34. Hindrances to Redemption

PART SIX: Thinking about Practicalities for Today

Reaching into Redemption Meditations: 34. Hindrances to Redemption

Jn 8:3-5 The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery.  In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?”

Different Aspects: As we move on to considering various practical issues that might face us in the church today, we need perhaps, to start by considering some of the things that hinder the bringing about of practical redemption in people in the Church today. There are various things we can observe in this passage above and we’ll start with the problems that arise in trying to be objective here.

First this woman IS guilty; she has been caught in adultery. We have said previously that it is important to face the reality of our guilt in all such cases. Redemption starts from a place of acknowledging guilt.  Second, the Law was quite specific: “If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife—with the wife of his neighbour—both the adulterer and the adulteress are to be put to death.” (Lev 20:10 Also Deut 22:22) The means of death was not proscribed so that was probably something added by the Pharisees. Nevertheless, according to the Law, she did deserve to die.  Third, it is only the woman who has been brought before Jesus which suggests there is an element of entrapment about this, for somewhere there is also a guilty man. So, fourth, we should watch out when we are trying to resolve the truth about any particular situation that we do not have tunnel vision that fails to see that usually, this is one sin among many in society and is no greater or no less than any other sin. Sins are only distinguished by the seriousness of the consequences.   Fifth, as this situation shows us, it is easy in these things just to appear judgmental and unloving and simply be out to blame.

Jesus’ approach: Jesus suggests to the accusers that, “any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” (v.7) and, when none of them dares take up that challenge and they slink away, he turns to the woman: “neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.” (v.11) So we may add to the list above, two more things to be considered: Sixth, Jesus is not out to condemn but to redeem. We should remind ourselves of the threefold teaching from Ezekiel: Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign Lord. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?” (Ezek 18:23 & v.32 & 33:11) supported by “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Pet 3:9) The Lord, Father and Son and Holy Spirit, is always looking, not to condemn but to redeem. All it needs is our repentance.  Seventh, he does call for repentance and change of life. He is not being casual about her situation, he calls her to stop what she was doing and put her life right. He is giving her a second chance. The end product of redemption is to be a righteous life.

Facing the World: Very well, we’ve done the ‘Bible Study’ but why and what does it say to us? Remember, we are only starting to work through our thinking on the practicalities of this subject.  Well, before we start considering life within the Church, let’s consider the state of the world. It is important to recognise the world’s approach and note how it differs from our own. The biggest problem that the world has, is not that they are people who do wrong or questionable things, but they are godless, and that is a wilful thing. The outworking of that, the various things we can see and say are wrong in society, are merely outworkings of that godlessness. The issue that God has with them is that they are godless.

God has designed all humanity to live and work in relation to Him, and therefore to live contrary to that is an act of oppositional will, an act of rebellion which carries with it a whole raft of consequences, most of which are simply the logical outworking of the sin, e.g. excess use of alcohol produces loss of self-control, violence, abuses, waste of money, causing hardship to others (the social outworkings) but this behaviour becomes addictive and alcoholism causes physical damage to the body and eventually premature death (the health consequences). Rather than simply point fingers at such behaviour in society, we would do better to speak about the consequences of all ungodly and therefore unrighteous behaviour, because the consequences are there to be seen. The call, in respect of any unbeliever, is first and foremost to stop being godless and when repentance comes, and salvation follows, the behaviour will change.

Facing Ourselves: But we, as Christians, as part of the Church must see these things in the context of the Church, and our following studies must be in the light of the Church. Anything we may say in respect of this subject and the practical outworkings of redemption, must be seen in the context of God, Jesus and the Christian faith. To take this stance, we also have to recognize that the Bible is our source and accept that it is not always as specific as we might like it to be and so we are sometimes left making assumptions, and those assumptions can be suspect because they so often depend on what we’ve heard and the prejudices we’ve accumulated, and not necessarily on the complete teaching of the Bible. The difficulty that we have, and it is a legitimate and right and proper one, is that we want to uphold what we see is the Bible’s teaching and we want to stop wrong behaviour. However your list of wrong behaviours may be different to mine and your way of dealing with them may be different to mine. There is often a lot of leeway to these things.

Challenging Examples: Let’s put up some difficult situations. Example 1: ‘A’ is a minister, a church leader. He falls into adultery and it becomes public. We all accept his behaviour is wrong, but what do we do about it? It sounds easy until you think more deeply. He should step down from his position, I hear you say. Right.  For now and forever? Can he ever return to the ministry and if yes, after how long and after what conditions? These are the questions of redemption. What about the woman? Can she remain a ‘church member’? If not, why not and what do you say should happen to her? Is that going to work towards her redemption? (I’m simply asking question and not implying answers; we’ll look at these things in more detail in subsequent studies).

Example 2: ‘B’ is a female worship leader. She ‘comes out’ and publicly declares she is a Lesbian. The world says this is fine, but you are not sure what the Bible says. Can she carry on as worship leader? What are the consequences? If not, what would you want to happen to her? Has she a special need in respect of redemption or is God fine with her as she is?  Example 3: ‘C’ is a Christian who married ‘D’ a non-Christian knowing their approach to life. ‘C’ has become Church Secretary of your local church and in the interim while they are waiting for a new minister, she appears in control. A woman leading? What did Paul really say? Married to an unbeliever? Problems? Difficulties? Messy.

