2. Understanding God

The Truth about Guilt Meditations: 2. Understanding God

Ex 34:6,7  The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”

Recap: In the first study we faced the words ‘guilt’ and ‘guilty’ and sought to show that although they are words we prefer to keep in the background of our lives, and hope preachers won’t talk about, nevertheless they are essential to help us face our shortcomings or our blind spots. In this study we are going to confront two verses from the Old Testament that are regularly mis-translated and which, therefore cause many people difficulties and in the midst of them is this subject of guilt.

Not Clearing the Guilty: Our starter two verses are key verses for understanding God. They start out by extolling God as the God who is, “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin,” words that are repeated in whole or part again and again throughout the Old Testament. That part we like but then it starts getting uncomfortable: “but who will by no means clear the guilty.”  This needs thinking about because most Christian teaching seems to suggest a God who, as we considered previously, forgives and cleanses us of our sin, our guilt. But that forgets the word ‘confess’ we’ve already considered. The work of the death of Christ on the cross is not applied to the unrepentant. The guilty remain the guilty and their guilt stands before justice which demands action. God isn’t going to ‘clear the guilty’, pretend the guilt isn’t there. The Cross is about forgiving and cleansing the guilty – those who acknowledge their guilt. The unrepentant are still in trouble.

Confusion over Ongoing Sin: But our verses get worse: “visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”  This again needs thinking about. “visiting the iniquity”? Now most translations impose on this passage a sense of guilt and blame but, I suggest, this is more the translators’ poor appreciation of God’s grace than of accurate conveying of the meaning. For example, the Message version (which I like and use a lot) very badly puts it, He holds sons and grandsons responsible for a father’s sins to the third and even fourth generation.”

Now the Israelites so misunderstood this that the Lord had to correct them through Ezekiel. Read Ezek 18 which challenges a proverb they used, “The parents eat sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’” (18:2b) i.e. the kids suffer because of their parents’ wrongdoing. No, says the Lord, “The one who sins is the one who will die.” (v.4b) He then cites a righteous man (v.5-9) who then has an unrighteous son (v.10-13) and only that son will die. The other way round, suppose there is an unrighteous man (v.14) but the son refuses to follow his father’s path, the son will not die: “He will not die for his father’s sin; he will surely live.” (v.17b)

Resolution: Now I don’t believe the Bible is full of contradictions, so how do we resolve this? Back to “visiting the iniquity”. We need to distinguish between the meanings of practical expression, guilt or blame, and freedom of opportunity. I believe a better way to put part of these verses would be to speak of the ongoing expression of sin and their effects as seen in a father which the sons can (or may not!) follow. Because of the closeness of family life, and we see this so often we perhaps miss or forget it, it is almost usual for children to follow in the footsteps of their parents and that includes copying or continuing their iniquities. Visiting the iniquities of the father on the following generations simply means that father’s example is there confronting the children who may or may not follow it. IF they do follow that bad example, it is probable that they follow the description that comes up in a similar passage in the Ten Commandments: I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me.” (see Ex 20:4-6 & Deut 5:9,10) Following a bad example indicates a wrong heart towards God. That son or grandson has a problem with God, they carry their own guilt. There is an interdependence of father and child which includes the moral or ethical dimension, and thus a bad father is simply leading his child down a similar bad path, if he is unwise enough to follow it and not go his own better way. Love of God restrains sinful behaviour and if that is seen in the father it will reflect into the life of the son.

And Us? There are very strong lessons about family life here. First that each individual, father or child, is accountable to God for their own life. Where there is guilt (i.e. wrongdoing) the individual is responsible for their own life. Second, the older generation can provide a good or bad example and subsequent generations, although vulnerable to bad examples, are responsible for the way they react to those examples, good or bad. Guilt is uniquely individual but behaviour can be transmitted down the generations if the younger ones do not recognize and reject bad. Don’t blame your parents. God will do that. Yet learn from them. If they provided good examples, follow them, if bad examples, reject them. These are vital words for the very mixed up and confused world of family life we have in the West today.

1. Introducing Guilt

PART ONE: General Considerations  (Parts 1-19)

The Truth about Guilt Meditations: 1. Introducing Guilt

1 Jn 1:9 (Living Bible) if we confess our sins to him, he can be depended on to forgive us and to cleanse us from every wrong. And it is perfectly proper for God to do this for us because Christ died to wash away our sins.” (1 Jn 1:9 Living Bible)

Why? Why this series? Well, I had a dream, a remarkably clear dream and one that, unusually, stayed with me when I woke. In it a friend asked me to speak at college  on ‘Guilt’, and I ended up before a class of teens with a very clear idea of what to say to them. When I was praying later, this dream came back clearly with a bigger sense of where it should go.

The Approach: My sense is that this series should have two parts, the first thinking about guilt and then seeing what the Bible says about it, and then the second considering the guilt of the modern world. I am aware that thinking about ‘guilt’ sounds heavy and not very enlightening as a daily study, but I believe it is essential ingredient for seeking to understand the days in which we live and what the Lord might be saying to the Church in these Days.  In the Second Part we will seek to confront a number of aspects of today’s world that from time to time seem to permeate the life of the Church. I thus hope it won’t be heavy but enlightening and will motivate us to pray for the Church and for our nations in these days. I am fairly sure these is not going to be studies condemning and laying guilt; in fact the exact opposite.

