16. Mystery

Short Meds in ‘Living the Life’: 16. Mystery

Rom 15:25 “the revelation of the MYSTERY hidden …. but now revealed and made known.” 

We spoke yesterday about wisdom and revelation imparted by the Holy Spirit, and it’s especially the word ‘revelation’ that seems to call so strongly now. Revelation as we said before is disclosed knowledge, knowledge that was previously hidden. The Revelation of John, for example, the last book in the Bible, is prophetic insight shared by Jesus to John (Rev 1:1) about how things will be in the last days. In 2 Sam 7 Nathan the prophet comes and gives David the big picture of the future of both the present and the future (v.4-16) and so we read, Nathan reported to David all the words of this entire revelation.” (v.17) In one sense the who Bible is God’s revelation to us.

Hindsight is both a blessing and a bane. Having the completed Bible as we do means we have the whole picture in our hands and that is a blessing, but that means we often miss the struggles that people in the Bible had. Paul spoke of the mystery of Christ (Eph 3:4, Col 4:3) or the mystery of the Gospel (Eph 6:19) or this mystery more generally, (e.g. Rom 16:25, Eph 1:9, 3:3,6,9, Col 1:26,27). Before Christ came there was this prophetic sense of a ‘coming one’, a messiah, but that was all it was, a shadow in history. The prophets longed to understand what they were sensing (1 Pet 1:10). We now know what it was. Let’s not miss out on the privilege we have of living in this time with this knowledge.

I wonder if that is how we see it – a privilege that we have of living in this present time with the complete Bible in our hands or on our bookshelves? But there we have it for so many, Bibles on bookshelves. They need to be in our hands for Paul wrote, that we are saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth.” (2 Thes 2:13b) i.e. we experience God’s salvation as the Spirit works in us and our faith builds up daily our ‘belief in the truth’.   When Paul spoke of a ‘mystery’ he was referring to the prophetic scriptures of the Old Testament that hinted at a coming one and yet it had come with different hues – he might be an abused servant, he might a mighty king (and of course he turned out to be both) that it was confusing for scholars. It needed the events to be rolled out in history and then spoken into the spirit of this out-of-time apostle before what had been a mystery became clear. The truth is that the word of God is a mystery to many, very simply because they don’t approach it in prayer and with a submissive heart, and so because it does seem a mystery, people fail to read it daily, fail to be fed by it daily, fail to be built up daily by it, fail to be transformed by it as the Spirit applies it. And so the enemy whispers, “It’s hard, you don’t need it, you can get by without it.” A lie, in fact three lies! It is the foundation of our faith and it is food for our faith and so without it we feel unstable and worry, we feel ‘thin’ and weak. I recently ran across a simple quote by a well-known Christian leader: “Anxiety comes from unbelief,” and I believe he is right and is why so many people are living in anxiety. They have not let God impart faith, confidence, and assurance through His word because they have kept the mystery book closed. Away with these lies, away with this folly. At times in history we have been known as ‘the people of the book’. May that be true again today as we cast off the negatives spoken in the world about it, and let God come again in both His Spirit and His Word and unshackle the Church.

15. To Know

Short Meds in ‘Living the Life’: 15. To Know

Eph 1:17 “so that you may KNOW him better.”

This was at the heart of Paul’s praying for the Church. As we go into the second half of January I want us to focus on our faith, things that shouldn’t just be for theologians or Bible commentators but should be part of the library of knowledge of every Christian that can act as a resource to help them to stand strong, walk more purposefully, and run the race more dynamically to the end. They are all about knowing God, knowing His plans, knowing what He has for us, what He has done for us, and is doing in and through us and will do for us as we go with him into the unknowns of the year ahead. 

But let’s take in this verse more fully. This was the apostle Paul who was saying to the Ephesians that he had been praying for them that Jesus would give them the Spirit of wisdom and revelation.” Note the positive, the definite article – “THE Spirit of….” All of the main versions have it; it is no accident. The suggestion must be that the Holy Spirit imparts wisdom (the know-how) and revelation (disclosed knowledge) to us, “so that you may know him better”. In other words knowing how it all works and being given insight behind the spiritual scenes, so to speak, will mean that we come to know, not only Jesus himself but all that he has for us. 

That ‘what he has for us’ is then spelled out in the next verses: “(i) the hope to which he has called you, (ii) the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, and (iii) his incomparably great power for us who believe.” (v.18,19)It is almost like Paul works backwards here as he spells it out: hope, which is about the future (tomorrow onwards) which is actually the inheritance, the birth-right of all children of God which is expressed as power to live and take us into eternity. ‘Knowing’ thus means experiencing him, knowing his life flowing in us that is being worked out in daily living.

So the life we live we live today is not about human endeavor, human effort, human activity, seen as rituals in church, rules to be followed and good things to be done, all motivated by the human mind, but our lives are Spirit-envisioned and Spirit-energized activity. But how does such thing work out in practice? I think it is what we have said so many times before, having hearts that are directed towards God, open and available to God, and obedient to God and which seek God in such ordinary things as praying and reading His word on a daily basis and asking the Spirit to fill us afresh daily. It is then that these things flow naturally in us.   

