3. The Storms of Life (2)

‘Living with Uncertainty’ Meditations: 3. The Storms of Life (2)

Mt 7:25  The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock.

Recap: We have so far, in the first two studies, considered the reality that we live in a ‘fallen world’, a world full of uncertainties and that when we become a Christian we exchange one set of uncertainties for another set of uncertainties but those are undergirded by the certainties of the gospel, the good news of the love of God for us. We considered briefly the instance of the disciples in the uncertainties of a storm on the Sea of Galilee but in their presence, admittedly asleep, was ‘the certainty’ that was Jesus, the all-powerful Son of God.

A Telling Parable: Now I have found myself a number of times recently referring to Jesus’ parable of the two house builders in Matt 7, which might be summarized as ‘failure to do what Jesus says means our lives get undermined by the storms of life’.   We live in a fallen world, we’ve said, where things go wrong – and God even uses those ‘going wrong’ things for his purposes – but the parable characterizes these things going wrong as the ‘storms of life’ which have the power to undermine our lives. However, the point of the parable is that if we trust in the one who I have referred to as ‘The Certainty’ and allow him to lead us through life, obeying all he says, his presence, his certainty, will enable our lives to stand in the face of those storms.

The facts of ‘storms’: It is perhaps important that we look a bit more closely at these ‘storms’ otherwise we might find ourselves suffering the uncertainty of wondering are we suffering punishment and if so, what for? These ‘storms’ can come for a variety of reasons and most of them are not down to us. Yes, it is possible that we have said or done something wrong that has caused upset to come on us, but there are a lot of other reasons for these storms that, I say again, were not down to us. For instance if you are laid off from work because of a financial recession, you did not cause that recession and it was not your fault you were laid off, but now you are in a time of uncertainty, wondering where or when you may get work again. Or perhaps you get ill. In the first part of 2020 the world woke up to a new word – Coronavirus. You did not bring that about.

‘National storms’: Sometimes the things that other people do, bring about an apparent storm in your life. I always think of Jeremiah in this instance. For decades he has been prophesying and warning about the impending destruction of Jerusalem. When it comes, he is saved, but the last we see of him is being carried away to Egypt with a rebellious remnant. Being swept along by the tide of mankind is not uncommon. Some feel it in the UK at this time, as we have stepped out of the European Union. In the USA a number felt that with the arrival of a new President. National politics as with leaders of old, is so often a cause of change or upheaval and such things come as storms of uncertainty. That is must have been the case for Mary and Joseph when the emperor issued an edict that uprooted them from Nazareth and required them to go to Bethlehem, just as Mary was expecting her baby. Upheaval. Uncertainty. Yet for Jeremiah and for Mary and Joseph the environment of uncertainty was made bearable by the greater certainty, that they were moving in the declared will of God.

Multiple Causes: Sometimes such ‘storms’ have multiple causes and so, for instance, when Joseph in the Old Testament gets sold into slavery, it is a combination of his unwise father making him his favourite, his brothers’ jealousy, and his own arrogant way of prophesying. Those three things could have been the cause of his destruction if there hadn’t been a greater certainty prevailing behind the scenes, the will of God to save the world from a famine that would come in a couple of decades. Now the will of God, I will suggest in this situation, spoken out later by Joseph (see Gen 50:20), was to allow these negative things of his father, his brothers and himself, to happen so that Joseph would be carried away, eventually to a place where the revelation of God would promote him and cast him in the role of a savior.

Now of course this is exactly what we see happened in the case of Jesus as revealed to the anointed apostle Peter on the Day of Pentecost: This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.” (Acts 2:23) This ‘storm’ that came down on Jesus and resulted in him dying on the Cross for our sins, was brought about because of a) Jesus’ goodness that b) provoked the sinfulness of the authorities to rise up against him and kill him. A combination of good and evil coming together to bring about the sacrifice of the Son of God for our redemption, all within that greater certainty, the will of God.

