12. God’s Holy Mountain

Reaching into the Psalms 1 to 4:  12. God’s Holy Mountain

Psa 3:4    he answers me from his holy mountain.

God’s Presence: Again, how casually I have sped over these words with so little thought, and yet I suspect (is He telling me?) that here there are such profound truths to be mined as we meditate. Before we move on in this psalm, I believe there is something of significance that we have passed by without comment here in verse 4: “he answers me from his holy mountain”. What is that ‘holy mountain’?

Zion: Well, back in Psa 2 we read, “I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.” (Psa 2:6) Further back in 2 Sam 5:7 we read, “David took the stronghold of Zion, that is, the city of David.” That is the first reference to ‘Zion’ and it clearly meant Jerusalem. It had long been known as Jerusalem, occupied by the Jebusites who Israel had failed to overthrow initially (Judg 1:21), and it had not been taken until David arrived in power, when he re-established it as his base and subsequently the capital of Israel. When the ark was brought there, and later in Solomon’s reign the temple built, and filled with God’s presence (1 Kings 8:10,11), it became known as the ‘holy city’: “Awake, awake, put on your strength, O Zion; put on your beautiful garments, O Jerusalem, the holy city.” (Isa 52:1)

Jerusalem: Jerusalem is described as “set high in the hills of Judah” (New Bible Dictionary) and one Internet site describes Jerusalem as follows: “Jerusalem’s seven hills are Mount Scopus, Mount Olivet and the Mount of Corruption (all three are peaks in a mountain ridge that lies east of the old city), Mount Ophel, the original Mount Zion, the New Mount Zion and the hill on which the Antonia Fortress was built.” When a prophet or psalmist refers to the ‘mountain of the Lord’ or ‘his holy mountain’ it can either mean Jerusalem generally or the hill or mountain on which the Temple was eventually built.

As David writes pre-the Temple, it is more likely to mean Jerusalem at large, Jerusalem the whole city. The designation ‘mountain’ may refer to the fact that all of the ‘hills’ of the Jerusalem area are well over 2000 feet above sea level, or it may simply be creating spiritual significance of a place of ascent on which God resides. A study of ‘mountains’ in the Old Testament must take us first to Moriah: Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.” (Gen 22:2) Amazingly this was Jerusalem where Solomon eventually built the temple (2 Chron 3:1) equated today, it is said, with the vicinity of Calvary. What a symbolic picture. The second mountain that stands out is Sinai where God met with Israel during the Exodus (See Ex 19-). The imagery that goes with that encounter suggests inaccessibility except by divine permission. So often when people went there, the record says they went up to Jerusalem, that same picture of ascending to meet with God that Moses showed us. Thus Jerusalem becomes the place of encounter with the inaccessible God and the place of god’s offering of His own Son to save the world.

Tent of Meeting: God’s instructions to build a Tabernacle (Ex 25-27) appear to be His early means of bringing limited access to Himself by His people. It was also referred to as ‘the tent of meeting (Ex 27:21 etc.): Set up the tabernacle, the tent of meeting, on the first day of the first month. Place the ark of the covenant law in it and shield the ark with the curtain.” (Ex 40:2,3) and it continued in existence until Solomon replaced it with the Temple (see 1 Kings 8). However in the time of Eli and Samuel, after the debacle with the Philistines, the ark (and presumably the Tent) stayed at Kiriath Jearim (1 Sam 7:1,2) until twenty years later David took it to Jerusalem (2 Sam 6) where it was placed inside “the tent that David had pitched for it.” (1 Chron 16:1), but this was clearly different from the Tabernacle still pitched at Gibeon (1 Chron 16:39) The ‘tent’ was clearly simply the home or location for the ‘ark of the covenant’ that was seen to be the place where the presence of God resided on earth. As we noted above, both ark and tent of meeting (as this tent now clearly became) were taken to the temple by Solomon (1 Kings 8:1-4)

God’s Dwelling Place? The ark in the Tabernacle? The ark in the Temple? The ark disappeared in history, but the Temple remained until Nebuchadnezzar destroyed it during the Exile but until then the Temple (and the ark) had been the focus or ‘dwelling place’ of God on earth. Why is that so significant? Because it was there by God’s instructions, and it was a place of focus on God, a place where people could go to worship God (even though they could not encounter His presence hidden in the Most Holy Place, or the Holy of Holies). So when David prays and get answers, they come from the God who has revealed Himself and positioned Himself in the midst of Israel.

