Snapshots: Day 120

Snapshots: Day 120

The Snapshot: “do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” (Josh 1:9) Discouragement is a tactic of the enemy as he whispers into our minds, “you failed yesterday so you will fail tomorrow,” or “this problem is too great, give up now,” or “nobody loves you so give up on them,” or “this church is full of hypocrites just like you, what hope is there?” And so it goes on, words that discourage, words that are often blatant lies, or words that are sometimes half-truths, but what these words all forget is that the God who sent His Son to redeem us, and sent His Spirit to empower us, is still here with is, for us, working to bring us through into a place of victory, assurance, love and blessing. Hold the whole picture.

Further Consideration:  Encouragement is a vital weapon in the armoury of God’s people. A dictionary defines it as, ‘an action of giving someone support, confidence, or hope’. When Paul taught on personal prophecy he said, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort.” (1 Cor 14:3) One of the things that such words should do is encourage, bless, build up, strengthen, bring fresh hope, fresh confidence.

The greatest word of encouragement that I think can be brought is, “the Lord is with you.” When it comes as a word of prophecy it takes it from dry doctrine and transforms it into life-giving energy that lifts the soul and the spirit and puts new purpose into the day.

Of course, some say, the Lord is always with us, He indwells us by His Spirit. Absolutely but there are different senses of meaning. When the word comes, “the Lord is with you” it brings the sense that He is here with approval and encouragement, and you have to wonder if that wasn’t true why ever would there be so many times when those words were brought with such significance? (see Judg 6:12, 2 Sam 7:3, 14:17, 1 Chron 22:18, 28:20, Amos 5:14, Zeph 3:15,17, Zech 8:23, Lk 1:28)

But then some might say, why do we need encouragement? Very simply because we live in a fallen world and have an adversary whose goal is to disarm us with discouragement. If it wasn’t so the Lord would never have said to Joshua, “Don’t be discouraged.” The word had already come through Moses (see Deut 1:21, 31:8) and will yet come again to Joshua (see Josh 8:1) and Joshua would pass it on (see Josh 10:25) It was a word that often arose – see 1 Chron 22:13, 28:20, 2 Chron 20:15,17, 32:7) – simply because the need was there.

We live in a fallen world where things go wrong, opposition arises and so on, and so in all of this we need encouragement, we need to hear the words, “do not be discouraged” and we need to remember, He is with us. Be encouraged &  be an encourager!

24. Aspiring to Encourage

Aspiring Meditations: 24.  Aspiring to Encourage

Rom 15:4,5 May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus,”

1 Cor 14:3 everyone who prophesies speaks to men for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort.

1 Thess 5:11   Therefore encourage one another and build each other up

Heb 10:25 Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another–and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

This is another of those words that I’ve not just noticed in a list, but a word that has been with me a long time as a vital and essential requirement in today’s church and therefore a word worthy of our investigation in this ‘aspiring’ series.

What does it mean? Again my dictionary includes the following: Encouragement = to give courage, hope, or confidence to; embolden; hearten, to give support to; be favorable to; foster; help.  Don’t we all need that? Don’t my brothers and sisters in Christ need that?

Our starting point as so often is God Himself. In Rom 15 above, Paul says God gives us encouragement. To the Thessalonians he said, “May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word.” (2 Thess 2:16,17) That’s interesting. Eternal encouragement? Perhaps that means we are encouraged when we see God has a plan formulated from before the Creation that stretches into eternity, a plan to bless us, a plan to make us His children and to take us to be with Him in eternity. But that verse also shows us the outworking of encouragement – to strengthen us in word and deed.

I always find significant Paul’s words in 1 Cor 14:3 “everyone who prophesies speaks to men for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort.”  If you prophesy you bring a word from God and Paul says such a word will strengthen, encourage and comfort, so that is always God’s intent for His children.  There are two prayers I find the Lord answers so speedily, the prayer for wisdom and the prayer for encouragement. I have lost count of the number of times I felt worn in the battle and asked the Lord for some sort of encouragement. A little while back I felt the need of it and cried out for it and in the next couple of days had contacts from people in Australia, the USA and the south of England, people I’ve never heard of before, but the Lord clearly prompted them to contact me with expressions of encouragement. How wonderful He is!

Flowing on from that, we see that some people are especially gifted in the ability to encourage others: “We have different gifts, according to the grace given us….if it is encouraging, let him encourage.” (Rom 12:6,7) But having said that the bulk of the New Testament teaching is for us all to encourage one other, but it starts with Him.