It is Difficult: What are the answers here, what is the truth? These are the difficult (and maybe not so obvious) questions that face us when we seek to apply all we have seen in these studies so far to modern living. Should the fact that it is ‘modern’ affect the outcome? In order not to ‘cast the first stone’ maybe we need to tread more lightly than our background, church style or whatever might previously have suggested. Jesus was full of ‘grace and truth’ (Jn 1:14). Can we pray for both in our understanding of these things?  How can we face the truth but do it lovingly if it looks to challenge people around us? What would we want if we were in their shoes?

A Personal Example: Many years ago when I was in leadership there arose a situation where I snapped in public, responding to an individual’s public criticism – obviously at a low grace level! – and walked out of the meeting. The object of my response, and it is better not to go into details, was in tears and others gathered round her to console her.  The next day when several of us leaders gathered together, one of them simply declared with great hostility, “I can’t work with you!” and the other one sided with him and agreed. I said I would resign. Long story short, I remained but we went through a very difficult period. Now when I view that many years later, I can say unconditionally I was wrong. However as I have pondered over the situation and reflected on what happened, I realize (and it is after years of reflection) that I wish that the response to me had been something like, “My dear old friend, whatever came over you yesterday? What has caused you to react like that? How can we help you and how can we rebuild the situation?” But crass judgmentalism reigned and condemnation flowed, and my wife and I identify that year as the worst year of our lives as I sought to continue to hold that church upright following that public conflict. There were painful lessons there.

The Lessons: Without going into details, the background to that situation, the thing that caused me to break, was an unrighteous attitude that I had never dared confront. Leaders often fear that such confrontations will cause church disharmony, people leaving, and their salaries evaporating, and so we do not confront. It is wrong and perhaps we may ponder on that in some further study.  But here’s the thrust of this particular study: unknowing and unthinking criticism of people, judgmentalism that refuses to step in their shoes to understand what is going on in them, can be a primary cause of hindering redemption. I have lost count of the number of times that I have heard someone say of someone they know, “Oh no, they don’t go to church anymore, the church hurt them too much.” Now there are always two sides to every story, but one side, so often, is the failure of us, the church, to love the fallen and work to graciously, sensitively, and carefully, help them back on to their feet again. With a great sense of inadequacy and reticence, I hope to try looking at some of these things in yet a few studies to come.

25. Made Innocent

Short Meditations for Easter on the Cross: 25. Made Innocent

Col 2:14  having cancelled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross.

Wow! There is some imagery here that needs careful investigation.  Notice first “the charge of our legal indebtedness”. The Living Bible speaks on this verse of, “the charges proved against you, the list of his commandments which you had not obeyed…. this list of sins” while the JBP version speaks of, “the damning evidence of broken laws and commandments which always hung over our heads,” and the Message version says, “Think of it! All sins forgiven, the slate wiped clean, that old arrest warrant cancelled and nailed to Christ’s cross.” What excellent attempts to expand and clarify this picture that Paul gives us.

Summarised, what we have is a reminder of the Law that we broke, whether it be in the simplest form – to love the Lord your God with all your heart – or in some specific way – failing to speak truth, desiring what others have, etc. God alone knows the full truth of the extent of our failures, but it was some sense of failure that brought us to Christ and whether it was conscience or conviction of the Spirit, we knew it was true, we were guilty.

So much of the time we human beings try to duck the truth, we pretend it is not so, we make excuses, or we cover it up with activity and busyness and making others appear worse that we are. We try to do it, but the truth is there, condemning us, whether or not we dare acknowledge it. We – mankind – are guilty. I have, in recent years, taken up reading a lot of history and what comes through again and again is our inability to live at peace with one another. It is the clear and obvious manifestation of Sin and we are all guilty.

It is this charge and this guilt that God has taken and dealt with. In the same way that debts in the past were cancelled by nailing them to the door of your property, so here Paul says, it is like God takes the Law, takes the list of our failures, and nails them to the cross so that they may die with His Son, because His Son has taken them all in this act of self-sacrifice by dying on the cross.

That list of charges stood against us and condemned us. No wonder we could never live righteous lives, we were too taken up with guilt and trying to duck it. But now that list of your sins and my sins has been attached to the cross where Jesus died, eternally linked to his death so that we are now declared innocent. It is so incredible that many of us still struggle to accept it that we, with all our sense of failure, can be declared innocent in God’s eyes and “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Read the whole of Rom 8:31-39) It IS true! Hallelujah!

41. Hearts at Rest

Meditations in 1 John : 41 : Hearts at Rest

1 John  3:19,20   This then is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence whenever our hearts condemn us. For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.

There is always a problem with trying to meditate on just one or two verses, because whatever else we do, we must seek first the meaning intended by the original writer. Yes, in the course of meditation we may let the Lord lead us down wider ranging paths, but if we don’t cover the original meaning of the verse we will be missing something essential. Now to do that, again and again we need to see the verse in question in context, see how it flows on from previous verses, and then perhaps see how it leads on to what follows (I tend to leave that latter one to the following meditation). Only in such a way can we find its meaning.

