23. Humbled

Meditations in Deuteronomy : 23 :  Humbled, Provided For, Disciplined

(Focus: Deut 8:1-5)

Deut 8:2 Remember how the LORD your God led you all the way in the desert these forty years, to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands.

A casual reading of parts of these early chapters of Deuteronomy might conclude there is just a lot of repetition, but a closer reading shows that where there is repetition it is for a different specific purpose and it usually has different elements to it. This is what we find here.

So chapter 8 starts out with something that has been said a number of times before.  Be careful to follow every command I am giving you today, so that you may live and increase and may enter and possess the land that the LORD promised on oath to your forefathers.” (v.1)  Note again that there is a command and a promise so the promise is conditional on the command. The command is a simple call to obey all the laws being reiterated by Moses, and the promise is blessing on their lives and an enabling to go in and take the Land. Normally, previously, the promise has been to have long life in the land but the promise here is the ability to take the land. So the obedience to the Law needs to start right now for it impacts all that is going to follow.

But now it is followed by yet another call to remember the past, but this time it is a call not only to remember it, but understand it, understand what was going on and why! Remember how the LORD your God led you all the way in the desert these forty years, to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands.” (v.2) The basic facts of their recent history were that God had led them while they wandered for forty years in the desert having originally failed to enter the Promised Land. But what was going on while that was happened? God was humbling them and testing them.

When you look back on the records of that time they are limited mostly to different crises that occurred – lacking water, lacking food etc.   Now, says Moses, that wasn’t coincidental, that was God testing you to see how you would react. The crucial issue at every crisis was would they turn to the Lord, would they stick to what they had been told about Him, would they adhere to the Law?  Rather than just waste that forty year period, the Lord used it to teach and train Israel.  The most important thing was that they had to learn to trust the Lord and stick to Him.  Often they hadn’t done very well, but a learning process is like that, you don’t do very well initially but you get better as you learn.

But there was a specific aspect to this teaching: “He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your fathers had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.” (v.3) When they had eventually decided to enter the land on the previous occasion it was a pure example of self-confidence, not confidence in God.  They had to lose that self-confidence because it was not the thing that would see them through in the centuries to come, it was a confidence in the Lord, which is what the Sinai covenant of love was all about – about coming into a relationship of trust in God. So a number of times they had a crisis of provision and the Lord looked to see if they would turn to Him for provision – they didn’t, they grumbled instead, but nevertheless the Lord DID provide for them – manna.  They had to learn that their future lives did not simply depend on material provision, but also provision of the wisdom of God, every word that comes from Him!

He reminds them of what happened: “Your clothes did not wear out and your feet did not swell during these forty years.” (v.4)    Not only did the Lord provide manna, quails and water.   He also ensured that their clothes did not wear out.  One pair of sandal for forty years!!!  Then comes the key principle behind all this: “Know then in your heart that as a man disciplines his son, so the LORD your God disciplines you.” (v.5) There it is! What had been going on throughout those years had been God’s disciplining. Now don’t misunderstand this.  So often we equate discipline with punishment but in the Bible, discipline is God training His people. Yes it does involve correction and yes sometimes it is painful, but the purpose is always good. It is that the people of God learn to trust God.

When crises happen today, how do we view them?  Panic?   Or do we turn to the Lord to hear from Him to see what provision He wants to bring us to cope with the present?  These are profound questions and they deserve some careful thought so that we may trust Him more and more.

 

33. Growing in Christ

Ephesians Meditations No.33

Eph  4:14,15 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.

Imagine you go to a garden centre and buy a small plant which, the attached label tells you, should grow into a large bush. You faithfully tend it and water it and do everything you should to it – but it doesn’t grow one bit. I think you would be disappointed or even annoyed. Why hasn’t it grown? Yet when we come to the Christian life, do we opt for no change? If we stopped every person going into every church in your area and asked them, “Excuse me, can you tell me how you have changed and grown as a Christian in the past three years,” I wonder what sort of answers you would get. I’m sure there would be some just bemused at the thought, and others defensive and others even angry at the thought that they needed to change!