And Today? The writer to the Hebrews conveys something quite amazing when he speaks to us: “You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire …. But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.” (Heb 12:18,22) For us, Mount Zion is not just a mountain but a city and it is in heaven. At the end of his amazing visions recorded in the book of Revelation, John records, “One of the seven angels…. said to me, “Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.” (Rev 21:9,10) In the final words that follow it is clear that this heavenly city comes down to the newly recreated earth and is accessible to all, and Father and Son are in the midst of it. The mountain where God had been inaccessible, the place where the Godhead dwells, has finally come to be in the midst of redeemed mankind. In heaven or on the new earth, the dwelling place of God is accessible to redeemed mankind, to the people of God.

A Poignant Psalm: For David it was the place towards which he uttered his prayers, which makes this psalm, headed by “A psalm of David. When he fled from his son Absalom”, so poignant. Until then he had focused on God in Jerusalem but now he was on the run out of and away from Jerusalem and so his focus became more ‘long distance’ if we may put it like that. Yet there is another significant truth: even though David may not have close access to the Tent in Jerusalem, the Lord is still there; He has not departed Jerusalem, it is still HIS city and therefore there is a sense when David utters these words, they come with an underlying assurance that he is still in God’s hands, this is all happening because God is working out His disciplinary will for David and He, the Lord, is still the same and will still be there in Jerusalem for David to call to, and will still be there should the Lord allow him to return. God IS there – for us in heaven and for us by His Spirit, incredibly, indwelling us – and so it doesn’t matter what the earthly circumstances appear to be showing, in respect of the Lord, nothing has changed! He is there and He is there for us and He is there available to us because He has made it so! Hallelujah!

2. Light

Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 2.  Light

Mt 5:14-16   You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.

In these three verses Jesus uses 3 analogies and then concludes with an instruction. The three are light, a city, and a lamp on a lampstand.  Now most Christians are aware of Jesus’ own claim, I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life,” (Jn 8:12) but fewer are sure that Jesus said, YOU are THE light of the world” to US, to all his followers. In order to unpack this amazing claim we should perhaps ask, 1. What does light do?  2. How can we say we are the light of the world, what is our source of light? and then 3. How does that work out in practical terms in everyday life?

What does light do? In its very simplest way, light illuminates otherwise dark places to reveal what is there. Now there are various outworkings or results of that, but that is basically what light does. So what are those outworkings. Imagine you wake up after a long period of being in a coma and you are in absolute darkness, and then suddenly a light is turned on. What happens?

Well first of all the light shows up what is there, how things are, what is going on around you, if you like. Light reveals the condition of the room or the world, the state of the world that was previously hidden in the dark. Now from that, second, light therefore reveals a) what is bad and b) what is good, in the world (room) round about you. (Remember, we are only dealing with general principles first of all.) Also, third, light will show how movement is possible, where you can go. In the dark, possibilities are unclear. As soon as a light is turned on – or the sun comes out – pathways become clear and obvious, a door from the room becomes obvious.

What is Our source of light? Well obviously it is Jesus or, to be more precise, the Holy Spirit living within us. If we are to ‘shine’ it is to be him through us. Of myself, I have nothing that can shine in the dark, but with him within me I will shine in the dark. Because he is the light of the world and because he lives in us, we become the light of the world. We aren’t usurping his position to say that, we are just letting him express himself through us, thus revealing light.

How does this work practically? Well, we said that light reveals the world, reveals what is good and bad and also reveals possibilities for change and movement. So, OK, first we reveal that the real world is not only material. It is both material and spiritual. Our lives are to have a spiritual dimension, a spiritual expression that says to the watching world, “Hey, this is reality, are you experiencing this and if not, would you like to?” Second, by the love and goodness of our lives we will a) show up others (not to be negative but to show that ‘bad’ contrasts with our ‘good’) and b) show there is an alternative to their ‘bad’; it is possible with God’s directing and empowering and enabling to live ‘good’! Third, by presenting a good, wholesome example or alternative to so much of what is happening around us – and why we can be living like this – we reveal a possibility that can be reached out for, a relationship with God that was made possible by Jesus dying on the Cross and his Holy Spirit now being available for us today.

So much for the basics, but that is just the first phrase. What is this about a city on a hill and a lamp on a lampstand? Well they are both illustrations of putting light where it can be seen, and where it can shine out over a bigger area. To the person whose inclination is to hide away and keep out of sight, and to the recluse who wants to go and live in the desert to avoid the pollution of the ‘world’, this comes as a direct challenge: get out there where you can be seen, be the person God has called you to be, full of love, full of grace, full of goodness, full of humility, but full of courage and boldness. Shine! Don’t be ashamed of who you are. You are in fact God’s poster-people, those He wants to display to the world.