This becomes obvious when we find the verse in question begins with, “This then is ….” which clearly refers back to that which goes before. Maybe before we consider what “This” refers to, we should see what it then speaks about: “how we know that we belong to the truth.” We know that our lives are true or real or “belong to the truth” by what has gone before. What was that? It was a twofold thing: First that Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.”  That had been the starting point, the fact that Jesus had died for us. We were told about that and responded to that as the ground of assurance in respect of the possibility of our salvation, and then we found we had entered a life of love where not only did we receive love from God and from others, but we found that with His Holy Spirit living within us, we were also channels for love to flow from God to others.

Having submitted to John’s scrutiny that we do “not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth,” and realised that this love in us was indeed God’s love flowing through us, this brought us this awareness that “we know that we belong to the truth.”  As we recognize and understand this new life of love that is real, it confirms that we are living in God’s way and so, even more “we set our hearts at rest in his presence whenever our hearts condemn us.”

Now there something very important here and in what follows. This elderly pastoral leader knows that there are times when our hearts are over-sensitive and we worry unnecessarily. Some of us have been brought up to believe certain things are wrong but those things may be just what other people say, not God. I have a simple, almost over-simple example of this. When I was at school I learnt ‘woodwork’ in my first year at Secondary school, and my teacher emphasized you only use a hammer for hammering nails – and never screws! I had gone through life never letting a hammer get near a screw! But the bigger truth is that sometimes, when the wood is particularly hard, it is good to give the screw a gentle tap with the hammer to help it get initial purchase in the wood. Now that is almost a silly example, but sometimes our parents or teachers, when we were young, emphasised particular rights or wrongs and we have subsequently become over-sensitive and false guilt arises.

For some of us failing to pray every day, failing to read the Bible every day, failing to say ‘grace’ at every meal, failing to go to church every Sunday, have been made such big issues in our part of the church, that our salvation is almost in question if we don’t do these things, and if something happens that, say, stops us getting to church on a Sunday morning, our hearts make us feel very guilty.  Satan, of course, will try to play on these things and make us feel less than a genuine Christian. I sometimes hear preachers exhorting congregations about “the Lordship of Christ” without putting any content to that phrase, and so people are left feeling guilty without knowing why!

I recently heard one well-meaning individual bring a ‘word’ on a morning service that he felt the Lord was saying there were people there who were not ‘connected’ to the Lord, but the truth was that all who were there were Christians and so they all were ‘connected’ to the Lord. It was left to me to correct the word because he should have said that there were people who didn’t feel connected, which is something completely different and comes in the ambit of our verses here now.

Our ‘hearts’ can, therefore, not convey the truth sometimes. We feel we are a poor Christian, we feel the Lord is miles away, we feel shame or guilt because we don’t pray as much as some of the other super-saints around us. In these ways “our hearts condemn us.” Now if you hadn’t caught where this was going, John continues, “For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.”   What is he saying? Well we’ve already seen part of it: that active love is to be an evidence of salvation.  The presence and awareness of this love in us, shows us that we are different. We have been changed and we are a child of God. Now if that isn’t good enough, rest in the knowledge that God knows you and He knows everything about you and He knows the truth – and He still loves you. Even if you did blow it and get it wrong, remember that John told us earlier – first of all, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1 Jn 1:9) and then “if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense–Jesus Christ,” (1 Jn 2:1). IF we are less than perfect (and we are) and IF we have thought, said, or done something wrong, then simply tell God and ask for His forgiveness and He WILL forgive you, and if you are not sure about it anyway, then know that Jesus is there speaking up for you with the Father. He’s not out to knock you down, but he’s always out to pick you up! Let your heart be at rest! Hallelujah!

114. A Can of Worms

Short Meditations in Mark’s Gospel: 114. A Can of Worms

Mk 6:16 But when Herod heard this, he said, “John, the man I beheaded, has been raised from the dead!”

When something unexpected happens in our lives, it often acts as a catalyst to reveal what goes on in us. A crisis brings out both the best and the worst in us. Herod has heard about Jesus. There is a man in the land – his land – who raises questions, and they have been asked and answers given. One of the answers was that Jesus was a resurrected John. Immediately in Herod, his guilt rises to the surface and the worst nightmare possible pours out – it is John come to confront him for his appalling behaviour. Suddenly his mind is pouring out fears like a can of worms. He is guilty! Has this man come back to haunt him?

We will deal with all the following verses in that terrible story in this one quick meditation. We will not give Herod any more space. John had preached against things going on in Herod’s family and people had been upset. Herod had John put in prison – but that was all. Then came the evening of that fateful meal and Herod drunk too much and, as drunken men so often do, he lost control of himself and started saying foolish things. As a result of that, to avoid appearing even more foolish before his guests, he had given way and allowed John to be executed. We will say no more of the episode for it is a scandalous one.

