16. Mystery

Short Meds in ‘Living the Life’: 16. Mystery

Rom 15:25 “the revelation of the MYSTERY hidden …. but now revealed and made known.” 

We spoke yesterday about wisdom and revelation imparted by the Holy Spirit, and it’s especially the word ‘revelation’ that seems to call so strongly now. Revelation as we said before is disclosed knowledge, knowledge that was previously hidden. The Revelation of John, for example, the last book in the Bible, is prophetic insight shared by Jesus to John (Rev 1:1) about how things will be in the last days. In 2 Sam 7 Nathan the prophet comes and gives David the big picture of the future of both the present and the future (v.4-16) and so we read, Nathan reported to David all the words of this entire revelation.” (v.17) In one sense the who Bible is God’s revelation to us.

Hindsight is both a blessing and a bane. Having the completed Bible as we do means we have the whole picture in our hands and that is a blessing, but that means we often miss the struggles that people in the Bible had. Paul spoke of the mystery of Christ (Eph 3:4, Col 4:3) or the mystery of the Gospel (Eph 6:19) or this mystery more generally, (e.g. Rom 16:25, Eph 1:9, 3:3,6,9, Col 1:26,27). Before Christ came there was this prophetic sense of a ‘coming one’, a messiah, but that was all it was, a shadow in history. The prophets longed to understand what they were sensing (1 Pet 1:10). We now know what it was. Let’s not miss out on the privilege we have of living in this time with this knowledge.

I wonder if that is how we see it – a privilege that we have of living in this present time with the complete Bible in our hands or on our bookshelves? But there we have it for so many, Bibles on bookshelves. They need to be in our hands for Paul wrote, that we are saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth.” (2 Thes 2:13b) i.e. we experience God’s salvation as the Spirit works in us and our faith builds up daily our ‘belief in the truth’.   When Paul spoke of a ‘mystery’ he was referring to the prophetic scriptures of the Old Testament that hinted at a coming one and yet it had come with different hues – he might be an abused servant, he might a mighty king (and of course he turned out to be both) that it was confusing for scholars. It needed the events to be rolled out in history and then spoken into the spirit of this out-of-time apostle before what had been a mystery became clear. The truth is that the word of God is a mystery to many, very simply because they don’t approach it in prayer and with a submissive heart, and so because it does seem a mystery, people fail to read it daily, fail to be fed by it daily, fail to be built up daily by it, fail to be transformed by it as the Spirit applies it. And so the enemy whispers, “It’s hard, you don’t need it, you can get by without it.” A lie, in fact three lies! It is the foundation of our faith and it is food for our faith and so without it we feel unstable and worry, we feel ‘thin’ and weak. I recently ran across a simple quote by a well-known Christian leader: “Anxiety comes from unbelief,” and I believe he is right and is why so many people are living in anxiety. They have not let God impart faith, confidence, and assurance through His word because they have kept the mystery book closed. Away with these lies, away with this folly. At times in history we have been known as ‘the people of the book’. May that be true again today as we cast off the negatives spoken in the world about it, and let God come again in both His Spirit and His Word and unshackle the Church.

3. The Mysteries of God (1)

Christmas Threads Meditations: Thread 3: The Mysteries of God (1)

Gen 3:15   I will put enmity  between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel

Mixing Metaphors:  I’m afraid I’m going to be mixing metaphors in this study, having started out talking about threads of a tapestry, I want to suggest that the next thread is the idea of the trail of breadcrumbs, because it seems to me that that is exactly what we find in the Old Testament. The idea of a trail of breadcrumbs comes from the children’s story of Hansel and Gretel, in which the two children drop breadcrumbs to form a trail to guide them back to their home. In modern website design, designers refer to a breadcrumb trail being a navigation tool to allow users to see where the user’s current location is in the whole website. In detection books, authors carefully drop breadcrumbs along the way, little clues that give the reader speculative thoughts towards who the murderer is.

The Mystery: In some senses the Old Testament is as much a mystery drama as any modern writing. When Paul spoke of the mystery of Christ (Eph 3:4, Col 4:3) or the mystery of the Gospel (Eph 6:19) or this mystery more generally, (e.g. Rom 16:25, Eph 1:9, 3:3,6,9, Col 1:26,27), it was a mystery that had been there for centuries but was now being made known: the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all nations might believe and obey him.” (Rom 15:25,26)

The truth is that there are numerous prophetic words in the Old Testament about the coming of the Son, but they are dropped into the text like breadcrumbs to lead us ‘home’ and home is the arrival of Jesus. All of these ‘breadcrumbs’ show us that, as we saw in Thread No.1, God had a plan from before the foundation of the world and that plan involved His Son leaving heaven and being born on earth, i.e. Advent is the door into the execution of that plan. Each of these ‘breadcrumbs’ points to that truth in some way or another.

Breadcrumb No.1. Conflict: There in the Garden of Eden, following the Fall, before the couple are banished from the Garden, God addresses Satan and says, “I will put enmity  between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel” (Gen 3:15) or, as the Message paraphrase puts it, “I’m declaring war between you and the Woman, between your offspring and hers.” This is strange talk. Who is the woman? Is it Eve, all women, or Mary, the mother of Jesus? Perhaps it is wise not to be too specific but certainly the protective heart of every woman is to desire the best for her child and to protect it from harm. In this sense every woman would be against Satan’s intents to harm. His offspring would be everyone who surrenders to his leadership (every unbeliever according to 1 Jn 5:19).

