6. Aspiring to Self-Control

Aspiring Meditations: 6.  Aspiring to Self-Control

Prov 25:28  Like a city whose walls are broken down is a man who lacks self-control.

2 Pet 1:5,6    For this very reason, make every effort to add….  to knowledge, self-control

Gal 5:22,23  the fruit of the Spirit is…. self-control

Goodness is something that is easy to put on the list of things to which we should aspire, but ‘self-control’ sounds a bit like hard work. In fact until you start looking up references to ‘self-control’ you might not think it features very highly in apostolic teaching. Think again. So why should we aspire to ‘self-control’? First, because the apostolic teaching clearly says so. Paul to the Thessalonians, to Timothy and Titus and also Peter, are big on self control.

First a warning: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will …..without self-control(2 Tim 3:1-3) At the time I write this, the Western world is almost reeling under a deluge of propaganda about ‘sexual diversity’. Now I have no problem in accepting that here and there in the vast population of the world there are people who struggle with which gender they are but, I would suggest, until recent years they have been few and far between. The talk today is of choosing what gender you want to be, and this talk of freedom to choose is alarming wise people from journalists to doctors to social workers, but it is a tidal wave that is rushing through western society, often with strange results – and this flows over into the whole area of sexuality where the words of Paul in Romans 1 are so clearly seen at work.

The concept of Gay marriage is a hot potato in many western countries, and I heard only recently of three (!!!) men who have been afforded legal status in a South American country to be seen as ‘married’ to each other. The boundaries are falling and anything goes in the godless world around us. Self-control is falling everywhere and so in the sexual realm anything and everything is being declared as acceptable. Not in God’s kingdom!  We must learn to be discerning and wise when the rest of the world, having abandoned God, have thus abandoned any concept of right and wrong, and anyone who challenges a particular lifestyle is branded a bigot. Discern between a tendency (e.g. homosexual orientation) and practice (e.g. sodomy). Observe also this is no worse in God’s eyes that rejection of marriage for cohabitation and that after ‘sex-on-the-first-date’ activity that is so common today and clearly portrayed on the media. This, more than most things, suggests to me that we are clearly in the ‘last days’ but whether that is equated with the End Time may be something different. But it certainly motivates me to pray that God will send revival to save us if He is not coming back yet.

So a second reason why I should be aspiring to self-control is to ensure I conform to God’s word, God’s standards and God’s will. Giving way to temptation is always a relinquishing of self control, and Paul warns us of it in the time we live. Hence he exhorts us, “So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be alert and self-controlled,” (1 Thess 5:6) and then goes on to add, “But since we belong to the day, let us be self-controlled, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet.” (1 Thess 5:8)

Self-control is one of the standards for a spiritual leader: “Now the overseer must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife, temperate, self-controlled.” (1 Tim 3:2  -also Titus 1:8). Having said that when he instructed Titus what to teach his flock we find, “Teach the older men to be temperate, worthy of respect, self-controlled, and sound in faith, in love and in endurance,” (Titus 2:2) and then, “train the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure” (Titus 2:4,5) and then, “Similarly, encourage the young men to be self-controlled” (Titus 2;6) That seems to cover everyone except older women, although if he lived today I suspect he would include them.

Paul contrasts two lifestyles: “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say (1) “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and (2) to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age,” (Titus 2:11,12) Again he warns us to be ready for when Jesus returns: “Therefore, prepare your minds for action; be self-controlled; set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed.” (1 Pet 1:13) and “The end of all things is near. Therefore be clear minded and self-controlled so that you can pray.” (1 Pet 4:7) I suspect the implication there is that if self-control falls, sin follows, then guilt follows, and subsequently you stop praying. He also sees it as something Satan will seek to undermine: “Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.”(1 Pet 5:8)

So I think the importance of self-control appears quite clear, but what is it and how can I aspire to it and develop it? What is it? Control of self, self-discipline, being able to rationally decide what I will or will not do, and not give way to temptations that the enemy may place before me, and not giving ways to desires that go beyond God’s boundaries, or giving way to fads and fancies of the modern world. Remember we referred to Paul’s description of what we used to be like before we came to Christ, which included, “at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts.” (Eph 2:3) Jude wrote to the church about, “godless men, who change the grace of our God into a license for immorality.” (Jude v.4) The abandoning of self-control goes with godlessness, and rejects grace.

