5. Family Isolation

Short Meditations in John 7:  5. Family Isolation

Jn 7:5 For even his own brothers did not believe in him.

In the previous two studies we have been picking up on the point that Jesus, within his ministry, as the Son of God under the direction of his Father in heaven, nevertheless a) came under pressure from people, i.e. particularly his family, and b) attended and used the various Feasts that were part of Judaism. In the previous study we particularly picked up on the point of his family not believing in him. That is clearly accentuated by our verse today. It comes as a stark declaration, and it is around that verse that we now focus.

What Jesus experienced, he warned us to expect: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.  For I have come to turn “‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law— a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’” (Mt 10:34-36 quoting Micah 7:6)

It is a sad but inevitable experience for the believer. He or she comes to Christ but finds that the wonder of their experience is not shared by their family and there, instantly, there is division. When I first came to Christ and sought to share what had happened with my unbelieving parents (nice and good people) they failed to understand. In the fulness of time my mother eventually encountered the Lord in a lovely way, but my father held out and, indeed, on one occasion in a discussion about Jesus declared, “You’re of the devil!” (A little ironic!!!)

Time passed and he was clearly set in his unbelief and clearly no longer wanted to talk and I found myself praying and asking the Lord for wisdom as to what to do. “Write him a letter,” came the guidance so I wrote a letter, seeking to be as gracious as possible laying out the basics of the Gospel and concluded it, “Dad, no one else in the family knows I am giving this to you and I will not say anything more to you about my faith, so I just ask you to read what I have written here and think about it in your own time.” To cut a long story short, he came to the Lord in the fulness of time without me having to say anything more. To the best of my knowledge my sister, with whom I had shared extensively never made a profession of faith.

And that is the heart of it, division comes with belief and our job then becomes to share as graciously as possible with our lived ones, in whatever ways we can find the grace to do it, but we can never guarantee that loved ones will come through. We can pray, seek God’s wisdom and share, but the outcome is never automatic. When unbelief continues, the best we can do is seek for God’s grace to be loving and full of grace, respecting others, whatever the outcome.

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1. An Unknown

Meditations in the life of Abraham : 1. An Unknown

Gen 11:26,29,30  After Terah had lived 70 years, he became the father of Abram, Nahor and Haran….The name of Abram’s wife was Sarai…..Now Sarai was barren; she had no children.

When you pass people in the street, do you ever wonder where they come from, what their background is and what they’ve been through?  We live in a world where celebrities, courtesy of the media, feature highly. If you were asked to list off fifty well-known names, you’d probably not have a problem.  However, the truth is that the vast majority of us are unknowns. If we are ‘anybody’ it’s probably because of our family. Families count for a lot. Some of us may have made our way through our education or through business or professional achievement, but for most, families do play a big part. It’s all right, actually, to come from humble beginnings and be a ‘nobody’ as far as the world is concerned. If we measure ourselves according to our family background and upbringing, we may truly be a ‘nobody’. If we measure ourselves on the basis of how much we have impacted the world, what we’ve achieved, we may, indeed, rate ourselves very lowly, but there is another means of measuring our value, and it is God!

Here is Abram, and he probably knows very little of God; in fact few people do at this time in history! It’s early days. Around the world the revelation of God is very limited. It is said that the Chinese had an early understanding of the God who is the Creator.  Most other peoples had a more superstitious, fact-absent set of beliefs. There was, in many, a sense that the world was more than just a material, senses-perceived existence, there was something more. Spirits? Demons? Things that needed to be appeased, things that needed bribing? It was early days as far as spiritual revelation was concerned. And Abram is a nobody who doesn’t know much, if anything, about God.

Well actually he is the eldest son of Terah, but that really doesn’t say much. When we first come across him in Genesis 11, there is no indication whatsoever that this is a man of destiny, a man whose name would become a household name to many. He’s got two brothers and he gets a wife called Sarai. His youngest brother has a son,Lot, and so far Sarai doesn’t have any children.  They live inUr, in the southern part of what we sometimes callMesopotamia, one of the so-called ‘cradles of civilization’.  Life just goes on year by year with nothing eventful happening. Time passes, and still Abram and Sarai don’t have any children. Eventually it is assumed she is simply childless.