But her offspring? Surely not every human who follows, surely it must be one specific one? There is coming one who will war against Satan, crushing his ability over humans, but in the process will himself be harmed? Who else can this be (we say with the insight of hindsight) but Jesus? The Son of God will leave heaven, come to earth, battle with Satan, and triumph over him through the Cross. And there it is in the third chapter of the Bible, this clue for the avid reader of detective fiction, the follower of breadcrumbs, the seeker of the mysteries found throughout the Old Testament.  But before we pray, just one final thought here about this verse. Even in declaring this, how do you think the Father felt? He is saying, ‘My Son will come to the earth to wage warfare against you, Satan, and he will disarm (Col 2:15) you, but in the process, I know he will have to die, to give up that wonderful life he will have on earth that will bless thousands, in order that he might save millions.’   As necessary as it was, how would you feel as a father, facing the fact that that had to happen?

Prayer Time: Thanks & Request: “Father, thank you that you have laid out these ‘breadcrumbs’ throughout the Old Testament to show us the way to Advent and on to the Cross. Lord, please open our eyes to the wonder of this, your heart that just kept overflowing from time to time so that these clues were dropped, all of which pointed to your master plan. Thank you for the plan on your heart from before the foundation of the world to save us, that was fulfilled in these events, for Advent, for the Nativity, Amen.”

21. God of Mystery

Getting to Know God Meditations:  21. God of Mystery

Psa 97:2   Clouds and thick darkness surround him

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

Ezek 1:28  This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. When I saw it, I fell face down.

Lk 5:8 When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!”

Rev 4:2 At once I was in the Spirit, and there before me was a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it.

Conflict:  There is always a conflict between theologians, between those who say that God is beyond knowing and those who say He has revealed Himself to us so we can know.  I like the theologian who said that in the Bible we have incomplete knowledge, but sufficient knowledge. The fact is, as we have been seeking to show in these studies, that the Bible does reveal a lot about God; a lot but not everything by far.

Human Limitation: I think I did hint at this in an earlier study but if we go along with the philosopher’s definition of God as a unique Supreme Being greater than anyone or anything we know, then it is not surprising that we struggle to understand Him.  Similarly when Jesus said, “God is spirit,” (Jn 4:24) we all nod wisely but rarely does anyone ask, “What is spirit?”

Struggling to understand: My own weak definition is ‘energy with personality’, but I know that still doesn’t answer the question. It is something we accept because we can’t wrap our finite minds around something that appears infinite, for infinite goes beyond the bounds of material existence. We know about radio waves; they are all around us, they are what makes my radio, my TV, and my phone work. We cannot see them but physicists speaks of short wave and long wave and so on, and so they are all around us. Now suppose there is an energy all around us – everywhere but distinct from us and from every material thing – an energy that has personality, an energy that can move and change things in the material world, a personality that exhibits love, goodness and so on. Is that God?

God’s Attributes: I have steered clear of the attributes of God so far in this series, but theologians say the Bible shows God to be infinite (everywhere), everlasting (no beginning or end), all powerful (able to change anything in the material world), all knowing (conscious and aware of everything), all-wise (understanding everything in both the material and spiritual realms) and much more. But don’t these things fit into my definition of spirit as ‘energy with personality’? I don’t understand it but it seems to work. Well, it does for me!

More than the Greeks and Romans: Two of the world’s earlier major civilisations, the Greeks and the Romans, sometimes come over as a daft superstitious bunch. Both civilizations had their ‘gods’ but they were clearly of human imagination in that they exhibited all the human foibles and failures and were just more powerful versions of humans. More than that, to quote one historian, “pagan gods required only propitiation and beyond that had no interest in what humans did.” The God of the Bible is nearer the philosophers’ concept (resurrected last century in liberal theology circles) as ‘the ground of all being.’ But that is too impersonal because my definition speaks of personality (with thoughts, feelings, and behaviours) because the God we find revealed through the pages of scripture both feels and acts and communicates rationally.

Revelations: Now most of the ‘encounters’ we have so far referred to in these studies come in the form of God ‘speaking’ to individuals (even if on one occasion there was a burning bush as a means of attraction) and so all we can do is go by the nature of the encounter and what is said by God in the encounter. Perhaps we will examine that more fully in the next study. However there are also instances (not many) where in visions there are revelations of heaven and of the presence of God. The Psa 97:2 reference – Clouds and thick darkness surround him – probably refers to the experience Israel first had with God at Mount Sinai where we read (Ex 19:16-18) that there was thick cloud or smoke covering the mountain, perhaps a simple demonstration that said, keep your distance.

Isaiah had a revelation of God (in some measure at least – see Isa 6) but no description of God is given – just Isaiah’s horrified response as he becomes aware of God’s holiness. Perhaps we might say the same thing occurred when the apostle Peter had an encounter with God in the form of Jesus (although he didn’t realize it at the time – see Lk 5:1-11) which left him shattered – this ‘man’ knew more than him and could miraculously do more than him, this was more than a mere man, and that sacred him silly. He became aware of ‘holiness’ which simply means being perfect and utterly different from anything else in Creation – and that IS scary.

Ezekiel is another who had a vision of the coming of God (see Ezek 1), in what is arguably the weirdest vision in the Bible (see it with Ezek 10 for more explanation). What is amazing about this ‘vision’ is the use of the word ‘like’ twenty times. He couldn’t say ‘this was’ but ‘this was like’. The reality defied description.  Similarly when the apostle John has his visions that make up Revelation, we see there the same thing, the use of ‘like’ seven times in the much shorter chapter 1.  The word ‘like’ appears fifty times in the book of Revelation so my concordance tells me.

The apostle Paul also gives us a hint of the mystery of God when he declares, “God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, 16 who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see. To him be honour and might forever.” (1 Tim 6:15,16) In verse 15 he exalts God as the only Ruler – note ‘only’ and capital letter ‘R’ – one who is above all other rulers, King of kings and Lord of lords – note the capital letters – who alone is immortal; when everyone else dies and decays, He alone remains utterly unchanged, and who lives in unapproachable light, implying He can never be seen or approached, He is THAT different.

