3. God of Self-Disclosure

Getting to Know God Meditations:  3. God of Self-Disclosure

Ex 3:6  Then he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.”

Taken for Granted?  Do we, who are believers, take for granted what is happening in the verse above, and if you are a new seeker, I wonder if you realize the enormity of what is happening here? As a reminder to believers and to explain to newcomers, Moses is talking with God. This is Moses, otherwise known in more recent cinematic terms as the Prince of Egypt. He has messed up and ended up caring for sheep for forty years in the desert, hundreds of miles from his old home in Egypt. One day he has a strange experience. He sees a bush on fire and yet it is not being destroyed. He wanders over to take a look and at the point a voice from nowhere appears to speak to him, claiming to be the God of his forefathers.

Now here is the challenging thing. We are saying there is a God as described in the Bible and sometimes (not often) He speaks out loud. This God is a communicating God, a God who communicates with human beings – and that is the claim right the way through the entire Bible. He speaks in a variety of ways but the claim is He communicates. (If there is a God, a living Being, why shouldn’t He communicate?) Now when He communicates here, He is saying to Moses that He is the same God who had communicated with the men we now refer to as the Patriarchs, the fathers of Israel.

Sequential History: And thus we are faced with sequential history, events following on from one another, not events that are free standing, we might say, but events that have direct links. In Genesis chapter 12 we are introduced to a pagan, a Semite who originated in Ur in Mesopotamia, a man who became referred to as “Abraham the Hebrew” (Gen 14:13). The origins of this word ‘Hebrew’ are unclear but the basis means ‘cross over  or pass through’. Later Joshua said of him, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Long ago your ancestors, including Terah the father of Abraham and Nahor, lived beyond the Euphrates River and worshiped other gods. But I took your father Abraham from the land beyond the Euphrates and led him throughout Canaan and gave him many descendants. I gave him Isaac, and to Isaac I gave Jacob and Esau.” (Josh 24:2-4) The river appears to be the Euphrates.

This Joshua was the army commander who led Israel after Moses eventually died. Note again there is this historical flow in what he says: Abram, who God renamed Abraham, had a son Isaac, who had two sons Jacob and Esau and God renamed Jacob, Israel. Israel had twelve sons and as their families grew and developed they became a nation we now call Israel. But here’s another challenging thing: in what Joshua says, he maintains God spoke and declared He was the reason these families, and this nation, existed. When you read the story in detail in Genesis chapter 12 on, you can see why this claim is made. It is history, but history that includes the activity of God and that activity includes speaking, as well as a number of other things. The idea of a God who stands back and just watches this world is alien to the Bible, this God interacts with human beings.

More Self-Disclosure: Now in that same account of Moses at the burning bush we find Moses going on to ask a very pertinent question, pertinent in a world full of superstition and lots of ‘gods’, Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?” (Ex 3:13)Now if I was just making up this story I would have God say to Moses, “Just say God sent you, that should be enough,” but He doesn’t, He says something I could never have dreamed up: God said to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’” (Ex 3:14) As if that isn’t bad enough, He goes on, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you.’” (v.15)

Now there is a footnote in the Bible that the translators have put in, in respect of the word LORD seen there in capital letters, The Hebrew for Lord sounds like and may be related to the Hebrew for I am in verse 14.” There was a custom in the Hebrew language for names to have meanings conveyed by words with similar sounds. Put most simply, whenever the word LORD appears in the Bible in the capital letters it is shorthand for “I am who I am”. So what are we to make of “I AM”? I would suggest, in line with the rest of the teaching of the Bible that it is God’s shorthand for saying, “I am eternal – I am, I always am, I always was, I always will be – I am outside of time.”

Now if we think about this some more, it is also like God is saying, “I am utterly different from all the ‘gods’ people make up”.  Perhaps you know something of the later gods of Greece and later the gods of Rome, figures with very human fallible characteristics.  One well known atheist has said something like, “If there wasn’t a god, human beings would have to invent one, it’s what they have always done.” So, yes, the nations of what we call the Middle East had their ‘gods’ and the voice speaking to Moses is essentially saying, “Don’t even think of me in the same breath! I am the Eternal One, the One who has always existed and always will exist.” I said in the first study that philosophers will say that the definition of God has to be One for whom there can be no one greater, and perhaps we should add, who is beyond our comprehension in that He has no beginning and no end.

Limited Self-Disclosure: We have simply started, in a very basic way, thinking about the fact that the Bible shows God revealing Himself to mankind in the ways we find in the Bible, but we have to say that it is very limited. Yes, He is eternal, yes, He does communicate and we will go on to see He is very much a God of Purpose, and that is all very clear from what we find in the Bible. There is also a great deal more of Him that can be found out by reading the Bible – as we will go on to do – but the fact of the matter is that even with all of what great books of theology might say, we know very little of who God is.

Why? Because my mind cannot grasp what eternal means. I know the definition but I cannot (and you cannot) comprehend the fact of a Being that has no beginning and no end. Young searchers often want to ask such questions as, ‘Well, how did God come into being, everything has a beginning?’ I have no idea, I just said I don’t know what eternal means, I cannot comprehend it. Having said there is a great deal of mystery surrounding the Being that we are constantly referring to as God (with a capital G) that doesn’t mean we are completely in the dark, for the point is that the Bible is all about God’s self-disclosure, His revelation of Himself, and there is a lot of it – and that is what (hopefully) this series is all about. Stay with me and we’ll see where it goes, and I hope you will find it happens in a way that is satisfactory, even though it cannot answer every possible question, I hope it will answer a lot of the questions that usually arise.

