14. God of Variety (1)

Getting to Know God Meditations:  14. God of Variety (1)

Psa 22:1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?  Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish? (Psalm of David – prophetic poetry)

Jn 20:30,31  About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”)  (Prophetic Aramaic fulfillment cry of Jesus Christ on the cross – historical narrative)

Continuation:  I am aware we have been through some challenging areas in the recent days and it seems right to step back with a lighter overview for a moment to give some readers some breathing space perhaps. I did wonder about putting this study much earlier in the series but it feels right to use it here to step back and catch a wider view of the Bible rather than the specific message, although that will almost certainly come through.

Variety: When we look at the world and we look at the Bible and we look towards God, if He is the Creator of all this – and the alternative is, in the words of one leading atheist, a meaningless mess – our conclusion has to be that He is a God who loves variety. I always remember, many years ago hearing someone say, “Did you know there are over 1200 sorts of edible bean in the world?” Since then I’ve heard so much more in science that says this world is a showcase of variety, no more so than when you look at people and cultures, and also no more so than when you look in the Bible.

Variety & the Bible: Every now and then I hear some smart character pontificating about the failures of the Bible and the moment you hear them using and deriding the word ‘literal’ you know they are speaking out of a weak limited area of knowledge and understanding. Hopefully, if you have been a Christian for any length of time, you will have sat in on a sermon or study where you will know that the word ‘literal’ is dismissed. “Is it literally true?” says this smart character trying to make a smart point. Whatever do you mean? Do you understand the variety of writing that is here in this book? Let’s consider some of the variety of genres or styles or writing we find in the Bible.

i) Historical Narrative: There is history, narrative if you like, and yes we can say that is literally true, it did happen in time-space history. The evidence is there, the writings so often supported by archaeology or other history sources. This isn’t always so but there has been an interesting phenomena over the past hundred and fifty years. Critics said, “Oh there is no archaeological evidence for those accounts in ….” and they name some passage, and lo and behold twenty years later the remains are unearthed. Absence does not mean it did not happen. Just be patient!

ii) Teaching: There is much straight forward teaching in the Bible. Let’s take that classic book, ‘Proverbs’ and let’s take one example from early on, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction.” (Prov 1:7) Time and space forbids us meditating on that, but is it literal? What does that mean? Is it literally true? Well, yes. Or consider Jesus teaching his disciples, to take a random example, many prophets and kings wanted to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.” (Lk 10:24) To ask is it literal is meaningless without explanation. Yes it is literally true what he said. Look at Jesus’ parables and you find teaching within a story. Is the story literally true? Don’t be daft, it is a story! Watch out for similes, metaphors and personification and if you don’t know what they are, classes on Literature 101 are needed.

iii) Prophecy: There are big chunks of prophecy in the Bible, the biggest probably being the book of Revelation at the end. In the Old Testament, the big books are Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel (and there are a number of what are called ‘The Minor Prophets’).  Each of those big four contain some narrative as well as prophecies. Is it literal? Well the narrative is but look at prophecy and you find that it is a complete mix of exhortation, teaching and picture language and the picture language (e.g. personification) is clearly not meant to be taken literally but simply conveys meaning. Is this allegory literal? Don’t be daft, it’s an allegory!!!

iv) Poetry: You will know that it is in poetic form because of the way it will be laid out in your Bible. If you ask a poet, is your poetry literal, they will look at you, seeing one who has not got a clue about the style and goal of poetry (this is not the place to do that – do your own research). Poems convey meaning, poems express emotions, poems come from and touch the heart. Read the Psalms and see this.

The Problem with Scripture: There is a problem from our point of time in history, in fact there are at least four problems.

i) The first is historical: The book is spread over a two thousand year period and covers a vast range of changes in history. An excellent example of historical data is that found in Luke’s Gospel (who we have referred to in an earlier study): In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene— during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” (Lk 3:1,2) Note 7 historical figures (if you don’t count John) and five geographical locations and three historical ‘job descriptions’.

 ii) The second is cultural: So often we see behaviour that was common in a particular culture and at first sight, without explanation, it may appear strange to us. We need to learn about the culture. (I will not give examples of these because they each will require too much explanation.)

iii) The third is linguistic: Some of the word patterns or uses of language appear strange to us, but it was the way they spoke back then. Again I hesitate to give examples for the sake of time and space but when you see phrases or sayings that seem strange, look them up on the Internet.

 iv) The fourth is geographical: The action of the Bible takes place over an area from Egypt to modern-day Iraq.  It therefore includes many countries (some of which don’t exist today), and many towns and cities (some of which either don’t exist today or have changed their names).  It also includes geographical features such as rivers, lakes, seas and mountains, that are clearly located.

