44. Distinctive

Lessons in Growth Meditations: 44. Distinctive

Heb 12:14   Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.

The Relevant Church: We must be drawing near the end and as we do we need to sharpen some of the things we have said along the way. We have countered the potential accusation that the church is irrelevant in today’s scientific age, with talk of the unchanging truths about God and mankind, while at the same time pointing out that the church which is genuinely acting as the ‘body of Christ’ will be demonstrating the power and revelation of Christ in such ways that lives and circumstances will be changed.

The Distinctive Church: This, you might think, is enough to suggest that the church, seen like this, will be distinctive and will stand out in society as both a lighthouse that sheds light and shows the way, and a rescue and recovery centre for lost and damaged mankind. Yet I must suggest that its distinctiveness must be seen in its very nature or its character as suggested by our verse above – its holiness.

Holiness in God: So what is holiness? It is the very foundational character of God which, put in its most simple of terms, refers to His utter ‘differentness’. God is different in many ways: in His nature, size and scope – He is Spirit, ever present, everywhere present, all-powerful, all-knowing, all-wise. But then there is the ethical or moral element – He is utterly good, totally perfect (cannot be improved upon), beyond criticism.

Holiness in Us – Generally: Now when this is seen in human beings, and it should be seen in some measure in every Christian, this sense of being utterly different should include

  • our godliness (the presence of God with us and being the focus of all we do), and
  • our piety (the way we express our devotion to God), and
  • our spirituality (fully embracing this material world but also clearly operating in the world of the Spirit)

Holiness in Us – Specifics: But these distinctives, these things that make us stand out in the crowd in a good way, should be able to be seen in specific characteristics that the New Testament speaks about. Here are some of the key ones:

Love: Love is a foundational command (see Jn 13:34) still seen in later centuries: “See, they say, how they love one another” (Tertullian’s Apology, Chapter XXXIX). Love is seen in compassion, care, acceptance, all very ‘tangible’ visible things. It is love (total commitment come what may) that was seen in Jesus and is what binds relationships together today. The love that holds us is often expressed as ‘grace’.

Unity: “I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (Jn 17:23) The presence of God in us – revealed in the ways we have been considering in so many of these studies – working to make the unity that IS, visible. 

Truth: The word comes up about 35 times in the Old Testament but about 102 times in the New Testament. “We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (Jn 1:14) Jesus was truly God and truly man, and in both there was nothing that was unreal, nothing false, nothing of pretense, just absolutely genuine. Can that be us, with no pretense, utterly real? Can it be seen in the ways we live and deal with others, seen in honesty and integrity? Can it be seen in purity, having nothing to do with the distortions and perversions of the life of sinful mankind, so clearly and visibly demonstrated in life in the West today?

Goodness: Goodness is difficult to define but obvious when you see it. Something that is good is something that is right, appropriate, pleasant, apt, enjoyable. Goodness is the expression of that and, yes, it does have a moral dimension but goes further that just ‘doing right’, it goes beyond that with such things as mercy and grace that may be seen in generosity or hospitality.

And So? So, yes, we are to be distinctive by the spiritual power and revelation seen through our lives as we allow Jesus to work through us bringing in his kingdom rule, but it is also to be seen in the nature or character of who we are, his children and his disciples, displaying his nature: “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Gal 5:22,23) Not work or character, but both: working with his character, both revealing him, both glorifying the Father. This is what the kingdom is all about, this is what the body of Christ is all about. Can we grow in this, for this is what growth is all about?

50. Personal Action Specifics

Meditations in Hebrews 12:  50.  Personal action specifics

Heb 12:14  Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.

Direction – Goals to work for: We have said that the Christian life is always a partnership between us and God and as we approach, in more detail, the things we can do, we saw three ways where, in general terms we could show weakness, ceasing to be fruitful, ceasing to remember who we truly are and ceasing to remember that we have a direction to go in this life. This leads us on to verses which pick up on specific things we can do or not do in the Christian life.