So if He encourages us, it is no surprise that in His word He encourages us to encourage one another (note the double – he encourages so that we may encourage). We have the word above from Hebrews 10 to encourage one another, especially because of the days in which we live, days that Jesus said would have many upsetting things happening. It is often a worrying world and the fact that we have an enemy means that life is not always easy and that means that we often need encouraging. The writer to the Hebrews also said, “But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. (Heb 3:13) i.e. our loving encouragement may keep others from giving in to temptation and sinning. Our encouragement of one another may act as protection as well as strengthening.

For the leader, encouragement is to be one of the things we naturally do for the flock: Encourage and rebuke with all authority.” (Titus 2:15) It is always a twofold ministry – one of correcting and challenging but also one of building up, comforting and encouraging. Again Paul instructed Timothy in his leadership role, “Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage–with great patience and careful instruction.” (2 Tim 4:2) Again note the balance of correcting and encouraging. Correcting puts right wrong thoughts from the past, encouraging envisions and lifts us up to press on into the future.

How often do you leave church on a Sunday morning feeling, “That was a really great morning”?  Most Sundays I hope (be real, it won’t be every single Sunday). But what is it the contributes to such a feeling?  The worship? The preaching? The fellowship? How about the fact of being encouraged by another member or maybe, the fact that you were able to encourage someone else?  I go into church these days praying, “Lord, let me be a blessing to this people. Give me one, two or three people who I can specifically encourage.”  If the Lord answers that prayer (and we go looking to answer it), he will give us things to say to one another that does give courage, hope, or confidence to; embolden; hearten, to give support to others and therefore when we all leave, our encouraging others will be one of the ways the Lord strengthens the body, and people leave walking tall and feeling good, strengthened for the battles of the week ahead.

What potential we have. So how do we encourage others? First of all, look and listen. Around us, whenever we gather as the people of God there will be those worn down by the battles of last week, whether in the family, at work or in college, or maybe battles in the mind as the enemy seeks to sow doubts, discord, disappointments and discouragement generally. Ask the Lord to let you see something good about that person’s life and share it with them. If you are a more bold charismatic or Pentecostal, ask the Lord to give you a specific word of detail for them that will encourage.

I know a lady who has a lovely gifting whereby she gets a picture of someone, perhaps say a lady in a green coat, and the Lord says, “when she comes around the corner in front of you, stop her and tell her I love her and I understand what she is going through and if she will let me. I will help her.” And, lo and behold, the lady with the green coat comes around the corner. The God of encouragement! You and I may not have that particular gifting but we can bless one another with simple encouragement. Oh yes, this is definitely one to be added to the list of things to which I want to aspire more.

70. A Final Encouragement? (1)

Meditations in Hebrews 13:  70.  A Final Encouragement? (1)

Heb 13:22   Brothers, I urge you to bear with my word of exhortation, for I have written you only a short letter.  

Purpose of his writing: And so we come to the final verses of this thirteen-chapter book. At first glimpse verse 22 looks like a further encouragement, I urge you to bear with my word of exhortation,” but then when we read the whole verse we see it is not about this particular verse, but about the entire book: “for I have written you only a short letter.”  He calls this book a short letter; I wonder what a long one would be, for this is one of the longer letters of the New Testament?

Theology to launch exhortations: As I have looked up a couple of overviews of Hebrews I note that both place the emphasis on Christ’s superiority – over angels (chapters 1 & 2), over Moses (chapters 3 & 4), over the Old Covenant Priesthood (chapters 5-10) – and I can accept that this is true, and yet our writer calls this book his “word of exhortation” and so we find that those examples are, in context, used as platforms on which to urge faithfulness. Each theological platform launches an exhortation. I will underline each exhortation as we work through the book to catch the reason why he has described his writing like this.

Christ’s superiority over angels: Chapter 1 serves as a platform  from which he then launches his first exhortation: We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. For if the message spoken by angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation?” (2:1-3) i.e. what we have seen of Christ shows us that  this salvation is vastly superior to anything seen elsewhere in the world so we need to make sure we hang on to the truths of it. Chapter 2 expands on this concluding with, fix your thoughts on Jesus, the apostle and high priest whom we confess… we are his house, if we hold on to our courage and the hope of which we boast.” (3:1,6)

The Desert Failures: In Chapter 3 he then presses it on even further with a reference to the Old Testament failures in the desert, See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first.” (3:12-14) i.e. what we have today is so much better than that which the Old Testaments saints experienced so we have a greater responsibility to hold to what we now have.