In each of these encounters and descriptions, there is this sense of a totally ‘other’ God, a Being so incredible that human reason could not cope with it and thus human description failed. There is something about the greatness and what is referred to as the ‘glory’ of God that makes human encounter terminal, likely to be destroyed by presence not intention. Perhaps it was that which God wanted to convey when He gave Israel the plans for the Tabernacle (Ex 26) where there were two areas referred to as the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place (26:33), the latter being a place where the ark of the covenant was kept and only the chief priest could enter once a year after special sacrifices had been made. Again, the message was, keep your distance, God’s presence is dangerous!

And So? Let’s be grateful for the revelation of God throughout the Bible that, for most of the time, is manageable, but let’s remember that that is just His grace in seeking to communicate with us in ways for the most part we can handle. Let’s also never get so clever that we think we’ve got it all wrapped up. I suspect that the iceberg analogy is applicable: nine-tenths of it is below the water and cannot be seen, its enormity is hidden. So with God. Let’s conclude with Job’s conclusion that we saw early on: “My ears had heard of you  but now my eyes have seen you.  Therefore I despise myself  and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:5,6) The ‘seeing’ reference was either a vision or seeing in the sense of understanding. May our understanding be built out of all that is found in the Bible, while also realizing that although it is sufficient to build faith, it is incomplete. Humility is an outworking of this understanding. May we have it.

3. Potential & Example

Nine Lessons of Christmas Meditations: 3. Potential & Example

Reading 2: Genesis 22:15–18

Gen 22:18    through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”

The Context: In the service layout, this reading is summarised as “God promises to faithful Abraham that in his seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.” The first reading confronted the effects of the Fall while at the same time giving a glimmer of a plan on the heart of God whereby the conflict between Satan, started there in the Garden, and mankind, would be brought to an end through some mysterious interaction, sometime in the future, between a human being and Satan and his followers. It raises the question of a mystery we have investigated in some detail in a previous series, “Focus on Christ”.  So the first reading leaves us wondering.

Reading: These present verses follow the strange and challenging incident where Abraham appears to have been called by God to sacrifice his son, Isaac, who had been miraculously conceived and born when Sarah was well past child-bearing ability. However, the Lord, through an angel, had stopped Abraham before he could actually do it. Now, a second time, He speaks again to Abraham (v.15) and says that because of his obedience (v.16) God will multiply his descendants greatly and make them a victorious nation (v.17). It is then, within this context, that He declares that one of his descendants will be the cause of the whole earth being blessed and, yes, it is specifically because he has been obedient to God (v.18). That’s it. So what are the lessons here?

1. The Big Picture again: This reading does not stand on its own. As we said above, it can be seen in the context of what we were faced with in the first reading – the Fall, and yet a glimmer of hope. It is as if now that glimmer of hope has been enlarged. Yes, in the previous reading there was someone referred to as the offspring of the woman, i.e. a human being. Now that human being is being identified as someone who comes out of the family of Abraham. Now of course Abraham’s family continued through Isaac, the child of promise, then through Jacob who became Israel, and hence to a family that grew and grew to become a nation in Egypt, who were otherwise known as Hebrews (Gen 14:13), their ethnic name, then Israelites (after Israel) and later Jews (from the tribe of Judah). This ‘people’ we’ve just named, were the context into which this future person will be born. The first lesson here, is we need to understand the big picture before the details. But there are two things about them that are crucial.

2. A People of Blessing: The fact that Abram had managed to have Isaac in his old age had been a miracle. Isaac’s wife Rebekah then, only managed to conceive after twenty years of Isaac’s praying (Gen 25:20,21,26). When the Advent story eventually unrolls, we find an aged, passed-bearing-age woman, Elizabeth, involved and then a young virgin, Mary. It is almost as if God is making the point, these people exist because I enabled past age, or barren women, or virgins, to conceive. They are a miraculous people. That was God’s side of the whole story. The lesson? Nothing is impossible with God (Lk 1:37) For deeper thought: each one of us who is a believer, is a miracle person, born of the Spirit (Jn 3:5,8), born of God (Jn 1:12).

3. A People of Faith: The second thing about these people is that they were a people of faith. It was because Abram believed God that He declared him righteous (Gen 15:6) and faith becomes the big issue about receiving salvation in the days to come. The Lesson? We are called to be people of faith, those who hear God and respond in obedience to Him. (Rom 3:28, Heb 11:6, 2 Cor 5:7, Heb 10:38)

4. A Man of Mystery: This ‘offspring of the woman’, this ‘offspring of Abraham’, is clearly the means of God blessing the earth. Now that, in itself, is a challenge to us, because the world is fallen, Adam and Eve were cast out of the presence of God, and the future for sinful mankind looks bleak – but then we are told that God intends to BLESS (decree good) for the WHOLE earth, and that through this coming one. It is both amazing and a mystery. It is amazing that God who has been rejected by mankind still wants to bless mankind and, at that point in history, it was a mystery how He could do that in the face of man’s rebellion.

There are at least two lessons here: first we may not understand fully the will of God, but the evidence is so great that we should always simply trust that He intends to bless us; second, salvation comes when we face our folly and our failures and become open to receive His grace in the form of all that Jesus has done for us on the Cross. That’s what this ‘offspring’ came to achieve, the possibility of a new start for you and me. That was what was wrapped up in this ‘mystery’.

5. An Incredible Opportunity: Perhaps the greatest lesson of this particular reading, and it is truly an incredible lesson, is that an individual can become part of the plans of Almighty God to redeem His world. That was Abraham. In two different ways he impacted our future, and we have picked them both up above, but they bear restating here.

