9. Faith Expectations

Ways of Seeing Meditations: 9. Faith Expectations

Acts 12:5 Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him.”

Recap: We have been considering how we view impressive buildings or impressive people, and then how we view ourselves. We have rejected doing good or performing spiritual acts as ways of gaining self-esteem or building our self-image. In the previous study that took us on to considering how we pray, but now we want to consider another aspect of the way we view prayer. Yesterday it was seeing it as a spiritual activity to be done as part of our relationship with God, but now I want us to face the uncomfortable question of how we see what we speak. Do we just utter words or are we declaring words that will change the world, change the circumstances?

Jesus’ Example: I first observed the significance of how we pray when I noted something in John’s Gospel. At the feeding of the five thousand, John records, Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated.” (Jn 6:11) Later, after Jesus and his disciples had gone back across the lake, John records, Then some boats from Tiberias landed near the place where the people had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks.” (v.23) He doesn’t say, “the place where Jesus had performed the miracle,” for it seems he has something else in mind. He doesn’t even say “where Jesus had broken the bread and fed the crowd.”

The strange words that almost seem out of place are “after the Lord had given thanks.” Before a meal the head of the family would have given thanks for the food. John doesn’t record the Last Supper words about bread and wine (the other three Gospels have covered it adequately). Luke includes that (Lk 22:17,19) but also the account of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus and it was only when Jesus gave thanks and broke bread that they realised who he was. It almost seems as if there is something significant about the way Jesus gave thanks. What could it be?

Watch how leaders, for example, pray at the beginning of some Christian activity. There are those who just instantly plough in with words, and that is all they are, and ‘pray’. There are others who pause to acknowledge the presence of God, the One to whom they are speaking and only then do they speak. There is far more of a personal sense, a sense of intimacy, of relationship, with this latter group and I think, in that, they emulate Jesus. Prayer was not formality for Jesus, it was a time when he spoke personally, intimately with his Father in heaven. Giving thanks was no mere formula, it was a sacred act of Son to Father, the Son of God to the Almighty One, ruler of heaven and earth.

Expectancy: How do we view prayer? We have just suggested prayer as a time of intimacy with the Father, but how do we see what we are praying? Is it simply uttering words and hoping for the best – but not having too high hopes?  In our starter verse, the church was surprised when Peter turned up, while they were still praying. No, it can’t be Peter, that would require a miracle. But it is. You prayed, you asked, and God did it. Why be so surprised? Because we don’t believe it can be that easy. Sometimes it’s not, and we need to keep praying and persevering as Jesus taught in his parable of the unjust judge, to show them that they should always pray and not give up.” (Lk 18:1) but I also believe the truth is that God loves to bring us to a place of simple believing where we pray and rest and rejoice, like little kids trusting DAD.

Intimacy plus Expectancy: Little children expect answers when they ask. When Christmas or a birthday approaches they may come out with a list of things they want. Money permitting they may well get them. As they get older they come to realise they don’t always get their demands. But the childlike faith of small children is challenging. When prayer is indeed an intimate experience with the Father we find that we start to catch Father’s heart, and prayer is not so much a shopping list, as a list of things we believe the Father wants to bring about.  It’s fine to be childish as we grow in faith, chattering stuff at the Father, but as we grow, we can learn something deeper.

The apostle Paul taught, pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests,” (Eph 6:18) or as the Living Bible puts it, “Pray all the time. Ask God for anything in line with the Holy Spirit’s wishes.”  The emphasis is on being led by the Spirit. When we combine this with the Father’s love, this intimacy inspired by the Spirit, focused on the Father, coming in line with the rule of the Son reigning at the Father’s right hand, we may expect faith to rise in us, a sign that we’re on the right track and we may expect to see what we are praying coming about. If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!(Mt 7:11) or as Luke records it, no doubt on another occasion of Jesus’ teaching, If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” And Us? Can these things thus mature our praying to have an intimate element which in turn develops a higher level of expectancy so that when we pray for someone to be released from prison (of whatever sort), we will not be surprised when they turn up at the door, delivered.

8. Responding to the Uncertainties of God

‘Living with Uncertainty’ Meditations: 8. Responding to the Uncertainties of God

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!”

