5. The Big Picture

Studies in Isaiah 54: 5. The Big Picture

Isa 54:6 “The Lord will call you back as if you were a wife deserted and distressed in spirit— a wife who married young, only to be rejected,” says your God.

Two Approaches:  As we look at this verse it appears that there can be two approaches to it. There is the approach that sees it in the context of the history of Israel and then the approach that sees it in the context of the history of the world. Put most simply we have a picture that portrays a wife who has been rejected, deserted and distressed, which can be either Israel or the world (and we will look at both) whom the Lord calls back to Himself. What follows in the ongoing verses is simply an expansion of that.

Israel, the wife: This has to be the primary meaning within a prophecy that comes from a Hebrew prophet to Israel in their time-space history. We must note the words in verse 6, “as if you were”. It is a picture, an analogy, to describe what they are like. The implication is that the Lord is like their husband. He had called them – through Abram and then later through Moses – to become a uniquely identifiable people with a uniquely distinct relationship with Him, a relationship likened to that of a husband and wife.

When? Now there is always a problem with prophecy: it may be spoken out of time, about a future time, a future time that is not yet identifiable, and it may be fulfilled more than once! So the Lord speaks of a time when He had apparently given them up: “For a brief moment I abandoned you,” (v.7a) and, “In a surge of anger I hid my face from you for a moment.” (v.8a) Now in Isa 36 we have an historical insert: “In the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah’s reign, Sennacherib king of Assyria attacked all the fortified cities of Judah and captured them. Then the king of Assyria sent his field commander with a large army from Lachish to King Hezekiah at Jerusalem.”  (Isa 36:1,2)

It was one of those numerous times when the Lord would discipline Israel – to bring them back to Himself – by using an enemy invader. The reality is that it happened so many times – the book of Judges is full of it – that it is difficult to suggest from our perspective when the Lord was referring to. The fact that Isaiah refers to Cyrus, who later becomes an instrument in the Lord’s hand for getting Israel back to the Land after the Exile, suggests it could be that this prophecy is yet to be also used for encouraging Israel in that later time as well as in the present when Isaiah is actually speaking out these words.

A Changed People:  The point of this word – in the present at least – is to reassure Israel that they were not utterly cast away. Now the truth is that the Lord does not just shrug his shoulders and pretend that sin has not happened; He always deals with it. The Exile, possibly many years later, was a time of purging Israel of their idolatry and of creating a new faithful heart in them. Thus when the remnant eventually started returning after some forty years, they came back with changed hearts. We need to realize this, that when the Lord speaks of restoring Israel after a time of disciplining, it is a purged people He will be restoring, a changed people.

He’s not going to just turn the clock back so that the old sinful attitudes are still there and He is doing nothing about it, He is going to change them. Previously, if He appeared to be doing nothing, it was simply that He was staying His hand of judgment to give them time to repent, and if they did not, then the judgment came to discipline them: The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Pet 3:9)

So when we try to understand the ways of the Lord, we should always understand that even though discipline comes, it comes with the purpose of changing us and the end result is to be a restored and changed people, a people who have been cleansed by the judgment (discipline) and had their hearts changed and transformed. Perhaps we should also note the tense at the beginning of verse 6: “The Lord will call you back…” There is a future sense to this. It is the Lord declaring His intention of what is yet to come, but that is how it is so often with prophecy; it is not merely stating God’s will for the moment, it also so often declares it for the future.

The World:  But the second approach we said above is about the world. The big picture of salvation after the Fall is perhaps portrayed here. This is the big picture of God’s plans and purposes for the whole world. At the Fall we were cast away. His relationship with mankind – Adam and Eve – was fractured by sin. When I first studied this judgment of being cast out of the Garden, I marveled that this was not the end of the ‘God + Mankind’ equation. God did not totally abandon us, He gave us what we wanted, what Adam and Eve had revealed, autonomy, the freedom to live our lives as we will – with all the repercussions!  We would learn, we had a need, of someone to save us from the mess that we all make of life.  And thus it was that it was like He hovered in the background. It was clear that He spoke with Cain and Abel, had dealings with various others in the ensuing years, and eventually called Abram into relationship with Him.

The Anger of the Lord: The words of these verses that we are considering could equally be applied to the Fall and what followed it: “The Lord will call you back as if you were a wife deserted and distressed in spirit— a wife who married young, only to be rejected,” says your God.” (v.6) They had a relationship with the Lord to start with, but their sin meant that, “For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with deep compassion I will bring you back. In a surge of anger I hid my face from you for a moment.“ (v.7,8) The folly of sin evokes righteous anger; it is a right response to wrong.

