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.

Snapshots: Day 61

Snapshots: Day 61

The Snapshot: “On that day tell your son.” (Ex 13:8) Israel were given a duty, not just to remember what had happened to them, but to pass it on to the next generation and so on.  Testimony triumphs over the enemy (Rev 12:11), is the Gospel story in action, of lives transformed (Mt 24:14, Jn 5:36), and speaks of our experience of God (1 Cor 2:1, Psa 92:12-15, 1 Jn 1:1-3). It is one thing to teach the word of God to the next generation but it goes live in testimony when our children hear from our lips the wonder of our experiences – and of course that is the challenge, to ensure we have such a testimony to pass on. It is the reality of our faith that our children look for, not church going, not religiosity, but reality, God who has changed us and moved through us. Testimony!

Further Consideration: It is said – and rightly so – that each generation has to receive the Gospel for themselves, but that means that they must first hear it. God’s instructions to Israel were that parent should convey the good news about God to their children. We very often offload that responsibility to children’s workers in Sunday school, and rely on Children’s Missions to bring the challenge, but that is doing just that, offloading responsibility.

When our three children were small we used to have a family time on our double bed. We found a book of daily readings and each day they would gather on the bed and I would read one of these readings and then my wife would pray, and as they grew older we encouraged them to pray. Yes, they went to Sunday School as well, but we took on the responsibility. As they grew older we bought a new set of daily Bible Reading notes for children and did these for a few months. This seemed to pall and so I took an old portable typewriter and typed up daily reading notes that required them to answer six simple questions about a short passage, then three questions that checked understanding and finally a prayer. I produced, and we used these for several weeks and I began to realize I had created a job for myself and so as we approached the end of the month, suggested we go back to the professionally produced notes. “Oh no, daddy,” they all cried, “these are much better.”

Thus I started a process that I have carried on and developed for approaching forty years, but the point is that children are not put off the Bible if we make it relevant and personal to them. It becomes the foundation for their faith. Yes, it did take me time and effort but I have never regretted it and I have benefited from what they led me into virtually every day of my life since then. Reach into the Bible when your children are as young as possible, feed them with the truth and help transform the next generation.

38. Little Children & the Kingdom

Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 38.  Little Children and the Kingdom

Mt 18:3    And he said: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Of all the analogies we have considered, this is perhaps the most simple. It comes because Jesus’ disciples were wondering about greatness in the kingdom of God. It would appear from the Gospels that these discussions arose more than once and had a certain self-serving nature to them. (see also Lk 9:46, 22:24): At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (v.1) it is possible that Jesus’ earlier words about John the Baptist that we considered earlier in this series (see study 17) stayed with them: “I tell you the truth: Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” (Mt 11:11) It is also possible that Peter, James and John felt a little superior to the others, recently having been up on what we call the Mount of Transfiguration with Jesus.

Wanting to show them that pride was not a characteristic of the kingdom, “He called a little child and had him stand among them.” (v.2) This child is to be a visual aid to help them take in what he is about to say: “And he said: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (v.3,4)

The analogy is becoming like a child, and as this child stood there next to Jesus, trusting and unpretentious in complete humility, the lesson is clear. I fear that sometimes, when we watch ‘big ministries’ this lesson has not been learnt. I will always remember the description of the entrance to, I believe it was possibly, the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelisation in 1974 and the commentator noted all the ‘big names’ from around the world going in, some with their bodyguards (Christian leaders with bodyguards – what are we on about?????) and then he noted sitting among the crowd on the steps, chatting with onlookers, Dr. Francis Schaeffer. The rest were talking about it, Schaeffer in absolute anonymous humility was doing it.

That was what Jesus was talking about here and, as I said, I believe we often forget this. This ‘childlike’ attitude of submission and trust and humility is vital to any person coming to Christ. No man or woman can come to Christ and hold on to their pride. A rich young ruler approached Jesus on one occasion asking what seemed a good question: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Lk 18:18) and when Jesus asked him about the Ten Commandments, he replied, “All these I have kept since I was a boy.” (v.21) Jesus replied, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (v.22) Jesus saw that this young man relied on his riches and his position but neither are currency in the kingdom, only surrender, trust, humility and reliance on God for His salvation.