Ezek 37:3 He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”  I said, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”

Ongoing: If we were playing one of those games where someone says a word and the next person has to say something different and yet with a clear link to the first word, and we were using the Bible, then having just seen the response of Job to God, my next link would be that of Peter to Jesus. Job concluded, “my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 4:5,6) Peter, after having given his boat over to let Jesus use it as a pulpit, concluded, “Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” (Lk 5:8 AV)

The Uncertainties of God: One of our greatest dangers is making God ‘manageable’. The Anglican translator of the mid-twentieth century, J.B.Phillips, ended up writing a book entitled, “Your God is Too Small”. Both Job and Peter, I suggest, caught something of the uncertainty of God.

After Job had listened to God going on for chapter after chapter about what He could do and what Job couldn’t do, Job began to be overwhelmed by the uncertainty of the enormity of God. You need to prayerfully read those chapters over and over again and let the reality of them get through to you, for perhaps the modern church needs more than anything to be delivered from the ‘God is my buddy’ mentality by seeing Him as the most awesome being we can ever encounter.  But God who is Spirit – power and energy with personality – permeates every minute piece of space that fills billions and billions of light years of deep space in every direction, a description that utterly defeats our finite minds. And this energy, this power with personality, has the capability of expressing a communication we would hear in, for example, four words, “Let there be light,” and instantly with no apparent cause, or original resource, light appears. If only we could grasp that it would almost scare the life out of us which is why, I believe, when we find heavenly revelations in the Bible (e.g. Ezek 1, Rev 4) the word that is so often used is ‘like’ because we would be unable to comprehend an iota of the reality. Instead we have imagery.

But then there is Peter as we see him in Lk 5. It appears he’s met Jesus before (see Jn 1 etc.) and perhaps he’s caught something about Jesus, although he’s not sure what.  Lk 5 seems to be an expanded version of the abbreviated calling we find in Mt 4:18-20 and Mk 1:16-20 or it is possible each of the accounts we’ve referred to here, had time gaps between them and the Lk 5 account is the last of them. Whichever is the truth, Jesus asks Peter to allow him to use his boat to preach from. This happens and when he has finished preaching there is a sequence of events that conclude in our verse above:
– Jesus says to push out further and cast their nets.

– Peter the fisherman knows these waters, had been out all night and caught nothing.

– Peter the fisherman knows there are no fish there (If you’ve ever lived by the sea perhaps you have seen the movement of the water, even the shimmering silver, that denotes the presence of fish).

– Yet something about Jesus makes Peter want to please him so he throws the nets out – probably with no hope of anything.

But then the nets are full to breaking point! Where did these fish come from? Why didn’t I see them? One minute they weren’t there, the next they were. This is scary. (The cogs of his mind are now rapidly churning over). Oh, my goodness, Jesus knew! Or is there something scarier here, he called them to come? Who is he? Or is there something yet even more scary, did he somehow make them? Who is he?  This is someone out of my league, this guy isn’t religious for religion can’t do this stuff, thus guy is something or someone greater than anything we’ve ever encountered, someone greater than anyone we’ve ever dreamed of. This guy makes me feel like I’m just a kid playing in an uncertain world who really hasn’t a clue about fishing. Who is he? I’m starting to feel seriously uncomfortable being in his presence even. If he knows more about fishing than I do, he must know all there is to know about me. Wow, that is seriously uncomfortable!  “Lord, please go away, I can’t cope with this. You know all things, you know me, and that’s not good.”  “Yes, I do know you and that’s why I’m calling you to come with me, to follow me and I’ll teach you a new kind of fishing – for people.”

Three years later, after three years of the most incredible events the world has ever seen, he’s going to be on this shore again, and if the above is anything like what went on in the first episode, we aren’t left wondering. A question. “you know I love you.” A second question. “you know I love you.” A third question. “Master, you know everything there is to know. You’ve got to know that I love you.” (Jn 21:15-19 Msg) Yes, Jesus, in the midst of all our uncertainties is the Great Certainty, the one who knows all things about us and is there for us with access to a power that can bring light when there was no light, fishes when they were no fishes, and life when there is no life.

And that’s when the ‘word game’ takes us back to Ezekiel and his valley of dry bones. When the Lord gives him a vision of this valley full of bones and asks him, “Son  of man, can these bones live?” (37:3a) He is questioning Ezekiel’s uncertainty about Him. Now dry bones are all that are left after death and decomposition and the birds have picked them clean. There is, humanly speaking NO hope, but why should God ask such a thing if He hasn’t got something in mind.  What is He thinking? Uncertainty! “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.” (v.3b)

And us?  So there it is. A God greater than anything we can comprehend. A God who draws close and interacts with us. A God who knows all things and can do all things. A God who, we’ve suggested before, doesn’t make mistakes. A God who calls us, forgives us and cleanses us, equips us and sends us. Certainties in the midst of the uncertainties? Let Him impact you with this truth – and be at peace.