11. Big Vision

(we pick up again on this series we started recently)

Ways of Seeing Meditations: 11. Big Vision

Heb 11:13They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth.

Disappointments: Over recent decades, in the West at least, there has been a clear trend: many people have given up on church because its failures have become more clear. Yes, this is far from true for everyone and in various places life has abounded, yet for many it has still been true, many have dropped away, maybe not from belief in God, but belief in church.

For some shear repetition has become boring. For others the hurts, caused by thoughtless or insensitive people not being held to account, have created in many a cry that, “I do not feel safe here,” and they have gone. Others have had high expectations of what church should be, could be, but when those expectations, those hopes, never seemed to come about, a sense of disillusionment set in. Some even stepped out in new ventures, new approaches, but years on they find themselves with ‘the same old’, and are wondering.

Proverbs 13:12 declares, Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life,” or as the Message version puts it, Unrelenting disappointment leaves you heartsick, but a sudden good break can turn life around.Over the years I have watched and seen all the above causes why people drift away, and even experienced some of them myself.  I would expand this verse to, “when your hopes, dreams and expectations seem to come to nothing, it creates within you a sense of disillusionment, disappointment, and discouragement, but when that inner God-yearning is fulfilled, it releases a whole new creative energy and supply, a new resource by which to live as you enter into those hopes, dreams and expectations.”    

Faulty Sight (1): Now this creating of an army of not-quite-prodigals has, I believe, two causes and both involve faulty sight or a wrong way of seeing. The first of those failures is genuinely a failure to see what church should be and what it actually has become in the twenty-first century. The failure to see what church should be comes from a casual and sometimes defensive reading of the Bible. When we see great things happening after, say, the day of Pentecost, we excuse ourselves by saying, “Well, yes, but that was the equivalent of a revival where the power of the Spirit was obvious, but we’re not in such a time.” Well possibly not, but surely the characteristics of such a time should suggest to us that this is what God desires. The nature and characteristics of the church are seen throughout the New Testament, and even Jesus’ expectations of his church in Rev 2 & 3. I have written it elsewhere but I believe it bears repeating. I believe the New Testament portrays

“a church that is alive with the presence and power and revelation and activity of God by His Spirit, where God is truly honoured, where life and vitality, where fellowship and friendship, where power and authority, pour through the congregation, through this potentially wonderful ‘body of Christ’, bringing constant life transformations, with conversions, deliverances and healings being a regular feature of their life and the world is impacted and transformed”

If we respond defensively to such a vision then the answer must be that we need to pray and seek the Lord for grace and wisdom to play our part and for Him to come in power. The point in this study, is that many sense that this is what the church should be, could be, and seeing no one taking steps towards it, have become disillusioned and fallen away. 

Faulty Sight (2): The second of these failures, involving faulty sight or a wrong way of seeing, has been the inability to catch the big picture. Let me explain. Heb 11:13, our starter verse speaking of the Old Testament people of faith, reads, “All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth.” The JBP version of this is particularly good: “though they had seen them in the distance, had hailed them as true and were quite convinced of their reality.” So. I am utterly convinced of the reality of that stated vision above and that it is what is on God’s heart. However, the big picture recognises that these things only come about by the grace of God. While we pray for His grace and pray for His coming in power, we need to recognise various things: a) He is sovereign and they will only come when He releases His power, b) His timing is not always ours, and that sometimes means a call for patience and perseverance,  c) our part is to remain faithful, available, obedient, prayerful and still yearning for the vision while not being put off if it appears delayed.

Today: This is where I believe we are today nearing the end of 2020. In many places church numbers have continued to drop. In a few places they have continued to rise. In numbers there is a sense of disillusionment and in even more there is an accommodation of the world’s way of thinking for the same reasons as above. So two schools: the ‘it’s not working’ and the ‘but He’s coming in power’. Both are right and both are worth listening to, but in the meantime remain faithful, available, obedient, prayerful and yearning. These are the ingredients, I believe, the Lord desires in us while we wait in these imperfect days. May He find them in us. 

1. Introduction to Glory

Glory Out of Failure Meditations: 1. Introduction to Glory

Rom 6:6,7 (Msg) Our old way of life was nailed to the cross with Christ, a decisive end to that sin-miserable life—no longer at sin’s every beck and call! What we believe is this: If we get included in Christ’s sin-conquering death, we also get included in his life-saving resurrection.

A New View: I have in the past written a series entitled ‘Reaching into Redemption’ that considers how God is working to bring change, to bring transformation to each of us, and there is a sense that I feel this new series may cover similar ground. This series will not be long, about a dozen studies I believe, and will focus mainly on Old Testament characters, concluding with three from the New.

I write nearing the last part of 2020, a year that has been blighted by the Coronavirus pandemic, a year in which the world has been changed and the future is still uncertain. For the last two years in particular I have had a burden for the Church of the West in the twenty-first century, a church I am convinced that has almost been drowned by the tsunami of changes that the last century has brought. Some have predicted that it is the end of the church. I believe that, quite contrary to that, it has been a time of revealing the bankruptcy of mankind without God and the pandemic has been used by God to get Christians to start thinking in new ways. These ‘new ways’ are, I believe, in reality the old ways that the church has abandoned.