In our defensiveness we so often fail to see this, perhaps only made clear when one of our children do wrong and provoke anger within us.  Anger is a rising of indignation, a rising of displeasure at what has happened. The thing should not have happened, it was pure folly for it to happen – and of course that is true of all sin, we should know better, but there seems to be this blindness that is part of sin, so that we don’t see the folly and so proceed with the sin. It is stupid and so any onlooker with an unbiased mind would feel a sense of anger that it ever happened. If we could see clearly we would feel it; God does see clearly and so feels it.

The Compassion of the Lord:  “I will have compassion on you,” says the Lord your Redeemer.” We may settle in anger and fume; God never does. It may be right to respond with anger at our folly but God never leaves it there. He looks upon us and anger is tempered by compassion. He is love (1 Jn 4:8,16, Ex 34:6,7) and love always looks for the best in everyone else. Anger is appropriate but it is overwhelmed by compassion and out of that God acts to redeem us.

There is a mystery here that C.S.Lewis sought to address, that God appears to stand outside of history, like He looks down on history, as seen as a road below that He can see from beginning to end, but also He steps into history and acts as if everything is new. So although the Scriptures are clear that the Godhead planned salvation, seeing the effect of free-will, even before they made anything, when the Fall took place God’s response to the moment was anger followed by compassion, and it was that compassion that moves Him to continue to interact with mankind. Never say God doesn’t care for us, He does. He may discipline us, “for a little while” (Heb 12:10) but it is that Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace.”  (Heb 12:11).

Thus in these verses we also have the wonder of our salvation. Whenever we fail the Lord and come under His discipline, always remember it is but for a moment and the compassion of God will be there to restore us to Him: “I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 Jn 2:1) God’s constant intent is to redeem us and that is what the whole of the Bible is all about. See it and rejoice in it.  Hallelujah!

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Snapshots: Day 41

Snapshots: Day 41

The Snapshot: “The Lord said, “I have indeed seen…” (Ex 3:7) Foolish people say, “God doesn’t see.” Yes He does! Foolish people say, “God is powerless otherwise He would act.” No He’s not, He’s just waiting for the right time, for the circumstances to be right for action. Don’t worry about Moses, it’s not him, he’s just a plane caught in a holding pattern over the airport, waiting for the right time to land – only he doesn’t know it yet.  We get so caught up in our own little self-concerned worlds that we fail to realise that sometimes God is waiting for bigger things to come into line. Check out Eccles 3:1-8.  Easter came at ‘just the right time’ (Rom 5:6). The trouble is we probably don’t realise these things. That means we are just left with trust, and you can trust Him.

Further Consideration: Theologian, evangelist and writer, Michael Green in his well-known book, ‘Evangelism in the Early Church’, suggested that the Roman peace (pax Romana) meant that “the spread of Christianity would have been inconceivable had Jesus been born a half a century earlier.”  Not only that, the use of the Greek language “was so widely disseminated through the Mediterranean basin that it acted as an almost universal common tongue.” Add to this the existence of the Jewish religion that had spread so far afield, so that “The Christian faith grew best and fastest on Jewish soil, or at least, soil that had been prepared by Judaism,” and you have all the natural ingredients for the rapid spread of the Faith.

We so often, rightly, attribute the spread of the Gospel to the work of the Holy Spirit but that does not say that He doesn’t use the affairs of man in which to work. We would do well to observe that the narratives of the Bible do very clearly move on one from another in clear chronological or historical order with references made again and again to things that happened earlier, and on which current events depend. Unlike a fairy story or so-called ‘myths’ the ‘story line’ within the Bible is not a series of random events, but clearly interlinked events, bound together by common geographical history – and a divinely declared purpose, and it is within this that God moves.

So when the Lord says to Moses, “I have seen….”  that is but the prologue to Him explaining that all this was part of the covenant He had made with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Ex 6:2-8). It is clear that God holds back judgment but knows how long it will take foolish mankind to build up their sin to the point of no return, at which point He steps in. God’s times are not accidental. He sees and He knows how long He can hold back – and then He acts.  Never ever think that we can do things that we can hide from God. We can’t

23. The Significance of Vision

The Wonder of the Church:  Part 4 – Pondering on Vision

23. The Significance of Vision

Prov 29:18 (NKJV) Where there is no revelation, the people cast off restraint (or ‘no prophetic vision’)

Prov 29:18 (AV) Where there is no vision, the people perish

Prov 29:18 (Message)  If people can’t see what God is doing,  they stumble all over themselves; But when they attend to what he reveals,  they are most blessed