Each of these things requires an intelligent reading and that will take time and effort.

And So: Our key point within this study is to highlight

a) the variety of styles of writing found in the Bible, each of which needs identifying if we are not to make wrong assumptions about it,

b) the indirect forms of speech that are often used, requiring us to identify them and not jump to false conclusions about what is being said, and

c) the various difficulties or gaps in understanding that may appear because of the Bible recording the ways and culture of people who lived two to four thousand years ago, in a different part of the world from that with which we are familiar.

Therefore, in these 66 books, written by over 40 writers, we find a rich variety of amazing literature, and once we overcome the obstacles I have referred to above, we find a rich vein of history that sheds light on who we are, why we are and where we are going. Oh, yes, this is not merely academic literature that we read for mundane interest, this is a book that reveals to us what life is all about and the One who brought it all into being. In the next study we will compare and highlight some of this ‘literature’ more fully so we can see the wonder of it.

11. God of Purpose: Justice (1)

Getting to Know God Meditations:  11. God of Purpose: Justice (1)

Ex 34:6,7  Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished;

Reassurance:  I am sure there are some Christian readers who may have been tutting about the last study in that I have dealt first with the end product and have not yet dealt with how that can come about – the Cross – and I want to reassure you that as with the apostle Paul, “Christ crucified” is first and foremost in my mind. Having said that I put the previous study about behaviour first for two reasons: first, it shows us the need that we have as fallen, dysfunctional human beings and, second, it shows us God’s end goal – to redeem us and that means to restore us, change us, remake us, and that very often gets forgotten in Christian circles.

Only the other day I came across the following quote (which may need a little thinking about) from a modern Christian writer who I respect: “Transformation of life and character is no part of the redemptive message” but that came just after references to, “the gospel of sin management…. behaviour modification, avoiding obvious sins through a kind of religious willpower.”  What that highly acclaimed Christian writer was saying – and I totally agree with it – is that ‘trying hard to be good’ is not what makes a person a Christian. Unless the foundation, that I am now going back to consider, is laid in a person’s life, ‘trying hard to be good’ is all that we are left with and that is doomed to failure.

Approach: In order to be as clear as I possibly can in this study (and possibly the next one that I may have to extend this into) this is how I intend to cover this subject

  1. Recap the human need.
  2. Initial thoughts about Justice.
  3. What happened on the cross and the potential of what follows.
  4. How that can be applied into individual lives.

 Recap the human need: I believe I have shown quite reasonably in the previous study, not only the amazing potential that there is for every human being, but also the reality of how it so often works out. We may wish we could live spectacular lives, lives that are positive, affirming myself and others, bring peace and blessing wherever I go, but left to my own devices that is not how it works out.

The Bible is very realistic without being depressing. For instance the apostle Paul addressing just this same problem  wrote, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do,” (Rom 7:15) and then, “I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing,” (v.19) and then, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me ….. Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!”  (v. 24,25) and he then goes on to talk about what Christ has achieved on the cross and what power from God – the Holy Spirit –  now does to change him.

But he highlights the dilemma that confronts us: I am faced with my own fallibility, my own weaknesses, my own failings and I am uncomfortable with them.  Now there may be three responses here:

i) deny my failings, blame others for them, ignore all this and continue to be a self-centred, godless person getting it wrong, or

ii) start trying to be religious or good, still being self-centred, focusing on ‘my ‘ efforts, or

iii) we accept the Bible teaching.

Before I move on, I must note  that when people start thinking about these things – and being concerned about them – it is usually a sign of God moving. People do not move from a quick casual thought to deep reflection and conviction without help from God, yet the moment He sees there is an opening of heart, He will be there, gently speaking in the background, although we tend never to be aware of it at the time; it is only awareness retrospectively.

