34. Growth through Hope

Expectations & Hopes Meditations: 34. Growth through Hope

Col 1: 5,6   the faith and love that spring from the hope that is stored up for you in heaven and that you have already heard about in the word of truth, the gospel that has come to you. All over the world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing, just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and understood God’s grace in all its truth.

How Hope Works: Hope is a strong and sure expectation for tomorrow and when we have hope it affects how we live today. There is nothing special about this, it is not big and clever thinking but just ordinary, ‘this is how life works’ stuff. For instance, a gardener in Spring plans how the garden will develop through the rest of the year and cleans beds, lays out new ones, sows seeds, gets new plants in – all to achieve an end result. He or she has in their mind’s eye, a picture of what the garden can look like later in the year.

Or take a businessman running his company. Yes, he looks at how the company is running now but he makes plans how to grow his business and he takes steps now to create growth tomorrow. He sees in his mind’s eye what he could be achieving in a couple of years’ time and he works for that to happen.. Or there is a couple with a growing family living in a small house. They look at their finances and agree that they can afford to move to a bigger house. They don’t just sit back and do nothing. No, they start scouring the windows of estate agents, they start assessing different areas, they check out possible schools for their children, they start actually looking at specific houses. They are active because they see in their mind’s eye living in a bigger house.

Effect of Hope: Now Paul says that the hope that we have for an eternal future with God, generates faith and love for life today. The Gospel we have heard, he says, tells us that there is a better tomorrow promised us and as we have taken hold of that hope, it helps us as we live today. That hope stirs faith in us to live out today with that end in mind. That hope of God’s goodness poured out in eternity for us, in abundance, stirs love in us. But not just us; it does it wherever the gospel is preached around the world. The truth has set us free and the fulfilment of it in eternity anchors us and stirs us in the present today as we receive God’s grace for both now and then. That is what he says in our verses above.

Today and Tomorrow: If we let that truth settle in us, it can have profound effects for both now and the future. As we have considered previously, this hope is not only for that eternal experience, it is also for the days ahead of us in this life. Again, as we saw previously, when I came to Christ, that hope may have been in a very simple form – simply that tomorrow will be different, a better different: if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Cor 5:17) My past has died and there is a new tomorrow because I AM a new person, and I DO have the Holy Spirit within me, changing me and empowering me to enjoy today and tomorrow. My eternal destiny is there ahead, something to look forward to and while it is still future (and I am still here on this earth) future and present merge as far as expectations are concerned for it is the same Holy Spirit who will carry me into eternity who is in me now. So, very subtly (and I suspect many of us don’t ever realise this) our thinking is changed – tomorrow WILL be different and so tomorrow CAN be different.

Possibilities: Think about this. The word of God, the Gospel, told us that the end fruit, if you like, of our salvation is a wonderful eternity with God. So, yes, tomorrow – our eternal tomorrow – WILL be different. Now we do have an eternal future; there is a life after this. But part of the package, again if we may put it like that, is that the time between now and then, CAN be different. Now there is a sense whereby it WILL be different because He is in us, but there is also that truth that we are partners with God and we do have a say in how our lives are worked out.

Future impacts Present: Perhaps we are unsure about this future dimension, about its reality in respect of how it affects our present because, perhaps, many of us rarely think about it? But I wonder if that is actually true? Imagine the Gospel was: “believe on Jesus and your present life will be good and when you die, that will be the end of everything. You can be assured that you will not have to face God after death, it will just be the end.” Now if that was what you were told, I’m not sure it would have the same impact. A good life now is a worthy goal but for it to come to an end when we die? What is the point of such a life?

Deep down, it is this reality that in fact there is more than this three score and twenty (as it tends to be today in the West) years, that reassures us. That IS there, whether we think about it regularly (when you get older) or not. The reassurance is actually a very real one, maybe at almost subconscious level, but it is there – I have a destiny and it is more than simply living out today. Today is important, and I can have real hopes for today – that He is there for me and providing for me etc. – but that importance is strangely anchored in that hope of eternity; this is what subtly puts meaning to everything – there is more than just this life this side of death.

Assurance: Now there may be some of us who are not so secure in that eternal hope. Well, should that be you, think of that most famous of verses: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (Jn 3:16) There it is in its simplicity. You believe in Jesus, you believe he is the Son of God who died for you? You believe that because the Bible says it is so, and you believe the Bible? Done! You have eternal life and that means a changed, empowered life now and an eternal destiny, a wonderful life with God for ever.