Eph 2:10 we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

At Last:   At last we come near to the subject of the Church itself. In Part 1 we considered reasons for approaching the subject of the Church, in Part 2 we considered what made Christians different, and in Part 3 we considered the making of a Christian, or what happens to change the person.  The Church is made up of people, that’s what ‘church’ is, we saw from the early days, and so it was important to cover these previous studies, but now we come to what church actually is, and in so doing I hope we may be able to get a completely fresh insight into who or what this body of people is supposed to be, at least according to the New Testament, the whole of the New Testament, and we will do it in this particular Part by focusing on the subject of ‘vision’. In this short Part we will cover:

23. The Significance of Vision

24. More on ‘Why Vision?’

25. The God Focus

26. Spiritual Expressions

27. Building People

Vision?  I couldn’t help using the Prov 29:18 reference (which we may come back to later) because it always has been a key verse people use for this subject. Having said that, I would simply like to ponder on what vision is and why it is so important. A small anecdote might, however, bring a warning against just going through a procedure. Quite a number of years ago, the church that I led decided to go down this path and so we spent some time waiting on the Lord and formulating that we felt He was saying to us. We came up with a ‘vision statement’ which was relatively general, could be easily understood, fitted scripture, and could be applied to any church. Yet it did have specifics that we could work towards. This we did. A number of years later I was aware that we had worked well on this vision with one exception. There was one part we had not got to grips with. Nevertheless, I felt we were still on track. That was until someone said one day, “We don’t have a vision!” To cut a long story short, with an extended leadership team, we spent another complete year, starting from scratch, praying and seeking for clarity. By the end of this long and not always happy process, we came up with an end result. I will never forget the day that one of the newer members of our leadership team looked at this end product and said, “You know, this is identical to the one we had those years back.”

Lessons? I think, having gone through that double process, there are some lessons to be learnt. First, it is good to wait on the Lord to seek for a sense of purpose and direction. Second, if you do formulate a ‘mission statement’, it should have specifics within it that you can work towards in such a way that you know you have achieved them, i.e. in some way or other they should be measurable. Third, it is vitally important I believe that we convey the statement to the church and catch their heart with it so that they are all on board with it. That means, as I noted above, that it is in line with scripture and easily explainable and people can see what they are working towards. Fourth, it is equally important that it is not merely a piece of paper that is trotted out at an annual ‘vision Sunday’ but is something that a) the whole leadership buys into, b) is constantly brought before the church as a reminder of where we are going, and c) we constantly check all we are doing against.

But why? It is important that we understand that the vision we have been talking about is something we, collectively as this local church, are working on to achieve something we can all understand. But why, I still hear. Stop and think of some of the things we have covered previously. How we come to the Lord: conviction, repentance, conversion, and so on. We have become a Christian and we have a life that is now (or at least starting to be) as different as chalk is from cheese in comparison to what it used to be. We know, at the outset, little of the teaching of the New Testament (if not the whole Bible) about God, Jesus and who we now are. There is a whole new world and whole new future ahead of us. We need teaching. On a desert island over many years, alone with a Bible, we could come to our own conclusions, but we are now relating to a whole bunch of other people who have also arrived at this same point as you – some of them many years back, and we find they have ideas, standards, approaches to life, that are quite alien to what we have known in the past.  Moreover we find that we too have a different way of thinking about the world around us and we soon catch the idea that the Bible has a lot to say about all of this.

We need teaching:  But then these things start to really sink in and we realize we are part of a corporate body, that the Bible speaks about and so when we are harmonising and working together with others in this ‘body’, the church, we can achieve greater things. How and why?  We need teaching. Now this process of us as individuals and us as a body is a long-term process. It is going somewhere. I touched on this in Study no.3 in Part 1 when I gave an example of a part of a vision from the past: “It would be a place where learning was normal, new believers shown the way, introduced to the Bible, prayer, fellowship, worship and witness, and introduced to the life in the Spirit, introduced to gifts and abilities in the kingdom of God, released, and equipped to find their place in the body that expresses the kingdom of God.”  (We also considered the subject of learning in Study No.18). Now I wonder if this is the outlook, expectation, or vision of your local church, or do people simply turn up week in, week out, participate in the service and go away without any ‘big picture’ of an underlying purpose to what is going on (which will be much bigger that just this element – the whole of this Part really answers this).