Once upon a time (and I am aware I have shared this story before in other studies, but it seems pertinent) when our three children were still small, we were on holiday together and desired to go to church on a Sunday morning. We were camping and so didn’t have ‘smart’ clothes with us but we were not looking scruffy – just not conventional by traditionalist church standards. Arriving just a few minutes before the start of the service we found this well-known church almost full and an usher tried taking us down to the front row that was empty. Having three children all under the age of eight with us, my wife asked could we be in a less conspicuous place. We ended up in the back balcony – about the same height as the preacher’s pulpit and had the sense when he was preaching he was aiming at us. It was the sort of church where everyone troops out at the end and shakes the hand of the minister at the door. The only trouble was that the minister was talking to one of his sidesmen and so when both my wife and I shook his hand he neither looked at us nor said a word of greeting. This ‘great man’ (for he was well known across that part of the country as a great preacher) would have done well to remember Jesus’ words here.

You cannot enter the kingdom of God without being like a child with these characteristics and these same characteristics are not merely for entrance, but are also supposed to be at the heart of the life that follows. ‘Church’ is not about looking good, fine sermons, good teaching, but is about being like Jesus and if he says being childlike is the criteria then we need to hold to that. Little children are, we said, trusting and unpretentious but we might also add they take people at face value, which is what Jesus did when he mixed with the tax-collectors and sinners. Little children don’t have high demands on other people, they haven’t learned to have high expectations of other people. I recently came across that all too familiar evangelical condemnation of the half-hearted recently. As much as we might wish for a church who are all going all out for Jesus, sometimes people are struggling with life and with their faith and looking down on them doesn’t help them. When I was a child I remember two friends who my parents weren’t happy about because of their family backgrounds and slightly absent ethical standards! However, as a child I just accepted them for who they were – my friends. I didn’t become like them although we did get into some scrapes together.

Why do I say these things? Because I have seen that people who do not exercise this childlikeness towards other people, also tend not to exhibit it towards God. Exercising faith is being childlike. Remember what we have seen in recent studies. Childlikeness towards Jesus means listening to him and taking what he says with simple acceptance and if he says, ‘step over the side of the boat and come to me’, we do that. If he says go and be encouraging to that person over there, that’s what we do.  If he says, pray over that person for the needs they have just shared with you, do that. Faith is simply a childlike response to the Lord. May he find that in us.

2. Bear Children

Meditations on “God of Transformation”: 2:  Bear Children

Gen 11:29,30 ; 12:1,2    The name of Abram’s wife was Sarai… Now Sarai was barren; she had no children…. The LORD had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you. “I will make you into a great nation

In the beginning of the Bible God says, Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.” (Gen 1:28) There are a few women who, perhaps because they fear childbirth or don’t want the bother of looking after a child, or want to put a career first, don’t want children, but most women at some time or other long to have a baby, and failure or inability in this respect is perhaps one of the hardest aspects of living in this Fallen World where things go wrong and sometimes women are barren. There are some notable women of whom it was written, ‘she was barren’ – Sarai (Gen 11:30), Isaac’s wife Rebekah (Gen 25:21), Jacob’s wife Rachel (Gen 29:31), Hannah (1 Sam 1:5) and Elizabeth (Lk 1:7).

Because we have the Bible it is easy for us to see these stories and see that God turned up for each of them and enabled them to conceive, at least two of them miraculously in old age. And this is at the heart of this – God’s ability where our ability falls short. In the first meditation we saw the wonder of God breaking into the material world that He had created and deists would have us believe that once He started it all off He stood back and had nothing more to do with it, but each of these stories of these women tell a different story; they tell us of a God who intervenes in human affairs and brings about a physical change in the most intimate realm possible, that of the process of having children. Not being a woman I flounder here but I suspect that this particular ability is the very thing that goes to the heart of being a woman, the ability to bear children, and if you are a woman of child-bearing age, you are reminded of it every month and it has profound emotional effects on you. There is nothing more wonderful, and therefore when it is denied, nothing so terrible.

In only one of those women do we find the cause stated as, “the LORD had closed her womb,” (1 Sam 1:5) in the case of Hannah. We would assume, rightly I believe, that in all the other cases, it was just a case of this is what happens in the Fallen World we’ve already referred to. But that raises a second matter in respect of God. We have already noted that He steps into the affairs of mankind but now we should add a word: He steps into the affairs of sinful mankind, mankind that often suffers because of the general presence of sin in the world. God does not just sit back in heaven and grumble like a grumpy old man, “Well you brought it on yourselves.” No, he comes into this fallen world and redeems us from the effects of this fallen world. He did it in respect of all the women we mentioned above and He did it in respect of all the crowds of sick and demon possessed people that flocked to Jesus to be healed – and “he healed them all” (Mt 8:16, 12:15, 14:36). Notice the word ‘all’ there. There are many other places in the Gospels where the word is not there but implied by the way healings were reported.