This is all rather ironic because when Terah had had his first child, he named him ‘Abram’ which means ‘exalted father’. The implication is that Terah expected this son to carry on the family name, perhaps to be like him and have at least three sons of his own, a family at least, who would carry on the family name. But Abram doesn’t have any children because ‘Sarai was barren’. It’s the youngest of the three sons,Haran, who has a son,Lot, and thenHarandies. One way and another, this is probably not a very happy family.  So here we have this man who is a ‘nobody’, part of an unhappy family blighted by childlessness and a premature death. Not a very good scenario.

Perhaps, when you look back over your family life and background, you feel that it is similar to that which we’ve been describing. For many people when the stories are told, they realise their parents were not wonderfully happy, and indeed in many cases they actually weren’t wanted. In the nine months of being carried in the womb, all they had conveyed to them was worry, anxiety and fear. When they were born, it wasn’t a lot better. For many people childhood wasn’t a wonderful time of life. Teenage years were even more turbulent and a decidedly rickety launch into adulthood. And then the ups and downs of life hit. For some it is childlessness, for others divorce, for others unemployment, and the list could go on and on. Life is bumpy! Things go wrong! We live in a Fallen World when prevailing sin means our lives ‘break-down’.

And what are we left with?  Very often it is low self-esteem. Very often it is a feeling of being locked into circumstances, locked into my personal history, locked in to the sense of failure. In reality many of us feel we are a ‘nobody’. In reality our knowledge of God is strictly limited. In reality we feel we have no future worth mentioning. We just live.

This is where the story of Abram and Sarai brings hope. This is a story of a man who didn’t know God, who has an encounter with God, and has his life changed for ever. This story is about an embryonic relationship that forms with God, the ups and the downs of the life of this ‘nobody’ that makes him a ‘somebody’. This is all about the life transformation that can take place, because God turns up. Are you ready for God to turn up for you as you read through these incidents in Abram’s life, because that’s what this is all about?

Over the years my understanding of the story of Abram grew in stages. The more you think about it the more comes out. In the early meditations in this series I am going to write as if that understanding grows and develops. Join me with our exploration into this man’s growing experience of God.

124. A Ghost

Short Meditations in Mark’s Gospel: 124. A Ghost?

Mk 6:48-50   About the fourth watch of the night he went out to them, walking on the lake. He was about to pass by them, but when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought he was a ghost. They cried out, because they all saw him and were terrified.

When you have lived on this planet for any reasonable number of years, you begin to get an idea of how things work. Gravity means things fall downwards towards the ground. Solid things like bricks and stone mean they are ‘solid’ and hard and impenetrable. Water is movable and not structural and is not any use for walking on. With these things in mind, it is a fairly reasonable response of the disciples to attribute a figure walking on the middle of the lake to be a ghost.

All right, you have to be someone who believes in ghosts to start with but when you are confronted with something impossible, you may be excused for jumping to weird and wonderful conclusions. And such conclusions are scary. I mean, why is this figure out here? Is it coming for us? What does it want with us? What is it going to do with us? I think, in modern terms, if you’d just parachuted out of a plane at ten thousand feet and at about five thousand feet someone appeared to wander up casually and start talking to you as you continued to fall. But at least you would able to see them clearly. For the disciples it wasn’t clear.

The fourth watch was between 3 and6amso it is possible it is just starting to get light but still quite dark. Jesus has seen the disciples struggling on the lake and, we are told quite specifically, walked out to them. When he gets near them, he’s travelling faster than them and so makes like he’s about to walk past them. It’s a funny picture really. If it was a modern cartoon film he’s just amble by while they are struggling with their oars and calmly wave and say, “Hi guys,” as if it were perfectly ordinary and he was on his way somewhere. It’s almost as if he wants them to invite him in or call out to him for help.

