3. Abram – a work in progress

Glory Out of Failure Meditations: 3. Abram – a work in progress

Gen 12:6 Abram travelled through the land as far as the site of the great tree of Moreh at Shechem

Where we are: So here we are, just in the early stages of pondering on this fundamental idea of our lives being taken from a place of failure and changed to a place of glory. In the previous study we noted the fact that with Abram – and with us – it was a case of God initiating this activity. There didn’t seem to be anything great about Abram; he wasn’t royalty, he wasn’t a hero, there is nothing said about him that elevated him above others. If anything he is a man to be pitied. He has a wife who is barren and in a culture where children and carrying on the family name were important, that must have been a constant anguish for both he and Sarai.

So Why? So why did God choose him? Why did He choose you and me? Before the foundation of the world, Ephesians 1 suggests God ‘predestined’ you, i.e. He looked into the future of His plan of salvation and saw you, saw your response to His word coming to you and the drawing of His Spirit, and knew at that point that you would be a responder. Why did He choose Abram? Because He knew he would be a responder, He knew what He wanted to achieve and He knew He could do it with Abram without overruling the free will He had given him.

This teaching is epitomized in Paul’s teaching about Jesus: “This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.” (Acts 2:23) God had a plan and He knew how the authorities would respond to Jesus – exercising their free will – and bring about the sacrificial death of His Son. God knew what He wanted to achieve and knew how He would achieve it – using the self-centred, wilful acts of sinful men. He didn’t make them act like that but He knew that’s how they would respond.

Similarly with Abram – and with you and me – He knew how we would respond; He knew what we could achieve – despite our failures.

Failure: Our starter verse shows us Abram entering the land along the route from the north and arrives at Shechem, roughly in the centre of Israel. There the Lord meets with him and declares that THIS is the land He is giving him and his descendants (v.7) and Abram responds by building an altar. But he doesn’t stay there, he meanders on south to near Bethel (v.8) and builds another altar. An altar is a place of sacrifice to a deity. Abram has that sense, the awareness that he is being led by deity. There is that level of spiritual reality. He is being led by God and every time he builds an altar it is a recognition of that.

Then he moves further south (v.9). But then trouble occurs; his first test arrives – a famine, a severe famine (v.10). He hasn’t yet realised the big teaching that will come through his life – that God is a provider. This is the land that God has promised him, but it doesn’t seem to be providing him with what he needs – so he continues south to Egypt where there is no famine. Egypt is often considered a type of ‘the world’. He turns to the world for his provision; he knows no better. Is ‘the world’ God’s means of provision for him? Indeed it is, in the sense that ‘the world’ is all of creation, not the sense that we usually attribute to it in scripture, of godless, unbelieving, self-serving humanity. But no, He does use the world to provide for us.

Does this ring bells? Don’t we sometimes, when the way seems to be getting hard, resort to the ways of ‘the world’, the same thinking that our unbelieving neighbours have – I must do something to work my way out of this – an absence of turning to the Lord to seek His help.

When he gets to Egypt it gets worse, he tells a half-truth that Sarai was his sister (see 20:12) and his actions in respect of her fall short of a godly man of faith. But then he’s not that – yet! We won’t go into the detail but he doesn’t do very well in his first test.

Us? Yes, here is the truth. When we turn to Christ we may be put right in God’s sight as far as our eternal salvation is concerned, we are justified by the blood of Christ, but unfortunately as far as everyday living is concerned we’ve still got a lot of stuff to learn and that means we are going to get it wrong more than a few times. If you’ve never seen this it either means you have never been taught properly or you are living in deception.  Yes, our failures still will need repentance and the wonder is that God still accepts us (see 1 Jn 2:1,2) but He doesn’t want us to fail but will forgive us when we repent – however many times it happens. The path towards glory is a slow one, often a long one and in that sense every one of us is a work in progress. Sanctification (setting us apart and changing us) is something that happens at the moment of conversion but it is also something that is a process that goes on throughout our lives. We thus need to remain alert to catch the things the Lord is pointing out in our lives that He wants to change. He does this not because He doesn’t love us but because He does! He wants something better for us. Hallelujah!  

2. It starts with Abram

Glory Out of Failure Meditations: 2. It starts with Abram

Gen 12:2,3,10 (ERV) I will build a great nation from you. I will bless you and make your name famous….. I will use you to bless all the people on earth…. During this time there was not enough food in the land, so Abram went down to Egypt to live.