Snapshots: Day 29

Snapshots: Day 29

The Snapshot: “a man wrestled with him till daybreak.”  We might think it is a rare thing to be commended by God for wrestling with Him, but when the man in question insists, “I will not let you go unless you bless me,” that pleases God, for that is exactly what is on His heart for mankind – that we cling to Him to be blessed, to be saved, to be redeemed, to receive the blessing that only He can impart. We will come out of the wrestling match changed, perhaps in a way we hadn’t envisaged and indeed don’t fully appreciate, but from then on we will never forget God and He will always be our first port of call in the struggles of life. No longer will we be plotting our own well-being for we will have His blessing and will never be the same again,.

Further Consideration: Wrestling with God? That needs some thinking about because Jacob was commended by God for wrestling with Him until He blessed him, but not all ‘wrestling’ is like that. Perhaps the greatest example of wrestling with God where the objective of the wrestler was seek to get victory over God for no other reason that pure self-centredness, is that of Pharaoh opposing Moses in Exodus. No of course it wasn’t a literal wrestling match of Pharaoh with God but Pharaoh’s attitude, his words and his actions, are clearly as much a struggle against God to get his own way, as if it has been a literal match.

God is seeking to get Pharaoh to submit to His will and we see it is a totally unbalanced contest because He is so infinitely more stronger than Pharaoh, but Pharaoh doesn’t believe that. But then that is why unbelievers wrestle with God, resist Him, and try and get their own way; they just don’t realize exactly who it is they are resisting. If they realized the truth they would give in instantly.

But when it comes to believers, they sense something and, I would suggest, it is something inspired by the Holy Spirit. It is that God can bless them, can answer a prayer – and wants to, if only they will ask and ask.

The problem is that very often we just don’t believe that God desires good for us; it is one of the offshoots of being a sinner, redeemed, yes, but still tainted with these things. And so it is that we catch the truth and pray it, and God coyishly holds back before answering. We pause but sense it is right, this thing, so we pray again, and again, and as we pray we come to see that this IS the truth, this IS what God wants and so we pray with more urgency. I will not let you go until you bless me!  Jesus taught, “Ask – and keep on asking (the verb tense)- and it will be given you.” (Mt 7:7) Why? For our benefit so we will come to realize the truth of what we are asking for.

Snapshots: Day 27

Snapshots: Day 27

The Snapshot: “His brother came out grasping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob.” Perceptions, hopes and dreams, all wrong, all muddled, all forgetting God. Here’s the first twin – he will be great. No he won’t. Here’s the second twin, a grabber, a twister, a schemer, a hopeless case. True but that’s forgetting God again. He knows what we’re really like, He knows what He can do with us, that’s why we’re chosen, because He looked into the future and saw what we could become. Jacob is going to become a great Patriarch, a godly man with God’s heart who will prophesy over all his family with amazing insight. We all start by being ‘schemers’, plotting our own well-being, and God enables us to become something quite glorious, His children. How wonderful. Thank you, Lord.

Further Consideration: Yesterday I sought to encourage us to come into understanding God’s will. Many years ago my wife and I sensed we should move to the town where we now are. We sought to do so but it just wasn’t happening. Eventually I took a piece of paper and made a list of twelve reasons why I felt we needed to be in that new place, and I took it to the Lord and said, “Lord, why aren’t you letting us move? These are the reasons we need to be over there.” Quick as a shot came back from heaven, “Now you understand I will move you.” We were in within three months. Forty years later we’re still here.

So often we see the circumstances and stick with them and see no further. We ‘caught’ a sense of needing to move but it took a while to truly understand what was on God’s heart. But I say again, so often we ‘see’ with our eyes and either simply accept the status quo of what we see, or misunderstand what we see because we have not consulted God. The situation involving Jacob is strange.

You see Rebekah shows herself to be a godly woman because, after twenty years pass and she eventually finds herself pregnant and there is a heaving going on inside, we read, “she said, “Why is this happening to me?” So she went to inquire of the Lord,” (Gen 25:22) and the Lord told her, “Two nations are in your womb ….   and the older will serve the younger.” (Gen 25:23) so when Esau came out first followed by Jacob grasping his heel, she clearly didn’t tell Isaac (or he ignored her) because they did not take on board the fact that Jacob would become the leader of the two, and thus they gave him a name that stuck – grasper, twister, deceiver. He certainly lived up to that name until he ended wrestling with God and was changed.

But do we misread the situation, do we fail to seek God for understanding and clarity? How much do we let such things dictate life, or do we let prophecy direct it and rejoice and go along with it?

5. A Scheming Patriarch

Reaching into Redemption Meditations: 5. A Scheming Patriarch

Gen 25:25,26   The first to come out was red, and his whole body was like a hairy garment; so they named him Esau. After this, his brother came out, with his hand grasping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob

 Recap: We are observing God’s redemptive plans and actions as we see them being worked out in the lives of people in the Bible. We saw how He related to Cain and despite Cain committing murder, set him on a redemptive course where he had opportunity after opportunity to be changed while under the Lord’s protection. Then we saw Abraham called to follow, but initially getting it wrong; yet in the long-term a transformed believer. Amazing. But that is redemption.

Jacob the crook: Yes, that is what Jacob was at heart. At the moment of birth he was clutching at his older brother’s heel as if to say, “I’m not letting you get ahead of me,” and thus he was named Jacob. (A note in your Bible probably says, “Jacob means he grasps the heel, a Hebrew idiom for he deceives.”) Thus he was branded, ‘deceiver’. He lived up to his name by first of all by playing on his brother’s weakness and stealing his birth right (see Gen 25:29-34) and then conniving to steal his brother’s blessing (see Gen 27). Later, when he was living with his uncle Laban, we see him scheming to get more flocks from his uncle (Gen 30:30-43).

