23. Paul (2)

Reaching into Redemption Meditations: 23. Paul (2)

2 Cor 1:8-11   We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us again. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, 11 as you help us by your prayers.

 Doing Paul Justice: When we came to the end of yesterday’s study about Paul, I felt very much that we had sold Paul short, if I may put it like that. We covered the idea of ‘good people’ needing redeeming and we noted something of Paul’s background as a good religious, even zealous Jew, and yet one who was obviously pointing in the wrong direction. He must have been of good reputation to be able to have gone to the high priest to get authority to go to Damascus in the name of Judaism to arrest heretics who had abandoned their background for the new thing referred to as ‘The Way’. But much of the New Testament is filled with his writings and his activities and they reveal a man who has been so transformed from the religious zealot that he had once been.

Refocusing Redemption: Now perhaps before we continue here with Paul we need to remind ourselves of our theme and what is at the heart of it. We have said a number of times that it is not only about the initial act of redemption but also the ongoing life of redemption, a life where God is working to reshape us (like Jeremiah’s Potter’s clay pot – see Jer 18) into the likeness of Jesus (2 Cor 3:18). Now what many of us fail to remember is that this ‘reshaping’ isn’t only in character reformation, it is all about the overall purpose, direction and drive of our lives, i.e. how we in our unique way come to express something of the kingdom of God, the will of God, and the purpose of God, in our lives and to the world.

Understand Individual Calling: Now the reassuring thing, for some of us, is that we are not being called into the likeness of Paul, or even of Jesus as we see him in the Gospels. The thing is that God has a unique plan for each of our lives (see Eph 2:10). Jesus, for instance, never ministered outside the general area of Israel, while Paul traveled far and wide. Jesus performed many, many healings and miracles, while few are recorded of Paul. Jesus’ primary purpose was twofold: to reveal the love of the Father in his ministry and then to die on the Cross for our salvation. Paul’s ministry similarly appears twofold: first to take the Gospel to both Jew and Gentile and then, second, and he would never realize this, to provide a written body of teaching and revelation for us the church down through the ages, that opened up and explained the meaning and purpose of the coming and outworking of Jesus’ ministry, in a way that goes way beyond the Gospels.

And Us? So when it comes to us, when we look at a ministry such as that of Paul, we can be stirred and challenged but must realize that God has a unique calling for each of us that may completely mess with our previous perceptions of spiritual versus material aspects of life. The main thrust of a life might be in business, say house building, but a secondary kingdom issue that may emerge is to provide housing for the homeless out of profits made. It is always a challenge, a) to see all activities within the ambit of calling, and then b) to see if there is something additional the Lord is calling us to do as an extension of our main activity in life.

Back to Paul: So here is this good Pharisee, jealous for the name of Judaism, reaching out to bring a halt to this new ‘Way’ and he gets stopped by Jesus. As a result of his encounter on the road to Damascus, when he opened his eyes he could see nothing.” (Acts 9:8a) so that “they led him by the hand into Damascus,” (v.9b) and “for three days he was blind and did not eat or drink anything.” (v.9) He has been completely immobilized and can do nothing. It is then that the Lord sends a Christian by the name of Ananias to speak to him and give him his marching orders:This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.” (v.15,16). When Ananias prays over him he is filled with the Spirit and regains his sight. Immediately he starts preaching in synagogues (where his fellow-Jews would meet for worship and teaching), that Jesus is the Son of God.” (v.20)

Redemption is about Jesus: In the Old Testament this obviously did not feature but once we move into the present day we have to say that, first and foremost, redemption – God delivering us out of our old bad life into a new life of freedom – is about a relationship with God that only comes about by means of the work of Jesus Christ on the Cross. This may sound obvious but there may be those who would want a new life but one that comes by self-effort, or New Age techniques perhaps, or other self-help approaches enabled by ‘experts’ or even ‘counselors’. Redemption is not about all this; it is only possible via the work of the Son of God, and the requirement is twofold: 1. That you believe he is the unique Son of God who came to the earth to reveal God the Father and 2. That he came to take the punishment for your sins which, once acknowledged and repented of, are dealt with once and for all and removed and a new life given by God and empowered by the Holy Spirit.

