18. God of Inclusion (1)

Getting to Know God Meditations:  18. God of Inclusion (1)

Isa 56:3   Let no foreigner who is bound to the Lord say,  “The Lord will surely exclude me from his people.” And let no eunuch complain,  “I am only a dry tree.”

Whole World:  Back in the earlier studies about God of Purpose we noted that God called Israel into being to act as a means of revealing Him to the rest of the world, and then as a background into which He would bring His Son, both objectives of which were designed for the whole world. Again and again this message seeps through the whole narrative – God loves the whole world! Now it may be, and I am sure it is, that some people, either by ignorant misunderstanding of perhaps the way a Sunday School conveyed things when they were little, think the whole thing about God is ‘Jewish’. To refute that, we have to reiterate the ‘for the whole world’ thing and add the reminder that after the first century or so, the collective growing worldwide Church was more and more Gentile, i.e. non-Jew. We might add that although the whole of the Old Testament is important, as Gentiles we are no longer required to follow the specifically Jewish commands; Jesus has fulfilled the Law in every aspect and neither that nor Temple worship is a requirement for the believer since Jesus.

Excluded Groups: The amazing thing about the Bible is that as you read it through, yes it may be a different culture, a different historical period, a different area of geography, but nevertheless in the midst of the language that fits all those things, comes truth that is heart churning. The danger for the world in this respect, when Israel were at their peak (say in Solomon’s day perhaps) was to think what I said above – this God is Jewish, He’s the God only of Israel, but our verse above today challenged that: Let no foreigner who is bound to the Lord say,  “The Lord will surely exclude me from his people.” And let no eunuch complain,  “I am only a dry tree.”  Foreigners and eunuch’s were two classes of people who might have felt that, and we’ll see why in a moment. The Message Version paraphrase puts it, “Make sure no outsider who now follows God ever has occasion to say, ‘God put me in second-class. I don’t really belong.’ And make sure no physically mutilated person is ever made to think, ‘I’m damaged goods. I don’t really belong.’”  Wow!

Foreigners? These are any people who come from a different background or a different culture. If you were an observer of Israel back in their good days, you might have thought, “Wow, these people are different from me – I am different from them. Their God wouldn’t be concerned for me for if He exists and if He is really there for them, it is obvious that He is only for this little clique or nation.”  And isn’t that what people say today? “Oh, I went to that church once; they are different from the rest of us. They meet in strange old buildings, they sing strange songs and chants, they use formulated prayers and swing incense and their leaders dress strangely and their top leaders dress in such strange finery that they make me feel an inferior being. A God who wants all this wouldn’t want me.”  Wrong! It’s not about the trappings, the strange behaviour and strange dress that parts of the church need to prop up their faith, it’s all about heart, as we shall see soon.

Eunuchs? Whoever talks about eunuchs today, what do men who have been castrated (probably to work in a hareem – see Esther 1:10-) have to do with religion? Well, yes, that’s the point, that’s what they would have thought, especially if they had been told that by an Israelite quoting the Law: “No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the Lord,” (Deut 23:1) which the Message Version has as, “No eunuch is to enter the congregation of God,”  or as the old King James Version quaintly puts it, “He that is wounded in the stones, or hath his privy member cut off, shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord.”  Right!  Ha, I hear a critic leaping into the fray, a contradiction! Didn’t we say the Bible was full of contradictions!

Let’s note two thing about this.  First, the Deuteronomy exclusion was not nationalistic but was designed to point out an attitude that was to be held, that God is holy and if you want to be part of the ceremonial, nothing and no one less than a legitimate and whole Israelite could do that. It was part of the ‘God is holy’ teaching. The ‘assembly’ or ‘congregation’ meant a specific gathering in the presence of holy God to be witnessed by the world. The second thing is that simply because someone was excluded from the ceremony that does not mean they were excluded from God’s love. Perhaps Isaiah’s word was to counter the false assumption that might have arisen that only the worthy, only the perfect, could encounter God. Quite often later scripture clarifies earlier scripture or corrects erroneous thinking about earlier teaching. The latter simply clarifies the former. We might note that Isaiah (and later Jesus) was particularly good at this. A little later in chapter 58 he castigates those who follow a form of religion, apparently seeking God, fasting and praying as if that was all that needed. No, says Isaiah, a right heart before God is what He wants.