69. Outright Declaration

Short Meditations in John 6:  69. Outright declaration

Jn 6:69  We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.”

Peter has just said that Jesus has the words of eternal life, and we considered that briefly, but why could he say that? Because of what he says now, that they now understand that Jesus is “the Holy One of God”. Now that is an interesting description and I suggest that it does not mean “You are the Son of God” as we would now say. Yes, he does say at one point, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” (Mt 16:16) and John identifies him thus in his Gospel – written a lot later to remedy the earlier omissions (see Jn 1:49, also 3:18, 5:25, 10:36, 19:7, 20:31) but mostly the apostles seem reticent to call Jesus the Son of God until a lot later on (e.g. Acts 9:20, Rom 1:4,9, 5:10, 8:3,29 etc.) For now, Peter gives Jesus that more general title, “the Holy One of God,” meaning in their terms, the Messiah, but that is sufficient; Jesus is the miracle worker, the healer, the deliverer, the amazing teacher from God, the anointed one from God and that is sufficient for Peter to be able to say, “Lord, we’re with you!”

Again, note he speaks for the others: We have come to believe….” and no one chips in, “Hold on Pete, that’s going a bit far.”  No, these committed hard-core followers are in agreement: they’ve seen it all, heard it all, and they are convinced.

Note also the process: “We have come to believe.” That’s honest. When they were first called, there was something about Jesus that made them follow, but as the days passed and they saw and heard it all, they were utterly convinced. Yes, there was going to come a time when they were all in total confusion and fear when he was crucified, but for the moment, they are sold on him, and it has grown and grown as the have followed him. The depth of belief that I have today is much, much deeper than I had over fifty years ago when I first came to Christ. Why? I have read, I have listened, I have watched, and I am convinced. We start from a basic belief, but he will build on that.

But I am also intrigued by the middle of the verse: “We have come to believe and to know that…”  It’s those two sets of words; there is a significant difference between ‘’believing and ‘knowing’, and it indicates the growth that takes place in us. When we ‘believe’ something we are making a basic declaration of acceptance about something. We may not have concrete ‘proof’ but we have sufficient evidence to enable us to say, “I believe.” But ‘knowing’ is different. If I say, “I know this is true,” I am adding a confidence, an absolute assurance that this IS what is. The evidence may not have changed but in this instance my encounters with Jesus (God) leave me with Peter. We know!

21. Peter

PART FOUR: Lessons through People (2)

Reaching into Redemption Meditations: 21. Peter

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

 Focusing on Peter: As we move into the New Testament we pick up again on specific people and there is no better starting place than to consider Peter.  Now to put this in context, let’s remember what we are doing: we are considering the whole subject of redemption and seeing how God perseveres with individuals (as well as with Israel as a nation) to bring them through into a good place from a not-so-good-place. Peter’s is a ‘bigger than life’ type of story, and yet one with which I suspect many of us could identify.

Early Encounters: Peter, the brother of Andrew, first encounters Jesus in Judah, presumably because he has taken time off from fishing (his occupation) to go to see John the Baptist (see Jn 1:40-42) and has his name prophetically changed by Jesus. We don’t know how Andrew and Peter got there, but it suggests a heart willingness to see what God was doing through this newly appeared prophet, and in so doing, they meet Jesus for the first time. When they return to Galilee they find Jesus has also relocated there and he calls them to give up their fishing to follow him (see Mt 4:18-20 and Lk 5). It is Luke who gives us the fuller account. Peter, in what took place, recognizes that in Jesus, there is something about Jesus that makes him feel very inadequate, a sinner. It is a moment of real self-revelation and revelation about Jesus.  So far we see a seeker and a responder. Good stuff, the sort of people we like in church – but he is a fisherman so that might suggest more of a rough and ready character who braved the uncertain weather of the Sea of Galilee for a living.