The Rest of God: in Chapter 4 he builds on this idea of comparisons with the Old Testament experience: “Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it.” (4:1) Still developing the superiority of Christ and his work we next find, “since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are–yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (4:14-16) Twice we have the formula, a) because of this, b) then let’s do that,  c) so this will follow. Let’s take it in more fully:

Exhortation 1:

  1. because of this: “since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God,
  2. then let’s do that: let us hold firmly to the faith we profess
  3. so this will follow: we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses,

Exhortation 2:

  1. because of this: we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are–yet was without sin.
  2. then let’s do that: Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence
  3. so this will follow: so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”

In Chapter 5 he opens up the idea of the Old Covenant Priesthood and mentions Melchizedek and in so doing launches, first a challenge“it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn. In fact, 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. You need milk, not solid food!” (5:11,12) and then the preliminary exhortation: “Therefore let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again the foundation….” (6:1) which in Chapter 6 he follows with a warning about the impossibility of a second repentance, which then is followed by the main exhortation: “We want each of you to show this same diligence to the very end, in order to make your hope sure. We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised.” (6:11,12)

Theology leads to Exhortation: Now we are only part way through the book in this listing so we will continue with the rest in the next study. The point we are making is that this ‘letter’ came to the early church that was almost comprised initially of only converted Jews, and although the writer was extensively using what we call the Old Testament, he was using it to reveal Jesus more fully for who he was and what he had done, particularly contrasting him with the ministry of the Old Covenant. He did this to strengthen the believers in the face of persecutions and heresies arising in that century, and all of these exhortations, specific and implied, primary or secondary,  were to stir the church and challenge them not only to hold on to what they had received but to go deeper with it in terms of understanding and experience. He faced the problems confronting the early church and used his theological explanations to launch salvo after salvo of these exhortations to stand firm for Christ. That was their need and it is still our need today.

19. Aspects of Ministry

Meditations in Titus: 19:  Aspects of Ministry

Titus 2:15   These, then, are the things you should teach. Encourage and rebuke with all authority. Do not let anyone despise you

We have noted previously Titus has within it a number of succinct passages or verses that powerfully summarise different doctrines. In our verse above we have a number of aspects of Christian leadership, things which we would hope we would find in the ministry of any local church leader. There are five things to note.

First of all there is teaching. That is what Paul has been putting before Titus for so much of this letter so far, things that Titus needs to teach within the church. The truth is that when we come to Christ most of us have very little knowledge of the New Testament teachings so we understand little of what has happened to us and little of what we can expect and little of what we should be working for. Making up these deficiencies is the role of the teacher in the church and, I believe, all leaders are called to be such teachers.

Second there is encouragement. Encouragement is all about building up people’s self esteem ‘in Christ’. Building up self esteem on its own only tends towards building pride and self-centredness. Self-esteem in Christ is knowing who we are in him and realising the wonder of who he has made us to be. Encouragement reminds us that we are loved and accepted by God. It points out to us what He has done for us and in us and it helps us face a meaningful and purposeful future.

Third there is rebuking. For most of us this is an aspect of ministry we would rather ignore but when Paul wrote to Timothy he said, All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,” (2 Tim 3:16) I have emphasised three words, Rebuking points out that something is wrong. Wrong attitudes and wrong behaviour need pointing out and identifying as displeasing to God. Correcting shows us what is the alternative that God wants for us, while training is about how to go about changing from one to the other.

Fourth there is authority. The authority that a leader has should come from two sources. First there is his calling. He has been called to be God’s representative. He is not there to do his own bidding but God’s. He is not there to provide for himself but for the flock of God. He’s been called to oversee them, to guard them, protect them and provide for them just as The Good Shepherd does, for they are his representatives. This is not a casual or light thing. Second there is God’s will as revealed in His word. We can say with authority, this is right and this is wrong – because God’s word says so.  When the leader comes to present the word of God to the flock in preaching or teaching, he is not there full of ‘maybe’ or ‘perhaps’ but of a certainty that is there in God’s word.  Next to basic food or drink, the Bible is The most important material thing that we have. It is the revelation of God and when we realise the significance of what that means, we will be leaders who come with an authority that was observed in Jesus (see Mt 7:28,29 and Mk 1:22-27)

Fifth there is good reputation.  This has already come up in Titus in a variety of way, for example, “an overseer is entrusted with God’s work, he must be blameless.” (Titus 1:7) in respect of leaders, and, “so that no one will malign the word of God,” (2:5 – women) and, “they have nothing bad to say about us,” (2:8 – Titus himself) and, “so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive.” (2:10 – slaves) about others. Each of these examples are about behaving in such a way as to create a good reputation so that the work of God’s word and Spirit is not hindered in any way by us. It is true of all of us but especially so of leaders.