With the ministry of Jesus, what was is incredible was that God incarnate, moving amongst sinful human beings did not seem to run diagnostic clinics whereby he checked to see who had fully repented of their past sins, he simply healed all who came, including the selfish and those who would not bother with him again. This is the incredible grace of this Creator who brought this world into being, knowing that having been given free will, we would use it to turn against Him and yet He carried on and did it, building in a plan to redeem us through the death of His Son, the Son who would first dispense the power of God to whoever wanted it to be healed.

This is not a God who creates the world and then stands aloof at a distance; this is a God who creates His world and then becomes intimately involved with it, interacting with and touching these physical human beings, who may or may not respond positively to Him. He has the power to change things in this physical, material realm, the same power that brought it into being and He uses it to straighten crooked lives, put back together broken lives, mend fragmented lives, and heal sick lives. He prefers our cooperation and looks for our responses of love, but clearly He acts even in the absence of that . How incredible!

In Sarai’s case He would wait until she was well past child-bearing age and was clearly incapable of having a child – and then He enabled her to have one. Having spoken to the couple about it a number of times before He did it, the story clearly shows He was wanting their faith to develop, but more than that, surely He was showing them – and us – His love for them and His power that was not merely ‘spiritual’ but which operated in this material, physical world of which we are now part.

He appears to delight in changing it, bringing change to the defective lives that are the result of the Fall, and putting them back together as they were originally designed to be. How wonderful.

7. Families

Meditating on the Wonders of the Ten Commandments:  7. Families

Ex 20:12   Honour your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you.

Deut 5:16  Honour your father and your mother, as the LORD your God has commanded you, so that you may live long and that it may go well with you in the land the LORD your God is giving you.

Eph 6:1-3  Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honour your father and mother”–which is the first commandment with a promise– “that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.”

The fifth commandment moves from speaking about a right attitude towards God to having a right attitude towards people. Jesus summed up the Law with, Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: `Love your neighbour as yourself.” (Mt 22:37-39, being a combination quote of Deut 6:5 and Lev 19:18) The first four commands are about loving God and the latter 6 about loving everyone else (‘neighbour’ simply means everyone with whom you come in contact.)

But in starting to bring laws that protect humanity, this very first one is about the building block of civilization, which is under such attack today. If the Bible says Satan is a lair and a destroyer (and it does) then we should not be surprised that his strategy in the Last Days is to destroy the basic building block of civilization, families. How many families today in the West are missing a parent (mostly a father) and how many are torn by dissension as parents war against each other and children war against parents. We have ignored this command and we have ignored it at our peril.

The command is simple and straight forward: “Honour your father and your mother.” The big question is what does ‘honour’ mean? First of all it means to esteem or think highly of (see Prov 4:8). It is also in scripture linked with caring for or protecting (see Psa 91:15) and it certainly has a ‘respect’ element to it (Lev 19:3). Indeed the opposite of respecting and honouring might be considered to be cursing and the Law specified the death penalty for cursing your parents (Lev 20:9); that is how significant this is. Rank ongoing disobedience and rebellion also brought the death penalty (Deut 21:18-21), Those latter verses end with a significant, “You must purge the evil from among you. All Israel will hear of it and be afraid.” (Deut 21:21).

So honouring includes respecting, obeying, esteeming, caring for and protecting (these latter two apply more obviously in older age). Of course there are two sides to every relationship and parents are charged with loving and caring for their children and Paul’s instruction to fathers is not to be overbearing in disciplining them: “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.” (Eph 6:4) In passing, it is interesting to note that in the past forty years, say, the roles of fathers appear to have changed dramatically, sometimes for the worse and sometimes for the better. For the worse, many fathers abandon their children through separation and divorce. For better, many fathers take a much greater part in looking after and caring for their children. Where the father stays with the family, the picture of the distant Victorian father who has little emotional attachment to their children, is rare.

