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.

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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

53. Awareness

The Wonder of the Church:  Part 8 – Counter Attack

53. Awareness

Mt 16:18  I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.

1 Pet 2:9,10  But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.  Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

More? I thought we had finished this series, at the end of the last Part, but  woke one morning with such clarity of something more, so we have to go on at least one more Part which is all about NOT being a passive, ineffectual bunch of religious people who are increasingly marginalized in this modern world. No this is about standing up and saying, “Enough! It is time to become who we were called to become.”  The studies you will find as we go through this Part are as follows:

  1. Awareness
  2. A Time to Regain Identity
  3. A Time to go on the Offensive
  4. Are we ready to fight?
  5. About ‘Attitude’
  6. Finally, regain Perspective

It starts with this verse from Matt 16 that the gates of Hades (or Hell) will not overcome the church. In such context the phrase “the gates of Hades” can be taken to mean Satan and all his forces, as one commentator puts it, “storming out of the hell’s gates in order to attack and destroy the church.” Now as C.S.Lewis sought to show in his “Screwtape Letters”, he seeks to do that in various ways and they are clearly observable today. Thus our starting point in this final Part must be to identify the ways the enemy works to seek to undermine and bring down the Church. Sometimes that is by big, all-embracing strategies that affect many at a time (usually the weak of faith) and sometimes it is by personal and individual attack. His end objective is to weaken, disarm, disable and dismantle the Church and to eventually destroy it. As we will see, a hopeless task!

The Ways of the Enemy: In a variety of ways, Satan strategizes to undermine and bring down the Church. First, on one hand, he seeks to encourage the atheistic crusaders of the twenty-first century who sought to rubbish the truth of the Bible, successfully in those who were weak in faith, but unsuccessfully for others as the Lord raised up His intellectual warriors to show the folly of the attacks.  (This is the ‘roaring lion’ attack – see 1 Pet 5:8).

Second, he seeks to encourage what is often referred to as the liberal wing of the church who downplay the veracity of the Bible and unwittingly undermine faith. This is the approach of ‘reasonableness’ and ‘logic’ which demeans the divinely supernatural and denies the truth that God speaks and acts into His world. (The is the ‘angel of light’ attack – 2 Cor 11:14).

Third, he seeks to make The Faith seem outdated and irrelevant in the face of the tidal waves of knowledge and science and technology. Fourth, in another deceptive strategy, he seeks to suggest that the modern world is so civilised and wise and all-knowing, that we no longer need these ‘outdated and superstitious folk tales from the past’. Unfortunately for him, the Bible truth still remains, “A man reaps what he sows,” (Gal 6:7) and so the fruit of this folly is observable in every area of life where men and women abandon God’s ways and God’s laws, and this is clearly visible for those who have eyes to see.

Fifth, especially in affluent Western societies, he seeks to make people so comfortable and secure in their affluence and tells them that they have been successful and so, again, don’t need these outdates rituals or beliefs. They can get by quite happily without them. He fails to remind them of Jesus’ parable of the two house builders in Matt 7 where we are reminded that temporary security is illusory without Christ, so when the crises of life hit – and they will – downfall will follow.

Futility of his efforts: History, ancient and modern shows that even though persecution comes, His Church remains strong and even thrives. The history of the church in China in the past hundred years is a classic example of that. While numbers in the church in the West decline, numbers of the church in China have spiralled, making it greater in number than the Communist Party of that country. In the West, leaders are qualified by education; in China they are qualified by having been in prison! Scripturally Jesus taught that God’s kingdom would grow and grow and grow and be the largest of all the ‘plants’ (Mt 13:32, Mk 4:32). In the West, while traditional denominations decline ‘new shoots’ thrive and increase in numbers. In that sense it is difficult to discern the exact truth of what is happening to the church.