What we can observe is that a good and godly man was put to death by an unrighteous and foolish man who abused his power. We might question, could God not have stopped this happening?  The bigger picture is that our time here on earth is but a drop in the ocean of eternity. We see the present as so important and we want to cling on to it but there is a whole eternity yet to be enjoyed.

What we have here is a challenge to our perception of reality. So often we hear preachers preaching about heaven and the wonders of the world to come, but the moment death is mentioned, especially in respect of ourselves, we fear and show that all our talk of eternity is but words.

Sometimes God does step in and deliver His saints (e.g. Peter in Acts 12) but other times He allows the present evil circumstances to prevail to act simply as a doorway into eternity and we witness the death of one of His saints (e.g. Stephen Acts 7:59,60) or James (Acts 12:2). we must learn to rest in His sovereign decisions.

 

46. Preacher in Prison

Meditations in 1 Peter : 46: Preacher in Prison

1 Pet 3:18-20 For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built.

The Bible is amazing. One minute you can be in the clearest of verses and the next you are left wondering whatever the next verse is about. So it is here. In the previous meditation we considered the simplicity and straight forwardness of the first part of verse 18 but in verses 19 and 20 we move into an unclear area where we are going to have to resort to speculation, and accept that different commentators through the centuries have concluded or suggested different things about these words.  Let’s examine it piece by piece.

He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit. Peter has just been speaking about Jesus dying for us, in the first part of verse 18. Now he speaks in more detail about his death and resurrection. Yes, he was put to death and his human body clearly died on the Cross. That was obvious. But then he was made alive. How? Scripture itself is not absolutely clear on this. Peter on the day of Pentecost declared, “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,” (Acts 2:24) the implication being that it was the Father who raised the dead Son, yet the back half of that verse suggests there is something more. Yet Jesus himself had said, I lay down my life–only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again,” (Jn 10:17,18) suggesting that Jesus himself had the authority to raise up his mortal body again. Peter, in today’s verses, suggests that his body was raised by the power of the Spirit – that it was the Holy Spirit who raised up the human body again. The apostle Paul appears to confirm this in his writings: “And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you.” (Rom 8:11)

So at the end of that we are left talking about the Holy Spirit, so it is he who is being referred to when Peter continues, through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison.” The body remained in the tomb over those three days and you would have seen it lying there stationary if you had been inside the tomb during that time, but the spirit of Jesus – who is also the Holy Spirit, left the body and went on another task – to go and speak to other ‘spirits in prison’.  It is this phrase that leaves us all wondering, for Peter did not explain it beyond saying, who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built.Those he preached to were apparently the spirits of those who had disobeyed God and died at the time of the Flood.

Now, first of all, I have to confess that my own understanding of this was that this is a reference to those who are in hell. They are clearly not in heaven and I do not believe there is any other indication of a half-way house called purgatory and so hell is the only alternative left. It would make sense that Jesus went down into hell because it would be an indication that he took the full punishment of Sin which wasn’t only death but also hell. It was a sign of the completeness of his taking our punishment. However, I realise that that still leaves questions and it isn’t something that appears elsewhere in Scripture.

So why did Jesus go to this particular group of spirit beings? Think about what happened at the Flood. Noah and his family was the only survivors (certainly in that part of the world – the Middle East – although there are signs of a catastrophic flood all over the world) and it is not clear how much Noah explained in his preaching why the people needed to repent and turn from their wicked ways. Could it be that here we have a unique illustration of how God, in the form of His Son, in the Spirit, went down to those in hell and justified (for the sake of justice) why they were there?  Is this God wrapping up the loose ends ensuring that in eternity there is no question possible about the justice meted out by the Godhead?   Is this God confirming to all the onlooking heavenly watchers (see Eph 3:10) that even if they heard the truth from the Son of God himself, these individuals would have remained unrepentant?

One of the things I am convinced about, after years of reading the Bible in detail, is that when we see God face to face and if we are allowed to see as He does – in completeness – we will never find a reason to criticise anything that God has said or done throughout existence. There will never be a person in hell who is there unfairly!  Indeed there will never be a person in heaven who is not there by the grace of God, but at least they are there because at some point in time-space history they made a decision to face the truth and call on God for mercy, which they then received, together with an abundance of grace that flowed forth to us through the wonderful work of Jesus on the Cross. The best I can do with these verses is suggest that here we have a brief unique glimpse of the justification of God, something that went on behind the scenes, so that the guilty could never claim innocence. That is a sobering thought!

1. In Eden

“God turned up” Meditations: 1 :  In Eden

Gen 3:8,9 Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the LORD God among the trees of the garden. But the LORD God called to the man, “Where are you?”

I realised recently that there are many times in the Bible when human beings were just getting on with their lives – and then God turned up! Of course the truth is that He’s always here, everywhere; it’s just that He makes His presence known when He ‘turns up’. Now this first instance isn’t like most of the others, because the impression that is given is that God communicated with Adam and Eve on a regular basis and the reference in our verses above to Him “walking in the garden in the cool of the day” seems to have a regular habit feeling about it, i.e. it was something He did every day, to perhaps come and share with Adam and Eve at the end of the day to see how they had got on in the day.