Isn’t that what is happening when so often we get into difficulties in life and Jesus doesn’t seem to be there. He’s actually waiting for us to invite him into the situation or cry out to him for help. The fact that he is walking on water quite naturally should just reiterate the fact that he is the Son of God and he can handle every aspect of every situation, so if we are struggling, isn’t the wise thing to invite him to come and help us through our struggles. This, as we said before, is a stage-set situation arranged by Jesus to teach these disciples something. And us?


27. Entrusted One

Meditations on Jesus in John’s Gospel : 27 : Jesus, the Entrusted One

Jn 3:35 The Father loves the Son and has placed everything in his hands.

In the age in which we live, in Britain in the early part of the twenty first century, there is one particular tragedy that stands out and which has devastating effects. It is that of fathers abandoning their wives and their children. Far back in history, before people commuted to work (!), men worked from home or from a location close to home and the family unit, being a lot closer, had a part in that work.  Son would thus join the father in his work and eventually the father would hand over the business to the son who would pass it on to his son. Today all of that has gone and the concept of closeness of father and son seems almost alien, which is why the significance of our verse today may be lost on us.

Already in these meditations we have considered something of the closeness of the Father and the Son as revealed by John in his Gospel. There is something quite glorious in this verse, about intimacy and trust. Jesus declares something very simple but very profound: The Father loves the Son.” Sadly today many sons could not say that about their fathers, but Jesus knew it as a truth. Here in human form, separated from his Father in heaven, he still knew the Father loved him. It is part of human experience to know we are loved and where that is missing that is tragic. It is part of the confidence that the Son has.  Already the Father has intervened on earth to declare His approval of His Son (Mt 3:17) as Jesus was being baptised.  Approval indicates confidence and Jesus has that assurance, that confidence, from his Father. He knows he is loved and that love inspires confidence in what he does.

But then comes this incredible statement: The Father … has placed everything in his hands”. What is this ‘everything’?  It is the whole of the work or ministry that Jesus has come to do.  The outcome of your salvation and my salvation was entirely in Jesus’ hands.  He came first to reveal the Father through the works that he performed.  As we’ve already seen, the miracles were to act as signs pointing toward God, for whoever had eyes to see. The works in themselves, and the preaching and teaching that he brought, turned many to God and revealed God’s love to many in those three brief years. But then came the Cross, that work into eternity that took your sin and my sin so that we might be pardoned and forgiven and cleansed when we turned to God, so that justice could be seen to be done and all sin punished. This staggering work on the Cross was the means of all history being changed. All of that was committed into Jesus’ hands. The Father entrusted him with that work, something they had agreed upon before the foundation of the world.

This is the staggering truth, that the Godhead had placed the eternal future of many in the human race upon this one human body that carried the eternal Son. It seems such a fragile plan, dependant upon one human body, who had all of this eternal plan placed in his hands. The success or failure for a family for God in eternity depended on Jesus and the Father trusted him with it. How did the Son achieve it? We’ve seen it before: he watched the Father moving and followed His lead (Jn 5:19) and the Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son (Jn 5:22). Yes, the assessment of each human being is dependent on Jesus. It is first how each one of us responds to the Good News of Jesus Christ that we are saved or condemned, and the Son, now seated at the Father’s right hand in heaven confirms the assessment and saves or judges on the basis of our response to him. Awesome!

15. Servants

Lessons from the Law: No.15 : The Law for Servants

Ex 21:2-4 If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything. If he comes alone, he is to go free alone; but if he has a wife when he comes, she is to go with him. If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the woman and her children shall belong to her master, and only the man shall go free.

Remember, we said in the previous meditation, these laws are to bring peace, order and stability to society. Many years ago when I taught Law at college, I would always ask my students in the first lesson, do we need laws, and why?  They would always answer, yes, to protect the weak. That is an answer which corresponds very well with Scripture for the Lord is always concerned for the weak, the poor and the underdog. Someone who has to work for another as their servant is clearly in this category and so the Lord starts off these laws with instructions for caring for servants.