Jacob and God: Now if those were the ways Jacob sought to overcome people, how about his attitude towards God? Well on his travelling to his uncle he has a dream after which we find, Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father’s household, then the Lord will be my God.” (Gen 28:20-22) There is almost a bartering aspect to this; note the words in bold. Later at the end of his time with Laban we find, “Then the Lord said to Jacob, “Go back to the land of your fathers and to your relatives, and I will be with you.” (Gen 31:3) As he explains to his two wives, the daughters of Laban, he reveals how he had had a dream from God that enabled him to be prosperous (see Gen 31:4-9). He is beginning to speak ‘God-talk’. (see also 31:42) On his journey home he hears Esau is coming and in fear he prays (see Gen 32:9-12). He is slowly becoming godly but there is still a heart to be fully changed, and so we come to the crisis point of his life when he wrestles with God through the night and the Lord eventually makes him submit (see Gen 32:24-32). He is a changed man.

The Big Picture: Now here is the big question: how could God possibly go with a crook, a schemer, a deceiver? Well it’s all to do with the big picture, the long-term plan of God who looks upon us and sees what He can achieve with us. Dare we go with Jeremiah to whom the Lord said, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart;” (Jer 1:5). Dare we take hold of the apostle Paul’s words, “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship] through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will,” (Eph 1:4,5) and, “In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory.” (Eph 1:11,12) These are all words about God who knows before it happens in time-space history how it will all work out. He knows what you can become. He knew there would come a point of time when you would surrender to Him. He knew how you would fit into His plans to bless the world.

And Jacob? Right from the outset the Lord knew how it would all work out when He said to Rebekah, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger.”  (Gen 25:23) He knew Esau would be casual about his birth right and He knew Jacob would rise up and become prosperous and He knew that Jacob, the twister, would become Jacob the man of God. How can I say that? We have already seen some of the signs that Jacob was changing and turning towards God as the Lord drew him and then wrestled with him but see Jacob the Patriarch prophesying over his sons near the end of his life; this is a man of God! (see Gen 49)

More ‘big picture’: Malachi caught something of this when the Lord declared through him, “I have loved Jacob, but Esau I have hated.” (Mal 1:2,3) Isn’t that incredible. God loved the way the twister changed – and He knew he would change – and He hated the way Esau was so self-centred that he despised his birth right, despised his place in the family chosen by God. The apostle Paul also picked up on this, “in order that God’s purpose in election might stand:  not by works but by him who calls—she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” Just as it is written: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” (Rom 9:10-13) God’s ‘election’ comes from God’s foreknowledge. He knows who will respond to Him, He knows who today will respond to Christ, even before we do, and as such we are part of the redeemed family of God. It’s not because of any good things we do, it is because God called, and we responded and believed. We have seen it in Jacob and it is how it happened with us as we responded to the good news of Christ.

Lessons? I think the key one – next to rejoicing in our own wonderful salvation – is in respect of how we view other people. I always remember a teacher laughingly say, “Be careful how you look down on that young person, next year he may be an apostle!” The truth is we don’t know how we are each going to work out with God. You may look at a child of yours – possibly a prodigal – and despair. Don’t despair, pray. Who knows what God has in store for them. They may appear a Jacob at the moment but keep on praying and you may be one of God’s keys to them becoming a man or woman of God before the end, just like Jacob. Let his story impact you and change how you think about the years to come.

Application for further thought and prayer: Lord, lift my eyes above the mundane present, to catch something of the wonder of your divine working, that looks and sees and plans and works, with whoever you see will respond (today or next month) to redeem them from the mundane present, to perhaps become a man or woman of God – my family, those at church, those around me in life.

8. Selfless or Selfish

Lessons in Growth Meditations: 8. Selfless or Selfish

Phil 2:3  Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.

Self-Centred Pasts: I have, over the years, come to define ‘Sin’ as the propensity to self-centred godlessness that results in unrighteousness. The big thing about our lives before we came to Christ is that they were utterly self-centred. We were the focus of our thoughts and our desires and our hopes and aspirations and ambitions for our future. Now to recap on where we are in this Part, we said that we were considering aspects of our ‘old life’, of our ‘old nature’ that are supposed to have been ‘put to death’ but which, if we can express it in a slightly different way, have a tendency to be resurrected afresh in our new lives. They are things that Satan would encourage in our new lives because he knows they will harm our relationship with the Lord and stunt and prevent growth.

Recapping the Past: We have considered already the matter of sovereignty within our lives – the Lord or me reigning, the struggles we have with people, and especially when we have been harmed by others, we considered how easy it is to make people or things the focus in our lives as we seek for meaning and purpose and a sense of fulfilment – to the exclusion of God – and we considered how trust or its absence can create a climate of anxiety within us. These are the things that were prevalent in our lives before we came to Christ and which are to be put to death in our present lives to enable growth to proceed as it should.

Self-orientated schemers: Now there is a sense whereby selfishness or self-centredness is the environment in which all these other things can flourish, and maybe I should have dealt with it earlier. In the teaching of the New Testament, selfishness is often linked with ambition (Gal 5:20, Phil 1:17, 2:3,  Jas 3:14,16) and ambition is about what we want for ourselves, our goals, our hopes, our dreams, our aspirations. Before we came to Christ, as we looked to our future and wanted good for it, we thought and planned and schemed how we could achieve it, and it was all ‘self’ orientated.

Jacob Style: Jacob is the classic example in the Old Testament of a grabber, a schemer and a twister, a man solely motivated by self. It wasn’t until he had met, encountered and wrestled with God and was broken, that he surrendered to God’s purposes and completely reoriented his life. I know that is what the ‘natural’ me is like and it is still there to be confronted and put to death. We might think that when we surrendered to God that was the end of it, that from then on it would be entirely a life of Him only, but if you believe that, you are deceived. Every situation, every confrontation requires me to put to death that self-desire that wants to control the situation, plan and scheme how I can be an overcomer (overcoming other people that is). We do it in the most simple of ways sometimes that we would deny that we’re even doing it. Whenever we are working to get people to like us, get people on our side, get people to agree with us, and so on, we are subtly doing the ‘self’ thing.