Less formally: Sometimes the formal approach is limited, I believe, in conveying something of what we believe the heart of God wants for us. Here is another example of part of a vision that came from one of the women members when I invited our church years back to write: “It would be a place where people meet with Jesus and their lives changed. People would leave wanting more. The place would be used at other times for Bible studies, full of relevance and LIFE!!! Banquets to invite friends to …. not Outreach, no, no, no! It would just happen as people came in contact with those who knew Jesus, as they saw our lives and community. Old people’s groups, coffee mornings, drop in centre, toddler group, creative group, singing, kids, young peeps having coffee, discussion, a place to be. Stillness group, listening group. The Police would be dropping in often to chat, we would be able to work with them and minister to them too. Other counsellors, people in the community, would also just turn up, be interested, involved. Much prayer, much ministry, all sorts, vibrant, real, true.”

Life Flowing: Wow! I emphasized that it was written by a woman, because I think it just oozes ‘relationships’, because so often the women of the church are so much better at that aspect. In fact, strangely enough just recently, we brought together a small group to meet for an evening to wait upon the Lord and just be His kids together and see what would happen, and it just happened to include the lady who wrote that passage many years ago. After the evening she instantly instigated a Whats App group for this little gathering which will meet monthly, and instantly there was banter and chatter and relationship communication that would have not been possible twenty years ago. My instinctive reaction was, “Wow, how wonderful – life! Life flowing between the members of this group in a dimension that had not been possible on that first evening. Incredible! Relationships! Awesome!”

And so? And so in this first introductory study about vision, although I haven’t identified it as such, I have been talking about expressions of what Paul spoke about to the Ephesians: “we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do,” (Eph 2:10) and as much as I think that applies to us as individuals, I also believe it applies to us as the corporate body we call the local church. There is much more to say and we’ll say some of it in the next two studies. For the moment can I finish with some outline notes I sent to a colleague a year or so back as he was struggling with the whole concept of vision:

Vision is:

a) a picture of how the future can be, combined with

b) achievable goals that are understood by the people and are seen to be do-able by the grace of God,

c) an action plan of a course to be followed that:

i) identifies the gifts within the church,

ii) releases people and enables people to use their gifts (and thus feel fulfilled),

iii) includes teaching that envisions the hope and the means of achieving it, and

iv) specific training that equips and releases people to play their part in the body.

Vision is about getting:

  1. The heart of God for our future
  2. The wisdom of God how to achieve it
  3. The power and anointing of God for it to be achieved by God through us.

Vision, to become fruitful, must

  1. Come from the heart of God
  2. Touch the lives and hearts of the people
  3. Be bought into by the majority
  4. Be spoken of regularly
  5. Be worked at continually

It is not restatement of where we are but where we’re going.

9. Believers

The Wonder of the Church:  Part 2 – A Different People

9. Believers

Jn 3:16   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.

Acts 2:44  All the believers were together and had everything in common.

But why? There may be some of you who look at where we are and wonder why we need to spend time considering the most obvious of things about Christianity and the Church. My answer is that a) they may not be obvious to everyone and b) what we think of as obvious may have aspects to which we have not given much thought. In the previous study I distinguished church from clubs and from other ‘spiritual’ groups and maintained that the first big difference is that those who comprise ‘the Church’ are those who have been called by God. But it is a bit more complex than that.

Sufficient Knowledge? I recently was in a service where, at the end, a man responded to what had been going on and joyfully said, “I have found God in this service,” and I couldn’t help feeling, no you’ve been pointed in the right direction, but we need to introduce you to Jesus. If I had had the opportunity to question him, I might have asked, “What is it that you believe?” I suspect he might have answered, “Well, I believe there is a God and I have sensed His love in this service and that is wonderful.” Yes indeed, it is wonderful, but it isn’t the same as coming to Christian faith and becoming a believer in the terms that we find in the New Testament. I have written elsewhere on this in other series’, that I am sure when many of us do come to real and genuine faith, the extent of our knowledge is strictly limited but God sees that what we do know has provided a sufficient foundation for us to be ‘born again’ (which we’ll consider in the next study).

What Knowledge? If you are going to become a believer, one who constitutes the Church, a Christian believer, then there surely has to be a minimum of things we can say we believe. Now this can lead us into deep waters, some of which we need to explore in the coming studies and so I am reticent to lay out that ‘minimum’. However, let us rest in the fact that to be a Christian – and the Church is made up of Christians (sorry I took that for granted before) – there has to be a body of belief which led us through the narrow gate (Mt 7:13,14) and into this new life. Although being reticent in laying out too much detail at this point, nevertheless we should perhaps be definite that believing in Jesus really should have three aspects although, as I’ve said above, they often only filter into our consciousness in stages. They are that a) he is the unique Son of God, God in the flesh, b) he has come to be Saviour of the world, and also c) he is Lord. Let’s consider each of those briefly.

