4. Problems with People

Lessons in Growth  Meditations: 4. Problems with People

Jn 13:34,35   A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.

To Love is not Natural: Jesus’ instruction to his disciples to love one another is not a natural one and if it were among the list of verses that are spoken about but struggled with, I suspect this rates near the top of the list. We may say we do it and think we do it, but I wonder how real it is?. I would suggest that it is a real struggle to love sometimes and it really does require the grace of God.

Now we are in a Part where we are considering the call to die to the past and die to the things of the past, and especially die to self, and this command is, I would suggest, one that so often hinders Christian growth or rather, to be more accurate, it is the struggle with this command that hinders growth. You think I am exaggerating? Let’s check it out.

Pre-Christ Relationships: Before we came to Christ our life was focused on what I wanted to do, what I felt, what I thought and, often, what I thought about other people. There were probably people we loved (our close family) and people who were good friends. Then there were the people near us that we tolerated (probably neighbours and people at work), and then there were people we positively disliked and probably spoke against.

Change & Realisation: And then we came to Christ and all was well until we either read the above verses or we heard a preacher speaking about them, and then there was a shadow cast over our life. “Love,” he said, “means thinking the best of people and desiring the best for people, all people,” and that made us feel uncomfortable. And then it got worse. Our preacher started talking about gossip, speaking about others behind their backs in an unloving way, and again we felt uncomfortable.

The Difficulty: Then we looked around the church and we realised there were people we’re not particularly fond of and, if we were honest, we found a real pain. To love them? And then there were people at work who were really trying. Love them? We realised we had a whole pile of negatives about people – because they deserved them! And we were being called to give up all these negatives – but they still deserve them! That’s a good excuse and I’ve got another – I can’t cope with these people, let alone love them! So I might as well not try. And growth comes to a halt.

The Reality: Yes, this is the problem: people are imperfect, people are difficult, people can be a drain upon us, people can be speaking against us and, even worse, people can be harming us, physically or emotionally. And Jesus says love them? Yes, this is one of those areas where the ‘death to self’ thing rings loud and true and is uncomfortable, and it can be a real source of hindrance to spiritual growth.

But How? Let’s think about some of the issues. What is love for others? As I said above, thinking the best of people and desiring the best for people, all people. How can you think the best of someone who speaks against you, actively seeks to harm you or puts difficulties into your life? How can you feel good about those closest to you who don’t show care and concern and love for you and appear utterly self-centred? Well start at the hard end. Jesus taught, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Mt 5:44) How can you do that? One or two suggestions.

Pray that the Lord will show you what they are really like. That bully who upsets you is really a lonely little inadequate boy inside. Jesus would love to change him but he’s looking for someone who will stand in the gap to intercede for him. Pray for grace to bless this person and maybe say something nice to them. Realise you are not perfect and are not the best one to cast the first stone (Jn 8:7). Pray for grace to a) see yourself as child of God who has an all-powerful loving heavenly Father on their side and b) the ability to smile, laugh and praise while you wait for changes to take place.

Sons? Jesus followed up that 5:44 verse with, “that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.” (v.45). The idea of ‘sons’ in the Old Testament carried with it the idea of the young person growing up to understand the heart of the father and his work, and getting ready to join his father in his work and one day take it over. That was all about growth and so the way we see ourselves in this sort of situation, rather than be a heavy negative thing, can be part of the growth process.

Me, Difficult? Another thought: this is a two-way street. There may be people in church who find you or me difficult.  The only way I can overcome this is to work on the following strategy: every Sunday morning when I go into church, I go praying, “Lord help me to be a blessing to at least two or three people this morning,” and I look around when I get there and ask, “Lord, who can I bless?” It’s surprising how he answers that prayer sometimes. But the big thing is be proactive about loving others. Whenever we pray for difficult people or difficult situations I believe part of our prayer, when we ask Him to bless them or it, should be, “and Lord, show me what you might want me to do to be part of the answer to this prayer.”

If we can do the “dying to self of the past” thing, and put others before ourselves, I believe we will not only be overcoming the obstacles to growth, but we will be growing. We can’t do it without Him, but if we are willing to face the problem, He will enable.  Now I am aware there is one other really big area to do with personal relationships that can be a hindrance to growth and so I will deal with that tomorrow as a separate subject.