Note that it starts off, “If you buy a servant.” The situation would be that a family was poor and in need and so might sell a family member into servitude. They would become the ‘ownership’ of the master who bought them and the family would receive the payment for them and they would receive their keep and become almost part of the family who bought them, and would work for them. The point that is at issue here is that when such a thing happened, the Lord demands that their period of service be limited to six years only and then they be released without payment.

Now we need to realise that this is very different from the concept of slavery for later in the Law in Leviticus we find the following instructions: If one of your countrymen becomes poor among you and sells himself to you, do not make him work as a slave. He is to be treated as a hired worker or a temporary resident among you; he is to work for you until the Year of Jubilee. Then he and his children are to be released, and he will go back to his own clan and to the property of his forefathers. Because the Israelites are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt, they must not be sold as slaves. Do not rule over them ruthlessly, but fear your God.” (Lev 25:39-43). The servant is to be treated as a ‘hired worker or a temporary resident’, NOT a slave!

The fact of history is that slaves did exist. For example, Hagar had been Abraham’s slave (Gen 21:10). In the Law, slaves could be bought by the Hebrews but only from other nations (Lev 25:44,45) and many laws protected the welfare of those slaves (e.g. Ex 21:20, 28-32, 23;12,  Lev 19:20). The Lord was just as concerned for them as for servants and for masters. The Law however regulated the practice, already in the world, of owning slaves, and ensured in Israel, at least, slaves were well cared for.

The crucial issue, here at least, is that the period of servant-hood is strictly limited and so if poverty pushes a family into service, that is only for a relatively short period and not for a lifetime. If the servant was married when he came, then his wife went as well and when the period of service came to an end they both left.

Now comes the difficult part (in our modern eyes). If the master gives the servant a wife, she is under the master’s directions and so she and any children remain with the master at the end of the period (unless of course a friendly master should release her as well). However legally she was to stay with the Master. It would be likely that a servant knowing this would either marry with the obligations and stay on at the end, or simply not marry during that time.

We then come to an even stranger part of the Law: But if the servant declares, ‘I love my master and my wife and children and do not want to go free, then his master must take him before the judges. He shall take him to the door or the doorpost and pierce his ear with an awl. Then he will be his servant for life.” (v.5,6) There is an implied recognition here that being a servant for a good master actually created a great sense of security. It was just a job and one which had rewards which the servant might wish to continue. For a good master, such a job may have had no more onerous requirements than many jobs today. If the servant did want to stay on, then a simple procedure of creating a permanent body mark (like we pierce ears for earrings) indicated his intent and the master’s agreement to have the servant and his family stay on. Actually piercing the ear against the doorpost of the home probably also added the sense symbolically of him being attached to that home. In reality it was no more different than ear piercing today.  The purpose of these instructions was to formalise a process that often happened anyway – the servant staying on after the six years – in order to prevent abuse and to protect the servant by formalising the arrangement in the eyes of the Law and of the local community.

Although there is much that is taken for granted in these laws or implied by them, the basic guidelines are there that show the Lord’s recognition of what went on in the world but which, in the redeemed community, should be carried out in a caring and humane way. Peace, order and security thus followed.

7. Parents

Lessons from the Law: No.7 : Honour your Parents

Ex 20:12 Honour your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you

The fifth commandment that we have here in our verse today, is a link between the first four that are all about the Lord, and the latter five that are all about relating to the rest of the world. Interestingly it isn’t about the marriage relationship – that comes later – but is about our fundamental attitudes towards our parents. It is almost as if the Lord is pointing out that the most fundamental attitude to be checked out, is that towards our parents. Every single one of us has parents. We may not get married  and we may not have children and so rules in respect of that would be irrelevant to us, but this is an all-encompassing law that applies to everyone one of us.