Thus we find in these five things, things that we should find in all spiritual leaders. These are basics, fundamentals that are essential in the church if we are to be the people of God, expressing Jesus  and demonstrating God’s love and grace. May it be that we can see them wherever we are part of the church.

15. Reinforcement

Meditations in Deuteronomy : 15 :  Reinforcement

(Focus: Deut 5:22-33)

Deut 5:22 These are the commandments the LORD proclaimed in a loud voice to your whole assembly there on the mountain from out of the fire, the cloud and the deep darkness; and he added nothing more. Then he wrote them on two stone tablets and gave them to me.

I have suggested at various times in these studies that Deuteronomy is all about Moses restating the Law to Israel on the plains to the east of the Jordan, but what keeps on coming through is Moses insistence on putting it all in an historical context. These laws came in a particular way in a particular time in a particular place in history.  In his desire to encourage Israel to keep these laws, he emphasises this again and again to remind them that these are God’s laws and that they are answerable to God – and that God has shown Himself as One who deals with people on the basis of righteousness, and He does hold people accountable for the way they behave. All of this is in the background to Moses’ declaring the Law. His primary thrust is that Israel MUST obey these laws and these are the reasons for that.

So having just restated the Ten Commandments he immediately puts them into historical context: God gave them on Mount Sinai on two stone tablets. But that isn’t enough. He wants Israel to be reminded of what happened back there forty years ago. He has spoken of the Sinai encounter already (1:6,19, 4:10-15, 5:2-5); in fact he continually reminds them of it, and so here, now, he reminds them yet again what their response had been: When you heard the voice out of the darkness, while the mountain was ablaze with fire, all the leading men of your tribes and your elders came to me. And you said, “The LORD our God has shown us his glory and his majesty, and we have heard his voice from the fire. Today we have seen that a man can live even if God speaks with him. But now, why should we die? This great fire will consume us, and we will die if we hear the voice of the LORD our God any longer. For what mortal man has ever heard the voice of the living God speaking out of fire, as we have, and survived? Go near and listen to all that the LORD our God says. Then tell us whatever the LORD our God tells you. We will listen and obey.” (5:23-27). Yes, it had been a scary encounter and one that should remain in their memories. Indeed it is important that they do continue to remember it and pass it on to their children and future generations of children so that they will know exactly what had happened back there at Sinai.

He reminds them of the Lord’s response: “The LORD heard you when you spoke to me and the LORD said to me, “I have heard what this people said to you. Everything they said was good. Oh, that their hearts would be inclined to fear me and keep all my commands always, so that it might go well with them and their children forever! “Go, tell them to return to their tents. But you stay here with me so that I may give you all the commands, decrees and laws you are to teach them to follow in the land I am giving them to possess.” (5:28-31) There had been a two-way conversation and the Lord also had spoken to Moses to tell him how to handle the situation. The Lord hadn’t just spoken out the laws and that was it; there was a relationship there between He and Moses where the Lord instructed and guided Moses as to how he should proceed.

Now, yet again, we see that Moses says all these things by way of encouraging Israel to obey the Law that God has given: “So be careful to do what the LORD your God has commanded you; do not turn aside to the right or to the left. Walk in all the way that the LORD your God has commanded you, so that you may live and prosper and prolong your days in the land that you will possess.” (5:32,33) There it is, yet a further exhortation to obey these laws. Now we could become bored with this repetitious encouraging of Israel to obey the Law but it tells us something very obvious about both the Lord and about us.

First, it tells us that we are prone to forgetting and we often need constant reminding of what has been said or done. Isn’t this the very reason for the Lord Jesus’ instructions about Communion: “And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” (Lk 22:19). He knew that we would need constantly reminding of the basis of the Gospel, that he had died for us. Hence it is one of the few things he specifically instructed us to do regularly. But this constant repetition also shows us that God knows we need these reminders and this encouragement and so He provides it in Moses’ words. The Lord seeks to meet our weakness but in so doing takes away any excuses Israel might have made for ‘not knowing’. This repetition is so great in these chapters that there is no space for anyone in Israel to say in the future, “But we didn’t know.”  They do and they will be held accountable. Grounds for faith are there in the Bible for anyone who seeks. Failure to look for it simply indicates that state of heart that is there. We have no excuses!