Redemption is a free gift: When we come to the teaching of the apostle Paul we find he is most emphatic, it is not by our efforts that we are saved: it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God not by works, so that no one can boast,” (Eph 2:8,9), it is a gift from God through Christ’s death on the Cross and now enabled by the Spirit: “does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard?” (Gal 3:5) Now again this might sound something fairly obvious, but the truth is that so often we drift from our original faith foundations and find ourselves like the Galatians reverting back to relying on appearance or effort or even ritual. Paul was a ‘doer’, an activist, he was always out there doing the stuff. Before he came to Christ it was dealing with this heresy as he saw it. After he was saved he just had to share the gospel. The danger is that when we are very active we start to rely on that activity as the means or basis for our relationship with the Lord. It isn’t. It is only the work of Christ, received by simple faith, and then the work of the Holy Spirit in and through us, and all of that cannot be earned, but just received as a free gift from God.

Redemption is about imperfect people: So God’s work would continue on in Paul and we might expect that with a spiritual giant like this, all we would see is a picture of gloriously sanctified holiness. However, and it is difficult to tell when these various things applied, there are indicators that if we were looking for perfection, there are things that would detract from that. Without doubt Paul was a great teacher and yet sometimes his teaching was sufficiently complex that the apostle Peter commented, His letters contain some things that are hard to understand,” (2 Pet 3:16) The positive take on that is that revelation sometimes needs some thinking about; the less positive take is that Paul could have made an effort to be more simple for the less able of his readers!

It is difficult to know if Paul was wise and submitting to the rest of the body around him. When Luke records what happened at Tyre, he says of the believers there, Through the Spirit they urged Paul not to go on to Jerusalem,” (Acts 21:4) but Paul clearly disregarded that. Shortly afterwards a prophet declared of Paul, “The Holy Spirit says, ‘In this way the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem will bind the owner of this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles.’” (Acts 21:11) What follows does seem messy and, yes, Paul; testifies to kings and ends up testifying in Rome, but it seems a very tortuous route and one wonders if the Lord had had a better path for Paul that would have continued his ministry more widely.

Then of course, earlier, there had been the falling out with Barnabas: “They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company.” (Acts 15:39) The more gentle hearted Barnabas wanted to still include John-Mark despite his past failings. Paul clearly did not suffer fools gladly, we might say today, and so wrote off John-Mark; there was a somewhat hard-nosed attitude about the ministry in him (but what do you expect from a man who endured such things as he had done – see 2 Cor 6:4,5, 11:24-27). Paul, like us, was a ‘work in progress.’ An amazing man who turned many to Christ and brought revelation and understanding to us, and yet still a man, a man who still had the potential for pride, so much so that the Lord had to allow him a ‘thorn in the flesh’. (2 Cor 12:7-9)

The Apostle of Revelation: A Pharisee persecuting Christians. That could have been all that Paul ended up being, but instead Jesus apprehended him on that road to Damascus and we are all the richer as a result. Paul referred to the revelation he received in 2 Cor 12 that we’ve just referred to, and it is difficult to sum up the amazing riches of revelation we find at Paul’s hand in the New Testament, but this perhaps more than anything else shows us the wonder of the work of God in redemption in this man.

There is his justification by faith in Romans 3-5, his understanding about sin in Romans 6 & 7 and the work of Christ and the Spirit in Romans 8, and so much more in Romans. There is the challenge in Galatians to a life of faith not works. In Ephesians the wonder of the church, of our redemption, forgiveness, predestination, especially in those incredibly truth-packed verses of chapter 1. And so it could go on, his diagnosis of the problems of church life in 1 Corinthians that leads into the amazing revelation of gifts and ministry of the Spirit in the body of Christ in chapters 12-14, his humility and anguish in 2 Corinthians, his pleading with an old friend for the sake of a Christian slave in Philemon, so much more of such variety.

And us? Some might legalistically want to challenge us to be Gospel-bringers, church planters, like Paul and so on, but I suggest in the light of what we have just been considering the biggest challenge is to get to grips with all this teaching from Paul that we find in the New Testament and ask the Lord to help us become people who can likewise, through the intimacy of their walk with the Lord, be people of revelation, people of the Spirit, freedom-bringers, peace-bringers, comforters, all the things that Paul talks about and, yes, Gospel-bringers and church-planters if that is what He calls us to. This redeemed life challenges us in all these things. May we rise to them

22. Paul (1)

Reaching into Redemption Meditations: 22. Paul (1)

Phil 3:4-6   If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.