Negotiating Reveals….  But it is a tricky thing because there ARE times when we need to negotiate with others and, we might say, what is wrong with being nice to other people so they are nice to us? Probably nothing at all, but as with so many of these things it is why we are doing it. The other afternoon I spent four hours negotiating for a new car with two different car salesmen. It was just an example of the many times it is right to discuss through a problem or a need with other people. Perhaps the heading of this study could also be ‘godly or godless’ rather than ‘selfless or selfish’, because that, for us who are Christians, is what is at the heart of how we go about things today. Selfishness can be equated with godlessness, and when we look at how two different people go about such things – the selfless/godly versus the selfish/godless –  we will see entirely different approaches.

Take the matter of the negotiation I referred to. The actions and words of the selfish/godless are likely to exhibit tension, stress, even anger, putting pressure on the other, even rudeness. In my negotiating I started by praying and asking for God’s wisdom and grace. In the course of the conversation with the two different salesmen I sought never to put pressure on, never to be rude and never to use anger as a negotiating weapon. When we declined the offers and figures of the first salesman, who lost his sale as we walked away, we sought to do so with the utmost politeness and graciousness and thanks for his help. In the second encounter, when the salesman left us and went to check with his manager on figures and availability – for fifteen minutes – there was, I confess, a wrestling within to overcome impatience, so that when he returned we were as gracious as before.

Now I take little or no credit for this encounter because there was a simple lesson involved that I have not told you about – my wife was present throughout and she is brilliant at the selfless/godly/gracious thing and will challenge me if I don’t live up to it. Ah, you may say, it wasn’t a godly thing it was a ‘fear-of-the-wife thing. No it wasn’t; she simply helped me keep on the track that I knew was the right one.

Establishing the Structure: I once heard this approach – to behaviour, attitudes, thoughts, words and deeds – likened to a building site where they are casting concrete columns. They put up formwork or shuttering into which the wet concrete mix is poured, and then left to harden and strengthen. Only when it is hard and strong can the formwork be struck, taken down. There is a process in the Christian life whereby we need help, we need support, we need ‘shuttering’ to help us form our attitudes or behaviour. It’s called discipline, it takes effort and initially it needs help. Now, the more we do this, the more we get set in our behaviour-attitude patterns, and no longer need the help, we do it automatically. Now where is the Holy Spirit in all this?  He is there helping us and helping the attitudes-behaviour get set in the selfless-godly mould.

You think this is self-help? Consider Paul’s teaching: Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.” (Col 3:1-3) First see the motivation: we’ve been raised, because we first died. Then the actions we have to choose to take – set our goals (hearts) on heaven where Jesus rules, set our thinking (minds) on our heavenly home from which our resources come and to which we will one day go.

Our Part: Having orientated our hearts (will) and minds (thinking) he does on, Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature,” (v.5) and later “clothe yourselves with …. And over all these virtues put on love,” (v.12-14). We might add the word, ‘you’ to emphasise that this is an act of the will, for this is what Paul means: “YOU put to death…. YOU clothe yourselves…. YOU put on love.” The godly-selfless approach WORKS to achieve the end goal of getting rid of the old life and putting on (bringing about, creating) a new life in the image of Christ. The more we do it (work at it) the more natural it becomes. You find this same sort of language in Eph 4. Look for all the ‘Do’s and ‘Do-not’s. This is the way to growth. Let’s follow it.

5. Expectations Interrupted

Expectations & Hopes Meditations: 5. Expectations Interrupted

Gen 32:24   So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak

The Appearance of Jacob: We have already started to consider Jacob in the previous study but what I want to focus on was the expected destiny of this man and why it didn’t turn out as we might have expected. Everything about Jacob in his younger years said ‘grabber’ or ‘twister’. That had been the meaning of his name, simply because when he was born as the second twin, he was clutching at the heel of the first one born, Esau. From the outset he seemed to be clutching for something more, and that from his brother.

A Birth-right Taken:  Then there was the silly incident as the two boys started to grow up, when Esau came in, hot, sweaty and tired after a day’s hunting. Jacob clearly preferred the home life and was cooking (Gen 25:29). When Esau came in, He said to Jacob, “Quick, let me have some of that red stew! I’m famished!” (v.30) and at this point Jacob first showed his real colours: “Jacob replied, “First sell me your birthright.” (v.31) In response Esau showed his casual feeling about his family and inheritance: “Look, I am about to die,” Esau said. “What good is the birthright to me?” (v.32) But Jacob pushed it: “But Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore an oath to him, selling his birthright to Jacob.” (v.33) It concludes, “Then Jacob gave Esau some bread and some lentil stew. He ate and drank, and then got up and left. So Esau despised his birthright.” (v.34) We tend to remember Esau’s casual attitude, but it was provoked by Jacob’s conniving.

A Blessing Stolen: Then later there was the incident we have already previously referred to where I said Jacob conned Esau out of his father’s blessing. It is too long to recount (Gen 27:1-40) but by the help of his mother in an even more devious scheme he made his near blind father believe he was giving the blessing to the older son. Third indicator of a grabber!

