Snapshots: Day 47

Snapshots: Day 47

The Snapshot: “I will harden his heart.” (Ex 4:22) Lord, I’m a bit confused by this. I’ve looked up and there seem at least ten times when it says you hardened him and at least three times that he hardened himself. Which is true? Both. It’s very easy; when someone has a hard heart and you challenge them, their heart just gets harder.  So you were purposely making it worse? I was purposely making it clear to you what was going on in him. Er …. why? As a warning; how would you describe him? Me Lord? Yes, you.  Er, stubborn and pretty stupid really, I suppose. Was he unique in the human race? Definitely not.  What lessons do you think come out here? Well …. not to allow yourself to be hard-hearted, not to argue with I AM?    Silence.

Further Consideration: The heart? Of course when the Bible speaks of ‘the heart’ it is not referring to that muscle that pumps blood around the body but that inner area where will and intellect interact to guide, motivate, inspire the life that is ‘me’.

But that’s where it takes on differences in me from other people, differences in me as to how I react to God, to people, to circumstances. The Bible shows the possibilities: stubborn-hearted (Isa 46:12), an undivided heart (Ezek 11:19), a heart of stone or of flesh (Ezek 36:26), a troubled heart (Gen 6:6), a hard heart (Ex 7:3), a lusting heart (Num 15:39), a fearful heart (Deut 1:28), a seeking heart (Deut 4:29), a proud heart (Deut 8:14),  a pure heart (Mt 5:8), a gentle and humble heart (Mt 11:29) etc. etc.

All these descriptions show us what we are like ‘at the heart of us’, at the core of our being, that is expressed outwardly in life activity. And so we come to a ‘hard heart’, a person whose inner being is set and determined, who resists any pressure from outside of their being to change and conform to outside wishes, outside forces – God!

In Pharaoh we see the awfulness, the folly, of a heart that resists the pressures put upon it. To use a completely different analogy, imagine a man driving a car across the country and he decides to keep himself awake by having half a dozen bottles of alcohol beside him which he will use from time to time. You try to explain to him that it won’t work, in him like that, that it will incapacitate him, but he has set his heart on this. He starts off and you ring him on his cell phone, his mobile in the car, and you plead with him not to drink from the bottles, but his heart is hard, he refuses to listen to you; you keep on warning him but he refuses to listen, even though his vision is becoming impaired. Eventually you hear over the phone the sounds of the crash. It was inevitable! Thus it is inevitable that pressed and pressed Pharaoh’s hard heart will get harder and bring about his demise. Learn.

61. On the Way (1)

Reaching into Redemption Meditations: 61. On the Way (1)

Acts 9:1,2   He went to the Chief Priest and got arrest warrants to take to the meeting places in Damascus so that if he found anyone there belonging to the Way, whether men or women, he could arrest them

Gal 2:2   I wanted to be sure I was not running and had not been running my race in vain.

A Journey: It is interesting that in Acts the new faith was referred to as ‘the Way’ which suggests a journey going from somewhere to somewhere. The apostle Paul several times refers to our faith as a race and of course a race has a beginning and an end. In addition to our Galatians verse above, he said to Timothy, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” (2 Tim 4:7) Throughout this series we have contended for the idea that our lives as Christians are a long redemptive process, that it is God’s intention to change me, and you, and the world. Why? Because He wants something better for us than that which we have presently. Never settle for the present, there is more on God’s heart for you.

The Range of God’s desire: I have just recently been listening online to a Bible week in the UK, a week that always has very high faith levels, excellent teaching and an expectation of the power of the Holy Spirit working. What I have found interesting and challenging is the language of worship leaders and other leaders as they lead the worship and wait on God, such as, “I believe the Lord wants to reach out to those who have been holding onto fears for many years and release you from them,” or “there are people here tonight who have been struggling with their marriages and tonight I believe the Lord wants you to recommit yourselves to making them work with His grace.”   Now I don’t have a problem with those words as such, but they have triggered a thought in me that I have never seen so clearly before: Yes, God does want to come and minister to those people but also those who struggle with anger, with sexual temptations, with worries at work, with worries about their children, and those who are feeling spiritually lethargic, those who are feeling like giving up, those who feel failures, those who are struggling in a myriad of ways, yes, He wants to minister to ALL of these things, all of these people, so why doesn’t He, because these are surely things He wants to redeem us from? The change in respect of each of these things IS God’s will for us, so how does it work?

Aspects of Change: Does God wave a magic wand and we are changed? No, of course not. The Lord works through clearly defined channels. We can see them in the New Testament and there is nothing hyper-mystical about them. They are easily understood, so let’s consider each of them.

My Self Will: Now there is a clear indication in the Bible that we do genuinely have free will and we have the ability to choose how to act in response to anything God says. The Bible shows that God speaks and expects people to respond. He wouldn’t bother to speak if He didn’t have that expectation. Now we also have examples in the Bible of people who did respond positively in belief (and many of our earlier studies showed individuals who did respond positively to God) but we also have examples of people who rejected what God said and disobeyed Him. At the outset Eve could have refused to listen to Satan, but didn’t and so gave way to his suggestions, the temptation in the Garden of Eden.

Heart Condition? You and I can choose how we respond when we hear the word preached, but it is not that simple. There is our ‘heart condition’ and the things that impact upon it. Heart condition? The Bible speaks about hungering and thirsting (Psa 42:2, 63:1, 107:9, 143:6, Isa 44:3, 55:1, Mt 5:6, Jn 7:37, Rev 21:6, 22:17). The person who hungers and thirst is, without doubt, a more open vessel to receive from God. In the Gospels we find people crying out to Jesus to help them. Is that us? Is it possible to make yourself ‘thirst’ for God or is it something He has to do? Both!