Son of God: So-called believers often appear unclear on their beliefs, even about Jesus, so let me ask various simple questions. First, would Jesus have been able to do the things he did if he were not the Son of God? The apostle Peter hinted at this in Acts 2:22. For Peter, in those early days, the emphasis was that Jesus was the Messiah expected by his audience (Acts 2:31,32, 3:30 accredited by the resurrection). It was only when Paul (ex-Saul) was saved that the message that Jesus was the Son of God was truly preached (see Acts 9:20) and written about (e.g. Rom 1:4,9, 5:10, 8:3,29 etc. etc.) The apostle John identifies him thus in his Gospel – written a lot later to remedy the earlier omissions (see Jn 1:49, also 3:18, 5:25, 10:36, 19:7, 20:31).  Second, if the Scripture teaches that Jesus is our substitute (and it does), dying on the Cross to take our punishment, would anyone less than God Himself be ‘big enough’ to be able to do that for every single sinner who turns to Him? Third, what are we to make of Jesus’ teaching, seen most obviously in John’s Gospel, where Jesus claims divinity for himself, if he is less that the unique Son of God, God incarnate, God in the flesh? This must be the first foundation stone of belief.

Saviour of the World: The biggest problem we have to face (and we’ll look at this in more detail in a later study) is that every one of us is a guilty sinner who is confronted by a Holy God.

Justice demands that God cannot simply shrug His shoulders and say, “Oh well, very well, I forgive you, let’s forget about it.” No, justice demands that sins be punished and with the weight of all our sins that pile up through a lifetime, that bulk of sins, demands death. The angel instructed Joseph, you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.’” (Mt 1:21). Another form of ‘Jesus’ is ‘Jeshua’ or ‘Joshua’ which means deliverer. It was not to save his people from the Romans but to save them from their sins, from the sword of Damocles, the judgment of God, that hangs over every sinner as demanded by justice. We may come to accept the first point, that Jesus was and is the unique Son of God but unless we go the next step and see him as our saviour, we simply make him a disinterested deity who looks on and leaves us lost and helpless. But no, God did not send His Son into our awareness to do that: “he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (Jn 3:16)

Lord: The apostle Paul said, “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe.” (Eph 1:18,19) Speaking about the salvation Jesus has bought us, he shows that by his revelation we will come to know, (in the words of the Message version, “(a) exactly what it is he is calling you to do, (b) grasp the immensity of this glorious way of life he has for his followers, oh, the utter extravagance of his work in us who trust him— (c) endless energy, boundless strength!” (My divisions to emphasise) There the Message suggests hope is about the life Jesus is leading us into, the riches are the incredibly blessed life he has for us, and that power is what enables us – physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually – to live that life. But it is all about Jesus leading the way into it and he can only do that if we let him or, to be more specific, if we follow his instructions, directions and commands, i.e. we let him be lord of our lives.

The work of God: So when Jesus says, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent,” (Jn 6:29) he lays out the will of God for believers – to believe Jesus!  The Amplified Bible builds it out to include, “This is the work of God: that you believe [adhere to, trust in, rely on, and have faith] in the One whom He has sent.”  Believing is not merely mental assent, it is having a life that is changed by that assent, that doesn’t merely believe things about a Jesus who is ‘over there’ but lives out a real and living relationship with him.  Mental assent will mean a changed life. Believers reveal they are believers by the life that ensues, a life that is not merely good and loving but is obviously endued with power from on high, which we will consider next.

13. Security

Reaching into the Psalms 1 to 4: 13. Security

Psa 3:5    I lie down and sleep; I wake again, because the Lord sustains me

Watched Over: I have struggled with this verse. As you are probably aware as you read these notes, often I find the paraphrase versions shed light on my ponderings, and I often like the way the Message version expresses it, but in this instance there is something crucial missing: “I stretch myself out. I sleep. Then I’m up again—rested, tall and steady,” i.e. there is no mention of the Lord! The Living Bible is better: “Then I lay down and slept in peace and woke up safely, for the Lord was watching over me.” That, I think, conveys more of the sense of what David is writing here.

But to backtrack, it’s an odd verse because you might think that the Message version is right in that that is how things are, surely, we get tired, we go to sleep and wake refreshed; that is what is called common grace, that is what happens to all of us. If only! Modern man seems to be more self-aware than his predecessors and sleep is one of those things you can read about in abundance. But the mere fact that so much is written about it, with changing ideas appearing from ‘experts’, suggests that sleep is not always as simple and straight forward as we just suggested.