The Anguish of the Storm: We will, no doubt, come here again as we approach Easter but in the Garden of Gethsemane we see Jesus crying out in anguish in prayer to be spared this ordeal yet the greater certainty of his Father’s will prevailed over the human uncertainty of that ordeal. Storms may be long lasting or short. In the storm on the lake when Jesus walked to them on the water, the disciples “cried out in fear” (Mt 14:26). When Peter stepped out of the boat, walked on water and then began to sink, he, “cried out, ‘Lord save me.” (v.30)

Sometimes life seems like one long continuous storm of uncertainty and we see that in the way various people cried out to Jesus to help them, for instance, A man in the crowd called out, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son, for he is my only child.” (Lk 9:38) and, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!” (Lk 17:12,13) and, He called out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”  Those who led the way rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” (Lk 18:38,39)

In the first of those examples, the man explains about his son, “A spirit seizes him and he suddenly screams; it throws him into convulsions so that he foams at the mouth. It scarcely ever leaves him and is destroying him. I begged your disciples to drive it out, but they could not.” (9:39,40) In the second example the ten lepers were desperate about their lives of isolation. In the third case, the man crying out was a blind beggar. Consider the uncertainties of the lives of these, a man anguishing for his possessed son, ten lepers cursed with an incurable illness, and a man cursed with loss of sight and confined to begging in the streets. These are the uncertainties that plague lives in this fallen world and in each case they have heard something about Jesus, and somehow that had stirred in them a hope, the possibility, maybe even a certainty, that this man could change their lives.

The first case above involved the disciples in a literal storm and in the next study we’re going to see it was caused by Jesus, but for the rest, the anguishing father, the anguishing lepers, the anguishing blind man, they are all trapped in storms not of their making but storms never the less, storms of lives of uncertainty that are so common in this fallen world. The Certainty, the Son of God was the only one who could change their lives, a child brought peace, ten men brought cleansing and one man brought sight. Suddenly the lives of uncertainty are transformed; that is what the Son of God does.  Hallelujah!

And Us? This not just pure academic interest, this is the stuff that impacts our lives, uncertainties that come from a variety of sources. The psalmist in Psa 91 speaks of such ‘storms’ and starts out, “Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.” (v.1) Dwelling? Abiding was the word Jesus used (Jn 15:4, older versions) meaning to stay close to. The psalmist proceeds to use poetic or picturesque or allegorical language to speak of living in a world of uncertainty, and he speaks of:

a) Things that come against us in life:

– deadly pestilence (v.3,6) that destroys many around us – illness, sicknesses, viruses.

– harm or disaster (v.10) – work of others, or accidents that can happen

– creatures that might attack us (v.13) – spiritual attacks on our lives.

He counters all of these by:

b) The certainty that the Lord will be there for him:

– his refuge and fortress (v.2),

– his shield and rampart (v.4),

– his refuge, his dwelling (v.9),

– his angelic protection (v.11,12) and

– the Lord Himself (v.14-16)

All these threatening uncertainties are annulled by the wonder of God being there for him and that reality is the certainty that enables him to sleep soundly at night! May that be true for us as well!

11. God of Purpose: Justice (1)

Getting to Know God Meditations:  11. God of Purpose: Justice (1)

Ex 34:6,7  Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished;

Reassurance:  I am sure there are some Christian readers who may have been tutting about the last study in that I have dealt first with the end product and have not yet dealt with how that can come about – the Cross – and I want to reassure you that as with the apostle Paul, “Christ crucified” is first and foremost in my mind. Having said that I put the previous study about behaviour first for two reasons: first, it shows us the need that we have as fallen, dysfunctional human beings and, second, it shows us God’s end goal – to redeem us and that means to restore us, change us, remake us, and that very often gets forgotten in Christian circles.

Only the other day I came across the following quote (which may need a little thinking about) from a modern Christian writer who I respect: “Transformation of life and character is no part of the redemptive message” but that came just after references to, “the gospel of sin management…. behaviour modification, avoiding obvious sins through a kind of religious willpower.”  What that highly acclaimed Christian writer was saying – and I totally agree with it – is that ‘trying hard to be good’ is not what makes a person a Christian. Unless the foundation, that I am now going back to consider, is laid in a person’s life, ‘trying hard to be good’ is all that we are left with and that is doomed to failure.

Approach: In order to be as clear as I possibly can in this study (and possibly the next one that I may have to extend this into) this is how I intend to cover this subject

  1. Recap the human need.
  2. Initial thoughts about Justice.
  3. What happened on the cross and the potential of what follows.
  4. How that can be applied into individual lives.