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9. Aspiring to Brotherly Kindness

Aspiring Meditations: 9.  Aspiring to Brotherly Kindness

Rom 12:10  Be devoted to one another in brotherly love.

2 Pet 1:7   make every effort to add togodliness, brotherly kindness

1 Thess 4:9  Now about brotherly love we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other.

Now even as I said previously that I find there are some of these characteristics that come more clearly into perspective, I think there are some that seem less significant, but that is a mistake. For instance there are at least three words used in the original Greek for love: Agape, Philadelphia and Eros. Eros doesn’t appear in the New Testament text, it refers to physical love expressions. Agape is the main word that we’ll consider more fully in the next study. It is the one in the middle, Philadelphia, that we have before us now and it doesn’t appear that many times in the New Testament, a word that seems to speak of a love of lesser importance. I say that because much is made of agape and when Jesus instructed his disciples to “love one another” (Jn 13:34) we might wonder why ever employ a lesser word or even have his servants instruct, Keep on loving each other as brothers.” (Heb 13:1)

Well, a dictionary definition of Philadelphia is ‘Warmhearted affection toward all in the family of faith.” We might say, ‘think well, speak well and act well towards the family of God.’  Trying to tie down ‘love’ or even this ‘brotherly affection’ is not easy. I came across a heavy-handed discipling program recently that used questions to prod on believers to growth and one question asked, “Do you love everyone in your community?” I’m afraid I responded, “That is a meaningless question,” but then I did add, “unless you can express it in specifics.” We are told to love our neighbour by the Lord and we know He loves everyone because He is love.

But what does that mean? It means He thinks and feels well towards all people, some might say, but actually love is expressed in a whole variety of ways. A father may express it with a child as he watches them from a distance, by the smile that appears on his face that expresses something of what he is thinking and feeling as he watches. It is love. But then he may sit with the child and read with them or listen to them. Some times he will say ‘No’ to the child as he brings correction or direction, and at other times he may bring discipline to impose a sense of seriousness over some misdemeanor. All of these are different expressions of love. There can be great differences in the expression of love. There can be the giving of a present at a birthday, which is simple and straight forward, or there can be the mother who pushes her child off the road infront of an oncoming speeding lorry, and who is killed.

The sacrificial love (agape) of Jesus that took him to the Cross is certainly different from ‘warmhearted affection’ but sometimes that ‘warm hearted affection toward all in the family of faith’,  can seem for the moment equally hard. The trouble is people are not perfect, none of us are, but so often we expect the people of God to be. When the minister/pastor/vicar produces a rubbish, boring sermon, it is difficult not to be negative. When some of the old ladies seem more concerned about the flower rota than seeing people saved, it is difficult to feel charitable. When long haired, tattooed young people turn up in your nice respectable church, it is difficult not to be defensive, even when you find they out are outrageous evangelists. When someone doesn’t care about scripture / comes out with wrong understandings of scripture / brings heresy, it is difficult to be graceful in the face of their less-than-perfect expressions of church life.

The world would be so much easier without people, it seems sometimes. But then other people probably think that about us as well. I know I haven’t always found words of grace to drop into a difficult situation and so I have needed the love, grace and forgiveness of others at times, those things that put content to that description, “warm hearted affection”. Tell me, how do you react when someone really lets loose and blows it, and speaks out in anger, frustration and hostility? I saw that once and those around drew back like Pharisees withdrawing from Jesus, into a critical, gossiping huddle. Instead it needed someone to put an arm of love around them and say, “Come and sit down. What is going on here old friend?” How easily that “warm hearted affection” flees out the door!  How easy it is to become a Pharisee and look down our spiritual noses at others who are not handling life as well as we are!!!

Oh yes, we’ll need God’s grace to actually have that “warm hearted affection” when people are being people. It doesn’t matter that they are believers, that seems to make it worse. If we can get God’s grace, why can’t they?  I think one of the most poignant stories I’ve heard was of the man who stepped into an almost empty carriage on the Underground, accompanied by his two noisy and boisterous children. As the train rattled along through the tunnels, another nearby occupant struggled not to spit out, “Why don’t you control your noisy children. Get them under control!” but didn’t. When the train came to the stop where the man and his children was alighting, he turned to the other occupant whose face clearly showed what he thought and said, “I’m sorry I’m a bit distracted and let my little ones upset the peace. We’ve just come from the hospital where their mother is, and I’ve just been told my wife has probably only got about three days to live. I’m sorry,” and then they stepped off the train. The occupant suddenly felt different.