Where we are: We are looking at the basics, the fundamentals, the realities of the Christian life, things that should be familiar, things that should be foundational in our lives but which sometimes get forgotten, the basics that remind us that each of us who calls our self a Christian, a child of God, comes from a place of anonymity, a place of failure and are taken by God and made someone with a significant identity and full of His glory. That is what these studies are about.

Abram: Prior to Abram, prior to chapter 12 of Genesis the picture is not very personal and these lessons aren’t very clear, but when we come to Abram (which means ‘exalted father’) whose name was later changed to Abraham (which means ‘father of many’) when he was ninety-nine years old (Gen 17:4-6), this all changes. This is a very personal and detailed story. I hesitate to use the word ‘story’ because that can imply something made up and so perhaps the word ‘account’ would be better in that that simply describes what happened in history, and history this surely is. Everything about this account of this man is significant. Let’s start noting some of these things.

A Family Man: His father, Terah, is named as are his two younger brothers Nahor and Haran and his nephew, Lot, son of Haran. (Gen 11:17) They live in Ur, a city of Mesopotamia, that we refer to as ‘the cradle of civilisation’, and the location of the Garden of Eden (see Gen 2:14). Like many families it has its tragedies. Haran, the youngest son, dies. Sarai, Abram’s wife, is barren (Gen 11:30). There must be, as there always is in such situation, heartache. And yet, somehow there is hope. Somehow God has communicated with this pagan and given him the hope that He will make him into a great nation, (Gen 12:1) and a nation starts with one child. Somehow this hope is linked with making a fresh start in another land that God says He will show him, (Gen 12:1) and so he goes.

And So?  There is the essence of the story, the foundation from which all else follows. The story is about family and land, the former being the thing that must be driving Abram, the latter appearing the environment on which the former relies. So he goes, there is a land to be found and presumably to be taken. It is all very unknown but he goes. This, we think initially, is what makes him the notable man of faith that he is, heralded in the gallery of faith in Heb 11:8 that we so often turn to.

God Revealed: But this isn’t only Abram’s story, this is God’s. This story reveals God. He is first of all there – something we can take for granted. Second, He is a communicator and, third, He has a plan and that plan is worked out through a childless couple, and so eventually we will see that He is a God who changes the course of nature so a childless woman and a childless couple, both way beyond child-conceiving age, have a child. Later on Abraham will know that this God can be called ‘The Lord Will Provide’ (Gen 21:14). Now so often we anchor our thoughts about the God who will provide in the account about Abraham going to sacrifice Isaac, but actually everything about the story about Abram-Abraham is about God providing. God provides hope and a vision and then much, much more which we will see in the next study.

You and Me: But these fundamentals that we have just been observing are equally true of us. I will assume you are a believer. Recollect how that happened. Somewhere in your history, you either started having questions or believers started imposing themselves in your awareness, maybe even sharing the good news about Jesus with you. This was God reaching out to you by His Spirit. Eventually came conviction: you were to ‘leave the land’ of your old life which you came to see was desperately wanting. You bowed the knee, you prayed and handed the reins of your life over to God, believing in what He said about Jesus dying for you.  You ‘died’ to that old life, as Paul says in Rom 6 and were given a new ‘land’ to live in, He “rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son.” (Col 1:13)

Observe the Characteristics: Note the nature of all this. You lived in a land of darkness, of unbelief, of godless self-centredness. Nothing you had was really of any merit and yet God called you and, amazingly, you heard and responded. Note – He initiated it. When you eventually surrendered to Him, He provided forgiveness and atonement, and a place in His family – you were adopted. You came with just a sense of failure and inadequacy, recognizing your need. God provided everything. He is a provider. So why do we think we have to twist His arm to bless us? “If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Mt 7:11) Have you ever seen your life like this? Have you ever realized it is all about God providing and you receiving? When we do, it brings a whole new sense of relaxation. We’ll see some more of this as we continue the story of Abram in the next study.

1. Introduction to Glory

Glory Out of Failure Meditations: 1. Introduction to Glory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Snapshots: Day 39

Snapshots: Day 39

The Snapshot: “but Moses fled.”  (Ex 2:15) When we fail, when we flee, the enemy would have us believe that is the end, as we’ve seen. If we do find ourselves living in the desert, our natural tendency is to look back with regret, our self wants to wallow in the failure and the little voice whispers, ‘You blew it, that’s the end’, but it isn’t.  Sometimes this moment is the defining act that determines the future but often it is just simply another day in the many days it will take to change us. We wish change could happen instantly but sometimes it takes years and years, because God is not impatient, God is more concerned with a changed and good outcome that is your life and mine, so these are not wasted years but just the path to the amazing things yet to come!  Watch out, God’s in the desert!