First, he was the father of a nation through whom God would work to bring into being an environment into which His Son could come and reveal Him, bless the world and carry its Sin. If you have read these studies or meditations for any length of time you will know that one of my favourite New Testament verses is, 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) Now that verse may say a variety of things but here, in this context, it says God has ways whereby I may impact this world at His leading. I don’t have to be a leading politician, a great philosopher or inventor or industrialist. I just have to be me, the child of God, empowered and directed by God’s Holy Spirit.

My favourite story, and I am told it is true, is about an American, who had a van (or a lorry), and who used to go around the district picking up young people to take them to the youth group at the local church. One young man who he invited, I think, wasn’t very keen but went along and got saved. That young man happened to be called Billy Graham who became the greatest evangelist of our time.  A man with a van, taking the local kids to church. How many million people are now in the kingdom because of what he did that day, forming just one link in the life of that young man who God had his eye on. I never know who read these or what effect they may have. You may think a conversation with a neighbour of little consequence, but if you are being one of the links in their chain, you never know what the outcome may be.

Second, Abraham became such an example of faith, the great apostle Paul used him as the key illustration of justification by faith. We never know who will be watching, for whom we will be an example that transforms their thinking. Abraham had a big impact in his day, but his example has come down through history to make the path clearer for you and me.

Do you have grandchildren who watch you? Are there fellow pupils at college who watch you? Do you have workmates who watch you? Do you have an unsaved partner or unsaved children who watch you? Example can be an incredibly important thing. These are the things, I believe, that come out of this second reading if we will do more than just let the words go by in the midst of the carols. Let’s not miss what the Lord might want to say to us this Christmas.

7. The Mystery – of the Anointed Preacher

Focus on Christ Meditations: 7.  The Mystery – of the Anointed Preacher

Isa 61:1,2   The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, .

As we briefly browse some of Isaiah prophecies in our search for hints of the Coming One in the Old Testament, to focus the ‘mystery’ that the apostle Paul spoke about, especially in respect of Christ himself, we cannot move on into the New Testament without first observing this most truly remarkable prophecy, not as remarkable as the Isa 9 word perhaps, but remarkable nevertheless.

Imagine you were a Jew living in Israel, say twenty years before the birth of Christ. You go along to the local synagogue on a Saturday morning to hear the scrolls read, and the rabbi expound the week’s reading before conducting prayers. This morning the scrolls of Isaiah are brought out and the above ‘chapter’ is read. I wonder what you would have thought about it?

Perhaps you hear these words and hear them as Isaiah explaining his own ministry. As a prophet, the Spirit of God is on him and by the Spirit’s enabling he brings God’s word, a word that can bring healing to those with broken hearts who are anguished by the hurts of life. For those who feel prisoners to dark thoughts, to feelings of inadequacy, and to failure, he sometimes had words of comfort and encouragement for those whose hearts were inclined towards the Lord. He proclaims that today is the day of God’s blessing for those same ones who seek the Lord, a day when God comes to judge all the negative things that inhibit our relationship with Him and comfort those who mourn, not only for the loss of loved ones, but for their own state perhaps.

Oh yes, God’s word does all these things but it seems it is limited to the spiritual world. You think of others in your community, the sick, the infirm, the disabled, yes even those troubled by evil spirits (and there do seem to be a lot of them) and you dare to wonder why God’s word, read and expounded every Saturday, seems unable to touch them – but you keep those thoughts to yourself for it seems unworthy of God.

You allow your mind to wander back to those earlier chapters of Isaiah. First there was that tantalising suggestion of a child who would come to bring the presence of God to the land in chapter 7, and yet there was linked with him the thought of judgment, but it was unclear and somewhat of a mystery. And then in chapter 9 there had been those almost unbelievable words about this child being God Himself, an even greater mystery. And then in chapter 11 there were words about a ‘branch’ of the house of David who would come (v.1) with the Spirit of God upon him (v.2,3) and as he rules he will bring justice (v.3-5) and the end result will be a life of incredible peace where, The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them.” (v.6) This was all going to be the work of one who was coming with the powerful presence of God upon him to achieve these things. Surely that must be what is being referred to here, now, in Isaiah 61, surely this must be more than just what Isaiah achieved through his ministry?

And so the questions would have hung in the air and fifty years on from this imaginary moment, in the synagogue of Capernaum in the north of Israel, in Galilee, a demon possessed man would cry out in response to the presence of God that had come (see Mk 1:23) and would be delivered by the Coming One. The word of God had been read week by week and expounded week by week and the man had been able to remain there untouched. But now….   A while later, presumably in the same synagogue, a man with a shriveled hand (see Mk 3:1), quite probably a regular attendee of the synagogue who had heard the word being read many times but who had remained unchanged, this man found the presence of God so obviously there that he walked out healed.

The truth was that weeks before, not in Capernaum but in Nazareth, Jesus walked into the synagogue as was his regular custom (Lk 4:16), it being his local synagogue, and whether it was because he volunteered to read the scrolls or whether they had heard of his preaching already (Lk 4:14,15) and they wanted to honour him, he was handed the scroll of the day which just happened to be the Isa 61 prophecy and, after he had read it out loud for all to hear, he declared, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Lk 4:21) The response to him was one of challenge, not a good start one might think, and anyway what did that actually mean? Was he saying that he has like Isaiah, a prophet-preacher whose words would heal and release – or what?