Peace: He starts with, “Make every effort to live in peace with all men.” (v.14a) We live in God’s world and there we are to seek to create the environment of the kingdom of God – peace. Sin is disruptive, hurtful and harmful. We now are to work against such things and it must start in our heads and then be translated into our lives.

Holiness: He continues, “Make every effort to… be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.” (v.14b) To be holy is to be utterly different with that unique God-like characteristic that is described by such words as wholeness, complete, perfect, pure, utterly righteous. Holiness comes with God’s presence but the warning, “without holiness no one will see the Lord,” implies that we have a part to play in being holy. As we draw near, as we spend time in God’s presence as we direct our lives on him, so we will find His glory, his holiness will be reflected in us (see 2 Cor 3:16-18) We have added an additional note at the end of this particular study.

God’s Resources – His Grace: So the first two encouragements are to focus us on our relationships with other people and with God. The Christian life is all about relationships, but these relationships with other people can go wrong and so we need God’s resources to help us: “See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.” (v.15)  The grace of God here is the sum of all the resources that God makes available to us to enable us to cope with life on this fallen world. Without it we can become vulnerable to wrong ways of thinking about other people, especially when Satan sows discord between us and others. We do not expect disagreements within the Church so that when it does happen (e.g. Paul and Barnabas Acts 15:37-40) we need to learn how to disagree peaceably and not let it fester and cause ongoing trouble and embroiling others in it as well.

Linking Two Failures: But then he says two things that initially at least appear unconnected: “See that no one is sexually immoral, or is godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son.” (v.16) So what is the link? Well Esau’s sin, for that is what it was, was to be indifferent to his family heritage and his family’s inheritance. If you like it is not bothering about the family name. He gave it aware because of human desire, he was hungry, that was all, and he threw away his inheritance. Now what happens when someone is sexually immoral? Well starting in reverse order, they live by their desire for sex. But then they forget who they are, a holy child of God; they show that for that moment at least they don’t care about the name of God.

In both cases we have a warning not to be ruled by what used to be called ‘carnal appetites’, physical desires of the moment. How strong these things can be! Do I say that because I have been down that path? Thankfully no, but I have known a number Christian leaders who have, and those who were not leaders. In a world that declares that sex between unlimited numbers of adults is normal the pressures to give way to temptation increase and so we need to increase both our vigilance and our inner faith building. The problem with these sorts of failures is that they have big repercussions. Existing relationships are demeaned and made meaningless, and future relationships are weakened (those with regular different sexual partners find it more difficult to establish ongoing relationships and we are creating a people who grow old in loneliness and in insecurity).

The Repercussions: But it is the spiritual repercussions that are more serious.  Here comes a warning he has given at least twice already “Afterward, as you know, when he wanted to inherit this blessing, he was rejected. He could bring about no change of mind, though he sought the blessing with tears.” (v.17) Once he had sold his birthright, it was too late, he could not get it back. Once you have committed adultery you cannot get back to how it was before. Now there is a question of guilt to be dealt with which may hang around for decades. Now there is a question of trust to be regained should you wish to maintain our existing relationship, and that will be hard going. But then there may be all your family and friends whose love for you for damaged because of the desire of a moment.

Recap: What have we seen in these verses? In verses 14 and 15 we are reminded that life is all about relationships, with people and with God and, in a sin-inhabited, fallen world, it is so easy for those relationships to be damaged. We are challenged to “make every effort” to preserve these relationships.

But then he reminded us that so often such relationships can be broken by sexual immorality and we become just like Esau who threw his heritage away for a simple human desire – hunger – so that other powerful human desire – sex – can also cause lasting damage and may even threaten our spiritual inheritance. True repentance is always the way back, but even then immense grace is needed on all sides which is yet another reason why we need the grace of God.

Human life and experience can be very fragile and it is so easy to throw away what is good in a moment. No wonder this pastoral writer is so concerned to keep on warning and warning and warning his readers to be vigilant, making every effort to hold to their faith and to the love and goodness of God. be aware of the temptations facing you even today and turn to the Lord and cry for His help. He is there for you.

