6. Reassurance

Studies in Isaiah 54: 6. Reassurance

Isa 54:9 “To me this is like the days of Noah, when I swore that the waters of Noah would never again cover the earth. So now I have sworn not to be angry with you, never to rebuke you again. 

Seeking Understanding:  Something I have observed in recent days is that in some quarters there is a tendency to explain away some of the Old Testament that seems difficult to understand. More often than not it is to do with the judgments of God but I have written about this extensively elsewhere, so I will not cover it now. Another area is to do with prophecy, as we now have here. We look at a passage and take what we read, failing to get understanding, and get confused.

The truth is that when we study the Bible we need to go through several stages to get the most out of it. Stage 1 is seeing what it says. Yes, it is that simple. What does this passage actually say? Stage 2 is seeking for understanding of it. What is the bigger picture, how does it fit and, especially with prophecy, how does it seem to fit in history and how was it – or has it been – fulfilled?  The third stage is seeking to see how the lessons or principles revealed can be applied to us today. Now I say all of this here, because what is being said is so enormous that we have to ask, when does the Lord want this applied?

Context: As we so often point out, context is important, so how do these present two verses fit into the chapter.  Well, the chapter started with an analogy of Israel being like an abandoned wife – the Lord being her husband (v.1). The picture encourages this ‘abandoned woman’ saying she will have many children and should therefore enlarge her home (v.2,3). He went on to say forget the past (v.4) for the Lord is a redeemer (v.5) who, although He had previously cast her aside (v.6-8), He will bring her back (v.7). It is possible that when Israel heard this prophecy, they might doubt it, and what now comes is the Lord’s way of reassuring them.

Perhaps a parallel illustration of this is found in the case of Gideon. “When the angel of the Lord appeared to Gideon, he said, “The Lord is with you, mighty warrior.” (Judg 6:12) There was the message of reassurance, but observe Gideon’s response: “Pardon me, my lord,” Gideon replied, “but if the Lord is with us, why has all this happened to us? Where are all his wonders that our ancestors told us about when they said, ‘Did not the Lord bring us up out of Egypt?’ But now the Lord has abandoned us and given us into the hand of Midian.” (Judg 6:13) Although the words came through an angel, the prevailing circumstances seemed to negate them. He needed further reassurance.

The Reassurance: So now we can look at our present verses. To reassure Israel the Lord parallels what He is now saying with what happened at the Flood: “To me this is like the days of Noah, when I swore that the waters of Noah would never again cover the earth.” (v.9a) To understand this we need to go back to that account. The Lord had called Noah who had been obedient and so had come through the Flood with his family. The other side of the flood we read, “Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and, taking some of all the clean animals and clean birds, he sacrificed burnt offerings on it.” (Gen 8:20) i.e. Noah’s response to the flood was to worship God; he held onto a right attitude towards Him.

He did not grumble about the flood and all that happened about his home and his past being wiped out, but responded with a right attitude and worshiped. It was in response to this that we find, “The Lord smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart: “Never again will I curse the ground because of humans, even though every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done.” (Gen 8:21) I don’t know if you can see the enormity of this, but it is the Lord showing us that we can move His heart and thus reveal a completely different possibility for mankind.

Law and Grace: I have, when writing elsewhere about the judgments of the Lord (see ‘Judgments of a Loving God’), suggested that essentially the Bible reveals two sorts of judgment: disciplinary judgments that are designed (where the Lord sees it is possible) to change the hearts of men, and what I have called terminal judgments or ‘judgments of the last resort’, i.e. people die because the Lord sees that is the only way to save the situation. (We always need to see this in the light of His words in Ezek 18:23,32, 33:11, 2 Pet 3:9 – the Lord never wants to bring terminal judgments but they are sometimes necessary if the Lord sees that repentance will not be forthcoming).

Thus the awfulness of the state of mankind just prior to the Flood (see Gen 6) was so terrible that it was only the righteousness of Noah that prevented complete extinction. So, back to our picture of Noah and the Flood, the Flood was God’s demonstration of His power to bring judgment on evil as seen in Gen 6, indeed justice would demand such a thing but when the Lord sees the response of Noah (to worship) He sees the possibilities for mankind and He is moved in compassion to provide an alternative way of appeasing justice (the Cross).