I’m told there is an old native-American saying (we used to call them Indians): “Never criticize another until you have walked in their moccasins.”  We don’t know what is going on in one another’s lives in church. Yes, the grace of God is there for us all, but it’s not always easy to appropriate it. Sometime we need the loving acceptance of our brothers and sisters and their gentle encouragement to make it through. That’s why I think there is this fairly rare reference to brotherly-kindness, this Philadelphia love, this “warmhearted affection toward all in the family of faith.” Yes, I need more of it. Yes, it is something I need to aspire to even more, for the sake of my local church, and for Jesus’ sake. May he find it in me.

2. Aspiring to More Grace

Aspiring Meditations: 2.  Aspiring to more grace

Psa 45:2   You are the most excellent of men and your lips have been anointed with grace, since God has blessed you forever.

2 Pet 1;2 Grace and peace be yours in abundance through the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord.

In the opening, introductory ‘study’, near the end I laid out our goal about the things to which we might aspire: we will have to think what they each mean, why the Lord wants them for us, and how we may aspire to experiencing them in greater and greater measure.

So, in the example to do with my wife’s uncle, I said, ‘I realised there I was aspiring to a higher level of grace than that which I had known until then’ and so it seems natural that we start off these things looking at ‘grace’. It is a word that comes up often in Scripture, especially in the letters of the apostle Paul who always asks for grace for his recipients, as does the apostle Peter in the verse above from his second letter. It has to be high up on the list of significant words in the New Testament.

Now when we say that someone is ‘gracious’ we mean they are sociable, courteous, polite. It is a word used to describe a very positive aspect of their character. Similarly, if we looked up synonyms for ‘grace’ we come across such words as refinement, loveliness, poise, charm, again positive words about character. That is how we tend to use the word and its associates in everyday life.  Now as good as these words are, the Bible’s use of grace is much more powerful.

Our first verse above, your lips have been anointed with grace”, suggest again a very positive characteristic – because, “You are the most excellent of men,” but it is clear that this Messiah figure is like that since God has blessed you forever.” This positive characteristic is because of God’s blessing. So to recap the first two things about grace: 1. It is expressed as a positive characteristic, and 2. It comes from God. But what is it?

It is important to understand, because God calls Himself a “gracious God” (Ex 34:6) and it comes in the midst of similar words: “the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness.” (v .6,7) They are all different words but have the feel of being in the same family, so to speak. Now here we start becoming aware of the problem. If you take a good Bible dictionary, you find that trying to tie down the word ‘grace’ is like trying to take hold of mercury or quicksilver (don’t it’s poisonous!) where, if you put your finger on a blob of it, it splits up into lots of smaller globules which scatter in all directions. Grace is like that.

The Hebrew word in O.T. usage, ‘hesed’, has been translated, ‘mercy, kindness, loving-kindness’.  When used of a man or woman it tends to mean steadfast love towards God or another person, or even used as ‘faithfulness’. The New Testament Greek equivalent is ‘charis’ which often has links to forgiveness or mercy. Jesus never uses the word yet his actions and teaching are saturated with it.  The apostle Paul says we, “are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” (Rom 3:24) Note the close linkage of three crucial things: justified – by grace – through redemption. Our justification is only by an act of grace on God’s part, the redemption that Jesus earned for us on the Cross. So, redemption was an act of grace and so is justification. Christ’s redeeming act leads to our justification and both are God’s expressions of mercy, and loving kindness, free, undeserved gifts. So, we might say, grace is first a personal characteristic, or even a benignly positive attitude.

But it seems to be even more than that. Yes, in my usage of it in respect of the uncle of my wife, I might say I recognized and wanted to emulate or aspire to this same personal characteristic or benignly positive attitude, but in the New Testament it seems to have more about it. For instance, it seems foundational to who we are in the body of Christ: “We have different gifts, according to the grace given us.” (Rom 12:6) Grace there, seems more an ability, the ability to exercise a gift, or behave supernaturally.  But then all my previous attempts to tie down this globule of mercury have all also been characteristics or attitudes, that are identified by a behaviour.  Mercy, for instance is an expression or act of God in a particular way.