Addendum on ‘Holiness’

Being: Holiness we have said is about being utterly different, about having that God nature that is unique. First, we ARE Holy because the Holy Spirit indwells us. Second we are becoming more holy because we are bring changed, stage by stage by the Holy Spirit, more and more into the likeness of Jesus.

Behaviour: Now there are two wrong behavioural extremes, I observe, in Christians. First there is to measure oneself by how we see ourselves conforming to certain ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’ and, second, there is cut oneself off entirely from the culture of the world around us. Jesus did neither of these two things.

Attitude or Outlook: Holiness grows in as much as we hear and encounter God. Growth is always about response to God for the Christian. Second it is about ‘being’, as we said above and therefore we can be just like Jesus AND be part of the experience of his world around us without shame and without compromise. We look, assess, enjoy, be aware of differences and take His love to our culture, being in it but not of it.

24. House Church

Short Meditations in Mark’s Gospel: 24. House church

Mk 1:29 As soon as they left the synagogue, they went with James and John to the home of Simon and Andrew.

Such a simple verse but such profound meaning!  Think of religion in general and what religious people across the world think. So often it is the picture of a big, awesome, unreachable God who makes such demands, that adherents of the religion have to jump through hoops in performing their pious acts – which they only can hope will please their deity.

Then you come to this verse and look at what is behind it. A preacher, a rabbi goes into a home of some of his followers. Nothing remarkable about that until you realise that the Gospels declare that this rabbi is the Son of God himself, come from heaven for a temporary (33 years) time on earth. The Son of God? The second expression of the Godhead – this is God Himself walking into this house.

But there has been no preparation. If this had been a king the preparation team would have gone ahead and checked the place out to see if it was worthy of his visit. The security people would check that there were no likely risks to him in this poor dwelling with these fairly poor people. The people haven’t prepared themselves. They haven’t washed or carried out special rituals to enable them to meet this personage.

In fact, when it comes down to it, they are completely blind to his greatness and they just think of him as another man – and he’s not bothered by that. He is not upset that they are not falling on the ground worshipping him. He’s not upset that they don’t refine their language or clean up their habits to acknowledge his holiness – for he is holy, even if they do not realise it. No, he is not put out by their ignorance and their ordinary approach to him.

No, this is the One real God, supreme and almighty and he has nothing to prove. He doesn’t need people to give him glory – it’s his anyway and he is comfortable in being the King of Kings and Lord of Lords in disguise! In fact if they did recognise him they would flee from him and he wouldn’t later be taken by them and sacrificed as the Lamb of God for the sins of the world. No, he comes in simply humility and gentleness.

Lord, thank you that this is how you are!

5. Be Blessed!

Meditations in Romans : 5 :  Be Blessed!

Rom  1:7 To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.

Many Christians don’t understand the concept of ‘blessing’. It is bringing a prophetic decree from heaven that opens the way for the goodness of God to be released on earth. To understand blessings you really need to study the life of Isaac in the Old Testament as he relates in old age to his two sons, but we’ll leave you to do that on your own. We have ‘blessing’ in our lives, often without thinking about it. Someone sneezes and we say, “Bless you!” Mostly it is a habit thing with little or no meaning but it has a spiritual background. It means that where there are the signs of an illness we, the believing community, will declare, “May the Lord bless you,” or “May the Lord declare healing from heaven for you,” and we do it with the faith-knowledge that God wants to bring healing to us. When we are moving in faith we are able to say, “May the Lord bless you” meaning, “May the Lord decree goodness over your life.”  THAT is what blessing is all about, and we do it as a response to the Holy Spirit’s leading as He indicates His intention to bring that goodness. He just wants us to speak it out first!

Now why do we say all this? We say it because in this verse seven of chapter 1 of Romans, we find, as we find in so many of Paul’s letters, his blessing the recipients of his letter. He is bringing a prophetic decree that brings the goodness of God to these people. These are not mere words!