Now we have already indicated how important this simple command is to God by the references to the death penalty for cursing parents and for ongoing outright disobedience and rebellion resulting in a dissolute life (that’s what the Law indicates) but the second part of the command further shows this. In the original impartation of this command on Sinai, it simply says, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you.” (Ex 20:12) The apostle Paul spoke of this as “the first commandment with a promise.”  The promise is of ongoing blessing in their new land IF they followed this law. We have already referred to the family as the basic building block of civilisation and it most certainly was, in God’s eyes, as they settled in the Land.

In repeating this on the plains before they entered the Land, Moses slightly changed it to, so that you may live long and that it may go well with you in the land the LORD your God is giving you.” (Deut 5:16) which separates the original, “so that you may live long in the land,” into “so that you may live long” AND “ that it may go well with you in the land.” Length of life indicates God’s blessing generally and reference to going well in the land also implies His ongoing blessing on their life and security in the Land. However you look at it, God promises blessing on those who hold to this command and, by inference, curses those who don’t.

The apostle Paul expands this double promise to apply to us who don’t live in the Land to, ““that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.”  When he says, “that it may go well with you,” he is referring to the daily lives we live, under God’s blessing, and of course the latter part of the verse refers to length of life.

The message is very clear: family division that comes from children breaking away from their parents is NOT God’s will. There is a message here that many modern children would do well to heed. The cry of the defence is always, “You don’t know my parents!” True, but psychologists tell us that when children reach their teenage years they start to sense their uniqueness, i.e. that they are distinct from their parents, and they seek to show their independence. How they do that is all important and it is also important that parents give them space for them to become themselves. They can rebond with us when they have done this, but they do need to do this, and this is the danger zone when it comes to this command which still applies today!

Learning who you are, young person, does not mean you have to demeans or reject your parents. Yes, they were less than perfect but so will you be this side of heaven. Nevertheless, they were there for you (hopefully). If they weren’t then you have much greater need of the Lord’s grace to cope with that. Something I have observed over the years, is that the revelation of what the parent was going through sometimes helps. It doesn’t excuse them leaving you, but it may help in understanding and if and when they seek your forgiveness, it makes giving it easier. Don’t ever say, “I will never forgive them,” for you step out beyond the Lord’s love at that point. With God’s grace you can, as and when they come seeking it. Honour them by seeking God’s grace to be able to say, “I do” if and when they should come asking for forgiveness. This is a minefield in the present age, so don’t let the strategy and works of the enemy ruin your life. God’s grace is there to enable you to comply with this law, as difficult as that sometimes seems. Confronting with grace and talking through the past with grace, may bring a healing to your relationship and his life (it is usually in respect of the disserting father) and healing within the whole wider community.

Thank the Lord that His grace is available to us today through Jesus to counter the lies and works of the enemy who seeks to destroy our lives and communities. May we receive that grace to do that.

19. Young Men

Meditations in 1 John : 19 : Young Men

1 John  2:13,14    I write to you, young men, because you have overcome the evil one…..I write to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God lives in you, and you have overcome the evil one.

So we have thought a little about children and then about fathers, and so now we come to the third group in these strange verses in John’s letter, young men. Before we get to the two verses themselves, what do we know about young men? Let’s put aside some of the features of modern Western males and just consider them worldwide. What do we tend to see? We see young people pushing boundaries. They have life and vitality and are bursting to be themselves, unique individuals not in the mould of their parents. They dare things others would not dare. They dream dreams that have not yet been tempered by life. They have enormous optimism and self-confidence, and these days they often travel the globe in search of adventure. They are also often compassionate and caring and get angry over lacks of justice. The want to change the world!

So let’s look at what John says; “I write to you, young men.”  He could have written to girls, to husbands, to wives and so on, i.e. anyone else, but he chooses young men in the church (it is a letter to believers probably read out in church congregations).  Imagine them sitting among the larger crowd as a local leader reads out John’s letter. It’s a letter for adults and then, suddenly, no it’s not, it’s for us! What is he saying about us? “We have overcome the evil one”.

So what does that mean and why does he say it to young men? Hasn’t every believer actually overcome the evil one (Satan) when we turned to Christ and God rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son.”? (Col 1:13) Yes, but perhaps sometimes the battle to overcome doubts, fears etc., is greater in some to come through to Christ than it is in others.   Young people, and especially young men are a classic example. We said the young man naturally has self confidence and so much more that they are easy prey for Satan to play on all those things and keep them from coming to Christ. But these young men in the church have overcome his wiles and his temptations and have come through to a place of surrender to Christ, despite all else they naturally feel.

