3. A Question of Sovereignty

Lessons in Growth  Meditations: 3. A Question of Sovereignty

Mark 2:14  As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him.

An Imaginary Conversation: I have more than a few times, as I have written these studies, thought how easily we either read or hear words without taking in the reality of what is being conveyed. I mean, take the verse above. Here is Levi a tax collector and Jesus walks up and says “Follow me,” and so he leaves his booth and goes. Too easy! If I was writing a novel I would want to enlarge what happened:

“Hullo, I’m Jesus.”

“Yes, I know I’ve heard all about you.”

“OK, well I’m looking for a band of men to train up to take over my work when I’m gone so I want you to come with me.”

“But I’ve got a job.”

“This will be a better one. Come with me.”

“Where are you going?”

“You’ll find out as you follow me.”

“What are we going to do?

“You’ll find out as you follow me.”

“When will I be fit enough to take over your job?”

“You’ll find out when you follow me.”

Varied Experiences: Maybe it was like that, maybe it was just as simple as the text shows. I find that people’s experiences of coming to Christ are like that. I had a friend who argued his way into a corner over several months before he surrendered to Christ. I have come across others who just seemed to hear the call and in all simplicity said yes. We’re all different but whether we realise it or not, we all respond to the same call.

Simplicity of Experience: If my own experience is anything to go by, it frequently isn’t a neat, concise experience but one that may have a dramatic moment, lacking by some, but even then the realities of it take a while to sink in. I had heard the gospel from the mouth of the greatest evangelist of the twentieth century and had gone home to make a decision. The extent, the depth, or the shallowness of my prayer that night is not, I believe, a measure of what was coming, but then perhaps it was. I simply prayed, never having prayed before and not knowing what one should say, “Well, God, I’ve heard it tonight and although I suspect I don’t understand half of it, all I know is if you want my life, I will say I believe in Jesus, and here is my life if you want it. Please take it. Amen.”  Or words very much like that – it is now fifty years ago! With that I climbed into bed and fell asleep.

All I can tell you is that when I woke next morning I was a totally different person. That day I was visiting a cousin and spent the day trying to convert him – with almost zero knowledge! I started going to church each Sunday, I bought a Bible and started reading it, I became involved with a youth outreach team which necessitated me moving. Within two years, somehow or other I was leading seven Bible studies a week, my desire was to share what happened with whoever would listen, and along the way I found a wonderful Christian girl who became my wife. A transformed life and it has carried on changing, as I say, for fifty years. Later this morning, I am going out for the first time to help set up a soup kitchen for the homeless. What tomorrow holds, I don’t know.

When I look back on that first prayer, the words that I do remember clearly were, “here is my life if you want it.” It was a radical surrender and, regardless of the words, we use, I believe that is at the heart of every conversion, that willingness to say, I believe, I surrender to you, please save me and take and lead my life, for all of that was in that little part of the prayer I’ve just recounted.

Who Rules? Now you may wonder where this fits in with this series. Well, in the two starting ‘studies’ I suggested that the first phase of the Christian life destined to grow, is death. We die to our old lives and at the heart of that, as my heading today indicates, it is all a matter of sovereignty – who rules, me or Him?  Now I wish it was as simple as that – and don’t believe any preacher who says it is! But it isn’t. On that night, all those years ago, my commitment was real. I had been moved, I had been convicted and all I knew was that I had to surrender – whatever that meant? – and give God my life and put my life in His hands – whatever that meant? We can only act and respond in the measure of the knowledge we have at the time. So, yes, I believe there will be this one-off initiating surrender and God knows the reality of it and impart His Holy Spirit and we are ‘born again’, but that is just the start.

I suspect there are countless times when we come to a fresh place of surrender where, one way or another, we say, “All right Lord, you win, I give in,” and that may be on a requirement to forgive, a need to give, a need to let go, or a whole range of other possibilities.  Each time we face a new challenge from the Lord or from His word, this same thing will take place; we will face the confrontation: “Follow me.” “But what will happen?” “Leave it with me.” “How will I be able to do it?” “I will enable you.”

My Need to Die: It is indeed a case of dying to my self-sovereignty. If I am to grow, it has to die, again and again and again. Now again, if my experience is anything to go by, don’t think that such decisions are split second, momentary things. I think the reality is that sometimes the Lord works on us for weeks or even years to bring changes about, and the amazing thing is that He is patient and loving – and persevering! He will get His way, because He IS sovereign. Whether it is arguing at a burning bush with a Moses, or wrestling with a Jacob through the night or re-equipping a fallen Peter, He will persevere when He sees the potential that you and I cannot see in ourselves.