A leading light: And so Peter goes with Jesus and the others. As I have studied Peter in the past, I have been struck by the number of times he is an ‘out-front’ sort of guy, so often opening his mouth and putting both feet in it, and yet there are other times when he is the one who steps out in faith. Here are some of the key times:

  • In the boat in the storm he steps out in faith (Mt 14:28)
  • He asks questions about Jesus’ teaching (Mt 15:15)
  • He makes a bold declaration about who Jesus is (Mt 16:16)
  • He even rebukes Jesus (Mt 16:22)
  • He speaks out on the mount of Transfiguration (Mt 17:4)
  • He gets involved in the question that arose over paying temple tax (Mt 17:24-27)
  • He questions over forgiveness (Mt 18:21)
  • He questions about what’s in it for them in the future (Mt 19:27)
  • He initially refuses to let Jesus wash his feet, but then all-in capitulates (Jn 13:6-9)
  • He declares his over confidence in his own loyalty to Jesus (Mt 26:33)

A Summary of Peter? He appears bold, brash, impetuous and yet all for Jesus, having brilliant flashes of faith and revelation every now and then. He appears a real mixed bag of instability. He’s a live wire who is out front and going for it with a strong measure of self-confidence. He seems to revel in the wonder of the life with Jesus that impacts people and communities.

And then the Fall: Peter’s three-times denial of Jesus (Mt 26:69-75, Mk 14:66-72, Lk 22:54-62, Jn 18:15-18, 25-27) is well documented in all four Gospels. There are relatively few things that come up in all four Gospels, but this is one of them. It is the classic example of betrayal of friendship. Peter had denied that such a thing would happen: he replied, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death,” (Lk 22:33) when Jesus had prophesied, Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers,” (Lk 22:31,32) and then, Jesus answered, “I tell you, Peter, before the rooster crows today, you will deny three times that you know me.” (v.34)

Spiritual Dynamics: There is something here we so often miss: “Satan has asked to sift all of you.” Job 1 & 2 gives us insight of Satan’s access to the throne room of God and the biblical teaching would appear to be that Satan is allowed access to our lives where we tolerate less than godly characteristics. The Lord allows this that we might be chastised and humbled and brought to a place of repentance and cleansing and change. It is the same thing that we have seen again and again in these studies, that God, in His work of redemption, often has to bring discipline into our lives to help bring change to them so we can more fully become the people He has designed us to be.

Now in this situation Jesus reveals that the enemy has claimed opportunity to ‘sift’ all the disciples in what is about to happen. The Message version puts it, Simon, stay on your toes. Satan has tried his best to separate all of you from me, like chaff from wheat. Simon, I’ve prayed for you in particular that you not give in or give out. When you have come through the time of testing, turn to your companions and give them a fresh start.” Jesus knew exactly what was going to happen and although he prayed for them, he wasn’t going to shield them from it; Peter is going to find himself facing a particular temptation and he’s going to find that he’s not yet up to it, despite all of his ‘out-front’ leadership type words. God is looking for more than words; He’s looking for life transformation.

Peter’s Life Transformation: So Peter falls and he is devastated. In some ways, in the studies we have considered, I think he’s rather like David, and certainly would like to think that he’s a man after God’s own heart, but in experience he becomes more like Moses whose self-esteem was utterly demolished by forty years looking after sheep after having been a Prince of Egypt. For Peter it is a crash course. His failure matches that of Moses, but in his case, he kills a friendship and steps back to let his master be killed. But then Jesus comes back from the dead and meets them all in the locked room but says relatively little. They are told to go to Galilee where he will meet them.  When I considered this at Easter it struck me what a turmoil Peter must have been in. He knew Jesus knows what had happened and he knows there is going to come some sort of accounting.

Personal Testimony: I have been through something a number of years ago with vague similarity to what happened here. In my case, to cut a long story short, I felt an absolute failure but had an opportunity at a conference to be prayed over by a top-flight group of prophets. I reasoned if God was going to have to chop me to pieces, it might as well be done properly. I found myself before this group and expected the worst. Instead, from the first word to the last, and it went on for over fifteen minutes, I received total and absolute acceptance from the Lord that reduced me to a blubbering wreck of gratitude.

And Peter: You find it in the last chapter of John’s Gospel where, to put it as simply as possible, Jesus makes Peter face his real and genuine love for Jesus three times (which makes the denial even worse in some ways) and then, instead of Jesus casting him away and saying (as we might expect), “Well, Pete, they were three good years but you didn’t pass the test so I release you to go back to your fishing,” we find Jesus basically saying, “OK, Pete, we’ve been through some pretty terrible days together haven’t we. I’ve got to be on my way back to heaven soon, so I place my church in your hands. OK!” And if I was Peter I think I would sit there flabbergasted, but that is what the love of God does. It devastates us!

And us? Now this isn’t just a nice story, this is God speaking His heart into us. You have failed in a big way?  No worse than Peter. You feel bad about it? No worse than Peter. Yes, there has to be a facing up to it and maybe some days, weeks, months or even years of corrective therapy by heaven, but the last thing the Lord wants is for us failures to sit around in little heaps of guilt, shame and hopelessness. This is all about redemption – the ongoing sort from God, and that for me AND you. Amen? Amen!