Thoughts about Justice: Justice is a strange concept. As the Internet puts it,  ‘Justice is the morally fair and right state of everything and, Justice is a concept … that means that people behave in a way that is fair, equal and balanced for everyone.’ We may watch TV police dramas and justice is always there in the background.

We take it for granted, yet when it comes to the way we think as a society, or as individuals within society, we find that today there are two prevailing moods or outlooks. One says don’t bother me with such things and lives in a happy state of blissful ignorance, but sadly it is neither happy nor blissful. The other says that absolutes and boundaries are restrictive psychological constructs, and so have been abandoned so that, in the eyes of many at least, anything goes and ‘right’ is what feels right to the individual and varies with the situation. (hence ‘relativism’ and ‘situation ethics’). To talk about ‘justice’ in this sort of environment seems quite alien. But when we have the nerve or courage to stop and think about these things, this relative morality backfires on us because a) we don’t want it to apply in my own life and b) we do have specific ideas of things that we consider ‘wrong’, and c) we are often uncomfortable with applying justice to my own foibles and failings.  In fact the second group become clearer when they have become personal in my own life. So let’s give some examples.

a) My own life: I can be very casual about behaviour in general until it impacts me personally, for example, someone breaks into my house and trashes it, I scream for the police, and demand justice; I want these vandals caught and punished. My mother is badly mugged walking down the street and ends up a bruised mess in hospital. Ditto response. My daughter is gang raped and severely traumatized. Ditto response. It is right to demand justice; it is right to demand an end be brought to such behaviour and the perpetrators be severely dealt with. That is justice, bringing rightness to a wrong situation.

b) My lists of wrongs: But each of us have, when we pause to think about it, a list of things we consider wrong. For example the moment I use the word ‘pedophile’ most right thinking people will say that sexual child abuse is wrong – always. We could, no doubt, create long lists of things that each of us say is ‘wrong’. Sometimes we may hesitate because we feel certain things get a bit close to home, for example anger if we ourselves struggle with it.

c) Hesitant Justice: Because so often we are unsure about ourselves, lacking confidence in who we are, and because we have so often succumbed to the false doctrine of relative ethics, we are so often hesitant to consider the thought that moral failure carries with it consequences, and one of those consequences is a sense of guilt. We can make excuses but deep down – and sometimes we try to suppress it – we know that there are standards and we are guilty of either not having reached them or of having broken them. We also so often have a feeling that there is nothing to be said here because this is just how life is, and I am stuck here. We may have read self-help books, even gone on courses, but then failure struck and as much as we try to deny it, we know it is our failure. For all these sorts of reasons we so often try to duck the issue: I am guilty and there are consequences.

And So? Well, we have run out of space for this study and have only managed to cover two of the four subjects I want to cover – 1. Recap the human need, and 2. Initial thoughts about Justice – and so we will leave the other two until the next two studies.

6. God of Interaction

Getting to Know God Meditations:  6. God of Interaction

Rom 5:6   You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.

Questions?  We concluded the last study by saying we would see how the purposes of God, that are revealed in His activity throughout the Bible, are weaved into the activities of mankind. I believe this is something that is very important for us to understand because I often hear questions being asked that start with, “Why didn’t God…..” and go on to ask why He didn’t explain more, or why He do more to bring changes that we can see now needed to come – and yet He didn’t. Why didn’t He?  I’ll answer that in a moment but can we note that even in asking such a question we are implying we believe in a God who can interact with this world, who can speak into it and act into it.

Why didn’t He tell more? That is one of the frustrations I hear people expressing.  Why didn’t God explain to Abram what He was doing, tell him who He was, and so on? Well I’ve already answered that in two ways: first, relationship doesn’t need definition, second, to do with this ‘doctrine of divine accommodation’ that I spoke of in the previous study, that God communicates with humans at a level which they can understand at their present stage of development. The funny thing is though, that sometimes, contrary to what we’ve just said, He seems to reveal more than the person needed at that time, for example, in Abram’s case we find God telling him, “Know for certain that for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there. 14 But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions.” (Gen 15:13,14)

The plan for the family: So why did He tell Abram that? I suspect there are two answers. First, to encourage Abram with the knowledge that God had an ongoing plan for his family that stretched way into the future and, second, for the sake of those future generations who would have this passed on to them down through the family tree, as an encouragement to them that everything was going according to the Lord’s plan.