The ‘what’ we have already seen in the previous paragraph. This child – now grown man – did indeed come with the powerfully presence of God upon him for when he spoke demons were cast out and sick and disabled people were healed. This was not merely a ministry of words, but a ministry of power and authority. No wonder the initial response in the Capernaum synagogue had been, “The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching–and with authority! He even gives orders to evil spirits and they obey him.” News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee.” (Mk 1;27,28)

Up until now, the ministry of the local synagogue had merely been to read and proclaim the word of God; now Jesus brought a new possibility, it could be (see Jn 14:12) a ministry that changed more than intellects, it changed whole lives – but they weren’t ready for that, for ‘religion’ then and now, wasn’t and so often isn’t open to let Jesus be Jesus, the Messiah, the Anointed One.

If there was any doubt about it, Jesus himself spelled it out: “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.” (Mt 11:4,5) or, as Peter summarized it on the Day of Pentecost, “Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know.” (Acts 2:22)

But back in the days before Jesus came, the Isaiah 61 prophecy hung there, so to speak, like a wanted poster; yes, this is what we want, if only it can be, but how can such a thing be? The words only version is pretty good, but is there something more? How can ‘something more’ come about? The mystery tantalizingly hung there, words declared by God, words that stirred questions, words that brought the possibility of hope, words just waiting to be fulfilled. Does that sound familiar?

To reflect upon: Jesus said anyone who believed in him would do the things he had been doing (Jn 14:12). Does our church do that?

6. The Mystery – of the broken servant

Focus on Christ Meditations: 6.  The Mystery – of the broken servant

Isa 52:13-15      See, my servant will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted. Just as there were many who were appalled at him – his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man and his form marred beyond human likeness – so will he sprinkle many nations, and kings will shut their mouths because of him. For what they were not told, they will see, and what they have not heard, they will understand.

We pursue our quest to see Jesus Christ revealed throughout the word of God, and specifically here to consider ‘the mystery of Christ’, as we see it through the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come… to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow.” (1 Pet 1:10,11) In the previous study we considered the almost unbelievable words of Isa 9. Now imagine a scribe of the day before Christ, reading what we now call Isaiah 52 and 53. “The servant” of the Lord had been the subject of a number of prophecies earlier in Isaiah, again clearly referring to the Coming One.

In verse 13 of chapter 52 he reads, “See, my servant will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.”  OK, that seems to fit with the glory that was there in the Isa 9 prophecy. He reads on: “Just as there were many who were appalled at him– his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man and his form marred beyond human likeness.” (v.14) What? How can he one minute be exalted and the next moment be described as one who is so ‘disfigured’ and ‘marred’ that there were many who were appalled at him?

Verse 15 seems more confusing, so quickly run on into the next chapter to see if it makes more sense: “Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?” (53:1) This seems to have a sense of “Who could have believed it would be like this, that God’s means of coming in power would appear in this way?”  Dead right! What are you saying Isaiah? How does this fit with your glorious words of the earlier chapter 9? We need to read on.

“He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground.” (v.2a) This must refer to that child again. Ok. “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” (v.2b) What? This doesn’t sound like a great leader, a mighty ruler like David who, when younger, had been described as “a boy, ruddy and handsome.” (1 Sam 17:42) or as the king that Solomon portrayed in his epic poem: “My lover is radiant and ruddy, outstanding among ten thousand.” (Song 5:10) This one would be characterized by his ordinariness; he is not going to get a following because he looks good, like King Saul had done and been described as, “an impressive young man without equal among the Israelites–a head taller than any of the others.” (1 Sam 9:2) So how is this one going to be that mighty ruler?

“He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.” (v.3) What is this all about? Despised, rejected, one we did not esteem, one whose life seems associated with sorrows and suffering? What sort of great ruler is this? Clearly not like any ‘great ruler’ the world has known previously! Read on.

“Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted.” (v.4) Hang on! We, the onlookers, thought that what we saw was God striking him, dealing harshly with him and yet he was taking OUR weaknesses, our sorrows? How could that be? How can this servant do such a thing? Read on verses 5 to 7 and it is equally bad. This is seriously confusing, this is indeed a mystery!

And the teachers tell us that this is Jesus? Well, the apostle John wrote, “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.” (Jn 1:10,11) That fits. When Matthew records Jesus’ healing ministry, he writes by way of commentary, “This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah: “He took up our infirmities and carried our diseases.” (Mt 8:17) The apostle Peter, speaking of all that happened to Jesus summarized it, “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.” (1 Pet 2:23,24)

But what about the mighty ruler prophecy of Isa 9? It was only as the incredible account of the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ was rolled out that the apostles and prophets saw the mystery, saw how apparently irreconcilable prophecies were in fact true, opposites – ruler and wreck – fulfilled in the same person: “being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death– even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil 2:8-11 – Paul writing) and “The God of our fathers raised Jesus from the dead–whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel.” (Acts 5:30,31 Peter preaching) and “After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.” (Heb 1:3 the unknown writer)

It will be as Isaiah said it in those verses we jumped over at the end of chapter 52:  Yet many shall be amazed when they see him—yes, even far-off foreign nations and their kings; they shall stand dumbfounded, speechless in his presence. For they shall see and understand what they had not been told before. They shall see my Servant beaten and bloodied, so disfigured one would scarcely know it was a person standing there. So shall he cleanse many nations. (v.14,15 Living Bible) When the mystery is revealed to those with eyes to see, their first reaction is to stand dumbfounded that such a thing could be. Amazing! Incredible! Wonderful!  Thank you Lord!

To reflect upon: Conquering king and beaten servant. Majesty and meekness. Strength and weakness. Power and powerlessness. Honor and shame. Do we see that our faith is a combination of all these things?

1. The Mystery – the Seed


Focus on Christ Meditations: 1.  The Mystery – the Seed

Eph 3:4   In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ..