Many years ago I started preaching what I believe the Bible teaches: God loves you just like you are, but He also loves you so much that He has something better for you than what you are. Why am I saying this? Because the objective of the verses that we considered in the previous meditation ultimately take us towards maturity and these verses today speak of us growing up! Growing up is all about change.

This idea of us growing up comes in a variety of places in the New Testament: “Our hope is that, as your faith continues to grow, our area of activity among you will greatly expand,” (2 Cor 10:15) i.e. Paul expected their faith to grow. He also spoke about “the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.” (Col 2:19). He expected the Lord to help the body (church) to grow.

The apostle Peter taught the same thing: “Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation.” (1 Pet 2:2)) and “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.” (2 Pet 3:18). The same idea was there when Paul spoke about us when he said, “we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory,” (2 Cor 3:18) again indicating the expectation of us changing. The Christian life as something that is passive and unchanging is not a New Testament concept!

What are the alternatives to this ‘growing up’? Paul tells us: “infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming.” Of course if you look at the verses above you will see that this is part of his call that he starts off with no longer be…” He doesn’t want us to be like this, but this is what it is like when you don’t ‘grow up’. If we don’t ‘grow up’ we remain spiritual infants! He says we will be tossed back and forwards. What does that mean? It means in our thinking we will be unstable and we’ll think one thing one week and something else the next, because we haven’t been grounded in the truth and so we don’t know what to believe when new fanciful teachings appear on the scene or people come and try and put us off our faith. Satan’s original unsettling words – “Did God really say…” (Gen 3:1) are still heard today in a variety of guises – and of course the untaught spiritual infant doesn’t know what to believe, and so it is no surprise that they are blown one way and another.

This is especially true when the enemy demeans us and says such things as, “You’re rubbish, you’re a failure,” or “You’re a nobody and nobody loves you”. At such times the spiritual infant doesn’t know the truth and doesn’t know what to answer. What is the answer? That we grow up!

Yes, the alternative to remaining spiritual infants is spelled out: “Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.” But what is the reference to speaking the truth in love’ about? Maturity comes through teaching and teaching takes different forms. Consider Paul’s famous description of the word of God: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, (2 Tim 3:16). Often we see this as a list of four different things the Bible is useful for, but in reality teaching involves the other three. Teaching involves rebuking (pointing out error), correcting (showing the right way) and training in righteousness (showing the way to live according to God’s ways). Becoming mature involves bringing our minds, our thinking and our lives in line with God’s will and that means change and to help that change come about, we need teachers who will speak the truth to us in love.

When that is a regular process in our lives, “we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.” i.e. we grow in our union with Christ and although we remain separate and distinct from Christ himself, we will harmonise with him in our thinking and our feeling and our actions more and more or, even as we noted above, we are being transformed into his likeness.” (2 Cor 3:18). Maturity thus involves becoming more Christ-like as we grow.

So, to summarise, Paul is indirectly warning us against remaining as vulnerable spiritual infants, and exhorts us to grow up as we receive correction and training and become more and more Christ-like. It’s a challenge. May we rise to it!

18. God of Hope

MEDITATIONS IN ISAIAH – No.18

Isa 9:2 The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.

When we have been caught out doing wrong, told off, hauled into court, or whatever other expression of accountability comes upon us, we feel bad. We possibly try to make excuses and justify ourselves but essentially we feel bad because we have been caught doing wrong. The child who has been told off, often sulks, and needs attention! The book of Isaiah is much about the corrective process, of God having to speak to Judah, Jerusalem and Israel about their folly, and warning them of His corrective processes that are designed to draw them back to Him and to a place of blessing, as we’ve already seen in this series a number of times.