Further Consideration: When I look back on my life, yes, as a Christian, I want to be honest and acknowledge three things. The first is that although I can look back and see very big and distinct times of change, of career and direction, when I look back, I am absolutely sure that God’s hand was in them. For the vast majority of time I could not say, “I was aware of God’s guidance in that change.” Yes, we prayed, yes we responded to what we felt was the right thing to do in the circumstances, but rarely did I sense the clear voice of God guiding and directing – but He was!

The second thing I note as I look back is a sense of failure. Yes, I am aware that looking back God did open up lots of areas of opportunity and blessed, and yet I feel with the saints of Heb 11:10 I am ‘looking forward’ and that means a sense of not having got there in the past. Yes, I would like to live my life again from say age 30 – but with the knowledge I have now! I believe we live in a day when we, the Church, fall far short of what is on God’s heart for us, and that saddens me as I am sure it does Him.

The third thing of which I am aware is a sense of inadequacy. As I confess so often to the people in my Prayer Workshop, the greatest thing I fear is coming to them without having heard the Lord and that we, collectively, by the end, fail to know His Presence. But the truth is that I cannot do it. All I can do is present this empty vessel to him, this chipped and imperfect earthenware vessel (2 Cor 4:7) and plead, “Lord, please fill this vessel with your glory so that you will be glorified.” (Jn 17:1b)

These are the dynamics of this present life. Failure is not the end of the day, but its acknowledgement is the entry door into the wonder of the kingdom of God.  It is a life of ongoing change and we when fail and He sees a repentant heart, He picks us up and we continue on with Him.

Snapshots: Day 13

Snapshots: Day 13

The Snapshot: “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid….”  Failure means guilt; guilt means fear. Fear means we run in shame to hide, or we kneel in need. Hiding and denial or honest acceptance; I need saving from me.  This is the place that would reveal my need for God’s salvation to save me from myself – if I dare face myself honestly.   God knew it would be like this, God was not surprised, and so when He banishes from the garden it is not the end but the beginning, the beginning of a self-centred life, a godless life where it is now God who hides only to come when we call. The life to come was to teach me, will I face me and be honest and call on Him, or will I still pretend and hide?  Lord, help me be honest.

Further Consideration: We finished yesterday saying the wisest course when we fail is to own up to it, but the trouble is that so often we are so unsure of the wonders of the Bible and of God, or we listen to the distorted truths of the enemy or his outright lies, that we fear retribution, we fear what He is going to do to us.

There are those preachers of the past who have majored on the awfulness of God’s wrath, completely misunderstanding it (and we’ll consider it later in the Bible) and ignoring the wonder of the truth that the apostle John declared, “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8,16), so clearly demonstrated in Jesus’ wonderful parable we refer to as ‘the Parable of the Prodigal Son’. The harsh and legalistic preacher would have the son starve to death at the pigsties, fearing to return home to the anger of the father. Instead the son clearly knows something about the father still, and risks returning home and all that might follow.

What followed? The father was out looking for the son and when he saw hm on the horizon he ran to meet him with open arms, welcomed him and reinstated him into the family and threw a celebratory party for him. So how can God the Father do that for His sinful, failing children? Because of what Jesus has done.  It’s not a case of ignoring the sin but of consigning it to the Cross where the eternal Son dealt with the guilt by taking the punishment. It defies rational thought but that is what happened.

When we truly hear this and understand it, we can come in repentance and, yes, contrition, and seek the forgiveness that is readily available to the repentant who own up to their misdeeds. That can come more easily in the security of the gospel, in the security that God is for us, but still wants us to ‘own up’ so we can then receive the forgiveness that is waiting for us. Maturity, for the Christian, is learning to ‘own up’ – quickly! We said it before but it bears repeating. Don’t let fear keep you from God, instead receive His perfect love. (see 1 Jn 4:18)

14. A Guilt-Free People

The Wonder of the Church:  Part 3 – Making of Believers

14. A Guilt-Free People

Rom 3:23-25   all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25 God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith.