So how do I develop it? Well, from the recent verses, develop an ever more godly life. As we’ve seen previously, as with all fruit of the Spirit (and this is one of the list) it develops naturally when we allow the Spirit to lead our lives. That is not to say that I do not need to exercise my will – I must. It is not a case of Him or me; it is both of us working this out in my life. May it be so.

11. Fruit Bearing Gospel

Meditations in Colossians: 11. Fruit-Bearing Gospel

Col 1:4-6   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

The things we have been considering in recent meditations have been in respect of, or related to the Gospel. We saw that it conveys hope  out of which spring faith and love and that it conveys the truth of God’s will expressed through the life and work of His Son, Jesus Christ. Now Paul speaks of the effect of the Gospel, “all over the world.” should not be taken to infer that the Gospel had travelled all over the earth for it is clear from history that it hadn’t yet, but is more likely to mean ‘wherever it had gone’. Wherever the Gospel had gone it had had effect.

That the Gospel had spread far and wide, there can be no doubt. The mighty Gospel ingathering of some three thousand souls on the Day of Pentecost  would have included those who witnessed the Spirit’s outpouring who we are told included, Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome  (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs.” (Acts 2:9-11) We tend to forget that when many of these returned home they went as believers and took the Gospel with them.

The disciples seem to have forgotten Jesus’ words, “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) and initially it was only persecution that drove some away from Jerusalem: “all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria….. Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.” (Acts 8:1,4)  The accounts then follow Philip in Samaria conducting an amazing signs and wonders ‘crusade’ (Acts 8:5,6). Peter and John joined him and the Spirit was poured out on the Samaritans.  Eventually the Lord told Philip to leave and go south where he encountered the Ethiopian official who left as a believer (see Acts 8:26-39), who, it is believed, took the gospel back with him to Africa. The church clearly grew and flourished throughout Israel (Acts 9:31).

It is interesting to note that although Philip ended up in Caesarea (see Acts 8:40) the Lord called in an apostle, Peter, to preach the Gospel and pour out His Spirit on the first Gentiles, Cornelius, his family and friends (Acts 10).

The next big move of God appears to have been in the north: “Now those who had been scattered by the persecution in connection with Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, telling the message only to Jews. Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.” (Acts 11:19-21) Then we find, “News of this reached the ears of the church at Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he arrived and saw the evidence of the grace of God, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord.” (Acts 11:22-24) Thus the church in Antioch (Antioch was considered the third major city of the Roman empire after Rome and Alexandria) was established (see also v.25,26). It was from Antioch that the Lord sent Barnabas and Saul (Paul) on what became Paul’s first missionary journey.

The remainder of Acts follows Paul in his travels. Initially they went to Jews only, starting at local synagogues but when they were rejected we find,  “Then Paul and Barnabas answered them boldly: “We had to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles. For this is what the Lord has commanded us:  ” `I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.'” When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honored the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed. The word of the Lord spread through the whole region.” (Acts 13:46-49) This took place in Pisidian Antioch.

Thus we find in the early chapters of Acts the church largely focusing on Jews and Jerusalem until persecution drove the Gospel to Samaria and then to the north. From there the Lord propelled the Gospel out across Asia Minor, largely through the ministry of the apostle Paul, although others were clearly involved doing the same thing.

The Gospel was clearly bearing fruit and growing.  The fruit was clearly people responding and turning to Christ and being saved. First Jews and then Samaritans and then Gentiles. The Holy Spirit took men who shared the Gospel and then He did His work of conviction and bringing people to salvation. One of the places where that had had happened was Colosse. (Several hundred years before Paul’s day, Colosse had been a leading city in Asia Minor (present-day Turkey).but by Paul’s day Colosse was just a second-rate market town, As we will see as we continue, the church there came about by the preaching of Epaphras (v.7) who eventually reported back to Paul in Rome who then wrote the letter we have before us. The church in Colosse was just one example of the Gospel bearing fruit and growing.

26. People, Plans, etc.

Meditations in Titus: 26:  People, Plans, Provisions & Productivity

Titus 3:12  As soon as I send Artemas or Tychicus to you, do your best to come to me at Nicopolis, because I have decided to winter there.