Transformation Possibilities: There is such an inter-connecting with all these things. What we believe about tomorrow affects our today. What we think about who we are and what God thinks about us, affects our today. If you are unsure of your future or unsure of God’s love for you, it will blight your present. I have been watching in recent months, the Lord blessing one little lady in our congregation who has been through a really tough time with an abusive, violent husband. It all ended in a bitter divorce and she was shattered. Her self-esteem was zero, and then the Lord very gently started rebuilding it. She got prayed for, she went out for prayer and every time the Lord reaffirmed her. Whereas she saw she had no future but a lonely, bitter, scarred and wounded one, that has been changing as she has started to realise afresh that she is a beautiful daughter of God – with a good new future! And she has been changing. There is still some way to go but she is changing. Now she is someone who prays for and over others; she is getting words from God for others, she is ministering to others. Amazing and beautiful!

We are what we are because of what Jesus has done for us, what he is doing for us and what he will do for us in eternity. All those thing impact on my life today. I don’t know what today will hold, but I know Jesus is there in it with me and will continue to be until that time when I move into the eternal dimension after death and, for now, that eternal reassurance encourages me in today and helps release faith and love, just as Paul said. Isn’t it great!

Advertisements

3. Potential & Example

Nine Lessons of Christmas Meditations: 3. Potential & Example

Reading 2: Genesis 22:15–18

Gen 22:18    through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”

The Context: In the service layout, this reading is summarised as “God promises to faithful Abraham that in his seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.” The first reading confronted the effects of the Fall while at the same time giving a glimmer of a plan on the heart of God whereby the conflict between Satan, started there in the Garden, and mankind, would be brought to an end through some mysterious interaction, sometime in the future, between a human being and Satan and his followers. It raises the question of a mystery we have investigated in some detail in a previous series, “Focus on Christ”.  So the first reading leaves us wondering.

Reading: These present verses follow the strange and challenging incident where Abraham appears to have been called by God to sacrifice his son, Isaac, who had been miraculously conceived and born when Sarah was well past child-bearing ability. However, the Lord, through an angel, had stopped Abraham before he could actually do it. Now, a second time, He speaks again to Abraham (v.15) and says that because of his obedience (v.16) God will multiply his descendants greatly and make them a victorious nation (v.17). It is then, within this context, that He declares that one of his descendants will be the cause of the whole earth being blessed and, yes, it is specifically because he has been obedient to God (v.18). That’s it. So what are the lessons here?

1. The Big Picture again: This reading does not stand on its own. As we said above, it can be seen in the context of what we were faced with in the first reading – the Fall, and yet a glimmer of hope. It is as if now that glimmer of hope has been enlarged. Yes, in the previous reading there was someone referred to as the offspring of the woman, i.e. a human being. Now that human being is being identified as someone who comes out of the family of Abraham. Now of course Abraham’s family continued through Isaac, the child of promise, then through Jacob who became Israel, and hence to a family that grew and grew to become a nation in Egypt, who were otherwise known as Hebrews (Gen 14:13), their ethnic name, then Israelites (after Israel) and later Jews (from the tribe of Judah). This ‘people’ we’ve just named, were the context into which this future person will be born. The first lesson here, is we need to understand the big picture before the details. But there are two things about them that are crucial.

2. A People of Blessing: The fact that Abram had managed to have Isaac in his old age had been a miracle. Isaac’s wife Rebekah then, only managed to conceive after twenty years of Isaac’s praying (Gen 25:20,21,26). When the Advent story eventually unrolls, we find an aged, passed-bearing-age woman, Elizabeth, involved and then a young virgin, Mary. It is almost as if God is making the point, these people exist because I enabled past age, or barren women, or virgins, to conceive. They are a miraculous people. That was God’s side of the whole story. The lesson? Nothing is impossible with God (Lk 1:37) For deeper thought: each one of us who is a believer, is a miracle person, born of the Spirit (Jn 3:5,8), born of God (Jn 1:12).

3. A People of Faith: The second thing about these people is that they were a people of faith. It was because Abram believed God that He declared him righteous (Gen 15:6) and faith becomes the big issue about receiving salvation in the days to come. The Lesson? We are called to be people of faith, those who hear God and respond in obedience to Him. (Rom 3:28, Heb 11:6, 2 Cor 5:7, Heb 10:38)

4. A Man of Mystery: This ‘offspring of the woman’, this ‘offspring of Abraham’, is clearly the means of God blessing the earth. Now that, in itself, is a challenge to us, because the world is fallen, Adam and Eve were cast out of the presence of God, and the future for sinful mankind looks bleak – but then we are told that God intends to BLESS (decree good) for the WHOLE earth, and that through this coming one. It is both amazing and a mystery. It is amazing that God who has been rejected by mankind still wants to bless mankind and, at that point in history, it was a mystery how He could do that in the face of man’s rebellion.