Our Choices: I can choose, in respect of the so-called spiritual disciplines, to make more time to wait on God in stillness, I can choose to deepen my study of His word, I can choose to deepen my prayer experiences, I can choose to purpose to worship more fully, I can choose to take notes, listen more carefully and more purposefully respond to the preached word, and all of these things are our efforts to draw near to God. As I do these things I believe there is a changing that will take place in me as He responds (“Come near to God and he will come near to you” – Jas 4:8), and I will find a raising of faith within me, an increase in awareness of Him, and a thrill and sense of thanksgiving rise in me. I can choose to do these things and then have to trust in His responses. This is my contribution to this part of the redemption process.

But there are also the big life choices – not to steal, not to covet, not to commit adultery, not to tell lies, not to abuse others in word or deed, not to defame others. Those are the negative choices I have to make, but there are also positive ones – to speak well of others, to encourage others, to love others, care for them with compassion, accept others and be there for them.  These are another set of choices that I have to make as part of my redemptive process.

The Faith Level Present: Now there is no doubt that faith is a key issue. John Wimber used to say that faith was present in someone in every recorded instance of healing in the Gospels. But I have watched over the years and this I know, the preacher who faithfully expounds God’s word under the anointing of the Holy Spirit releases faith in his hearers. Such preaching should produce a ‘wow factor’ response. That may be “Wow, that was amazing, isn’t God good, I must serve Him,” or “Wow, God is holy I must bow before Him and commit myself afresh to Him”. If preaching leaves people unmoved, either they have hard hearts, or the preacher is unexcited by God’s word and lacking the anointing of God. Bringing God’s word, preachers can come with a high faith level and expectation and generate or release faith.

‘Non-Faith’ Churches & People: Very often ‘church services’ or ‘church meetings’ completely lack faith. Why do you need to depend on God turning up when you have a service all laid out and it must be stuck to? Where is there room for the Holy Spirit to move to bring revelation, fresh direction, empowering to bring healing, deliverance or change generally? Being part of a church that is like this means spiritual growth – the journey along the path of God’s redemptive work in us – is slowed down, either to snail’s pace or actual standstill.  I used to agree with those who said you never stand still, you either go forward or backwards. I’m not so sure that is true, because I do know Christians who appear at a complete standstill in their lives and I suspect they are still thinking the same way and doing exactly the same things as ten years ago. That is not growth, but it is also not backsliding, for they would say they are bona-fide Christians who pray, read the Bible, go to church, worship etc. But have they grown in character and spirituality, wisdom, revelation and insight, are they moving in gifts of the Spirit, being more available and more used of God? No.  Yes, sadly I also know those who once were part of church life but no longer, and who now appear to exhibit little if any spiritual life. Their complaints tend to be about the lack of reality in much church life, but they have opted out from trying to change that from the inside and so simply sit outside and criticize.

The Church Spectrum: But the point I wish to make here is we are not people in isolation in this redemption process, we are part of the church and ‘the church’ can encourage us, release faith in us (which is what the Eph 4:12 ministries are supposed to do) and generally help us to grow – or not! The ‘Church’ worldwide is a complex organism and often more an organisation than an organism. In some places you might find a group of ten believers meeting together with a measure of life flowing between them but having little impact on anyone else. At the other end of the spectrum it is possible to find mega-churches with superstar preachers who justify why a personal jet is necessary, and their pew fodder are supporters who simply finance these stars but show little similarity to the disciples of the New Testament, and the ‘body of Christ’ is no more than an untouched idea in Paul’s writings.  Wherever we worship on this spectrum, can we blame the leaders for failing to lead us to the spiritual heights with God and in transforming the world by His Spirit?  Yes we can, but that is no excuse for us making poor choices that limit our growth. I can choose to study God’s word, to pray and seek God’s face, and worship and witness – or not. I can choose to read books that will stir, challenge and build my faith – or not. I can choose to go on spiritual retreats, Bible conferences and the like – or not. I can choose to contribute to my spiritual growth – or not!

Locked in to circumstances? Sometimes it feels like our life circumstances lock us in and lock us down. Sometimes personal illness strikes, sometimes accidents occur, sometimes we get abandoned or falsely accused and hurt, sometimes we lose a loved one unexpectedly and prematurely and life seems seriously unfair. Sometimes the clouds of gloom or depression hang over us and no one seems to care, and so talk of a redemptive process appears unreal; we don’t appear to be going anywhere. But the thing is that despite what we are choosing to do, or not, and despite what others in the church are doing, or not, God is always there quietly working in the background. and that well known verse of Rom 8:28 still proves to be true: “Moreover we know that to those who love God, who are called according to his plan, everything that happens fits into a pattern for good.” (JBP version) or “we can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good.” (Message version). Our part in this redemptive process is sometimes to simply hang on in there and be able say, “Yes, I still love God,” and then just trust that in all the imperfect circumstances surrounding us, He IS still working through His redemptive process in us.   Amen.

8. The Glory of David

Reaching into Redemption Meditations: 8. The Glory of David

1 Sam 13:14 the Lord has sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him ruler of his people

1 Kings 3:6   Solomon answered, “You have shown great kindness to your servant, my father David, because he was faithful to you and righteous and upright in heart.

1 Kings 9:4,5 if you walk before me faithfully with integrity of heart and uprightness, as David your father did, and do all I command and observe my decrees and laws, I will establish your royal throne over Israel forever, as I promised David your father

1 Kings 11:6 Solomon did evil in the eyes of the Lord; he did not follow the Lord completely, as David his father had done.

1 Kings 11:34 But I will not take the whole kingdom out of Solomon’s hand; I have made him ruler all the days of his life for the sake of David my servant, whom I chose and who obeyed my commands and decrees.

1 Kings 14:8 I tore the kingdom away from the house of David and gave it to you, but you have not been like my servant David, who kept my commands and followed me with all his heart, doing only what was right in my eyes.