The truth is that we can have difficulties with sleep. Yes, we can have trouble getting to sleep and we are told it may be an over-active mind, or eating or drinking too much too late, or we may be turning over worries of the day in our mind. I know of someone who has music or a story playing quietly in the background to help overcome the concerns of the day. When we do eventually get to sleep it can be just as bad and we may only have shallow sleep, sleep that is broken and comes to wakefulness from time to time, or that semi-wakefulness can be invaded by particular concerns that go round and round and just won’t stop. When that happens I now get up go downstairs, look at the stars, make a cup of decaffeinated tea, sit at my computer for half an hour and then invariably go back and sleep soundly. There is one school of thought that suggests that our ancestors tended to usually have two-periods sleep just like this.  The older you get, they say, the less sleep you need, and you certainly worry less about broken nights. In sleep, bad dreams can be an indication of worries (as well as eating wrong food before going to bed!). And so we could go on. The fact is that mind and body work together and, when we are not careful, conspire together to cause all these various problems.

But David is testifying to the Lord’s presence and provision. He has said He is like a shield who surrounds him, sheds His light on him and encourages him (v.3), that he can cry to the Lord and knows that the Lord will answer him (v.4). Yes, he may be on the run from Absalom, his throne has been taken, his rule may be ended, and he may never see Jerusalem again – and indeed his very life is under threat – but he has learned that although the Lord is disciplining him, He is still on his side and so he can further testify, “I will not fear though tens of thousands assail me on every side.” (v.6) He knows, as Job had come to learn, that the Lord may discipline him and even use Satan and his agents to come against him, but the instruction to the enemy is always summarised as, “Thus far and no further.” God has been there for him in the past, and although he has sinned and is under discipline, David has learned something we need to learn – God has not given up on him. God is still in the business of redeeming his life and He hasn’t finished with David.  Whatever your failure, as long as your heart is still pointed in God’s direction, He has not given up on you.

I like even more the ‘Easy-to-Read Bible version of verse 5: “I can lie down to rest and know that I will wake up, because the Lord covers and protects me.” That touches on something that is peculiar to David’s situation.  David has known by past experience that it is possible to creep into an enemy’s camp in the middle of the night with the possibility of assassinating the leader. (1 Sam 26:7) Not only is David secure in the knowledge that if a mass-army turns up, the Lord will still be there on his side, but that divine protection extends to keeping him secure from assassins.  Physical strength restored, mental peace assured, spiritual resources recharged, these are all part of the design and work of the Lord and now, as well, complete security.

Perhaps nowhere is this assurance conveyed more clearly in Psa 121 which starts, I lift up my eyes to the mountains— where does my help come from?” The mountains could be a source of threat, for surrounding Canaan were mountain tribes and peoples who would sometimes come down and invade. In the mountains so often Israel had the so-called ‘high-places’, places where images (idols) were set up and worshipped, false idols, false worship. These were the possibilities open to the psalmist as he wrote that psalm.

But he will not be put in a state of fear by such threats and he will not turn to false gods, for, “My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.” (v.2) Yahweh, the Eternal One, the Creator of all things, He is his source of security. “He will not let your foot slip.” (v.3a) i.e. he will make me secure so I can stand firm in the face of all threats. But there is something wonderful about the Lord – He is on the job twenty-four hours a day: “he who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep,” (v.3b,4) and so he could say, “The Lord watches over you,” (v.5a) but God doesn’t watch inactively, He watches to protect.

So, continues the psalmist, it doesn’t matter what is going on around you because, “the Lord is your shade at your right hand; the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night.” (v.5b,6) i.e. total protection. Indeed, “The Lord will keep you from all harm— he will watch over your life; the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.” (v.7,8) The Lord watches over His children to keep them from harm. (This is not to say we can’t walk out from under His protection foolishly and suffer harm). Yes, persecution may come but whatever threats come, nothing can take you away from the Lord’s love (read Rom 8). In the midst of ‘whatever’, the Lord is there and His command to the world is “thus far and no further”. For David under God’s discipline that was the sense of security that he had and thus he can testify as he has. May we be able to do the same.

10. Prayer of Testimony

Reaching into the Psalms 1 to 4:   10. Prayer of Testimony (1)

Psa 3:3    But you, Lord, are a shield around me, my glory, the One who lifts my head high.

Approach: In our introduction to Psalm 3 we suggested that verses 1 & 2 were David praying out his concern while he was on the run from Absalom, verses 3 to 6 are a prayer of testimony and then verses 7 and 8 a prayer of request. It is thus a psalm that shows us different aspects of prayer – acknowledgement, declaration, petition. I have a feeling that I have read all the psalms many times and yet have only a surface understanding of them and verse 3 that we are moving into is no exception. Some of it appears obvious but as I pause over it, I suspect it is not as obvious as I have usually thought. Let’s approach it slowly and carefully.