Now this day was a unique day for it would suggest that whenever the Lord came into the Garden, Adam and Eve would be obvious and easily found, but this time when they heard the sound of Him coming (was He singing?) “they hid”. God ‘turning up’ today was obviously something they did not look forward to. For the first time ever they didn’t want to meet with the Lord.

Well of course we know the reason, for at the beginning of this chapter we have the account of the Fall, when Eve listened to Satan and disobeyed God for the first time, and then Adam listened to Eve and did the same thing. Suddenly there is a dimension to their lives which had never been there before – they were guilty.

Now perhaps many of us know this story so well that we have taken it for granted, but writing about God’s love recently I have come to see something about Adam and Eve’s response on this fateful evening that I have never realised before. Everything about their response to the Lord speaks of their guilt. They hid from the Lord and when they do meet Him and acknowledge what has happened, they move into a blame routine. Adam blames Eve and Eve blames the snake. Now all that is very obvious and which, I am sure I’ve written about at least a half a dozen times over the years but there is something else about this behaviour which is very challenging. It is that neither of them appreciated the fact of God’s love for them.

Now the apostle John teaches in his first letter, “God is love”. (1 Jn 4:8,16) When the Lord appeared to Moses in Exodus 34 we find Him revealing Himself as the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.” (Ex 34:6,7) and this description of Him is repeated in many forms throughout the Bible. Everything about God is love. He didn’t just become that in Exodus; He has always been love, He always was that.

Now sin blinds us, the Bible tells us, and we either forget this or fail to see it, that everything about God is love. One of the expressions of this love (because love always wants the good for another) is forgiveness. The Lord is always looking to forgive sin and restore the sinner but to do that He needs the sinner to repent. Obviously while someone is still denying their guilt they cannot, living a lie, come close to the Lord to receive all His blessings. Ezekiel understood this as when, speaking from the Lord, he declared, “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?” (Ezek 18:23) and then again, “For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent and live!” (Ezek 18:32)

Now what is so terrible about this incident in the Garden of Eden, and the reason for their subsequent expulsion from it, was that neither Adam nor Eve appreciated this. If they had done, they would have simply come to God in humble contrition and said, “Lord, we have been utterly stupid. We did what you told us not to do, we are so sorry, please forgive us” – and I am utterly convinced He would have done! Why because He is love and He wants to forgive and already before creating the world the Godhead has decided that the Son will come to take the guilt and punishment for all sins. We see that in a number of Scriptures. But Adam and Eve don’t understand that and so they keep on making excuses and don’t face their guilt. While in this state they cannot carry on in the presence of the Lord and so they are expelled from the Garden.

The challenge comes to us – do we appreciate the love of God? Do we appreciate that He is constantly working to draw us back to Himself and is looking to forgive, cleanse, reconcile and bless rather than punish, as the enemy would have us believe. Please note as we start these meditations that the Lord did not come to them and confront them with, “Why did you sin?” He was not looking to blame. That may account for why the Lord is able to approach so many people in the Bible without blaming them. He knows they are guilty of sin and they know it deep down, but it will take many dealings with God before they (and we) realise that God is for them, God loves them. Keep this in the back of your mind as we examine the encounters God has with people. It will never be obvious, but it is there in the background, this incredible truth: God comes to guilty people to draw them to Himself. That is the wonder of the message of the Bible! Hallelujah!

32. Recognising Sin

Meditations in the Law : No.32 : Recognising Sin

Lev 5:1-4 If a person sins because he does not speak up when he hears a public charge to testify regarding something he has seen or learned about, he will be held responsible. 2″ `Or if a person touches anything ceremonially unclean–whether the carcasses of unclean wild animals or of unclean livestock or of unclean creatures that move along the ground–even though he is unaware of it, he has become unclean and is guilty. 3″ `Or if he touches human uncleanness–anything that would make him unclean–even though he is unaware of it, when he learns of it he will be guilty. 4″ `Or if a person thoughtlessly takes an oath to do anything, whether good or evil–in any matter one might carelessly swear about–even though he is unaware of it, in any case when he learns of it he will be guilty.

Very often in Christian circles there appears a confusion as to what is sin. Now this is somewhat understandable because even theologians have disagreed over what constitutes specific sins. Certainly the Bible speaks generally of lawlessness  (1 Jn 3:4) and wrong doing (1 Jn 5:17) as sin, and sometimes of specific sins, but often we are not given specific lists and those who have sought to produce such lists run into difficulties. However in chapter five we are given four instances of things that constitute sin, even though they were done unintentionally. This tells us that we can sin without realising it. Indeed for the Christian, we would hope that this is the only sort of sin that is ever committed, especially when the apostle John says, No one who is born of God will continue to sin.” (1 Jn 3:9) So let’s look at these identified sins.

What similarity is there between the first and fourth sins? They are sins to do with speech. The first one is a failure to speak up when you should (v.1) and the fourth is speaking carelessly (v.4). How are the second and third similar? They are both about touching something that is prohibited and which will make the person ‘unclean’.