There are at least two lessons here: first we may not understand fully the will of God, but the evidence is so great that we should always simply trust that He intends to bless us; second, salvation comes when we face our folly and our failures and become open to receive His grace in the form of all that Jesus has done for us on the Cross. That’s what this ‘offspring’ came to achieve, the possibility of a new start for you and me. That was what was wrapped up in this ‘mystery’.

5. An Incredible Opportunity: Perhaps the greatest lesson of this particular reading, and it is truly an incredible lesson, is that an individual can become part of the plans of Almighty God to redeem His world. That was Abraham. In two different ways he impacted our future, and we have picked them both up above, but they bear restating here.

First, he was the father of a nation through whom God would work to bring into being an environment into which His Son could come and reveal Him, bless the world and carry its Sin. If you have read these studies or meditations for any length of time you will know that one of my favourite New Testament verses is, we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Eph 2:10) Now that verse may say a variety of things but here, in this context, it says God has ways whereby I may impact this world at His leading. I don’t have to be a leading politician, a great philosopher or inventor or industrialist. I just have to be me, the child of God, empowered and directed by God’s Holy Spirit.

My favourite story, and I am told it is true, is about an American, who had a van (or a lorry), and who used to go around the district picking up young people to take them to the youth group at the local church. One young man who he invited, I think, wasn’t very keen but went along and got saved. That young man happened to be called Billy Graham who became the greatest evangelist of our time.  A man with a van, taking the local kids to church. How many million people are now in the kingdom because of what he did that day, forming just one link in the life of that young man who God had his eye on. I never know who read these or what effect they may have. You may think a conversation with a neighbour of little consequence, but if you are being one of the links in their chain, you never know what the outcome may be.

Second, Abraham became such an example of faith, the great apostle Paul used him as the key illustration of justification by faith. We never know who will be watching, for whom we will be an example that transforms their thinking. Abraham had a big impact in his day, but his example has come down through history to make the path clearer for you and me.

Do you have grandchildren who watch you? Are there fellow pupils at college who watch you? Do you have workmates who watch you? Do you have an unsaved partner or unsaved children who watch you? Example can be an incredibly important thing. These are the things, I believe, that come out of this second reading if we will do more than just let the words go by in the midst of the carols. Let’s not miss what the Lord might want to say to us this Christmas.

49. Resurrection Necessity

 

Focus on Christ Meditations: 49.  Resurrection Necessity

Acts 2:23  This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.

As we move on looking at the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, having considered the warnings beforehand that it was coming, before we move on to look at the facts of the resurrection, it would be profitable to consider WHY the resurrection is so vital to our beliefs.

The Problem Stated: The apostle Paul focused on this subject when he wrote, For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.” (1 Cor 15:3,4) In the next study we will consider the greater detail that then follows, but for the moment we need to look at his later remark which goes right to the heart of the matter: “if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised.” (1 Cor 15:14,15)

Death in History: Our starting point, as we considered in some measure previously, is that Christ was dead and buried. If he stayed like that then he would find himself in a gallery of fame that included other famous religious leaders, e.g. Mohammed, Buddha and so on, let alone lesser but important leaders in history. The starting point has to be that history shows that all great men and women died, were dead and buried, and remained dead and buried. THE claim that separates Jesus Christ out from any other major leader, is that although he died, he did NOT remain dead; he rose from the dead, he was resurrected and in that, he is unique, there is NO one else like him in all history.

Two Critical Overview Consequences: Now look back at what Paul wrote: “if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” Two things. First we have this New Testament  that, after the Gospels and Acts,  is full of the writings of Paul, Peter, James and John, and they all say the same thing, and it all hinges on the Lordship of Christ because of his resurrection. If Jesus was not raised then all that teaching was wrong and then, secondly, it means that our faith, founded on all this teaching, is unwarranted and pointless. It isn’t simply the fact of his resurrection that is important, it is also the consequences that flow from that. To understand that, we need to look at some of this teaching we find in the New Testament, and there we will see six consequences.