1 Kings 15:5 For David had done what was right in the eyes of the Lord and had not failed to keep any of the Lord’s commands all the days of his life—except in the case of Uriah the Hittite.

Acts 13:22 God testified concerning him: ‘I have found David son of Jesse, a man after my own heart; he will do everything I want him to do.’

 Wonderings: You may, seeing all these references above, first wonder how we will have any space left to cover our subject. You may also wonder why, when we are considering the whole subject of the Lord’s redeeming works, we should focus on the good side of a king who featured so much in both Israel’s history and their perception of their past in Jesus’ day (remembering that Jesus was often referred to as the ‘son of David’, e.g. Mt 9:27, 15:22, 20:30 etc)

Reality Focus: The answer to these ‘wonderings’ is that, as I have often said in the past, the reality of every one of us is that so often there appears so much good and yet I don’t know of a single human being except Jesus, who didn’t suffer from what I refer to as ‘feet of clay’. This phrase, a dictionary tells us means, “a fundamental flaw or weakness in a person otherwise revered.” And even Wikipedia reminds us that this comes originally from Nebuchadnezzar’s vision, interpreted by Daniel (Dan 2:31-33).

The Danger: Our great danger, when we look at great people – and Moses and David both fit that description – is to wonder what all the fuss about the Cross is for. After all, says Satan, you are actually quite a good person, and didn’t God say you are made in His image, so you must be good. It is at this point that the atheists, similarly prompted by the enemy, join in and declare, “There you are, these Christians are a bunch of kill-joys, always condemning us and trying to load guilt onto us all.” No, we’re actually trying to be real, and so if we have to point out the awful failings of mankind in the twentieth century, killing off one another by the million, so be it.  But actually we don’t have to go that far, we just need to look at every person (excepting Jesus) in the Bible who reveals their ‘feet of clay’.

Give Honour where honour is due: That is what this particular study is all about. In the next studies we will see the ways that David got it wrong and what God did about it (and the latter is as important as the former). But go back and reread those verses above and let’s note several things. First, David is described as a man after God’s own heart (1 Sam 13:14, Acts 13:22). God’s assessment of us starts and finishes with our heart. Second, note that little assessment in 1 King 15:5, “For David had done what was right in the eyes of the Lord and had not failed to keep any of the Lord’s commands all the days of his lifeexcept in the case of Uriah the Hittite.”   Now that is an amazing assessment – and yes, we will look at that tomorrow. Third, look at how David becomes the plumb line for assessment again and again and again in the pages that follow. I suspect we should have filled this study three times over with all of the references that follow that acclaim David.

Wow!  Some of those verses are absolutely amazing and we would be remiss if we didn’t highlight them. For instance, “I tore the kingdom away from the house of David and gave it to you, but you have not been like my servant David, who kept my commands and followed me with all his heart, doing only what was right in my eyes.  (1 Kings 14:8) This is God’s own assessment of David, so when we come tomorrow to look at some of the downsides of David’s life – that did need redeeming – let’s not forget the wonder of these verses about David.

But? But how could God say that about David when we know that David got it seriously wrong on at least one occasion?  Well, in terms of dealing with those sins, we need to remind ourselves time and time again that, as far as justice is concerned, the Cross covers sins, past, present and future, but when it comes to the practical outworking there are usually some consequences to be faced, and yet I wonder if there is even something more here to be thought about.

For instance, two verses come to mind: “Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins,” (Jas 5:20) which suggest the possibility of sins being covered over – i.e. repentance does the stuff!  – and, “love covers over a multitude of sins.” (1 Pet 4:8) possibly echoing “but love covers over all wrongs,” (Prov 10:12)

How it works? It is not us who cover the sins, but God’s forgiveness on the basis of the Cross: “Blessed is the one whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered,” (Psa 32:1) and, “You forgave the iniquity of your people and covered all their sins.” (Psa 85:2). Note the Hebrew parallelism in both verses, the later part clarifying or echoing the former part. If we take the James verse and the Peter verse, grace suggests that God redeems the individual, the work of the Cross applied, and the past sins are hidden, as the love of God expressed before the foundation of the world still operates and applies His forgiveness and cleansing in our lives. Remember, “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) That ‘purify’ means, cleanse and remove. This is why it is so important for us to forgive someone when they have repented because only then do we bring ourselves in line with what God is doing. So when we come to the next study, let’s make sure we remember all these things.

Application for further thought and prayer: Lord, thank you that you both cover my sins as I confess and acknowledge them, but you go on to continue your work of the ongoing redemption of my life.

10. Deuteronomy (2)

Meditations of Old Testament Highlights: 10.  Deuteronomy (2)

Deut 6:4,5   Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength    

Six times in Deuteronomy Moses uses this formula, “Hear O Israel” (4:1, 5:1, 6:3, 6:4,  9:1, 20:3) as a special call to take note of what he is saying. In it’s first usage when he turns from reminding them of their history since leaving Mount Sinai nearly forty years before, he used “Hear now O Israel,” as a pivotal point calling them to now heed his teaching there on the Plains of Moab. He is going to remind them of the Law that has been imparted to them, and then there are going to be multiple but varied calls to faithfulness. In some ways Deuteronomy is the most compact and dense book in the Bible and it is Moses discharging his role as their leader before he leaves them to die on Mount Nebo.

It would appear that Moses spoke before the nation several times there. The second, “Hear O Israel” appears in 5:1 at what appears to be the start of his second talk to Israel: Moses summoned all Israel and said….” Now in chapter six we observed the third “Hear O Israel” in the previous meditation noting it was a refocusing on the blessings that would follow their complete obedience.