Why do we think these particular sins are mentioned? Because the people of Israel were called to be a special people, a holy people and they were holy because of what they DID. We need to realise that holiness is not something abstract. It is a way of life, and that includes thinking, speaking and behaving. Justice was an important issue in maintaining the Law and therefore failure to take responsibility and speak up when you should (v.1), undermined justice. But truth was so important that sometimes an oath was required, and so responsibility over making an oath was high. Don’t carelessly make an oath said the Law (v.4).

But they were also holy because of what they ate and how they kept themselves clean, i.e. there were hygiene laws to promote good health and that, we suggest, is what was behind verses 2 and 3. For a people who, initially at least, were often on the move, and who lived in a hot climate, hygiene was particularly important. We may not understand God’s thinking in terms of ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ animals but it is probable that their potential for carrying or conveying disease was a likely factor. “Human uncleanness” similarly refers to anything about our bodily functions which, in a hot climate, can cause or convey germs and bacteria. If we had greater understanding of these things we would almost certainly wonder at God’s wisdom in these things. For the time being we have to simply accept that He knows better than we do about such issues.

When a person became aware that they had failed in one of these ways, there were two things they needed to do. The first was with their lips – they needed to confess their failure. The second was bringing a sin offering. Words can be cheap but bringing an offering cost you, and that drove the point home! These were means of dealing with the very basics of being the holy people of God, and maintaining that holiness.

Now poverty is not to bar a sinner from coming to God using the sacrificial system and there are two options given. If the person doesn’t have a lamb to bring then they can bring two doves or two pigeons instead (v.7). If they can’t afford those then they can simply bring fine flour (v.11) as their offering – every family would have some of that and that was to be their offering.

If the offering was two pigeons or two doves, they would be used in different ways. The first was to be seen as a Sin Offering and was killed and some of its blood shed thus brings cleansing and forgiveness by the giving of a life. (Note: only the blood is used – the sign of a life being given). The second was a Burnt Offering (see 1:14-17) and it is burnt on the altar as an offering to please the Lord (see 1:17c) and acting in an atoning way (5:10) to restore fellowship with the Lord.

If the offering was flour, it is to be brought without any additives (v.11) and the priest took a handful of it and burnt it on top of the other offerings on the altar as the most simple of the sin offerings. The rest was to be for the priest, part of his support, if you like.

I wonder, as Christians, are we aware that we are a holy people and as such we have responsibilities that preclude certain behaviour. We may think it is all just a case of ‘believing in Jesus’ but it is also about being children of God – children of a holy God and we care called to be holy as He is holy (1 Pet 1:15,16)

As we have noted before, no one is excluded from God’s presence because of lack of possessions. The concern was to deal with the sin and to re-establish the relationship with the Lord. Today, because of Jesus, the way is always open. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness,” (1 Jn 1:9) and that is all because Jesus has been our sacrifice and we come to God on that basis, and no one is excluded!

11. Truth

Lessons from the Law: No.11 : Respect the Truth

Ex 20:16 You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.

We have said that all these commandments are linked to relationships. The first four are relationship with the Lord, the fifth is about relationship with parents, the sixth is about relating rightly to all other humans and respecting their life, the seventh was about marriage relationships and the eighth about relationships with all other people, and respecting their property ownership. Each command stops abuse of that relationship in some specific way. Life is all about relating to God and to other people. None of us is an island and so life is all about how we relate to everyone else we encounter in life, starting with God.

The ninth commandment gives us another abuse against others: speaking wrongly about what they have said and done. This is more than just speaking badly about others, although that is also wrong, this is seeking to pervert justice, because false testimony is telling untruths about them that lead to injustice. Each of the previous commandments we have just considered are to ensure there is peace and harmony in the community of God’s people. Murder takes life, adultery takes a person’s heart, stealing takes a possession, and now false testimony takes a reputation, and each one causes harm and upset in the lives of individuals and in the community. It isn’t only the individuals that are upset, although that is bad enough, but the whole of the community is adversely affected when these things take place. Guilt, shame and especially mistrust break in to the lives of the people in the world around you when you break these commands.

We find similar instructions given later in the law: Do not spread false reports.” (Ex 23:1) and “Have nothing to do with a false charge and do not put an innocent or honest person to death, for I will not acquit the guilty.” (Ex 23:7) False speaking was to have no place among the community of God’s people. Why? Because as Solomon was later to write, “There are six things the LORD hates…. a false witness who pours out lies and a man who stirs up dissension among brothers.” (Prov 6:16,19) The Lord is concerned with truth and reality and lies and deception are only of His enemy and so He hates these things that disturb and upset His world. Indeed, Solomon later wrote, “The righteous hate what is false,” (Prov 13:5) and so a righteous person, reflecting their Lord’s heart, will have nothing to do with speaking falsely.