 Recap the human need: I believe I have shown quite reasonably in the previous study, not only the amazing potential that there is for every human being, but also the reality of how it so often works out. We may wish we could live spectacular lives, lives that are positive, affirming myself and others, bring peace and blessing wherever I go, but left to my own devices that is not how it works out.

The Bible is very realistic without being depressing. For instance the apostle Paul addressing just this same problem  wrote, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do,” (Rom 7:15) and then, “I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing,” (v.19) and then, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me ….. Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!”  (v. 24,25) and he then goes on to talk about what Christ has achieved on the cross and what power from God – the Holy Spirit –  now does to change him.

But he highlights the dilemma that confronts us: I am faced with my own fallibility, my own weaknesses, my own failings and I am uncomfortable with them.  Now there may be three responses here:

i) deny my failings, blame others for them, ignore all this and continue to be a self-centred, godless person getting it wrong, or

ii) start trying to be religious or good, still being self-centred, focusing on ‘my ‘ efforts, or

iii) we accept the Bible teaching.

Before I move on, I must note  that when people start thinking about these things – and being concerned about them – it is usually a sign of God moving. People do not move from a quick casual thought to deep reflection and conviction without help from God, yet the moment He sees there is an opening of heart, He will be there, gently speaking in the background, although we tend never to be aware of it at the time; it is only awareness retrospectively.

Thoughts about Justice: Justice is a strange concept. As the Internet puts it,  ‘Justice is the morally fair and right state of everything and, Justice is a concept … that means that people behave in a way that is fair, equal and balanced for everyone.’ We may watch TV police dramas and justice is always there in the background.

We take it for granted, yet when it comes to the way we think as a society, or as individuals within society, we find that today there are two prevailing moods or outlooks. One says don’t bother me with such things and lives in a happy state of blissful ignorance, but sadly it is neither happy nor blissful. The other says that absolutes and boundaries are restrictive psychological constructs, and so have been abandoned so that, in the eyes of many at least, anything goes and ‘right’ is what feels right to the individual and varies with the situation. (hence ‘relativism’ and ‘situation ethics’). To talk about ‘justice’ in this sort of environment seems quite alien. But when we have the nerve or courage to stop and think about these things, this relative morality backfires on us because a) we don’t want it to apply in my own life and b) we do have specific ideas of things that we consider ‘wrong’, and c) we are often uncomfortable with applying justice to my own foibles and failings.  In fact the second group become clearer when they have become personal in my own life. So let’s give some examples.

a) My own life: I can be very casual about behaviour in general until it impacts me personally, for example, someone breaks into my house and trashes it, I scream for the police, and demand justice; I want these vandals caught and punished. My mother is badly mugged walking down the street and ends up a bruised mess in hospital. Ditto response. My daughter is gang raped and severely traumatized. Ditto response. It is right to demand justice; it is right to demand an end be brought to such behaviour and the perpetrators be severely dealt with. That is justice, bringing rightness to a wrong situation.

b) My lists of wrongs: But each of us have, when we pause to think about it, a list of things we consider wrong. For example the moment I use the word ‘pedophile’ most right thinking people will say that sexual child abuse is wrong – always. We could, no doubt, create long lists of things that each of us say is ‘wrong’. Sometimes we may hesitate because we feel certain things get a bit close to home, for example anger if we ourselves struggle with it.

c) Hesitant Justice: Because so often we are unsure about ourselves, lacking confidence in who we are, and because we have so often succumbed to the false doctrine of relative ethics, we are so often hesitant to consider the thought that moral failure carries with it consequences, and one of those consequences is a sense of guilt. We can make excuses but deep down – and sometimes we try to suppress it – we know that there are standards and we are guilty of either not having reached them or of having broken them. We also so often have a feeling that there is nothing to be said here because this is just how life is, and I am stuck here. We may have read self-help books, even gone on courses, but then failure struck and as much as we try to deny it, we know it is our failure. For all these sorts of reasons we so often try to duck the issue: I am guilty and there are consequences.

And So? Well, we have run out of space for this study and have only managed to cover two of the four subjects I want to cover – 1. Recap the human need, and 2. Initial thoughts about Justice – and so we will leave the other two until the next two studies.