More than Shallow Emotion: I’ve lost count of the number of times I have sat listening to preachers calling for “surrender” or “commitment” and I find it frustrating because unless the Holy Spirit is convicting us, it will just be an emotional response to please the preacher.  In general terms, I don’t know what it means to ‘surrender’ or ‘be committed’ (don’t be shocked). All I know is that there are times when He confronts me with a “Follow me,” and it becomes an issue, and somehow, with His grace even, I have to come to a point of conviction and saying, “OK,” and that’s it. We move on. I change. He relentlessly pursues His purposes for me and blessing follows.

You see, it took a lot of years, but I have become convinced (why did it take so long, it’s clearly there in His word???) that He has plans and purposes that perfectly fit me and they are for good – mine and for people around me – because He’s like that. When He says, “Follow me,” my intellect says, yes, that’s a good thing, but I know the truth – it’s often through a struggle and ultimately that truth is summed up in, “Will I die to my desire to be lord of my life, and let Him be instead, because He’s so much better at it than I am?” Enough!

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20. Careful Restraint

Short Meditations in John 2:  20. Careful Restraint

Jn 2:24,25  But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all men. He did not need man’s testimony about man, for he knew what was in a man.

It is a mistake to take people’s enthusiasm over you or over something you have said or done. That is not a cynical comment; it is a warning based on the truth. A person’s enthusiasm today can turn to scorn, criticism or even hostility on another day. Our emotions fly with the events or circumstances that face us and because they change, we change.

Now Jesus knew this, Jesus understood us and knows what we are like. So Jesus knew that this crowd of people in Jerusalem were responding in a surface way to what were in some ways surface miracles. Yes, they were the simple (and wonderful) expressions of the Son of God, and as such they had the power to stir people’s admiration, yet there is a great deal of difference between someone saying, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.” (Jn 3:2) and, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (Mt 16:16) One are words of admiration and the other is a declaration of commitment to an amazing belief and thus a commitment to Jesus himself (even if Peter did at one point deny Jesus).

Jesus does not look for temporary admiration for the miracle he performs, but looks for permanent heart-change commitment to himself that comes out of understanding who he is. One is response to a miracle (and event) and the other is a commitment to a man (Jesus himself) and there is an amazing difference. Indeed we should be aware of this when people make a declaration of faith based on one good thing God has done for them. Salvation does not come in response to a single good thing received but in response to a deep conviction, a conviction of need and a conviction that Jesus alone is the answer to that need.

Jesus’ parable of the Sower (Mt 13:3-) shows us that there are many and varied responses to Jesus’ words. Some reject them from hardness of heart, some receive them but soon fall away, some receive them gladly but under the pressures of life soon fall away, while others receive them and they go deep in them and it brings total change and fruitfulness. No, miracles in themselves don’t bring salvation, but they can act as signs to point people to a place of eventual total commitment – that is, when they have open hearts. Hallelujah!

28. A Burnt Offering

Meditations in the Law : No.28 : What is a Burnt Offering?

Lev 1:3,4 `If the offering is a burnt offering from the herd, he is to offer a male without defect. He must present it at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting so that it will be acceptable to the LORD. He is to lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering, and it will be accepted on his behalf to make atonement for him.

Where the people wanted to just bring something to God as an expression of their relationship with Him, the Lord tells them to do it in a particular way. There is a sense of reassurance about this because once there is a set way laid down, it means that the person bringing the offering will not be worrying whether what they bring is acceptable to the Lord. In addition, the prescribed way will no doubt leave the Israelite pondering on the significance of what he has done, and that in itself will deepen his relationship with the Lord. Note also that the offering brought is to be an animal from herd or flock (v.2). This will involve putting the animal to death at the doorway of the Tent (Tabernacle), and that also will leave the Offeror with a whole new appreciation of the value of life.

But what is this first offering all about? The other offerings give clues by their names – fellowship, sin, guilt etc. but this first one simply is described as ‘burnt’. Well, first of all that suggests that this is an offering that is just simply given to God. Once it is completely burnt, the animal is completely gone. The owner no longer gets any benefit from it. The fact that it is completely burnt up means that the owner completely gives it away and there is no taking it back. It is a complete letting go of the animal to God.

Remember we said yesterday that this offering was given freely. It is therefore to be an expression of an open heart to God, but even that is tested by ensuring that the Offeror conforms to the instructions. For those who come with very full hearts, they give the biggest and the best – a bull with nothing wrong with it (v.3a). This giving will be real! But perhaps the farmer doesn’t own a bull and only has a flock of sheep or goats. That’s all right; they will be acceptable (v.10). But perhaps he doesn’t own a herd or a flock and so all he could obtain by catching, breeding or buying, would be a pigeon or a dove. Well that’s all right (v.14). What does this say? It says that anyone could come and bring an offering regardless of their financial standing. No one is to be excluded because they are inferior or poor. Provision is made for all classes of people in the congregation and each one is given some simple instructions to follow.