Yes, those we show up will be defensive and hostile but that is more their problem than ours. Others will see and think and ponder and realise they are unhappy with the life they live and wonder about yours and why you are like you are – and they may just ask, what is it that makes you like you are? That’s why the apostle Peter wrote, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” (1 Pet 3:15)

That needs a little thought and preparation. Think how you can give a short testimony of how you have experienced God’s love, in a gentle and respectful way, not brash or arrogantly. Think how you can tell that it has been a learning exercise, to realise God is there for you and that He loves you, that you can learn about Him from His word, and talk to Him in prayer. Some people are hard-hearted and callous about God and won’t want to know, but others, those who ask you questions, have seeking hearts. They are the ones who, when they see what you do or say, and the way you do it or say it, may be stirred by your “good deeds” and open their hearts to Him and become one who praise and glorify Him.

To conclude, if you want to see a classic response to the amazing testimony of God’s good provision, read the Queen of Sheba’s response to King Solomon when she went to visit him. Find it in 1 Kings 10:6-9. Solomon not only demonstrated the wonder of what God had done, but by her language it is clear that he had explained to her all about the One he followed, and as he shared, she believed. That was light being shed.

66. A City to Come

Meditations in Hebrews 13:  66.  A City to Come

Heb 13:14   For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.

At times the Christian life is a strange contradiction of feelings. For example, we have already considered the subject of contentment in an earlier study but now we come, in our verse above, across a familiar experience that is unhappy about the status quo and longs for something better. Perhaps we should first put this verse in context.

Recap Context: The writer has taken us through a number of practical issues, for example, marriage (v.4), avoiding love of money (v.5), realizing that Jesus is our helper and is always with us (v.5,6) and is always the same (v.8), but that we have leaders to act as examples for us (v.7) as we struggle to counter false teaching (v.9), remembering we have a much better access to our Saviour than the people of old did (v.10) and yet one who was rejected thus brining us a life that is often one of rejection (v.11-13). All of these things speak of a Fallen World in which we live where we have to resist temptations and battle untruths and opposition.

Something Better? It is not surprising, in the light of all this, that sometimes we are left feeling, “There must be something better than this!” Indeed there is something inside us that yearns for something better that God has for us and it is in respect of these feelings that the writer now says, For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.” (v.14) Much of the struggle is to do with people. Even within the church there are people who seem to fall far short of what we might expect of the people of God, and outside it there are certainly people with whom we often do not feel comfortable.

Desiring Real Community: We long for a community (for that is what a ‘city’ is) that is not constantly changing, that is not constantly expressing stress and conflict. In one sense it is good that life is constantly changing and we are glad that circumstances change and we’re able to move on, but the next set of circumstances so often are little better. It is true inside church and outside it. The bigger the church the less obvious are the tensions but look deeply into any smaller church over a period of time and you will see the stresses and strains of being human beings; delivered from being in bondage to sin, yes, but nevertheless so often handling life in a less than perfect way. There must be a better way!

Back in chapter 11 we have the gallery of faith, the heroes of faith from the Old Testament, headed up by Abraham who had an amazing relationship with the Lord, only exceeded by that of Moses with the Lord, but when he received his call to go to a new land, he went as a nomad looking for something better, a city or community or people built by God: “For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” (Heb 11:10) Thus now we have an exact echo of that. Just like Abraham we have received a calling and we have responded to it and gone and followed the Lord, and yet as wonderful as that is, we are so often left feeling, there must be something better than this.  In chapter 12 we caught a glimpse of ‘this’: “But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God.” (Heb 12:22) The ‘City of God’ is in fact heaven, the dwelling place of God. That is our destiny.

Back in chapter 11, the writer explained this all more fully: “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. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country–a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.” (Heb 11:13-16) Let’s examine this passage more fully.

The people of faith: All these people were still living by faith when they died.” (v.13a) It is a life of faith right up to the end (or the beginning!!!) That is what they were and that is what we are, people of faith, and in that we are not failures and we do not fall short.

And yet! “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.” (v.13b) Despite being people of faith they had not received the full package, everything promised by God. That is how it is this side of eternity.

Still looking:  People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own.(v.14) All these people had this same feeling of life falling short of what they wanted, of there being something better ‘just over the horizon’ we might say.