Snapshots: Day 43

Snapshots: Day 43

The Snapshot: “God said, “I will be with you.”  (Ex 3:12a) Having a friend or a loved one alongside you has to be one of the surest ways of feeling secure in this unsure world. To be alone in the trials and tribulations of this fallen world is an anguish the Lord wants us to avoid. But if there are no other people, there is always Him. Even if that friend or loved one says nothing, it is just good to have them there. But is God a ‘friend’ who is just there? The thing about the friend’s presence is that we can always turn to talk to them and trust them in their counsel. With God it is so obvious because we are always talking about prayer. But dare I believe He is actually here in this place? Whether I sense it or not, it is true and that must be the starting place for my security.

Further Consideration: There is something strange about being a Christian that I have found over the years. There is comfort in the truth of His word, the Bible, there is comfort in being one of God’s people and having other believers around me who are like me and are for me.  If is comforting to learn the truth about the attributes and ways of God and the wonder of the Gospel, of what Jesus did and has done for us. Yes, all of these things are reassuring and comforting; it is good to know about God and who He has made us.

But the strange thing that I have found is that the greatest comfort comes either when He speaks personally or when I catch a sense of His presence – “He is here!” I have lost count of the number of times when He has spoken a personal word to me. It doesn’t happen all the time, it doesn’t happen when I want it to, but when it does happen, I find that even if it is just a single short sentence, somehow, having heard from my Lord is immensely comforting.  And then there have been those times when I have been waiting upon him, a relatively few times, sometimes with others, and then comes that awareness that He was there, making His presence felt in a way that really denies further description. And it always comes with an amazing sense of peace.

I’ve pondered on why it should be, and it is only when I think of His attributes do I understand. When you are infinite and without origin, you have no need to worry about your past or prove yourself in the future. When you are immutable or self-sufficient, you have no need to rely on others. When you are all-powerful you have no need to feel defensive. When you are all-knowing, you need have no doubts. When you are everywhere, you will see everything and miss nothing.  When you are all-wise, you have no need to feel confused. God IS at total peace because of this, and in His presence we too sense and feel that peace. How wonderful.

Snapshots: Day 41

Snapshots: Day 41

The Snapshot: “The Lord said, “I have indeed seen…” (Ex 3:7) Foolish people say, “God doesn’t see.” Yes He does! Foolish people say, “God is powerless otherwise He would act.” No He’s not, He’s just waiting for the right time, for the circumstances to be right for action. Don’t worry about Moses, it’s not him, he’s just a plane caught in a holding pattern over the airport, waiting for the right time to land – only he doesn’t know it yet.  We get so caught up in our own little self-concerned worlds that we fail to realise that sometimes God is waiting for bigger things to come into line. Check out Eccles 3:1-8.  Easter came at ‘just the right time’ (Rom 5:6). The trouble is we probably don’t realise these things. That means we are just left with trust, and you can trust Him.

Further Consideration: Theologian, evangelist and writer, Michael Green in his well-known book, ‘Evangelism in the Early Church’, suggested that the Roman peace (pax Romana) meant that “the spread of Christianity would have been inconceivable had Jesus been born a half a century earlier.”  Not only that, the use of the Greek language “was so widely disseminated through the Mediterranean basin that it acted as an almost universal common tongue.” Add to this the existence of the Jewish religion that had spread so far afield, so that “The Christian faith grew best and fastest on Jewish soil, or at least, soil that had been prepared by Judaism,” and you have all the natural ingredients for the rapid spread of the Faith.

We so often, rightly, attribute the spread of the Gospel to the work of the Holy Spirit but that does not say that He doesn’t use the affairs of man in which to work. We would do well to observe that the narratives of the Bible do very clearly move on one from another in clear chronological or historical order with references made again and again to things that happened earlier, and on which current events depend. Unlike a fairy story or so-called ‘myths’ the ‘story line’ within the Bible is not a series of random events, but clearly interlinked events, bound together by common geographical history – and a divinely declared purpose, and it is within this that God moves.