It is interesting to observe different people in different groups or professions or whatever else it may be, battle through the ways of the world and the wiles of the enemy to come to faith and what is especially interesting is that so often those who have come out of certain backgrounds are particularly strong in their faith once they have broken through. Oh yes, they were still sinners who needed the Holy Spirit to bring conviction, but nevertheless there are certain people who once they have come through appear to be more all-out for God. Perhaps this is the reason that John now says to these young men, “I write to you because you are strong.”  For a young man to break free from his culture and his friends and all his natural instincts, and surrender his life to Christ, it does require a certain sort of determination. This is the human aspect of the human plus divine parts of the equation that bring about salvation.

The apostle Paul might be an example of this. He had been a young man who was all-out for God in a religious way and had everything going for him religiously, but then he had his encounter with Jesus and was then as equally all out for God as a committed Christian – and was he committed!  Read 2 Cor 11:23-27 to see this!

These young men are commendable, and if we have them in our midst we need to commend and encourage them. “You are strong.” Yes of course they are; they had to be to have overcome the world and to now stand for Christ. “The word of God lives in you.” Yes it does; yes he does!  The word of God and the Spirit of Jesus living in them makes them strong. I’m sure John, if he had been with them, would have balanced it with, be careful not to get over confident: “if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! No temptation has seized you except what is common to man.” (1 Cor 10:12,13) but we don’t have to dot every I and cross every T; we can just be encouraging and John is being that for these young men. Do we do that for our young men or do we worry about their vulnerability all the time? Encourage them, bless them!

18. Fathers

Meditations in 1 John : 18 : Fathers

1 John  2:13    I write to you, fathers,  because you have known him who is from the beginning.

In these three verses John addresses three groups and he addresses them each twice. We have seen already how he has addressed ‘children’ and he gave two reasons for writing:   because your sins have been forgiven on account of his name,” and “because you have known the Father,” two aspects of the same thing, our salvation. We’ve been forgiven on the basis of what Jesus did on the Cross and now we have ongoing fellowship with the Father. We’ll see later his two words to ‘young men’ are also different, but when it comes to ‘fathers’ the words are identical (v.13a,14a).

Now what is it about ‘fathers’ that makes them different, and does John mean natural fathers or spiritual fathers? Well perhaps the answers to those two questions come in the latter half of the verse: “because you have known him who is from the beginning.” May we suggest there are levels of ‘knowing God’.  There is knowing about God which is about gaining information about him. Then there is knowing God, as a little child knows its father – you have encountered him and experienced Him and almost now take Him for granted; He’s there a part of your life and it is good that He is there, and you are aware of His love and His provision in basic ways.

But then there is a knowing that comes with maturity, that understands much more of who He is and reveres Him for who He is. We come to realise that ‘daddy’ (see Mk 14:36, Rom 8:15, Gal 4:6 – Abba is really ‘daddy) is Almighty God who is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-wise, the Creator and Sustainer of all things, the One who has always existed. This is the knowing of the father, the mature man or woman who has entered into a relationship with God at new birth and has come to realise the wonder of who and what He is in a much deeper way over the years.

But fathers, by definition, have brought children into the world. It may be physical children and it may be spiritual children, but whichever it is the father has moved into a place of responsibility. The father takes on a new heart for his children, a heart of concern, a heart that wants to provide for the children and protect the children and that is as much true for spiritual children as it is physical children. Having children brings about a new level of maturity because of all that goes with being a father. Yes, fathers get up in the middle of the night when the baby is crying and support their wives when they are having to feed the baby. Husbands take on a new level of responsibility for wife and child, a responsibility that care for, guards, protects and provides for them. All of this works to develop maturity which does not happen when there are no children. (I am aware that we live in days when some have chosen not to have children and these words are not meant to offend, but this is the reality of raising a family).

We might ask, why does John pick out these three groups and now, in this particular case, fathers, and why does he say the same thing to them twice. I would guess that if you were hearing this letter read out for the first time, and you were a father, you might suddenly prick up your ears and listen more intently, especially when you’ve been mentioned twice in a short space of time, and you might then consider how all that John is saying applies to you as a father.