Contrast: Circumstances versus reality: The verse starts with a ‘But’. That always suggests a contrast with what has just gone before. In verses 1 and 2 David spoke of his foes and those who had risen against him, and the fact that many were saying that God will not save him. Such verses imply gloom and doom and leave a sense of concern, worry, anxiety, insecurity, threat; that is the cloud that hangs over him because of Absalom, those are the circumstances that bring the ‘down’ feeling. Isn’t that just how it can be so often, the circumstances look and feel bad and the temptation is to sink under them, but David shows us another way. He declares the truth that he has found through his experiences of the Lord. The reality is that God has been there for him. The classic illustration of that was when he testified to Saul in respect of Goliath, “The Lord who rescued me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will rescue me from the hand of this Philistine.”  (1 Sam 17:37) i.e. God is with me and for me, that I know, because that is how it has always been. Now there are four things to note in the verse in respect of his testimony.

Yahweh/Jehovah/The I AM: Note how he addresses God: LORD, with the capital letters denoting the name given to Moses (Ex 3:14), “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.’”  The One upon whom David relies is the ‘I AM’ of Israel’s history, the God who revealed Himself as, “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob,” (Ex 3:6) and subsequently the God of Moses, the Exodus and the conquest of Canaan. This is the One he has experienced and knows, the Eternal One, the Mighty One who is there for His people. This is the starting place of his confidence which rises up to suppress all the negatives of verses 1 and 2.

A Shield: A shield is an instrument of protection against incoming missiles or other weapons. But David says God is a “shield around me”. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a futuristic sci-fi where a town is covered with a barely visible ‘force field’ that protects it. It completely covers it and protects it and that is how David sees the Lord’s presence, so it doesn’t matter if there is an army against him, he is safe. Elisha understood this concept although he expressed it in a different way. Do you remember when he and his servant were staying in Dothan and an enemy army surrounded it and scared the life out of the servant out for an early morning walk on the walls of the town. He ran to Elisha who knew it was simply a matter of revelation and so prayed for his servant, “Open his eyes, Lord, so that he may see.” Then the Lord opened the servant’s eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.” (2 Kings 6:17) There was the Lord’s shield for them, the angelic army of the Lord!

Glory: But he also refers to the Lord as, “my glory”. We see, “But you, Lord, are … my glory.” We know what the Lord’s glory is, for we see it at Mount Sinai (Ex 24:16,17), and as Israel travelled through the desert and it lit up a cloud by day and appeared as fire by night. When the Tabernacle was constructed according to God’s instructions, the glory of the Lord filled it (Ex 40:34). It was a bright light, so when David says you are ‘my glory’ he is saying, ‘You are the One who lights up my life with your splendour, revealing me for who I am, your chosen and anointed servant.’

Affirmation & Encouragement: There are perhaps a number of words that apply into what follows: “you, Lord, are …. the One who lifts my head high.”  All of the negatives of verses 1 and 2 weighed heavily on him, especially as he knew the ultimate cause of them, for they were God’s disciplinary judgment on him. I like how the Living Bible puts it: “You alone can lift my head, now bowed in shame.”  Have you noticed how people with very low self-esteem, those who feel utter failures, walk with the heads bowed down, their eyes on the floor; it is a common thing. So why is David’s head lifted?

God with us: Emmanuel: First, because the Lord is with him and with God on your side, God beside you, and in our case, and with God indwelling you as Lord and Saviour, you are someone special with no reason to have a bowed head. Yes, the enemy is there, the circumstances are bad, and the outlook is bleak, but with the Lord there with you, for you, in you, all that doesn’t matter. The Isaiah prophecy about Immanuel – God with us (Isa 7:14) – and fulfilled in Jesus (Mt 1:23), says it all, God is with us, not far off, not off down the other end of the universe, no, He is here with us!

God the encourager: I said there are perhaps many words that describe what God does for us, to lift our heads, encourage, affirm, empathize and comfort, declare victorious, the list can go on. It isn’t just that God is with us, it is that He is with us to do things, to bless us, deliver us, lead us in victory, and all these things work to the same end, they lift our down-turned faces in the face of the negative circumstances and negative enemies.