6. Abandoned – Denied

Meditations on Aspects of Easter: 6.  Abandoned – Denied

Mt 26:34,35    I tell you the truth,” Jesus answered, “this very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.” But Peter declared, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” And all the other disciples said the same.

We have considered two aspects of the fact that Jesus was abandoned at the end of this Passion Week, betrayal and rejection, and now we come to the third expression of this abandonment, the denial of Peter. We did very briefly allude to it in an earlier meditation but now we have to look more closely at it. It is not comfortable reading. However, before we really get into it, we must note that this is different from the previous two aspects for they were both essential to the whole work of the Cross.

Unless Judas had betrayed Jesus and told the authorities where and when to arrest him without public upheaval, it would not have happened. Unless the religious establishment had not made such a strong case for his death, it would not have happened. Unless the crowds had not bayed for his death and unless Pilate and Herod had both just shrugged their shoulders of all responsibility, it would not have happened. Unless the Father had allowed the Sin and sins of the world to sit upon Jesus so that Jesus lost sight of the Father’s presence and humanly felt abandoned by Him, the death on the Cross would have meant nothing beyond the death of another poor soul at the hands of the Romans.

But it was not like that with Peter. If Peter had not denied Jesus nothing would have changed. His denial was not essential to the death on the Cross – and yet it is another thing that happened that has significance and meaning, so what happened?

Our verses above show us something significant about Peter’s involvement: Jesus knew it would happen! That is not to say Jesus made it happen, but very simply he knew what was going to take place and he knew that would involve Peter in this way. Now before we think more on Peter and this action, let’s just note something about Jesus in all of this. At the Last Supper two things occur of some significance. First, Jesus clearly revealed that he knew what Judas was going to do. Second, as we’ve just seen, he also clearly knew what Peter would do. One would betray him, the other deny him. Now here’s my question: suppose you had knowledge of the future, and you employed or simply had a band of followers, and as you gathered them together you realised that before the time was out, one of them was going to betray you and the other deny you, how do you think you would feel about these two, knowing this? Even more, if the betrayer was also an accountant, would you let him hold the purse strings of your business? If the denier was a natural leader, would you let him rise up to be a leader among your group, knowing what is coming?

There is, therefore, either an incredible lack of judgment by Jesus or there is an amazing level of grace and forgiveness being shown.  With Judas it is slightly different because, as we’ve said, his betrayal is essential to the end outcome. But what about Peter, his denial (which does follow – see Mt 26:57,58,69-75) is not essential, it is merely an expression of human weakness? His denial is an abandonment of loyalty and a failure of that other word the Bible uses so often – faithfulness.

Now it is possible that you have never denied a friend, or at least have forgotten it perhaps. It occurs when you simply do not stand up for someone who needs you to stand up for them – and you step away and you may or may not utter words that separate you from them. It is rooted in fear, fear of consequences which, in Peter’s case, might have had severe physical repercussions. It may be the fear of what other people will think of you. Have you ever been in a room when people speak against God or against Jesus or against Christianity, and you remain silent? We live in an age where, tragically, there are so many marriage break-ups, and so often they are accompanied by abandonment by betrayal (going to another who is not your spouse), abandonment by rejection (walking away from your partner) and abandonment by denial (they don’t love me, I don’t love them, there is no marriage here). But we mustn’t digress from denial. I wish this paragraph didn’t apply to me in the past, but it does. I stand with Peter and weep at past failures, not having been there for people who needed me.

Why Peter’s denial? I think it is simply a terrible reminder that even the best of us are flawed human beings, prone to failure, prone to getting it wrong. It is made worse by the fact that Peter was one of the inner three, one of the ones who accompanied Jesus up the Mount of Transfiguration, one of the ones chosen by Jesus to go and pray with him in the Garden of Gethsemane. It is also made worse by Peter’s unknowingness, his inability to know himself when Jesus, at the Last Supper, told him what would happen. It is made worse by the fact that mere minutes before, Peter was wielding a sword in defence of Jesus in the garden, an act of mistaken human desire to help God out.

How many of us struggle, even at this moment, with our human frailty: “I will never disown you!”  There are times to rejoice at the wonder of who we are and at the wonder of our salvation, and at the place held for us in heaven, but here on this Good Friday – yes, it is the day of Jesus’ death – it is a time for mouths to be silenced, mouths that would speak forth self-justification, mouths that would make excuses, mouths that would even deny the truth about themselves.