A tighter focus: In this third Part we are going to move on from the general ways Christians are different from non-Christians to considering just what happens when a person does actually become a Christian, in God’s eyes as declared in the New Testament, AND is some practical ways. Yes, we have observed that there is a God-difference, that Christians are first and foremost believers in Jesus Christ, that they have had a supernatural experience or encounter with God that Jesus called being ‘born again’, and this followed their conviction by the Spirit and repentance. We also noted in passing, so to speak, the basic need to be saved and meaning of becoming a faith people, but now we are going to move on to see the things that happen to the believer as part of and following this experience of being born again. I want to approach it by recognising the needs that we have as we come to God and what He does to meet those needs. The contents of this third Part will be as follows:

  1. A Guilt-Free People
  2. No Longer Orphans
  3. Growing in Sonship
  4. The Yeast of Humility
  5. Getting on a Learning Curve
  6. The Reality of Sacrifice
  7. No Add-ons
  8. Servant-hearted (1)
  9. Servant-hearted (2)

We start with the guilt that we have and how He removes that, expanding on the things we considered in Study no.11, ‘Repentance and Conviction’.

A Basic Problem: There is a problem that is at the heart of human experience. It is the problem of guilt. Wikipedia comes up with a good definition: “Guilt is a cognitive or an emotional experience that occurs when a person believes or realizes—accurately or not—that they have compromised their own standards of conduct or have violated a universal moral standard and bear significant responsibility for that violation.”  Now we may try and deny that – and modern thinking desperately tries to do away with standards in order to do that – but the truth is that deep down each of us feels that somehow we are falling short of some standard or other, and yes we may go to great efforts to cover that up but it is still there.

Cover-up Jobs: Oh how varied are the means people use to cover up this sense of guilt, a guilt that is sometimes very shallow, the guilt of not living up to one’s own expectations or even those of our parents, or it may be a deeper guilt where we know our behaviour towards another, or even against society, in the past was less than glorious! We try to cover up these feelings by appearing nice, trying to be good, trying to be respectable, aiming for achievement, fame, status, things that make us look good in the eyes of others.

Why? But why do we have these feelings. Well, the apostle Paul wrote that it was because we got it wrong (sinned) and fell short of the incredible potential that each of us have when we are in harmony with God (falling short of God’s glory). I have watched various Christians struggling with their lives, struggling to achieve and I have found myself saying, “Don’t you realize that God desires more success for you than you desire for yourself?”  Sometimes that success may be to simply make ends meet and create a great home for a family, sometimes it is to make millions to bless the world with jobs and so much more (consider Bill Gates), sometimes it is success that has nothing to do with money. I suggest Mother Teresa was a staggeringly ‘successful’ person, but that requires us to readjust our thinking about what success means.

The Answer- Justification: OK, we’ve faced the fact that so many of us in the human race struggle with guilt so now I am going to make a possibly surprising suggestion: Christians are possibly one of the only groups in the world who are not guilt laden – or at least should not be.  Now how am I able to say that? It is what I briefly referred to earlier, the doctrine of ‘justification’. If I say I was justified in taking a particular course of action it means I was actually right to take it. If I appear in a court case accused of murder and I plead a case of self-defence and am found ‘not guilty’ we might say I was justified in the eyes of the Law for accidentally killing someone while defending myself.

The use of the word ‘justified’ means I am found not-guilty, or innocent. Now the problem we have been facing when we come to such verses as our starter verse – “all have sinned,” is that I have to acknowledge that I am a sinner – and we all are – because I have fallen short in my life because I did not get God’s help, i.e. I was self-centred and godless. It appears to leave us in a hopeless state where we will be condemned by God, and with no hope of change or escape. But that is where we come to the wonder of the plan of God for salvation, ‘the Gospel’: I am guilty and I do deserve the punishment that justice demands BUT Jesus Christ, the Son of God, has died on the Cross in my place and when I accept that truth, the Bible tells me I am justified, I am put right in God’s eyes and in the eyes of justice because the punishment has been taken for my Sin.

As the apostle Paul wrote, This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe,” (Rom 3:22) and then he explains, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” (Rom 4:3) and applies that to us,  The words “it was credited to him” were written not for him alone, but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness—for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.” (Rom 4:23-25) When we believe (and remember we’ve seen previously faith means belief in action, i.e. we respond to what we hear) that Jesus is God’s Son and that he died for our sins and was raised from the dead to prove that this was right and acceptable to God, we are justified.

In God’s eyes it is faith that He uses to measure our righteousness. He declares us righteous (right before Him) when He sees this faith in us – this belief accompanied by action, belief in Jesus. As it was in the case of Abraham in the Old Testament period, so it is with us today. That, and only that, is why I and all of us who know we are Christians, born again of His Spirit, can say we are not burdened by guilt.