John is passing on what he knows about Jesus and about the Christian faith. He is an old man and may not have much time left to him.  He is aware of the responsibility to pass on the truth. It was a responsibility that had been built intoIsraelfrom early on. Again and again when things happened, the Lord exhorted them not only to remember what happened, but to pass it on to their children and future generations. It started right back at the Exodus (Ex 10:2), and the Passover (Ex 12:26) and the Law (Deut 4:9,10, 6:6-9),  and Crossing the Jordon (Josh 4:6). Passing on the truth to future generations was inherently (and still is) the responsibility before God of fathers.

The closing verses of Psa 92 are pertinent here: “The righteous will flourish like a palm tree, they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon; planted in the house of the LORD, they will flourish in the courts of our God. They will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green, proclaiming, “The LORD is upright; he is my Rock, and there is no wickedness in him.” (Psa 92:12-15) Surely this must apply to spiritual fathers, those saints who grow old. They may feel limited physically but they can still testify to the truth that years of experience have proved to them: God is good; God can be trusted for He is an unchangeable foundation for us, One who is faithful and unchanging in His love and goodness and there is nothing bad in him! He is like this and always has been like this, right back to before the beginning of time! If we have reached old age, if we can say nothing else, we can say that! And it is true! Hallelujah!

17. Children?

Meditations in 1 John : 17 : Are we Children?

1 John  2:12    I write to you, dear children, because your sins have been forgiven on account of his name.

I don’t know if when we get to heaven, we’ll meet people we read about in the Bible. If I meet John I want to ask him why he wasn’t more clear in these next three verses, having caused commentators to scratch around with a variety of interpretations. Some suggest ‘children’ means all Christians and then ‘fathers’ and ‘young men’ (in the next verse) mean different levels of spirituality. Others suggest all three indicate different levels of spirituality. We’ll we’re going to meditate on them one by one and see what comes out.

At the start of this chapter John addresses his readers there as ‘dear children’, (2:1) which is what leads some to suggest chapter 1 is a general introduction explaining the need for the Gospel while chapter 2 moves on to speak to Christians specifically. Whatever the truth, this aged apostle speaks to his readers there from an elderly, pastoral standpoint, with a heart of concern for all God’s people.

Of course in the opening chapter of his Gospel, John wrote, to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God– children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” (Jn 1:12,13)  Belief, he says, brings about the right to be called children of God, and we are children of God because we are born of His Spirit (see also Jn 3:5) In the beginning of the third chapter of this letter, he writes, “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” (1 Jn 3:1) so if you are a Christian, have no doubts, you are a child of God!

Now what is the definition of a child? It is a young, young person, possibly recently born.  We have, we have already noted, been born again by God’s Holy Spirit; He made us anew when we received His Spirit.  Jesus taught, “I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” (Mk 10:15). What does that mean? Children are childlike in belief; they find it easy to believe. They are simple and straight forward in their belief. That is how we are to be. Take, for instance, that really challenging verse at the Last Supper: “I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these.” (Jn 14:12) The worldly, humanistic, rational mind tries to reason how this can be. Simple, childlike faith, says, “Right, if that’s what you say, Lord, what do you want me to do?” The apostle Peter was the classic example of this when he stepped out of the boat at Jesus’ simple instruction, “Come!” and walked on water. “You can’t do that,” the rational mind argues. No of course you can’t – unless Jesus enables you to!

But sometimes children worry. They don’t have the big picture and so they worry. Young Christians sometimes worry because, like Peter on the Lakewhen he took his eyes off Jesus, he began to sink. It’s a major learning curve being a young Christian, but young Christians also need reassurance about their behaviour, which is why John emphasizes, for “children”, your “sins have been forgiven.” Young Christians need to be taught and then reminded of the basics of faith and the most basic and fundamental issue of the Christian faith is that Jesus has died for all our sins, past, present and future, and we have been forgiven. This came up earlier in 1 Jn 1:9 with the assurance that, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and (will) purify us from all unrighteousness.” That is the fundamental heart of our faith and it opens the door up for us to fellowship more fully with the Father and not give up when we fail, but to pick ourselves up, confess our failure, receive afresh the forgiveness and cleansing that comes through the Cross, and then get on with what He next has for us.

The young believer has to learn that it’s not a case of getting up and trying to be a better person in our own strength or trying to impress God with how good we are. No, instead we are honest about our weaknesses or vulnerabilities and recognize that we need the ongoing working of the Holy Spirit within is to enable us to walk out in faith – as children of God.