Moving On: So Isaiah is bringing God’s word that neither someone from a different culture nor someone who, for whatever reason, feels they are less than perfect, is excluded from entering into a relationship with God. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you are from, whatever your background, whatever your history, you are not excluded by God. But notice the wording: Let no foreigner who is bound to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely exclude me from his people.” Strange words – “bound to the Lord”. The Message paraphrase speaks of the, outsider who now follows God,” while the modern NLT says, “foreigners who commit themselves to the Lord.” The clear indication is this refers to people from other places who have heard of God and find their hearts knit with His. Put most simply, anyone who desires to follow and serve the Lord and enter into a relationship with Him will not be pushed away by Him. A similar description was given of eunuchs who sought to follow the Law as much as they could, to seek to please God, they too would not be pushed away from Him.

And So? There is much more to say here so we will continue it in the next study but let’s note what we have seen so far:

  • a common (but wrong) attitude that if you were not a Jew you were therefore excluded from a relationship with God,
  • that may arise in those who come from a different culture or those who for whatever reason feel they are disqualified,
  • but God’s word of inclusion comes to both groups.

In the next study we will examine this some more and see examples of people in the Scripture that this was applied to.

Snapshots: Day 91

Snapshots: Day 91

The Snapshot: “Send some men to explore the land … all of them were leaders.” (Num 13:1,3) They do say leaders are those who go ahead. These men certainly did, but we know the story of how they came back and only two were full of faith to take the Land while ten only saw problems, and the ten caused Israel to end up for forty years in the wilderness. What a responsibility. There’s a challenge for any of us who have been, are, or will be leaders in whatever capacity in ‘the church’. We have the capability of encouraging and leading God’s people on in acts of faith, or we can just see problems and difficulties and hinder the progress of God’s plans. Such a responsibility is scary, but such a responsibility is only on those called and equipped. Who? Those with hearts open to be used by God.

Further Consideration: Responsibility in leadership is a tricky thing and it is something that has the potential to weigh one down with ‘all that responsibility’. Well let’s see if we can lift the load off while avoiding becoming negative reporters like Moses’ leaders.

I did a study recently on church leaders. There are those in the New Testament who appear to have been spirit-filled guys who looked after the material well-being of the flock. They were the deacons. The ones with spiritual responsibility were called elders, overseers or shepherds (pastors).  As the interchangeable names imply they were the mature and wise in the congregation of God’s people, those who guarded and protected the flock, and those who provided for the flock, whether it was food, security or healing.

Now here’s the thing, there seems little reference to them being ‘called’ whereas some denominational leaders make a big thing about ‘calling’. Actually in scripture it seems more of a natural gifting thing, an aspirational thing (1 Tim 3:1) and a character thing (3:2-7), something recognized by apostles (where there are apostles) or by the flock, and so if you are there, it is probably because God has gifted you accordingly and touched your heart – and will equip you with His grace to enable you to be a blessing to the flock. Calling? Maybe.

That’s it; if we are leaders we are called to be a blessing to the flock, serving them, looking out for them, not dominating them, but loving them and looking for all God’s goodness to them. So if you have God’s grace, what’s so difficult about that? People and Satan! Right, but His grace doesn’t change and will be sufficient to cope.

And one final thing in a short reflection like this: remember you’re imperfect and will not get it perfectly right all the time, but as long as we’re steering away from major sin, that doesn’t disqualify you. Enjoy it, be a blessing and be blessed.

Snapshots: Day 88

Snapshots: Day 88

The Snapshot: “So he consecrated Aaron … and his sons.” (Lev 8:30) Why priests? Why all these intricate instructions about what they wear and what they do? Perhaps it was to build a bridge between Israel and God, a communication bridge that said, ‘God is holy, and you are not; stay at a distance otherwise you might die. Do not be casual about your relationship with God’. Perhaps it was that there would be those whose lives were to act as constant reminders of this holy God. Perhaps they were to be temporary stand-ins until Jesus came as God’s real priest who drew each of us into his priesthood (joining him in showing that God is holy, acting as reminders of God’s presence in His world, and showing the way to Him. A holy priesthood? (1 Pet 2:9) That is you and me.

Further Consideration: I have, in the snapshot above, suggested that the priesthood acted as a division between God and the people, and I believe that is true, but there is another side to this particular coin: their role was also to bring the people to God. Admittedly the people could not come close, for only the priests could minister in the Holy Place, and the high priest only once a year in the Holiest Place (or Holy of Holies), the innermost room where the presence of God was said to dwell. Nevertheless the role of the priesthood was to teach the Law and be there to oversee the sacrifices, encouraging the people to come to God in the ways stated in the Law.

I have asked the question, why all the intricate instructions about what to wear and what to do? The first simple thought is that having established such paraphernalia, it would be unlikely that anyone else would seek to invade and become part of the priesthood, who were outside the priestly family of Levi. Anyone wearing less than these clothes would never be accepted by the people. Thus the clothes marked them out as special. Similarly all the rules relating to their activities separated them from the ordinary. Summarizing this, these things reinforced or emphasized this barrier / bridge that we have spoken about and made it a very obvious part of the Jewish life and community. It was only in later centuries in the life of Israel was all this diluted so that the priests became worldly in outlook and in Jesus’ time the Sadducees with their limited and liberal theological views held control of the priesthood with a Sadducee eventually judging Jesus.