  1. Ground for Belief for Justification: Going through Romans, we see this again and again. Speaking about our lives, Paul wrote, “us, to whom God will credit righteousness–for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead.” (Rom 4:24) Now see this clearly. The whole of Paul’s teaching is that we are justified by belief and faith, just like Abraham was: “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” (Rom 4:3) Abraham’s belief was focused on God’s power to bring new life to his body, give him a son and make him a nation, resurrection power, if you like! We are justified when we believe that Jesus died for us and rose again: “He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.” (Rom 4:25) The resurrection of Christ becomes the focal point of our belief. If it didn’t happen, we have nothing to believe in.
  2. Ground for Ascension & Rule: The apostle Peter focuses our belief as follows: “this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also–not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand–with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him.” (1 Pet 3:21,22) We focus on a Lord who was raised and subsequently ascended to heaven where he rules today. If he wasn’t raised, he couldn’t have ascended and would not be in heaven reigning gloriously today. Our faith would be pointless. Paul said the same thing: “That power is like the working of his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms.” (Eph 1:19,20)
  3. Ground for Our Power: But that takes us on to another aspect of this, for the power Paul spoke of there was the power we now have: “I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe.” (Eph 1:18,19) Hope, an inheritance and power, the same power as raised Christ. i.e. God releases that same power in us That’s what Paul also said in Romans: “just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” (Rom 6:4) and “if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you.” (Rom 8:11) Christ being raised is paralleled with us being given a new life and that life is enabled by this same power. If that power DIDN’T come and raise Jesus, then all this is pie in the sky!
  4. Ground for Eternity: He repeats this with the Corinthians: “By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also.” (1 Cor 6:14) But this is not just for now, it is also about our eternal future: “we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you in his presence.” (2 Cor 4:14)
  5. Ground for the Second Coming: But there is another aspect to be considered: “to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead.” (1 Thess 1:10) We speak about waiting for Jesus’ Second Coming, but if he was not raised from the dead, then his body is still in the ground and has rotted and any talk about a glorious return in power (e.g. Rev 19) is meaningless.
  6. Ground for the Final Judgment: Yet, one more aspect. Men question whether there will be a final judgment. Yes, says Scripture, God keeps His word as the resurrection proves: For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:21) or, as the Message Version puts it, “He has set a day when the entire human race will be judged and everything set right. And he has already appointed the judge, confirming him before everyone by raising him from the dead.”

No, the resurrection provides a) a focus for our belief, b) a parallel for the power that is ours today that enables us to live today and c) which will also carry us into eternity, but it also shows d) how Jesus could ascend and rule at his Father’s right hand, and e) be there ready to return in glory at the appropriate time, and f) a confirmation that God’s agenda for the end is on course. Without it, all of Paul’s preaching was just pure deception and our faith meaningless wishes. That prepares the ground for us to go on and examine the equally important subject of the evidence for the resurrection which we will consider in the next study.

 

15. Aspiring to Faithfulness

Aspiring Meditations: 15.  Aspiring to Faithfulness

Gal 5:22   the fruit of the Spirit is ….faithfulness

Num 12:7  my servant Moses; he is faithful in all my house.

Deut 7:9    Know therefore that the LORD your God is God; he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commands.

When I started looking up verses about faithfulness, the next in our list of things to aspire to, I found something I had never noticed before: most of the verses about faithfulness are about God and I could find hardly anything that calls us to be faithful. The meaning of ‘faithful’ is, in its simplest form, ‘remaining true’. That is how it is in respect of God Himself and for us it means “remaining full of faith – faith-full” or remaining true to God. There is an echo of this in Jesus’ words, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” (Lk 18:8) i.e. will he find us remaining faithful to God.

When we look at faithfulness as a fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22), there is a certain ‘chicken and egg’ thing about it; which comes first? We’ve said several times that the fruit comes as we hold true to the Spirit, open to Him, being led by Him. In a sense we might say the fruit grows when we remain faithful to Him, and yet faithfulness is actually one of the fruit He brings in us. So faithfulness to Him releases faithfulness in us in much wider ways. The first reference to faithfulness in the Bible is in respect of Moses (Num 12:7 – see above) which the writer to the Hebrews picks up on (see Heb 3:2). In other words, Moses was true to his calling and remained faithful to the Lord and to Israel.

But let’s see some references to the Lord’s faithfulness and that will help faithfulness grow in us. First of all, “God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear.” (1 Cor 10:13) i.e. when temptations come from the enemy, the Lord will not leave us on our own but will remain true to the relationship we have with Him and will be there for us.