Now first of all we need to recognise to whom this blessing is brought. You can only bring a (genuine) blessing when you sense it is from the Holy Spirit and the conditions are right. The conditions are that God blesses His children – believers. He does not bless the unrighteous or the ungodly. Thus Paul gives a threefold identification of those who he blesses. First of all they are the Christians in Rome. This isn’t to say that the blessing doesn’t apply to other Christians as well, merely that it is specifically directed in this letter to those Christians who form the church in Rome.

Second, they are identified as those who are “loved by God.” But doesn’t God love everyone?  Yes, in one sense, His heart is a heart of love towards all of humanity, but He is not able to fully express that love to those who reject Him.  Suppose we have a child whom we love very much but as they grow up they come to listen to the enemy and come to despise, even hate us, for who we are and what we believe.  They cut themselves off from us. We still love them, but are unable to express that love to them for they have gone away from us without letting us know where they are.  God loves all of humanity but is unable to express that love fully until we come to Him and receive His salvation – then the door is wide open for Him to express His love.  This letter comes to Christians – those who have opened their hearts to God and have received His love.

Third, they are “called to be saints.” This doesn’t mean only a little band of very special people, but all Christians.  We are called to be children of God. We are called to be receivers of eternal life.  We are called “to be” many things. The words, ‘to be’ don’t refer to some future experience but to living out an ongoing life.  We are ‘a saint’ the moment we are born again.  The word refers to holiness, a holy one, a separated out one, one who has entered into a living relationship with God through Jesus Christ.  We are called to live out that life as an ongoing experience of Him. Rome – where these Christians lived.  Loved – why they are now Christians.  Saints – living out these new separated out lives, empowered by the Holy Spirit.  THESE people are recipients of God’s blessing, God’s decree of goodness.

So what is the blessing?  It is a twofold decree: of grace and peace. Grace is about what we have received (and continue to receive) and peace is about the nature of our ongoing experience with God. In its most simple description, ‘grace’ is simply God’s resource to enable us to live our lives as His children and to overcome the trials and tribulations that we encounter living in a Fallen World. It also enables us to serve Him and His calling on our lives. This ‘resource’ is His very own Holy Spirit. HE, Himself is the only resource we need. He provides strength; He provides wisdom; He provides guidance; He provides power. It is Him, living His life through us. It is His own Holy Spirit who made us new creatures, children of God, and it is His own Holy Spirit who energises and directs us throughout our years on earth. This is what grace actually is.

But then there is peace, the state that we have with God. Because of the work of Christ on the Cross, and because of his rule today at his Father’s right hand, and because of the expression of that through the means of his Holy Spirit that we have just been considering, we can be at complete peace. We are at peace with God because Christ has reconciled us to his Father.  We are at peace within ourselves because we no longer have to strive to try to be someone – we just are, as children of God!  We can be at peace with others because we no longer have to vie with them to get our way; we rest in the Father’s purpose for our lives and His hand on us bringing that about.

Now if these two things are ours already, why does Paul bother to speak them out? Why do they come as a blessing?  Because a blessing is simply a speaking out of the decreed will of God and it enables that will to be further administered. So as you read these notes and meditate on these things, grace and peace be to you!

28. A Burnt Offering

Meditations in the Law : No.28 : What is a Burnt Offering?

Lev 1:3,4 `If the offering is a burnt offering from the herd, he is to offer a male without defect. He must present it at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting so that it will be acceptable to the LORD. He is to lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering, and it will be accepted on his behalf to make atonement for him.

Where the people wanted to just bring something to God as an expression of their relationship with Him, the Lord tells them to do it in a particular way. There is a sense of reassurance about this because once there is a set way laid down, it means that the person bringing the offering will not be worrying whether what they bring is acceptable to the Lord. In addition, the prescribed way will no doubt leave the Israelite pondering on the significance of what he has done, and that in itself will deepen his relationship with the Lord. Note also that the offering brought is to be an animal from herd or flock (v.2). This will involve putting the animal to death at the doorway of the Tent (Tabernacle), and that also will leave the Offeror with a whole new appreciation of the value of life.

