10. Dealing with Offenders

The Truth about Guilt Meditations: 10. Responding to the Guilty: Dealing with Offenders

Jn 8:11 “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”  

Recap: In the previous study we recognized the truth that although we do sin, God doesn’t want us to sin and therefore sin needs confronting. The power of sin over us has been broken by the work of Christ on the Cross and by the work of the now indwelling Holy Spirit, yet we can stumble and fall on occasion. As we’ll perhaps see in a later study, if we do not deal with it, sin has a habit of multiplying and so the sooner it is dealt with the better. The best course is that we recognize it in ourselves and deal with it, but how about the situation when it needs confronting by another, or I am required to confront it in another? Are there guidelines for how we should do this?

First, Recognize Imperfection: Before we trample in on someone, let’s start by remembering that we too are fragile, we too have a propensity for getting it wrong from time to time. We would do well to remember that. Even more perhaps ponder on what it feels like to be on the wrong end of accusation. It is always a difficult thing when you are falsely accused and the problem is that if you leap into the battle and defend yourself you often have to do it by making someone else appear bad. I have had this twice in my life. Yes, there have been times when the imperfect me has got it wrong and it has been entirely down to me, but life isn’t always that simple. On two occasions I have struggled under unrighteous opposition but the truth is that in whatever messy situation we find ourselves, we will not come out 100% innocent. We could always have handled it better and the Lord uses such times to humble us and prove us. Leaders in the Church, in particular, often come up against opposition in the form of criticism, some of it right criticism but often criticism that doesn’t understand the situation and fails to understand what the leader is going through. How do we feel under attack? Not good.

Do unto Others: Now I say the above things because ‘the sinner’ will feel defensive, perhaps rightly so because they have a damaged or bruised ego that has blown it and is struggling to face that failure. Handling guilt – real or wrongly assumed – is like trying to traverse quicksand, a potential nightmare.  Getting to the truth, facing it in ourselves, recognizing the causes of it in others, and responding with wisdom, grace, humility and a servant heart, is often incredibly difficult. If you have to confront apparent guilt, ask yourself, “If I was the guilty person, how would I like to be treated here?” After thinking about this over many years, I have concluded that this is one of the best bits of advice I can give. This is not to ask to be whitewashed so my failure is ignored but if someone has failed, there is quite likely to have been an underlying cause.

Personal Testimony: On one occasion when I had failed publicly in the way I had responded without grace to a piece of hostile criticism, I was mortified and a day later another senior leader blasted at me, “I can’t work with someone like you!” Another leader sided with him, and I resigned. It took an apostle to tell me I was the father figure with responsibilities and should get back in there and work it through. I did. When I look back on that after many years of pondering on it, I wish that first leader had instead come with a gentle heart that said something like, “My old friend, you blew it didn’t you. What happened? That’s not like you. How can I help you get back to a good place and help the church see that is happening?” But it didn’t come like that. The big knives were out. He had his own heart issues to work through.

Analyzing Failure: The pain that that incident, and all the followed caused me (and my wife), made me think deeply over the following decade about what had happened. My first step was to recognize that I had failed (sinned) by allowing a wrong situation to prevail. I had to repent before God. As a leader I had tolerated behaviour in another where they constantly criticized my leadership, not because I was wrong but because they had deep underlying personal problems stemming from their family background.  In my immaturity and inability I had failed to draw alongside them and help them confront their situation and background and come through to a place of healing.

That is what leaders are supposed to do. I suspect this is one of the most common failures seen in leaders, who fear creating uproar if it goes wrong. It is underpinned by insecurity, lack of confidence in God. But I have learned and watched and seen that the Lord gives us plenty of leeway and space to work these things out (and that includes putting marriages on a firmer footing) but if we fail to address the problem, He will allow the rug to be pulled out from under us and we find ourselves under a stress situation where our grace runs out and the situation explodes. He will only tolerate sin in leaders for so long!

And So? Paul, speaking to the Ephesian elders, said, Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.” (Acts 20:28) Jesus bought this sinner with his blood which, as I have meditated on that, suggests they are very precious to him. Moreover, he yet knows what we can yet become if we are restored. He looks to restore; yes, to deliver from the sin, to forgive and cleanse from it, and to take us on to greater heights. He looks for our repentance and the moment He sees it, He’s there for us! Realizing His grace, realizing what could yet be, means we will constantly be looking to restore one another. May it be so.