In a similar vein, “He will keep you strong to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God, who has called you into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, is faithful.” (1 Cor 1:8, 9) i.e. the reason we can be assured that we will stand blameless on the final day of accounting has a twofold dimension to it. First, God will remain true to the principles of the salvation He has provided for you through Christ and so, because of the Cross, you will appear before Him blameless, because Christ has taken all the blame. Second, we will stand blameless on that day because He will have kept us true to Him by the presence of His Holy Spirit working within us on a daily basis, and the presence or Jesus seated at His right hand ruling over our affairs. In all of this He will have remained faithful and true in respect of us.

Exactly the same thing is conveyed to the Thessalonians: “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it.” (1 Thess 5:23,24) The focus here though is not so much the final accounting but the actual return of Jesus, but the same thoughts are conveyed – we will be kept by God’s faithfulness. He will remain true to us and be there for us.

But not only is it in respect of being ready for Jesus’ return and for the final accounting, it is also in respect of our daily lives and the warfare we encounter here: “pray that we may be delivered from wicked and evil men, for not everyone has faith. But the Lord is faithful, and he will strengthen and protect you from the evil one.” (2 Thess 3:2,3) Paul acknowledges this spiritual warfare, especially noting that it can involve people who are hostile to us, but he has this same confidence he has spoken of elsewhere, that God is for us and will remain faithful and so can be relied upon to strengthen us and protect us.

Now this has brought us to a key issue – we can RELY on God BECAUSE He IS faithful, He will always remain true to us, He will always be there for us. There is a hint of this in “Because God wanted to make the unchanging nature of his purpose very clear to the heirs of what was promised, he confirmed it with an oath.” (Heb 6:17) God’s unchanging purpose is because He Himself never changes. Because the plan of the Godhead made before the foundation of the world is perfect, it never changes. God never changes and His purposes never change and His feelings and His plans and His purposes towards us, never change. We can rely on this, He is faithful, He is unchanging. Rejoice in this, be secure in this.

Now I said there appear few calls to remain faithful to God but really everything in the teaching in the New Testament is summed up in this. It is inherent in our calling. We did not surrender to Him just for ten minutes to receive His salvation; we gave our entire lives to Him. That is how it works. We remain faithful to Him because we have to, for without Him we are nothing, without Him we have no present and no future. I don’t have to try to be faithful, I just HAVE to be. The moment I cease to be, is the moment I fall into disobedience and rebellion.

But if He is faithful to us and we are faithful to Him, then by necessity we must remain faithful to one another in the body. Peter denying Jesus for a horrible few moments in the grounds of the High Priest’s palace, and Judas betraying Jesus for thirty pieces of silver are the quintessential examples of absence of faithfulness and those two incidents should act as spurs to us to be alert and ensure we never go down the same path.  He is faithful; we will be faithful – to Him and to our brothers and sisters in Christ (including those we know little of in persecution zones?) May it be so.

3. Aspiring to More Faith

Aspiring Meditations: 3.  Aspiring to more faith

Rom 10:17 “faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.”

Heb 11:6  without faith it is impossible to please God,

Mt 14:31  Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”

Hebrews 11:6 suggests the significance of faith – it is a vital requirement to have any sort of relationship with God – and so after grace, I believe it is possibly the most important idea or concept in the New Testament as far as our relationship with the Lord goes, outside the work of Christ himself on the Cross. It is how our lives with God are worked out.

We would be remiss is we missed out the words of the writer to the Hebrews defining the nature of faith: faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” (Heb 11:1) Now as good as that verse is, it doesn’t give the whole picture for it simply describes what I would call ‘passive faith’. Passive faith is all about knowing the basics of The Faith, all about God, Jesus, ourselves and what God has done for us through Jesus. That is all invisible, unseen, but as the Holy Spirit has come and convicted us to bring about our conversion, we become sure of these facts, sure about the existence of God, sure about the salvation His Son has earned for us.

But of course it doesn’t end there; that is but the beginning. If we really believe these things then they will have an impact on our lives and, with the help of the Holy Spirit, our lives will change. We will become people who are concerned about moral and spiritual standards and so, to cite the apostle Paul, we will, for example, “put off falsehood and speak truthfully.” (Eph 4:25) in other words our whole outlook on life changes and produces a completely new way of living, and our examination of these things to which the Lord wants us to aspire, are part of that. This positive change to our outlook, our attitudes and our words and our behaviour, in response to that basic body of truth we have come to believe in, are what I would call Active-Character faith, and in that sense every Christian is a person of faith.