So when the Lord says to Moses, “I have seen….”  that is but the prologue to Him explaining that all this was part of the covenant He had made with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Ex 6:2-8). It is clear that God holds back judgment but knows how long it will take foolish mankind to build up their sin to the point of no return, at which point He steps in. God’s times are not accidental. He sees and He knows how long He can hold back – and then He acts.  Never ever think that we can do things that we can hide from God. We can’t

14. A Guilt-Free People

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

14. A Guilt-Free People

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Objectionable

Short Meditations for Easter on the Cross: 2. Objectionable

1 Cor 1:23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles

Again we start our focus on the Cross, the crucifixion of Christ, through the eyes of the apostle Paul. Yesterday I suggested that we will find a distinction between the events (crucifixion) and the significance or meaning (the Cross) as we go on. For the moment we are seeing Paul’s focus on the events, the actual putting to death on a cross of Jesus Christ. Yesterday we saw him saying this was absolutely at the heart of the gospel, with the implication that without it there would be no gospel. No death, no Saviour.

But here, a little earlier in his letter, we see him making an equally strong declaration, but it is in distinction to those who come from a different perspective: “Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom.” (v.22) The Jews had their Old Testament (as we would call their scrolls today) and had set views or interpretations, so demanded that Jesus perform signs to show he was their Messiah conforming with their understanding, while Greeks exalted in their wisdom or intellect and wanted reason.

For both groups, crucifixion was an anathema, a loathing. The Jews saw such a death as a proof of a cursed person (Gal 3:13) – and so no way could Jesus be the expected Messiah, the anointed and blessed of God – while the Greeks saw it as pure folly to talk about a condemned criminal being executed being a means to finding meaning and purpose in life. For both the religious and the intellectual this whole idea was preposterous.

Paul almost implies, ‘I don’t care what you think, this IS God’s method of bringing salvation to the world. You Jews may stumble over this, rejecting it as crass insensitivity to suggest that a crucified man can be our saviour, and you Greeks may scratch your heads and rumble on about it being pure nonsense, but this ‘crass insensitivity’, this ‘pure nonsense’ is the way that God has decreed to be the way people can be saved, it is the only way for meaning and purpose to be truly achieved.’

Which leaves us pondering on how we, ourselves, view the crucifixion, the Cross of Christ? Are we embarrassed by it? Do we try and convince people of their needs for a relationship with God without any reference to the Cross, the crucifixion, Jesus dying for them? Until we do include it we are preaching only half a gospel, which in truth is no gospel.

So, do we include the facts of the event – Jesus’ death on a cross – and do we include the significance that we will go on to see in later studies – it was to take your sins and mine and declare us free of guilt and thus acceptable to God. That is the Gospel. Worship Him.

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!

15. Warning Number 1

Meditations in Hebrews 2:   15. Warning Number 1  

Heb 2:1-3   We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. For if the message spoken by angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation?

Moving into chapter 2 brings us face to face with the first of a number of warnings that the writer brings to his readers. If this had been the apostle Paul, his style tended to be several chapters of doctrine which are then followed by the practical teaching and exhortations, but this writer having written our chapter 1, now pauses before he brings any more doctrine (which will be integrated into the exhortations).

Having just shown that Jesus is so much greater than angels, that raises a concern in his mind as he reflects on the Law brought by Moses and the salvation now brought by Jesus. He reveals his pastoral concern in verse 1: We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away.”  i.e. I know there is always this temptation to drift away (after all, it was what the Israelites had done time and time again) and so the means of stopping this possible drift is to “pay more careful attention… to what we have heard.” i.e. hold onto it, go back over it, make sure you fully take it in and understand it so it impacts you. I like the Message version on this verse: It’s crucial that we keep a firm grip on what we’ve heard so that we don’t drift off.” 

But then he gives another reason for holding firmly onto the truth that has been conveyed to us by Jesus: For if the message spoken by angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation? This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him.” (v.2,3) i.e. the Law was conveyed by angels and those who disobeyed were punished, so how much more serious is it when God speaks to us through His own Son?

Now we perhaps ought to pause up here and note this reference to angels. There is no mention of angels in the historical accounts within Exodus of angels but it is clear that the modern Jews believed that they had been involved. For example, Stephen declared that (Acts 7:35,38,53) as did the apostle Paul (Gal 3:19). This may be because of Moses’ final words to Israel before he left them and died (Deut 33:2). The present writer picks up on this common belief and simply uses it here as a warning not to ignore the salvation proclaimed by Jesus.