Assessing the Reality: We have maintained throughout these studies that whatever the numbers, the overall signs are of a Church that a) so often is more concerned to maintain the status quo rather than constantly be pushing to expand the boundaries of the kingdom, b) so often is more concerned with managing buildings and institutions than putting much effort in reaching the lost, c) so often retreats into social work to appease a guilty conscience rather than train and send disciples to go out preaching the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, d) so often is more concerned with comfort and ease and constantly seeking personal well-being rather than sacrificially living out lives that reveal the wonder of the Servant-King, e) so often are more concerned with speaking carefully crafted words rather than moving in the power and anointing of the Holy Spirit so that, f) so often there is little fruitfulness in the reality of transformed lives that now reveal the light and the life of their risen Lord and move on in service in the power of the Spirit. .

And Yet: Yes, this is the truth, God still looks to us to play our part. Yes, Scripture does appear to show that the powers of darkness may yet have a field-day but despite that we are called to display the resurrected Christ in and through the life of the Church. If there is any truth in these assessments of the place and the state of the Church in these different places, the end call has to be the same. Are those right who suggest that the picture of the church at Laodicea in Rev 3 applies to this time? Are we lukewarm, neither hot nor cold? (3:15,16)  Are we deceived into believing we are rich while all the time (spiritually at least) we are “wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked”? Is Jesus writing off the Church in the West? Will the Church in China, or from other severely persecuted countries, be the light that the Lord will use to shine to the rest of the world in the end-time darkness?

A word of hope. One thing I notice about Jesus with his disciples, is that he often chided his disciples for their little faith (e.g. Mt 8:26, 14:31, 16:8, 17:20) but he never wrote them off. When Jesus scolded the disciples for having ‘little faith’, it was not to put them down but to challenge them to rise up in it – he continued giving them opportunities to minister and become more and more like him. May that be true of us in these days, and that I will be examining in the remaining studies.

Snapshots: Day 18

Snapshots: Day 18

The Snapshot: “the floodwaters came on the earth.”   Judgments are disciplinary (to bring change) or terminal, of the last resort (where nothing else will work). The floodwaters washed unrighteousness away, but even terminal judgments are never the end with God, for He always looks for a faithful remnant who will receive the protection He offers for any and all who will heed the warnings, to come through the cleansing and still bring hope to future generations.  No one need suffer a terminal judgment; it is always our choice, there are always warnings, always ways out, ways to avoid it – by simply accepting the wonder of a good world that God offers (and that is what He always does!)  Lord, thank you that you always act for our good and the good of your world.

Further Consideration: I said recently, a while ago I wrote a book, “The Judgments of a Loving God”, because it struck me that Christians either seem to have a rather worried feeling about judgment or sought to ignore it all together. And so I started a project to research all the judgments of God I could find in the Bible and concluded that there are in fact three sorts of judgment revealed in the Bible (although I rationalize them to two). The first are these ones – and they are the vast majority – that are clearly designed to bring changes in people, to get them to come to their senses, and so often it is simply a case of God standing back and leaving us to do our own thing which eventually results in us squealing our, “God, where are you? Please help us”. Disciplinary judgments.

Then there are the ones, much fewer, that end up in people dying, hence what I call terminal judgments but they are also ‘judgments of the last resort’, times where God, I believe, looks at the situation and concludes that nothing except the death of an individual or individuals will save the situation from deteriorating more and more until destruction would follow anyway.

In both cases God works to save His world, save people, draw them away from the clifftop where their very existence is under threat.  But then there are a very few in between, where the reasoning is not clear, and we are left just having to trust in God’s goodness that we see through all the others. He knew things we didn’t. He doesn’t make mistakes.

But, as I pointed out above, no one ever need die. That’s not what God wants. Remember the verses from a few days ago (Ezek 18:23 and also 18:32 & 33:11). We may so often be self-destructive, but God constantly works to save us from ourselves and from our sin.  That is constantly His unchanging plan of redemption.