 Meeting Saul: Our biggest danger as people is that sometimes we think we are ‘all right’, doing well in life, appearing successful and ‘becoming someone’. Saul, or Paul as he became known to us, was such a person. In his eyes, and no doubt the eyes of his fellow Pharisees, he was doing well. He is first mentioned in Acts as an observer as Stephen is stoned to death, thus becoming the first Christian martyr: “Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.” (Acts 7:58) But life in the early church carried on, sometimes with their new-found faith referred to as ‘The Way’, until we read, “Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem.” (Acts 9:1,2). He is, as our starter verses say, a zealot, all out to preserve Judaism from this new ‘faith’ that was stealing away Jews from their ‘real’ faith.

Not Enough: Saul is, in the eyes of many, a really good, religious man. He is a proper Jew and also happens to be a Roman citizen (Acts 16:37,38). He keeps the Law of Moses and he is a Pharisee, a good conservative upholder of the Law and of Judaism. So we could look at the lives of people we know: good men or women, involved in society, maybe they do good works, works of charity, they are successful in their families and in business, and they have a good reputation. What more could they want, they have arrived. Well, perhaps God? Successful people tend to be self-sufficient, seeing little need for a religious crutch. Why would God want to disturb such lives?

Saul Stopped: Well Saul sets out on his way to Damascus and along the way is apprehended by the Son of God: As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.  “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied.” (Acts 9:3-5) This wasn’t just the brightness of the sun, this was a focused flashing light from above and it was accompanied by a voice that causes him to ask who he was hearing. A strange question but perhaps he instinctively knew the answer and just needed it confirming. He gets his confirmation.

Apparent Confidence: Did this otherwise godly man have a deep-down wondering about what he was doing? Had he seen or heard things about these Christians that somehow resonated with him? It is a common experience, so sure and yet not so sure. People around us so often look so sure of themselves and yet it only needs some small event to reveal inner questions. Remember Solomon’s writing about how God has made us: He has also set eternity in the human heart.” (Eccles 3:11) We are made to have God-awareness, eternity awareness and even though sin seeks to cover it up, it is still there.

Apparent Success: This is the truth about human life, until we have had a God-encounter, we are not what we were made to be. He may have allowed us to have ‘success’ and we may think it was from our own cleverness (did we make our high IQ?), our own wisdom and certainly our extensive efforts, long working hours and so on, but there is still something missing. We may be highly respected member of the community – but still godless. Just a minute, they protest, I go to church at Christmas and Easter, and sometimes even more. Maybe they even become sides-men or members of whatever religious oversight body their local church has, but there is still something missing – and it is God.

Goodness? And so this is the thing about redemption. So far we have been focusing on bad people being worked on by God to become good people, but that is only part of the story, because He also works on good people to become holy people. A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone.” (Lk 18:18,19) Goodness can be an illusion. A ‘good’ person may give that appearance because they are motivated by guilt from the past to do good now, or their goodness may be purely self-serving. Philosophers have argued through the centuries about whether anyone can truly be altruistic (selfless) and usually concluded it is not possible. In that they echo the Bible’s diagnosis, we are sinners and we are that because we are contaminated by Sin.

Deliverance from Good???? So when God redeems us, one of the ‘bad’ things He has to deliver us from is the deception that we are good people. William Golding in his famous book, ‘Lord of the Flies’, seeks to portray this, that taken out of the trappings of civilization, we soon reveal the sinner within. Many of us are ‘nice’ because we have a good family background, and quite possibly we have an affluent lifestyle, we have good education, a good job, good investments, property and so on. It is a comfy, cozy and secure environment and although there is nothing inherently bad about any of that, and God would want it for all of us, it does carry the danger of making us think we are the masters of our destiny.

A Modern Illustration: I understand the philosophy, if not therapeutically-based thinking, behind the Invictus Games that have come into being in recent years, in which, to quote Wikipedia, “wounded, injured or sick armed services personnel and their associated veterans take part in sports,” Invictus being Latin for “unconquered.” It is a worthy if not excellent humanitarian enterprise, yet I am saddened by their motto, “I am” which is a shortened reminder of a popular poem from the late nineteenth century by the English author William Ernest Henley. The speaker in the poem proclaims his strength in the face of adversity: ”My head is bloody, but unbowed….I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.”  As I say, it is understandable and even commendable except it falls short of the truth, for I may struggle with great effort to overcome the anguishes of modern life (and war and fighting is not modern) but if that becomes a substitute for a reliance upon God, it is a deception.