30. Gentle Prophet

Meditations on Jesus in John’s Gospel : 30 : Jesus, the Gentle Prophet

Jn 4:16-19      He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.” “I have no husband,” she replied.  Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.” “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet.

There is the well-known instruction, Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Lk 6:31)   It’s well known because it is often quoted and also because it’s acceptable to most people.  Why is it acceptable to most people? It is acceptable to most people because they like its sentiment. We want other to treat us well and so we see that as a good standard for behaviour generally. The apostle Paul when he was teaching the Corinthian church said,everyone who prophesies speaks to men for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort (1 Cor 14:3). In other words, anyone who is bringing a word to individuals from God will be speaking with the aim of strengthening, encouraging and comforting. “Ah, but what about correcting and rebuking,” says my legalistic friend. “Surely the word of God is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness’(2 Tim 3:16). Exactly, but watch how Jesus does it.

Jesus knows this woman as he knows every person he encounters. He knows what her state in life is. Does he chide her? Does he rebuke her?  No, he tells her to do something that provokes her to speak the truth about herself. She starts facing herself by Jesus’ seemingly innocent instruction. Once she acknowledges her basic state, Jesus ‘fills in the gaps’ and speaks detail into her life, and concludes with the disarming words, What you have just said is quite true.” He isn’t having a go at her, and so she doesn’t act defensively.  Is his main intention to convict her of her sub-standard life and bring her to repentance? Yes and no!  Ultimately he does want her to face the truth about herself because he knew that, you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (Jn 8:32), i.e. facing the truth about ourselves is the first step towards salvation.  However, he has a greater desire, for her to realize who he really is.  When we realize who Jesus is and come to him, everything else (including our past sub-standard lives) falls into place.

What was the end result of Jesus words?  The woman went away full of the encounter and wanting others to come and meet Jesus. Without any doubt she was strengthened, encouraged and comforted. Her encounter with Jesus had not left her feeling thoroughly embarrassed, exposed or got into a corner. Oh no, to the contrary, it has had a remarkably liberating effect upon her.  And how had that happened?  She had encountered a gentle prophet!

How often do we or others feel we have to put others’ lives right? That’s not the call of the Gospel; it is to introduce them to Jesus so that he can put their lives right! How do we share the Gospel?  I know when I was a young Christian I was in ‘attacking mode’ and I know there are still many people who do that, but Jesus comes to each individual with respect, and care and concern for them. He allowed this Samaritan woman to speak about something of her situation and then he showed he knew all about it, but without condemning her. The result was that she felt good and her life was changed.  That’s how Jesus comes to each one of us. Yes he comes to confront but he does it in such a gentle way we sometimes hardly realize that’s what he is doing, until we find ourselves confessing our state to him. Can we be like him?

17. To Asa

“God turned up” Meditations: 17 :  To Asa

2 Chron 15:1,2 The Spirit of God came upon Azariah son of Oded. He went out to meet Asa and said to him, “Listen to me, Asa and all Judah and Benjamin. The LORD is with you when you are with him. If you seek him, he will be found by you, but if you forsake him, he will forsake you.

Asa’s summary at the start of the record in 2 Chronicles is good: Asa did what was good and right in the eyes of the LORD his God. He removed the foreign altars and the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles. He commanded Judah to seek the LORD, the God of their fathers, and to obey his laws and commands” (2 Chron 14:2-4). We also see that when he went to battle he called on the Lord (2 Chron 14:11) placing his reliance on the Lord, and so the Lord gave him victory. It is as they return from this victory that Azariah gets stirred by the Holy Spirit to come and prophesy over him. The Lord has turned up!

Yes, the Lord had been with him previously and yes the Lord had given him victory, but now the Lord comes close, so to speak, and speaks personally to Asa. This is a new level of experience for Asa. It is a significant prophecy.

It starts out with this somewhat strange sounding word: The LORD is with you when you are with him.” i.e. the Lord will be for you and will bless you as long as your heart is set on the Lord.  It continues: If you seek him, he will be found by you, but if you forsake him, he will forsake you.” This is both a reassurance and a warning.  Seek God and you will find Him but forsake Him and He won’t stay with you,  i.e. your blessing from God is conditional upon you sticking with Him.  It says you cannot take the Lord’s blessing for granted.  Blessing comes with obedience.