2. Understanding God

The Truth about Guilt Meditations: 2. Understanding God

Ex 34:6,7  The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”

Recap: In the first study we faced the words ‘guilt’ and ‘guilty’ and sought to show that although they are words we prefer to keep in the background of our lives, and hope preachers won’t talk about, nevertheless they are essential to help us face our shortcomings or our blind spots. In this study we are going to confront two verses from the Old Testament that are regularly mis-translated and which, therefore cause many people difficulties and in the midst of them is this subject of guilt.

Not Clearing the Guilty: Our starter two verses are key verses for understanding God. They start out by extolling God as the God who is, “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin,” words that are repeated in whole or part again and again throughout the Old Testament. That part we like but then it starts getting uncomfortable: “but who will by no means clear the guilty.”  This needs thinking about because most Christian teaching seems to suggest a God who, as we considered previously, forgives and cleanses us of our sin, our guilt. But that forgets the word ‘confess’ we’ve already considered. The work of the death of Christ on the cross is not applied to the unrepentant. The guilty remain the guilty and their guilt stands before justice which demands action. God isn’t going to ‘clear the guilty’, pretend the guilt isn’t there. The Cross is about forgiving and cleansing the guilty – those who acknowledge their guilt. The unrepentant are still in trouble.

Confusion over Ongoing Sin: But our verses get worse: “visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”  This again needs thinking about. “visiting the iniquity”? Now most translations impose on this passage a sense of guilt and blame but, I suggest, this is more the translators’ poor appreciation of God’s grace than of accurate conveying of the meaning. For example, the Message version (which I like and use a lot) very badly puts it, He holds sons and grandsons responsible for a father’s sins to the third and even fourth generation.”

Now the Israelites so misunderstood this that the Lord had to correct them through Ezekiel. Read Ezek 18 which challenges a proverb they used, “The parents eat sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’” (18:2b) i.e. the kids suffer because of their parents’ wrongdoing. No, says the Lord, “The one who sins is the one who will die.” (v.4b) He then cites a righteous man (v.5-9) who then has an unrighteous son (v.10-13) and only that son will die. The other way round, suppose there is an unrighteous man (v.14) but the son refuses to follow his father’s path, the son will not die: “He will not die for his father’s sin; he will surely live.” (v.17b)

Resolution: Now I don’t believe the Bible is full of contradictions, so how do we resolve this? Back to “visiting the iniquity”. We need to distinguish between the meanings of practical expression, guilt or blame, and freedom of opportunity. I believe a better way to put part of these verses would be to speak of the ongoing expression of sin and their effects as seen in a father which the sons can (or may not!) follow. Because of the closeness of family life, and we see this so often we perhaps miss or forget it, it is almost usual for children to follow in the footsteps of their parents and that includes copying or continuing their iniquities. Visiting the iniquities of the father on the following generations simply means that father’s example is there confronting the children who may or may not follow it. IF they do follow that bad example, it is probable that they follow the description that comes up in a similar passage in the Ten Commandments: I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me.” (see Ex 20:4-6 & Deut 5:9,10) Following a bad example indicates a wrong heart towards God. That son or grandson has a problem with God, they carry their own guilt. There is an interdependence of father and child which includes the moral or ethical dimension, and thus a bad father is simply leading his child down a similar bad path, if he is unwise enough to follow it and not go his own better way. Love of God restrains sinful behaviour and if that is seen in the father it will reflect into the life of the son.

And Us? There are very strong lessons about family life here. First that each individual, father or child, is accountable to God for their own life. Where there is guilt (i.e. wrongdoing) the individual is responsible for their own life. Second, the older generation can provide a good or bad example and subsequent generations, although vulnerable to bad examples, are responsible for the way they react to those examples, good or bad. Guilt is uniquely individual but behaviour can be transmitted down the generations if the younger ones do not recognize and reject bad. Don’t blame your parents. God will do that. Yet learn from them. If they provided good examples, follow them, if bad examples, reject them. These are vital words for the very mixed up and confused world of family life we have in the West today.