As we draw near to the end of this letter we find, as is so often the case, we are presented with an insight into some of the people in the early church.  Four people are named in these next two verses. Artemas’ name doesn’t occur anywhere else so we know nothing of him but he is someone presumably trusted by Paul as a leader. Tychicus, on the other hand is mentioned in Acts 20:4 (“from the province of Asia”); Eph 6:21-22 (“dear brother and faithful servant in the Lord”); Col 4:7 (“dear brother, a faithful minister and fellow servant in the Lord”) and 2 Tim 4:12 (sent to Ephesus).

Zenas the lawyer isn’t given a mention anywhere else but appears to be a Gentile convert. Apollos on the other hand is mentioned in Acts 18:24-28 (“a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures”); 19:1 (“in Corinth”); 1 Cor 1:12, 3:4-6,22 (“as having a following) and 16:12 (“our brother”)

So in these verses we find two men who are clearly part of Paul’s ongoing activity and two men unknown but clearly approved by him. In the closing verse there is a much more corporate sense of the wider church: Everyone with me sends you greetings. Greet those who love us in the faith. Grace be with you all.” (v.15) In the background are the believers on Crete there with Titus while there are obviously a number of believers with Paul.

We also get a glimpse here of the plans or activity of Paul as he says, “As soon as I send Artemas or Tychicus to you, do your best to come to me at Nicopolis, because I have decided to winter there.” (v.12) It is believed that Nicopolis was on the western shore of Greece and Paul’s words indicate a) he was not there yet and b) was still at a time in his ministry when he was free to move around and decide where he would go, and c) was directing the apostolic endeavour, able to send two trusted leaders to carry on at Crete so that Titus could leave and go and join Paul at Nicopolis. Paul held sufficient sway in the apostolic community that men would come and go at his bidding.

We don’t know why Zenas and Apollos were on Crete (presumably helping Paul in the past and now Titus) or why they were leaving. Perhaps they were the ones who had brought this letter from Paul and now needed to return, but Titus is urged to help them before his turn comes to leave: “Do everything you can to help Zenas the lawyer and Apollos on their way and see that they have everything they need.” (v.13) Presumably that meant ensure they have whatever provisions they need to get back to me (this was not a day of credit cards and easy provisions!)

Now before we finish we must note once again Paul’s call for their people to be devoted to doing good and good in this case is presumably working to ensure they provide for their families the necessities of life, food, clothing, housing etc. Remember we have already noted the number of times Paul insists on the people of God doing good and in this way they stand out and recommend the Gospel. But more that that here, doing good has a practical outworking, not being a drain on others when it comes to providing for life. When he speaks about not living unproductive lives that must first mean in respect of providing for the family but it has a wider application for the call in the scriptures is for Christians to live productive or fruitful lives.

The apostle Peter taught, “For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (2 Pet 1:5-8) Notice that goodness was the first add-on after faith.

Jesus taught, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful, (Jn 15:1,2) and went on to say, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit–fruit that will last.” (Jn 15:16)

The apostle Paul also wrote, “And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work.” (Col 1:10)  The good works were seen as the fruit of their lives.  Elsewhere he wrote, “So, my brothers, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit to God.” (Rom 7:4)

Even the apostle James taught this: “But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.” (Jas 3:17,18).

It is little wonder that Paul finishes with this last admonition because he sees it as absolutely foundational to the Christian life. One might almost say it is the key, crucial issue that comes through in this letter. Goodness is to be a key characteristic revealed in and through us as the Holy Spirit works through us and makes us stand out in a dark world, a world where true selfless goodness is rare. With that challenge we conclude this wonderful little letter of Paul to Titus on the island of Crete, as he instructs him how to develop and build the church that they have established there.

2. Accountability

Meditating on the Will of God: 2:  A Matter of Accountability

Ezek 18:23  Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?”

In the first of these studies we started sowing the seeds that need to flourish to give us a greater understanding of what the will of God is about. We started to consider the free will of mankind, our ability to make choices. (Of course there are some things we can choose and others that are beyond our choice and we will examine this in the days to come, as well). We mentioned along the way our verse above which, note, includes words of “the Sovereign Lord”.  Let there be no mistake, God IS sovereign, He IS the Lord; the question is all about how He exercises that sovereignty as a loving and good and perfect God. 