The prophecy then continues to speak of a past time of apostasy that had continued until Israel had sought the Lord (v.3-5). It had been a troubling time for the Lord had brought corrective troubles to turn the people back to Himself (v.6) but now is a time for Asa to take courage: “But as for you, be strong and do not give up, for your work will be rewarded.” (v.7). It has effect: “When Asa heard these words and the prophecy of Azariah son of Oded the prophet, he took courage. He removed the detestable idols from the whole land of Judah and Benjamin and from the towns he had captured in the hills of Ephraim. He repaired the altar of the LORD that was in front of the portico of the LORD’s temple.” (v.8). What we find here is the Lord speaking to motivate this king to move out further in his reforms.

Isn’t this what prophecy is all about? Paul taught, “everyone who prophesies speaks to men for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort.” (1 Cor 14:3). Yes, sometimes there will be a corrective element in it, even a teaching element sometimes, but primarily it is to strengthen, encourage and comfort. The Lord knows that in this Fallen World so often we feel weak, so often we feel down and defeated, and so often we feel heartbroken, and thus He speaks to support, build and energise us.

See the effect on Asa.  He gathers the people together, which includes some of the Israelites from the north (v.9,10) and they sacrifice (v.11) and enter into a covenant together to seek the Lord (v.12) and this they did (v.15). Furthermore he dealt with idolatry within the royal family (v.16) and although he didn’t go up into Israel and purge that land (v.17) he was committed to God and restored the Temple (v.18).  This is how prophecy should work!  It should have the effect of bringing transformation and kingdom life.  This prophecy had been a strong encouraging word and it had effect – for a time.

Unfortunately time passed – 36 years (2 Chron 16:1) – and Asa forgot the importance of that initial word that had set him on a good path.  When Israel arose to threaten them he did not call on the Lord but on the king of Aram (2 Chron 16:2-).  Thus the Lord turned up again through another of His men and rebuked him for it (v.7-9) Asa took it badly (v.10) and so when he was afflicted with a foot disease he did not call on the Lord for help (v.12) and two years later he died.

The lesson is clear: the Lord loves us and will come with words of encouragement and we are to hold on to those – and keep on holding to them. Within them there is a basic principle – blessing comes from obedience. The other side of that same coin is that we are not to take the Lord for granted and drift from Him for the blessing remains only as long as He does, for it is a Fallen World and we need the Lord in everything we are and everything we do. When we move away from Him we become vulnerable to sin and Satan and the ways of the world. The call is to hold fast to the Lord.

11. Gifts Change

Meditations in Romans : 11 :  Gifts are for Change

Rom  1:11-13   I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong– that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith. I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that I planned many times to come to you (but have been prevented from doing so until now) in order that I might have a harvest among you, just as I have had among the other Gentiles.

While we stay with these verses we need to focus on something different, that we have only made brief reference to and which deserves greater consideration; it is about the impartation of gifts and the harvest brought thereby. Paul’s desire to come to the Christians in Rome is partly motivated by a desire to come and “impart to you some spiritual gift.” It is not until he comes to chapter 12 do we see further references to ‘spiritual gifts’. For his greatest exposition on such gifts we need to go to 1 Corinthians 12-14 but all we need say here is that when Paul uses the phrase he is quite clear that he is speaking about some particular manifestation of the Holy Spirit that is used primarily to build up the church. Now some people are very negative about spiritual gifts, more I think out of fear and the recognition that we are talking about a godly supernatural dimension which ‘naturally’ we are unable to operate in. For those of us who like to keep the Christian faith purely in the intellectual realm, the activities of the Holy Spirit, especially when in harmony with us, are particularly threatening.

So Paul is aware that he, as an apostle, has the ability to pray over others at God’s directing and impart these gifts or release these gifts in them. He sees that these gifts will help the Christians in Rome and make them strong. Strength comes when we are flowing in harmony with God’s Holy Spirit, for He is the source of all strength. He is also aware that as he comes with the faith that God has given him, it is an encouragement to the church. Looking back on my own life, I don’t know how many times I have been encouraged and strengthened by being in the presence of others who are gifted by God. Such supernatural gifting helps us realise that this is not merely about intellectual assent; it is about living in relationship with the all-powerful God who is real and who brings His power to bear in our everyday lives as we allow Him to.