The giver must come with it to the entrance to the Tent where it is checked and approved (v.3b). Once approved the giver himself must put it to death (v.5,11) after he has placed his hand on its head (v.4a), identifying with it, as if to say, I transfer my sin to it so that it is received as atonement (v.4b), or a substitute taking my punishment due for my sin. Even when bringing a basic gift to God, there is a reminder of His holiness and our sinfulness. We can’t approach casually.

The priests, in their official intermediary capacity, take some of the animal’s blood and sprinkle it on all sides of the altar before the pieces of the animal are cut up and burnt on the altar. The blood represented the life of the animal (Lev 17:11) and so even before the altar is used there is a symbolic marking it with the signs of the life of the substitute. There is no casual use of this altar, it requires the laying down of a life before it can be used to approach God.  Even the messiest part of the animal, its legs and entrails are washed before burning, indicating a required holiness of approach. When all this is done, it is said to provide a pleasing aroma to the Lord (1:17); simply He is pleased when the person reveals their heart by the obedience in their approach. This offering alone is completely burnt up and is the only one not eaten by others. In that sense it stands out as the basic offering that indicates total giving to the Lord.

This offering, the Law shows us, was offered morning and evening every day for all Israel at the Tabernacle (Ex 29:39-42), with double offerings on the Sabbath (Num 28:9,10), and extra ones on feast days (Num 28 & 29) It was, as we’ve said, the basic offering, given for no other reason than to express love to God, total commitment to Him.

We can sometimes forget that God is holy and cannot be casually approached. The only reason we can approach so easily on a Sunday morning or any other time we turn to God, is that Jesus has become our sacrifice to take our sin and open the way to God. Even our desires to bless God have to be sanctified because of their imperfection. When Jesus died to open the way up to God for us, it was for ‘whoever’: For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (Jn 3:16). Jesus is God’s means of approach for us today. Jesus said, “No one comes to the Father except through me.” (Jn 14:6)

9. Relationships

Lessons from the Law: No.9 : Respect Relationships

Ex 20:14 You shall not commit adultery.

These commands are all about relationships. The first four were about relationship with the Lord. The fifth one was about relationship with parents – the most fundamental of all relationships, a relationship we all have whether we like it or not – and then the sixth one was about respecting life and not taking it except under very specific circumstances that only occur in a fallen world. This seventh command now goes to the heart of marriage relationships.

Genesis 2:24 speaks of a man being “united to his wife and they will become one flesh.” Now most commentators maintain that that refers to far more than just physical oneness. This seems to be affirmed in the sense of Paul’s words about not being united with a prostitute (1 Cor 6:16). Uniting with your partner in this way is also a joining of spirit and therefore anything that breaks that unity is to be condemned. Marriage is supposed to be the commitment of two people to each other and indeed in a wedding service those two people make vows in respect of each other. It is a sign of the insecurity that many people feel in the twenty first century that so many people simply cohabit and do not go through any ceremony where they commit themselves to one another. Possibly it is for this reason that cohabiting couples are more likely to split up than married couples, even though divorce is so common.

Adultery is sexual intercourse outside of marriage involving at least one married person. What is supposed to be probably the most intimate of encounters is, in God’s design, purely for within marriage. Adultery is unfaithfulness by one marriage partner whereby they abandon their love and commitment to their partner to give themselves to another. Yes, adultery is first and foremost an abandoning of the marriage vows, the promises made to one’s partner. It is a giving to another person what should only be given to your partner. It is also a discontentment with the present relationship. It may be called ‘an affair’ or given some other term but it is basically disloyalty to one’s partner.

The consequences of such ‘affairs’ are always painful. In secret it breeds guilt, and when it becomes known it creates pain, shame, anger, and mistrust. It has the potential to utterly destroy the marriage relationship. When it becomes casual, as in our society today, it brings upheaval and insecurity to society and our world is littered with individuals who are the hurt cast-offs of another’s casual sexual encounter outside of the marriage relationship. In early Israel so important was it that the death penalty was the punishment for adultery (e.g. Deut 22:22-24).