And Us? Are we confronted by negative circumstances (in this Fallen World there are usually plenty of them!) or negative enemies?  What is the answer? Not to dwell on their presence but to realize the Presence of the Lord God Almighty and His Anointed One with us, and as we realize that presence, to receive from Him all the good things He wants to bring to us: grace, goodness, love, joy, peace, patience, perseverance, endurance, affirmation, comfort, encouragement; they are all there in His outstretched hands to be received. As we pray, let’s remember who He is and who we are and rejoice in that wonder and put into perspective the negatives of the world. Amen? Amen!

60. The Challenges of the Kingdom

Focus on Christ Meditations: 60.  The Challenges of the Kingdom

Mt 6:9,10    Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Before we come to the end of this series, we should note how all this talk of Christ’s kingdom affects us or, to be more precise, how it affects our will. So far we have sought in various overviews to see that all authority has been given to Christ to reign, and we saw how Jesus reigns and we saw the way, from our perspective at least, we might consider that reign has limitations (sometimes he saves from death, sometimes he doesn’t). But all of that is really about how our lives benefit from being in his kingdom in a fallen world, but there is another view that needs considering and that is how we exercise our will in respect of our king.

Options: We know that the Fall took place because Eve and then Adam exercised their will, contrary to the will of God and that is how every person since has expressed their will. However, we are now in his kingdom and under his rule, and so we need to remind ourselves how we came to be here and what is expected of us in his kingdom.

Our entry into the kingdom:  We are here under the rule of Christ because, at some point in time, his Holy Spirit convicted us of our sin and our need to get right with God and accept the salvation that He offered us through the finished work of Christ on the Cross. In other words, we surrendered our lives to him. We took Jesus as our Saviour but to be able to receive all of what the package of salvation means, we also had to accept him as Lord. Now this is critical to who we are and our future, both here on earth and with him in eternity.

A Partnership Formed: When we surrendered to him, we were adopted into God’s family, declared justified by Jesus and were then ‘born again’ (Jn 3) when he placed his own Holy Spirit within us to empower us for the years and eternity ahead. But the crucial point is that a partnership began at that point so there is Jesus inspiring us and encouraging and guiding us, as he directs from heaven, at the right hand of his Father where he is ruling, and we receive all that by his Spirit within us. That is one side. The other side is the fact that we still have free will, and so we have the capability of choosing to obey – or not.

Consequences: Now there are two things to be observed at this point. The first is what we have just been considering, that the Christian life is a combination of Christ blessing us and us responding to him. How we respond is what is crucial here. The second is the significance of our obedience or disobedience. Now under the Law, Moses was given this as a number of propositions seen as blessings (Deut 28:2-14) and curses (Deut 28:15-68) i.e. God’s decrees of good or for bad. With God, life would be wonderful, without Him, everything would go wrong.

Now although we aren’t told in that chapter ‘how’ God will do these things, an examination of the judgments of God throughout the Bible reveals that most of the time when the Lord does the negative things, it is disciplinary (with the intent of drawing the person or people back to Him, i.e. to change their behaviour) and it becomes clear from Roman 1 and the book of Judges that so often it simply means that He will lift off His hand of blessing and protection (as our disobedience indicates we want!) and we become vulnerable to the enemy in this fallen world, and things go wrong. We may attribute these things to natural causes because when you eat too much, obesity results and obesity means the body breaks down in a variety of ways.

That example may be multiplied many times and we see these ‘fruits’ throughout our Western society although perhaps because they are so familiar, the world takes them for granted or tries to ignore them. Nevertheless, they are there, and this is how God has made us to work but it isn’t only ‘natural causes’, it is also the direct working of God who always works for our benefit. The short term may appear painful, but the long-term intent is always for our good, and that works out best when we are in a genuine living daily relationship with him. THEN he may guide us, direct us, inspire us, encourage us, give wisdom to us and generally bless us. When we are pointed in the wrong direction, if we may put it like that, He cannot do that.

Our starting verse from what we tend to call ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ is fundamental, the desire for God’s will to prevail throughout the earth. Now we cannot ensure it for the rest of the world, but we can for our own lives, as we ensure we have that daily, real and genuine relationship with Him. This happens when we seek to be open to Him, to hear from Him and receive His guidance, blessing etc., and when we seek to do all we can to ensure we are living our lives in accordance with the teaching of the New Testament.

This will involve our lives gradually changing to become more and more like Jesus in both character and service, as he teaches us through his word and Spirit, the way for us to walk. That is a gradual and continuous process which will continue throughout our time on earth and which we call ‘sanctification’. The more this process continues, and we co-operate with it, the more the kingdom of God will be expressed in and through us. The more we change, the more we become open to be used by him, tends to be a truth. Then the more we are used by him, the more we will impact and change the world around us, and this is our part in bringing that prayer into fruition: “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  May it be so.