Now we have commented on this before, that the Lord appears to act both as God outside of space-time history and thus plans redemption through the Cross before Creation AND as God in history who responds to the present. Thus the Flood was a legitimate response to the call of justice, meeting the demands of ‘the Law’ if you like,  but out of it was revealed the genuine possibility of a good response from human beings, which opens up in turn the Lord’s willingness to offer grace.  But does He just turn a blind eye to our sin? Definitely not! Our Sin (and sins) are covered by the work of Christ on the Cross. His death acted as the sentence that satisfies justice and that is what applies here and now for Israel.

The Covenant of Peace: This same compassion comes through in these words: “So now I have sworn not to be angry with you, never to rebuke you again. Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed,” says the Lord, who has compassion on you.”  The covenant of peace is ultimately the Cross which covers all sin of all people through all time. The seriousness of sin was revealed through the Flood, but then also, as we’ve seen, the grace and mercy that can follow.

Application: So having spoken in picture language about a relationship to be restored, the Lord reassures Israel that this is possible because of the covenant that He instituted from before the foundation of the world through Christ.  That covenant applied to Israel’s present situation as much as t did after Noah. Noah is the means of reassurance that He brings to them now. There is more to be seen in these verses but we will see that in the next study.

50. Fig Tree and Flood

Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 50.  Fig Tree and Flood

Mt 24:32-37   “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door. I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away. “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.

There are two analogies here and we are wrapping them together because they both speak about the same thing, although the surrounding verses give a certain air of mystery to them. Jesus is responding to the disciples in this chapter when they come to him: the disciples came to him privately. “Tell us,” they said, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (24:3) In the verses that follow it may be that the ‘signs of your coming’ should be taken to mean signs that will happen BEFORE he comes again rather than the signs that he is just about to come. There are, we suggest three parts to the things Jesus said: 1. The characteristics of the church age (v.4-14), 2. A destructive judgment that will come to Jerusalem and Israel in the immediate future (v.15-21), 3. The signs of the End Time immediately prior to his second coming (v.26-31)

So, Part 1, v.4-14: Those signs include many coming and claiming to be him (v.4,5), wars and rumors of wars (v.6). These are characteristics of the age in which we now live, “but the end is still to come.” (v.6b). Wars, famines and earthquakes are common (v.7) but note these are just “the beginning of birth pains” (v.8) i.e. they have to happen BEFORE the end time and throughout the Church age. There will also be persecution (v.9) and luke-warmness and a dropping away of believers (v.10), there will be false prophets and deception (11), and an increase of wickedness (v.12), so we need to stand firm to be saved (v.13) and when all nations have heard the Gospel Jesus will come again (v.14).

So, Part 2, v.15-21: he said to them AFTER THESE GENERAL SIGNS IN THE FUTURE, watch out because VERY SOON THESE OTHER SPECIFIC THINGS WILL COME:  the enemy coming into the Temple (v.15). When that happens, take to the hills (v.16), quickly (v.17,18) because it will be tough (v.19-21).

So now let’s jump down to verses 32 to 37. We’ll leave you to do your own study of Part 3, v.22 to 31. Now we consider the analogies.

First of all he refers to the analogy of the fig tree, a very common tree in their land. Look, he says, you know that when the leaves come out summer is near. We might say when the Crocus bulbs start pushing up or when the daffodils start coming up, Spring is here.

Now comes a bit that often confuses people: “I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.” Some think ‘this generation’ meant everyone who lived afterwards but when we realise that verses 15 to 21 referred to their immediate future (although it is always possible there is a future element as well) it is easy to see that it meant those who were alive then for within 40 years it happened.

So whether it was them in their day watching the political upheavals with the Romans, us in the Church age, generally being aware of the characteristics of the age and so not being led astray, or whether we find ourselves in a time that is clearly the End Time with the chaotic things (physical and/or spiritual) taking place, the call is to be alert and watch the signs.

But then Jesus runs on and we see the second analogy: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away. “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.” (v.35-35) The first analogy was very straight forward and if we have any questions about the second one, the Flood and Noah, Jesus spells it out: “For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.” (v.38,39) i.e. it is going to happen rapidly and come as a shock to many. He concludes, “So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.” (v.44)

The lessons and challenges are fairly obvious. Luke records Jesus saying, “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” (Lk 18:8) So, don’t let the enemy deceive you and lead you astray so that your love grows cold. Keep alert in the Spirit to what is happening around you and don’t let yourself become distracted from the life in the kingdom. Hold firm, remain steady, be patient, rest in his timing, rejoice in his goodness and continue to be a faith person, because that is what he will be looking for according to the above quote. Amen!