How does this faith – both passive and active – come about?  “faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.” (Rom 10:17) In our previous lives we were ignorant of these things and then somehow, we were told the Gospel – we heard it. Someone shared it with us, and the Holy Spirit convicted us with it and when we responded the rest followed. From then on we ‘hear’ the word when we read the Bible, when we use Bible Notes, when we listen to sermons, when we receive a word of prophecy, when we receive that quiet inner nudge by the Spirit, and indeed sometimes as we pray we may sense Him speaking to us by what we find the Spirit leading us to pray. All of these are ways we ‘hear’ the word from the Lord and as the Holy Spirit gives us the sense that that is what we are experiencing, He may also convict us, challenge us to action.

Much of the time there will be a character-response, it will be something that affects how I think, feel and need to live. So a change comes about in me and in my lifestyle as I respond to Him – that is Active-Character faith. But there is also another branch of Active Faith that I would call for convenience, Active-Service faith. It is simply responding to His prompting and almost always comes from an inner conviction, an inner nudging of the Holy Spirit and it seeks to prompt me to act in a particular way. So I may sense a nudging that says, “Go over there and encourage that person,” or as I listen to someone sharing their anxieties, or their worries about their health, say, the prompting may come, “Ask them if you may pray for them now, pray over them.”  Or it may be more generally, “Share my love with them, tell them how much I love them,” or is maybe, “This is the time for you to share your testimony.” Each of these promptings are a prompting into action, or to serve the Lord in a specific way, to bring about something He wants to happen through you, His will in this specific situation. Faith occurs when you, having made yourself available to Him, respond positively and you find something rising in you that says, ‘Yes!’ and so you act and do what the Spirit said. That was Active-Service faith.

Now I am good at doing that with Christians and my wife is good at it with non-Christians, which suggests something I have noted in life: faith expressions are different for each of us. Some of us will have great faith for giving, some will have great faith for hospitality, some will have it for showing acts of charity or mercy, some of us will have it for sharing the Gospel with others, and so on.  Now when we see these things in one another we speak of them having the gift of this or that, and the apostle Paul wrote, “We have different gifts, according to the grace given us.” (Rom 12:6)

Now in the previous study, remember we spoke of grace as being God’s resources for us through His indwelling Holy Spirit. This particular resource is called faith and it is always a gift. God gave it to us through His Spirit, so some find it easy to evangelize, some easy to teach, some easy to be caring and compassionate and so as we step out in that gifting, we are expressing faith, what I am calling Active-Service faith.

Now we should also note that there is a gift of the Spirit called faith (see 1 Cor 12:9a). This simply means that a particular person – and I suggest this will not be happening every day – suddenly has total confidence that they can do a particular thing before them that the rest of us consider impossible. “But, no, we can do this thing!” Peter received it when Jesus urged him to step out of the boat (Mt 14:29). At that moment, he knew he could do it – and did!  For the more everyday faith when it comes to our particular gifting(s) we know we can do this thing and it will be good, because God is inspiring it, and so as we step out and do it, that is faith in action.

So can we develop faith? Can we increase it? The answer has surely got to be yes, otherwise Jesus would not have chided his disciples sometimes for their ‘little faith’, implying they could do better, and that he surely hoped for the future.  Well if faith comes from hearing, may I suggest we first need to learn to be more alert to what is going on inside our heads – because that is where we are going to ‘hear’. And having discerned that we are hearing God, determine to respond positively to Him every time we catch something. The more we do it, the more it will happen.  It is, I believe, that simple! Go for it! Let’s aspire to be people of faith – not merely having passive faith (although that is an essential start), but moving in Active-Character faith where we let His word shape our lifestyles, and then on into Active-Service faith where we do the works of God, just as Jesus said (Jn 14:12). Amen? Amen!

38. Little Children & the Kingdom

Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 38.  Little Children and the Kingdom

Mt 18:3    And he said: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Of all the analogies we have considered, this is perhaps the most simple. It comes because Jesus’ disciples were wondering about greatness in the kingdom of God. It would appear from the Gospels that these discussions arose more than once and had a certain self-serving nature to them. (see also Lk 9:46, 22:24): At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (v.1) it is possible that Jesus’ earlier words about John the Baptist that we considered earlier in this series (see study 17) stayed with them: “I tell you the truth: Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” (Mt 11:11) It is also possible that Peter, James and John felt a little superior to the others, recently having been up on what we call the Mount of Transfiguration with Jesus.