Definition & Importance: A simple dictionary search tells us that

“guilt = the fact of having committed a specified or implied offence or crime” while

“guilty = the state of having committed, or responsible for, a specified wrongdoing.”

We don’t like thinking about guilt – at least when it applies to ourselves – and that may be because we don’t realize that guilt is a symptom of something that needs confronting and addressing. Often it is only when the symptom appears that we realize we have the problem. One approach says that thoughts lead to emotions and feelings of guilt, the emotion of guilt, and is because we think we have done wrong. If the thoughts we have accurately record the truth of what happened – a wrong for which we are responsible – then the feelings of guilt accurately convey the truth – we ARE guilty. If the thoughts only pick up part of what happened, then it is easy to allow them to convey the emotion of guilt but the reality may be that we did not do wrong, we are not guilty, as we’ll see in the following studies.

The Process: From these simple starting thoughts we see a progression that is in fact very obvious: first there is the act of wrong, second there is the recognition that we did wrong, the thoughts that put the act into a context and realize it was wrong, and then there is the emotion or feeling. Sometimes we talk about our ‘conscience’ or, in the spiritual realm, our conviction. Now the feelings help us identify the thoughts and the thoughts help us pin down the act, and all of these things for us as Christians highlight a need for further action.

The Way Through: From the outset let’s remind ourselves of the most basic of New Testament teaching: if we confess our sins to him, he can be depended on to forgive us and to cleanse us from every wrong. And it is perfectly proper for God to do this for us because Christ died to wash away our sins.” (1 Jn 1:9 Living Bible) So we have seen two processes. First the process of diagnosis: the act, the thinking, the emotion, the conclusion (I am guilty!). Second there is the process of response: first our part, the act of will that confesses and acknowledges and repents of the wrong, then God’s action that forgives and cleanses and restores us.

John is seeking to be remarkably simple in this verse and just uses the word ‘confess’ but as we go on we will see that actually it means what I wrote above – also acknowledges the sin and repents of the sin. Simply to say, Oh yes, I did wrong, and leave it at that isn’t enough; it needs to be accompanied by a determination to repent – which means utterly change – and be done with that sin, and let God deal with me. We will need to think about these things more fully in the studies ahead I suspect.

And Us? John in his pastoral role in that first letter is extremely helpful because in the second chapter he says, “I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.” (1 Jn 2:1) His goal is to reinforce the teaching that Christians have been set free from the power of sin and yet there will be times where we will get it wrong. I would suggest that this should take away any defensiveness we may feel about considering guilt. Guilt is merely the signpost that needs to be observed, or an additional motivator to recognize, that guides us along the path of sanctification, our lives being cleaned up and changed by God.  I would hope that I am dealing with any issues that arise in my life at the present time, but I would be foolish to think that before I go to be in heaven, there will not be further issues of which at the present time I am not aware. Perhaps these studies will help us face what we have seen in the past as an uncomfortable subject and come see it as a useful tool that God can use the enable us to be more open to His moving in these times. May it be so.

Snapshots: Day 154

Snapshots: Day 154

The Snapshot: “Naomi had a relative…. a man of standing….  Boaz.” (Ruth 2:1) I like the way this story is told. Here’s a single man, a wealthy man, and a man who had been related to Naomi’s dead husband. All these three things are significant and will become more so as the story unfolds, but for the moment, he’s just a mention at the start of it. Things have got to happen first, then the significance of these three things will come to light. This is going to be a beautiful story of redemption and adoption into the people of God but for the moment that is not clear. So often in life, it just carries on (with God moving in the background without our knowledge) and it is only later that the various threads of life come together. Until it becomes clear, rest in the present, trusting that God is there in it all.

Further Consideration: People are important, family are important, friends are important, employers or employees are important, teachers, tutors and students are important. All of these people I have just listed play different roles in our lives. Often we take them for granted but the way we interact with them means that our futures can be changed, the acts of these people impinge on our lives and it may be for good or bad, and how we respond and the sort of relationship we have had with them previously may determine the outcome now.

‘Dating’ among young people appears a nightmare, so often a self-centred calculation. Dating websites call forth characteristics of two people and we assume this is all that is needed to form a meaningful lasting relationship. Ruth is going to show us another way, a way that is gentle and allows both sides to show something of the reality of who they are to each other, two people who don’t force the circumstances but allow them to proceed and open up slowly in learning about each other, understanding each other, and going with that

It is not based upon sex but upon seeing how they both ‘fit’ together, and that is not physical. Today’s dating has completely lost the divine pattern – make friends first, let the friendship deepen to love, let love be expressed by desire for lifelong commitment and only after that the physical union. No wonder ‘Friends’, and ‘Big Bang Theory’ portrayed such difficulties that love could not be spoken about while a full-blown physical relationship was carried on. Relationship is about the coming together of minds first of all, emotions and feelings subsequently, and only physically later on. What a mess today’s relationships are and no wonder cohabitation breaks up so easily and marriages so often last such a short time.  It is sadder when it is seen inside of the Church, which is a sign of lack of teaching and lack of pastoral care. May we be able to demonstrate a better way to the onlooking and hurting world.