Now as we arrive at this fourth usage we observe it goes to the very heart of their existence, a relationship based upon love. Now of course we find Jesus referring to this command: Jesus replied: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.” (Mt 22:37,38) Thus we now find ourselves meditating upon a command that Jesus considered the greatest of all commands and, when linked with the command to love your neighbour as yourself (see Mt 22:39), he declared that all the law and the prophets hung on these two commands, essentially meaning that they sum up all other laws.  That is how important this verse is that we have before us.

I suspect that to many, if not most of us, this is a very well-known command, one that perhaps we almost take for granted,  but I want us to step into the shoes of the Israelites who are listening to Moses. What would they think about that command? How do you love a God you cannot see? In fact I think that many Christians have this deep down worry, “How do I love God? Do I really love God?”

Let’s be absolutely basic. What is love? In the past when I have looked in a dictionary I have found, “warm affection, attachment, liking, benevolence or strong benign feelings”  which, if you translate that in respect of all that we know of God, then in respect of Him it means, “selfless, sacrificial, unrestricted good will towards us.” Do either of those sets of definitions suggest what we can feel about God?  Let’s stick with the Law for the moment, trying to apply definitions to our thoughts, feelings and behaviour. I’m struggling. The first definition, I think I can go along with but then I think, there seems a difference between the two sets; the first seem to be about emotions and the second seem to be more about will.

Let’s think about what I have learned about love from my marriage. It started out very emotional but there were times, over the years, when for a variety of reasons (tiredness probably being the main one) I couldn’t conjure up the same emotional buzz that I had for my wife when we first went out together. But then I ponder on what our love is about today after well over forty years of married life. On a good day I am absolutely sure I love my wife more now than I ever did in the past. If you like, I appreciate her more and am amazed at her love for me which constantly blesses me. On a tired day when emotions are all over the place, I declare my love, if for no other reason than loyalty. She has stuck with me over forty years and that’s amazing! I will stick with her accordingly.

So yes, love seems to vary between being an emotional thing and an act of the will. So what was Moses call? To love God with all your heart, soul and strength, that last one changed to ‘mind’ in the New Testament. So what do those three things mean? Heart has to do with acts of the will. Pharaoh was hard hearted in Exodus and set his heart against God. It was an act of will. Soul is all about feelings (ever heard ‘soul music’?) and mind is about intellect and reason.  (Strength is about energy and direction).

So let’s take them in reverse order. Intellect & Reason: When you know about someone you have reason to appreciate them. Israel had been through the Exodus and all that that meant and so their ‘faith’ is built on the testimony of God, what He had done, what He had revealed to them. For us, our knowledge of God through His Son, Jesus Christ has had the content of the Gospels added to it.

Feelings/Emotions: When God had blessed them, like the psalmist they could rejoice and praise Him. When we find ourselves forgiven and adopted as His children and are then indwelt by His Spirit and even filled with His Spirit, we too find ourselves overflowing with gratefulness, thankfulness, praise and worship, all of which involve our emotions.

Will: And whether it is a good day or a bad day we resolve we will remain faithful. That was the call to Israel and to us, and it has nothing to do with how we ‘feel’. It is a pure act of will.

Now as I ponder this, three conclusion rise in my consciousness. The first is that my ‘loving God’ can include emotions but in the absence of emotions then all that is required as my expression of my love for Him is my faithful obedience. (This is love for God: to obey his commands.” 1 Jn 5:3).

The second is that without His grace (the presence of his Holy Spirit within) I am doomed to remain a self-centred, godless being. It is His grace than enables me to love my neighbour etc. Grace is more and more available the more and more we draw near to Him and experience His presence.

Third, and finally, because I am less than a perfect (yes, I am in His sight, but we are talking about daily experience!) my love (reason, feelings and actions) may fall short and therefore, ultimately, I rely upon the Cross. The truth is that Moses’ command was ‘the Law’ and we all fall short when it comes to law-keeping and therefore I must rely on the Cross for my salvation in this area as much as in any other area.

Yes, I will use my intellect to build my intellectual knowledge of Him. Yes, I will worship and pray and praise to build my emotional experience of Him and, yes, I will seek at all times to be obedient, but while I do this, I will turn to Him and seek both His grace as the provision I need, and His forgiveness through the Cross to cover my failures and my inadequacies. When I declare, “Lord, I love you,” He knows the reality of that, my seeking to obey His leading and His word, my yearning to feel more about Him, and my desire to be found faithful when He returns. Yes, Lord, I love you, you know I love you, you know all things (Jn 21:15-17).

7. Pleasing God

Meditations on ‘Focusing Faith’ : 7.  Pleasing God

Heb 11:5,6   For before he was taken, he was commended as one who pleased God. And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.

The fact that the Lord took Enoch directly to heaven appears to be the evidence  or reason that the writer said he was “commended as one who pleased God.” This leads him on to make this simple statement about faith that without it, it is impossible to please God. What a devastating blow to the self-righteous and the person who would do good and be religious in order to please God! For at its simplest, faith is simply responding to God, but all these other things are attempts to get to God and manipulate God to approve us, but that never works. He is not impressed by all our self-centred efforts, they are not faith, simply further expressions of our sin.

How terrible to suggest that the nice ladies who ‘go to church’ because it is the socially respectable thing to do, are sinning in their behaviour. How terrible to suggest that the MP (or Senator) who goes to church to win the approval of his constituents is sinning.  But both are true. Religion that stems from our thinking, our ideas of what is right and proper is meaningless in God’s eyes. The Bible says “the heart is deceitful above all things” (Jer 17:9) The inner workings of our mind and will (the heart) are a constant expression of self-centred godlessness. They are self-centred because they start with what we think. They are godless because they do not pay attention what God thinks.

So he makes this ‘outrageous’ statement that without faith it is impossible to please God.”  But that is not the end of it for he gives us the reason why that is so, starting with that word, ‘because’. Note the sentence that follows and then we’ll look at it in parts: “because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” There are four elements to that that tell us a lot about faith.