The Warning to Israel: When Moses instructed Israel on the Plains of Moab before they entered the Promised Land, he warned them, When the Lord your God brings you into the land he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give you—a land with large, flourishing cities you did not build, houses filled with all kinds of good things you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant—then when you eat and are satisfied, be careful that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” (Deut 6:10-12) i.e. once you get into the land and settle there and receive all of God’s goodness and are affluent, be careful in that affluence not to forget the Lord.

The Bigger Redemption Picture: Thus the picture of redemption isn’t just about delivering out of a bad place into a good place, it is also (and this is vital) about being delivered out of godlessness into being godly. A real and genuine relationship with the Lord is the end goal of the Lord’s redemptive work – always. So don’t just yearn for the Lord to deliver you out of bad circumstances, yearn also for Him to lead you into a deeper relationship with Him. That is His goal, so let’s make sure it is ours as well.

 

 

12. Aspiring to Know Peace

Aspiring Meditations: 12.  Aspiring to know Peace

Num 6:25,26    the LORD make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD turn his face toward you and give you peace.

Gal 5:22   the fruit of the Spirit is …. peace,

Jn 14:27  Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.

2 Thess 3:16  Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times and in every way. The Lord be with all of you.

Because virtually all of the apostle Paul’s letters start somewhere in the first few verses with the desire for ‘grace and peace’ for his readers, peace, like grace, is probably fairly high on our awareness of Bible words and yet, I would suggest, it is something that is so often absent from the lives of modern Christians. It is after all, a very uncertain world that we live in during these years in the middle of the second decade of the twenty first century and, it seems, it gets more uncertain as every month passes.

So what is peace? Peace, I find in a Bible Dictionary is an undisturbed state of mind; the absence of mental conflict; serenity, or it is freedom from conflict, argument or disagreement. So when the apostle Paul spoke about it as he did at the beginning of his letters he was recognising that we needed God’s grace as His resources to help us through each day, and we needed this ‘undisturbed state of mind’, especially in the light of the difficult things that confront us.

For the Christians of his century it was the fear of persecution that stood out. For us today, for most of us in the West at least, persecution is not the main issue, but the issue of global security. Threats of global violence are just below the surface and that is worrying and worry and anxiety are the main enemies of peace.

The Aaronic blessing, of Numbers  6 above, recognized that peace was a blessing that came with the presence of the Lord. Gal 5:22 declares it comes from the Holy Spirit. Jesus declared peace over his disciples, especially in the light of the impending chaos that was about to break out with his arrest and death. Yet within hours peace fled from most of them as they forgot his words. Paul in his second letter to the Thessalonians prayed for peace for his readers but note the words that immediately followed that: The Lord be with all of you  It was yet another reminder that peace comes with the presence of the Lord.

So when all is upheaval around us, how do we get peace? Paul wrote, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 4:6,7) As we pray it is like the presence of God draws near and with it His peace.

Nothing may have changed in terms of the world around us, in fact it probably won’t, but that is not the point. The point is that the presence of the Lord is there. This is the God who is sovereign Lord of the Universe. Where He is, there IS peace because He is supreme, He is all powerful, all knowing, all wise. Nothing is outside His control and because the world cannot be a threat to Him, He is at total peace.  Imagine His peace as a gentle musical hum. The nearer to get to Him the more aware of it you are. Close to Him you are surrounded by it. That is what it is like with His peace.

David wrote, “The LORD is the stronghold of my life– of whom shall I be afraid?” (Psa 27:1) David knew about strongholds. The ‘stronghold’ he knew was a high place he knew in the mountains, hidden away from Saul’s armies, and there he was secure. Because of his relationship with the Lord, he saw the Lord as just such a stronghold. Listen to the ‘song of ascents’ known as Psalm 121: “I lift up my eyes to the hills– where does my help come from? 2My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth.   3He will not let your foot slip– he who watches over you will not slumber; 4indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.   5The LORD watches over you– the LORD is your shade at your right hand; 6the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night.   7The LORD will keep you from all harm– he will watch over your life; 8the LORD will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.”  When our children, when they were young, suffered nightmares, we taught them this psalm. As one of our granddaughters today, hearing all about the terrorist attacks round the world and all the other fearful things children share with each other in the playground, we advised our son to teach her the same. Look at the promises there are in those verses. Learn them yourself, declare the truth of them in prayer. Commit your many anxieties to Him in prayer and let His peace overshadow you.