In that verse above, the Sovereign Lord declares His desire for men and women to repent and avoid judgment. The verses that follow, which we looked at previously, show that there are possibilities of choice, and for it to make sense there must be real, genuine possibilities of choice, the real ability to choose, otherwise when God puts options before people they will be meaningless unless the individual can genuinely make their own choice. That was true of Pharaoh who we mentioned, and it is true of us.

This concept of genuine accountability comes up more than once in Ezekiel’s ministry, but before we look at it there, really understand what we are saying here. If God says, “Choose A and you will live or choose B and you will die,” if that is not to be meaningless gobbledygook, it must mean that this individual can genuinely make their own decision. If we move into hyper Calvinism, it seems to us, those proponents of the extreme doctrine says mankind can only do what God makes them do. It is a form of determinism where there are no real choices, only set responses, but life – and the Scriptures – do not appear like that. Let’s consider what the Lord said through Ezekiel.

First of all Ezekiel taught individual accountability in chapter 18: “Suppose there is a righteous man who does what is just and right……. That man is righteous; he will surely live.” (Ezek 18:5-9) Then, “Suppose he has a violent son, who sheds blood or does any of these other things…. Will such a man live? He will not! Because he has done all these detestable things, he will surely be put to death and his blood will be on his own head.” (Ezek 18:10-13)  The point he is making and goes on and on making in that chapter is that an individual is accountable for what he or she does. They will not be accountable for what a close relative does but are answerable for their own sins.

Next, he taught about this in the context of himself being a watchman: “When I say to the wicked, `O wicked man, you will surely die,’ and you do not speak out to dissuade him from his ways, that wicked man will die for his sin, and I will hold you accountable for his blood. But if you do warn the wicked man to turn from his ways and he does not do so, he will die for his sin, but you will have saved yourself.” (Ezek 33:8,9) Put aside for a moment Ezekiel’s responsibility and we are left with something quite remarkable. Look: “When I say to the wicked, `O wicked man, you will surely die… that wicked man will die for his sin, ….. But if you do warn the wicked man to turn from his ways and he does not do so, he will die for his sin.”  In each case there is a “wicked man” who in the first case gets no warning and so dies for his sin. In the second case he is warned and fails to repent and dies. The end result is the same in both instances but what it shows us is that even when God speaks through His servants and brings warnings, the individual can still refuse that warning. There is no indication here that God imposes His will on this man. Indeed it is clear that God is trying to get him to repent. A few verses on we find that same declaration we found in chapter 18: “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?” (Ezek 33:11) There it is! God doesn’t want them to die – but they do!

So, as we are considering the whole subject of the will of God, we see God’s will – His desire, at least – may be one thing, but the outcome may be contrary to His desire. We may call this His permissive will, if you like, but in each case we find two scary facts:

i) the individual has a real ability to make choices, and

ii) the Lord allows them to go with that choice and they reap its fruit. 

This is what this matter of accountability is all about. Look how Ezekiel continues this teaching from the Lord: “Therefore, son of man, say to your countrymen, `The righteousness of the righteous man will not save him when he disobeys, and the wickedness of the wicked man will not cause him to fall when he turns from it. The righteous man, if he sins, will not be allowed to live because of his former righteousness.’ If I tell the righteous man that he will surely live, but then he trusts in his righteousness and does evil, none of the righteous things he has done will be remembered; he will die for the evil he has done. And if I say to the wicked man, `You will surely die,’ but he then turns away from his sin and does what is just and right– if he gives back what he took in pledge for a loan, returns what he has stolen, follows the decrees that give life, and does no evil, he will surely live; he will not die. None of the sins he has committed will be remembered against him. He has done what is just and right; he will surely live.” (Ezek 33:12-16) We have included such a lengthy quote because of what it conveys, following straight on from the Lord’s declaration about His feelings.  What does it say? A righteous man can become unrighteous (it doesn’t mean just a single fall) and an unrighteous man can repent and become righteous. Both are answerable for their end position and one dies and the other lives. And it is all to do with their freely made choices. God doesn’t MAKE them act like they do, but He DOES hold them accountable for the choices they make. Read back through this study and see the things we have observed about His will.