Jacob with Laban: Jacob has to flee the wrath of his brother and is sent by his parents to look for a wife from the brother of his mother, i.e. from his uncle, Laban. It is there that Jacob seems to meet his match when he falls for Laban’s younger daughter but is palmed off with the older, uglier one and ends up having to work fourteen years for Laban to win the hands of both girls. (see Gen 29:16-30)

Jacob and the Lord: However, before we observe his dealings with Laban, we need to pick up on an incident that occurred on his way to Laban. He had a dream (Gen 28:11-22) about the gateway to heaven and the Lord met him and reiterated His promise to multiply his family and give him the land. When he awoke Jacob made a vow: “If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father’s house, then the LORD will be my God and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God’s house, and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth.” (Gen 28:20-22) But note the conditional almost bartering and almost condescending nature of it. IF God will look after me, He can become my God and I’ll make this place His house and I’ll even do what others do and give my deity a tenth of what I earn. It is still the words of an entrepreneur (who certainly doesn’t realise the magnitude of the LORD, the I AM.)

Jacob connives to be rich: Back in Laban’s service we see Jacob working to enlarge his flocks at the cost of Laban’s. It is a strange thing and somewhat unclear, but before we get to that we need to see it in context. God clearly blesses him as he works the years for Laban’s daughters and he also starts accumulating children by the dozen (literally!) and having done that decides he wants to leave (30:25,26). Laban knows he is on to a good thing and so bribes him to stay (30:28). Thus Jacob suggests he earn by taking every spotted or speckled sheep or goat to be his wages. Laban goes along with this but quietly removes all the male sheep or goats that were speckled or spotted (30:35). By a devious and somewhat strange way Jacob nevertheless gets the sheep and goats to breed with speckles or spots and accumulates great flocks. (30:37-43)

Jacob starts for home: Cutting a long story short Jacob eventually leaves, a very rich man. On his way back he hears that the word has got to his brother who is coming to meet him with a great crowd of men. He fears retribution for the past and so, schemer that he is, he divides up his great flocks into two (37:7,8) – and prays. Now again we need to briefly backtrack When Laban had realised Jacob was out-foxing him, he began to feel negative about him and at that point the Lord told him to return home (31:3). On the way home, after he had left Laban, he sees angels and “When Jacob saw them, he said, “This is the camp of God!” So he named that place Mahanaim.” (32:1) which means “two camps” i.e. he still sees God as being off and distinct from him. It is then he splits his flocks to cope with Esau. He is still planning and scheming.

Jacob Changed? Now we have spent quite a while identifying the sort of person Jacob is, a twister and a schemer, but as I commented in the previous study, when you come to the end of his life we find a godly old man, full of wisdom and the Lord, prophesying amazingly over his large family. What changed him? We would have expected him to grow into an even more curmudgeonly old man out to rook everyone in sight – but he’s not.

Jacob’s Night Encounter: The answer has to be an encounter he now has with the Lord – not just a quiet word into his ear, but a full-on confrontational encounter where the two of them wrestle throughout the night (see Gen 32:24-30). He had just before this, prayed and asked the Lord to deal with Esau for him (32:9-12) but had then – still in scheming mode – plotted to send small groups ahead as gifts for Esau to turn his heart. Prayer and scheming.

So he wrestles with God throughout the night and the Lord’s intent is to make him give up and submit – but he won’t.  So God puts his hip out, so he limped for the rest of his life and could no longer wrestle. It was almost like the Lord was saying, “Look don’t you realise I can demolish you any time I want. I’ve just disabled you so that you can go on, but you will be limited – and I’ll rename you Israel as a constant reminder to you that you wrestled with me and wouldn’t give up – and that’s why you are like you are now!” From then on he is a changed man.

And Us? Look, here’s the lesson and it is a major one that can affect us or our children or our church. We can be set in our destiny it appears, set in our worldliness, set in our human thinking, our planning and our scheming, and it looks like the future is set – and then God steps in and intervenes and something devastating happens. We don’t realise it is from Him, but it is. Maybe He brings it, maybe He just lifts off His hand of protection for a moment – and we are humbled, and the future is changed. We are suddenly godly.  We are suddenly prayerful. It happens in a measure when we first came to Christ, but it has a habit of happening again – and maybe again, if the Lord sees we are failing to submit to His will that wants to bless us. Hold your future expectations lightly. Hold them in the face of God and remember, “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,.”  is the wisest outlook to hold on to!

 

4. God’s Plan, not mine

Expectations & Hopes Meditations: 4. God’s Plan, not mine

Gen 25:23   “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger.”

Family Expectations: The awareness of being pregnant surely brings an anticipation of the days ahead, and indeed the years ahead. The creation of a family must surely be one of the greatest forces for raising expectations of the future – and also the potential for getting it wrong! How many children have suffered and been distorted from God’s design from them, by their parents own expectations. Again and again I watch young parents – and it may be the mother or the father – who works to do everything possible to provide the best for their child or children and guide and steer them to achieve something that is the image of the parents, Within the Hebrew people, there was a regular custom of giving a child a name in accordance with the hopes of the parent. The naming of the sons of Jacob is a classic of this found in Gen 29 & 30, although they tended to be to act as a reminder of the circumstances surrounding the birth. It’s not a practice we tend to follow!

But now we come to Isaac and Rebekah again. Previously we read, Isaac prayed to the LORD on behalf of his wife, because she was barren. The LORD answered his prayer, and his wife Rebekah became pregnant.” (Gen 25:21) For twenty years Rebekah had anticipated being a mother – it’s what wives become, isn’t it! Eventually she conceives. At long last! Well it has happened, so what will we name our child, what will they be a boy or a girl, what will they be like? These are the sort of questions would-be parents ask. But then something happens: “The babies jostled each other within her, and she said, “Why is this happening to me?” So she went to inquire of the LORD.” (v.22)

Rebekah seeks the Lord: Now I have the highest respect for Rebekah at this point (she doesn’t do so well later) because after having to wait for twenty years, she has become a godly woman. When something starts going wrong, she talks to God about it. If only more Christians today would build this into their life habits! But more that this, she doesn’t just talk at God (which today so many do in their superstitious prayers) but she enquires of the Lord, she asks Him – and then listens – and hears!  Again, oh, if only more Christians would learn to do this today! The Lord reveals to her that she is carrying twins, but He takes the opportunity of her listening heart to convey something about their future to her: “The LORD said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger.” (v.23).