44. What happens after Death?

‘Living with Uncertainty’ Meditations: 44. Q.6. What happens after Death?

Heb 9:27,28    And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.

The Question:  Death is the cessation of physical life, and many not only fear the way of dying (which can involve a painful and prolonged disease) but also what might happen after death. Moreover it might be helpful to add, what does the Bible teach about the future, beyond physical death? The one thing it does teach is that physical death is not the end. There is existence and experience beyond physical death. Let’s consider the content of our two verses above:

The Fact: “And just as it is appointed for man to die once.”  Death is the one certainty we have; it will happen, we will all experience it.

Followed by: “and after that comes judgment.”  Judgement means assessment and accountability. Now the one thing we cannot say is exactly ‘when’ this occurs. Does it occur the second after our life here ceases, or does it happen, according to our present measuring of time, at some yet future time after a number of other things indicated in scripture happen, and for the person who has died, is there no sense of time passing so it is literally the next thing they experience? (check Rev 20:11-15, 21:27) For the ‘Lamb’s book of life’ see also  Phil 4:3, Rev 3:5, 13:8, 17:8, 20:12.

Salvation Provided: “so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many.” Because Christ died on the cross for our sins, there is forgiveness for all who receive him. Thus those whose names are in the ‘book of life’ referred to above, who God knew from before the foundation of the world would respond to Him and turn to Christ, these people have nothing to fear from appearing before God.

Second Coming: “will appear a second time.” Christ’s coming a second time, prophesied by the angels at his ascension (see Acts 1:11), brings to an end the present dispensation. When he came the first time it was to reveal the Father and to become our Redeemer. Each time he comes he comes to do what no one else can do. When he comes a second time it is for a different purpose.

Receiving Salvation: “not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” The picture of the end of time in this present age is one shown through Revelation where there will be a faithful remnant living in the midst of an ungodly and unrighteous world. He comes, the second time, to bring an end to that ungodliness and unrighteousness and to save his people there on the earth still, from it all. The picture that the writer to the Hebrews brings is of a Saviour who came the first time to bring in the kingdom of God but who comes a second time to wind up the initial expression of that kingdom. Wherever we find ourselves in history and in the economy of God, we can be secure in the love and the sovereign purposes of our God that are established, being worked out and will be brought to a conclusion in our Redeemer, the Christ.

Uncertainties and Questions: There are certainties at the end which we will return to but it is a foolish person who says some of the end of Revelation is quite clear. Uncertainties abound! There are ‘events’ that are spoken of quite clearly, but whether they are to be taken literally or as prophecy to be taken figuratively, is unclear. (The philosophical idea of ‘alternate realities’ existing at the same ‘time’ may be nearer the truth, even though it blows our minds!) There are schools of interpreters who take differing views and so we will not join in but simply note the things John brings to us:

– Christ will come as a conquering king – the Second Coming (Rev 19:11-16)

– he will war against his enemies of evil and will triumph (v.17-21). Note the beast and the false prophet are thrown into the lake of fire (v.20) while all their followers are killed by the sword (word of God) (v.21)

– Satan is bound for a thousand years (20:1-3)

– during this time believers reign with Christ (20:4-6)

– Satan is then released, deceives the nations and they come against the people of God at Jerusalem, fire falls and destroys all his followers but he is thrown into the lake of fire (20:7-10)

– Then comes the final judgment (v.11-13) and unbelievers are thrown into the lake of fire to be consumed. Note there is no mention for them (only the previous three) of it being eternal.  Fire elsewhere in the Bible destroys unless otherwise shown (The burning bush, the disciples at Pentecost, the Beast, the False Prophet and Satan – these latter three being spirit-beings.) The rest of unbelieving humanity is thus destroyed.

– Following this(??) we are shown a new heaven and a new earth (21:1) When he says the first have ‘passed away’ that doesn’t need to mean destroyed but simply moved on from. It is not that the present heaven is inadequate, more likely that the new heaven is simply heaven with a new flavor, if we may put it like that; it is filled with the redeemed and there is sense of conclusion to the initial salvation or redemptive purpose of God. The ‘new earth’ – still distinct from ‘heaven’ is thus presumably still a physical existence for the redeemed people to enjoy. Whether there are dual existences available for the people of God to enjoy, in both heaven AND earth, only time will tell us.

– This new existence is free of suffering (21:4) where God dwells with His people (21:2, 22-26) and all sin has been removed and destroyed (21:8,27)

– Further it is a place (existence) of life and light and abundance (22:2-5).

Certainties: We have already noted that physical death (the ‘first death’) is the cessation of physical life and is the destiny of every single human being. Yet there will be a resurrection of all the dead (Rev 20:13) to stand before the throne of God in the Final Judgment (20:12). Only Believers’ names are written in ‘the Lamb’s book of life’ (Rev 3:5, 13:8, 17:8, 20:12,15,  21:27) and they alone are saved for eternity. The rest, who refuse to believe and so live an ungodly and unrighteous lifestyle (21:8, 22:11,15) are consigned to ‘the second death’ (Rev 2:11, 20:6, 21:8).

We may thus summarize all this, these certainties, as:

–  all godly believers are saved and saved for a glorious eternity,

–  all ungodly and unrighteous unbelievers will be destroyed.