Is peace something I must aspire to knowing and having? Oh yes, definitely! The world is too unstable, society is in too much of an upheaval. Without the presence of the Lord, without His peace, we will be nervous wrecks like the people around us. The numbers of people visiting therapists and the numbers of people taking medication for their anxieties is phenomenal today. If you are one such person, a course on ‘Mindfulness‘ is not what you need, it is simply time in the Lord’s presence. I despair almost at the numbers of people who are resorting to the former because their faith is so weak that they will not do the latter. We’re living in perilous times so ‘mindfulness’ will not do it. “Seek the LORD while he may be found; call on him while he is near.” (Isa 55:6) “may all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you;” (Psa 40:16) “those who seek the LORD lack no good thing.” (Psa 34:10) Amen!

2. Thinking about Visions

Meditations from Ezekiel: 2.  Thinking about Visions

Ezek 1:1  In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month on the fifth day, while I was among the exiles by the Kebar River, the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God.

In our first study in this new series we considered Ezekiel, a thirty year old exile from Israel, taken prisoner to Babylon, together with many of his countrymen. We pondered briefly in this catastrophe in his life, just as he was approaching the age to start in the priesthood, carried away from all that was familiar to all that is unfamiliar. We perhaps rarely think about what it must have been like for such people. At the age of thirty it is probable that he had a wife and a family. We know nothing of them. Did he lose them in the exile? We don’t know. All we do know it that it was a time of immense turmoil.

Visions? And then it was at that we read, “and I saw visions of God.” This expression, “visions of God” occurs at two other significant places in the book: “He stretched out what looked like a hand and took me by the hair of my head. The Spirit lifted me up between earth and heaven and in visions of God he took me to Jerusalem, to the entrance to the north gate of the inner court, where the idol that provokes to jealousy stood,” (Ezek 8:3) and much later, “In visions of God he took me to the land of Israel and set me on a very high mountain, on whose south side were some buildings that looked like a city.” (Ezek 40:2)

A ‘vision’ is a picture formed in the mind that is so strong that everything else falls into the background of experience. It is not mere imagination but almost, we might say today, like a video being run in our mind that blanks out everything else. There are a number of such instances in the Bible.

Examples:  At one point in earlier history God’s word came to Abram in a vision (Gen 15:1), as it also did to Israel (Jacob – Gen 46:2). The apostle Peter had a clear vision when he was being sent to share the Gospel for the first time to the Gentiles (Acts 10:9-) although it was referred to as a trance (and yet he does later refer to it as a vision in a trance – Acts 11:5). This, of course came after Cornelius had received a vision (Acts 10:3-) telling him to send for Peter. The apostle Paul had a vision of a man from Macedonia calling him to come to them (Acts 16:9). The Lord also later spoke to Paul in a vision to encourage him not to be silent (Acts 18:9). The implication from these examples seems to be that the Lord speaks through a vision at particularly important times of people’s lives, times that are particularly significant.

Sometimes the prophetic word of God comes in such clarity about the future that it is referred to as a vision, as in the case of young Samuel (1 Sam 3:15) but the distinction from the former use is that there is no visual picture. It may be that in such cases the reality of the contact with God is so strong that although there is no reference to a picture of what is seen, nevertheless everything else fades into the background in the face of the reality of what the person was hearing. This also appears true of Ananias in Acts 9:10-12.

Heavenly strangeness: And so now we read, “the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God.” We note this was specific revelation of heavenly things with heaven being opened. Although we will see specific pictures that we can at least partly relate to, they are nevertheless revelations about what is in heaven, or express the will of God that comes from heaven. Perhaps we might suggest that such was the chaos and confusion in Ezekiel’s life at this time, being carried away into exile, that it needed something as dramatic as a vision, or series of visions, to break into his awareness, which take us back into the historical context.

Time overview: Although verse 1 and later verses come in the first person – “I” – for a moment there is a break in verses 2 and 3 that come in reporting mode in the third person – speaking of Ezekiel as from an observer: “On the fifth of the month–it was the fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiachin—the word of the LORD came to Ezekiel the priest, the son of Buzi, by the Kebar River in the land of the Babylonians. There the hand of the LORD was upon him.”  (v.2,3) Indeed this is the only third-person narrative in the book. Perhaps its purpose is to clarify the date in v. 1.