Combination of Factors: But note two additional things in all this: first, that God did not make this happen – Israel ending up in Egypt needing deliverance. It came about as a consequence of two things, a natural outworking of the Fall, the world going wrong, a famine, and also by human choice – Israel chose to stay in Egypt in their lush surroundings after the threat from the famine had passed.

The Time Factor: The second thing to note, is the time factor in all these things. Years would pass, families would grow and change, there would be human interactions that were good, bad and indifferent, i.e. life would go on with no apparent big changes. But then He shared something else with Abram: “the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.” (Gen 15:16) which no doubt at the time meant nothing to Abram but in the fulness of time it would be seen that those things going on in the land where he now was, would so deteriorate morally and spiritually.  The Amorites, one of the tribes who lived in Canaan – and thus shorthand for the occupants of Canaan – were a part of this and if God did not intervene to halt the downward spiral it might spread further abroad infecting more and more people with the superstitious fear-based occult activity that even drove the occupants to worship ‘gods’ and sacrifice their children on altars to these gods. God would take the need to deliver Israel out of Egypt and take them back into Canaan and combine it with the need to bring an end to all this pagan horror by driving those nations (tribes) out of the land. Only after that four hundred year period of time had passed would the nation of Israel be strong enough to achieve that.

Revelation & Timing: So we see that God holds back on handing out too much knowledge that will not be understood by the people of the time, yet gives an indication that He knows all that will take place in the affairs of mankind and what will happen on the planet, and will weave His purposes into all of that. I hope we have started to see that God works into human affairs but does not make them happen but will use what is happening to continue His purposes which we will soon go on to start considering.

Spreading the Gospel: the ability to spread the good news about Jesus Christ and what God had done through him, is a classic example of this same thing, God pursuing His purposes (in this case to spread Christianity). Christian writer and evangelist, Michael Green, in his book, ‘Evangelism in the early Church’, suggested nearly half a dozen things about the world that made the period two thousand years ago, following the death of Christ, almost certainly the best time for the spread of the Gospel.  The fact of pax Romana, ‘a time of peace unparalleled in history’, the fact of the amazing road system that the Romans had created, the wide common use of the Greek language, the existence of many false religions in existence that people were only to eager to abandon, the spread of Jewish culture which Christianity flowed through first, a culture found all over that area, all of these things contributed to the amazing spread of the Gospel and the growth of Christianity that say this was not by chance, this was by design, this was God working into the human activities of that time to ensure the news of His Son were spread so easily, so quickly and so widely.

The Conundrum of Slavery: There is a question I often hear, the answer to which fits in with this particular study and which I would thus like to mention briefly; it is the question of slavery. Why, say some people, didn’t God condemn slavery. The answer is not stated specifically, but I believe from what is stated clearly we can deduce the following. First, God does not force the world, force nations or force groups or force individuals to act in specific ways, and therefore, if He was to work to change slavery activities, He would have had to impact many if not most primitive nations because slavery has always been worldwide. Yet, His revelation as we have been noting, was to and through one nation, Israel.

When we see his laws for Israel in respect of slavery we find that the Law given to Moses regulated what was an existing practice in the world but forbade Israelites to be slaves or make slaves, to accept slaves from other countries but to treat them well. A slave fleeing to them was to be given refuge. Contrary to much that is spoken about slavery in the Old Testament, there is a caring and concerned element in the Law that helped slaves coming from the surrounding world. Those who worked for another within the society were cared-for servants. In the New Testament, although slavery is seen in the world, when a specific believing slave returned to his Christian master, that master is put under severe pressure to accept him as a brother. (See the book of Philemon).