Freed! This is the wonder for the true believer, we know our propensity to get it wrong but we seek with God’s help not to; we know we are less than perfect and yet we know that the basis of our relationship with God relies upon what Jesus has achieved on the Cross, him taking my punishment and satisfying justice, leaving me to simply believe that and receive all that He has to give me as we live out this new life of relationship. I am thus freed from guilt and free to live in the wonder of this relationship with God whereby He provides for me through His Spirit.

Dealing with Failure: For the believer living in relationship with God, brought about by the work of Christ on the Cross and now enabled by the indwelling Holy Spirit we are, in line with the apostle Paul’s teaching, to consider that we “have died to sin,” (Rom 6:2) and so we are to, “count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.” (Rom 6:11) Nevertheless, although our objective is never to sin, there will be times when we trip over our feet, if I may put it like that, and get it wrong.

The apostle John recognized that when he wrote, ”I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” (1 Jn 2:1,2) and he had just written, if we freely admit that we have sinned, we find God utterly reliable and straightforward—he forgives our sins and makes us thoroughly clean from all that is evil.” (1 Jn 1:9) To summarize: we should not sin, but if on the occasion we do, we are to confess it to God, repent of it, and Jesus’ work on the cross applies again to us. We do not need to go on feeling guilty, but just get on living positively for Christ. This is what all true believers are called to. Do you remember the first study in this Part (no.8) was all about the fact that a Christian is different from a non-Christian? Here is the first of the things that come about when we are born again that make us different: I am justified (put right) in God’s eyes by what Jesus has done for me. I don’t have to struggle to get right with God, just believe that Jesus has made it possible, and receive it and live it! Hallelujah!

3. Too old for God?

Lessons from the Nativity: 3:  Too old for God?

Luke 1:18   Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”

Zechariah stands out as a man in the Bible who dared to doubt. We normally think of Thomas in this context but Zechariah’s response to the angel provides a physical rebuke that shows it was not getting heavenly approval.

As a slight aside (but only slight) I note there is a practice in Christian circles that accompanies the supposedly transparent honesty that faces our failures and our foibles and exalts grace, and goes on to make excuses. It is good that we are honest about our frailty and recognise that our salvation is all of grace, but the Bible does not leave is big loopholes through which we may squeeze to avoid God’s chastising. I have observed before that there appear a number of times when Jesus chides his disciples for their lack of faith. He doesn’t just say, “It’s all right chaps, I understand,” but instead says, “I expect more of you and am disappointed by your lack of faith.”

Check it out: O you of little faith,” (Mt 6:30 to the crowd), “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” (Mt 8:26 of the fearful disciples), “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?” (Mt 14:31 of Peter on the water), “You of little faith, why are you talking among yourselves about having no bread?” (Mt 16:8 of the disciples) In each of these cases he clearly expected more of them.

I also associate this same sort of thinking with those who are profusely apologetic about something, but carry on doing it. I watch someone who is always late to the prayer meeting and who is profusely apologetic – but keeps on being late. I watch the preacher who goes on and on and then apologizes for going on so long, but keeps on doing it despite the general agreement for preaching of a certain duration. Some of us seem to think if we keep on saying sorry that will be all right. It isn’t, it is meaningless. We make excuses for ourselves and then think, “Well, the Lord understands.” Well yes He does – He sees you are lazy or indifferent or whatever else may be at the root of your ongoing failure. Yes, let’s recognize it for what it is – failure, sin!

As we noted previously Zechariah is probably in a ‘settled’ mode of thinking where he expects no change, but now the change has happened and he’s been chosen to light the candles and as he does so an angel appears to him. Well if those two things weren’t earth shattering enough, the angel starts talking about Elizabeth conceiving and having a baby in her old age. Now I don’t know what form this angel took but we should probably assume that he was clearly an angel and not merely someone who has sneaked into the Temple – and that Zechariah realises he is an angel. Now angels come from God so this is the equivalent of God speaking to him. Now if you think I am over-emphasizing this and being too hard on Zechariah just consider Moses in Ex 3 & 4. It would appear that it is not an unusual thing to argue with God and He responds according the nature of the event. For Zechariah it means he is going to be dumb for the next nine months.

But note his excuse: “I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”  I am now what a hundred years ago would be called ‘an old man’, so I can empathize with this situation in some measure but what Zechariah is saying is, neither of us are up to this any longer, we can’t do that. It is a common attitude among many who are getting on in years (let alone those in passive or settled mode who are younger!). We were having a corporate pray-over-people time in our morning service fairly recently and I was directing people where to go and pray and who to pray over and one person wanting prayer only had one person standing with them so I turned to one of our elderly ladies still sitting and asked her to go over and pray with that other person. At the end of the meeting she came over and thanked me profusely for involving her and that set me thinking. She was the widow of a prominent church elder in the past but had obviously got into a place where she no longer expected to be included in ministry. Why????