And So?  The offer is clear in Scripture – eternal life and a wonderful existence with God for those who will turn to Christ – but so is the warning – rejection and death for all who reject God’s offer.  Rejoice in the wonder of the offer; tremble for those who disregard it. Amen.

12. Uncertainties of Provision (2)

‘Living with Uncertainty’ Meditations: 12. Uncertainties of Provision (2) 

2 Kings 2:9   Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me, what can I do for you before I am taken from you?” “Let me inherit a double portion of your spirit,” Elisha replied.

And So: As I suggested in the previous study, I suspect virtually all of us in the West take for granted the ease with which we can get hold of food, drink, etc. and I went on to examine some of the ways the Bible shows God supplied for some of His saints in the Old Testament period. However, and I don’t know if it came out clearly enough in that study, provision is directly tied to need and need invariably involves uncertainty, as we are finding out today. (I stood in a queue for ten minutes recently waiting to do my usual weekly shop while security guards let people out to let people in!) Yet there is another side to this which we will shortly move on to consider in the next study after we have first picked up on that other amazing prophet, Elisha, who followed on from Elijah, and in a similar fashion observe how need and provision go together.

Elisha’s Provision: Let’s first note how God provided for him:

– he asked for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit (2 Kings 2:9) and apparently got it.

– he was enabled to cleanse a polluted spring (2 Kings 2:19-22)

– he receives God’s protection of his reputation via two bears! (2 Kings 2:23-25)

– he brings reassurance to Jehoshaphat and Joram against Moab (2 Kings 3:14-19)

– he guided a widow into a miracle of provision of oil to cover her debts (2 Kings 4:1-7)

– he was given hospitality in Shumen (near the Jezreel valley, south of Nazareth) (2 Kings 4:8-10)

– he promised a son for the woman there, which she had (2 Kings 4:11-17)

– he raised up her sick (?dead) son (2 Kings 4:18-37)

– he cleansed some poisoned cooking (2 Kings 4:38-41)

– he fed a hundred men with only twenty loaves (2 Kings 4:42-44)

– he brought about Naaman’s healing (2 Kings 5:1-19)

– he retrieved a lost axe-head (2 Kings 6:1-7)

– he blinded the Aramean army at Dothan (2 Kings 6:8-23)

– he foresaw and withstood arrest (2 Kings 6:30-33) and prophesied provision (2 Kings 7:1-20)

– he prophesied a seven-year famine and protected a woman (2 Kings 8:1-6)

– he prophesied over Hazael his future as leader over Aram (2 Kings 8:7-15)

– he instructed prophetic anointing of Jehu to be next king (2 Kings 9:1-13)

– on his deathbed he prophesied over Jehoash limited victory (2 Kings 13:14-20)

An Aside: When we compare Elijah and Elisha, it almost seems that Elijah’s reputation is eclipsed by that of Elisha, for Elisha was clearly a miracle-working prophet in a way that Elijah had not been. Nevertheless Elijah’s reputation stands having been the one who had stood in the face of Ahab’s wickedness and the presence of the prophets of Baal and is clearly honored by the Lord as he is taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire. Yet his ministry seemed to slide away after his apparent breakdown after the Carmel victory and we saw the Lord provided a successor for him in the form of Elisha, and only used him a further three times (items 10 to 13 in the list in the previous study). There seems to almost hang over him an element of failure that restricted his ongoing use. Now what is beautiful is that on the Mount of Transfiguration with Jesus, we see that it was Moses and Elijah (summing up the Law and the Prophets?) who were seen with Jesus planning his departure (Lk 9:31). Was it that because there had been an element of failure hanging over both men (Moses having blown it with the water out of the rock) that the Lord in his grace has both men seen in this honored role, as if to say, ’These are my honoured servants, even if they didn’t always get it perfectly right’ – an act of amazing grace?

Times of Need: Now we have said that miracles happen in the face of need and need is so often about uncertainty. Put the other way around times of uncertainty reveal a need and a need is an opportunity for God’s glory to be seen. Now let’s go back over those instances of provision in Elisha’s ministry and now observe the uncertainty and the need that provoked the provision:

– Elijah is going, Elisha is uncertain as to how to proceed, he needs reassurance.  (2 Kings 2:9)

– a spring is polluted and unusable (2 Kings 2:19-22)

– his reputation is at stake (2 Kings 2:23-25)

– the two kings need guidance (2 Kings 3:14-19)

– a widow is in financial need (2 Kings 4:1-7)

– he needs a base, somewhere to stay (2 Kings 4:8-10)

– the woman is childless (2 Kings 4:11-17)

– the son has apparently died (2 Kings 4:18-37)

– the cooking has been poisoned (2 Kings 4:38-41)

– there are a lot of hungry followers with no provisions (2 Kings 4:42-44)

– Naaman has leprosy (2 Kings 5:1-19)

– an axe-head has been lost (2 Kings 6:1-7)

– the Aramean army at Dothan threatens him (2 Kings 6:8-23)

– he is likely to be arrested and killed (2 Kings 6:30-33) there is shortage(2 Kings 7:1-20)

– a seven-year famine is coming and the woman will be affected (2 Kings 8:1-6)

– the remaining ones were all about knowing the uncertain future (2 Kings 8:7-15, 9:1-13, 13:14-20)

Go back over this list and catch a sense of the uncertainty that would be prevailing in each and every case. These things range from providing food and finances, finding lost articles, bringing guidance, bringing childlessness to an end, bringing new life to the dead, making food or drink usable, dealing with enemy threats, and making the future clearer. It is perhaps one of the most remarkable periods of Old Testament history that reveals the Lord who is a provider. The New Testament equivalent with some remarkable similarities is, of course, the ministry of Jesus in the Gospels.