I am aware, as I look back, that I have written in the past, meditations on Jesus in Matthew and Jesus in John, and twice before have gone to do additional meditations on Jesus but never quite got there. However, my feeling is that this is the next pasture in which we are to graze and so my intention is to range over the entire Bible as it seems appropriate in my search for just who the Bible says Jesus Christ is. Some studies will be obvious to anyone who has been a Christian even a short while, others may be revelation. Time will tell.

The person of Jesus is what makes Christianity stand out as a unique religion and once anyone starts looking at the claims about Jesus in the Bible there is no question whatsoever that Christianity makes claims that are way above and beyond anything any other world religion makes. Some of those claims are very obvious in the Scriptures but some of the things we will look at are less obvious and will need some thinking about – but they are there and just need seeing in context.

One of our difficulties from the viewpoint of the twenty-first century is that we have the entire Bible before us and culturally we focus on Christmas and Easter and on the basic facts pertaining to Jesus’ role in our salvation. As good as that is, it is only a partial picture that we are left with. If we start in the Old Testament it is difficult to imagine what it was like for anyone examining the writings that were available, but that will be our starting place. Having said that, we need to put it in context and for that we will first need to go to the New Testament.

The apostle Paul in New Testament times spoke of a ‘mystery’. Now that may be for two reasons. First, there were in existence in the Roman Empire what were referred to as ‘mystery religions’ and these focused on secret wisdom that was only imparted to the initiates of that religion. Indeed, sometimes they had a secret fellowship, a cultic meal, fellowship secrets, water baptism and rites and miracles. From our perspective today we might say they were a counterfeit of what was on God’s heart for the coming church. Because they existed in the Mediterranean lands already, they had a hold on the minds of many people there, and so the battle was between this institutional, counterfeit occult religion versus the power of Christ through the truth of the Gospel and demonstrated by the apostles. That was the background and so Paul is presenting an alternative ‘mystery’ to challenge belief.

But when Paul spoke of the mystery of Christ (Eph 3:4, Col 4:3) or the mystery of the Gospel (Eph 6:19) or this mystery more generally, (e.g. Rom 16:25, Eph 1:9, 3:3,6,9, Col 1:26,27), it was a mystery that had been there for centuries but was now being made known: the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all nations might believe and obey him.” (Rom 15:25,26)

When we bear this in mind, it will help us to understand what those Israelites of earlier ages struggled with and with what the prophets of old struggled with: “Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven.” (1 Pet 1:10-12) This is important to say because I believe so often we approach some of the Old Testament prophecies with an air of complacency that is born out of familiarity, and that in turn blinds us to the struggles that must have gone on in the minds of the readers of those prophecies. It is to those that we will turn now, and into the next half a dozen studies.

How easily we hear preachers speak the words they have heard or read from others. For instance, right at the beginning, in God’s condemnation of the snake (Satan) in the Garden of Eden: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel,” (Gen 3:15) or as the Message version puts it, “I’m declaring war between you and the woman, between your offspring and hers. He’ll wound your head, you’ll wound his heel.” How easily today we say, “Of course that refers to the work of Jesus, Jesus who is Abraham’s ‘seed’ (Gal 3:16), yet her seed, a human being born of this first true human mother, and he will do this in respect of Satan, he being a man, he being the Jesus we see now.” But the Message version plays down what the NIV plays up when the NIV says “he will crush your head” (implying destruction and loss of power) against ‘wound’ which doesn’t have the same impact. When the Message version says, “you’ll wound his heel” it is almost as if it puts both strikes on a level footing, but that isn’t the wider teaching of the Bible. The heel of the ‘seed’ will be struck – temporarily it will look as if Satan has made a life-threatening blow but it turns out not to be so, whereas the work of the ‘seed’ will be to completely destroy the power of Satan over all who come to the seed.

Oh yes, it is easy for us to see it now and see how that description worked out in the life and work of Jesus Christ but anyone who, centuries earlier, would have read the words of Genesis written down by Moses, would have been completely mystified – as many still remain today. There is a mysterious reference here in this third chapter of the Bible to a conflict that will come to a head at some future time, a conflict that is critical to the future of the world and, yes, for centuries, some millennia and a half, it would remain a mystery.  As the years passed further words would be spoken by the ‘prophets’, those purporting to be the mouthpieces of God, words that would not clarify the mystery but deepen it, as we shall see as we progress.

In the meantime, be grateful that we have the fuller revelation and that the mystery has now been uncovered, and praise the Lord for the wonder of it. Marvel at the way God seemed to drip-feed the revelation into the hearts and minds of Israel, a revelation that remained a mystery until the One came and was seen to be who he was. This is our starting place in this investigation into the person and work of Jesus Christ.

3. Jesus the Word

Meditations in Hebrews 1: 3.  Jesus the Word

Heb 1:1-2  In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, 

So, in the drama of the world, the curtain falls on the Old Testament with a restored Israel having rebuilt the Temple and the walls of Jerusalem and are now settling down after a most traumatic period of their history where they had been exiled and then restored. Prophetic words have come in more recent years through Malachi and Zechariah but those had been largely to encourage the rebuilding work, but that was now complete. What next? The record is there, centuries of God communicating with this nation through His prophets, what more might He say? Time passes and nothing. More time passes and still nothing. Several hundred years have passed and still nothing.

The scholars look at the scrolls and wonder. There have been prophetic hints that there will be one who will come, a messiah, but the prophetic words seem so contradictory that different schools of thought declare different things about him. Suffering seems to be part of the prophetic package, but then so does the thought that he will be a mighty ruler, but how can the two harmonise? The apostle Paul was later to use the word ‘mystery’ to describe this conundrum (Rom 16:25, Eph 3:2-11, 6:19, Col 1:26,27, 2:2,3, 4:3) and it was a mystery because God had not made it fully clear, and yet in the fullness of the New Testament revelation, at least seven times the scriptures declare that the mystery that was Christ was planned by the Godhead before the foundation of the world. Merely because it was a mystery to us, that doesn’t mean it was to God. The plan of sending Christ was not a last-minute crisis plan because everything was going wrong. No, God had planned it when He looked into the future in what would become time-space history and He saw sin and saw the need that would be there and saw the only way to deal with it, and so they, the Trinity, decided he would come, he would die and he would be raised from the dead, all before He spoke the words, “Let there be light”.