Now when Peter says we, “are a chosen people, a royal priesthood,” (1 Pet 2:9) he reminds us that our lives are holy, reflecting a holy God, but that we are also there to act as His intermediaries in this world. We are to convey the heart and will of God and teach whoever will be taught. What a privilege!

Snapshots: Day 79

Snapshots: Day 79

The Snapshot: “have them make a sanctuary for me.” (Ex 25:8) The tabernacle used to be something my Brethren friends used to get excited about years ago and yet even back then, I think we missed the main point – God wanted Israel to create a building that would be the focus point for their meeting with Him. That sounds so simple but is astounding, that Almighty, Holy God, Creator of the world, wants to interact with us, yes us who so often put ourselves down and allow the enemy to call us rubbish – and yet God wants us to come to Him, to chat with Him, unburden ourselves before Him, get ourselves put right again before Him, all this sort of stuff, God wants to do that! Amazing!

Further Consideration: Temples crop up a number of times in the Bible. There was the first one that Solomon built but which was eventually destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar prior to the Exile, then there was the smaller one built by the returning remnant after the Exile and this one was built up and extended by Herod prior to the coming of Jesus. It was then utterly destroyed by the Romans in AD70 in response to the Jewish revolt. To add insult to injury, Islam built the Dome of the Rock Mosque on the site of the old temple and remains there to this day. The meeting place with God for Judaism was removed and has not been rebuilt. End of story.

Not quite! On the Day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit was poured out on the believers and a new ‘temple’ came into being. The apostle Paul wrote, Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? …. you together are that temple.” (1 Cor 3:16,17) But more than that, he referred to us individually as God’s temple: “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?” (1 Cor 6:19) Of course Jesus had already previously spoken of his own body as a temple (Jn 2:20,21)

And this is where you and I struggle – God lives in me?  I am a temple of His Holy Spirit? Again, as the apostle Paul wrote, “For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: “I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people.” (2 Cor 6:16) It’s all about intimate communion.

No longer do we have to go to a building to meet with God (although we can) for He is with us wherever we are. What a wonder, “you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.” (Eph 2:22) God dwells in us; you can’t get any more intimate than that. But it is true, despite what we feel. It is not a case of feelings. Yes, sometimes we really can sense His presence but more often it has to be a statement of faith. Emmanuel – God with us!

Snapshots: Day 77

Snapshots: Day 77

The Snapshot: “I will wipe them out” (Ex 23:23) How we fail so often to read our Bible completely. We grab a few words and complain without understanding. Here we have the source of so many complaints in God’s intent for Canaan – but read it in its entirety, read on to verse 30. See: the word ‘drive’ that follows. God will drive the enemy out – but not completely. “wipe out” = totally remove current existence. How? By driving them out. It will be their choice. Leave and survive. Stay and fight Israel and risk death. You will find the idea of ‘driving them out’ well over thirty times in the records. This is not genocide as so many foolish people say. This is God who says, “This is my land for my people, take your terrible and horrible pagan practices away – and stop them!”  Be understanding.

Further Consideration: How often we find the critics rolling out this complaint about a God who commands genocide. How such critics reveal both their own poverty of spirit and poverty of knowledge!  Check the facts and then speak. Note the options again.

Option 1: Leave and survive. This actually was the most sensible choice and perhaps a few took it. The records show that the fear of the Lord went ahead of Israel, the reputation of Israel’s early conquests in the south as they approached the land from the south and the east. These were a victorious people. It’s time to leave! Clearly the word went out ahead of them, followed by fear. Most people forget this.

Option 2: Stay and fight.  It says something about what holds you when a Tsunami bears down on you. You have to be pretty stupid to stay – but then that is the effect of the occult which bound this land, occult fueled by godless, merciless sacrifices of children and many other occult practices. The demonic always seeks to extend Satan’s desire to destroy mankind.

Option 3: Join Israel.  Again most people forget that Rahab and the Gibeonites were examples of those who responded wisely to the fear of God and aligned themselves with Israel and became part of them, part of the people of God.

So, ‘wipe them out’ actually means remove entirely this old life dominated by the world, by Satan and by Sin. It will be achieved initially by seeking to ‘drive out’ these things but where they refuse to capitulate, they will be put to death.  Failure to put them to death will mean they will remain as pockets of resistance that will cause ongoing problems, things which God will in fact make use of to discipline us. There is so much here, so many truths to be understood, so much that unfortunately we so often allow the enemy to cover with a smokescreen of self-righteous indignation built on our poverty of spirit and poverty of knowledge. Let’s resist, learn and be changed.