One of my favourite sets of verses (for fairly obvious reasons) is at the end of Psa 92: “The righteous will flourish like a palm tree, they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon; planted in the house of the LORD, they will flourish in the courts of our God. They will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green, proclaiming, “The LORD is upright; he is my Rock, and there is no wickedness in him.” (Psa 92:12-15) We who are Christians are ‘the righteous’, made so by Jesus, and so with him leading, inspiring, guiding, teaching and equipping us, we will flourish, we will grow, we will still bear fruit in old age, testifying to the unchanging grace and goodness of God that still flows in and through us. If you are a young person, your turn will come in the next study; please be patient. However, for those of us in older age, please be challenged, be stirred as I tell you of my recent testimony.

For the last six months or so I have been leading a Sunday evening prayer meeting where the majority of the people are over sixty, some over seventy and even a number over eighty. Nothing unusual about that, but I only agreed to lead this prayer meeting if I could teach on learning to listen to God and minister to one another, particularly through gifts of revelation. One evening a while back I felt the Lord prompt me to point across the group to one of the elderly but sprightly ladies and say, “Would you like the gift of prophecy?” She looked confused and spluttered a ‘no’, and so I simply passed on to the next thing. She missed seeing me at the end of the meeting but next Sunday morning came and waylaid me and (don’t laugh) said, “I’m ever so sorry but last Sunday evening I didn’t have my hearing aid in and so didn’t properly hear you, but yes, please I would really love to be able to prophesy. I prayed over her and then found someone who needed prayer ministry and got her to pray over this person and she heard the Lord and brought what He has to say, simply and beautifully. Oh, by the way she’s eighty four.  Please never say, “I’m too old” when the Lord stretches out to you. You may be old but we’ll see an elderly couple in a later meditation who were still going strong in their old age and ended up blessing the Son of God himself. How wonderful. So yes, you can bless the Lord when you just say, “Yes Lord, what’s next.”

15. The Grace of Jesus

Meditating on the Gems of the Bible:  15. The Grace of Jesus

Psa 45:2    You are the most excellent of men and your lips have been anointed with grace, since God has blessed you forever.

The psalmist has this idea running round in his mind that produces a song: My heart is stirred by a noble theme as I recite my verses for the king; my tongue is the pen of a skillful writer.” (v.1) I like the way the Message version puts it: “My heart bursts its banks spilling beauty and goodness. I pour it out as a poem to the king shaping the river into words.” That expresses more fully, I think, those words “My heart is stirred…”

Now whether the king is a physical king and it is a physical wedding that he goes on to write about, or whether it is spiritual is unclear, but I believe from the vantage point of later in history we can suggest that so much here is prophetic and speaks of Jesus. We’ll come back to verse 2 in a moment but consider – “Gird your sword upon your side, O mighty one; clothe yourself with splendour and majesty,” (v.3) and then “In your majesty ride forth victoriously in behalf of truth, humility and righteousness; let your right hand display awesome deeds,” (v.4) – we cannot but help be reminded of Revelation 19 where Jesus is seen as the conqueror coming forth  When we reads, “Let your sharp arrows pierce the hearts of the king’s enemies; let the nations fall beneath your feet,” (v.5) we cannot but think of his earthly ministry where his words acted like arrows piercing hearts.

But then we find this comment, “your lips have been anointed with grace.” Not only do those words pierce like arrows but at times they come forth with amazing grace. The difficulty of reading the words of Jesus in the Gospels in cold black and white print, is that you can never catch the tone of voice. Sadly we interpret Jesus’ words according to the direction of our own hearts, and so some hear Jesus’ words as coming with sharp and hard authority. Others hear the gentle and accepting heart that accepted harlots and tax collectors and drew them to himself.

Which leads me to think of John’s description of Jesus: “We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (Jn 1:14). There is that ‘grace’ word again. A dictionary defines this grace as, “beauty or charm of form, composition, movement, or expression, an attractive quality, feature, manner, etc.” Grace here is a combination of things – goodness, kindness, loving acceptance, gentleness. When Jesus speaks to us, he speaks with these characteristics.