Now again it might be worth just reflecting on what Jesus did say that we might be able to call the Gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ. His opening words in Matthew are, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” (Mt 4:17) or as the Message puts it, “Change your life. God’s kingdom is here.” Matthew was the gospel writer concerned about the Jewish viewpoint and knew they were waiting for God’s kingdom. Matthew then records, “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people.” (Mt 4:23)  i.e. kingdom word AND power. That IS good news!

Mark records, The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mk 1:15) Mark, it is believed, was helped in his writing by the apostle Peter, who had come to see the wonder, the good news of everything to do with Jesus. Although this proclamation is followed by power activity you are left feeling how good it was, this was really very good news. Shortly Jesus delivered a demon possessed man in the local synagogue (Mk 1:23-26) and this left the watchers amazed at this brilliant teacher (v.22) who also had power (v.27).

Luke, after his early days’ passages, after the genealogy and temptation, records  Jesus in the local synagogue reading and applying to himself the words of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Lk 4:18,19) This is packed full of good news but unlike our wishy-washy four rules type of proclamation of the Gospel, Jesus’ Gospel goes beyond words to actually setting people free and letting them know that “This is God’s year to act!” (Message Version) or “the time has come for the Lord to show his kindness,” (Easy to Read version).

Matthew’s equivalent to this is Jesus speaking to John the Baptist’s disciples, Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.” (Mt 11:4,5)  Jesus’ Gospel is a doing Gospel.

John concurs with this view of Jesus’ Gospel: “Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (Jn 20:30,31)  i.e. the signs point to the man, the Son of God.   Belief follows signs, for those who have eyes to see.

Our present writer to the Hebrews is completely in line with this as he continues, “God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.” (v.4) although he uses the word ‘testifies’ applying the signs, wonders and miracles, to all those things we’ve read above. But not only that, He has imparted divinely supernatural gifts of the Spirit to Jesus’ body – the single body and now the body that is his church.

I wonder if this same message should be the primary message we hear in today’s church? Instead of teaching theory, shouldn’t our leaders be teaching power-practice, for didn’t Jesus say, “anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing.” (Jn 14:12). It is shear unbelief, I would suggest, to try and wash this verse out of the Scriptures by coming up with flim-flam that says these things have passed away. Everything we have been reading in this study points in the same direction: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” (Heb 13:8) We demean him and his message if we are content with a mere words-only Gospel. It has served us well and many of us are the proof of it but that is not an excuse not to be the church Jesus spoke about, a church that brings the good news which is both words and transforming power. Without the ‘double-package’ we might ask is that why so much of the Western world is rejecting us?

But the thrust of the start of chapter 2 is, with all this evidence of the wonder of the Gospel of Jesus, we should learn it and live it to stop us drifting away and make it real and obvious so that others will not reject it. That is the message here.

3. Jesus the Word

Meditations in Hebrews 1: 3.  Jesus the Word

Heb 1:1-2  In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, 

So, in the drama of the world, the curtain falls on the Old Testament with a restored Israel having rebuilt the Temple and the walls of Jerusalem and are now settling down after a most traumatic period of their history where they had been exiled and then restored. Prophetic words have come in more recent years through Malachi and Zechariah but those had been largely to encourage the rebuilding work, but that was now complete. What next? The record is there, centuries of God communicating with this nation through His prophets, what more might He say? Time passes and nothing. More time passes and still nothing. Several hundred years have passed and still nothing.

The scholars look at the scrolls and wonder. There have been prophetic hints that there will be one who will come, a messiah, but the prophetic words seem so contradictory that different schools of thought declare different things about him. Suffering seems to be part of the prophetic package, but then so does the thought that he will be a mighty ruler, but how can the two harmonise? The apostle Paul was later to use the word ‘mystery’ to describe this conundrum (Rom 16:25, Eph 3:2-11, 6:19, Col 1:26,27, 2:2,3, 4:3) and it was a mystery because God had not made it fully clear, and yet in the fullness of the New Testament revelation, at least seven times the scriptures declare that the mystery that was Christ was planned by the Godhead before the foundation of the world. Merely because it was a mystery to us, that doesn’t mean it was to God. The plan of sending Christ was not a last-minute crisis plan because everything was going wrong. No, God had planned it when He looked into the future in what would become time-space history and He saw sin and saw the need that would be there and saw the only way to deal with it, and so they, the Trinity, decided he would come, he would die and he would be raised from the dead, all before He spoke the words, “Let there be light”.