Yes, it is Good Friday, and you may be surprised that we have not focused even more on the details of what happened to bring Jesus to the Cross (we have been doing that surely?) or more importantly we might think, on what happened on the Cross. I have done that in other meditations in other series in past years; this series is all about why Jesus went to the Cross – for us, for our needs, for the needs of the whole, failing human race. We have faced confusion, we have seen anguish, we have seen plotting and scheming against Jesus, we have seen him abandoned to his fate on the Cross by betrayal, rejection and denial. These are the things that we, the human race do, these are the things that brought Jesus to the Cross. Yes, it was the will of the Father, stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted…. the punishment that brought us peace was upon him… and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Isa 53:4-6) but as the apostle Peter preached, “with the help of wicked men, put him to death.” (Acts 2:23) That’s what we have been considering in these recent studies. Be still, be silent, be thankful, and yes, by all means weep at the truth.

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!

20. Reaching Potential (2)

Meditations in Meaning & Values  20. Reaching Potential (2)

Jn 1:42    Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas” (which, when translated, is Peter)

In the previous meditation we talked about reaching potential which is all about change for improvement until we apparently achieve the most we are capable of. We observed how people in the world think of success, wealth and fame as the measures of achievement, but that these are poor measures. We looked at the case of Jacob in the Old Testament, a classic example of a schemer who became very ‘successful’ – but still a schemer and how he had a wrestling encounter with God in which God made him weak and made him face the reality of who he was, before he was blessed by God. Weakness and being honest about ourselves are two critical requirements to enable a person to come to the end of themselves so that God is able to work in them to enable them to become the people He has designed them to be, and that is someone much greater than the hollow businessman, politician or rock star or whatever else we see as ‘a success’. Reaching full potential can ONLY come with an encounter with God.

I said previously that there were two men who I felt stood out in this context and the other man, in the New Testament is the apostle Peter. Now Jesus chose Peter and it is obvious that Peter became one of the leading apostles with Jesus over the three years of Jesus’ ministry. Peter was the one who was always opening his mouth and putting his foot in it. The good side of that was that he obviously felt secure in Jesus’ presence and Jesus handled Peter’s brashness with grace.

The classic of Peter’s brashness comes at the Last Supper when Jesus warns Peter about what was soon to happen: Peter replied, “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.” “I tell you the truth,” Jesus answered, “this very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.”  But Peter declared, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” (Mt 26:33-35) This is simply called unknowing self-confidence. Peter does not know himself, but Jesus does.

The story of what followed is well known. Jesus is arrested and taken to the high priest Caiaphas, while Peter followed at a distance and waited in a courtyard of the high priest’s palace. While he was waiting there, in the middle of the night, three times one of the maids there recognized him and challenged him and tree times he denied he knew Jesus. Fear made him a liar and a betrayer. Luke records a poignant part of it: “The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: “Before the rooster crows today, you will disown me three times.” And he went outside and wept bitterly.” (Lk 22:61,62) It was like Jesus saw what was going on and gave Peter a knowing look. Peter was devastated and fled in tears, broken.

Now here’s the thing about that episode. Back at the Last Supper, Jesus, knowing what was going to happen and knowing how Peter would be involved, could have spared him that failure; he could have said, “Peter, I have a task for you. After I am taken I want you to come back here and pray for me,” but he didn’t. Peter needed to go through that episode to break him of all his self confidence and to make him realise what he was really like inside, a loud mouthed but weak individual.

Now John allows us an amazing insight into Jesus’ dealing with Peter after his resurrection. We find it in Jn 21 where three times Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” In comes in slightly different forms and Peter’s replies are, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” (J 21:15), “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” (v.16) and “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” (v.17)  The old Peter would have protested with more words but the new Peter has no fight before Jesus and his final statement is one of utter surrender and abasement: “You know all things,” i.e. you know I let you down, you know what I’m like, you know I’m rubbish. And the work is complete. Three times Jesus recommissions him. This failure is about to become the leader of the new church.

So how do we apply these two stories?  Is your life one characterized by your clever planning and scheming? Are you completely self confident? Or have you come to the point of realizing that in reality, without Jesus you are a spiritual and moral mess? If you haven’t ever come to that reality, even if you’ve been a Christian many years, you’ve still got that ahead of you. ‘Great’ Christians are those who have come to realise that without Jesus they are still weak, hopeless and useless and prone to getting it wrong, and almost certainly they will have come to that realization through a crisis.