A New People: The boundaries between the world and the church have been blurred but God is not leaving that any longer; He is coming with a re-emphasis of the need for His presence, a need for His Spirit, and a fresh need to rely on and teach His word.  As we have been going through the pandemic experience with its uncertainties, the temptation has been to think we are just the same as everyone else, but we are not. During this time, several times I have come across the saying ‘We are in the same storm, but not in the same boat.’ In this time, we have been reminded again that we are God’s people with God’s resources, and we need to learn afresh to use them. This distinctiveness should be at the heart of our understanding. The apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthian church, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Cor 5:17)

His writings are peppered with this idea. Our starter verses from Romans 6 declare the truth expanded from the previous verse: “just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life,” (v.4) declaring it’s a new day, a new way. Paul also wrote similar things to the Ephesians: “you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live …. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ.” (Eph 2:1,2,4,5) We are not who we were!  We are justified, forgiven, cleansed, adopted, empowered, glorified.

Glorified? Definitions of ‘glorified’ include ‘invest with glory, to praise the glory of God, especially as an act of worship’, and yet Paul, again, declared, those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified;) those he justified, he also glorified,” (Rom 8:30) We have been glorified, i.e. we have been made ‘glorious’. Now synonyms for ‘glorious’ are splendid, magnificent, wonderful, superb! I have a feeling that many of us, going through this year, have NOT felt like those descriptions, we have not felt that we are splendid, magnificent, wonderful, superb, and yet that is how scripture describes us.

Why Failures? So why is it that we don’t feel like that. May I suggest some reasons. First, we have been aware of a struggle and we have focused on the struggle rather than who we are.  Second, we have associated our struggles with failure. If you were hiking through a wilderness that was really hard going, would you think you were failing? No, you were just coping with the environment, as tough as it may be – but not failing. Third, and I believe this is the most important and is at the heart of this series, we have forgotten the basics of who we are – glorious children of God redeemed from our lives of failure. Now going with that description are aspects of the character of God of which we need to remind ourselves, and that is what this is all about, a fresh reminder of who we really are and, more importantly, what God us like.

And So? So throughout this series we are going to work our way through the Bible picking up on some of the examples of the people of God, all of whom were failures, and yet all of whom found themselves in the midst of the working of God who was intent on bringing them out of their failure into a place of glory.  It may have taken many years for some (if not most) of them, but glory was the end product, just as it is for us. This is a time for restating the basics of salvation for the good of the many outside the kingdom to help them face themselves, and for the many in the kingdom to help us realise afresh the wonder of our salvation, the wonder of who we are and, most importantly, the wonder of God. Ask the Lord to open your eyes to these things as we go through these studies together.

17. Radical Change

Wilderness Meditations: 17. The Place of Radical Change

Acts 9:1-4  Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

A Hesitation:  I have pondered for a day whether to write this study, but the message underlying it has remained strong and is one that brings together the previous two studies  and emphasizes what I believe the Lord wants to say to us in these days. I want us to consider Saul – or Paul as he became – and his Damascus road experience. I have always considered it a desert road experience and yet I am not certain that that is accurate. Having researched it, the truth is we don’t know what route he took from Jerusalem to Damascus, all we know is what the above verses say, that he was nearing Damascus.

Possibilities: Because I find it an area of the unknown and, more especially, an area I’ve never considered before or heard anyone else speak on, it bears a quick consideration. It seems there were three main highways, trade routes from the south to the north. To the far east was what was known as the King’s Highway, possibly the main trade route. To the west was what was first a coastal road that at various times has gone by different names, ‘Way of the Philistines’, the Coastal Road and The Via Maris,  going up the coast and then sweeping in across Israel to go north on the west of the Sea of Galilee and then north and east across the mountains – south of Mount Hermon and down to the plain of Damascus. However, a more likely route was the Hill Road or Ridge Route that went more directly from Jerusalem to the Sea of Galilee and continued up the east side of the sea, northwards to Damascus – a rough road, wild at times. Paul was not travelling alone (see v.7) and whether these were friends, other Pharisees, or simply travellers, we aren’t told and we hear no more of them apart from fact that they led the blinded Saul into Damascus.

Transformation: Although a modern writing would have given more details, what we have in the text of Acts and the epistles is quite clear. Paul’s testimony: “I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers.” (Gal 1:13,14) As he later testified in Acts, “I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison, as the high priest and all the Council can themselves testify. I even obtained letters from them to their associates in Damascus, and went there to bring these people as prisoners to Jerusalem to be punished.” (Acts 22:4,5) and even more, “I too was convinced that I ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth.(Acts 26:9)

The account of his encounter with Jesus on the road down to Damascus is well known, as is the incredible change that took him from being a church persecutor to church builder, opposer of Jesus to herald of Jesus, from legalistic Pharisee to grace-filled apostle. Now consider this further: The transformation that took place is about as dramatic as you can think, but mostly we don’t like the dramatic, we prefer the known, the ordinary, the expected. But in the days we have been living through are none of those things; they have been dramatic, the future is unknown, it is certainly not the ordinary and uncertainty has replaced expected.