First, it starts, “anyone who comes to him,” not anyone who gets all philosophical and not someone with a great social conscience and not someone taken up with the wonder of religious sacraments or ritual, but someone who comes to Him. Faith is found in those who come seeking God – and only them. Turning up in church every week can easily not be faith if it is pure habit motivated by social niceties. Faith is found in seekers of God. Are you and I seekers after God?

Second, there is a belief element to it: “must believe that he exists”. That sounds so obvious but it is fundamental. Faith starts with belief in God. I would like to add, “must believe that he exists here and now in this room” I say that because I think many Christians, if only they were able to be honest, would have to say that they believe in God, but most of the time He’s in the next room. In their thinking they focus on themselves. In their reasoning they focus on their own intellect, in their planning they think for themselves about themselves, if considering pleasure they think what they can do to make themselves feel good. God is not in the same room. If you say ‘He exists’ it doesn’t mean He exists in the Andromeda star system. It means He exists, here on this planet, in this country, in this town, in this home, in this room, with me. Nothing less than that fits this statement by the writer to the Hebrews.

Third, there is a ‘living God’ element to it: “and that he rewards.” i.e. He does things  This is not a passive God model, this is a God who interacts with human beings and says things to them and responds to them. But it’s massively bigger than just that – see that word ‘reward’.  A reward is something good, something of value given in response to something (yes, we can talk about rewards of evil as well) and so yes, we usually look forward to a reward. This speaks about a giving God, a God who wants to do good by us, who wants to bless us, decree good for us. I am convinced that many of us have the “hard man” mentality of Jesus’ parable (Lk 19:21).  One of the greatest changes that can come about in a church is when we realise that God actually IS a good God, a giving God.

Fourth, there is our response to that Good News, “those who earnestly seek him.”  You will seek after God for one of two reasons and both are good. First, you sense your need that you feel only God can meet, a yearning that only God can satisfy. Second, you start to really believe He is a good, loving God who has good plans and purposes for you and you want to enter into those plans and purposes but you can only do that by coming close to Him and hearing from Him.

But note also the word ‘earnestly’. This means not half-heartedly. Do you remember in the first study in this particular series we examined James’ teaching where he said, “when he asks, he must believe and not doubt.” (Jas 1:6) It’s the same sort of thing. If you don’t seek God earnestly, it means you are not sure about why you are doing it, you are not sure He is a good and loving God who rewards His children, and so God waits, holding back His blessing until you come close to Him, which will be when you seek Him earnestly.

So what have we learned about faith in this verse? It is a whole-hearted seeking after God and responding to God which pleases Him. Anything less than that…..

5. Faith or Formality

Meditations on ‘Focusing Faith’ : 5.  Faith or Formality

Heb 11:4  By faith Abel offered God a better sacrifice than Cain did. By faith he was commended as a righteous man, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith he still speaks, even though he is dead.

Cain and Abel have always raised questions in the mind. Why did God accept Abel’s offering but rejected Cain’s offering? That is the fundamental question mark behind their story and in a sense, at first sight anyway, everything else flowed from that, But was that how it was, I wonder?

“Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the LORD. But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The LORD looked with favour on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favour. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.” (Gen 4:2-5)  Note first of all Cain brings ‘some of the fruits of the soil’ which has a somewhat casual feeling about it. Yes, the word ‘some’ is also used of Abel but here it is completely different because he is bringing what would have been considered the best portions of meat from more than one of his animals. ‘Some’ of the firstborn indicates more than one, so Abel’s gift is both high quality and abundant or generous. God looks at the heart and is blessed by what He finds in Abel but is distressed by what He finds in Cain. Indeed Cain’s heart is revealed in his response which was anger. Cain becomes synonymous with those with wrong hearts against God (Jude 11) while Abel is named among the people of faith who come to God with good hearts as noted in our verse above.

We may also look at what follows in the Cain and Abel story for the Lord warns Cain not to let a bad attitude prevail (Gen 4:6,7) and yet Cain goes and kills Abel. A bad heart doesn’t just start one minute; it is there long-term. Everything points to Cain coming with an attitude that is lacking. We don’t know what it was that get the two of them bringing an offering to God but Cain seems to come out of duty or formality, something he ought to do. (Perhaps Adam or Eve had suggested it).

Abel on the other hand comes with a wide-open heart that likes the idea of giving to God so comes generously and so when the writer here speaks of him being a man of faith, we are considering heart issues. Faith comes out of an open heart. If you are a critical, even judgmental sort of person you are unlikely to be a faith person. If you are someone of low self-esteem, you are unlikely to be a faith person. A faith person comes with an open heart that does not judge others or be critical of others because they are aware of their own weaknesses and propensities to getting it wrong. They will be a person who has realised the love and goodness of God towards them and surrendered to that and will know that in Christ they have all things and can do all things, so when a faith opportunity is presented they leap at it.

Do we see something fundamental here? Faith doesn’t come at odd moments; it is there as the outworking of a heart that at some point in life surrendered to God, facing the reality of their own failure and receiving Jesus’ work on the Cross on their behalf. Yes, they were born again and the presence of the Holy Spirit now indwelling them opens a whole new world of possibilities. For the apostle Peter it was the opportunity to walk on water but for all the disciples it was the opportunity to get involved with the work of Jesus and see people healed when they prayed and demons be cast out when they commanded (e.g. Lk 10:17)  These were acts of faith but they came out of lives that had first responded positively to Jesus call to “Follow me.” Once they did that there was a whole heart change (they were not perfect) that opened up a new world, the kingdom of God on earth!

So the starting point is that Abel is a different heart person to Cain and so when he brings his offering it is an act of faith: he’s heard the instruction to give to God and so he does it gladly, presumably desiring to bless God, and God spoke well of him. His actions were right and proper and good and therefore as acts in response to a heart moved for God, they were acts of faith. The message version of this verse is interesting, particularly the first part: By an act of faith, Abel brought a better sacrifice to God than Cain. It was what he believed, not what he brought, that made the difference. That’s what God noticed and approved as righteous. After all these centuries, that belief continues to catch our notice.”