‘Wrestling with God’ occurs before you become a Christian and is what the Holy Spirit does with you to bring you to surrender, and it may involve a personal crisis. It happens again, almost invariably, at some later time in our Christian lives when these truths really confront us and we surrender in a new and deeper way, I believe. And then we come to realise that every time our thinking is in conflict with God’s we go through a wrestling process, but so often it is so low key that we hardly realise it, but it will go on and on, until we change.

This is the process for reaching full potential, only when we fully surrender and let Him work in us to bring us to become what He has on His heart for us. Why doesn’t He tell us what it is right now to make it easy? First, we wouldn’t believe Him because it would appear to be too good to be true. Second, because it take a process and a process takes time. It took years to change Abram. It took years to change Joseph. It took years to change Jacob. It took years to change Moses….. and so on. Why is God doing it in you? Because He loves you, because, “the Lord disciplines those he loves,” (Heb 12:6) and the word discipline here means trains, works on to bring good out and to bless. Hallelujah!

12. God’s Publicity Machine

Meditating on the Gems of the Bible:  12. God’s Publicity Machine

Acts 2:5-12  Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs–we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”

I think when it comes to gems in the Bible there is always the risk that we pass them by without realising the wonder of them.  I’ve got a feeling if I asked 100 Christians to give me a verse that they might consider to be a ‘gem’, none of them would come up with these verses. They are, I suspect, by and large, verses that most of us skim over quickly. We focus on the wonder of what was happening on the Day of Pentecost and note in passing that it was verified by many Jews in the vicinity but it struck me just recently how wonderful these verses are.

The start is interesting. The onlookers are “God fearing Jews”. They have travelled from their homes all over the place to attend the feast of Pentecost, that great feast celebrating God’s provision through harvest. It was a great feast to attend if you were a Jew.

But then it says they were God-fearing Jews “from every nation under heaven”. Now the New Testament writers were not like modern researchers who would be careful in the literal way they used words. So it doesn’t mean that every single nation in the world is represented here but it certainly does mean that very many nations were represented here, able to witness this incredible event. Now whether they accepted it or not, these Jews who would return home to their particular nation would go home and tell what they had seen and heard. One way or another, this event was going to be broadcast around the world.

In a day when we are used to tens of millions being able to witness an event through the medium of television we may be a bit blasé about this, but the truth was that by sending His Holy Spirit on this Feast Day He ensured that many, many Jews would see and hear what He was doing. The terrible and remarkable events that had occurred fifty days earlier at Passover might have been forgotten by some and those from foreign lands would have heard about it only second hand as a piece of new gossip. As yet it had not had impact. But now something amazing is happening and it has happened on a day when representatives from around the world were there to see it.

There were Parthians who came from the territory from the Tigris to India, Medes from east of Mesopotamia, Elamites from north of the Persian Gulf, those from Mesopotamia, some from there in Judea, including Galilee, some from Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, all districts in Asia Minor, some from Egypt, and some from Rome. This wasn’t the entire world by any means but it was certainly over a large area of what we today might call the Middle East, and even further afield.

Now what we sometimes forget is that not only did these God-fearing Jews witness the new freedom of the disciples, praising God in the languages of all these foreign Jews, but they were also the ones who then heard Peter preaching what is the first Christian sermon, anointed by the Holy Spirit. These men are included in “those who accepted his message” and are in the “three thousand … added to their number that day.” (Acts 2:41)  These men would have returned home as born again believers and would certainly take that news with them.

Today, at a local level, if we want news spreading we put up advertisements or put leaflets through the door. At national level we use television advertising.  What we have just witnessed is not only the birth of the Church but also God’s means of ensuring the good news would be spread, not merely as cold information but as changed and Spirit empowered lives. We often get so caught up with Paul’s part in spreading the Gospel that we perhaps forget that long before Paul got under way and long before the apostles spread out from “Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) these forerunners would have already gone ahead and would have started to spread the kingdom. This is a gem indeed!

13. Bad People Intervening

Motivation Meditations in Acts : 13 : Bad People Intervening 

Acts  4:1-3    The priests and the captain of the temple guard and the Sadducees came up to Peter and John while they were speaking to the people. They were greatly disturbed because the apostles were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead. They seized Peter and John, and because it was evening, they put them in jail until the next day.

The motivation behind our actions may have a variety of causes and we see another one of them here in the verses above: responding to people who are ‘not nice’! In fact it goes further than that for Peter and John’s actions are forced upon them: they are put in jail! The cause of this is that there are people in authority who either do not understand their faith or simply disagree with it and, being people of authority, they can impose their will upon the apostles.

