’t want me to kill him? Of course not, I said that. But…. Don’t you realize I love him more than you do? But…. Hold all my gifts to you lightly, don’t make them more than me, otherwise you will cheapen them. What?

Further Consideration: Our problem, so often, is that we don’t realize how much God loves us and our loved ones. A good number of years ago, when our three children were young (they are now in their late thirties) my wife had an accident. I will spare her blushes by not telling you what happened but she was bleeding – badly. We put a towel against the cut and rushed her to hospital. In the Accident and Emergency dept they instantly saw there was a big problem and immediately started work on her while I was asked to wait outside. Their problem was that they could not stop her bleeding. She had cut an artery and nothing they could do would stop it.

In a semi-unconscious state she heard their desperate urgency and realized she could be dying. Lying there while they sought to stop the bleeding she prayed and said, “But Lord, what about my three children, who will look after them?” (I could have felt offended about this except that I was passed it at that point and anyway didn’t know until afterwards what she had prayed). But as she prayed, asking for help, she very clearly heard the Lord who said, “Don’t you realize that I love them and care for them even more than you do?” And that was it. The bleeding stopped, crisis over, but a changed wife.

God did NOT want Isaac dead; He just wanted Abraham (and us) to learn something. At the end of it, Abraham named the place, “The Lord will provide.” (Gen 22:14) Here’s the thing, Mount Moriah where this happened (v.2) is according to 2 Chron 3:1, Jerusalem, the vicinity of Calvary where another son was sacrificed – for you and me. God doesn’t want your death or mine, Jesus has already given himself in our place, to carry our sin, so that we can carry on living – for ever! Some are revolted by the picture of Jesus dying for them but it is only pride that keeps us from facing our need and our hopelessness and then, as a drowning person grabbing a straw, we accept the Cross.

7. Covenant Reassurance

Meditations on “Fear Not”:  7. Covenant Reassurance

Gen 26:24    That night the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am the God of your father Abraham. Do not be afraid, for I am with you; I will bless you and will increase the number of your descendants for the sake of my servant Abraham.”

Life had been somewhat tumultuous for Isaac. For twenty years he had failed to be a father and his prayers seemed to go unanswered. Then his wife conceived and bore him twins, twins who will be in constant competition, one of them a schemer and the other oblivious of the significance of his family background. Then his father died, and he is now the patriarch, wandering in Canaan. A famine comes, and he goes to Gerar, in the south, where he gets in trouble with the king, just like his father had done before him. Eventually, “Abimelech said to Isaac, “Move away from us; you have become too powerful for us.” (v.16) Affluence can make others insecure.

So he wanders the Land with his flocks and herds and finds shortage of water so, “Isaac reopened the wells that had been dug in the time of his father Abraham,” (v.18) but the locals claim the water is theirs, and this is repeated again and again, until, “He moved on from there and dug another well, and no one quarrelled over it. He named it Rehoboth, saying, “Now the Lord has given us room and we will flourish in the land.” (v.22) He has every right to feel insecure and wonder whatever is going on in his life, but then the Lord turns up.

That night the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am the God of your father Abraham. Do not be afraid, for I am with you; I will bless you and will increase the number of your descendants for the sake of my servant Abraham.” And so we find another, “fear not’ or ‘do not be afraid’ situation, but what is the reason he is given not to be afraid?  It starts out simply, “for I am with you.”  Yes, but what does that mean? You are with me, but my life circumstances are confusing and questionable.

Ah, we need to see the words before that: “I am the God of your father Abraham.  Ah, this starts to make sense. His father would have told him of all the dealings he had had with the Lord, the unseen One who had called him to leave his homeland and travel nearly a thousand miles to Canaan, with a promise that He would end his childlessness and make him into a great nation (Gen 12:2) and would give them this land (Gen 12:7). Then there had been a most solemn covenant made (Gen 15:9-20) that the land would be for his descendants.

There it was, a solemn covenant, a solemn promise accompanied by ritual, whereby the Lord declares this land will belong to the descendants he is yet to have. Once made it will stand and so Isaac will know of it and his children will know of it and their children and children’s children will know of it. That is why, Isaac, you can rest and be at peace in the midst of these confusing circumstances and not be afraid of them, of kings, of the peoples of the land, and of the future. The present circumstances may appear confusing, but God has promised a good outcome.

Similarly, for you and me, we have a new covenant (Lk 22:20), promised centuries before, (Jer 31:31) and now part of New Testament teaching (e.g. 1 Cor 11:22, 2 Cor 3:6, Heb 8:6,8,13, 9:15, 12:24) that Jesus died on the cross to take our sins to enable us to be justified and become Holy Spirit empowered children of God. That is our covenant in which we can be secure, so that whatever the circumstances, we know these truths do not change and thus we are part of God’s family and God is for us in them. Hallelujah!