It is all about relationship with the Father. John continues a few words on, “I write to you, dear children, because you have known the Father.” (2:13c)  Not only have we been born of the Father but now our life is one of knowing Him. That, we as Christians, may take for granted, but the rest of the world does not know it. Appreciate it!

It may be worth distinguishing between ‘children’ and ‘sons’ for often in the New Testament we are called ‘sons’ (women included). The reason behind this is that culturally inIsrael, a son (and especially the oldest son) took on the work of the father, carried on the family business.  ‘Children’ is just a recognition of our basic relationship to God our Father. When we start talking about ‘sons’ and ‘sonship’ we are talking about coming into a mature relationship with the Father whereby He shares his heart with us and we enter more fully into the ongoing relationship with Him whereby we perform the works of the kingdom, carrying on His business, as He leads us by His Spirit. That is the wonder of what we have entered into. We start out being little children, but the whole New Testament teaching is that we learn and we grow and we enter more and more into the purposes of the Father. Hallelujah!

1. An Unknown

Meditations in the life of Abraham : 1. An Unknown

Gen 11:26,29,30  After Terah had lived 70 years, he became the father of Abram, Nahor and Haran….The name of Abram’s wife was Sarai…..Now Sarai was barren; she had no children.

When you pass people in the street, do you ever wonder where they come from, what their background is and what they’ve been through?  We live in a world where celebrities, courtesy of the media, feature highly. If you were asked to list off fifty well-known names, you’d probably not have a problem.  However, the truth is that the vast majority of us are unknowns. If we are ‘anybody’ it’s probably because of our family. Families count for a lot. Some of us may have made our way through our education or through business or professional achievement, but for most, families do play a big part. It’s all right, actually, to come from humble beginnings and be a ‘nobody’ as far as the world is concerned. If we measure ourselves according to our family background and upbringing, we may truly be a ‘nobody’. If we measure ourselves on the basis of how much we have impacted the world, what we’ve achieved, we may, indeed, rate ourselves very lowly, but there is another means of measuring our value, and it is God!

Here is Abram, and he probably knows very little of God; in fact few people do at this time in history! It’s early days. Around the world the revelation of God is very limited. It is said that the Chinese had an early understanding of the God who is the Creator.  Most other peoples had a more superstitious, fact-absent set of beliefs. There was, in many, a sense that the world was more than just a material, senses-perceived existence, there was something more. Spirits? Demons? Things that needed to be appeased, things that needed bribing? It was early days as far as spiritual revelation was concerned. And Abram is a nobody who doesn’t know much, if anything, about God.

Well actually he is the eldest son of Terah, but that really doesn’t say much. When we first come across him in Genesis 11, there is no indication whatsoever that this is a man of destiny, a man whose name would become a household name to many. He’s got two brothers and he gets a wife called Sarai. His youngest brother has a son,Lot, and so far Sarai doesn’t have any children.  They live inUr, in the southern part of what we sometimes callMesopotamia, one of the so-called ‘cradles of civilization’.  Life just goes on year by year with nothing eventful happening. Time passes, and still Abram and Sarai don’t have any children. Eventually it is assumed she is simply childless.

This is all rather ironic because when Terah had had his first child, he named him ‘Abram’ which means ‘exalted father’. The implication is that Terah expected this son to carry on the family name, perhaps to be like him and have at least three sons of his own, a family at least, who would carry on the family name. But Abram doesn’t have any children because ‘Sarai was barren’. It’s the youngest of the three sons,Haran, who has a son,Lot, and thenHarandies. One way and another, this is probably not a very happy family.  So here we have this man who is a ‘nobody’, part of an unhappy family blighted by childlessness and a premature death. Not a very good scenario.

Perhaps, when you look back over your family life and background, you feel that it is similar to that which we’ve been describing. For many people when the stories are told, they realise their parents were not wonderfully happy, and indeed in many cases they actually weren’t wanted. In the nine months of being carried in the womb, all they had conveyed to them was worry, anxiety and fear. When they were born, it wasn’t a lot better. For many people childhood wasn’t a wonderful time of life. Teenage years were even more turbulent and a decidedly rickety launch into adulthood. And then the ups and downs of life hit. For some it is childlessness, for others divorce, for others unemployment, and the list could go on and on. Life is bumpy! Things go wrong! We live in a Fallen World when prevailing sin means our lives ‘break-down’.