We might suggest that slavery was just one of many practices that God did not approve of in the world, but He recognized that He would have to wait until the time was right when a group of Christian believers would arise who would hold sufficient positions of power that they could speak into government and change the law and abolish slavery. (What is tragic is that in the world at large today, slavery is as prevalent as it ever has been). This subject, like other similar ones, hinge on this doctrine of divine accommodation and God’s refusal to force mankind to comply with His wishes. We must also recognize that, as we have said before, God does not force His will upon humans having given us free will so, yes, there are many things going wrong in the world, but that is the cost of free-will that enables us to be what we call a human being.

And So? To summarize, we have been noting that:

  1. God speaks at a level that mankind at any particular point in their development can understand. Historian Rodney Stark comments, “As St. Gregory of Nyssa wrote in the fourth century, God is so “far above our nature and inaccessible to all approach” that he in effect speaks to us in baby talk, thereby giving “to our human nature what it is capable of receiving.”
  2. God interacts with humanity, weaving into our activities His plans and purposes. He does not force us to act as we do, but He works into what we do to bring about His end objectives.

1. A Marker in the Sand

Getting to Know God Meditations:  1. A Marker in the Sand

Job 40:1,2  The Lord said to Job:  “Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him? Let him who accuses God answer him!”

For who? I have over the years written thousands of these meditations (studies) and my general goal has always been twofold: to teach myself and clarify my own thinking AND to provide material that I hope may strengthen and encourage the Christian community. In this new series, I want to make a slight difference, I would like to help new Christian believers AND perhaps shine some light into the darkness for those who cannot yet say they are believers and yet are here showing interest. Can I speak to that latter group first of all.

Questions:  The fact that you are reading these words means that somehow you have come across this site, or perhaps been directed towards it by a friend, and are at the very least intrigued by the thought of ‘God’.   Now that in itself is intriguing for we live in a world, here in the West, that has been changing dramatically over the last hundred years in ways that are greater than all of previously recorded history and because of that ideas and thinking has been shaken as well. Throughout history there have been ‘signs of religion’. One of my granddaughters said to my wife recently, “But surely, granny, there is no evidence for God.”  What a staggering statement built on what appears to be total ignorance. My wife, telling me of this later, said she had to struggle not to tell her all about what she taught every year at upper level education, a whole year of just that, examining the amazing range of evidence. But this meditation (study) is not going to do that; my remit in these studies is much more limited but, I hope, just as rewarding. Put in a nutshell, it is to find out about God from the Bible.

The Bible? And here, briefly, we have to counter the tsunami of ignorance that prevails in many today. Here is a book – a best seller still around the world – or rather 66 books with some 40 or so authors, made up of writings from Jewish history (the Old Testament) and of the first century CE (what used to be AD!) telling of the activity of Jesus Christ and the birth of the Church. To short-cut pages of explanation may I simply put it to you if you are coming to this subject for the first time, that I am a reasonably intelligent person (teacher and retired pastor) who has read and studied the Bible for over fifty years (yes, that makes me old!), questioning, seeking, researching and never being content with superficial answers and have written studies that cover that vast majority of the Bible. At the end of all that, may I suggest to you that a) you can trust its veracity, its truthfulness and its accuracy and, b)  no, it is not full of inconsistencies or contradictions as popular ignorant opinion often has it. I would not waste your time with it if it did!

The Basis: The basis of these studies will be what the Bible says about God, not what people think about God or what people think about what the Bible says about God, but what it actually says. For that reason you may find these studies different from anything you’ve read before. They should, hopefully be full of the Bible, at least be looking to see what the Bible says. Now here’s an honest health warning. I want to change your thinking. I say that quite openly because, as I have already suggested, I believe many people come to this subject with a rucksack of ignorant wrong presuppositions that they have been carrying around that has weighed them down. I would like to invite you to lay that down and fill it instead, with reflections about what we find in the Bible. In a later study I will lay out the structure of the Bible for you because it does, despite it being 66 ‘books’, stand as a single-story entity.

A Fresh Starting Place: May I suggest, in respect of the Bible, an experimental fresh starting place for all of us. The scholars etc. who know about these things conclude, as I said above, you can trust its veracity, its truthfulness and its accuracy. Now having said that, it is legitimate to ask, why did the 40 or so writers write what they did, and can we believe their reports of their experiences. Now the one convincing thing, I find,  is that there is an amazing uniformity from such a wide diversity of writers who together form a compelling picture.