But then we have to ask, how do we get this grace into us, if I may put it like that? How do I get these abilities we have just referred to? The answer has to be by the indwelling presence of God’s Holy Spirit. It is Him in me that is the resource that enables me to live out my Christian life, my life in relation to the Lord, expressed in everyday behaviour. Later on in these studies we will look at things that are said to be ‘fruit of the Spirit’ (Gal 5:22,23).  Now fruit naturally grows. The only two commands linked to those verses speak of being “led by the Spirit,” (v.18) and “let us keep in step with the Spirit.” (v.25) so we may conclude that when we allow the Spirit to lead us and we seek to keep in step with what HE is doing, then the things in verses 22 and 23 will naturally start developing and appearing in us.

We would probably be remiss if we didn’t mention the apostle Paul’s famous incident when he pleaded with God to help with a particular weakness but the Lord replied, “But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor 12:9). So grace is equated with power – God’s power, the power released by the Holy Spirit within us. So when we need wisdom or maybe strength, or perhaps patience, all of these are expression of grace that the Spirit provides.

So to summarise: grace is a characteristic AND a resource that is seen when expressed through Christ-like acts. In a variety of ways my wife’s uncle expressed Christ. It will be developed more and more in me as I seek to be obedient to God’s word and His Holy Spirit’s prompting. Yes, as the apostle Paul says in both Ephesians and Colossians, I have a part to play by putting to death the characteristics of the ‘old nature’ and in ‘putting on’ the Christ-characteristics that his Spirit wishes to express in and through us. I still aspire to be the gracious elderly man that I saw in my wife’s uncle. I recognize that the way that grace is shown in me, will be different from the way it is shown in you when it comes to gifts and service (Rom 12:6) but in terms of character we all have this overall sense of what it means to be Christ-like – full of loving kindness, full of mercy, full of good feelings and desires for other people and thankful to God our Father and, yes, summarized as full of grace! Let’s aspire to be like this, more and more.

1. Introducing Aspiring

Aspiring Meditations: 1.  Introducing Aspiring

2 Pet 1:5-8   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.

A number of years ago we attended the ninetieth birthday of an uncle of my wife. I had met him only a few times but he came over as a gracious old man. I had picked up along the way that he had been a farmer, and had been a Christian all his life. When his wife reached seventy she suffered major memory loss, didn’t even know him, became bed bound and incontinent, but he refused to have her put into a home and so cared for her day and night for ten years until she passed away.

When we came to his birthday celebration we knew he attended a small church on the south coast, looked after the elderly of the church (!!!), led Bible studies, attended a weekly house group, and once a term went to a local junior school and took their ‘Assembly’ for them. At this celebration, which was a gathering of the wider family and a few close friends for the whole day in someone’s large house, we sat around chatting with people and caught up on the passing years. In the middle of the afternoon Tea was being served and a big birthday cake was brought in with lots of candles which, of course, he was required to blow out.  This was typically followed by someone calling out, “Speech, speech”, the traditional call for the ‘celebrity to say a few words.

In the next ten minutes, and it was only ten minutes, he gave his testimony of how he came to the Lord as a child, how the Lord had kept him through all the years of his life, and shared the basic Gospel, concluding with a very funny joke that made you laugh but at the same time confronted you with a challenge as to what your life was founded upon, and then he sat down to applause. About half the people there, I believe, were not believers. Knowing what I knew about him and witnessing this episode, I found myself praying, “Lord, I have at last found someone I would want to emulate. I don’t know how many years you have got for me, but please use me in some way every day, like you have done with this gracious old man.”

As I pondered over this in the following months I realised there I was aspiring to a higher level of grace than that which I had known until then. Then as I pondered on that, I realised that Scripture is full of things that the Lord wants us to aspire to, and so that is what this new series is about. It takes the general concept, that is clear in the New Testament, that the Lord expects growth in us and growth means that next year, say, I can be experiencing His grace in some form, more than I do today.