It was quite a key issue with Solomon and crops up in Proverbs again and again in different forms: “A truthful witness does not deceive, but a false witness pours out lies.” (Prov 14:5) and “A truthful witness saves lives, but a false witness is deceitful.” (Prov 14:25). So strongly does he feel about it that he gives severe warnings: “A false witness will not go unpunished, and he who pours out lies will not go free.” (Prov 19:5) repeating it slightly differently a few verses later: “A false witness will not go unpunished,and he who pours out lies will perish.” (Prov 19:9) But it is also the person who listens to these lies and accepts them who is drawn into this: “A false witness will perish, and whoever listens to him will be destroyed forever.” (Prov 21:28). Speaking even more graphically, he later says, “Like a club or a sword or a sharp arrow is the man who gives false testimony against his neighbor.” (Prov 25:18)

Yes, the message is quite clear from Scripture: the Lord is against lies, and especially lies about those who are around you, whoever they may be. And ‘neighbour’ can mean those who live near you or those who work around you or learn around you at school or college. ‘Speaking falsely’ is saying anything about another which is not the truth about them. It may simply be an opinion or it may be secondhand, but if it is not true, we are still ‘giving false testimony’; we are saying things about them which are not true and we are conveying to others false information or false impressions. We are leading others to think badly about the ones we are speaking about and in so doing we diminish their reputation. To use a word we used a lot in the previous meditation, we ‘demean’ them; we make them less than they are.

I suspect that this commandment is broken far more regularly than we are mostly aware. Reports mount up that press reporting and TV news reporting are sometimes careless in checking the details before publishing them, and thus false reports or ‘slightly inaccurate’ reports are given. How many reputations have been destroyed because a reporter and their editor were a little bit flexible with the truth? The media representatives may find they have a lot to answer for when they face the Lord eventually.

But it isn’t only the media; it is each one of us. How careful are we about speaking the truth? Gossip tends to inaccurately convey the truth. Yes the truth may include an error or mistake or piece of bad behaviour, but if it comes without compassionate understanding, it is not the complete truth and the gossip will be answerable to the Lord for breaking this commandment which, we have noted above, is highly regarded by the Lord.

No, don’t think that this is a minor commandment, one less than murder. You may not be physically killing a person but you may kill their reputation and, indeed, their future. We must be very careful to stick to the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, otherwise we may find ourselves being held accountable by the Lord, and that will not be pleasant!

Shadow of Death

WALKING WITH GOD. No.43

Psa 23:3 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me;

Life in this Fallen World is a complete mix. There are mixes of people. There are some who are incredibly rich and have everything the rest of us could dream of. There are some who are poor and don’t know how they will make it from one day to the next. But there are also varieties of experience within an individual life. There are times when we are healthy and everything seems to be going well, times when we are happy and contented with not a worry in the world. Then there are times when our health deteriorates and we feel low and every step of life seems hard and difficult. And then it gets worse and before we know it we are walking in the shadow of death. Illnesses and accidents occur and what makes it worse, they come with no warning. It would be so much easier if we received a letter from heaven that said, “In two weeks time we have seen that you will be having a serious accident but don’t worry you will be over it in a month.” But we don’t and so we didn’t expect it and we don’t know how it will work out or how long it will take. The absence of those things makes serious illnesses or serious accidents such harrowing experiences. The walk through the valley of the shadow of death is not a pleasant one!

The description of this experience that we have just used, and which David uses in this psalm, is very graphic. A valley by definition is a low place with high sides where you can feel shut in. In a valley sometimes the sun is shut out and so there are shadows so that part of it seems in semi-darkness. David speaks of the shadow of death, a shadow of darkness that seems to hang over you, threatening to completely obliterate the light from your life, when death comes.

You may find in your Bible a note next to the phrase, valley of death, indicating an alternative rendering, through the darkest valley. It may not be death that threatens; it may be a variety of other things. In our nation we live in confusing times. The news recently was of a couple who were falsely accused of child abuse and for two years their children were wrongly taken from them. For two years they walked through a very dark valley, a valley filled with the darkness of frustration, anger, fear, anguish and so on. It was a horrible time. A woman can accuse a man of assault at work and before he knows what has happened he is suspended pending an investigation which may take months. Whereas we once had a society where you were innocent until proved guilty, there is now, in these sorts of cases, implied guilt until innocence has been proved, and those waiting times are times of immense darkness.

It may be that we have fallen and society is not forgiving. We have done something wrong, sincerely regretted it, asked forgiveness of offended parties, but still the Law is going to take its long, slow process, and while it does, we walk through a very dark valley. We wonder how we could have been so stupid, we wish it had never been found it, we wonder what will happen to us, and we wonder is there any hope of being ever able to walk an ordinary, good life again? These are some of the dark valleys that we find ourselves walking in, and in them we even despair of life itself. What help is there?

David had one hope, one help, “you are with me.” The presence of the Lord, the knowledge of His love, those were the things that kept David going. The concept behind the whole psalm was what upheld David – The Lord is my shepherd. David saw that in life, it was the Lord who led him and therefore if, in their walk together, it involved walking through a very dark valley, David would not worry because his shepherd was there looking after him, guiding him, providing for him, protecting him. As one of God’s sheep he knew the security that, although the place or circumstances of the walk may be temporarily dark, it was temporary and even while they walked it, it was as they walked it together. He was not alone and the One who walked it with him was much bigger than the circumstances and would see him through them.