The boys named: To understand the future we need to see what follows: “When the time came for her to give birth, there were twin boys in her womb. The first to come out was red, and his whole body was like a hairy garment; so they named him Esau. After this, his brother came out, with his hand grasping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when Rebekah gave birth to them” (Gen 25:24-26) Esau simply means ‘red’ and ‘hairy’ so naming a poor child that doesn’t really do much for his self-esteem as he grows up! But if that wasn’t bad enough, Jacob means ‘he grasps the heel” or ‘grabber’! It was no surprise that Jacob grew up to be that sort of person!

So, although I said I admired the way she sought the Lord, once the babies have arrived – and it may be a sign of her weariness after having had twins – she doesn’t do a good job giving them inspiring names. Maybe it was a sign of what both the parents felt about God after having had to wait for Him to turn up for twenty years. I don’t know.  If they were around today, Esau’s friends would probably unkindly refer to him as ‘that hairy mutt’. Jacob, well possibly, “here comes the grabber, hold on to your toys!” Not a good entry.

Upset causes divergence: All of this is followed, once they reach the age of maturity, by a rite of blessing and it all goes horribly wrong with Jacob conning his brother out of the best blessing (see Gen 27:1-40), but this is only after Esau has already shown he doesn’t care anything about his birthright (see Gen 25:29-34). In the long term the family tree of the people of God stayed with Jacob who became Israel, while Esau went off and married a Canaanite in a peak of anger (Gen 28:8,9) and becomes father of the Edomites who became enemies of Israel so often. (see Gen 25:30, 36:1-)

God’s Sovereignty? Now the apostle Paul uses this situation to demonstrate the sovereignty of God in choosing who He will (Rom 9:10-13) but a wider reading of Scripture suggests again and again, that ‘God’s sovereignty’, while clearly being that, is in fact based upon what He sees and knows from the outset before the world is even created. how unique individuals will use their free will to choose the life they will live, and in the light of that, He chooses who will be blessed, but it is simply those who turn to Him and follow Him. Thus in the story we have been considering, the Lord knew the outcome when he said to Rebekah, “one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger,” and knew that Esau would despise his family name, care little about his parents (thus dishonoring them) and go off contrary to the declared will of God (to bless the world through this particular family) and marry Canaanites. He knew that although Jacob would start off his life as a twister, he would end up a wise old Patriarch who we see prophesying over all his boys and thus growing into a nation that God would bless and use.

And Us? And so? Be careful with your expectations for your family. Pray your heart out for them for God to bless them and draw them to Himself but be careful not to have favourites who you spoil to the detriment of the others (as we’ll see in later studies), and don’t try and make your children something other than God has designed into them. Your child may be an artist. Let him be. Your child may be a scientist. Let her be. Guide them ethically and morally by all means, be the example we have spoken of before, of faith and righteousness, but don’t impose your image on them. Hold your expectations lightly as you pray for them daily, otherwise you may be working against the will of God!

11. Know your God

Meditations in Exodus: 11. Know your God

Ex 3:5,6    Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” Then 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.

Living in the day in which we live, with the entire Bible at our disposal, I am certain we take for granted the amount of knowledge about God we have at hand. It is perhaps only when we consider these early books of the Bible that we realise it hasn’t always been so. The revelation of who the Lord is came only slowly.

Moses has been carrying on his business looking after his sheep when he is arrested by the sight of a bush on fire but not being consumed. He wanders over to get a closer look and as he does so he finds a voice speaking to him from within the fire. The voice calls him by name. Who or what it is knows who he is. As he goes to get closer to it he is then told to beware for this is holy ground. Now that must have meant something to him and when the voice identifies itself as the God of his ancestors, of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, it creates within him a sense of awe and he covers his face, not wishing to look directly into the flames.

Now what might it have been that provoked that reaction? Well, by designating Himself as He did, the Lord indicates that He knows that Moses has been taught about the history of the Hebrews. To say that He is the God of these three Patriarchs puts content to any consideration of who God is. He had had dealings with each of those three men and in those dealings had revealed a lot about Himself. What do those men tell us about God?

  • First, that He is a God who can communicate with human beings.
  • Second, He is a God who knows all about us.
  • Third, He reveals He has purposes for us that lift us from the level of self-centred godless sin to the level of a significant God-relating human being who can bring good to the world.
  • Fourth, He persists with us even when we are slow to comprehend what is happening.
  • Fifth, He can intervene in this material world to bring changes to our circumstances and to our very lives.
  • Sixth, He clearly knows what is coming in the future.
  • Seventh, He knows what He can do with individuals, i.e. their potential.
  • Eighth, He works in, through and around us for the good of mankind.
  • Ninth, He is the Creator who made all things.

Now most of those things came about by observing the things He did with those three men The last one came about by revelation passed on through Melchizedek to Abram (Gen 14:19,20).

He had communicated with each of them speaking about their future and the Land He promised them. Despite Abram’s fumblings with the will of God and getting into trouble in Egypt and having a child through a servant, the Lord persisted with him. Despite Jacob being a scheming cunning deceiver, He persevered with him. When neither Abram nor Isaac appeared to be able to have children, He enabled their wives to conceive. He clearly was a God who KNOWS, who CAN CHANGE circumstances and HAS STANDARDS and  PLAN FOR THE FUTURE.