In his second letter, the apostle Peter gives us this list of things in the verses above that he wants us to aspire to, things he wants us to develop in our lives. Now this is the thing about the Christian life: the Lord has provided for us and so it is down to us to appropriate all that He has given us in Christ, but that is an ongoing process.  Now whether those things in Peter’s list are things that are ‘one after another’ that come out of or flow from the previous one, or whether they are just facets of being Christ-like, I leave you to ponder: faith, goodness; knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, brotherly kindness, and love.

There are various of these ‘lists’ in the New Testament, for example, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Gal 5:22,23) In Colossians the apostle Paul says “put to death” various things of your old life (Col 3:5-9) because we have “put on the new self” (v.10) and then adds, “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love.” (Col 3:12-14)

So, the exercise of this series is to ponder on all of these sorts of things that the Lord wants me to aspire to, and if they already exist in some measure in me, to aspire to more of them. To do that we will have to think what they each mean, why the Lord wants them for us, and how we may aspire to experiencing them in greater and greater measure.

So, I invite you to join me on this journey, of those who will aspire to greater things, the things the Lord lays out for us in His word, things with which He wants to bless us. Are you ready? Let’s go.

9. Be who God has made you to be

Short Meditations on the Body of Christ:  9. Be who God has made you to be

Rom 12:6    We have different gifts, according to the grace given us.

If churches have problems, one of them is that so often we try and cast everyone in the same mould. Now in one sense that is right for we are all being shaped into the likeness of Jesus (see 2 Cor 3:18) and as far as morals or ethics are concerned, that should be true, but the greater reality – and you see this in all of Creation – is that God loves diversity.

The apostle Paul touched on this in his famous chapter on the different parts of the body – and we will consider that more fully in the next meditation – when he speaks of us as different parts of the body: The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body.” (1 Cor 12:12) and he goes on in his analogy to speak of the foot, the hand, the eye, the ear and he goes on, “But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.” (1 Cor 12:18,19)

Note, “God has arranged.” The Lord gifts us, He gives us different abilities according to His grace (His Holy Spirit’s enduing with power to act in specific ways). Regular readers will know one of my favourite verses in the New Testament is, “we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Eph 2:10) We are what we are because God (through Jesus reigning at his Father’s right hand) through His Spirit, has brought us into being with different personalities, different gifts, abilities, desires etc.

Writer Gary Chapman in his “The Five Love Languages” suggests our different preferences for the way we show or receive love, or there is Patrick Morley’s, “The Six Worship Languages” that goes right back to Gordon MacDonald’s “Six leading Instincts of the Soul”, which is opened up even more by Gary Thomas’s “Sacred Pathways: Discover your Soul’s Path to God”. All of these writers grasp at the same thing – we are all different. (This has even been taken into ‘Learning Styles’ although this has been questioned by some).

Perhaps a personal application: the Bible thrills me, I come alive with it. Prophecy and preaching bless and thrill me. Worship, I long to go deeper with a greater reality. Prayer, I’m limited. Evangelism, I love sharing with those who want to know and although I have brought a number to the Lord, I grieve that it is so few and long to be gifted, but I am not. So how about you? What thrills you in the Christian life? Build on that. What gives you a buzz? Develop it.

87. A Sign for the Rebellious

Meditations in Exodus: 87.  A Sign for the Rebellious

Num 17:10  The LORD said to Moses, “Put back Aaron’s staff in front of the Testimony, to be kept as a sign to the rebellious. This will put an end to their grumbling against me, so that they will not die”

In the previous chapter we observed the plague that was coming as God’s judgment after the Lord had threatened to judge all the people for their grumbling, but as the priests interceded for them, the Lord had mercy on them and the plague was stopped. We marveled at why the Lord had not finished completely with this people. It might be helpful to itemize again the order of the things that had recently happened:

  • They arrived at Kadesh on the border of the Promised Land (Num 13), spies had gone in and ten of the twelve brought back a bad report that swayed the nation who then refused to enter the Land (Num 14).
  • Because of this the Lord decreed that the whole of the nation over the age of twenty would die in the wilderness in the coming years and the younger generation would only enter when the older generations had eventually died out. (Num 14:29-35)
  • Subsequent to this, presumably still at Kadesh but it may be later, Korah and at least 250 community leaders had risen up against Moses and Aaron and had been destroyed when the earth swallowed them up (Num 16).
  • Incredibly this was followed by the people grumbling against Moses (16:41) and when the Lord sent plague against them, it was only stopped by Moses getting Aaron as High Priest to make atonement. (16:46-50)

Thus we arrive at a point of time when Israel are consigned to a life in the desert, have been on the verge of being wiped out by the Lord for their ongoing rebellious attitude, and are teetering on the brink of existence. What will they do? What will the Lord do? How can they carry on?