The historical books tell us in respect of King Nebuchadnezzar, “In the eighth year of the reign of the king of Babylon, he took Jehoiachin prisoner,” (2 Kings 24:12) and “He carried into exile all Jerusalem: all the officers and fighting men, and all the craftsmen and artisans–a total of ten thousand. Only the poorest people of the land were left.” (2 Kings 24:14) which was probably April 597BC. But we read that the word came to Ezekiel in the fifth year of their exile which, it is suggested corresponds to 593BC.

Settled in exile? Now we almost implied earlier in the previous study that this had only just happened to Ezekiel but the truth is that he’s been here for somewhere between 4 to 5 years already. If you have ever watched the film Ben Hur (the earlier version conveyed this better than the remake) the sense of terrible sense of futility and hopelessness that must come on a slave in chains is absolutely terrible, Barring a disaster (which happens in Ben Hur) there is nothing but nothing that you can do to free yourself. You are in this position until you die and there is absolutely nothing you can do about it. That must have been the sense felt by these exiles; the unthinkable has happened because Jerusalem has been taken (and is later destroyed). This is the background for this book.

God possibilities: We suggested this before but it bears repeating before we get into the text of the visions. This background should challenge us, that with God the future is NOT set in impossible concrete, we do not know what God might come and do with us. Centuries before he had come to an aging shepherd in the backside of the desert in Midian and said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians …. So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.” (Ex 3:7-10) A most incredible message of deliverance but devastating for Moses who after forty years in the wilderness had lost every ounce of self-confidence. Is that us? Has life done that to us? It is NOT the end.

For Ezekiel, it is slightly different; he is going to remain with his people in exile but he is going to bring God’s word to them that will no doubt filter its way back to Jerusalem. He is going to act as the confirming prophet to Jeremiah and he is going to set markers in history for the will of God. He is no longer ‘just an exile’; he is about to become a man with a mission. Bear all this in mind as we enter into the wonder and complexity of what is about to follow – and never say, “I am stuck in these unchanging circumstances.” With God you can never know!

19. Superficial Religion (2)

Meditations in Colossians 2: 19:  Superficial Religion (2)

Col 2:18    Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you for the prize. Such a person goes into great detail about what he has seen, and his unspiritual mind puffs him up with idle notions.

When we arrive at this sentence we clearly come to Paul poking at the Gnostics who we have referred to before and, among other wrong teaching, believed in ‘special’ knowledge, mystical knowledge coming from mystical experiences. They were another of the ‘add-on’ cults for whom the basic Gospel and the apostolic teaching was insufficient. They need something more, special experiences and special knowledge that came through such experiences. Paul warns against such people and says, Such a person goes into great detail about what he has seen, and his unspiritual mind puffs him up with idle notions.”  Although they make out that they are spiritual Paul says they are unspiritual. ‘Spiritual’ comes from accepting the Gospel as it is revealed in the New Testament. If you fail to accept that, you are unspiritual despite whatever spiritual noises you might make!

You see these people can appear so spiritual and with an appearance of humility but in reality it is false and a show put on to deceive you. These people even went on about angels and how we ought to worship them, and yet angels are simply revealed in scripture as servants of God.

Paul’s worry about these people is that they will come to the Colossians and “disqualify you for the prize.” Paul expanded this when he wrote to the Philippians: “I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 3:14)  A prize is given at the end of the race. The prize Paul has in mind in these instances is the right to live in heaven with God in eternity and that right is only given to the children of God who have accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour.

Although Paul is always so positive in his teaching, this is one of those rare times when he hints at the negative, the possibility of losing that right to a place in heaven, hence the word, ‘disqualify’. Some people object to the idea that someone can lose their salvation and suggest that a person who wholly backslides was never properly converted in the first place, but this instance shows us a way whereby that can happen in a very real way. Consider what Paul is warning against.

First he is warning against wrong thinking because that is what is at the heart of this warning. These Gnostics, who he is warning the Colossians against, were not born again believers. They did not believe in the God of the Bible that the apostle John describes as love (1 Jn 4:8,16). They did not believe that Jesus was the unique Son of God, begotten of the Father, who died for the sins of the world. They did not believe that salvation came through faith but by special knowledge. As a result their lives had not been transformed at conversion and they did not have a living relationship with God through Jesus and did not know the power and direction of the Holy Spirit.