What I find strange, at first sight at least, is that the writer to the Hebrews does not lay out a history of Jesus Christ. Why? Well, that has already been done. It is probable that at least three of the Gospels are in existence and the church is up and running. This book doesn’t come over as a gospel weapon demanding belief and repentance, but more like a treatise for Jews who already believe, to bolster their belief with in-depth understanding of the wonder of the Christ. The basic facts of Christ were already well known. Probably the best we can say is that it was written before AD70 when the temple was destroyed because all references to the temple are still in the present. They know about Christ, they are believers.

And thus we come to this incredibly compact ‘prologue’ as some like to call the first four verses and because they are so compact it is so easy to skim past them hardly taking in the wonder that is here compacted into such a small space.  So (yes, you can breathe a sigh of relief, we have got here) we come to the text, now God has spoken to us through His Son. Even at this point in history, it is possible they do not fully realise what this means. It is going to take the aging apostle John, living in Ephesus, to take his years of reflecting on the wonder of those three incredible years with Jesus, and conclude he needs to write it down, an insight that went much further that the three Synoptic Gospels. John has memories, John was there, and in old age those incredible memories are sharp and clear and he realises that so much was said and done that the first three had nor picked up on. And so, for example, we have John remembering Jesus speaking about being the bread that has come down from heaven (read John 6) and we realise the ‘person’ who comes into the Gospels as a tiny baby had already existed in eternity, he didn’t just begin two thousand years ago. It is almost certain that Hebrews came before John’s Gospel but that makes even more amazing the revelation that comes through these first four verses of just who Jesus the Christ was.

John in his Gospel speaks of Jesus as ‘the word’ and although that would have much significance for Greek readers, put very simply a word is a basic form of communication. Jesus is God’s communication to this world. When our writer says that God has spoken to us “by his Son,” we should not just take that to mean He has spoken only through Jesus’ words but by everything that happened to Jesus, what he said AND did. All those things shout into history; “THIS IS THE UNIQUE SON OF GOD. THERE HAS NEVER BEEN AND NEVER WILL BE ANOTHER BEING LIKE HIM!”

This is not in any way to detract from Jesus’ words which in themselves were often so wonderful, but it says look at the wonder of what he did and that will also speak to you. The apostle Peter on the Day of Pentecost understood this: Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. 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.” (Act 2:22-24) There it is, so much information again in such a short space: Jesus a man, a man from Nazareth, who did miracles, wonders and signs to show who he was and to turn eyes to God, a man who was acting out the will of God planned from long past, the will which included him being crucified but then being raised from the dead. This is the Christ we follow. But Peter didn’t say everything in that encapsulated history, he didn’t have time to do that. He didn’t tell of the wonder of the events surrounding Jesus birth, which were already told by Matthew and Luke, he didn’t tell of so many of the things John remembered and which make his Gospel such a wonder, but he said sufficient to mark out Jesus as unique.

Peter was not a theologian and so did not try to explain the theory and detail behind the events. Later theologians, trying to formulate the truths that had been conveyed through the New Testament, having to stand against heresies in the early centuries of the Church, would speak of Jesus as begotten of the Father which simply means, come out of the Father, as they sought to explain that Jesus was God, of the same essence as the Father, one with the Father, truly God himself. It is a word that only comes up one in an Old Testament prophecy but it is the nearest we can come to trying to understand the incarnation, the coming of God in human form in the person of Jesus Christ.  We will ponder more on it as we consider the wonder of what these first four verses say. Ask the Lord to open your eyes so that you may see as you’ve never seen before.