The Message emphasises that it was what was going on in Abel’s mind (and heart) that was all-important – it was God directed, with God in mind, aiming to please God. Cain was focusing on the act – I suppose I had better do this.  He didn’t have good feelings about God; he was more caught up in what he felt he ought to do.  Every second of getting the stuff out of the ground and bringing it was an effort. Formality and duty are like that, but faith is a flow that fulfils and feels good – because it is! he was commended as a righteous man.”   Faith is a righteous expression.

I admit to not liking the end of the Message version’s v.4, it doesn’t seem strong enough. Our verse above read, “by faith he still speaks, even though he is dead.”   How about J.B.Phillips interpretation of that ending: And though Cain killed him, yet by his faith he still speaks to us today.” In other words his actions, even though he is now dead and gone, still demonstrate to us what faith is all about. It isn’t about formality, it isn’t about duty, it is about an open-hearted response to God that is good. If we feel, ‘I ought to be a person of faith’, we’ve blown it from the start, we’ve missed the point. Faith is what flows from an open heart for God when it catches the word from God, whether it be a quiet prompting of the heart or a screamingly loud message through preaching or prophecy, and responds with that same good open-heartedness. How wonderful!


4. Complete Understanding

Meditations in Colossians 2: 4:  Complete Understanding

Col 2:2,3   My purpose is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ,

In the previous two meditations of the verse above we said we have made bold the three aspects of Paul’s purpose together with his end goal, and we went on to consider the first two of these three aspects, that of being encouraged in heart and being united in love,” Now we move on to the third aspect of Paul’s purpose which is to bring complete understanding to the church.

What is sad about so much of modern day Christianity is that so many people are unsure of their faith or unsure of the basics of their faith. If this assertion is right then I suggest there are two reasons for that. First, the quality of a person’s new birth experience (if I may put it like that) appears so often shallow. A well founded believer is hungry for God’s word, hungry for God, and longs to learn what the Bible has to say. This lack may be because of the day in which we live where materialistic desires compete with spiritual desires. Second, this lack of assurance must be put at the door of church leaders who convey so little (ten minutes on a Sunday morning to impart the invaluable teaching of the New Testament – even twenty is inadequate!) of the truth in a systematic way that is anointed of God.

Paul, I suspect, would be shocked by the state of the modern church when compared to his own heart. When he thinks about the teaching we find in the New Testament, he speaks of it as ‘riches’ and he wants us to have ‘full riches’, not just a bit. These teachings, that he has already been referring to in chapter 1 and now continues in chapter 2, throw light on reality, throw light on who God is, what He is like, who Jesus is, what he is like, who we are and what we are like before and after conversion. Understanding these things establishes, strengthens and stabilizes the new believer. One modern version speaks of “so have the full wealth of assurance which true understanding brings.”  That doesn’t bring out the wonder of the truth of what ‘riches’ brings but it does highlight the impact of these riches, that they bring a full wealth of experience.

Perhaps the most challenging word is ‘complete’. Not just partial understanding but complete understanding. Timothy admittedly was a leader and to him Paul said, Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.” (2 Tim 2:15) The NKJV is stronger: Be diligent to present yourself approved to God.” Yes, it may be that he was a leader but if we are to apprehend the “full riches of complete understanding” isn’t the challenge for each of us to study His word?

In earlier centuries they used catechisms to teach and train new believers. As one famous Puritan catechism starts of,

Question 1: What is the chief end of man? Answer 1: Man’s chief end is to glorify God, (1Co 10:31) and to enjoy him for ever. (Ps 73:25,26)

 Question 2: What rule has God given to direct us how we may glorify him?  Answer 2: The Word of God which is contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments (Eph 2:20 2Ti 3:16) is the only rule to direct us how we may glorify God and enjoy him. (1Jo 1:3)

Question 3: What do the Scriptures principally teach? Answer 3: The Scriptures principally teach what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man. (2Ti 1:13 Ec 12:13)”

Some of these catechisms had well over a hundred questions, and every new believer was required to learn them. A bit legalistic we might say, but they certainly had a broader understanding of the truth of God’s word than many today!

There is a small point we have not yet touched upon n this verse: “my purpose is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding.”  The implication of this translation is that understanding comes from encouragement and being part of the loving community of God’s people. Translators are unsure of the real intent of the joining words and so some simply say, “and they may have….” making the riches of understanding just another one of the things to be worked on. One can see that understanding the wonder of the New Testament teaching will come with the encouraging of heart brought in the context of the loving community.  When the community of God’s people expect these things then they are more readily brought about and creating that experience and understanding is the role and duty of the leaders of the church.

These things, we have noted before, bring about an end product and we will go on to consider that in the next meditation.

6. Seeing but not Seeing

Meditating on the Will of God: 6:  Seeing but not seeing

Isa 6:9,10 He said, “Go and tell this people: ” `Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving.’ Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.”

Perhaps we should remind ourselves or at least clarify, that when we are talking about the will of God, we are talking about what God wants and how He goes about getting it. That latter part is all about the ways of God, the ways He works, how He does things, and of course it is all about how He interacts with us human beings, and therefore a part of this has to be examining how we work – or don’t – and seeing how what He is weaves in with what we are, and what He does weaves in with what we do.

We have been considering already some of these things both from the side of God, the ways He works, and from the side of man, which seems more variable. God doesn’t vary in who He is and how He works but we as individuals do and individual varies from individual.