Now before we move on in this mediation and move on to consider the remaining of the Ten Commandments, I would suggest that if we ignore the first four commands, it is probable that we will ignore the remaining six. The reason I say that is the if you push God out of the equation of your life, you have no foundation upon which to determine what is right or wrong, and very soon selfishness will be the predominating characteristic observed in your life. No longer is it, what is right because it conforms to how we were designed to live best, but now it is simply what do I want, what gives me the most pleasure regardless of the outcome. It is not surprising therefore, that where in Western societies we see the rejection of God, we also find a complete abandoning of the remaining six commandments – and it starts in the family!

Again, before we really get in to focusing on this command, we would do well to note a grave danger that hinders obedience to it. It is the observance of our parents as failures. Tragically we now are in a downward spiral where this appears to get worse and worse. Fifty years ago most families stayed together. Divorce was relatively rare. That didn’t make marriages perfect or even always good, but it did mean at least that the parents were there for the child. Now I believe it true to say that most marriage failures came because of the husband. The wife is emotionally linked to the children but there is not such a strong link for the father.

Men also historically had greater freedom and so when we think back to characteristic ‘bad fathers’ they were those who drank too much or betted too much. Such ‘freedoms’ were not available to the mother who was historically linked to the home. It is probably true to say that infidelity mostly came as initiated by the husband and when there was abandonment of the family, it was by the husband. It is this latter thing which is mostly observed by the children, reinforcing their negative ideas about marriage. Even if it wasn’t something like this, we can all look back to remember the shortcomings of our parents. All of us who are parents fail to be perfect; our children will always have something to feel negative about. It is what living in a fallen world is about – and perhaps that is one of the reasons that Lord places this command before all other commands about relating to others.

The fact is that we cannot disregard this command because out parents were less than perfect. We must leave our parents’ failings for the Lord to deal with. Our call is to ‘honour’ our parents. What does honour mean?  It means to exalt or esteem or acknowledge distinction. Why should a child do this of their parents? First of all, because God says so, and He makes it a condition of a good life! Yes, this command carries an outworking with it: so that you may live long in the land.” Failure to keep this command suggests that our lives will be impaired – the implication IS there! Long life normally comes in Scripture as a result of the blessing of God. If God’s blessing is withheld then life will be limited. Note again what we suggested honouring means: to exalt or esteem or acknowledge distinction. It is a mind thing, an attitude thing first and foremost and then when the attitude is right, right actions will follow.

Now this is not to say that we should be blind to our parents’ shortcomings or even excuse them, but it does mean we put them aside and purpose, nevertheless, to adjust our attitude so that we exalt or esteem them for who they are apart from their sin. Now for some this is very difficult because they may have been abused throughout their childhood by their father. Now this raises lots of other issues, for example about blowing the whistle on their sin. If you have been abused, don’t keep quiet about it. You first of all confront your father with his wrong and if he fails to repent and seek your forgiveness, you share it with your mother or some other close adult. Can you ‘honour’ a father in such circumstances? With immense difficulty and only by the grace of God. If we are a Christian, we still want this man to turn to God and be saved. This is the ultimate of our desires for our parents if they are not Christians, and it may be this desire in particular that motivates you to view your parents through different eyes.

Often in counselling we have seen an individual be shown by the Lord what their parent was really like. One abused daughter in particular in my memory, wept for her father saying, “I didn’t know what he had been through to make him like that.” It did not excuse what he had done but it did explain it and the understanding helped her put aside the years of abuse and cry for his salvation.

Most of us fortunately were not abused physically, but it may have been abuse verbally or by neglect. We don’t excuse it ever, but with God’s help we can explain it, and that may help us be able to put aside the hurt of the past and cry for our parents. There is so much more that could be said but space prohibits it. In Ex 34:7 we find the Lord spoken of as one who punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.” (Ex 34:7) but the truth is that at any time we can turn to the Lord and find forgiveness, cleansing and a new life. We don’t have to take on the sins of our parents which do so often trickle down through the generations. A good sign, seen so often, is the decision of new young parents not to go the way of their parents. With God’s grace you can be different and in so being you can bring honour to your own parents and, if they are still alive, your life can eventually be used by the Lord to change theirs. Now there is a challenge, but make sure your attitude is right to start with.