Now what we must realise is that wrong thinking leads on to wrong behaviour and that has been included in a measure in the paragraph above. But if these Gnostics rejected all the teaching of the apostles in the New Testament it was because of their wrong thinking. This thinking said that man’s body, which is matter, is therefore evil and is contrasted with God, who is wholly spirit and therefore good. Since the body was considered evil, it was to be treated harshly. This ascetic form of Gnosticism is the what Paul will be speaking against in the following verses.  Paradoxically, this dualism also led to licentiousness. The reasoning was that, since matter – and not the breaking of God’s law – was considered evil, breaking his law was of no moral consequence. So bizarrely in these people we find a mixture of harsh asceticism on one hand but amoral licentiousness on the other, both of which are seen in their behaviour. Both are person-centred and both reject the New Testament apostolic teaching. If the Colossians rejected the Gospel and the apostolic teaching as it came to them and went on to accept the teaching of the Gnostics, then clearly any talk of relationship with God would be quite unreal and as they have abandoned the Gospel they have utterly abandoned their salvation, present and future. This is a very real and genuine loss, hence Paul’s concern and his efforts to warn them.

Perhaps we should ask ourselves, do we realise how our behaviour is linked to our thinking? Then  can we be honest about what we genuinely believe for, to go the full circle, what we believe will be revealed by the way we live. A serious thought.

1. The Absent Struggler

CHAPTER 2: Part 5: Paul’s Aims in Writing

Meditations in Colossians 2: 1:  The Absent Struggler!

Col 2:1   I want you to know how much I am struggling for you and for those at Laodicea, and for all who have not met me personally.

In the studies in chapter 1 I have commented a number of times how we come across phrases or concepts in the Bible that we tend to take for granted and skim over when we are reading it. This was especially so in chapter 1 for there were so many theological concepts to be thought through. However, as soon as we start chapter 2 we find ourselves with an intriguing picture which is not very clear at first sight. How, we might ask at the outset, was Paul struggling for people he had never met?

Now of course this is really just an extension of the previous two verses, the last two in chapter 1, where he had said, (1) We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that (2) we may present everyone perfect in Christ. To this end I labour, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me.” (Col 1:28:29). There are, I am going to suggest, two things over which Paul struggles and the first is revealed in those previous two verses as Paul’s basic ministry and it is expressed as two parts in those verses.

The first part was to “proclaim him”, i.e. to preach Christ to all he met. When Luke records the start of Paul’s ministry on Cyprus he simply says that “they proclaimed the word of God,” (Acts 13:5) and that phrase is repeated in v.7, but when he moved on to Pisidian Antioch, in the synagogue there he first spoke about Israel’s history ending with David, concluding, “From this man’s descendants God has brought to Israel the Saviour Jesus, as he promised,” (v.23)

  • and then portraying him as God’s Son (v.33)
  • and explaining the resurrection (v.34-37)
  • and providing forgiveness for sins (v.38)
  • and justification (v.39).

In this he followed the same pattern as Peter on the day of Pentecost  even to the point of exhorting the people not to reject God’s word but to repent (implied v.40). Presenting the Gospel of Jesus Christ was the first element of this part of his ministry.

The second part of his ministry was, according to that verse, to “present everyone perfect in Christ,” i.e. to bring them through to salvation, fully assured in Christ and well taught, i.e. well established. Initially, it seems, their main effort went into simply presenting the Gospel but then later we find, “Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us go back and visit the brothers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.” (Acts 15:36) In other words Paul caught this idea that the believers needed to be well established. While his main efforts were clearly put into sharing the Gospel afresh, he also obviously sometimes stayed around to deepen their understanding, thus at Corinth we read, “Paul stayed for a year and a half, teaching them the word of God.” (Acts 18:11) As an apostle he didn’t only want to share the Gospel but also make sure the church was built up in it.

Now while he poured out his heart in his ministry face to face, where he had contacts with other believers through other members of his apostolic team who reported back to him, we also finding him seeking to express his ministry through writing. In that he was conveying the gospel and seeking to impart teaching to build up the new believers in those places he had not yet visited but of whom he had been given reports – as with the church at Colosse of whom he had heard through Epaphras, and the church in Rome.