All I ask from the outset is that we ponder, IF all these people are being truthful about what they have written (and why should 40 or so people, spread over a long period of history, convey a lie?) what logically should that leave us thinking about God and, indeed, about our own lives? i.e. dare we assess the truth and be honest enough to say it might change us?  I will start each study with a verse of scripture from the Bible, and may include a lot more, but these are after all, Bible studies. We are studying the Bible. The early studies will be light on Bible quotes, not to weigh down those for whom the Bible is new reading, but I will constantly refer to people and places and give references for you to look up if you wish.

Job? The book of Job (which I do not recommend as your first area of reading – try Mark’s Gospel) is a tough book about a man who suffered and it is all about what his three friends thought about that suffering. Was God to blame for it? Whether it is history or a story with a point has often been debated. It is thought to be one of the oldest books in the Bible. At the end of all the debating within it (often with confused and wrong thinking, which is why I don’t recommend it as starter reading because it can be confusing reading; come to it after you have got more foundational reading under your belt)

Job encounters God who identifies Himself as ‘the Almighty’ or ‘the Mighty One’. Now philosophers will say that the definition of God has to be One for whom there can be no one greater. We will go on to see what the Bible says about that as an idea, but it is a good starting point and it is the point that Job faced God and concluded, “I spoke of things I did not understand… My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.  Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” (see Job 42:1-6)

The point is we are not talking about an abstraction here, just a nice idea to play around with; we are working towards the idea that there IS a Being as uniquely described in the Bible, who is so much greater than anything or anyone we can comprehend, and that is scary. The more we go on, the more true we will see that is but, at the same time, be given great reassurance that although fear is a natural feeling (which is why many duck away from thinking through these things) the truth is that the Bible reveals Him as loving and for us. That’s the simplest way I can put it for the moment.

For those of us who are believers, I invite you afresh to pause and worship and ask Him to teach you anew. If you are not at that place, may I simply invite you to keep an open mind and come with me in the studies ahead of us, and possibly experience something you’ve never come across before. We live in a doubting, disbelieving world, more often built on ignorance, a dry and spiritually arid place. My intent is to draw a line in the sand of this modern-day desert and say, enough of this ignorance, let’s have the courage and honesty to face it and say, let’s change it! Take a few minutes each day to come with me on this expedition.

Snapshots: Day 48

Snapshots: Day 48

The Snapshot: “Pharaoh said, “Who is the Lord, that I should obey him and let Israel go?” (Ex 5:2) A hard heart is revealed by a “Why should I?” attitude. Why should I worship God? Why should I pray? Why should I read the Bible? Why should I go to church? Why should I do what I don’t want to do? Why should I obey him? Hard hearts refuse to listen to others. Hard hearts refuse to receive wise counsel. Hard hearts refuse to say sorry. Hard hearts continue to make excuses. A hard heart is simply any heart that has settled into a self-centred mode and refuses to change. Of course, all the refusals – pray, read, obey etc. – are irrelevant. It is the heart condition that is the critical issue. And it is critical because hardness turns into inactivity which becomes death.

Further Consideration: In the previous snapshot we sought to demonstrate how hard-heartedness, this resistance to outside pressure, can so easily mean we are operating against what can only be called common sense. It is that because any outsider looking in would see how foolish it was to pursue this course, a course that was doomed to failure and even likely to cause our demise.

But we see this same attitude in so many people around us who say, “Who is God, what is this religion, that should tell me what to do? Why should I obey the things your preachers say, who are you to say you are right and I am wrong?”

Increasingly I have to say, look at the way life, in the godless Western world, is working out. As they say, ‘the proof of the pudding is in the eating’, i.e. ‘the final results are the only way to judge something’s quality or veracity’, to quote an internet definition. The Bible puts it more simply:A man reaps what he sows.” (Gal 6:7)

But the hardness of people’s hearts means they plough on through life living foolishly, suffering all the repercussions that are being seen to follow. Obesity is almost an epidemic because of lack of self-control in eating, alcoholism or a whole range of antisocial behaviour is seen following intemperate use of alcohol, failing relationships, growth of STDs, unwanted pregnancies, guilt-laden abortions, etc. etc. are the clearly visible fruit of hardhearted refusal to listen to God.