Yes but… Now I can hear the defensive voices rising – but I made that same radical change when I turned to Jesus and, yes, I am sure that that is so for many of us. But here’s the thing, I am certain that one of the main questions that have been coming from heaven in the recent months is, what have you been learning in all of this? I don’t know what your answer would be because I’m sure I haven’t seen the full picture of what I have been learning, but in the first of these three additional studies I wrote about how we need to adjust our thinking to see God in the midst of our circumstances. In the second one we saw God moving in the most unexpected place which required a letting go of the present days of ‘success’, submitting to God’s strange directions, directions that challenged the present security.

Change? For some of us these will be radical changes. For some of us we have so struggled to cope with the uncertainties imposed upon us, that to say that we sense the Presence and the Peace and the Provision and Power and the Protection of God in the midst of all this, is a bridge too far for us. To say that we can cope with God purposefully pushing us in new directions can be seen as just yet another lot of uncertainties that make life even more scary.

We can pretend but the reality is far from that. Yes, we are saved, we are believers, but the hard truth is that living in this materialistic and constantly changing world, so much of church life has become routine, almost habit, and the power and presence of God has become something to talk about rather than be experienced.  

I have written this before but may I reiterate, perhaps in an abbreviated form, a vision of church I have used before in previous series, a vision that is simply what is portrayed in the New Testament of ‘church’: a church that is “alive with the presence and power and revelation and activity of God by His Spirit, where God is bringing constant life transformations, with conversions, deliverances and healings being a regular feature of the life of the church, and the surrounding world is impacted and changed”. That is the God side of it, if I may put it that way; the other side is our part, to catch this vision, yearn for it, pray and pray and pray for it, and to be open to whatever the Spirit might say or do. For many of us, I believe, to believe this, if we dare be honest, is as radical a transformation as that which Saul went through on the road to Damascus.

Review the Change: Paul in Jerusalem, totally set in his ideas, opposed to anything other than the Judaism he knew, indeed hostile to the new ideas of ‘the Way’ (Acts 9:2). He sets out to strengthen his ideas by arresting those in Damascus who hold those ideas, and on the way, on a dusty road, coming down out of the mountains, his life is changed when the Son of God challenges all he knew. His set ideas, his set goals, his set vision, are all set aside, and it is a new day. This, dear man or woman of God, is the transformation that I believe God is wanting to bring to His children, His church, who have for so long accepted a second best, powerless version of Christianity, of Church. Am I feeling He wants us to change all we are doing? Only in so far as it hinders the coming in power and revelation of His Spirit. I am not there but I am praying. I think it is a day of slow and gradually progressive transformation – until He comes in power. If you have any questions, pray. Please pray.

15. The Place of Adjustment

Wilderness Meditations: 15. The Place of Adjustment

Acts 8:5  Philip went down to a city in Samaria

But:  OK, so I said that study no.14 was the last one in this series, but one thing about the Internet is that it allows you to add further material to what you have already put there. I thought it was, until two thoughts appeared on the horizon of my mind today which called to have a place here, that seem to speak strongly into the present day. Then came another; I think the Lord wants to say something to us. So, we’ll extend the series and I will be wise enough not to say they are the last ones. I think they are, but who knows……

Knowing the Times: It was the men of Issachar, who were described as those “who  understood the times and knew what Israel should do,” (1 Chron 12:32) so perhaps we should start by looking at the times we are in. It is the Autumn / Fall of 2020, and the Pandemic has come, gone, and come again. We experienced lockdown, it was eased, and now as numbers of infections are rising again, lockdown is occurring in various towns and cities around the UK. It’s happened in England, Wales and Scotland. The future is as uncertain as ever. We have characterized this time as a wilderness, a place where we would not naturally wish to dwell, a place of unknowns, a place of limitation.

Watching Church: And it has been a place where Church has had to change. The Internet has played a bigger role in church than ever before. Someone asked me only the other day what I felt about the uncertain time ahead where scientists and the government (behind closed doors) are speculating on the number of deaths doubling in the months running up to Christmas. Concern is rising again. In the US the pandemic news has been submerged by rumblings about the Presidential election in November and more recently by the horrific fires down some of the western states. Uncertainty continues to reign in many places, it seems.

Unexpected Changes: So the first of these two additional thoughts focuses in on the accounts of Philip in Acts 8.  That chapter starts, “On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.“ (v.1) I see a number of my Christian friends in the States getting wound up about not being allowed to hold services indoors. That anti-authority outlook, that also ignores the science of the pandemic, has the privilege of not being in a part of the world where authority says it is illegal to be a Christian! But it was persecution that got the church moving – all except the apostles and they nearly got left behind in what God was about to do within that situation (see later when Peter and John had to go and see what God had been doing without them – v.14!). Let’s not say that God made the persecution happen, and I won’t say God made the Pandemic, but let’s simply note that He carried on working despite it and, yes, maybe within ways that the persecution / pandemic brought about. Jesus had, after all, said that that they were to be his “witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth,” (Acts 1:8) So step one is that persecution has the church fleeing from Jerusalem into Judea and further north into Samaria.