32. Hope is about Believing

Expectations & Hopes Meditations: 32. Hope is about Believing

Rom 4:18   Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”

Belief for the Future: As Paul quotes from Gen 15:5, we usually take that quote as the precursor to belief being the basis of righteousness because v.6 in Gen 15 continues, Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness,” but Paul’s verse emphasizes to us that which we may otherwise take as obvious, that the belief that saves, is the belief in the future. For Abraham it was that his currently barren wife would yet have a son who would pave the way for a family tree that would eventually become a nation, Israel.

Belief in the Past: For us, there is both a past and present dimension to this believing and both are essential. The past dimension, if I may put it like that, is that we are required to believe that in the past Jesus has died for our sins on the Cross, but more than that, his work on the Cross has achieved everything that is necessary for us for our future lives.

Hopeless? But before we look at all that provision for our future, let’s just take on board those opening words of Paul’s verse above: “Against all hope”. That was the reality of Abraham’s situation as it had been back in Mesopotamia; his wife was barren and there was nothing he could do about that. Year followed year and hope of a child gradually diminished until the onset of the menopause when all hope of a child died. That was how it had been, and then God spoke, and God called him from that land we sometimes refer to as the ‘Cradle of Civilization’, to go to the land of Canaan where God would bless him in such a way that he would become the father of a nation.  He went and then it was in a subsequent ‘conversation’ that God said those words and Abraham believed and was declared righteous.

And Us? Isn’t that how it is with us?  We come to a point in life when we either feel utterly frustrated with our lives or we feel utter failures; we long for something better but, as with Paul in Romans 7, we can’t meet our own expectations and cry out, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me?” (Rom 7:24) Well, it may not have been exactly in those terms but one way or another we find ourselves under the conviction of the Holy Spirit (although we didn’t realise it was Him at the time) feeling utterly helpless and hopeless and needing to be saved. We had lost all hope of me being able to save me. In desperation, “against all hope”, we cried out to Him when we heard the Gospel, “I believe. Please forgive me. Please save me.” At that point we were relying on what we had been told about the past, on what God had done, two thousand years ago, in Christ.

Again, Looking Forward: But then there is a future dimension which, I suspect we rarely think about in this context. Paul said, “Abraham in hope believed.” His belief was in something happening in the future, in God doing what He had said He would do – make him the father of many. Now for us it will be the same but different and maybe the difference is that initially for most of us (I know it was for me) it is more simple. All we know is that we are unhappy with our present and past and when we come to God through Christ we are coming with the hope that He is going to change me, change my life, change my future. Prior to coming to Him, my expectations of the future were that I would just carry on the same: unchanging, unfulfilled, frustrated, feeling bad, struggling and striving and getting nowhere. But when I turn to Him, I turn with this very basic belief that now it will be different.

Conversion: Maybe somebody quoted to me, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Cor 5:17) I was told I was a new creation – and I felt it! Somehow, I felt different! Somehow, everything had changed. I didn’t understand it at the time, but I was now indwelt by the Spirit. Now I was justified by the work of Christ on the Cross. Now I was adopted into God’s family. Now I was a child of God. Now I had eternal life. All these things were true, even though I didn’t appreciate them at the moment of conversion; I just knew it had all changed.

My Believing: I don’t think I really thought about it – I don’t know how many of us do – but the truth was that, with Abraham, now in hope I believed. I believed that it would all be different and as the days, months and years passed I came to realise more and more the reality of that change and my beliefs became stronger and clearer. Initially I had just believed God when He said this is what I needed to do, and I trusted that whatever followed would be right and good. Like Abraham, I suspect, I didn’t have a clue how it could all happen, but if God said it, that was sufficient – I believed Him, I believed that the future would be changed. My expectations were unclear, but they would get clearer as the days passed. At that moment, they were simply, “It will be all right, because this is what God wants of me,” but in saying that I was looking forward and I had this confident assurance, this confident expectation that we call hope.

Words without Conviction: The belief we are talking about, the expectations we have, have to come with a practical commitment. Let me explain that. Once, many years ago, I had a five-hour conversation with someone about the Gospel. In that time, we covered all the bases and at the end of it they said (and I do not exaggerate), “I hear everything you have said. I understand it all, I understand all you have said about sin, all you have said about Jesus dying for me and all the rest, but the truth is that I like this life of sin and I’m going to stick with it,” and with that they got up and left.