Everything about this subject challenges the concept of Christianity being a passive and static faith that is all about just believing certain things. That is where the crusading atheists of the twenty first century are blind, for they do not realise that it is not merely about arguing about specific beliefs. They don’t realise that they are having to combat the living experiences of God that Christians have. It is impossible to explain away the changes that have taken place in my life on purely psychological grounds. It is impossible to explain away the many experiences of God that I have had on purely intellectual or rational grounds.

If only we did have such a thing as time travel then such silly atheists could travel back and watch and investigate the incredible works of Jesus while he was on earth, and then the things that happened to the early Christians as recorded in Acts. Seeing such simple and naïve people doing the impossible again and again would truly upset some of these carping critics. Sadly today most of them seem to lack the integrity that would go and investigate the millions of changed lives that can be observed in those who have encountered Jesus today. Travel the globe and you encounter millions of such people whose lives have been dramatically changed by encountering the living God and His Son Jesus Christ. Where are the other world religions that testify to such changes? Where are the millions of atheists who can testify to their lives being dramatically changed when the heard the good news of atheism, who found a new power source flowing in them that set them free from addictions and bad habits and bad behaviour when they received that good news. We can testify to such things because we have encountered the forgiveness, the love and power of the living God and we know that these are the things that have changed us.

Now for Paul it was a two-way street; it wasn’t merely about him, as an apostle, imparting something of a supernatural dimension to those Christians he encountered. Oh no! What he imparted had an effect on the lives of those Christians and they would thus bring forth ‘a harvest’ or a crop of fruits if you like. When Paul speaks about a harvest he surely means first of all a harvest of salvation of people coming to Christ and giving their lives to him and being born again. That is surely the first ‘harvest’ that he refers to. But there is also the fruit that comes forth in those lives and this goes back to what we were saying earlier.

The Christian faith is not static or passive, it is all about change. It is not about turning up at church once a week, it is about a radical life change that starts when we repent and surrender our lives to Christ and he forgives us and puts his Spirit within us. It is that power that changes us as we allow Him to work in us. Paul was able to write to the Galatians about the ‘fruit of the Spirit’ or the outworking or changes that the Holy Spirit brings in us when we come to Christ. He listed some of those fruits there: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gal 5:22,23). There will be a steady growth of all these things in the true Christian – and a lot more. It is a life of change, the New Testament declares, a life of becoming more Christ-like. That can only come about as we submit ourselves to the Lord and He, by His Spirit, empowers us and brings about the work of change. That is what Christian leadership is all about – about bringing change to lives through the direction and power of God’s Holy Spirit. Hallelujah!

6. Locked in Unbelief

ADVENT MEDITATIONS No.6

6. Long-Term Unhappiness Locks in Unbelief

Luke 1:18-20 Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.” The angel answered, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time.”

It’s a strange thing, but you might think that people who have a tough time in life would be really grateful when God turns up to bless them, but you would often be mistaken. We’ve already referred to that tendency that we all have, that the Bible calls ‘Sin’, and in such situations it frequently shows itself in ungratefulness or unbelief.  If we can put it gently, perhaps we might say that it is quite natural, after you’ve been in a particular prison for any length of time, to be wary when you’re told you’re now free from it.  This phenomenon is quite common, and it may be as you read yesterday’s meditation, you struggled with the concept that God is good.  If you did, it’s most likely that it is simply because you’ve lived with circumstances that seem to fly in the face of that.

In the Old Testament, Gideon is a classic example of this. An angel comes and tells him that God is with him (Judges 6:12). His reply is, “If the Lord is with us… where are all the wonders that our fathers told us about?” In other words, how can you say God is good, how can you say He’s with us, when I’ve been through what I’ve been through, and there’s still no sign of change? Do you see how long-term unhappiness over the past can lock us into unbelief in the present?

Now the interesting thing, when Zechariah responds like this, is that he’s not given an explanation why he didn’t have children. We’d like to have explanations and then come to belief, but it doesn’t work like that. The truth is that until our hearts can accept God’s love is there for us, we’re going to constantly criticize and grumble. Zechariah is still in grumbling mode when he basically says, this is stupid, this can’t be, because I’m too old. When we start telling God what He can’t do, we’re in trouble! God can do anything; it’s just our unbelief that thinks He can’t, so we reject His words of goodness towards us.

The angel’s response is basically this: OK, you don’t think God can change your circumstances, you don’t think God can make you become a father, you want a sign, I can see that. All right, I’ll give you a sign that will remain with you every day until the child is born – you won’t be able to speak until then. This is going to happen, you having a son, but you obviously need a bit of encouragement along the way.