Wanting to show them that pride was not a characteristic of the kingdom, “He called a little child and had him stand among them.” (v.2) This child is to be a visual aid to help them take in what he is about to say: “And he said: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (v.3,4)

The analogy is becoming like a child, and as this child stood there next to Jesus, trusting and unpretentious in complete humility, the lesson is clear. I fear that sometimes, when we watch ‘big ministries’ this lesson has not been learnt. I will always remember the description of the entrance to, I believe it was possibly, the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelisation in 1974 and the commentator noted all the ‘big names’ from around the world going in, some with their bodyguards (Christian leaders with bodyguards – what are we on about?????) and then he noted sitting among the crowd on the steps, chatting with onlookers, Dr. Francis Schaeffer. The rest were talking about it, Schaeffer in absolute anonymous humility was doing it.

That was what Jesus was talking about here and, as I said, I believe we often forget this. This ‘childlike’ attitude of submission and trust and humility is vital to any person coming to Christ. No man or woman can come to Christ and hold on to their pride. A rich young ruler approached Jesus on one occasion asking what seemed a good question: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Lk 18:18) and when Jesus asked him about the Ten Commandments, he replied, “All these I have kept since I was a boy.” (v.21) Jesus replied, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (v.22) Jesus saw that this young man relied on his riches and his position but neither are currency in the kingdom, only surrender, trust, humility and reliance on God for His salvation.

Once upon a time (and I am aware I have shared this story before in other studies, but it seems pertinent) when our three children were still small, we were on holiday together and desired to go to church on a Sunday morning. We were camping and so didn’t have ‘smart’ clothes with us but we were not looking scruffy – just not conventional by traditionalist church standards. Arriving just a few minutes before the start of the service we found this well-known church almost full and an usher tried taking us down to the front row that was empty. Having three children all under the age of eight with us, my wife asked could we be in a less conspicuous place. We ended up in the back balcony – about the same height as the preacher’s pulpit and had the sense when he was preaching he was aiming at us. It was the sort of church where everyone troops out at the end and shakes the hand of the minister at the door. The only trouble was that the minister was talking to one of his sidesmen and so when both my wife and I shook his hand he neither looked at us nor said a word of greeting. This ‘great man’ (for he was well known across that part of the country as a great preacher) would have done well to remember Jesus’ words here.

You cannot enter the kingdom of God without being like a child with these characteristics and these same characteristics are not merely for entrance, but are also supposed to be at the heart of the life that follows. ‘Church’ is not about looking good, fine sermons, good teaching, but is about being like Jesus and if he says being childlike is the criteria then we need to hold to that. Little children are, we said, trusting and unpretentious but we might also add they take people at face value, which is what Jesus did when he mixed with the tax-collectors and sinners. Little children don’t have high demands on other people, they haven’t learned to have high expectations of other people. I recently came across that all too familiar evangelical condemnation of the half-hearted recently. As much as we might wish for a church who are all going all out for Jesus, sometimes people are struggling with life and with their faith and looking down on them doesn’t help them. When I was a child I remember two friends who my parents weren’t happy about because of their family backgrounds and slightly absent ethical standards! However, as a child I just accepted them for who they were – my friends. I didn’t become like them although we did get into some scrapes together.

Why do I say these things? Because I have seen that people who do not exercise this childlikeness towards other people, also tend not to exhibit it towards God. Exercising faith is being childlike. Remember what we have seen in recent studies. Childlikeness towards Jesus means listening to him and taking what he says with simple acceptance and if he says, ‘step over the side of the boat and come to me’, we do that. If he says go and be encouraging to that person over there, that’s what we do.  If he says, pray over that person for the needs they have just shared with you, do that. Faith is simply a childlike response to the Lord. May he find that in us.

37. Mustard Seed and Mountains

Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 37.  Mustard Seed and Mountains

Mt 17:20    He replied, “Because you have so little faith. I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, `Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”

What is fascinating is that there is a direct link between Jesus’ words here and those we considered in the previous study, about the keys to the kingdom and the matter of binding and loosing. There, you may remember, we said that whenever we speak such words under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit we are simply declaring on earth the will of God that has been decreed in heaven. So now we come to these power-packed words that focus on three things: faith, mustard seed and a mountain.