And us? The challenge here is that we are shown a God who clearly delights in moving in and through His servants to meet the need of the hour and remove the sense of uncertainty that hangs over it. Dare we step into the arena of belief and confront and put to death our unbelief and ask the Lord to enlarge our faith so that we bring every area of our daily needs to Him – expectantly!  May it be so.

1. Introducing Uncertainty: “Follow Me”

I am taking the unprecedented step on this Blog of interrupting the series on ‘Revisiting the Ten Commandments’ (which I hope we’ll come back to after Easter) to specifically present a series I started writing recently, more for my own benefit than anyone else’s, about ‘Living with Uncertainty’. I didn’t start it initially with Coronavirus in mind, but it does somehow seem applicable in the light of that. For those who like short, snappy meditations each morning, may I suggest the times call for eating more than breadcrumbs each day.  (Sorry!) May I invite you therefore to join me on this walk with the Lord which, someway in, I confess has already blessed me somewhat, in these very uncertain times.

PART ONE: General Ponderings on Uncertainty and Certainty

‘Living with Uncertainty’ Meditations: 1. Introducing Uncertainty: “Follow Me”

Mt 4:19,20 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” At once they left their nets and followed him.

Introduction: It may be the age we are living in – post-Brexit in the UK, and the advent of coronavirus across the globe, pre-another Presidential election in the US – but it seems more and more people are expressing concerns about the uncertainty of modern life and are worrying about it. As we are also approaching Easter it has set me thinking about how, contrary to the beliefs of many Christians, uncertainty is at the heart of the Christian life. It is certainly no more than that which non-Christians suffer but it is there and it is a different sort of uncertainty, brought about by the very real aspects of the Bible story and how it is worked out in our daily lives. Wonderfully, and I hope we will see it in these studies, this uncertainty is underpinned by a certainty that is inexplicable yet cast iron sure.  As I watch Christians around me struggling to cope with the uncertainties of the coming of the Coronavirus, or even with the various trials that come through modern life, I perceive what I believe is an inadequacy of holding a correct biblical view that should help them. It just doesn’t seem to be there and so for many, the uncertainties of life and also of the Christian life in particular, causes worry and anxiety and simply quoting Bible verses doesn’t seem to help. It is this sort of thing that I believe we should thinking about in more depth and be addressing in this series running up to Easter.

The Uncertainty of Discipleship: Because we rarely seem able to truly identify with the early apostles we are also unable to comprehend the true nature of the discipleship to which they, and we, have been called.  I wrote elsewhere recently, “Letting Jesus go ahead sounds the simplest description of being a disciple. I mean, it was the only thing the first disciples were called to do – follow me. Where Lord? That doesn’t matter, I’ll show you, just follow me. And he went ahead. Lord, what do you call us to do? That doesn’t matter, you’ll know when the time comes and you find someone or some situation before you that I’ve led you to, just follow me and watch me, sense what I want to do – through you – and do it. It will be that simple, just follow me.  And that’s what they did!

It WAS that simple but compare their lives as disciples from what they had been. Some of them had been fishermen and the only thing that governed their lives was the weather. As long as it allowed them, they went out on the Sea of Galilee and fished. No problem. One of them was a tax collector who probably sat in a tax booth collecting taxes; easy! Then Jesus says come, follow me, and there is something about him that compelled them to go on this nomadic life of ministry, and it’s quite clear that most of the time most of them hadn’t a clue where they were going and what was going to happen. I hope we’ll be able to see this as we observe the final weeks before Easter.

We often laugh about the way the apostle Peter only opened his mouth to change feet, but that was simply an expression of his uncertainty, of what was happening. Remember when Jesus started telling them about his impending death. Peter’s response? “Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!” (Mt 16:22) Ooops! To be uncertain means to be unsure and Peter is seriously unsure about the will of God. Oh yes, our uncertainty can manifest itself in apparent certainty, that’s how we handle it like Peter here, but our certainty is wrong. That’s the wrong sort of certainty. But then, God doesn’t work like that, we say, or God doesn’t do that sort of thing! And so often we’re wrong! He does. Handling uncertainty means growing up, becoming mature in understanding.

So why are we surprised when suggestions like this arise, that the Christian life is a life of uncertainty? Why are preachers so specifically confident and so adamant about the nature of the Christian life, that it’s all good stuff? It is but not in the way we so often think! And yet, how easily, I wonder, do we read Paul’s words, For we live by faith, not by sight,” (2 Cor 5:7) and think that’s easy. But  the reality is that most of us prefer to know what we’re doing, where we’re going, yet Paul tells us the life we live is to be one in response to what God says, not only what He says in His word, but also by what He says by His Spirit, and if we dare be honest, that isn’t always easy. We struggle with this concept, I suggest, because of our insecurity; we only feel secure when we can see what’s happening, we haven’t learned to trust God when the sky seems to be falling on us!