A Wilderness Place:  Now there is nothing in the text about Samaria being a wilderness as such, but for the average Jew, the Samaritans were definitely off the grid of acceptability. I don’t have time and space to cover this in detail but simply to remind us of the surprising conversation Jesus had had with the Samaritan woman at the well (see particularly Jn 4:9). Think of whatever group of people you don’t feel comfortable with and there is your equivalent. The only reason Philip went there is the persecution in Jerusalem. He and many others had been forced out of his comfort zone. It wasn’t ‘his land’, these weren’t ‘his people’ and they didn’t believe the same things he believed and didn’t act like good Jews (even now Christians, even more different) acted.

Bang! So here he is in this ungodly place but something in him has him sharing with some of them about Jesus being the expected Messiah (v.5). He attracts a crowd and then, pow, stuff starts happening. “When the crowds heard Philip and saw the signs he performed, they all paid close attention to what he said.  For with shrieks, impure spirits came out of many, and many who were paralyzed, or lame, were healed. So there was great joy in that city.” (v.6-8) We aren’t told initially what the ‘signs’ were that he performed or how it came about – that is irrelevant, and God will do it in a different way with you – but it is spelled out as the verses continue. Healing and deliverance ministry in a big way! No wonder there is great joy in the city! Now here’s something. If I was a betting person (and I’m not) I would bet that no longer does Philip feel this is a wilderness experience. Now he will be so caught up with what God is doing through him that he’s just filled with joy and, I suspect, praying, ‘More Lord!’ He no longer cares about this being a different land, an alien people!

And Us?  Can you see the parallels? The Pandemic has pushed us out of our comfort zone. We have been rubbing shoulders (well at a social distance!) with people we’ve not been comfortable with before and doing things we had never thought about a year ago.  Many of us have viewed the Pandemic / Lockdown as an alien time, and so it is, but that does not make it a time when God cannot move. We need to adjust our thinking, especially if it carries on through Autumn and Winter. Persecution or Pandemic? It doesn’t matter. Give God your space and dare to cross spiritual boundaries while still adhering to the Law, and then watch out, God might be turning up!

12. Place of Trust

Wilderness Meditations: 12. The Place of Trust

Jn 3:14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up

Lev 16:10 the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the Lord to be used for making atonement by sending it into the wilderness as a scapegoat.

Recap:  We have been considering how we think, how we look at the world and look at life, how we have to come to the end of ourselves before we can truly be open to God. We reminded ourselves in the last study how we need people in our lives. We can’t get by without God and it is difficult to get by without people. People are one of God’s resources to us, that was a primary lesson we learned afresh in the early months of the 2020 Pandemic lockdown.

Things Taken for Granted: In a previous series about guilt, about how we can fall short of the things God has for us, we noted things we take for granted in our lives, and the wonder of our salvation was one of those things. Now I am sure there are many, many Christians, who have simply attended church, joined in the worship and prayers and listened to the sermons, week after week, month after month and year after year, but as we have done that the shear repetition of it all has meant that it has dulled our appreciation of who we are and what Jesus has done for us. As a result of that, so often our repetitious ‘services’ have meant that we hear the words but we still try to make ourselves good, make ourselves righteous, make ourselves spiritual, in order to win God’s approval. And it is there we fall down.

Through the lockdown period, church-going ceased, services started up online, meetings were conducted via Zoom. Suddenly many felt isolated from what they had known of as ‘church’. Suddenly, with the trappings stripped away, many were looking afresh at what they believed. It was a time of reassessment, of realising God’s salvation through Christ was THE only way, knowing Him personally had to mean more than turning up at a building on Sunday mornings.

The Old Testament Speaks: A snake on a pole? “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up.” (Jn 3:14) As the snake in the wilderness became of focus of both repentance and faith for healing (Num 21:9), so Jesus was lifted up on the Cross, lifted up by God in reputation (Phil 2:9) and lifted up from death into heaven where he rules at his Father’s right hand (Acts 2:33, 5:31, Eph 1:20). We may be in the wilderness but we too have died (Rom 6:2), have been raised (Rom 6:4,5),  and there, in the Spirit, we are seated with him (Eph 2:6). It doesn’t matter about the limitations of Covid-19, rejoice in the fact that we are divinely supernatural people who have been ‘lifted’ with Christ.

But then a scapegoat in the wilderness? The word ‘scapegoat’ is familiar, one who takes the blame – unfairly! There were two goats in Lev 16, one offered as a sin offering to take the guilt, the other sent into the wilderness to take the act of sin out of God’s presence. In the New Testament the application of that is brought to us: Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many.” (Heb 9:28) He took our guilt and punishment on the Cross and passed into the wilderness of death, carrying our sins away. If, in this wilderness, you see this scapegoat more clearly, understand God is just reassuring you that you can’t take your sins away, Jesus can and has. Don’t take them back.