The reality of all of that together with the knowledge that He is the Creator of the whole world puts Him on a very different footing to the idols and gods of other nations. Moses would have known all the gods of Egypt after having lived there for forty years and to be confronted now by a challenger to all of that Egyptian mysticism, occultism and superstition was a serious challenge. Whereas life with the gods of Egypt just went on and on with annual repetition and nothing done in respect of them seemed to change anything, the stories that had been carried down in the family of the happenings of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob indicated a God who was not about mystical mumbo-jumbo but an all-powerful Being who clearly DID communicate and DID act into people’s lives to bring changes. Dealing with this God had a feeling of reality about it, whereas placating the apparent gods of Egypt just released a sense of fear and uncertainty.

In the light of these things, we might ask ourselves two questions. Question number one: do we have a clear idea of who the Lord is by what we read of Him in the Bible, or is our reading so spasmodic and purposeless that we are left with a hazy picture of who He is and we are uncertain about His intentions toward us?  Question number two: do we place our reliance upon things or methods or whatever else of the twenty-first century in a hope that ‘they’ will bring us support and comfort and a sense of wellbeing, or do we see that everything for a sense of wellbeing comes out of a living and real relationship with God?

I ask these things because I have a feeling that the Christianity I see portrayed on ‘Christian TV’ seems to often rely on twenty-first century “you are a good person with a great potential” (which can be utterly godless and the mantra of Personal Trainers or Life-Skills Mentors).  The thing about the gods of Egypt was that they were focused on things  – rivers, animals, weather etc. etc. Moses is being confronted with a PERSON who is real, who is there, who is communicating with him and who is utterly different from anything he encountered in his life all those years ago in Egypt – and it is that which is going to be at the heart of all that is coming shortly. Not things. Not methods. Not ego-boosting words. A person! THE person. That is who you and I are confronted by in these verses and in our daily lives.

1. Circumstances

Meditations in Exodus:  1. Circumstances

Ex 1:5-7    The descendants of Jacob numbered seventy in all; Joseph was already in Egypt. Now Joseph and all his brothers and all that generation died, but the Israelites were fruitful and multiplied greatly and became exceedingly numerous, so that the land was filled with them.

Exodus has never before seemed to me to be a fruitful field for mediation but its seems to call and especially with the question, what can I learn from what I read? This obviously should always be the background question that must follow in study of the Bible after finding out first what the original writers sought to convey, else that study simply remains an intellectual exercise. But God’s word is here to teach us, challenge us and train us (see 2 Tim 3:16).

The account starts out by reminding us who were the sons of Israel who now found themselves in Egypt with old man Israel: eleven sons, Joseph already being there (1:1-5), seventy (or 75 according to the footnote) in all. They had come because of a famine that covered the whole of the area. Very clearly, in hindsight at least, God had used Joseph to become the bringer of wisdom to the king of Egypt, both foretelling the coming years of good then bad, and how to deal with the seven years of famine that would come. It is a complex story and one which had its origins right back with grandfather Abram being given the revelation by God of what would happen: Then the LORD said to him, “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and after ward they will come out with great possessions.” (Gen 15:13,14). It is also a story of mystery.

Now why do I say that? Well, the question has to arise in the  thoughtful person, did God simply know that in the workings of this fallen world a famine would occur in the not too distant future or did He purposefully bring it?  Knowing it was coming, could He not have prevented it?  Knowing it was coming, did He have to allow Joseph to go through years of slavery and imprisonment before being brought into Pharaoh’s court with divine knowledge and wisdom to help him?  Knowing that Israel and his family would end up in Egypt could He not have told them to go back home after the famine was past so they did not end up in a disadvantageous position in the centuries to come? All good and valid questions!

Well there was a clue given two verses on: In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.” (Gen 15:16)  Much, much later on in the story the Lord reveals that He has a threefold purpose  that will be revealed nearer the end of the story and it is well to keep these things in mind throughout:

  1. To bring judgment on Egypt for all their superstitious and occult-based idol worship and the intransigent pride of the Pharaoh who will be ruling in some four hundred years time,
  2. To being judgment on the Canaanites (‘Amorites’ is shorthand for the Canaanite mixed peoples) who will become another general people-group who will have degenerated into pagan occult idol worship of the most terrible kind, and
  3. To provide Israel with a home of their own, in a manner they will never forget and which will reveal amazing things about God.

Now of course  all these thing become clear only in retrospect.  How much of it all was simply the outworkings of a broken, fallen world, and the sinful goings on of people, and how much of it was the purposeful working of God we can never know. It is clear from Scripture that God works through His knowledge of what people will do and how they will respond, and so He will intervene in ways that help direct, guide or change the affairs of men.  He never seems to make men and women respond in the ways they do but He clearly knows how they will respond in given circumstances.

So what do these ponderings on the early affairs of life of Israel teach us?  Well first of all that the circumstances that we find ourselves in are a combination of:

  1. the workings of a broken and fallen world that ‘goes wrong’
  2. the activities of sinful human beings, including us! and
  3. the intervention and working of Almighty, all-knowing and all-wise God

Moreover, in respect of where we are in history, it comes from

  1. a life of interaction of all these things,
  2. many of which we will not be aware and
  3. which we do not know their destination, i.e. where they are taking us.

Does that leave a sense of lost-ness, for that is what a lot of people do genuinely feel deep down, and that is quite understandable.  If we do not believe in God, then life is just a random jumble. We may believe in God but a God who keeps things close to His chest and we are left in the dark. But that isn’t how it is supposed to be with Christians for the New Testament gives us a sense that there IS purpose and direction to our lives.

For example, “he chose us in him before the creation of the world…. he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment.”(Eph 1:4,9,10)  Then a little later on, “we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Eph 2:10)  Whatever else those verses say, they indicate God has plans and purposes and we are part of them.