But what is this first offering all about? The other offerings give clues by their names – fellowship, sin, guilt etc. but this first one simply is described as ‘burnt’. Well, first of all that suggests that this is an offering that is just simply given to God. Once it is completely burnt, the animal is completely gone. The owner no longer gets any benefit from it. The fact that it is completely burnt up means that the owner completely gives it away and there is no taking it back. It is a complete letting go of the animal to God.

Remember we said yesterday that this offering was given freely. It is therefore to be an expression of an open heart to God, but even that is tested by ensuring that the Offeror conforms to the instructions. For those who come with very full hearts, they give the biggest and the best – a bull with nothing wrong with it (v.3a). This giving will be real! But perhaps the farmer doesn’t own a bull and only has a flock of sheep or goats. That’s all right; they will be acceptable (v.10). But perhaps he doesn’t own a herd or a flock and so all he could obtain by catching, breeding or buying, would be a pigeon or a dove. Well that’s all right (v.14). What does this say? It says that anyone could come and bring an offering regardless of their financial standing. No one is to be excluded because they are inferior or poor. Provision is made for all classes of people in the congregation and each one is given some simple instructions to follow.

The giver must come with it to the entrance to the Tent where it is checked and approved (v.3b). Once approved the giver himself must put it to death (v.5,11) after he has placed his hand on its head (v.4a), identifying with it, as if to say, I transfer my sin to it so that it is received as atonement (v.4b), or a substitute taking my punishment due for my sin. Even when bringing a basic gift to God, there is a reminder of His holiness and our sinfulness. We can’t approach casually.

The priests, in their official intermediary capacity, take some of the animal’s blood and sprinkle it on all sides of the altar before the pieces of the animal are cut up and burnt on the altar. The blood represented the life of the animal (Lev 17:11) and so even before the altar is used there is a symbolic marking it with the signs of the life of the substitute. There is no casual use of this altar, it requires the laying down of a life before it can be used to approach God.  Even the messiest part of the animal, its legs and entrails are washed before burning, indicating a required holiness of approach. When all this is done, it is said to provide a pleasing aroma to the Lord (1:17); simply He is pleased when the person reveals their heart by the obedience in their approach. This offering alone is completely burnt up and is the only one not eaten by others. In that sense it stands out as the basic offering that indicates total giving to the Lord.

This offering, the Law shows us, was offered morning and evening every day for all Israel at the Tabernacle (Ex 29:39-42), with double offerings on the Sabbath (Num 28:9,10), and extra ones on feast days (Num 28 & 29) It was, as we’ve said, the basic offering, given for no other reason than to express love to God, total commitment to Him.

We can sometimes forget that God is holy and cannot be casually approached. The only reason we can approach so easily on a Sunday morning or any other time we turn to God, is that Jesus has become our sacrifice to take our sin and open the way to God. Even our desires to bless God have to be sanctified because of their imperfection. When Jesus died to open the way up to God for us, it was for ‘whoever’: For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (Jn 3:16). Jesus is God’s means of approach for us today. Jesus said, “No one comes to the Father except through me.” (Jn 14:6)

2. God of History

Lessons from Israel: No.2 : God of History

Ex 3:5,6 5“Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” 6Then he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.

These studies, we said in the first meditation, are to learn from God’s interactions with Israel, right back from the time when Moses first encountered the Lord. So here we are at the burning bush where the Lord attracts Moses and then starts to talk to him. It is at the beginning of the conversation that the Lord identifies Himself. If we have been Christians any length of time this is perhaps a familiar episode in the life of pre-Israel, and so maybe we take it rather for granted. But put yourself in Moses shoes. He is an Israelite refugee, who fled from his people forty years ago, has lived with a Midianite priest and his family and has probably lost all contact with the stories of his people. So who or what, he might legitimately think, have I got here? Whatever is going on? Am I hallucinating?