However in the midst of these words of assessment and correction, we also find a number of words of hope. It is as if the Lord doesn’t want us to get bogged down in the present morass of wrong doing and correction, but wants us to lift our eyes to the future and see that there is something better on the horizon. This is a God who is always looking to our future, the future of good that He has planned for us. So often I say, “God loves you so much that He accepts you just like you are, but He also loves you so much that He has something better for you and doesn’t want you to stay the same.” This reflects God’s love that wants to move us on to something better than we have now. The Bible is full of this.

Chapter 9 starts off with this recognition: Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress.” (9:1a) The ‘nevertheless’ points back to the previous chapter where the Lord warned of negative outcomes, but now Isaiah offers hope. Despite that, he is saying, that will come to an end. He continues, “In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the Gentiles, by the way of the sea, along the Jordan.” (9:1b). Yes, he says, in the past the land in the north had a hard time of it, but that will change. They are in for blessing. Then comes our verse today, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.” (9:2). These people up in the north, who have so often walked in the darkness that comes with invasion from the nations of the north, will find that their land will be lightened when a ‘great light’ comes to it.

Now there is something to be noted here of importance. We immediately jump to the (right) conclusion that this prophetically refers to the coming of Jesus many centuries later, for so Matthew applied it (Mt 4:13-16), but there was also a practical outworking of that prophecy in that time of Isaiah. We mustn’t forget that. Isaiah describes what will happen: “You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy; they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest, as men rejoice when dividing the plunder.” (9:3) In other words there is coming a time when the people of the north will be ‘enlarged’. Whether that means a time of stability where they are able to grow, or simply their confidence in who they are in God will be enlarged, is not made clear. But this ‘enlarging’ will be accompanied by joy. There will be much rejoicing, just like there is rejoicing when the harvest has been got in or when there is a victory over an enemy.

He continues, For as in the day of Midian’s defeat, you have shattered the yoke that burdens them, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor.” (9:4) Gideon’s defeat of Midian was still spoken of as a memorable deliverance. The change that is coming will be like that. There is going to come a complete transformation. The further outworking is explained: Every warrior’s boot used in battle and every garment rolled in blood will be destined for burning, will be fuel for the fire.” (9:5) In other words, and read that verse carefully, all signs of war will be gone. There is coming a time of peace.

Now we’ll leave the reason for all that which comes in the following verses until the next meditation, but let’s just focus for now on the hope that is given. So often when we are down, we remain down because there seems no hope. Indeed the things that have happened in the past only go to confirm in us that this is a bad world and things only go wrong. But that is where our God of love steps in and says, “No, it doesn’t have to remain like that. I can transform it if you’ll let me.” That is the message of the Gospel and it comes loud and clear again and again through scripture. God comes to us with an offer of love and transformation. This isn’t an empty offer. This isn’t a God who says, “I’ll be there for you,” and then just stands and watches our struggles. No, this is a God who steps down into our affairs and brings His power and His abilities to bear on our circumstances to bring change – as we let Him!

Yes, there is the crucial condition – if we let Him, for He will not force Himself on us or on our circumstances. His love involves respect and so He respects our sovereignty and will not invade our lives. He waits to be invited in, but once He is given free reign, then He brings the transformation we long for. We cannot guess how He will do it, but do it He will! This is the hope we have and which comes through Scripture to us: the bad times don’t have to remain. He longs to bring a great light to our darkness. May we know that!

15. Discipline

The Anguish of Job – Meditation 15

Job 5:17 “Blessed is the man whom God corrects; so do not despise the discipline of the Almighty

Oh no! Does Job need to hear this in his anguish? Although the cane was still in use in my school days, fortunately I never received it. I received clips round the ear, detentions and, on one occasion a visit to the headmaster’s study, but never the cane, I’m glad to say. Punishment is unpleasant. It’s supposed to be; it’s supposed to deter us and put us off doing something or of doing it again. Ultimately it is to bring about a change in behaviour in us – and it’s not pleasant!