10. Everything Done

MEDITATIONS IN ISAIAH – No.10

Isa 5:4 What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it

I have observed that when you have a negative person, when they look upon a situation they ignore the ten good things and focus on the one questionable thing. It’s like that with Scripture. People come to the Old Testament and focus on acts of ‘judgment’ and ignore everything else. My plea is for balance in reading. I say this in the light of this song that we now find in Isaiah 5. Isaiah sings this song: I will sing for the one I love.” (5:1a). He expresses his love towards God. “A song about his vineyard.” In his song Isaiah pictures God’s people as a vineyard. He pictures his “loved one”, the Lord, as a vineyard owner: “My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside.” (5:1b)

Indeed, there could be no complaint from Israel on that score, the Lord had put them in a land that was described by God as follows: “I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” (Ex 3:8) When, eventually, Israel’s spies went into the land, they came back: “bearing a single cluster of grapes. Two of them carried it on a pole between them, along with some pomegranates and figs.” (Num 13:23) as a token of the good provision of the land, and they testified, “We went into the land to which you sent us, and it does flow with milk and honey! Here is its fruit.” (Num 13:27). Oh no, it had been a land of plenty.

Listen to what the Lord did to it: “He dug it up and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest vines. He built a watchtower in it and cut out a winepress as well.” (5:2) In other words He did everything necessary to produce a good working vineyard, one that would produce much wine – for that is the purpose of a vineyard. He tended it well He had every expectation of it. He had done all He could for it. But to no avail: “Then he looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit.” How tragic! What a waste of time and effort! Have you ever had the experience of going to a garden centre and buying a plant, taking it home and carefully planting it, only for it to fail to grow or grow distorted? It’s a very disappointing experience, especially when you put fertilizer in the well prepared ground and carefully tended the plant. Your expectations come to nothing!

It is then, within this song, that Isaiah has the vineyard owner asking His people to judge between Him and His vineyard: “Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and men of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard.” (5:3) and so we come to his question in our verse today: “What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it?” (5:4). It is a valid question. The challenge of verse 3 needs to be heard: Judge between God and Israel. Are you going to blame God for what happens to Israel? Did God make Israel sin? No, of course not! Did God weigh the balances against Israel? No, of course not! The Lord had done all He could do for them, to set them up to give them a good future and had promised them blessing upon blessing if they stayed close to Him.

Listen to the simple requirement for major blessing: “If you fully obey the LORD your God and carefully follow all his commands I give you today, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations on earth. All these blessings will come upon you and accompany you if you obey the LORD your God” (Deut 28:1,2). God hadn’t come waving a big stick; He had come with the promise of blessings: “You will be blessed in the city and blessed in the country. The fruit of your womb will be blessed, and the crops of your land and the young of your livestock–the calves of your herds and the lambs of your flocks.” (Deut 28:3,4) That’s how the promise of blessing started and it carried on for the first 14 verses of that chapter. Yes, there were warnings to follow, but only after all the promises of good were laid out.

The critics tend to forget all of this when they peer into the Old Testament. The Lord came to Israel with a simple requirement: they followed His design-rules for living (the Law) so that they would be blessed as they lived according to His design, the way He had designed human beings to live. There was nothing onerous about this, they weren’t being put in chains, they were simply shown how to live in peace and harmony, and when they did that, it would enable the Lord to bless their activity and make it even more wonderful. Yes, at the heart of those design-rules were the reminder to keep the Lord at the forefront of their thinking, but there was nothing egotistical about the Lord in requiring that. He simply knew that Israel needed a focus or origin to refer back to and that was to be Him. He wanted a relationship with His people. Love wants to relate!

Why, some might ask, if God who knows everything and knows the future, did He form Israel, knowing they would fail. Two answers. First, there were always some who didn’t fail. Merely because many turned from Him, it didn’t mean that they ALL turned away. The Lord always had some who held to the plan. Second, in the eternal plan, no one can ever say they were not given a chance. God’s desire is that every single person finds Him and comes back into the original design place, but for those who do not, they will never be able to say, you didn’t give me a chance. The Lord will have always been there for every single person doing what He can, without over-ruling their free will, to bring them to Himself. Yet there will always be ‘Pharaoh’s’ who will harden their hearts against Him and refuse His overtures, but they will never be able to say on judgment day, you didn’t give me a chance, because He did!