And what are we left with?  Very often it is low self-esteem. Very often it is a feeling of being locked into circumstances, locked into my personal history, locked in to the sense of failure. In reality many of us feel we are a ‘nobody’. In reality our knowledge of God is strictly limited. In reality we feel we have no future worth mentioning. We just live.

This is where the story of Abram and Sarai brings hope. This is a story of a man who didn’t know God, who has an encounter with God, and has his life changed for ever. This story is about an embryonic relationship that forms with God, the ups and the downs of the life of this ‘nobody’ that makes him a ‘somebody’. This is all about the life transformation that can take place, because God turns up. Are you ready for God to turn up for you as you read through these incidents in Abram’s life, because that’s what this is all about?

Over the years my understanding of the story of Abram grew in stages. The more you think about it the more comes out. In the early meditations in this series I am going to write as if that understanding grows and develops. Join me with our exploration into this man’s growing experience of God.

17. Hold the Truth

Meditations in Deuteronomy : 17 :  Hold to the Truth

(Focus: Deut 6:4-12)

Deut 6:4,5 Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.

I did warn you that these are studies for serious seekers of the truth. You will only continue these if you really want to understand Deuteronomy, for there is such a solid repetition in this book that you’ll give up unless your heart is set to learn!

In chapter 5 we found Moses spelling out the Ten Commandments again followed by, These are the commandments the LORD proclaimed.” (5:22). Starting chapter 6 we found, “These are the commands, decrees and laws the LORD your God directed me to teach you to observe.” (6:1) i.e. he keeps on focusing his listeners on the Law. It is followed by a call: “Hear, O Israel,” (6:3) and now we are followed by exactly the same refrain. It is as if Moses is saying, “Israel, please, please, listen to me and take note of what I am saying.”

What is it that he wants his listeners to be so careful to take on board?   It comes in two simple parts.  First, “The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” This sounds so simple but it is profound in the face of what the rest of the world believed. All the surrounding nations had their gods and their idols. Moses says, “The ‘I AM’ who has revealed Himself to us is one God, for there is only one God!” As a starting point for belief this sounds simple but is so significant. It rules out all idol worship, worship of many gods. The second part calls us to love this one God. Note it is love, not fear. This call to love God is to be whole-hearted, from deep within expressed with all you have. Later in this chapter we’ll see descriptions of this One we are called to love and it should not be difficult to love one so described.

But then Moses does another call to hold on to these commands of the Law and he does it in a more detailed way than he has done previously: “These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.” (6:6-9). We noted in the previous meditation an earlier call along these same lines: “Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them slip from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them. Assemble the people before me to hear my words so that they may learn to revere me as long as they live in the land and may teach them to their children.” (4:9,10) That had been a call to remember and pass on “the things your eyes have seen” i.e. their testimony, and also “my words” i.e. the Law itself.

The present call is first to have these commands “upon your hearts”. i.e. as close as possible, even within you. They are not merely to mention them to their children; they are to Impress them on your children.” i.e. impact your children with them; make sure they are well and truly taught these laws. They are to talk about them in all areas of their lives with their children – when sitting, walking, lying down, getting up – these are laws that impact all of life and are to be explained in the context of all of life. Then he uses language that speaks of fixing them in their very psyche – tie, bind, write – ensure they are never going to be lost, never forgotten. Whether God intended them to do this literally we don’t know but conservative Jews still do this literally.

Then Moses considers the future, a future of abundant prosperity and blessing, and seeing that time he foresees a danger which is simply an extension of what he has just been saying: “When the LORD your God brings you into the land he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give you–a land with large, flourishing cities you did not build, houses filled with all kinds of good things you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant–then when you eat and are satisfied, be careful that you do not forget the LORD, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” (6:10-12). In other words, when you are settled in your new land and are prosperous, the temptation will be to forget God. You will think you are all right without Him. You are not!  Don’t forget the Lord and don’t forget what He has done by delivering you out of Egypt and into this fruitful land.

Within these verses we have considered today there are several clear instructions which we Christians today would do well to hold on to:

1. Realise who God is. Put content to your faith! Read the Bible and understand what you can about your Lord.

2. Love this God. Love is the currency of the kingdom, not legalistic rule keeping. Our following Jesus is to be an act of love.

3. In our affluence don’t forget God. In the affluent West it is so easy to think we are all right on our own. Everything is provided for us, we have so much. Who provided it? The Lord! We need Him just as much whether we have little or much.

These are simple but significant instructions and they apply as much to us today as they did to Israel thousands of years ago!