Possibly one of the greatest impacts of such adultery – even if it was a one-off fling that didn’t mean anything more than a ‘one night stand’ – is loss of trust. Even if the guilty party wishes to maintain their marriage relationship, whether it comes out through others telling the other partner, or the guilty partner confesses to it, then loss of trust is a guaranteed outcome. Where it is more than a one night fling, it completely undermines the present marriage and many children today are the painful recipients of all of the outworkings of a marriage break up. You only have to be a teacher to know that children don’t weather these things casually. The break up of a marriage is the most devastating and undermining thing that can happen to a child. We apparently have no idea of the hurt the practices of our modern societies are causing to our children. The casual approach that many modern Western societies have towards marriage may be causing more hurt than we can possibly comprehend, with outcomes that are yet to be seen in society in the decades to come.

Jesus, as always, went behind the outward act and confronted the mind. He expanded the basic commandment and said simply looking at a woman lustfully was already committing adultery with her (Mt 5:27,28). His warning was don’t even start moving in that direction. In a world where the media is full of sexual pictures, it is difficult to keep a pure heart but that is Jesus’ call to us who call ourselves Christians. No excuses, it is quite clear!

It used to be the prerogative of men to look at women lustfully, but modern trends indicate that it is also a woman thing. We need to reinforce our marriages, often telling one another we love our partner – it needs to be said! We need to be spending time with one another to reinforce and strengthen the relationship. When we work alongside members of the opposite sex, we need to avoid compromising situations and when we return to our partner we need to rejoice afresh at that unique relationship. Failure to do this may mean we join that band of unfaithful men and women who are answerable to God. Modern society may be casual about it, but God isn’t. Unlike a mere bout of anger, adultery has many long-term consequences that mean lives will never be the same again. Unfaithfulness in this area often has the undermining effect of meaning unfaithfulness in all areas of life. Commitment is something that has to be worked at. Do it!

45. Sacrificial Love

Ephesians Meditations No.45

Eph  5:25-28 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.

‘Love’ has a variety of meanings. In modern life it has acquired a strong link with sexual relationship but that is not the love that is referred to in the Bible. In the New Testament, there are two words used for love. One of them refers to brotherly love, the other, the main one, refers to a commitment; this is ‘agape’ love and it is the love of God and the love between Father and the Son, and it is the Son’s love for is. It is not about warm fuzzy emotional feelings, it is about commitment. Modern love goes through sexual relationship to friendship to commitment, but that is not the way God has designed us to work best and the numbers of cohabiting partnerships or even marriages based on this approach but which break up, are a testimony to this. God’s order is friendship first, then commitment, then sex as the outworking of that commitment. Real love, as the Bible sees it, goes through the phase of getting to know a person well and then, despite what you know (!) you come to a place of commitment. Yes feelings do have a part in it all but the feelings of love have content, first of all knowing about the person and then committing to that person.

Now what is interesting is that Paul in these verses in Ephesians, chapter 5, doesn’t ask the woman to ‘love’ the man, but to submit to him. Now that isn’t a cultural or simply historical reason, I suggest; it is to do with the fact that the woman, with her child-bearing capabilities, lives very much more on the basis of emotions, and of course emotions go up and down. So, implied Paul in the verses we considered previously, let the man take the responsibility before God for your lives together. Now when it comes to the man, the command is quite different: Husbands, love your wives,” and love here means be totally committed to your wife.

Now I have to suggest that some of our ideas about why ‘submit’ and why ‘love’ are purely speculation for Paul doesn’t really tell us why the distinction. It may be something quite different from what I have suggested above. It may be that Paul knows that the woman’s tendency (sinfully) is to seek to dominate her husband by words, and thus his call to submit, puts that tendency to death. It may be that Paul knows that men are far more open to be driven or motivated purely by sex and vulnerable to illicit relationships, and therefore to counteract that tendency, he calls for total commitment which gives no leeway for that to happen.

In case there is any question in the mind of the man reading Paul’s words, he makes it quite clear: “just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” In other words, men, if you want to know what Paul is calling you to, it is to a life that a) lays down self for the other, and b) is totally committed to working to bless the other to bring them into being the very best person they can be.

Observe, first of all, the first of those two things.  This love is sacrificial. It means that you will lay down your life for the wellbeing of your wife. That is the starting attitude that is required. This means that you lay down your own personal desires and preferences to bless your partner. But then I suggested that the second part, looking at what Christ IS doing for the church, means that your life is committed to be working to bless your wife so much that she is changed for the better. This is not you trying to get her to conform to your ideas of what makes a perfect wife, but you simply express your love for her so much that she is changed by the love.

Se how Paul finishes it off: “In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.” Perhaps Paul has in mind here the oneness that is found in Genesis: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.” (Gen 2:24). Paul knows that we ‘love’ our own bodies, we care for them, protect them and look after them, so he instructs us men to love our wives in the same way as we love ourselves and because in marriage there is this oneness, when we love our wife like this, we love ourselves.