The Core of the Faith: What we’re talking about here are the fundamental basics of the Christian Faith. We follow a God we cannot see but who somehow has communicated to us in the crises of life and drawn us to Himself. Yes, we have His word but there is so much of it that we don’t understand for the moment. Trials and tribulations of life come along and we get overrun by the negatives that pull us down, cause anxiety and so on.

Learning God’s Ways: Moses once asked God, “teach me your ways so I may know you and continue to find favor with you.” (Ex 33:13) That’s what was going on while the disciples went with Jesus, they were being taught God’s ways, not in any formal way but in an on-the-job-and-life way. Before understanding comes trust and they were learning to trust Jesus, that he knew best and he was for them. I suspect they didn’t realize that this was what was happening, but it was. And that is so often true of you and me. Life is uncertain, the world is uncertain, but in the midst of it all Jesus is trying to teach us that he is in charge and uses both the good and the bad to work out the Father’s purposes, and even if we don’t understand – as so often we don’t – that’s how it is, so rest in his love.

And Us? So as we come to the end of this first introductory study, may I invite you to pray? Just recently, not only with the things going on out there in the world, but things that were happening to me, I confessed to the Lord that I felt like I was a cork bobbing around in the sea of uncertainty, but then as He drew near, I suddenly realized that the truth was that I was bobbing about in His love and, as a friend put it, changing the analogy, he was there in the boat with me. Awesome! So can you pray that, thanking Him that if life seems uncertain, the truth is that you’re in His love and even more, in the storms of life, he’s there in the boat with you? Can you declare that in prayer and praise him in the midst of it all? May it be so. Let’s think some more about these things in the weeks running up to Easter.

4. Command One: Only One God

PART TWO: First Four Commandments – about God

Revisiting the Ten Commandments: 4. Command One: Only One 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.

Ex 20:3 You shall have no other gods before (or besides) me.

And More: There is a further historical dimension to our starter verses above, that we have been considering. It is found in verse 2: “who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” Now, perhaps, we will shortly be able to see why the first of these ten commands is so important. All the knowledge of Him that we pick up in the Bible, (and I realize this is a much bigger topic) is that He is one, He is the Creator of all of existence, He is all-powerful, all-knowing and all-wise and He is eternal and, of course, He communicates.  These are some of the minimums that come through in the Bible about Him. It also declares that He is love, He is good, He is holy, and He is perfect. In other words He is utterly different from any of these other ‘gods’ we soon need to be considering.

Historical Context: Now He can now be identified as the one who delivered Israel miraculously out of the hands of the most powerful despot in the world, from Egypt. In earlier meditation No.2 we emphasized the need to observe the historical context when approaching these laws. That is especially important with this verse. The law is simple and straight forward in this first command: God says, “You shall have no other gods before (or besides) me”, i.e. “I am God, there is only one of me, so don’t worship anyone or anything else,” but it comes in the context of a people living in the midst of a nation where ‘gods’ proliferate!

‘gods’ of Egypt: Bear in mind Israel had only recently left that fear-driven, superstitious nation, Egypt, which we are told had over 2000 ‘gods’. Many had similar characteristics and appeared all over the country but with different names.  Birds, crocodiles, snakes, turtles, frogs, cattle, dogs, cats and other domesticated animals were considered to be the living images of a particular god or goddess. One historian declares, ‘All parts of life were covered and there were gods for beer, plants, digestion, the high seas, female sexuality, gardens, partying etc.’

The best-known gods of Egypt we may have heard of – Ra, the god of the Sun, the most important god, lord of all the gods. He was usually shown in human form with a falcon head, crowned with the sun disc encircled by a sacred cobra – judge of the dead, and father of Horus, god of the sky (the Egyptians believed that the pharaoh was the ‘living Horus’) – Tefnut, goddess of the rain – Anubis, who guided the dead to the next life via the court of Osiris in the Underworld – Sobek, god of Nile who had the head of a crocodile, and many others (followers of ‘The Mummy’ films will know some of these names). But ‘gods’ appear all over ancient history.

‘gods’ of Canaan: In Canaan, gods we come across in the Bible were Asherah, the walker of the sea, a mother goddess, Baal, god of fertility, Dagon, god of crop fertility, Molech, god of fire, and there were also many, many others. A simple Google search reveals that virtually every nation had ‘gods’.

‘gods’ of Greece & Rome: Later in history we may be more familiar with the Greek gods – Zeus, god of the Sky – Hera goddess of marriage, mothers and families – Poseidon, God of the Sea – and so on. Following them, the Romans with their gods, mostly the same but with changed names, for example, Zeus, the king of the gods, the ruler of Mount Olympus, and god of the sky and thunder, Pallas Athena, is the goddess of wisdom, courage, inspiration, civilization, law and justice, Mars was the god of war, Aphrodite is the Greek goddess of love, beauty, pleasure, and procreation, and so on.