Because such a thing is so common to the human experience, it is quite possible that you are going through a ‘dark valley’ time. Key questions! Do you know that you are one of God’s sheep, one of His children? Do you know Him as your shepherd who is there for you, looking after you in the midst of the circumstances, providing for you and protecting you? It is this knowledge that enabled Paul to instruct, “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thess 5:18), but note what he says. It is not give thanks for all circumstances but give thanks in all circumstances. You can give thanks that God is there with you and as you put your life in His hands He will provide all you need in that valley to bring you through until you come out the other end. There will be an end, and until you get there, remember, you are not alone, The Shepherd is there with you in it.

12. A Holy God

(We resume our series in Isaiah that we started several weeks ago)

MEDITATIONS IN ISAIAH – No.12

Isa 6:5 Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.”

Part of our task, you may remember, in this set of meditations, is to see the same God in the Old Testament as is described in the New, especially in the light of the apostle John’s assertion that “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8,16). Now when we read Isaiah, chapter 6, you may think that is not immediately discernable, but I want to suggest otherwise. Come with me and see.

Isaiah 6 is one of the relatively few instances in the Bible when we are given a deeper insight into God or into heaven. It happened as a clear event at a particular point in history: “In the year that King Uzziah died.” (6:1a). Historians tell us that this was 740BC. In that year something very special happened to Isaiah: “I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple.” (6:1b). Now we have to assume this was a vision because we are not told he was lifted up into heaven, but nevertheless it is very clear. We don’t need to go through the details of the vision here except to note that the emphasis that comes through the vision is God’s holiness.

Now the concept of ‘holy’ or ‘holiness’ is unique to God. It has no meaning outside of God. God, the Bible tells us, IS holy. In respect of Him it suggests being utterly different, perfect, entirely without flaw in any way. When it is used in respect of a person or thing, it means given over to or dedicated to God so that it may take on His characteristic of perfection.

It is this idea of holiness that produces in Isaiah such a strong response: “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.” (6:5). Something about the presence of the Lord, conveyed to Isaiah the Lord’s perfection and his own absence of perfection or, to put it another way, his uncleanness. Now this is a similar reaction to that which we find in Simon Peter when he realises something about Jesus in his boat (Lk 5), a sense of unworthiness to be in the presence of this One.

Now I don’t know if you ever watch adventure or sci-fi films but every now and then the hero finds himself (and it tends to be a man) before some great being, and the thing that is always conveyed is a sense of fear of what this great being might do to the hero. They have it in their power to, at the very least, kill the hero. That is quite a different experience from what we have here. Isaiah is filled with a sense of his own doom, certainly, but it is because of his own inadequacy, his own failures, his own sin – especially in the light of the perfection of the One before him. This guilt is what so many of us struggle with and, despite the protestations of atheists who don’t like this talk, it is the biggest problem that we wrestle with, as so many therapists or counsellors will testify.

So here is Isaiah with a problem. He is a sinner in the presence of a holy and perfect God and he realises that he is guilty of having said wrong things (his lips) which reveal what he is like on the inside. He is guilty. There is no question about it; justice demands his punishment, he feels. It is an instinctive response within him. He is doomed! But what do we find? “Then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.” (6:6,7). One of the angelic beings, who do the bidding of God, does something so that his guilt is taken away. Note that Isaiah didn’t do anything. It was done for him.

Now fire in the Old Testament has a double meaning. It is first the wrath of God that destroys sin but, second, it is also the work of God burning up and dealing with sin so that the sinner is freed. Thus we have in this vision a burning coal taken from the altar that was there, which is clearly a place of meeting with God where sin is dealt with. Thus the coal from this altar is taken to Isaiah and he is cleansed. An altar in the Old Testament is a place of sacrifice where a life is given up, a substitute for the sinner, and his or her sin is visually and graphically destroyed before their eyes. Thus Isaiah’s guilt is dealt with and he is freed from this feeling, so that now he can stand before God guiltless and is now available to be used by God to go and speak to His people, which is what follows.

Now of course in the Old Testament, there was no more explanation given than we have mentioned above, but the picture was very clear. Part of God’s design-rules (the Law) told the sinner who felt guilty how to deal with their sin. Take an offering and sacrifice it at the Tabernacle or Temple, as a substitute for their own life, and God would see it as a sign of their repentance and He would grant them forgiveness. It is only when we come to the New Testament that we see the eternal sacrifice offered for every person who wants to avail themselves of it, Jesus Christ the Son of God. He stood in as our substitute when he died on the Cross at Calvary. Only an eternal being could do that for the sin of every person who has existed and will existed, who want to avail themselves of this method of being freed from sin.

What do we have here in both Old and New Testaments? A picture of a loving God who realises, having given man free will and knowing man would exercise that free will wrongly, that man would be helpless to deal with his own guilt and for the sake of eternal justice, that guilt could only be taken by God Himself in the form of His Son. Thus we have possibly the most famous verse in the Bible: “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) What we have here, is the God of love who is more concerned to reconcile sinners to Himself than He is to judge or destroy them. As He said through Ezekiel, “I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent and live!” (Ezek 18:32. THIS is the God of both the Old and New Testaments, a God who reaches out to remove our guilt and reconcile us to Himself, a God who seeks to draw us into relationship with Himself so that we can be re-established in His blessings to enjoy the life and the world He has provided for us to enjoy! Hallelujah!