Reality? So there is the teaching which, it is quite likely, you’ve heard before. But there are various things in those two pictures involving the wilderness, that should create questions in us:

Coming to the snake on the pole (the Cross) in the wilderness (of the lost and fallen world) required recognition that, having been bitten by snakes (the many expressions of sin in the world), we were at the end of ourselves and death faced us. Repentance meant facing the pole (the Cross) and the one on it, seeing the cause of our woes being nailed to death and taken by our Saviour, accepting his death was on our behalf. We receive it and are forgiven, cleansed and healed. Have we taken that for granted?

One of the two goats took our guilt. Jesus took our guilt. Do you still live a life tinged with guilt? Your guilt has been dealt with. Once you confessed it and repented, God forgave you. (1 Jn 1:9). Done deal, there is no more to be said. The other goat took our sins away into the wilderness (of death). Do the wrongs of your past still lurk in the background? Realise they have been removed, taken far away, you are a new creation in Christ, “the old has gone, the new is here.” (2 Cor 5:17).

And us? With all the trappings stripped away, have you been able to see in this wilderness with a fresh clarity the reality of your salvation. You are what you are not because of your church-going or other ‘spiritual acts’ but entirely because of the combined work of Christ on the Cross and now the applied outworking of that by the indwelling Holy Spirit: the past work, the present outworking, all coming from Him. Our part? Just to believe it and receive it in reality. May that be so.  

27. Blindness – Introduction

The Truth about Guilt Meditations: 27. Guilt of Blindness – Introduction

Eph 1:17-19  I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. 18 I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, 19 and his incomparably great power for us who believe.

Continuing: We are considering areas of life where we can get it wrong, areas of our thinking and doing that perhaps of which we’re not even aware and yet which leave us in an unresolved guilty state. I say unresolved, because they continue on and, probably without us realizing it, they blight or limit our relationship with the Lord. We have recently been considering guilt by sight, with the way we respond to what we see, but as I have meditated on this, I realize there is the other side to the coin, guilt from not seeing, guilt that essentially comes from blindness, and that is expressed in the way we think.

Childhood Blindness: The more I have pondered this, the more I realize there are numerous areas where the children of God are blind. It is a blindness to do with awareness. I don’t know if you’ve ever thought about this, but when you were a child, of how much were you aware of your parents problems and difficulties? Somethings are blatantly obvious such as when two adults row. But there may have been numerous trials and difficulties of which you were not aware, financial, to do with work, to do with relationships or health. My mother, when I was very small, suffered from a rare form of TB in her eyes which resulted in her having to have operations by the top eye surgeon in the country. I knew virtually nothing of this at the time.

Why was that? Well, one reason is that parents shield such things from their children but the bigger issue, I believe, is that as a child you are totally taken up with your own little world and just don’t think about things about which you just have never learnt yet. Are children guilty of blindness, therefore? No, they are just immature. We don’t expect them to have such knowledge or understanding, in fact we try to protect them from it. But they have to grow up and in the growing process they come to realize things about the world that they hadn’t known or realized before and it sometimes comes as a bit of a shock. If we think back, we can probably all think of stages of growth of knowledge and understanding that changed us.

The Growing Christian: The same thing is true of the spiritual life.  When we first came to Christ our knowledge was strictly limited. Hopefully we embarked on a life of learning and within that new school of learning came new knowledge and understanding and the way we started looking at life was radically changed.  The writer to the Hebrews declared to his readers of that day, “though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again.” (Heb 5:12) Step into the average church on a Sunday morning and what do you usually find? So often it is teaching the elementary truths all over again … and again …. and again. It seems so often that both leaders and congregations are happy with a little homily, a little study, a little comforting and building up, but I wonder how often the children of God leave the building feeling better equipped to face the intellectual and moral challenges that face every one of us today in the Western world?  Are we actually aware of those intellectual and moral challenges? Do we understand them and have answers to them? If we cannot say a categorical ‘Yes!’, then we are confessing our blindness to things of which we need to be aware as the children of God.

A Spiritual Goal: Consider again our starter verses: “I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe.” (Eph 1:17-19) Perhaps a paraphrase version will help it come alive if we’ve become too familiar with it. Paul prays that God will: “give you spiritual wisdom and the insight to know more of him: that you may receive that inner illumination of the spirit which will make you realize how great is the hope to which he is calling you—the magnificence and splendor of the inheritance promised to Christians—and how tremendous is the power available to us who believe in God.” (JBP version)

And Us? Do you see something here, the words, “the eyes of your heart may be enlightened,” or as the paraphrase has it, “that inner illumination of the spirit”? The word ‘see’ isn’t here but isn’t this what Paul is saying, “I want you to see with spiritual understanding so that you see the wonder of it all? Let’s ask another ‘church question’. OK, let’s put aside for the moment thoughts of deeper and wider understanding that equips you for the world, let’s just accept the basic or simple truths of the Gospel, how often do you leave church almost dancing with the wonder of what you have just come to see? How often when you have your ‘quiet time’ do you put down your Bible with a heart leaping with praise and worship at the wonder of what you have just seen?  OK, be realistic, it may not happen every day, but does it happen quite often? If not we should be praying, Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law,” (Psa 119:18) and if you’re a bad sleeper, perhaps you might want to join that same psalmist who went on to say, “My eyes stay open through the watches of the night, that I may meditate on your promises.” (Psa 119:148) Let’s not be content with a daily routine that leaves us unmoved, let’s pray that our eyes may be opened in a new way to see the Lord, see His salvation, see the Gospel, see the world He’s given us, see the life He’s given us, see the future He’s promised us with such ‘wisdom and revelation’ that our hearts are lifted and we want to dance with joy, shout with praise and bow down in worship. May it be so.