Our verse above explains what follows as the Lord’s activity seeking to end their grumbling so that they will not yet be destroyed. The Lord proposes a strategy whereby His will and the sanctity of the priesthood will prevail. Observe:

The LORD said to Moses, “Speak to the Israelites and get twelve staffs from them, one from the leader of each of their ancestral tribes. Write the name of each man on his staff. On the staff of Levi write Aaron’s name, for there must be one staff for the head of each ancestral tribe. Place them in the Tent of Meeting in front of the Testimony, where I meet with you. The staff belonging to the man I choose will sprout, and I will rid myself of this constant grumbling against you by the Israelites.” (Num 17:1-5) It is very simple. Each tribal leader is to present their staff with their name on it – and Levi’s will have Aaron’s name on it. These staffs are to be put in the Tent of Meeting overnight and whoever’s staff buds by next morning will be the one chosen by the Lord. That will put an end to all the grumbling about who is a leader and who is not. This they do (v.6,7)

What follows is amazing: “The next day Moses entered the Tent of the Testimony and saw that Aaron’s staff, which represented the house of Levi, had not only sprouted but had budded, blossomed and produced almonds.” (v.8) It is undoubtedly a miracle because it not only budded, but leaves had formed AND blossom AND fruit appear on it.

Moses takes all the other staffs and gives them back to their owners – unchanged! – and the Lord tells him to put Aaron’s in the Tent as an ongoing reminder to everyone that Aaron, the high priest is His chosen on. (Num 17:9-11) The impact on the leaders and the people is instructive and obvious: “The Israelites said to Moses, “We will die! We are lost, we are all lost! Anyone who even comes near the tabernacle of the LORD will die. Are we all going to die?” (v.12,13)

Now, interestingly, they are not given an answer, or at least one is not recorded. What is recorded is Aaron, his sons and his future sons, and the Levites being appointed to serve in the Tabernacle for the centuries to come.  The Lord is very specific: “You are to be responsible for the care of the sanctuary and the altar, so that wrath will not fall on the Israelites again.” (Num 18:5) The priesthood is to be the means of the salvation of the Israelites by providing atonement for them whenever they sin (stated elsewhere). The rest of the chapter is about how they are to be provided for, not ever having land of their own. Chapter 19 is all about killing and burning a red heifer, a cow, outside the camp and using its ashes as a cleaning agent in water whenever uncleanness occurs. It is simply a law about maintaining or regaining cleanliness. In other words the whole emphasis swings away for a couple of chapters away from the failures of Israel to the Lord’s provision for them of a priesthood which they have already seen can stand in for them and preserve them when, in reality, they deserve death.

The whole affair of the staffs, and the laws that follow establishing the priesthood, clearly speak of the Lord’s grace that is doing everything it can to preserve this foolish people. We may wonder about this because they are a people condemned to die in the wilderness – well the older generation at least – but what we have here are the Lord’s actions to head off further folly which could contaminate the younger generation. The Lord’s intent is for that younger generation to grow up in the wilderness, to learn from it all, and be ready to go in and take the Land when the older generation has died off. All we have been reading about has been the Lord’s activity, working to help bring that about. How amazing!  This is the God of grace and mercy with whom we have to deal. Praise and worship Him!

65. Strengthened by Grace

Meditations in Hebrews 13:  65.  Strengthened by Grace

Heb 13:9b   It is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace, not by ceremonial foods, which are of no value to those who eat them.

Relevant? I suspect that for many of us, when we come to a verse like this we think it is of little relevance because it talks of something – ceremonial foods – that was part of their lives back then when this was written but is not something for today. Fair enough. However, as this verse has stayed on my radar I conclude that actually it is very important for our lives today. Perhaps we should deal with the Jewish-Christian context language and pictures that are used, first of all, and then go on to see modern parallels for us as Christians.