Let’s take those in reverse order. Did Jesus mean a literal mountain? Well, yes, I believe he did mean it literally but I also believe it can be taken figuratively to mean any major obstacle that gets in the way of the kingdom. Again, please note the closing words of that sentence – that gets in the way of the kingdom. This is not about us performing magical acts to satisfy or entertain others or boost our own ego; what Jesus is talking about is serving the kingdom of God. Why do I say that? Look at the context. Jesus has just come down the Mount of Transfiguration only to find the disciples struggling to deliver a demon possessed boy (Mt 17:14-16). Jesus delivers the boy and then in private instructs the disciples. The context is all about operating in the kingdom of God, doing the will of the Father. All of this is vital to understand if we are to see what Jesus’ present teaching is about.

Next, the mustard seed. This is easy, we’ve seen it before. It is simply a tiny seed, perhaps one of the smallest seeds used. The implication is obvious: you only need a tiny, tiny bit of faith to be able to move such a mountain. Now let’s face the obvious: such a thing is humanly crazy. No way by speaking to a mountain will you move it. So what is Jesus meaning by this?

The answer comes by understanding faith. Faith, the writer to the Hebrews says, is, “being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” (Heb 11:1) Now note those two underlined words. When you genuinely have faith, there is a complete confidence in what you ‘see’ in your spirit, you are absolutely sure of what you are hoping to see, absolutely certain of this thing that has not yet happened and thus you cannot see.

But the key to faith comes with the apostle Paul’s teaching, “faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.” (Rom 10:17) Now I am certain that applies to the brining of the Gospel and faith rises in a person to believe it ONLY when they HEAR it. But I am equally certain that the same thing applies whenever we HEAR GOD. Faith arises when the Holy Spirit speaks the will of God into our hearts or our spirits. When, for instance, someone speaks God’s word that He wants to impact me with, the Holy Spirit makes it come alive within me and at that moment I KNOW that whatever it is, it is true.

When Paul spoke of the gift of faith (1 Cor 12:9) it is a ‘gift of believing’ that is greater than most of us are capable of believing but it comes “in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you.” (Rom 12:3) So your friend with such a gift speaks about starting off some incredibly difficult ministry and you think they must be crazy. No, they simply have the gift of faith, the absolute belief that this thing is possible.

We might say moving a mountain is an example of the gift of faith because it appears so outrageous that we think this is beyond the reach of most Christians. Well, I will not argue either way on that but suffice to say, the teaching of Jesus still stands and with the understanding of what we now know, we can take Jesus words to mean, “if the Father wants this mountain to be moved, all He needs is a willing participant (because He loves involving His people), one who simply has an open ear to Him and who will be available to say or do whatever he/she hears the Father saying. So if He says I want you to move this mountain – speak against it – do that and He will ratify your words with the power that WILL move the mountain.”

In other words, if you hear the Father’s will for you and you respond to it, then “Nothing will be impossible for you.” (v.20b) Remember, the ‘Nothing’ means ‘nothing within His specific will’. It’s what HE wants to come about, not what we want.

In Matt 21 there was the incident of the unfruitful fig tree which Jesus cursed and which then withered and died (Mt 21:18,19). It would almost appear that Jesus did it specifically to provide a visual lesson for the disciples who questioned what happened. We then find the same teaching we have been considering: Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, `Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.” (Mt 21:21,22) Note the slight addition: “faith and do not doubt.” Faith and doubt are opposites. The doubt means to be uncertain. Faith is about being certain. Also note the context that we have perhaps taken for granted: “whatever you ask for in prayer.” It happens when you pray, when you are relating to the Lord, interacting with Him. As we do this, His Holy Spirit speaks in such a way that we suddenly KNOW and we can act.

Now we have been talking about active faith – faith in action – but is can also be passive, the faith we have that just knows we are Christian loved by God and redeemed by Jesus on the Cross. We came to believe those things and we live in them. Now the apostle James speaks of these things: the testing of your faith develops perseverance,” (Jas 1:3) in the context of trials of life (v.2) Recognising that so often we need wisdom to handle life he goes on, “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him.” (v.5) That seems simple and straight forward but note: “But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.” (v.6) No doubting!

Perhaps an obvious little thing in all this is that we need to learn to discern the voice of God, we need to learn to listen to God. If faith “comes from hearing”, we need to learn to listen and when we hear, recognize and accept who it is we are hearing so that the Spirit can energize the words and we recognize and step out in faith. Amen? Amen!