Characteristics of ‘gods’: A study of such gods shows us six things:

  • First there were lots of them! In fact there were gods for any and every situation or feature of the world.
  • Second, they created or maybe were the result of superstitious fear, the insecurity of living in a changing and uncertain world.
  • Third, they were never benign, it seems; they all required some form of appeasement.
  • Fourth, when these gods took human form, or were thought of as being in human form, they also took on human foibles and struggled and fought with one another and did not have humanity’s best at heart!
  • Fifth, and this becomes very significant as we move on, the idea of the existence of such ‘gods’ meant that humanity’s attitude towards them was one of superstitious subservience.
  • Sixth, because we know that such secondary beings are purely expressions of superstitious imagination, there is never any way to measure the reality of interchange between a human being and a ‘god’. Indeed one wonders if there was really any real relationship involved. (how can there be a two-way interaction with a carved block of wood?)

And then: When we come to the Bible. We see A God who reveals Himself, first to the Patriarchs and what became Israel, and then to Moses and then to all of Israel but, as we’ve already seen He is utterly different from any of these other ‘gods’ we have just been considering.

The call to follow Him alone is surprisingly, and contrary to the crusading atheists claims, a claim to be free of superstition and a call to come to One who will bring love and goodness and security. For Moses and his people they already knew something of Him as revealed through His dealings with the Patriarchs and now recently His deliverance of them from Egypt. He was a God who appeared to want to be friendly, a God who had the power to deal with enemies on one hand and bless His friends on the other.

And So: Everything we know of these other ‘gods’ makes us want to shy away from them and their demands and the superstitious fear-filled life, and everything we come to know of Him says here is One who we would be foolish to reject. It is only that self-centred and godless propensity that we all have, which the Bible calls Sin, that makes us suspicious and fearful of Him.

It also makes us want to stand on our own two feet and foolishly think we can cope in life without Him, hence the popular ‘Don’t you tell me what to do!’ attitude that is the common expression of the rebellious aspect of Sin. In the folly of Sin we cannot believe that this God, who claims to be the one and only God, is loving and good and desires the best for us. But that, as we say, is the folly of Sin. The call to “have no other gods beside me” is, in one way, a common-sense call in accord with reality because there is NO other God, merely the imaginations of superstitious fear. Away with it!

But why, we might ask, do people have all these ‘gods’? Because it is such a big question, we will wait until the next studies and examine the nature of the working out of this superstitious fear seen in the form of worshipping idols. We will then compare this to the nature of God and then the nature of sinful mankind that turns to such things.

Application: May I suggest we conclude this study praying something like, “Lord God, you are so great that you defy my imagination. I confess my mind cannot comprehend the greatness of One who is all-powerful, all knowing and all-wise, and yet you have given us your Word, almost as if to attract us and get our attention, to reveal something of yourself to us. Forgive us Lord that we treat it so casually and so often give so little thought to what we find in it. Lord I need your help to see these things in a fresh light that will break through the confusions of limited understanding. Please help me. Amen.”

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.”

Snapshots: Day 119

Snapshots: Day 119

The Snapshot: “this Book of the Law … meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it.” (Josh 1:8) He’s an army general for goodness sake! What does he want with reading the Bible?  That’s what a big bunch of people have thought down through the centuries but there are whole group of other people who have sat for half an hour or so each morning with a Bible in their lap as they imbibe the sweet presence of the author of it and somehow, in some inexplicable way, the varied writings of this book, make sense or leap at you with life-giving insights, or glimpses of another world that brings life and meaning to this one, and day by day they are gently transformed. Meanwhile the others stay bored, unfulfilled and lacking. Funny old world.

Further Consideration:  For Joshua, the Law that had been received forty years earlier at Sinai, was to be the foundation of his leadership. Next to being aware of the Lord, turning to Him, sharing with Him and listening to Him, this revelation, the Law, was to be the anchor that held him and kept him steady.

Yes, that intimate relationship with the Lord, that practice of contemplation, of waiting upon Him in silence perhaps, listening for the still small voice of the Spirit, that is to be the base experience of every Christian (if only it was!) but that, as a friend of mine warns me regularly, can be subjective and we have to avoid being led astray by our own thoughts and wishes, and so the check, the balance, is to be His Word that never changes. For us it is far more than just a few chapters of what became the Pentateuch, it is the whole Bible but with a special emphasis on the New Testament that testifies to the work of Christ, the implications of that work, and how it is to be worked out in our daily lives for however many years he allows us to have in this present life.

For Joshua there were the scrolls on which Moses had written the original Ten Commandments, then the laws found in Ex 21-23 but then many more that Moses had added that are found not only in Exodus (those of which are mostly about the Tabernacle and the Priesthood) but also in Leviticus and Numbers as well as all the reminders and confirmations of Deuteronomy. Oh yes, Moses had been busy! Probably they were not only the ones given on Mount Sinai (see Lev 1:1,26:46, 27:34) but were added by Moses (see Num 7:89),  who spent much of his time in in the Lord’s presence (as Joshua had also done) in the Tent of Meeting, the Tabernacle. See how many times in Leviticus, for example, the words arise, “And the Lord said to Moses…” Oh yes, Joshua had a lot of reading to do – and so do you and I. History tells us that the Lord has gone to great trouble to give us the book. Let’s not ignore it.