Clean? I like the version of verse 9 that says: Your spiritual strength comes as a gift from God, not from ceremonial rules about eating certain foods—a method which, by the way, hasn’t helped those who have tried it!”  i.e. there were various of Moses’ Laws that referred to clean or unclean foods and, although people like the Pharisees insisted these were important, they didn’t seem to work very well and Jesus insisted that ‘cleanness’ was about an inner thing not an outward observance and, anyway, keeping those rules had not produced a holy people.

In the Tabernacle? But then our writer says something even more irrelevant by today’s standards: “We have an altar from which those who minister at the tabernacle have no right to eat.” (v.10) Pardon? What does that mean?  Well the priests ate at the altar and so in this analogy the writer says we have a place where we eat (or fellowship) with God that those who served in the tabernacle in the Old Testament under the old covenant, could not eat. They went through the outward rituals (like the cleansing and worshipping rituals) but in reality that did not seem to bring them closer to God.  Our ‘altar’ is the Cross. The physical altar was the place where the sacrifice was offered and the NT teaching is that Christ was the ‘Lamb of God’ offered for the ‘sacrifice of sins’ that we have considered previously. Altars have no place in Christianity for they are reminiscent of the old covenant.

Blood & a Carcass? He goes on, “The high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp.” (v.11)  It gets worse!  But remember this was originally for a Jewish-Christian congregation, so let’s try to understand how they would have understood it. Yes, there were two parts to this procedure. The blood of the animal, which represents its life power, was taken into the Most Holy Place to say to God, a life has been given to allow this access. That was to prefigure the work of Christ, giving up his life on the Cross. But then the remaining physical body of the animal was taken outside the camp and burned there, almost as if to say, the physical body of this creature is of no importance, it is its life that is important.

The writer then explains the application: “And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood.” (v.12) Jesus’ physical body was taken outside the city and there he was crucified in a place of disgrace, as a criminal. It appeared, we might say, that God was giving up on the body of Christ, allowing it to be destroyed just like the old covenant practice, but in reality what was happening on the Cross was that Christ was giving his eternal life as a sacrifice for the sins of the world, taking our punishment there.

The writer concludes this little cameo of doctrine by saying, “Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore.” (v.13) i.e. let us identify with Christ, accepting (contrary to the derision of the world) that his death on the Cross bought our forgiveness.  The preaching of the cross is, I know, nonsense to those who are involved in this dying world, but to us who are being saved from that death it is nothing less than the power of God.” (1 Cor 1:18 JBP version) It is that simple.

Back to Grace: So now we need to come back to our starting point: It is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace, not by ceremonial foods.” (v.9b) We, like the Old Testament saints, need strengthening, need encouraging. The Old Testament believers resorted to sacrifices and offerings to get their consciences right before God and yet somehow it left doubts and the overall picture of the spiritual life of Israel throughout the Old Testament is mostly not good.

Today we have these concrete facts declared throughout the New Testament – that Christ died for the forgiveness of sins on the Cross, a specific historical event, the specific plan of God for our salvation. This comes to us freely so that we have to do nothing but accept the truth of this. THIS is what grace is all about so when the enemy comes against us with doubts and fears, we simply turn to the facts of the Gospel and rely on them.

No ‘Doing’ to Impress God: Now the problem is that many of us like to DO things to make us feel right with God, so we resort to such things as ‘trying to be good’ or ‘performing religious rituals’ (Sunday by Sunday) or ‘trying to make up for our bad aspects’ (doing charitable things) but the truth is that when we do that we put ourselves on a par with those Old Testament people worrying about ceremonial food. We look to ‘things’ to put us right with God, but Christianity is all about receiving freely from God.

If you are trying to be good to get on God’s good side, if you are going to church to get on God’s good side, or if you are doing charitable things to get on God’s good side, then STOP IT! Simply believe that He loves you and is for you and HAS made you right with Him through the Cross, and believe that He HAS given you His Holy Spirit who is the source of all power, all wisdom, all guidance, and all teaching. Learn to listen to Him and enjoy the wonder of being His child. Amen? Amen!