What I find strange, at first sight at least, is that the writer to the Hebrews does not lay out a history of Jesus Christ. Why? Well, that has already been done. It is probable that at least three of the Gospels are in existence and the church is up and running. This book doesn’t come over as a gospel weapon demanding belief and repentance, but more like a treatise for Jews who already believe, to bolster their belief with in-depth understanding of the wonder of the Christ. The basic facts of Christ were already well known. Probably the best we can say is that it was written before AD70 when the temple was destroyed because all references to the temple are still in the present. They know about Christ, they are believers.

And thus we come to this incredibly compact ‘prologue’ as some like to call the first four verses and because they are so compact it is so easy to skim past them hardly taking in the wonder that is here compacted into such a small space.  So (yes, you can breathe a sigh of relief, we have got here) we come to the text, now God has spoken to us through His Son. Even at this point in history, it is possible they do not fully realise what this means. It is going to take the aging apostle John, living in Ephesus, to take his years of reflecting on the wonder of those three incredible years with Jesus, and conclude he needs to write it down, an insight that went much further that the three Synoptic Gospels. John has memories, John was there, and in old age those incredible memories are sharp and clear and he realises that so much was said and done that the first three had nor picked up on. And so, for example, we have John remembering Jesus speaking about being the bread that has come down from heaven (read John 6) and we realise the ‘person’ who comes into the Gospels as a tiny baby had already existed in eternity, he didn’t just begin two thousand years ago. It is almost certain that Hebrews came before John’s Gospel but that makes even more amazing the revelation that comes through these first four verses of just who Jesus the Christ was.

John in his Gospel speaks of Jesus as ‘the word’ and although that would have much significance for Greek readers, put very simply a word is a basic form of communication. Jesus is God’s communication to this world. When our writer says that God has spoken to us “by his Son,” we should not just take that to mean He has spoken only through Jesus’ words but by everything that happened to Jesus, what he said AND did. All those things shout into history; “THIS IS THE UNIQUE SON OF GOD. THERE HAS NEVER BEEN AND NEVER WILL BE ANOTHER BEING LIKE HIM!”

This is not in any way to detract from Jesus’ words which in themselves were often so wonderful, but it says look at the wonder of what he did and that will also speak to you. The apostle Peter on the Day of Pentecost understood this: Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.” (Act 2:22-24) There it is, so much information again in such a short space: Jesus a man, a man from Nazareth, who did miracles, wonders and signs to show who he was and to turn eyes to God, a man who was acting out the will of God planned from long past, the will which included him being crucified but then being raised from the dead. This is the Christ we follow. But Peter didn’t say everything in that encapsulated history, he didn’t have time to do that. He didn’t tell of the wonder of the events surrounding Jesus birth, which were already told by Matthew and Luke, he didn’t tell of so many of the things John remembered and which make his Gospel such a wonder, but he said sufficient to mark out Jesus as unique.

Peter was not a theologian and so did not try to explain the theory and detail behind the events. Later theologians, trying to formulate the truths that had been conveyed through the New Testament, having to stand against heresies in the early centuries of the Church, would speak of Jesus as begotten of the Father which simply means, come out of the Father, as they sought to explain that Jesus was God, of the same essence as the Father, one with the Father, truly God himself. It is a word that only comes up one in an Old Testament prophecy but it is the nearest we can come to trying to understand the incarnation, the coming of God in human form in the person of Jesus Christ.  We will ponder more on it as we consider the wonder of what these first four verses say. Ask the Lord to open your eyes so that you may see as you’ve never seen before.

9. Continue in Christ

CHAPTER 2: Part 6: Exhortation: Stand strong and free

Meditations in Colossians 2: 9:  Continue in Christ

Col 2:6,7   So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.

You will know that I like link words, so I like “So then …”  It’s a short way of say, “Very well because of what I’ve just said, this is what should follow.” i.e. you’ve heard me speak about the mystery of Christ and also warning against wrong thinking that leads astray, so as a means of capitalising on the one and working against the other, this is what you should be doing. There is a logic or flow in Paul’s thinking and this is the natural follow-on to what I’ve just said.

He starts, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord,” and takes them back to the point of their conversion, of receiving their salvation.  There used to be a worry about new believers only receiving Christ as Saviour and not as Lord, and perhaps in some quarters that is still a valid concern. For Christ to be Saviour he HAS to be Lord as well. The ‘Saviour only’ approach focuses on the point of conversion but that is meaningless unless the life that follows is lived out under Christ’s direction for salvation isn’t just for a conversion moment, it is for being worked out in a lifetime. To get the fruits of salvation throughout the rest of your life, you have to let Christ lead you and be Lord. Christians live substandard lives and fail to appropriate all Christ has for them if they fail to let him be Lord of their life.  So when Paul says just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord,” he is subtly reminding them of the fundamental approach to life they have adopted – letting Christ be Lord, and that is for every day they have left on this earth.

But he then spells out what that Lordship means: “continue to live in him,” When we speak of living ‘in Christ’ we are saying imagine you are one with Christ, because you are; you are part of his body, the Church, and his Holy Spirit indwells you. Be aware of him, be aware that he speaks to us – through his word, through his Spirit – and that he is here for our good, guiding and directing us, so be aware of him and focus on him when you pray, for instance. Remain Christ focused is how we may sum thus up.