Now correction is something that arises often in Scripture, for example, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim 3:16,17) Yes, that is in one of the more famous verses of the New Testament. God’s word sometimes has to rebuke or tell us off, correct or put right our thinking or behaviour, and train us or bring about changes in us. That is what correction, training and discipline is all about. Solomon was very strong on it: “he who hates correction is stupid.” (Prov 12:1). Why is that? It is because sin in us warps our thinking, distorts our perception, creates off-kilter attitudes, and leads us into silly patterns of behaviour, and none of those things do us any good. We need to change but another facet of sin is that it doesn’t like being told what to do, so we need God’s help to change.

So here is Eliphaz still beating up on Job. We’ve said a number of times already that he is basically judging Job and assuming that his plight is to do with sin. The implication of this verse today is that, “Of course you are a sinner and so God is having to beat it out of you with harsh circumstances, so think well of what is happening to you!” But of course, again as we’ve said several times, that isn’t what this is all about. If you can narrow it down to a tight description, we might simply say that God is testing Job’s resolve and his faithfulness and, no doubt, giving him a number of lessons along the way.

Eliphaz is very positive about it though. Yes you are a sinner and God is correcting you, but correction always has a good outcome; that is the gist of what follows. Listen to him: “For he wounds, but he also binds up; he injures, but his hands also heal.” (v.18). It’s all right, he says, He may have wounded you, but He’ll also heal you up afterwards. Well that happens to be true, but for the moment it’s not a great deal of help! He continues: “From six calamities he will rescue you; in seven no harm will befall you. In famine he will ransom you from death, and in battle from the stroke of the sword.” (v.19,20) The ‘six’ and ‘seven’ usage was a cultural way of saying ‘many’ or ‘lots of’. In other words lots of things can go wrong but he will rescue you and save you from harm, keeping you from death. Yes, but Job wants to die! That’s how bad he feels. This may be true but it doesn’t make Job feel better!

See how he continues: “You will be protected from the lash of the tongue, and need not fear when destruction comes. You will laugh at destruction and famine, and need not fear the beasts of the earth.” (v.21,22) Yes, he says, when it goes bad God will protect you from the gossips and you won’t go to the same destruction. You can laugh at death. Well, yes again, that is true, but you actually need to get God’s grace to cope like that. You can’t do it on your own, so perhaps a nice act here by Eliphaz would be to say, “I feel with you in your anguish. May I pray for you that either God will release you from it or give you grace to cope with it, because I don’t know that I would be able to cope in your shoes without his help?”

Then he goes on: “For you will have a covenant with the stones of the field, and the wild animals will be at peace with you. You will know that your tent is secure; you will take stock of your property and find nothing missing.” (v.23,24). Perhaps we might put that, “You will be at peace living in God’s world and know that your home will be secure and everything you own will be secure.” What! Just a minute! Job has just had his home taken and his flocks taken and his family taken! So what is Eliphaz saying? Once you have been disciplined and straightened out, this is how things will be. Right! Thanks!

He finishes off: “You will know that your children will be many, and your descendants like the grass of the earth. You will come to the grave in full vigor, like sheaves gathered in season.” (v.25,26) Yes, this only confirms what we’ve just said. Once God has sorted you out, everything will be wonderful again. Implication: you’re in a mess and need God’s discipline to sort you out – THEN everything will be fine again. And this man is a friend????

But how often do we deal with people like this? How often do we point fingers? Someone has said the Christian army is the only army that shoots its soldiers when they are down. That was not how Paul saw it. We’ve seen it before; let’s see it again: “Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself.” (Gal 6:1-3). If Eliphaz had been in Job’s shoes, I wonder how he would want to have been treated? Line on line here, Eliphaz is revealing his ignorance of the true facts of the situation and is just piling up more and more evidence of his own spiritual poverty. Jesus reached over and touched the leper (Lk 5:13). If only Eliphaz could have touched Job meaningfully. If only people would ‘touch’ me meaningfully when I’m down, if only I could always ‘touch’ people meaningfully when they are down, what a different church it would be!