9. Responding to the Guilty

The Truth about Guilt Meditations: 9. Responding to the Guilty: Expecting Repentance

Jn 8:11 “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”  

Recapping Misconceptions: So we’ve been considering popular misconceptions in respect of guilt: off-loading does not absolve from blame, temptation may create only temporary pleasure, beware misjudging a situation, and finally rejecting a sense of guilt imposed by others but not God.

Moving On: In this subject of guilt there are various attitudes or ways of thinking that are important to consider:

– being honest and accepting when we’ve got it wrong,

– dealing with it scripturally – repenting and receiving God’s forgiveness and cleansing,

– rejecting wrong misconceptions about guilt

But then there is the critical one of how we respond to the guilty person.

Wrong Responses: As a starter we should suggest that instant responses are usually wrong responses.  Jesus before the guilty woman in Jn 8:1-11 suggested to her accusers (with their spiritual knives out!) that the one who had never sinned could cast the first stone. Someone has said that the Christian Church is the only army that kicks one of their soldiers when they are down. When someone has failed and got it wrong – and the Jn 8 woman had seriously got it wrong – we can have one of two responses: to slap them down or to seek to restore them. Jesus demonstrated the latter response.

The Repentance Element: Now repentance wasn’t the main thing John was seeking to bring out in that story but it is a necessary ingredient in such things. Again the important thing is to trust that God sees if repentance is likely to be forthcoming so we should not make prior judgments. One also notes that when the Lord is moving powerfully, he holds His people to a higher level of accountability, hence the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5. Peter didn’t pronounce the death sentence over Ananias, he simply spoke out his sin of lying and deception (Acts 5:3,4). It was only when he saw God’s judgment could he speak it over Sapphira (v.9). In a church in a state of revival, they should have known better. Similarly the saints in the church in Corinth knew the power and the presence of the Spirit and should have known better when they came to communion and when they were careless, Paul had to point out, “that is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep.” (1 Cor 11:30) Repentance should have been forthcoming without prior warning.

“Stop it!”: The point is that Jesus wants to restore us to a good place but that comes through repentance. He may not actually speak the word ‘repent’ always – although he often does (see Mk 1:15, 6:12, Acts 2:38) – but he does expect it, hence his words to the woman: ““Go now and leave your life of sin.”  (see also Jn 5:14) We have seen how scripture (1 Jn 1:9) allows for us to receive forgiveness and cleansing and restoration (implied). Let’s always seek to redeem the situation and restore one another, being slowly careful how we proceed, careful about what we believe of others. Be Jesus to one another.

Action by the Church: In a recent series we noted God spoke through Zechariah indicating that sins of action and of words have no place in the church (see Zech 5). Mostly it is down to the leaders to preach and teach and set the standards of scripture before the people; that is how the church comes to understand these things. However Mt 18:15-17 lays down a process where the individual finds obvious sin in the life of another believer, and the purpose in each stage is for the sinner to repent and be restored. When the last stage says, tell it to the church,” (v.17) I suggest that means take it to the leadership so that they can take action, to check out the truth of the life of the other person, call them to repentance gently and graciously, and do all they can to facilitate repentance. If they fail, that is the point where they may need to put that person out of the church as Paul did in 1 Cor 5:1-5 (also 1 Tim 1:20) where the goal was to remove the protection of the church so that Satan would be allowed access to the rebel and deal with him and bring about repentance (which 2 Cor seems to suggest happened).

We should be very clear that dealing with a perceived sin is not achieved through gossip, but by handing it on to the leaders for their wisdom to prevail.  Some sins, such as adultery, abuse etc. are sufficiently ‘big’ that in the case of leaders they need to be stood down for the sake of the flock. Trust sometimes needs rebuilding and that often takes time, but the bigger point here must be, don’t jump to wrong conclusions, let’s not assume guilt until it is proved to be real and let’s look to restore where possible.

And So? Let’s state some simple basics:

– God does not want sin in the church.

– As human beings we will get it wrong and, hopefully, deal with it ourselves.

– Where we see it in others, don’t jump to conclusions but seek God’s humility, grace and wisdom to confront it in your friend.

– If it is a big issue, take it to the leadership and let them deal with it.

I am aware that for a large number of churches in the UK at least, this is an alien subject because of the oft-poverty of teaching and certainly the subsequent lack of authority in the church. Such leaders will have an accounting with the Lord (as I have had in the past), for their inability to deal with these things. But to think more on this, we need to go on to the next study.

11. And So?

Zechariah builds the House Meditations: 11. And So?

Zech 1:3 ‘Return to me,’ declares the Lord Almighty, ‘and I will return to you,’

Zech 2:10 For I am coming, and I will live among you,” declares the Lord.