But why is it? The apostle Paul wrote, “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” (2 Cor 4:4) How does he do that? Using what John called, “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life,” (1 Jn 2:16) or, “the world’s ways… the world’s goods… squeezing out love for the Father.” (Msg) These are the things that fuel a hard heart.

6. Reassurance

Studies in Isaiah 54: 6. Reassurance

Isa 54:9 “To me this is like the days of Noah, when I swore that the waters of Noah would never again cover the earth. So now I have sworn not to be angry with you, never to rebuke you again. 

Seeking Understanding:  Something I have observed in recent days is that in some quarters there is a tendency to explain away some of the Old Testament that seems difficult to understand. More often than not it is to do with the judgments of God but I have written about this extensively elsewhere, so I will not cover it now. Another area is to do with prophecy, as we now have here. We look at a passage and take what we read, failing to get understanding, and get confused.

The truth is that when we study the Bible we need to go through several stages to get the most out of it. Stage 1 is seeing what it says. Yes, it is that simple. What does this passage actually say? Stage 2 is seeking for understanding of it. What is the bigger picture, how does it fit and, especially with prophecy, how does it seem to fit in history and how was it – or has it been – fulfilled?  The third stage is seeking to see how the lessons or principles revealed can be applied to us today. Now I say all of this here, because what is being said is so enormous that we have to ask, when does the Lord want this applied?

Context: As we so often point out, context is important, so how do these present two verses fit into the chapter.  Well, the chapter started with an analogy of Israel being like an abandoned wife – the Lord being her husband (v.1). The picture encourages this ‘abandoned woman’ saying she will have many children and should therefore enlarge her home (v.2,3). He went on to say forget the past (v.4) for the Lord is a redeemer (v.5) who, although He had previously cast her aside (v.6-8), He will bring her back (v.7). It is possible that when Israel heard this prophecy, they might doubt it, and what now comes is the Lord’s way of reassuring them.

Perhaps a parallel illustration of this is found in the case of Gideon. “When the angel of the Lord appeared to Gideon, he said, “The Lord is with you, mighty warrior.” (Judg 6:12) There was the message of reassurance, but observe Gideon’s response: “Pardon me, my lord,” Gideon replied, “but if the Lord is with us, why has all this happened to us? Where are all his wonders that our ancestors told us about when they said, ‘Did not the Lord bring us up out of Egypt?’ But now the Lord has abandoned us and given us into the hand of Midian.” (Judg 6:13) Although the words came through an angel, the prevailing circumstances seemed to negate them. He needed further reassurance.

The Reassurance: So now we can look at our present verses. To reassure Israel the Lord parallels what He is now saying with what happened at the Flood: “To me this is like the days of Noah, when I swore that the waters of Noah would never again cover the earth.” (v.9a) To understand this we need to go back to that account. The Lord had called Noah who had been obedient and so had come through the Flood with his family. The other side of the flood we read, “Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and, taking some of all the clean animals and clean birds, he sacrificed burnt offerings on it.” (Gen 8:20) i.e. Noah’s response to the flood was to worship God; he held onto a right attitude towards Him.

He did not grumble about the flood and all that happened about his home and his past being wiped out, but responded with a right attitude and worshiped. It was in response to this that we find, “The Lord smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart: “Never again will I curse the ground because of humans, even though every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done.” (Gen 8:21) I don’t know if you can see the enormity of this, but it is the Lord showing us that we can move His heart and thus reveal a completely different possibility for mankind.

Law and Grace: I have, when writing elsewhere about the judgments of the Lord (see ‘Judgments of a Loving God’), suggested that essentially the Bible reveals two sorts of judgment: disciplinary judgments that are designed (where the Lord sees it is possible) to change the hearts of men, and what I have called terminal judgments or ‘judgments of the last resort’, i.e. people die because the Lord sees that is the only way to save the situation. (We always need to see this in the light of His words in Ezek 18:23,32, 33:11, 2 Pet 3:9 – the Lord never wants to bring terminal judgments but they are sometimes necessary if the Lord sees that repentance will not be forthcoming).