8. Righteousness by Faith

Meditations on ‘Focusing Faith’ : 8.  Righteousness comes by faith

Heb 11:5,6   By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family. By his faith he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.

The sense of guilt (and even shame) is so often seen in human beings that we might almost think it is a natural characteristic of being human, this sense of not quite having made it, of getting something wrong. Of course we try to cover it up and steel our conscience against such things but on occasions of rare honesty most people will confess to having a sense of guilt about something. But there is something about this sense and it is that we human beings have this awareness of right and wrong. Of course we have been through a period in history where some have said everything is relative and therefore there are no fixed rights and wrongs – well, at least people say that until they have been wronged by another and then it is different!

The Bible uses this word ‘righteousness’ and perhaps the most simple definition of it could be ‘the state of being right in God’s eyes’. We would all like to think that we are all right in God’s eyes, because, after all, God is loving and so turns a blind eye to our imperfections doesn’t He? But no, actually He doesn’t. So much human behaviour, and indeed religious behaviour, is given over to trying to be ‘good people’ If not good in God’s eyes (because atheists struggle to pretend He’s not there) then at least good in our own eyes and the eyes of those around us. We do like to put on masks to cover up the real person who is there.

It is clear when you read through this hall of faith in Hebrews 11 that the writer is working chronologically through the key Old Testament figures and so it is not surprising that he next mentions Noah, but what is surprising it that he mentions him in  the context of righteousness. If we know our Old Testament we perhaps might not expect that to get mentioned until Abraham but, no, Noah is spoken about in the context of both faith and of righteousness.

For those who try to pretend the account of the flood is fictional this passage comes as a wake-up call to its reality. The Son of God spoke of him as an historical figure (Mt 24:37,38) as did the apostle Peter (1 Pet 3:20). In fact Peter in his second letter referred to Noah as a preacher of righteousness.” (2 Pet 2:5) Interesting!

Explaining Noah’s faith, the writer speaks of his actions in terms he expressed earlier in the chapter, “when warned about things not yet seen.” Faith, he said earlier, “is being … certain of what we do not see.” The Lord told Noah to get ready to cope with a coming flood by building a large Ark.  The flood was a future event: it had not yet happened and so when Noah responded and “built an ark to save his family,” he was responding to God’s word and that was faith.

Now Noah’s faith was not something in isolation, it was something he did in the face of the godless and unbelieving world around him. Building the Ark may well have taken a couple of years and so even if Noah hadn’t actually challenged his neighbours outright, his activity building the Ark would have brought comment and questions, but ultimately no one said, “Can I come along please?” Simply he and his family responded. In that “he condemned the world.”  Belief in God was possible for all people but only Noah believed and responded to God.

Perhaps we need to see the realities of the state of the world as laid out in Genesis 6: “Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked with God.” (Gen 6:9) Before he did anything in respect of the Ark he was seen to be a righteous and blameless man, and in that he stood out, for look at the description of the rest of the world that follows: “Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence. God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways. So God said to Noah, “I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them.”  (Gen 6:11-13)

Now I am not going to get into whether the Flood was worldwide or local, the main point is all about that state of the earth and why God was acting against it – and how Noah stood out. He was already, please note, a man of faith in that he, like Enoch who we have already considered, “walked with God”. But now the writer to the Hebrews emphasises his faith by the way he responded to God’s call to build an ark and thus stood out from the rest of the world. I like how the Message version puts it: His act of faith drew a sharp line between the evil of the unbelieving world and the rightness of the believing world.” The Living version is also good: “Noah’s belief in God was in direct contrast to the sin and disbelief of the rest of the world.”

But as we noted at the beginning, his act of faith was also equated with righteousness and he became heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.”  He was seen as being right in God’s eyes for his act of faith, being obedient to God’s leading. An heir is an inheritor. Yes, that is going to become clear in the case of Abraham later on, but it is almost as if Noah is the forerunner to ‘justification by faith’, that is seen in Abraham. In other words, although it had not yet been declared or made clear yet, that was what he was experiencing by his act of faith. Faith is thus always equated with righteousness.