It is into this possible scenario that the Lord speaks. “Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” Note for the record that the One speaking is simply referred to as ‘God’ here. That is about to change but for now the writer (whether Moses or some later scribe) simply identifies Him as ‘God’. The first thing Moses gets from God is a warning: “Take off your sandals for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” Why take of his shoes? Presumably because the inference would be that his shoes would be dirty and nothing dirty should come into the zone of this burning bush. The inference must also surely be that if he defiled this holy ground he might not live! So the first real lesson that comes out from this interaction with God is that God is holy and we need to be careful how we approach Him.

Having given this initial warning we then come to the crucial part of God identifying Himself to Moses. Now He will do this in more detail in a few minutes, but for the moment He simply says, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” Immediately this puts the Lord in context. He is the One who has been revealed by His dealings with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He is the God who has history, personal history! There is content to this history. This is something most of us take for granted and think little about, but it is crucial. Our faith is not built on clever ideas; it is built on history, on what has happened, that involved God interacting with mankind. The Bible is full of history – history about God – as someone has put it, it is all about “His-story”.

When the Lord starts out with “I am the God of your father,” He reminds Moses of his ancestry.  He may be a wandering shepherd, but he’s also a Hebrew and the Hebrews had history that took them back to the land of Canaan. It was a history that started with Abraham: “I am… the God of Abraham.” It is probable that the stories about Abraham, that we find in Genesis 12 onwards, were conveyed down through the family, so God’s call on Abraham and the subsequent story about how God enabled them to have Isaac, would be known by Moses, as would God’s helping Isaac to have twins, and of His subsequent dealings with Jacob (“I am….. the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.”)  It is all this knowledge that produces the reaction that we find in Moses:At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.”

So why was that? Well stop and think about it. You have heard the stories throughout your childhood about this ‘God’ who wasn’t just ‘out there’ but who came and invaded your private space and who said and did things that changed the course of your life. It’s one thing to hear about it in childhood, but it’s another thing to find that He is real and He’s here!

I believe that the more we read and study the historical accounts of God’s dealings with Israel, the more we will come to see His reality and the more we will come to see His ‘other-ness’, His holiness. There is no one like Him. He is unique; He is almighty God, creator and sustainer of the universe and He can speak into and change His world as and when He wants to. As long as He seems to stay ‘out there’ we can cope with that (and this applies to many Christians today as well) but once He seems to come near and make His presence known, that gets a bit scary – and understandably so!

Jesus’ disciples had this same experience once or twice. Much of the time they seemed to be able to cope with him – until he did something that took him onto another realm. Peter was scared out of his life in his boat when Jesus produced a massive shoal of fish and we read, “Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” (Lk 5:8). Later, when Jesus calmed a storm at sea, “In fear and amazement they asked one another, “Who is this? He commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him.” (Lk 8:25). Yes, this is the God, (THE only God) who has history, who we can read about in His book, but who still lives today and delights in coming and making His presence felt. Expect Him!

36. Made New

Ephesians Meditations No.36

Eph  4:20-24 You, however, did not come to know Christ that way. Surely you heard of him and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.

There is a fundamental truth about being a Christian which unbelievers, ‘nominal Christians’ (those in word only) and even so-called ‘liberal Christians’ (those who demean the word of God and only believe the bits they want to believe), miss.  It is, very simply, this basic truth that a Christian is NOT someone who has just ‘turned over a new leaf’, or someone who believes basic information about Jesus Christ and the Christian faith, but it IS someone who, in Jesus’ own language has been ‘born again’ (Jn 3:3-8) and who is, in Paul’s words, ‘a new creation’ (2 Cor 5:17) and in John’s words, are ‘children of God’ and ‘born of God’ (Jn 1:12,13). Christians are people who have been remade by the work of God’s Holy Spirit, because of what Jesus achieved on the Cross at Calvary.