So, is this world a mess of random and shamble-like circumstances. A mess? Yes, it seems like that sometimes. Random? Well not really but we’ve seen how various things interact with one another. Shamble-like?  Well it may seem like that sometimes but we need to remind ourselves of some fundamental truths: “Jesus said…, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working.” (Jn 5:17) and  “we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Rom 8:28)  God does not sit around doing nothing. He has plans and purposes and He is constantly working on them and however we are involved He is working to bring good into our lives – in all things!

How much Israel was aware of being in God’s purposes we can’t be fully sure but there are certainly some things He was clear about and we’ll pick them up in the next study.

4. Jacob or Israel

Meditations on “The Big Picture” 4:  Jacob or Israel

Gen 32;28     Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome. 

There are some people or names that are so familiar that we simply miss their presence or significance. My concordance tells me that the name ‘Israel’ appears 1841 times in the Bible and the name ‘Jacob’ appears 363 times. In other words, this man or this nation or this land gets mentioned over two thousand times in the Bible. (The name ‘Jesus’ gets 1274 mentions). The story starts with the name Jacob and ends with the name Israel. It starts with a man and ends with a nation and a land.

First of all the man. He is a twin, born of Rebekah and Isaac is his father. His twin, born minutes before him is Esau. (see Gen 25:24,25)  His name means grabber, or deceiver, given because from the womb he appeared to grab the heel of his brother. He was very different from his brother who was a hunter and cared little for his birthright, something considered very important in those days.  Thus Esau sold Jacob his birthright for a meal (see Gen 25:29-34). Later on, when Isaac was an old man and nearly blind, Jacob and his mother worked to deceive Isaac into giving him the family blessing (see Gen 27:1-41)  Because of this Esau was against Jacob who had to flee and go and live with a distant uncle where he lived for many years (see Gen 27:42-45) To cut a long story short his time with Laban was characterised by these two men, appearing as bad as one another, plotting to get the better of one another. Jacob, over the years prevailed and accumulated many flocks and herds of his along the way, and also ended up marrying Laban’s two daughters, Rachel and Leah. Over the years there appears to be a competition to see who can bear Jacob the most sons and into this competition are drawn two maids, Bilhah and Zilpar. The end result of all this was twelve sons and one daughter. The twelve sons obviously grew and had families and in the course of time each of these families grew and became a tribe. We thus have the twelve tribes of Israel.

Israel? Yes, if you are not familiar with the story, on his way home after his years with Laban, Jacob wrestled in the middle of the night with a man who turns out to be God. Although losing the wrestling match, Jacob will not let go of his opponent and so the Lord simply puts his hip out of joint to completely disable him and make him unable to continue but then we find, “Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel,  because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.” (Gen 32:28)  Israel means “he struggles with God”.

Now of course that is a two sided name because we might think it is praise for having held on to God through their midnight tussle but the truth was that Jacob had, in one way or another, struggled with God throughout his life.  He was such a schemer that everything he did was for himself. As we’ve already seen, he had robbed his brother of his birthright and his blessing. When he was fleeing to Laban, Jacob had a dream and saw the angels ascending and descending and the Lord had reiterated His intent to give his family the land. Instead of just gratefully receiving that promise Jacob’s response had been, If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father’s house, then the LORD will be my God.”  (Gen 28:21-22).  It is the language of bargaining. He still has the mentality of one who bargains with God, trying to get his own way. He doesn’t realise that he has been chosen by God anyway. Before the wrestling incident, on his way back, he had prayed, “Save me, I pray, from the hand of my brother Esau, for I am afraid he will come and attack me, and also the mothers with their children. But you have said, `I will surely make you prosper and will make your descendants like the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted.” (Gen 32:11,12) Yes, he is calling on the Lord but it is as if he is leaning on the Lord to fulfil His promise to look after him. It is still the language of one pressing a bargain and that is how Jacob had lived.

We need to go right back to the beginning of Jacob’s story: “Isaac prayed to the LORD on behalf of his wife, because she was barren. The LORD answered his prayer, and his wife Rebekah became pregnant. The babies jostled each other within her, and she said, “Why is this happening to me?” So she went to inquire of the LORD. The LORD said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger.” (Gen 25:21-23) Later when it came to Isaac blessing the two boys prophetically, this became even more clear. Jacob would be the leader. Read Esau’s side of the story and you see a man who cares little for God or for his heritage; little wonder God, who knows what will be, chose Jacob over Esau. But wasn’t Jacob a twister? Yes, he was to start with and for much of his life, but follow the story to its end and you find an old man who is aware of his birthright, aware of God’s calling on this family, aware of the significance of the Land and who prophesied over his sons before he died. He is a man who honours God’s will and becomes a spiritual giant, a changed man.

And so the family grows in Egypt and becomes over a million people, a nation called Israel. When they eventually take the land of Canaan it will become named by the nation that occupies it, Israel. It may get temporarily renamed Palestine but today we know it as Israel!  As we go on to consider the years, the centuries that followed, we need to remember this is a nation called into being by God. It was not the work of a scheming man but the sovereign calling of God. The two names Jacob (twister, deceiver) and  Israel (struggler with God) say everything about this nation.

Don’t look down on them for these names also describe what the rest of us are like, and like them we too need a marvellous work of grace done in our lives. We are no different; they simply are a nation under a microscope who reveal what the rest of us are like, schemers, twisters, self-serving and godless until God came to us and drew us to Himself to receive His blessing to transform us. Jacob’s prosperity and all his children came in a competitive spirit environment and yet the truth from the outset was that God wanted to bless and use him. Because Jacob was so set in self the Lord simply used that so that a nation would emerge and become the ground on which life with God would be revealed. Amazing!