43. God of the End Game (1)

Getting to Know God Meditations:  43. God of the End Game (1)

2 Pet 3:7   the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly.

2 Pet 3:10  But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare

2 Pet 3:11-13  You ought to live holy and godly lives 12 as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. 13 But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells.

Limited:  Perhaps there is no greater untruth that the human mind has held onto than, “This is all there is and this is all there ever will be.” In science, once upon a time, there was the belief that everything that is had always existed, but now scientists believe in a beginning. In the world today there are rumors of doomsday scenarios, the definition of which is, ‘an extremely serious or dangerous situation that could end in death or destruction.’  The possible end of this world has, in recent years, become a topic of frequent conversation. Interesting!  No longer is that untruth held so strongly.

Throughout the Bible the are many clear references to both the beginning and a purposeful end to all we know, and it is clearly by the design of God. The duration of this world is thus seen in the Bible as limited, and increasingly the world is agreeing with that.

Work of Mankind? The question that must lurk behind all this talk is, is the beginning and the end a work of chance (beginning) AND of mankind (ending) or are both the design and will of God? In the ‘doomsday discussion’ the environment features largely, population explosion used to be but not so much now, but other ends at the hands of mankind also now feature largely: the continuing threat of nuclear holocaust and terrorism (may be one and the same thing, very high probability), robotics & human destruction (the Matrix scenario), ‘Star Wars’ weaponry and warfare (growth of technology to kill which, in the wrong hands may be devastating), cyborg lives (technology within the body changing us out of all recognition), superhumans (intellect/memory enhancement, ditto with all the ensuing problems, social and economic), biological pandemics (on purpose & accidental). All of these things in one form or another have in recent years become possible realities, realities that end the human race and possibly the very existence of the planet.

Work of God? When we turn to the Bible, the last book, Revelation, which is mostly a prophecy of the ‘end times’ and ‘The End’ confirms the probability (not merely ‘possibility’) of large scale destruction, seen as angelic prophetic figures apparently bring destruction, for example, “I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him. They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth.” (Rev 6:8) War, famine and plague are observable features of history, one thing leading on to the other so that when the population is wiped out, wild animals roam the earth unhindered. We also read later, “A third of the earth was burned up.” (Rev 8:7) When I was young I could not think how such destruction could be but in my lifetime so much has changed that it is easy to conceive it now.

But is God the instigator of these things, and how do they come about? Well clearly, as we have been considering with the talk of doomsday scenarios, these are all the work of mankind. What the Bible does show is that sometimes, mankind seems to get to such of rebellion against God that we find the words, “God gave them over to…” (Rom 1:24,26,28) suggesting that His acts of judgment often take the form (and we see it again and again in the book of Judges) of Him lifting off His hand of restraint so that mankind is given the freedom to do exactly what it wants – and that ends up being self-destructive – but it is our choice! The book of Revelation is, remember, pure prophecy and prophecy is sometimes literal and sometimes figurative. The angels cited above may or may not be figurative but the outcomes, we have just demonstrated, could be the work of mankind and the destruction literal.

A Glooms-day Scenario? Is this just gloomy talk or is there something more here? May I make a suggestion which I don’t think is expressly stated in the Bible yet I believe is clearly there. Again and again God sets up mankind to live and be blessed but each time the consequences of free will mean that Sin (self-centred, godlessness leading to self-destructive living) prevails. We see it in the beginning and we see it in the establishing of the nation of Israel that we have considered in earlier studies. Israel went into hiding for two thousand years (see Rev 12) but have now been restored to their land. With the development of science and technology, God has enabled us to provide for the whole world (if we will only use it for that) so that every human could benefit from it. That could have been the possibility but instead, the very presence of all these doomsday scenarios shows us clearly that we are more bent on destruction than on life and blessing and so John’s prophecies in the book of Revelation simply record that. Godless mankind, bent on doing their own thing,  appear bent on their own destruction. That unfortunately includes you and me!

Is that all? So is a burnt-out earth all we can look forward to? If aliens (should they exist) turn up in a hundred years, will all they find is a scorched earth, a devastated earth that so many films portray as a possible outcome? The Biblical prophetic answer of Revelation says definitely not but to see that we will need to move on into another study to be able to cover it in the required detail.

And So? So what are we left with? We have considered a scenario where God creates this wonderful world and us on it. To enable us to be human in the sense we know, not robots, thus able to be creative, loving, thinking, reasoning, etc., He gave us free will. The truth, that has been made obvious multiple times in the Bible, is that we have used that to do our own thing to the exclusion of God and whenever we do that it has destructive consequences, often allowed by God but motivated by us.  That sequence has been seen a number of times and appears to be in its final phase where the science and technology we have been given to bless the world is, in fact, being used by us to bring about greater destruction than ever before possible – our choice.

Nevertheless, godlessness still prevails and so the end will come either by the hand of God (which we’ll look at in the next study) or by the hand of man, permitted by God, but with a yet further goal in mind. The future holds questions marks but some things are clear from the Bible: first, it is not ‘out of control’, it is all happening by the permissive will of God; second, He has an ultimate ‘end game’ in mind which will be achieved; third, the duration of the existence of mankind on this earth is strictly limited; finally God’s intent is that there is yet to be something infinitely more glorious to come than we can possibly comprehend at the moment and this, too, will be the subject of the next study.