Zech 3:10 In that day each of you will invite your neighbor to sit under your vine and fig tree,’

Zech 4:6 ‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’

Zech 6:13 he will be a priest on his throne

Eph 4:11,12 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service,

But: As so often seems to happen I thought the previous study was the last one of this series and yet as I have been praying this morning there comes what seems a natural completion of it that takes us into the realm of practically praying. My assertion in the previous study, that undergirds all the other studies, is that God was speaking through Zechariah to His people while they were building the Temple, the house or dwelling place of the Lord on earth. Yet the words were to prepare and equip His people to be His dwelling place themselves, as we now see so clearly through the New Testament. But it is so easy to just ‘do a Bible study’ and leave it at that, but the truth is that the word of God is designed to change us. How should these studies change us?

The Big Issues: As we have progressed through these studies I have become more aware of the two big issues: the first is the world ‘out there’, the world that God wants to reach. As we look at the state of the Western world today it is in a mess. I would recommend the sobering reading of ‘Morality’ the 2020 book by Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks which systematically uncovers the moral bankruptcy of the West, with very specific practical outworkings. There is a desperate need for change. The second thing is the church. To Israel He had said through Isaiah that they were to be “a light to the Gentiles.” (Isa 42:6). To us today Jesus says, “let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Mt 5:16) If we dare be honest we have abysmally failed to be this resulting in the state the world is in today. We have carried on our spiritual ceremonies and failed to impact the world around us because, even though some of us have been doing a lot, it has rarely been as ‘the body of Christ’ with his power and his revelation.

And So? Whenever such truths really impact us, it is not that they pull as down in condemnation for our failures (which is what the enemy would seek to do) but challenge us to stand up and pray. Prayer has always been the precursor to true revival, it is the acknowledgement of the people of God of their helplessness and failure with the recognition that only a sovereign act of God can change things. But what to pray. I think it has been eighteen months that I have felt this call to prayer but only today did I feel a specific way to pray. When God moves on in His purposes, it seems so often He gradually reveals His strategy, even though in essence it was there in His word already. For those who will allow themselves to be moved by this may I offer the following, no doubt  very incomplete, things to pray, to start pointing us in the right direction. Please feel free to add what you will:

“Father, please forgive us, cleanse us, envision us and empower us and then release us as you start to move sovereignly.”

– To come in line with God’s heart must mean first being honest about our need, with the recognition that we need Him to change our hearts in preparation for being part of what He is planning to do, so we will start to become available to join in with what He is doing.

“Lord, please raise up an even greater army of prayer warriors who will not only pave the way for these things to happen but who will stand there overseeing the battle when it comes.”

–  Prayer in incomprehensible ways, is seen as part of God’s strategy to mobilize His people and enable them to rise up and conquer as Moses did of old (see Ex 17:10-13).

“Lord, release faith and vision in your people in new ways that they may become an army of witnesses in both word and deed to the world around us.”

– Will we become available, will we be trained to be confident as witnesses who move in both word and power to reach the hearts of those around us?

“Lord, please raise up an army of evangelists, anointed by you to bring the life-changing conviction that is needed to bring the watching world to its knees in submission to you as they receive Jesus their Savior and Lord.” 

– The gifted ministry of the evangelist is the one divinely anointed to remove blindness and bring conviction, bring the word of God to bear on individual lives. Nothing less changes people.

“Lord, please raise up an army of teachers, who will be there to feed, teach and equip new believers with divinely anointed understanding as they come as babes in Christ.”

– New believers will need to understand a new perspective and in the excitement of all that happens, establishing them in their new faith will be essential to enable them to stand in the years to come.

“Lord, please raise up an army of pastors who will be there to feed, care for, protect and bring healing to the many dysfunctional new believers come from this hurting and damaged world.”

– The people in the world around us today are so confused, so hurting, so anxious, so wounded, so disorientated, that they desperately need loving care and healing.

“Lord, please raise up an army of prophets who will bring revelation to keep your people on track, warning them against coming obstacles and distractions and revealing the way ahead.”

–  Revelation is at the heart of the working of God and we desperately need His vision, His insight, His wisdom to energize us, and move us forward.

“Lord, please raise up an army of apostles who will come with the humility of divine wisdom that builds and strengthens the rapidly expanding church and able to release your power in your people.”

– The gift of the apostle comes as a strategic wise anointed overseer to guide and equip and empower and  enable the people of God, not mere managers but equippers, envisioners, empowers, and senders.

“Lord, please release faith in each of us, your children, to enable us to receive your destiny for these days to be life changers, world changers and those who glorify you.”

– We are all called to be active parts of this body, with changed hearts and minds and wills, submitted to Him. This will require time and ongoing daily enabling to achieve as we pray.

“Lord, as I purpose to be available to you for you to achieve through me whatever you want, please clarify in me your gifts that enable me to be the unique part of your body you want me to be. Amen.”

– My gifts from God that make me who am, the gifts you have from God, are there just waiting for Him to energize and use them – all the above things, and musician, administrator, Internet Techie, writer, composer, whatever. A gift from God to be used by God as God stirs them, opens doors for them to be used, and then enables them to touch other lives and glorify Him.  May it be so.