Early in the Gospel accounts, we find, “And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him,” (Lk 2:40) which is not surprising because he had been conceived by the Holy Spirit (Mt 1:20) and the child was in fact God incarnate. But it was clear, even from childhood, this grace – which always comes from God – was his. Later on this grace would be the thing attributed to be the motivating force that enabled him to do all he did: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” (2 Cor 8:9)

This ‘being rich yet becoming poor’, I believe, refers first to his leaving the glory he had in heaven and coming to earth with no visible glory, then leaving his family and living out a life of faith as he exercised his ministry, as he described, “the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” (Mt 8:20). It may also be applied to his willingness to forgo any reputation (and his was quite amazing when you thought of all the amazing things he did in Galilee) and come to Jerusalem and be portrayed as one who received the dismissal of both the religious and civic authorities and deemed worthy of a criminal’s death. What enabled him to do all these things? Grace. It is part of the divine attributes.

When you think of the wonder of what God has done through Jesus, it can only be grace that explains it. They knew we would all be sinners if they gave us free will at Creation – but they did it nevertheless. They knew that the Fall would happen, they knew that every single person they sought to come alongside and build a relationships with, would stumble – whether that was individuals or nations. They knew that failure was the only sure thing that could be guaranteed about the human race, and yet they went ahead and created us as we are. Why? Grace! That disposition of the godhead that looked with loving kindness upon us, understands our folly and perseveres with us.

Observe Jesus calling his disciples. These were those who had the greatest privilege in history – of walking and talking with God on a daily basis for three years. Yet what do we find? One of them betrays him, one of them denies him three times and the rest run away and leave him to his fate. But he still chose them and left the future Church in their hands. Amazing, but that is what grace does! Hallelujah!

8. Motivation

Meditations in 1 Thessalonians

Part 2 :  8 :  Motivation

1 Thess 1:3   We continually remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labour prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.

We said in the previous meditation that we would consider in Part 3 of these mediations in this particular series, the instructions that come in this letter to work out your Christian life and we noted a number of verses that cover such things. However, before we do that, here in the  second part we will consider a number of principles that come in verses in this little book and to start, in order to avoid falling into the trap of legalism, we need to consider the whole subject of motivation. Legalistic Christians take the instructions found in the Gospels and letters of the New Testament and turn them into ‘laws’ to be followed. The problem with trying to keep laws, as Paul found and showed in Romans 7, is that we constantly fail to keep them and failure produces a sense of guilt and guilt stifles a relationship with the Lord.

So how are we to see such instructions? Well, they should come as guidelines that come AFTER we have committed our lives to God through Jesus. The Christian life starts from a point of surrender. At conversion, or rather leading into it, there has to be repentance and confession and a willingness to throw yourself entirely on the mercy of God, putting yourself into His hands for Him to lead and guide you through the rest of your life. Anything less than this causes problems.

So, we put ourselves into His hands for Him to bring us into a good place with Him through the work of Jesus on the Cross. He forgives us because He justifies us and He adopts us. From that point on He is working into our lives to bring good to us; He is bringing blessing upon blessing into our lives, His decrees of goodness for us. Because we are so tainted with Sin we struggle to believe this but it is true. He is working to restore us to Himself and to the image of the person He has designed us to be. Within that overall process He has given us many what I have called guidelines because they are indeed instructions on how to live a life where His goodness and blessing flow. They are NOT the means of our salvation and keeping them does not mean He loves us more and failing with them does not mean He loves us less.

It is important to understand that we don’t keep these instructions to win His approval or win His love. We don’t keep them to make ourselves feel more approved or more loved or more worthy of His love; we keep them simply as a means of developing our relationship with Him, so that His blessings can flow more and more in our lives. We are, after all, talking about a relationship with the One who has given His one and only Son to bring us to Himself so He can love and bless us. As the apostle John wrote, This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 Jn 4:10) Our love is a response to His love.

And so we come to this verse which is all about motivation, at the beginning of the letter which speaks of “work produced by faith, your labour prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” We have noted it previously but we need to think more about it now. We have three end products – work, labour, endurance and each of them is brought about or motivated by something else – faith, love, hope. The Greek word for ‘work’ is the general term for work or business, employment, task. The word for ‘labour’ means toil or hard work. It is easy then to see the flow to ‘endurance’ or ‘tough struggle to keep going’ in our work. What we find, therefore, is Paul moving on from easy work to tough work or toil to really tough work or a struggle to keep going. That is how life can be sometimes.