It was Habakkuk who declared, “the righteous will live by his faith.” (Hab 2:4) A righteous person – one living in the light of God and being accredited as righteous by God – will be a person of faith.  We will see this in various New Testament verses – Rom 1:17, Gal 3:11,  Eph 2:8,  Heb 10:38.

Christians are first of all believers, but life flows in them as they respond to belief and that is faith. Faith is belief in action. Noah exemplified it by his belief in God which led him to ‘walk with God’ which led him to ‘hear’ God and then hearing he responded to God (building the Ark) and thus revealed both righteousness and faith to the rest of the world who were condemned by their absence of either thing. Don’t be just a believer.

22. God of Mercy

Meditations in 2 Peter : 22 :  God of Mercy

2 Pet  2:5-9  if he did not spare the ancient world when he brought the flood on its ungodly people, but protected Noah, a preacher of righteousness, and seven others; if he condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by burning them to ashes, and made them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly; and if he rescued Lot, a righteous man, who was distressed by the filthy lives of lawless men (for that righteous man, living among them day after day, was tormented in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard) if this is so, then the Lord knows how to rescue godly men from trials and to hold the unrighteous for the day of judgment, while continuing their punishment

So we took the hard side of these verses in the previous meditation. He had cited two specific historical catastrophes that we find in the early part of the Bible – the Flood and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Previously we consider the validity of God’s judgements but now we find something else.

We find two other examples, examples of God saving men from those catastrophes. First there was Noah who was saved from the Flood and then there was lot who was saved from Sodom. Prior to the Flood we read, “The LORD was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain.” (Gen 6:6) This was the Lord anguishing over His world which was on a runaway course with Sin. But then we read, “Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked with God.” (Gen 6:9)  That explains why the Lord saved him, but when we come to Lot I find Peter’s description of him very gracious.

When you read the accounts of Abram and Lot, we find Lot choosing what, at first sight, seems the best part of the land, when they divided it up, and we read, “Abram lived in the land of Canaan, while Lot lived among the cities of the plain and pitched his tents near Sodom. Now the men of Sodom were wicked and were sinning greatly against the LORD.” (Gen 13:12,13) Clearly Sodom had a reputation and yet Lot still went and lived near there. Not long later we find he is living actually in Sodom (Gen 14:12). By the time God’s angels go to Sodom we find, Lot was sitting in the gateway of the city.” (Gen 19:2). Now the gateway was the place that the elders of the city sat to preside over the affairs of the city – that was the extent to which Lot had now gone. I always feel, therefore that Lot doesn’t show up very well thus far. He certainly does take care of the two angels and protects them from the crowd, even been willing to sacrifice the purity of his two daughters to do it.

But it is to Peter that we turn for a fuller picture: a righteous man, who was distressed by the filthy lives of lawless men (for that righteous man, living among them day after day, was tormented in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard).”   Peter portrays a man who has got himself to a place that he regrets, where the society is godless and unrighteous and this tormented him. Well that is good news. That paints a better picture of Lot.

So the Lord saved these two men (and their families) from the destruction that He was bringing because they were righteous. But Peter hasn’t finished. In fact he is about to bring us to the climax of his argument for all that we have considered so far is the basis for a logical conclusion to follow. See his “If… then…” argument. if this is so, then.”   If God rescued those two men from the judgments He was brining in their days, then we may conclude something else. What is that?  It is twofold.  First, the Lord knows how to rescue godly men from trials.”   Even when the rest of the world is going bad, the Lord will save His righteous children from the midst of the judgment that He is bringing. That is the first part. The second part is, to hold the unrighteous for the day of judgment, while continuing their punishment.”  The unrighteous may appear to be getting away with their unrighteousness but God is just waiting for the appropriate time to bring it to an end by bringing His judgment. The wicked will not get away with it!

These are the two crucial points that Peter has been working towards in this chapter. There has been a clear train of thought that started from, “I know that I will soon put it aside, as our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me. And I will make every effort to see that after my departure you will always be able to remember these things.” (1:14,15) He then emphasized that the gospel wasn’t made up and he knew that because they had been eye-witnesses to all that had gone on. More than that, it all conformed to the prophetic Scriptures which had come through prophets inspired by God.