Thus the awfulness of the state of mankind just prior to the Flood (see Gen 6) was so terrible that it was only the righteousness of Noah that prevented complete extinction. So, back to our picture of Noah and the Flood, the Flood was God’s demonstration of His power to bring judgment on evil as seen in Gen 6, indeed justice would demand such a thing but when the Lord sees the response of Noah (to worship) He sees the possibilities for mankind and He is moved in compassion to provide an alternative way of appeasing justice (the Cross).

Now we have commented on this before, that the Lord appears to act both as God outside of space-time history and thus plans redemption through the Cross before Creation AND as God in history who responds to the present. Thus the Flood was a legitimate response to the call of justice, meeting the demands of ‘the Law’ if you like,  but out of it was revealed the genuine possibility of a good response from human beings, which opens up in turn the Lord’s willingness to offer grace.  But does He just turn a blind eye to our sin? Definitely not! Our Sin (and sins) are covered by the work of Christ on the Cross. His death acted as the sentence that satisfies justice and that is what applies here and now for Israel.

The Covenant of Peace: This same compassion comes through in these words: “So now I have sworn not to be angry with you, never to rebuke you again. Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed,” says the Lord, who has compassion on you.”  The covenant of peace is ultimately the Cross which covers all sin of all people through all time. The seriousness of sin was revealed through the Flood, but then also, as we’ve seen, the grace and mercy that can follow.

Application: So having spoken in picture language about a relationship to be restored, the Lord reassures Israel that this is possible because of the covenant that He instituted from before the foundation of the world through Christ.  That covenant applied to Israel’s present situation as much as t did after Noah. Noah is the means of reassurance that He brings to them now. There is more to be seen in these verses but we will see that in the next study.

Snapshots: Day 41

Snapshots: Day 41

The Snapshot: “The Lord said, “I have indeed seen…” (Ex 3:7) Foolish people say, “God doesn’t see.” Yes He does! Foolish people say, “God is powerless otherwise He would act.” No He’s not, He’s just waiting for the right time, for the circumstances to be right for action. Don’t worry about Moses, it’s not him, he’s just a plane caught in a holding pattern over the airport, waiting for the right time to land – only he doesn’t know it yet.  We get so caught up in our own little self-concerned worlds that we fail to realise that sometimes God is waiting for bigger things to come into line. Check out Eccles 3:1-8.  Easter came at ‘just the right time’ (Rom 5:6). The trouble is we probably don’t realise these things. That means we are just left with trust, and you can trust Him.

Further Consideration: Theologian, evangelist and writer, Michael Green in his well-known book, ‘Evangelism in the Early Church’, suggested that the Roman peace (pax Romana) meant that “the spread of Christianity would have been inconceivable had Jesus been born a half a century earlier.”  Not only that, the use of the Greek language “was so widely disseminated through the Mediterranean basin that it acted as an almost universal common tongue.” Add to this the existence of the Jewish religion that had spread so far afield, so that “The Christian faith grew best and fastest on Jewish soil, or at least, soil that had been prepared by Judaism,” and you have all the natural ingredients for the rapid spread of the Faith.

We so often, rightly, attribute the spread of the Gospel to the work of the Holy Spirit but that does not say that He doesn’t use the affairs of man in which to work. We would do well to observe that the narratives of the Bible do very clearly move on one from another in clear chronological or historical order with references made again and again to things that happened earlier, and on which current events depend. Unlike a fairy story or so-called ‘myths’ the ‘story line’ within the Bible is not a series of random events, but clearly interlinked events, bound together by common geographical history – and a divinely declared purpose, and it is within this that God moves.

So when the Lord says to Moses, “I have seen….”  that is but the prologue to Him explaining that all this was part of the covenant He had made with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Ex 6:2-8). It is clear that God holds back judgment but knows how long it will take foolish mankind to build up their sin to the point of no return, at which point He steps in. God’s times are not accidental. He sees and He knows how long He can hold back – and then He acts.  Never ever think that we can do things that we can hide from God. We can’t