If the outworking of the Faith is work (meaning any expression or outworking of the life of Jesus in and through us) and we also know it is a battle, sometimes, as the Thessalonians well knew, it could be really tough. But at whatever level we are at, there is something provided for us that helps and motivates us. Initially whatever we do is a response to what we have heard from God (which may come through His word or through His Spirit.) That response is faith because Paul tells us that faith comes from hearing (Rom 10:17). So initially we start off motivated by what we have heard from God, but then, perhaps, the going gets a little harder and we have to toil at the Christian life it seems. But now there comes an awareness of the love of God. That had been there at the beginning but now we seem to appropriate it more fully. Aware that we are loved we find strength to continue.

But then the opposition digs in and we find ourselves seeking to look beyond the present circumstances to the long-distant future when God will come and deliver us for eternity. It is what Paul does again and again in the letter as he talks of the Lord’s second coming which, as we have seen previously, he does to take their eyes off the present and realise they are in it for the long haul which WILL mean good. The writer to the Hebrew showed this is how Jesus worked: Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame.” (Heb 12;2)  As he faced the Cross with all of its awfulness, Jesus looked beyond it focusing on the wonder that would be on the other side of it. Thus we look beyond the present trying circumstances to realise that one day we are going to be with Him and all these present things will be dealt with by Him.

So here we find examples (and there are more in Scripture) of things that will motivate us on. It’s not by ‘trying harder’ but by receiving the grace and goodness of God by word and by the Spirit, and so we prevail and overcome Hallelujah!

6. Still Sinners

Meditations in 1 John : 6 :  Still Sinners

1 John  1:8   If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.

Commentators often struggle at this point in John’s letter. In fact a whole big part of the Church struggles with this verse because it seems to say something that many don’t like – we’re still sinners. There are those who claim perfection when we come to Christ. Did not Jesus say, Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”? (Mt 5:48) After all, they say, when we came to Christ he dealt with all my sins and the power of sin over me is broken and I am free from sin’s domination – all of which are true! The Matthew verse would be better explained as, “Aim for the perfection that you see in your heavenly Father.” Also you have to be a very unknowing person to believe that you are perfect and you never think, say or do anything wrong, anything that is contrary to God’s will for us.

There are also those who say this verse is a verse for application to unbelievers, before they come to Christ but the verses before it clearly indicate John is speaking to Christian believers. Is this an important issue? Yes, it is very important because the person who denies it fails to recognise their own vulnerability. Why would Jesus – and indeed the whole New Testament – warn us to be on our guard against temptation and failure if it wasn’t a real possibility for the disciple? We’ll examine some of those warnings in a moment.

But a bigger argument in favour of what we have been saying comes through the apostle Paul in Romans chapter 7. Again there are those who say he speaks about the past, but that is not how it reads and he concludes that chapter with, So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.” (Rom 7:25) When he moves in to the next chapter the force of his argument is that it is only in Christ and submitted to the Spirit are we free from sin. Are we always submitted to the Spirit? Again, it is a very unknowing person who claims to be so.

But an even stronger argument comes from Paul’s reference to what is clearly one of the ‘sayings’ of the early Church: “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners–of whom I am the worst.” (1 Tim 1:15)  Was that something that seekers had to declare on the path to salvation or was it something the believers recognized about themselves. I have to say that the older I get – and my confidence in Christ gets stronger – the more I am aware of this truth in this early Church saying – applied and applies to me!

A little later in his letter John brings the balance that we need to hold: “My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense–Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.” (1 Jn 2:1) His desire is that we will not sin BUT he recognizes that there IS the possibility for us believers and he tells us Christ’s response to us when that happens. (In our next verses in this present chapter he tells us how we are to deal with it when it happens – see the next meditation). No, John is a realistic pastor and he knows the vulnerability of his flock.

But we said there are warnings in the New Testament that would be meaningless if we are perfect and cannot fall. Jesus himself taught, “Watch out that no one deceives you.” (Mark 13:5) and deception is about wrong thinking that leads into wrong behaviour. He concluded in that talk, “Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back ….. If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping.” (Mk 13:35,36) He is clearly warning against wrong behaviour. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus is speaking to disciples and there we find much practical teaching and warnings against wrong attitudes and wrong behaviour – all of which we as disciples are still prone to!

The apostle Paul’s letters are littered with practical teaching, warning against wrong ways of thinking and wrong ways of behaving – to which all believers are vulnerable. Probably the letter that reveals most practical teaching is that of James, full of instructions to do this or not do that. The fact is that we can get it wrong and that is why all this teaching is there for us. In the meantime we need to be aware of our vulnerability and with the help, guidance and power of the Holy Spirit, seek to avoid those things. May that be so!