A Different Country:  If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one.” (v.15,16a) It wasn’t as if they yearned to have a ‘retake’ of their past years. No, they wanted something better.

Accepted: “Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.” (v.16b) It didn’t matter that they were dissatisfied with their past experience, they were people of faith and indeed it was their awareness and their faith that pleased the Lord.  So many other people are content with the world that they know and just want more of it – more money, more prestige, more fame, more possessions, more experiences.  The fact that all these things are tainted with sin which makes life ‘second best’ doesn’t appear to matter to them and until the Holy Spirit comes and convicts they rarely say, “There must be something better than this.”

So where do these thoughts leave us. First, with a reminder that we live in a fallen world where things go wrong, circumstances are sometimes bad and people even worse and, it seems, life seems ‘second best’ i.e. it could be better! Second, it is not wrong to yearn for a better experience, indeed it is an awareness not only of this world but of the world God has put on our hearts, the world yet to come. So, third, despite this we need to take hold of the grace of God to remain faithful and true to Him while we live and work out our time on this earth. Reach out for the better where you can and don’t accept second best if that is possible.

11. Expectancy

Meditations on ‘Focusing Faith’ : 11.  Expectancy

Heb 11:10   For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.

In verse 9 the writer to the Hebrews had almost made a point when commenting that Abram lived in tents. He was a nomad of no fixed abode. We noted in that previous meditation that he travelled through the country, either unsure of where he should be or searching for something better. And that summarises how life so often is for us, we are unsure where we should be and searching for something better.

Our motivations may be varied. The person who constantly wants a bigger and better house, car or job may just be an insecure person who needs this sort of thing to make them feel worthy. They want to be looked up to and therefore they have to climb constantly upwards. But for other people there is this same sense of ‘something more’ but that is all it is, a sense that out there, there is yet something more.

It is the tension of the Christian life, having a sense of contentment in all that God has provided for us, yet also a feeling that there is yet more to come. No more is this so than when we are confronted by a situation that could either stay the same of we could seek God for something better and then have to step out in faith for it. Because we know that God has always got something more, there will always be this almost subconscious feeling of what should I be reaching out for?

Yesterday’s meditation was all about expectations and this is really just a continuation of that. We saw, “By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise.”   Not only was Abram  a tent dweller, an alien in a foreign land, but so were Isaac and Jacob. They all had the promise that one day this land would belong to them, a place where their descendants could settle and built permanent dwellings.  Of course when you put a lot of dwellings together you have a city, thus he now goes on to speak of Abram looking forward to a city, a place of settled permanence in contrast to the tents in which the patriarch lived.

But there is more to it than that, he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.”  The fact that he describes it as a city “with foundations” suggests that this is more than physical foundations but a place whose origins go right back in history. This is a city built by God for people.  From Exodus onwards the Bible shows us God working to create a special people, a people who stand out in the world, a people who will reveal Him to the rest of the world, a people who are all the same, God’s people, relating to Him, drawn together by Him, all showing something of His character within them.

Later on the writer will say,   “But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” (Heb 12:22-24) It is a place where God, His angels and His people dwell together and it is possible because of all that Jesus has done. It is something clearly in the back of his mind for still later in the book we read, “And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.” (Heb 13:12-14)  i.e. Jesus was executed on the Cross outside the city, a sign of their rejection of him; thus we too are to leave the place of our habitation in the world – the old Jerusalem – and join him in the world’s rejection because any experience of community here in this world is temporary but the real community of God’s people is still yet to come in its fullness. We have a form of it now but the fullness is yet to come.

We see this in John’s vision in Revelation: “I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away…. And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.” (Rev 21:2-4,10) God has on His heart a new community of His people who will dwell with Him in eternity and it will be a community where there will be “no more death or mourning or crying or pain.”

That is the ‘something’ each of us finds deep within up. Solomon wrote, “I have seen the burden God has laid on men. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” (Eccles 3:10,11) Every human being has something inside them that yearns for more. The person who encounters the Lord, as Abram had, finds in them that this becomes crystallized into a yearning for fellowship with the Lord or a community in which the Lord resides in eternity. Why? Because we now have the Holy Spirit indwelling us and He conveys to us the longing or end goal that that Lord has on His heart for us.  Thus when we encounter the Lord by faith (as we all have to as Christians) then we find this yearning within us that comes from the Lord, for a city, a stable community of God with His people that we will eventually experience at the end or outworking of His plans for us. The more we sense Him the more the experiences of community today will feel inadequate; like Abram we will sense something better with the Lord than we have today. It is all part of the faith package.