When we come to Isaiah 6 we find the Lord laying down a process and a principle. Perhaps to break free from familiarity, let’s consider these verses in the Living Bible: And he said, “Yes, go. But tell my people this: ‘Though you hear my words repeatedly, you won’t understand them. Though you watch and watch as I perform my miracles, still you won’t know what they mean. Dull their understanding, close their ears, and shut their eyes. I don’t want them to see or to hear or to understand, or to turn to me to heal them.” Or perhaps the Message Version: He said, “Go and tell this people: ‘Listen hard, but you aren’t going to get it;  look hard, but you won’t catch on.’ Make these people blockheads,  with fingers in their ears and blindfolds on their eyes, so they won’t see a thing,  won’t hear a word, so they won’t have a clue about what’s going on  and, yes, so they won’t turn around and be made whole.”

Amazingly the Lord says to Isaiah, speak to these people in such a way that they won’t understand and get cheap salvation. The fact was that Isaiah made very clear the message from God but the message was direct and not explanatory and so the hardness of people’s hearts reacted against being told to repent.

This comes even more clearly when Jesus takes this prophecy and uses it to partly explain why he used parables so often:Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. This is why I speak to them in parables: “Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand. In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: “You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.”  (Mt 13:12-14)   So often the listeners, for example the Pharisees, heard the words being spoken but did not accept them or understand them; they saw the miracles but did not realise the origins of them and therefore failed to accept Jesus.

The apparent mystery of all this is compounded in the beginning of that quote, Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.” (v.12). To the ignorant and the spiritually blind this is a mystery but it all goes back to the human heart. The one who goes seeking God with all their heart will find Him and finding Him they will be blessed. Once they have found the source of all truth, then it will flow in them in abundance if they continue seeking Him. There is this condition but once it is fulfilled, then the outcome will always be the same. When people say, “I don’t understand Scripture,” the reason is because they are not seeking with all their heart. When you seek Him with all your heart then He reveals truth to you. He knows that until you come to that point of seeking Him with all your heart, then you will remain blind to any truth He shows you.

The other side of the coin is the person who does not have this source of truth. Any little truth they might have gleaned from life will be taken from them and become meaningless and God does that so that we might realise our poverty and in desperation go seeking Him with all our heart. We thought we knew some things but the more we thought out of our self-centredness, the more we realised we know nothing and that frustration laid there, waiting for the Spirit of God to prod it and stir it until it rose up and cried out and then He brought conviction that drove us ever more strongly into crying out for Him. It was only when we surrendered and gave ourselves to Him, that He recreated us by the power of His Spirit and the source of life and light opened our understanding. Suddenly we ‘saw’.

So often we who are preachers seek to make everything so simple and straight forward, but the truth is that people will not ‘see’ until their hearts are stirred to seek Him with all their hearts. Perhaps this is why God doesn’t lay out the Bible as a text book with headings and subjects and themes that can be easily followed because He knows that if He did, people might approach it with their intellect and study it in a self-centred manner and take on a form of religion and an appearance of spiritual life but it would be lacking the key issue – a living relationship with the Lord, out of which all supply comes.

This perhaps is one of the fundamental basics of the will of God in respect of mankind:  He hides Himself (Isa 45:15) from all who will remain self-centred and godless. Yes, He will call out in their darkness to them, to see who will respond, and when there is a glimmer of response, He will call some more and draw and draw the one who will allow himself to be drawn to the place of truth and surrender, and there He will do that marvellous work of recreation by His Spirit. This is how He works.

5. The Gift of Repentance?

Meditating on the Will of God: 5:  The GIFT of Repentance?

Rom 2:4  Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness leads you toward repentance?

We made reference in the previous study to what is often referred to as “the gift of repentance” but the truth is that that phrase never occurs in scripture. What the Bible does do is show us a God who does things that are meant to lead us to repentance. Repentance is an act of the will whereby the sinner turns around and turns away from their sin, confessing it and acknowledging their need of God’s help.

Note the elements of what we have just said. Repentance involves change, a change of heart and attitude and then, subsequently, of lifestyle. Second it is an act of the will, it is something we choose to do. Third it is an acknowledgement of wrong and, fourth, a desire to turn from that wrong. Fifth, it recognizes our own human inability to change and therefore our need of God’s help to bring about that desired change. We cannot do it on our own. We can desire to, we can want to, we can determine to, but unless God acts on us by His Holy Spirit, we cannot bring about that change in reality. Thus we find within those elements a combination of the work of God and the desire of man.

Our verse above shows us one of the things that should bring us to our senses and to repentance. God expresses “kindness, tolerance and patience” and the foolish sinner  construes these as God’s weakness, whereas as we saw in the previous study from Peter’s first letter and third chapter, God holding back His judgment is simply Him giving us further opportunity to repent. We should realise that the time ahead of us may be limited and come to our senses and repent. That’s why He is giving us this time.

What other things work in us to bring us to repentance. Consider the apostle Paul’s words: “yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us. Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.” (2 Cor 7:9,10) One of the elements of repentance we noted above is expressed here as sorrow.  Now what was it that caused sorrow in these Corinthians? It was Paul’s words in his previous letter.  The word of God comes to us and convicts us, the truth is placed before us and we are moved by it as the Holy Spirit applies it forcibly within us. 

Suddenly the word before us seems to take on a new life and power and it impacts us. The effect it has is sorrow within us. We realise our failure and our need to bring about change and our need of God’s help. This sorrow is godly sorrow, sorrow brought about by God, and Paul says it is good because of the end result it brings about, our repentance. There is also a counterfeit sorrow. Yes, it is a genuine sorrow but its source and effect are not godly. It is what Paul calls ‘worldly sorrow’, a sorrow that is self-centred, a sorrow that I have been found out and revealed for what I am, and it is a sorrow that grieves that I am being exposed. This sorrow, which we said is self-centred, does not bring repentance but simply an inner grievance and that quenches the Spirit and cuts off spiritual life.