1. Introducing Guilt

PART ONE: General Considerations  (Parts 1-19)

The Truth about Guilt Meditations: 1. Introducing Guilt

1 Jn 1:9 (Living Bible) if we confess our sins to him, he can be depended on to forgive us and to cleanse us from every wrong. And it is perfectly proper for God to do this for us because Christ died to wash away our sins.” (1 Jn 1:9 Living Bible)

Why? Why this series? Well, I had a dream, a remarkably clear dream and one that, unusually, stayed with me when I woke. In it a friend asked me to speak at college  on ‘Guilt’, and I ended up before a class of teens with a very clear idea of what to say to them. When I was praying later, this dream came back clearly with a bigger sense of where it should go.

The Approach: My sense is that this series should have two parts, the first thinking about guilt and then seeing what the Bible says about it, and then the second considering the guilt of the modern world. I am aware that thinking about ‘guilt’ sounds heavy and not very enlightening as a daily study, but I believe it is essential ingredient for seeking to understand the days in which we live and what the Lord might be saying to the Church in these Days.  In the Second Part we will seek to confront a number of aspects of today’s world that from time to time seem to permeate the life of the Church. I thus hope it won’t be heavy but enlightening and will motivate us to pray for the Church and for our nations in these days. I am fairly sure these is not going to be studies condemning and laying guilt; in fact the exact opposite.

Definition & Importance: A simple dictionary search tells us that

“guilt = the fact of having committed a specified or implied offence or crime” while

“guilty = the state of having committed, or responsible for, a specified wrongdoing.”

We don’t like thinking about guilt – at least when it applies to ourselves – and that may be because we don’t realize that guilt is a symptom of something that needs confronting and addressing. Often it is only when the symptom appears that we realize we have the problem. One approach says that thoughts lead to emotions and feelings of guilt, the emotion of guilt, and is because we think we have done wrong. If the thoughts we have accurately record the truth of what happened – a wrong for which we are responsible – then the feelings of guilt accurately convey the truth – we ARE guilty. If the thoughts only pick up part of what happened, then it is easy to allow them to convey the emotion of guilt but the reality may be that we did not do wrong, we are not guilty, as we’ll see in the following studies.

The Process: From these simple starting thoughts we see a progression that is in fact very obvious: first there is the act of wrong, second there is the recognition that we did wrong, the thoughts that put the act into a context and realize it was wrong, and then there is the emotion or feeling. Sometimes we talk about our ‘conscience’ or, in the spiritual realm, our conviction. Now the feelings help us identify the thoughts and the thoughts help us pin down the act, and all of these things for us as Christians highlight a need for further action.

The Way Through: From the outset let’s remind ourselves of the most basic of New Testament teaching: if we confess our sins to him, he can be depended on to forgive us and to cleanse us from every wrong. And it is perfectly proper for God to do this for us because Christ died to wash away our sins.” (1 Jn 1:9 Living Bible) So we have seen two processes. First the process of diagnosis: the act, the thinking, the emotion, the conclusion (I am guilty!). Second there is the process of response: first our part, the act of will that confesses and acknowledges and repents of the wrong, then God’s action that forgives and cleanses and restores us.

John is seeking to be remarkably simple in this verse and just uses the word ‘confess’ but as we go on we will see that actually it means what I wrote above – also acknowledges the sin and repents of the sin. Simply to say, Oh yes, I did wrong, and leave it at that isn’t enough; it needs to be accompanied by a determination to repent – which means utterly change – and be done with that sin, and let God deal with me. We will need to think about these things more fully in the studies ahead I suspect.

And Us? John in his pastoral role in that first letter is extremely helpful because in the second chapter he says, “I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.” (1 Jn 2:1) His goal is to reinforce the teaching that Christians have been set free from the power of sin and yet there will be times where we will get it wrong. I would suggest that this should take away any defensiveness we may feel about considering guilt. Guilt is merely the signpost that needs to be observed, or an additional motivator to recognize, that guides us along the path of sanctification, our lives being cleaned up and changed by God.  I would hope that I am dealing with any issues that arise in my life at the present time, but I would be foolish to think that before I go to be in heaven, there will not be further issues of which at the present time I am not aware. Perhaps these studies will help us face what we have seen in the past as an uncomfortable subject and come see it as a useful tool that God can use the enable us to be more open to His moving in these times. May it be so.

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!