10. Self Remedies

Meditations in Meaning & Values  10:  Self Remedies

Eccles 1:12-14     I, the Teacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem. I devoted myself to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under heaven. What a heavy burden God has laid on men! I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

We have embarked, we recently reminded ourselves, on a series where we are considering meaning, purpose and values in life, and therefore we have considered the nature of the world and the way we live in trying to come to grips with the world and make sense of it.  In 1943 a psychologist by the name of Abraham Maslow wrote a paper entitled, “A Theory of Human Motivation”. Out of this came his famous pyramid or hierarchy of needs. On the bottom of the pyramid was ‘physiological’ meaning our basic physical needs, our concern to satisfy hunger, thirst etc. Next came ‘safety’ or the need to feel secure. Then came the need to feel loved and to belong. Next came the need to feel esteemed and finally when all these others are in place, the need for what he called ‘self actualisation’ which is about reaching full potential, fully becoming the person you can be. Intriguingly in later years he added a further level and said the self only finds its actualization in giving itself to some higher goal outside oneself, in altruism and spirituality.

Observing Solomon in what he writes in Ecclesiastes, we see a man who, despite all his wisdom yearned to find true meaning in life, find his real purpose. Our verses today go back to chapter 1 where he acknowledges his hunger ‘to know’ and yet the frustration when he limits it to all that is “under the sun” and his conclusion that it is all meaningless. Maslow similarly says we all have a yearning and a drive, and these are to fulfil the needs we have within us. Let’s assume for a moment that he was right in his assessment, all we are saying is that this is how God has designed us, to be people who want to know, who want to understand. We have already noted before Solomon’s sense of frustration when he writes later, He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” (Eccles 3:11) The words “yet they cannot fathom” indicates a search that ends in frustration.

Indeed so far we have considered how men and women, like Solomon, seek fame, fortune and pleasure as means of obtaining a sense of achievement or of meaning or of fulfillment. We have this yearning like an inner hunger. Many of us simply subside under the difficulties and pressures of life and, I suspect, give up on working for these things. Poverty is possibly the greatest burden that makes people give up. They don’t have the luxury of climbing Maslow’s pyramid and are stuck trying to make ends meet and thus meet that most basic of needs, to survive. However, they may be more fortunate than the person of a relatively affluent middle class who struggles, like Solomon, to use their relative affluence to achieve fame, fortune and pleasure in the false hope that these will be the means to achieving meaning and fulfillment, and yet remain frustrated and reach old age with a sense of jaded cynicism abut life.

Many of us pursue these goals endlessly because we dare not give up and arrive at a conclusion of helplessness and hopelessness. This is the predicament of the world and dare I risk saying it, also the predicament of Christians who fail to learn and understand the wonder of what they have entered into when they were born again. Thus many of us try this and try that, steadily moving along the shelves containing all the different sorts of self-help books. It is quite fashionable to have a mentor, a life skills tutor, and yet as I have read their godless writings, within them is a pretense that they have got the answers and yet, as Solomon found out, all this self help is hopeless unless it includes God.

There is a famous Puritan catechism that runs, “Question 1  What is the chief end of man? Answer 1  Man’s chief end is to glorify God, (1Co 10:31) and to enjoy him for ever. (Ps 73:25,26)”. In some senses that over simplified it but later questions and answers unpacked that. Consider again Maslow’s needs and let’s see how the Gospel meets those needs:

  1. To survive physically: When we hear and understand the Gospel we realise that God has come to impart life (which affects our very physical being and for which He promises He will provide).
  1. To feel secure: He makes us secure by dealing with our Sin and putting us right with God who promises to care for us and protect us.
  1. To feel loved and belong: We hear He is love and through the work of Jesus we see His love for us, and He imparts His Spirit of love to us. He calls us sons and daughters, children of God, we are part of His family, we belong.
  1. To be esteemed: We realise we have been lifted up to sit with Christ in the heavenly places, to share in all he has, we are special, we are esteemed (look how the father in the parable of the prodigal son treated his returning son.)
  1. To become what you are designed to be: When we come to Christ, it is just the start; we enter a life of change where, stage by stage, we become more like Christ, more the people we were designed to be, and that includes receiving gifting to grow and to serve.
  1. To give outwards and experience a spiritual dimension: Yes, even that last add-on is worked out as we allow the Holy Spirit to inspire and lead us in serving Him and blessing His world.

Yes, without the Gospel, we are condemned to a life of frustration, just like Solomon. Just like him we will embark on one thing after another in our self help crusade only to find frustration. With Christ we will be fully fulfilled and at rest. Hallelujah!