When Paul was instructing Timothy in his role as a leader he said, “Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.” (2 Tim 2:25,26). Here there were people who opposed the Gospel. Paul reminds us that such people are blinded by Satan to do his bidding. As Timothy brings God’s word to these people it is “in the hope” (it is not guaranteed) that this word will have impact in them and will bring them repentance. Now the word in the original  there rendered ‘repentance’ has a meaning more like ‘conversion’ but of course conversion involves repentance.

To speak of God “granting” them repentance simply recognizes the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing conviction. The process involves God speaking to the individual – although they are not aware that that is what is happening at the time – and as they take note He leads them on to a place where they find that the truth is so strong that it stirs a strong emotion within them for the need of change, that we call repentance.  The truth is that there will be many who ‘hear’ His words calling to them but they will not respond and so do not come to the point of conviction. Why some respond and some don’t is a mystery.  The responders get led by the Spirit to a point of conviction and with that comes repentance. God’s help IS needed for the process that leads to conversion but that does not mean He holds back help to stop others, simply they have not asked for it, for at some point they drew back and turned away and refused to heed His calling voice.

The reality is that we may (we do) have a responsibility to respond to the voice of God but when we do, even then it is the work of God that makes us new people, and that was not because we deserved it but simply because loves to give it freely: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus ….” (Eph 2:8-10)  We can come to crisis but unless God would move, we are stuck there at the crisis point, still not able to move. As the apostle Peter preached he declared, quoting the prophet Joel, “Whoever calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.”  (Acts 2:21) – He convicts, we repent and cry out – He does the rest. Yes, we have a responsibility to respond to God’s voice, but once we do, it is all the work of God to bring that initial change in us. Thereafter it is a partnership that requires our acquiescence to His leading, and that we’ll look at in the days ahead. 

4. Who will respond?

Meditating on the Will of God: 4:  Who will respond?

2Pet 3:9    The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.

You may be slightly surprised at the tone or direction of this set of studies on the will of God because we have been very much focusing on how people respond to God, but note that, it is how they ‘respond’ which implies that God initiates, and of course this is what the Bible shows us is the case. God is the initiator, the One who starts everything off, whether it be the act of Creation or the chase after your heart.

We have also been verging on the conversation about the sovereignty of God and whether we have free will and just how much He ‘makes’ or ‘brings about’ His desires. Our suggestion has been that He limits His desires and works within what He knows He can bring about within the human heart. In the previous study we saw that He just hardened the already hard heart of Pharaoh and confirmed him in his role as a foolish immovable sinner who was bringing about his own destruction, which he could have easily avoided.

But we would emphasise what we have just said that the Lord limits His desires and works within what He knows He can bring about within the human heart. To deny this is to deny the meaning of the words so clearly seen in Scripture. For instance, to take our verse above, observe the latter half of it: “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” This is the reason, says the apostle Peter, that the Lord appears slow in bringing judgment on sinners, because He wants to give them every opportunity to repent. As we saw in the Ezekiel verses He takes no pleasure in the death of man but would much rather they repented and were saved. But here is the point: not every sinner is saved and many go to hell when they die.

Just a quick aside here. Those who would say that God chooses who is saved by simple divine random choice imply therefore that some HAVE to be saved and others HAVE to be lost, or to take it logically further, those who go to hell, go there because God stops them coming to repentance (because they say [and we’ll look at this in a later study] repentance is a gift from God).  Now here is my problem with that. The Bible declares God IS love and in that word it implies God always wants the good, the best for every person. A God who actively stops people coming to salvation cannot be a God of love. A God who allows people to choose their destiny, even though He speaks again and again to them, is indeed a God demonstrating love.

So the truth is that not every sinner is saved, even though God would much prefer that they were, but implicit in salvation as we see it in Scripture is the need for the individual to repent, because without repentance they cannot (with their backs turned to Him) receive all His goodness. It is just logically impossible. Note this, that it is not because God doesn’t want to bless them but they refuse to receive His blessing. Just as Pharaoh refused to heed Moses’ warnings and turn to God, so the unrepentant sinner keeps his back to God and refuses the hand that is held out.

But then we come back to this matter of the Lord knowing what He can achieve with the individual. Consider the case of Nebuchadnezzar that we mentioned before. Here is an ungodly, unrighteous, self-centred sinner set in his ways. He is (unwittingly) being used by the Lord, as the prophets amply reveal, to discipline both Israel and the surrounding nations, but the Lord still holds Him accountable for his attitudes. Now the Lord could have simply had him destroyed (as had happened to Sennacherib king of Assyria – Isa 37, esp. v.37,38) but instead He does something else. The king receives a dream and Daniel interprets it: “this is the decree the Most High has issued against my lord the king: You will be driven away from people and will live with the wild animals; you will eat grass like cattle and be drenched with the dew of heaven. Seven times will pass by for you until you acknowledge that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes.” (Dan4:24,25) A year later this was fulfilled: “He was driven away from people and ate grass like cattle. His body was drenched with the dew of heaven until his hair grew like the feathers of an eagle and his nails like the claws of a bird.” (Dan 4:33) His sanity was taken from him and for seven years he was an outcast until, “At the end of that time, I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven, and my sanity was restored. Then I praised the Most High; I honored and glorified him who lives forever.” (Dan 4:34)

The outcome of this experience was a redeemed sinner and he is able to declare, “Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, because everything he does is right and all his ways are just. And those who walk in pride he is able to humble.” (Dan 4:37)  What an amazing story! Here was a man who was every bit as violent and powerful as Pharaoh, but the Lord saw and knew the possibility with this man. Yes, God put pressure on both men but only the one repented. The Lord knows exactly what will bring us to our senses but, and the verse from 2 Peter 3 confirms this, not every one will repent. So is the gift of repentance from God the key to it? We’ll consider that in the next study. For the time being, marvel and wonder at the Lord who knows and works to bring people to Himself, and worship Him.