47. Family Harmony

Ephesians Meditations No.47

Eph  6:1-4 Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honour your father and mother”–which is the first commandment with a promise– “that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth. “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.

The context you may remember is of submission creating unity in the church, the body of Christ. Paul developed that concept through the picture of marriage and now extends it into the whole family. It is a subject – and through these verses especially – that often raises a number of questions. Paul starts off, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.” He is looking at the parent-child relationship and so starts with the child who is the one who is most likely to have difficulty with the submission concept. This especially comes so in teenage years when the young person is seeking to find their own identity, and part of that process involves temporarily drawing away from the parent. It is also difficult when the child is a Christian and the parent is not and the parent makes demands that conflict with the faith of the young person. It may also be difficult when the parent is a Christian and the young person has not made a decision for Christ themselves.

In the call to children there are two things that deserve particular attention. The first is the word obey’. The role of the parent in God’s design is to be there to provide for and protect the child and, if we follow Old Testament teaching, to train up the child (Prov 22:6). Part of those things will be to issue instructions which may vary from the mundane (e.g. please will you pick up that toy off the floor), to the more serious, (e.g. I really don’t want you mixing with those teenagers who are taking drugs). If we ever had a question of the reality of sin (rebellion), observe any child! The wilful refusal to do that which is asked (or required) leads us into discipline issues, which are beyond what we have space for here.

The second thing to consider is Paul’s use of the words, ‘in the Lord’. Now he obviously includes these for a reason and that, we suggest, is similar to our thinking when it comes to the requirements of the State. The Law, or the instructions of the parent, should never go contrary to God’s laws, instructions etc. Thus a non-Christian (although tragically this doesn’t exclude some Christian men), who brings instruction to a child that involves them submitting to abuse, is wrong and should not be heeded. Wisdom suggests that as the child gets older instructions give way to discussion, i.e. bald commands give way to explanation. It is always wise to put in some form of explanation with every instruction (e.g. …otherwise your toy might get broken if you leave it there) but in teenage years talking and discussing (in a family forum?) are much better and are an acceptance and recognition of the child’s growing responsibility.

Then Paul gives a reason for ‘obeying’ parents, and it is because it goes with the original Old Testament instruction as the fifth of the Ten Commandments: “Honour your father and mother”–which is the first commandment with a promise– “that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.” Honouring is slightly different from ‘obeying’ in that obeying can be an expression of honouring. Honouring is more about having an attitude of respect, a recognition of the role that God has given to this older person. It isn’t about how well they have performed it! So important did God consider this that He made it a condition of blessing, originally in the Promised Land, but now in life generally. I wonder how many young people DON’T realise this (or older ‘children’ too!) that God’s blessing on their life can be curtailed because of a bad attitude towards their parent?  Even when the parent has not been good, godly ‘honouring’ should produce a concern for (and prayer for?) that parent.

There is another side to this submitting which might be simply summarised as ‘don’t make it difficult to be submitted to’: “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.” Why does Paul say this to fathers? First, because fathers, as the ones who have the responsibility before the Lord for the family, should be the ones taking the ultimate action to bring about the training in righteousness of the child and, second, fathers tend to be more heavy handed in these things than the mother. It is thus something that, for both reasons above, the father needs to give particular thought to.

A final comment: in all of these things pertaining to family relationships, legalistic demanding of them does no good. Whatever else is required of such parental leading, the primary thing is love and acceptance. Let those two things temper all you do with your child, and increasingly as they grow older. If there is a genuine loving relationship, there is more likely to be obedience that flows out in response to that love. You will also need to cry to the Lord for wisdom on more than a few occasions! May it be so!