They heard the words, but the conviction was not there, so they did not believe it applied to them and God would give them a better life, and they certainly didn’t believe they would suffer if they continued living as they were. This ‘believing’, this ‘hope for the future’ has to be something applied to me, as a reality. Why some people hear and truly believe, while other people hear and simply accept the facts but without them being able to be applied to them, so they are convicted, is a mystery. We believe against hope, but in hope we believe, and that is how we get saved. The more we understand this the more the wonder of it can fill us, and perhaps that is why we are doing this series. May our understanding grow and may the wonder of it increase to produce more and more worship. Amen.

7. Working for the long-term

Expectations & Hopes Meditations: 7. Working for the long-term

Gen 24:1-4   Abraham was now old and well advanced in years, and the LORD had blessed him in every way. He said to the chief servant in his household, the one in charge of all that he had, “Put your hand under my thigh. 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.”

Unfulfilled Prophecy: Before we leave the Patriarchs and Genesis, we need to backtrack and observe an episode in the life of this family that we have now seen grow to such a size it will soon become a nation. Abraham has the son of the promise and he’s had the word that God will make his family like the sand on the seashore. The only problem is that, at this time, Isaac does not have a wife.

A Distinctive People: He is living in this foreign land inhabited by ‘Canaanites’ – probably a whole group of different tribes, but not Hebrews. He knows that it is his family that God had said He would bless and he has a sense of clear demarcation from these people in this land. He has a relationship with the Lord, and they don’t. He has prophetic vision for the future, but they don’t. He worships the one true God, who he come to see is the Almighty Creator of all the world (Gen 14:18-22), they worship idols. He has come to understand that God has called him to be a distinctive people, different from all those other tribes or nations around him. He’s heard it and he believes it.

The Family Connection: So he has this problem. The only women around are these pagan, idol-worshipping Canaanites. The answer is that he must look elsewhere, and the obvious place is the place he has come from, so he sends his chief steward with the task of finding a daughter from his relatives back in Mesopotamia. It is a delightful story worth reading. For our purposes we will simply note that the servant finds Rebekah who is described as The daughter of Bethuel son of Nahor, whom Milcah bore to him.’” (Gen 24:47) If we backtrack we find, “Terah became the father of Abram, Nahor and Haran. ….Abram and Nahor both married. The name of Abram’s wife was Sarai, and the name of Nahor’s wife was Milcah.” (Gen 11:27,29) So that side of the family tree had been – Terah, Nahor, Bethuel and then Rebekah, while on the other side it had been Terah, Abram, Isaac. The former branch of the tree had an extra generation because of course Abram had waited until he was a hundred before Isaac arrived, but Isaac and Rebekah would be roughly in the same age or generation bracket.

Outworkings: So the family will be continued through the extended family and without any Canaanite pollution. Rebekah would also be aware of her similar ancestry. At the end of this particular story, Isaac has a wife and the rest, as they say, is history. The family tree continues through Isaac to Jacob and to the tribes of Israel, the nation that eventually becomes as multitudinous as the sand on the seashore! Now we may not, from our position so many centuries away, be able to identify with this (although many today do work to find their ancestry, following the family tree back) but this is God’s plan we have been considering, to bring a nation into being a) through which He can be revealed to His world, and b) His Son from heaven can come in the centuries ahead. If Abraham’s servant could not find a wife for Isaac who was sympathetic to their calling and understanding their ancestry, none of what followed would be possible.

Lessons: Now what does this account say to us? I suggest it speaks about a chosen people and today, you and I who are Christians, can say we are a chosen people (1 Pet 2:9). The word for ‘church’ originally means ‘a called-out people’ so we are also called to be a distinctive people, a holy people (1 Pet 1:15,16), a people who are different from those around us, for we are living in conformity with God’s design, God’s will. Our goals and objectives are His goals and objectives. Abraham’s expectations were that God would show the servant a wife for Isaac so together they could continue the family tree, in accordance with God’s declared will. There was a clear and distinct purpose behind his search, that would result in the continuation of the family and the presence of a holy people on earth. We, likewise, have become a purposeful people, a people who will express the kingdom of God on earth under the leading of the head of the body, Jesus Christ, who is seated at his Father’s right hand in heaven ruling and directing.

And Us? The key question has to be, do we see ourselves like this? Chosen, distinctive, purposeful? We might also ask, do we do all we can to help the next generation enter such a relationship with the Lord that we have known? That means being a real and genuine example for our children to follow? We can never guarantee this, but have we done all we can do to show and share the love of God through Spirit-led and Spirit-empowered, distinctive and purposeful lives? At the end of the day it is down to our children to respond as they will, but will they be able to look at us with love and fondness, knowing that we were there for them, full of grace and wisdom? We will fail sometimes but that should not put us off saying sorry to them, and getting up and going for it again. We could add a lot more but there is plenty there to pray over and work for.