Snapshots: Day 6

Snapshots of the Bible Story: Day 6

The Snapshot: “In the beginning… God chose…” Having chosen to redeem what would be, He (they) saw the only path open to them to satisfy justice, for the Son to step into mankind, be part of mankind, live and die as mankind and as God take the punishment of mankind. They saw the necessity for parting, for him to leave heaven, for him to be limited on earth, for them to sense utter separation as he carried the sins of the world on the Cross, for his walk into hell to complete the punishment, before a return was possible; they saw the horror of it all for themselves, the anguish in the sense of separation and, instead of rejecting all that,  they chose it. Why? Love.

Further Consideration: Most people don’t think about justice; we just take it for granted. It isn’t something that exists as a living entity but it is a concept that we human beings have, even if we so often ignore it, pretend it is not there or simply hope it will go away. But where did it come from? Surely beings that evolved, beings who survived by being the fittest, as we’re told, surely these beings have no such concept, for surely nature is ‘red in tooth and claw’ and the biggest and toughest survive or go to the wall. And yet, we have this concept of justice. The word ‘just’ is about fairness, unbiased correct goodness, morally and ethically, putting right wrongs, balancing out unfairness with fairness. Justice is the administration of that. We see it in small children when one cries, “Daddy, you’ve given her more sweets than you’ve given me. It’s not fair” There is an appeal to an imaginary rule that we should all be treated equally well, and when that is not so, we speak of injustice.

Now why is this such a big issue in the Bible? It is because since the Fall we have a world full of sinners, people who fall short of what is good, and that means any person who opens themselves up to criticism because of their behaviour. If we were able to see and record every wrong thought, wrong word and wrong act of any individual we would probably run out of paper doing it. We try and ignore this but in any other context we would say that “getting away with that,” is unjust. Big wrongs like murder or rape are easy to categorize but where to you draw the line when you come down the scale of wrongs and, as we’ve just said, if you go by numbers we are all failures, people who fell far short of what could have been. And there in the background, justice is lurking, calling for God to deal with these things. How can He save us? Is there one ‘big enough’ to save us all? There is; he is the Son of God.

Snapshots: Day 5

Snapshots of the Bible Story: Day 5

The Snapshot: “In the beginning… God chose…” And because they were all-wise and all-knowing, they looked into the future of the time-space world they were about to create and saw that freedom of will in mankind would mean freedom to reject, freedom to ignore, freedom to rebel, and because they were all-wise and all-knowing they understood perfectly the implications of that and the consequences that would follow – the wrong thoughts, words, and deeds that would follow, the guilt, the shame, the recriminations, and the demands of justice; and they saw the only way through, the way of redemption and, instead of rejecting it all,  they chose it.

Further Consideration: Amazing! “he chose us in him before the creation of the world.” (Eph 1:4) There are many people I think who feel that somehow God started off creating the world and then it got all out of hand, a total mistake on His part, but such people miss the testimony of the Bible that before God created anything at all, He (they, the Godhead, Father, Son and Holy Spirit) knew exactly what would happen if they created a creature with free will, that free will could (and would) be used to go its own way and that going its own way would have subsequent consequences.

An imperfect world? But surely it says, “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good”? (Gen 1:31) How could it be very good if it would go wrong almost as soon as it kicked off?  There is the incredible thing: the first ‘product’, the world as God initially made it was perfect and without a blemish, if we may put it like that. Yes, that was going to spoiled by the perfect beings He created and, yes, there would be a big chunk of what we call history where the behaviour of mankind would be far from perfect, and yet throughout that history, despite the awful behaviour of mankind, God’s goodness would continue to be revealed, right in the middle of it – that is what so much of the Old Testament is about. Our sinfulness would be the perfect background to reveal the wonder of the love and goodness of God.

And then, there would come a time when redemption was revealed and a new type of mankind would emerge, a mankind that would move into eternity, restored and glorious. Yes, the long-term plan was indeed good, allowing for free will, allowing for a fall, and a history of freedom to do what you will, but then also making space for redemption of whoever would hear, whoever would respond and be restored to a relationship with the Creator. This is the big perspective and the more you consider it the more there is to marvel at. This was God’s choice, the hard road. The easy road? Don’t create mankind with free will! Thank God He chose us.