Then, as a continuation from all that, it’s as if he says, “But be careful because not all prophets are good prophets and there will be those who will teach wrong things and seek to lead you astray – and you will see much of that in the world – but hold onto this truth: while the world is going astray, as long as you remain faithful, God will keep you and save you and bring you through whatever days of judgment He brings, and don’t worry about the unrighteous, God will eventually deal with them. Their time WILL come. Understanding all this – be at peace!” That is the gist of what he has said so far.

47. Through the Water

Meditations in 1 Peter : 47: Through the Water

1 Pet 3:20-21 God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and 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.

Baptism, I have observed over the years, is often a contentious thing in parts of the church. Some want to sprinkle as a symbolic gesture, others use deeper water. Some sprinkle children as a symbol; others wait until the adult is a believer. Peter says some interesting things about it.

He starts by referring to Noah as we have seen in the previous meditation. Note in passing, for the doubters among us, that in the apostle Peter’s eyes, Noah is an historical figure and the Flood a real event in history. Some of us are not so sure, but Peter is. In this he was following in the steps of his master. Jesus said, Just as it was in the days of Noah, so also will it be in the days of the Son of Man. People were eating, drinking, marrying and being given in marriage up to the day Noah entered the ark. Then the flood came and destroyed them all.” (Lk 17:26,27) Clearly the all-knowing Son of God is referring to an historical event.

When John the Baptist baptised people in the Jordan he said, “I baptize you with water for repentance,” (Mt 3:11) indicating that baptism was a form of cleansing from the sin from which they turned away. The apostle Paul spoke of us “having been buried with him in baptism,” (Col 2:12 – also Rom 6:4) indicating the baptism is a picture of us dying to our old life and being buried, and then raised to new life.

Peter now comes with a bigger picture, an all-embracing picture. He refers to Noah building the ark, many dying in the flood with only Noah and his family being saved. Thus, he says, “this water symbolises baptism.” i.e. the Flood waters destroyed the world but the ark saved the faithful. The water symbolises the judgment of God which we all face but (implied) the ark symbolises Jesus who saves us from the judgment.

But then he says something that seems even more contentious:this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also.” Baptism, he says, saves us. How can that be? Didn’t the apostle Paul teach that salvation comes by faith alone? Yes certainly, but perhaps Peter has the ongoing work of salvation in his mind. Remember the illustration that we have used more than once in these meditations – saved from the sinking ship, saved as we go across the sea and saved once we land. We have been saved and we are being saved. It is also an ongoing thing – our living out our lives ‘in Christ’ until the day when we are called home and we die on this earth and go to heaven, our eternal destination. So why do I suggest that Peter is speaking of our salvation in an ongoing sense? Well, see what follows.

not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. The point of this picture – being saved through the Flood – is that it is not about cleansing or washing away dirt, but it about how we can now feel about ourselves and God. It is in fact about us being saved from our sins (being washed clean) and from the judgment of God, and it is all because we have an ark – Jesus, who died to save us from that judgment, as we have seen already a number of times in these meditations. Baptism is thus to be an outward act (and there aren’t many of them) that we do that contribute to our salvation, the onward walk with God.

How does it contribute to our salvation? It does it by being a continual reminder to us that we came to a crisis point in our life when we surrendered to God and jumped ship, from the ship of destruction, and are now being carried in Christ to our eternal destination. Christ is God’s provision for us and as we look back we are reminded that there was a time when we changed from a sinking ship to a saving lifeboat and it was all his work. All we had to do was jump into his provision and that was enough. Jesus, the ark, had done everything possible to be done and he qualifies as our ark, our means of salvation, our ongoing salvation.

We are what we are because we are being carried to shore by him and thus our conscience can be clear before God. No longer am I under fear of judgment. Now I am being carried to my eternal destiny by God’s provision, God’s ark, His own Son, Jesus Christ. My being baptized was a visual affirmation of all of this and it is something that I can look back on and know is a real expression of what has happened. It confirms and affirms my salvation and it strengthens my faith and reassures my conscience. There is nothing more I can do except let him take me through the choppy waters of the life in this world until we eventually reach the destination he has in store for me. Hallelujah!