(As we consider these in blocks of ten, tomorrow we will move on to a new series on Parables)

Snapshots: Day 65

Snapshots: Day 65

The Snapshot: “In the desert the whole community grumbled.” (Ex 16:2) A desert, a place of dryness, brings out the worst in us. How do we overcome that? Remember three things. First, the glory that got you here, the goodness of God that saved you out of ‘Egypt’ (the world). Second, the duration of this desert experience; it is supposed to be temporary. Don’t accept it as a permanent experience; expect and seek for better. Third, remember the goal, there is a better day ahead, a ‘Promised Land’, in the days to come here on earth and in the promised eternity that is our inheritance. Don’t let the enemy have cause to rejoice when he witnesses the children of God acting as less than those children. Bonus: fourth, remember who you are!

Further Consideration: Let’s consider in some more detail the three ways of overcoming the negative feelings that can arrive when we are going through a ‘desert experience’. But’s let’s be honest first of all and acknowledge that such an experience is normal. The teaching that the various experiences of Israel also act as ‘types’ of the experiences of believers, has us now in the Promised Land, a place where we inherit the goodness of the Lord and have to battle to remove the old inhabitants who still have a habit of rising up (e.g. anger?) Yet the truth is that even in the Promised Land Israel went through times of drought that made for desert-like conditions. Each of us will experience all of these things and, as we said above, they tend to bring out the worst in us – which is why the Lord allows them, so the work of sanctification can continue, a joint activity between Him and us.

So, first, remember where you came from, the facts of your new birth. That reminds us we are supernatural works of God and He is the One who now has plans and purposes for the long-term of our lives.

Second, this is a temporary experience and although it seems temporarily dry and barren, the Lord has not left you (declare the truth of Heb 13:5) and His grace is still available in this time of difficulty.

Third, the outworking of this time is a new day where we have learnt afresh the Lord’s grace and goodness and have come through into a place where light and love flow again.

But perhaps we should add a fourth thing: see this time of dryness as a testing time, a trial, an exam to be passed. Perhaps we have brought it on ourselves but it is still a time to learn lessons. The Lord has certainly allowed it; it is still a time to learn lessons. In other words, and you may consider this a fifth thing, we should view such a time positively. “Consider it pure joy… whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces…” (Jas 1:2) James adds perseverance but there may be many more benefits.

Snapshots: Day 63

Snapshots: Day 63

The Snapshot: “Do not be afraid. Stand firm.” (Ex 14:13) Israel are in a mess. The sea is before them and an angry and vengeful Pharaoh is coming behind them – and it’s all God’s fault! And Moses says, “Do not be afraid”? You’ve got to be joking! This is a scary situation. Just like being in a small boat on a capricious lake in a vicious storm, when God seems asleep (Lk 8:23). Why do we have crisis moments like this?   Why is it that sometimes the guidance of God appears to be going pear-shaped? Just so that we can learn that He is still with us, is still in control, is still working out His purposes which will succeed. Father wants His kids to learn to trust Him for all these things, but it is a process, often a slow process. Grumble or grow, are the two choices. Choose well.

Further Consideration: I feel almost in despair at times over the Christian world. A member of the church rings me up to ask me to pray for members of their family who are in a mess. Not wanting to be discouraging I say I will pray but deep down I know the only meaningful prayer for these people who have been living godless and unrighteous lives is, “Lord, please save them.” Then and then only will they start putting their lives straight and peace, order and blessing will start to flow. Until then, we may ask God to bless them – and He might well do that – but all that means is He will stick on a plaster and they will carry on living godless and unrighteous lives and getting in a mess.

This is very different from the mess that Israel are in at the present point of our meandering through the Scriptures. They have just received an amazing deliverance and are on their way out of Egypt but the cause of their past slavery threatens them yet again. In fact the present threat is worse than they knew before because Pharaoh is now determined to kill them. I say it is different and yet in both cases the past needs putting to death.

The New Testament is quite clear: when we turn to Christ we are to die to the old life, described by the apostle Paul as, “gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts,” (Eph 2:3) and in Rom 6 he uses the language of death and resurrection to describe what has happened to us. In Israel’s case Pharaoh is about to be put to death, that is the only way to completely free Israel from their past in Egypt. When Paul says, “count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus,” (Rom 6:11) he means, consider yourself dead to that old life – of godlessness and unrighteousness – but now tuned in to living with God. There can be no half and half. Be transformed, live it, experience it and stand firm in it for it is what Christ has earned for you on the Cross. Hallelujah!