As we are focusing on the “struggle” we might suggest that this was a struggle in Paul’s heart, a frustration that longed to be fulfilled by him coming to them, but in the meantime he poured it out in the form we have been seeing. It may also have been the concern he had of arranging for members of the apostolic team to care for these people and make sure he can do everything he could to support them. Thus when he says, “I want you to know how much I am struggling for you,” he is basically saying, “I want you to know how much my heart yearns for you and how I am doing everything I possibly can to support and bless you with the Gospel and with teaching.”

Now earlier I said there were two things over which Paul struggled, the first being in sharing the Gospel and bringing teaching to build up the church.

The second we will find as we go on through the letter, which is the struggle to overcome heresies or wrong teaching. We see him being involved in this conflict fairly early on in his ministry: “Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question.” (Acts 15:1,2)

The matter of circumcision and keeping the Law were recurring problems as long as they encountered traditional Jews and that of course, forms a large part of his letter to the Galatians. We will see growing hints of this: “I tell you this so that no one may deceive you by fine-sounding arguments,” (v.4) and “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.” (v.8) His anxiety that the enemy not be allowed to undermine their faith is part of the struggle he refers to.

Remember, earlier in chapter 1 we read, “since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God.” (1:9,10) Those were the emphases we saw then and now he will build on them in the following verses. Get ready to read on.

41. The Ever-spreading Gospel

Meditations in Colossians: 41. The ever-spreading Gospel

Col 1:23b    This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant.

This is one of those verses that you have to point out to those who say we have to take the Bible literally throughout and say, no, the apostle Paul was not meaning for every word to be taken literally; he was using hyperbole, which is overstatement to make a strong point. He does that here when he speaks of “every creature under heaven” in the same way as in verse 6 he used the expression “all over the world” referring to the spread of the Gospel, Perhaps we might say, in his shoes, this Gospel has been shared far and wide all over the known world. In the eleventh study in this series we tracked the spread of the Gospel.

I suspect we take for granted the concept of this particular body or piece of knowledge that Paul shared that we call ‘the Gospel’, but there is specific content although that was not always completely shared when Paul referred to it. In an earlier study we summarised it as, ‘Jesus came, revealed the Father, was crucified and rose from the dead, all, we are told, the means to bring about the forgiveness of our sins.’ The other side of the verse about conditions that we previously just studied, Paul had outlined the Gospel: “Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behaviour. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation.” (v.21,22) These are the words he refers to when he now says, “This Gospel….”

It is interesting that although the word Gospel is used nine times in the four Gospels, it is rarely given content. Mark refers to it as, “the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” (Mk 1:1) and a few verses later says, “Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God is near.” (Mk 1:14,15) At its most basic it was that Jesus , the Son of God had come and was revealing the kingdom of God, but of course at that point he had not died for our sins. That was remedied by the apostle Peter on the Day of Pentecost where he spelled out who Jesus was and what he had done when he had died on the Cross (Acts 2:22-24, 36-39) where he also speaks of the required repentance which will bring forgiveness and the gift of the Holy Spirit.

When he shared with Cornelius and his Gentile family and friends, he began by speaking of, “the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all.” (Acts 10:36) He then spoke of, “how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him,” (Acts 10:38) explaining Jesus’ earthly ministry, and then added, “They killed him by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen,” (v.39,40 explaining the Cross and resurrection. He concluded with, “All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” (v.43) When he got that far the Lord poured out His Holy Spirit on them as if to say, “That is enough Peter, and because they believe what you are sharing, here is my Spirit for them too.” So there is was: Son of God incarnate doing wonderful things, crucified and resurrected for the forgiveness of sins.

Writing to the Corinthians, Paul said, “Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. ….. that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.” (1 Cor 15:1-3) That is perhaps the briefest version of the Gospel. There is more that can be added, as we’ll see when Paul continues, but these are the basics. This is the basic body of information that has been conveyed down through history to tell us what God has done.

This body of information, we saw earlier had gone with new believers from Jerusalem out to many other parts of the world. Philip preached it in Samaria and then Gaza (Acts 8:5,40) as did Peter and John in Samaria. The word spread and spread. In his book, Evangelism in the Early Church, Michael Green  highlights various factors that made it possible for the Gospel to be spread more easily: Roman peace and rule and their excellent road system opening up travel, the common use of the Greek language making communication easier across a big area and the widespread Jews who made the early link for such Jewish evangelists such as Paul. But it was the power of the Gospel that transformed lives together with Jesus’ instruction to go and tell the good news, and the power and direction of the Holy Spirit, that really catapulted the good news across the world.