And then he expands on that: “rooted and built up in him.” When a plant is rooted in soil, it relies upon that soil for its nutrients and for water; it gets its life from the soil, being fed by it and by being supported by it. This is how we are in Christ; he is our foundation, he is the one from whom our life comes, he is the one who supports us, and this is not merely words but practical reality. ‘In him’ we are also ‘built up’. His presence, his life, supports and energises us.  This may sound obvious but remember that Paul is laying down the basics for a young church, for new believers as well as, at the same time, providing resources to help counteract false teachings that may come and seduce these people away from their experience of Christ.

There are two more things to encourage them to do this. First, be “strengthened in the faith as you were taught,” which is a natural continuance from thinking about being strengthened in your experience of being ‘in Christ’. Be also strengthened as you hang on to the teaching you have received concerning your faith. It is not only experiential via the Holy Spirit, it is also sustained by the practical teaching imparted through the church.

Then he adds, “and overflowing with thankfulness.” Now you may not think that that instruction strengthens new believers and counteracts false teaching, but it does! If you maintain a prayer life filled with thankfulness, it means that you are continually reminding yourself of all the good things that we have been considered in these studies in these two chapters. And if you are being thankful you will be thanking someone, and that someone is God, and so you will be continually be turning back to Him, focusing on Him, giving to Him and receiving from Him. Thankfulness sounds so innocuous but it is a key to good spiritual health, to remaining focused on God, to holding firm to the truth of all that He is, all that He has done and all that He has made you. Being thankful is a major element of a healthy life.

So there he is, calling on these new believers to remain strong as they walk out their new faith, by remembering who they are – those ‘in ‘Christ’, and what that means – we are founded in Christ and he is our resource and support and Lord, the bringer of all good things into our lives. Holding firm to this and to the teaching we have received, and maintaining an attitude of thankfulness, will mean that these new believers will grow, will be strong and will be able to stand against the wiles of the enemy and resist false teaching that undermines and seduces away from Christ. This is powerful stuff!

6. Christ’s Treasures

Meditations in Colossians 2: 6:  Christ’s Treasures

Col 2:2,3   that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.

I worry sometimes (as you may have gathered if you have followed these studies through Colossians) that we Christians so skim read the Bible that we fail to ponder upon the amazing things that are being said there. It is not always easy; in fact without prayer and seeking God for wisdom and insight often we can be left floundering, wondering whatever it was that, say, the apostle Paul was saying. For instance, whatever does it mean when he speaks and says, “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”?

Let’s take it in bits. In Christ there are hidden treasures. Fine so far. Perhaps we might say that about a person we know: “If you knew them, really got to know them well, you would come to see there is more in them than meets the eye, they have got so much, they are an amazing person really.” We come across an aged person who is gentle and gracious and we wonder about them. Someone else tells us, “They were in a death camp in the war and went through terrible things, but they have come out of it so gracious and humble and thankful. He (she) is such a beautiful person that you’d never guess what they had been through.” They contain such treasure, some of it (the memories) not good but others of it so wonderful.

And in Christ, Paul says are these treasures and they are wisdom and knowledge – and the way he says it suggests they are unlimited wisdom and knowledge. Perhaps there are two ways of seeing this. The first is to see in the person of Christ that we observe in the Gospels, hear about in the prophets, and who is now seated at the Father’s right hand to return at some future date, all the wisdom and knowledge that God has. While he was on earth in a single human form, it appears that he was limited to the revelation the Spirit in him released. Perhaps it was a case that he only became aware of the wisdom and knowledge as he needed it. For a human mind to cope with every bit of knowledge that exists (which God has) would be too mind blowing, so he was limited, purely to be able to cope in human form with human abilities as well as the divine flow. As the Son of God he had access to everything the Father knew and in the human body could draw on it through the Spirit as and when he needed to. Perhaps this is one meaning of Jesus containing “all the treasures of wisdom and understanding.”

But maybe there is a much bigger way that this applies, a much bigger meaning that in fact refers to the very fact of his existence. Does it mean that the very fact of the actual existence of a Son of God, to start with, is an example of all of God’s knowledge and wisdom coming together to bring him about. In a previous study in chapter one we considered the fact that Jesus was begotten (“formed out of”) and not created, so that he came out of the Father and was still one with the Father. Was there a moment in the existence of God when He was aware of all that He could create in the material realm (or was it even before that) when He decided that the wisest thing that He could do in the light of all He knew, was to bring forth ‘a Son’, a second identity that had unique personality but separate (while still one) existence?

My wife and I were talking about this and I speculated on God thinking as Spirit. One set of thoughts, but then He formed two sets of thoughts at the same moment (for He can do that as God) and the two sets of thought exist from then on as separate identities – “In the beginning was the word”. But as these two ‘Spirit thoughts’ pondered they saw all that could ever be that they could create in the material world, and they saw that if they made ‘human beings’ with free will, then they would use that free will to turn away from God’s perfect design for them and go their own way, causing mayhem and destruction of that material world. And seeing that they ‘saw’ that the only way for justice to be appeased, in order to bring this fallen mankind back, it would be necessary for ‘the Son’ to take human form and take all the punishment  due to humanity in order to put it back on a right footing able to stand before God without condemnation.

This plan before anything else, this thinking is based on having complete knowledge of everything within and without time, past, present and future, of possibilities and of realities. But more than that it is based on pure wisdom. Wisdom is the knowledge of how to act, what to say or do, and God, who sees everything, knows exactly what is the right thing, the perfect thing, the thing that cannot be improved upon, knows what should be- and it was all that we know of about Christ.

When we look at Christ we see in him are hidden all the outworkings of God’s knowledge and wisdom. How incredible!