Now the follow-up to the above paragraph, is that there are very practical outworkings of being born again, and it is those outworkings that Paul now speaks about. He has, you may remember, just been writing about how they must not live like unbelievers do in the futility of their thinking, given over to sensual living. So now he emphasises that they mustn’t live like that: You, however, did not come to know Christ that way.” or “You didn’t continue to know that way of life when you encountered Christ.” Oh no, the Son of God lived a very different way and as we “grow up into the head” (4:15) we become part of One who lives a very different sort of life!

Thus he continues, “Surely you heard of him and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus.” Of course they had heard of Jesus because he had been the foundation of the Gospel and Paul had conveyed that himself when he was in Ephesus. Note the two levels, if you like, of teaching spoken of here: “heard of him” and “taught in him”. The ‘heard‘ is about verbal teaching that has been given to them about Christ, but thetaught in him’ is about the learning experience they have been through in their direct encounter with him and in being ‘born again.’ This latter one is a level of teaching that the nominal Christian cannot know about. It is a teaching by experience. Once Christ is in our life we are being impacted by him in a way that was impossible before we received his Spirit. It is direct encounter with God! That teaches and that changes us! Look, says Paul, remember what you heard and remember what has happened to you. All of that was very different from that which the unbelievers know and experience, and that should have told you already that the life you are to live out is very different from theirs!

He continues to explain: “You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires.” That is the first part of it – to put off’. God has totally changed us by putting His Holy Spirit within us and He will be working to bring about a Christ-like nature in us, but He doesn’t make us robots; He still allows us to make choices, to make decisions, to play our part by acts of will. This same language of our responsibility is seen a lot in Paul’s letter to the Colossians: “(you) set your hearts on,” (3:1) and “(you) set your minds on,” (3:2) and “(you) Put to death, therefore,” (3:5) and “you must rid yourselves of,” (3:8) and “put on the new self,” (3:10) and “clothe yourselves,” (3:12) and “put on love.” (3:14). This is all the language of effort. It’s the same ideas as Paul conveyed to the Romans: “We died to sin,” (Rom 6:2), and “count yourselves dead to sin,” (6:11), and “Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body.” (6:12). The teaching is 1) Know who you now are, and 2) Make the effort to live like it. Now this ‘making an effort’ is a very different thing to the unbeliever striving to appear good. It is simply making the mind decision to live as the Holy Spirit is prompting you to live – in purity, holiness and righteousness. He’s done the changing and it is now up to us to live out this newness.

See what Paul goes on to say: “to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” There is exactly that which we have been saying. There is a two-sided newness. First there is a new “attitude of your minds” which simply means a determination to live in co-operation with God’s Spirit as He teaches, leads and inspires us. Second, there is the newness of ‘putting on’ or purposefully living like that. It’s not only in the mind; it is to be lived out in the life. God Himself is to be our goal, to be like Him, as we said, living righteous lives (living by God’s standards), lives that are characterized by holiness (distinctive by their purity and goodness).

When you take time to consider these things, it is easy to see that we have a twofold target in living out our daily lives. On one side there is shying away from the old attitudes of self-centred, godless thinking which resulted in sensuous, self-determined living, and on the other side there is reaching out for or putting on, the new nature of Jesus Christ’s purity and goodness, that is now dwelling within us and waiting to be lived out. Let’s make sure we do it! ‘

12. A Holy God

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do we have here in both Old and New Testaments? A picture of a loving God who realises, having given man free will and knowing man would exercise that free will wrongly, that man would be helpless to deal with his own guilt and for the sake of eternal justice, that guilt could only be taken by God Himself in the form of His Son. Thus we have possibly the most famous verse in the Bible: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (Jn 3:16) What we have here, is the God of love who is more concerned to reconcile sinners to Himself than He is to judge or destroy them. As He said through Ezekiel, “I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent and live!” (Ezek 18:32. THIS is the God of both the Old and New Testaments, a God who reaches out to remove our guilt and reconcile us to Himself, a God who seeks to draw us into relationship with Himself so that we can be re-established in His blessings to enjoy the life and the world He has provided for us to enjoy! Hallelujah!