You see God loves us so much that sometimes He does intervene in our lives and bring ‘unusual’ circumstances, if He sees that is the only way we’ll come to belief. (There are some people He sees that won’t ever come to belief so He leaves them – but that doesn’t include you, because you wouldn’t be reading this if it did!). If a little crisis is the only thing that will bring us to our senses and bring us to a place of believing (and that without the explanations!) then that’s what He’ll bring to us – in love of course. Of course it’s in love because that’s what He’s trying to bring us. It’s much easier to believe without a crisis! Can we say, yes Lord, I believe what I’m reading in this Christmas story – teach me; I receive all the good you’ve got for me in this season? Dare to, go for it!

God Moving

Lk 1:39-45   At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favoured, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!”
   
Luke, it is sometimes said, is the Gospel of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps it is because Luke has travelled with Paul and has known the work of the Spirit in action. Perhaps this is why he is open and listening to his sources for signs of God’s activity. These unique first chapters of Luke’s Gospel are full of the activity of the Lord, either through angels or through the Holy Spirit.  Luke may be a doctor who deals in the physical realm, but he is a man who sees the whole picture and thus he knows there is far more to life than just the physical realm. He is a man who unashamedly believes in – sees, recognises and understands – the work of God by His Spirit.
     
Mary has been told by the angel that Elizabeth is expecting a baby in her old age. All we are told is that Elizabeth was a relative of Mary (1:36). There is a great age difference between them – Elizabeth is old, Mary is still a teenager – yet it seems natural for Mary to go and visit her relative. We aren’t told that she was sent there by God but He may have nudged her to go, so she makes the journey from the north, to the south to where in Judea they live.
   
When she arrives and enters their home and greets Elizabeth, something unexpected and wonderful happens – God turns up! Suddenly Elizabethis filled with the Holy Spirit. Now the Bible doesn’t define what it means by being ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’ but the language itself conveys a clear picture of God’s presence filling a person’s being, and a number of examples reveal what happens. When people in the Bible were filled with the Spirit, examples show us God enabling creativity (Ex 35:31), giving the ability to worship in other languages (Acts 2:4), to speak boldly (Acts 4:7:55, 8,31, 13:9-), or to prophesy (Acts 19:6). We will shortly see in Luke, Zechariah being filled and prophesying (Lk 1:67-). When the Holy Spirit comes and fills someone, things happen. It is God coming to impart blessing in some form but almost invariably it is accompanied by great joy.
    
So the Spirit comes on Elizabeth as Mary comes in and greets her, and Elizabeth speaks out truth that is revelation: Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!Before Mary has a chance to tell her what has happened, Elizabeth finds herself speaking out the revelation of heaven, that she is also having a child and she is especially blessed by God. But listen to this: “But why am I so favoured, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” The mother of my Lord? That is incredible! For her that would probably mean the coming Messiah. Gabriel had told Zechariah that, “he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb” (1:15) and here we have that being fulfilled for she declares, “As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.”
   
John, within her, was filled with the Spirit as she was filled with the Spirit and he leapt within her. Don’t let unbelief put this leaping within the womb be thought of as the natural first movement of the child within her. As far as she is concerned (under the inspiration of the Spirit) the baby leapt for joy at the sound of Mary’s voice! It was the ministry of this baby within her to reveal the Coming One and already that ministry is here seen through Elizabeth. This is all the work of the Holy Spirit who fills her (and him) and inspires her to speak out the truth of the One who is now within Mary. This is the first encounter of the forerunner and the One of whom he will speak, and the two expectant mothers (as we shall shortly see) are both inspired by the Spirit to speak out the revelation from heaven.
     
Elizabeth then gives Mary further encouragement: “Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!” In other words, blessed are you Mary for believing what God has said to you. Yes, the prophetic word so often declares the future, so often declares the ‘now truth’, but invariably brings encouragement, or as Paul was to write many years later, “everyone who prophesies speaks to men for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort.” (1 Cor 14:3). We are living in the age of the Spirit now. Elizabeth and Mary were the forerunners of this age. How wonderful that our relationship with the Lord includes His provision of His own Holy Spirit who comes to us, fills us, inspires us and brings the revelation of heaven to us. For Mary this must have been a tremendous encouragement, the first person (after Joseph- but his had only been a dream!) to confirm to her all that had happened when the angel came to her. She’s still only a young girl and needs this encouragement. God delights in giving His children encouragement.