In a variety of ways this happens to Christians when the government impose laws that run contrary to traditional Christian belief based on the Bible. An example of that in the U.K. is the law that forbids discrimination in any form against, say, homosexuals. Now the traditional Christian position, I would suggest, is not to be against homosexuals as people but against homosexual sexual behaviour, which falls into the category of that sexual behaviour that falls outside God’s design for sex – within marriage, with a member of the opposite sex – and is therefore outside God’s will.  (There is a lot of other sexual behaviour in Western societies that also goes against God’s design but this is just one that has been forced to the fore in recent years).

This has been applied to traditional Christian adoption agencies who would never have placed a child with two homosexuals, but that discrimination is now illegal. Thus some Christian adoption agencies have given up their work. A battle is raging within the minds of secular lawmakers who wish to impose their thinking on the traditional Church with regard to ordaining women into senior leadership, contrary to traditional Biblical beliefs that God’s design requires male headship. Again and again, we find ‘the Law’ imposing values that flout traditional Christian Biblical values, values that flow out of a belief in the authority of the Bible as the word of God.

But this finding ourselves in conflict with people in authority, can occur in the workplace where senior management may have values far from Christian values and therefore create a work culture that may conflict with our Christian values. This may include such things as working long hours to put strain on family relationships, cutting ethical corners, having an eating and drinking in excess culture and generally being ‘one of the boys’, all designed to break down individual ethical values for the sake of corporate unity and corporate goals.

In each of these cases, and you may be able to think of others, godless people seek to impose their unrighteousness upon us and are therefore at odds with God’s purposes. The questions that arise must be how to we feel about this, how do we think about it and how do we respond to it?  Tragically, for reasons that we’ve suggested in earlier meditations, the church in the West has largely lost its voice and has been forced to the sidelines of society, and therefore those with little or no foundation for making or establishing ethical values for society (laws) have made the running and so increasingly, those of us who would hold to traditional Biblical values find ourselves at odds with such thinking and such laws.

Our feelings surely must be regret and sorrow that we have failed to be salt and light in society in such a manner that our voices might have been heard, but they haven’t been. Our thoughts should perhaps be considering how we may regain our position as influencers of society in ways considered in previous meditations, for society is spiralling downhill and although the occasional voice acknowledges the folly of this, it continues in this way. An example of this statement is the acknowledgement that cohabiting couples are many times more likely to break up than married couples – cohabitation does not ‘work’! Similarly it is acknowledged that children of divorces are harmed – but we continue to fail to support marriage and work against divorce.  Divorce is damaging!

In our attitudes towards people we must remember to distinguish between the people and their actions.  Jesus taught, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” (Mt 5:44) but that is a far cry from loving their standards and their godlessness and their unrighteousness.

For the moment we will stop it there for we will consider this particular subject of being at odds with authority in the next meditation. For the moment, we simply note that there will be times in life when others seek to impose their will on us and at such times we need to hold firm to our faith and our biblical beliefs and seek God for wisdom as to how we should respond, for respond we must.

8. Respond to Misunderstanding

Motivation Meditations in Acts : 8 :  Responding to Misunderstanding

Acts  2:13,14    Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine” Then Peter stood up….

I like talking with non-Christians about their misunderstandings – at least they are talking! I don’t have a problem with the likes of Richard Dawkins or the late Christopher Hitchens who have both written out of extravagant misunderstanding without bothering to go to the source, the Bible and God, looking for answers – which suggests they really weren’t looking for answers.

If human beings can get hold of the wrong end of the stick, they will! Christians are as prone to it as non-Christians, I believe. It’s the Sin-effect in all of us, and when it comes to people, we love to judge them and see them in a bad light. That’s what is happening in this part of Acts. The crowd (v.6) had heard these Galileans speaking out a variety of languages, all praising God, and their response had been diverse. Some were ‘utterly amazed’ (v.7) and, being perplexed, questioned what was happening (v.12). Some, however, as our verse above shows, made fun of them and suggested that they were drunk.

Now the important part here is found in the words, “Then Peter stood up”. Peter responds to this confusion. It may be he sees the opportunity to respond to their questioning, and maybe he is stirred up to challenge this silly suggestion that they were drunk because that was his starting point: These men are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning!” (v.15)   He then goes on to explain it is the fulfilment of Joel’s prophecy and then explains what happened with Jesus and why.  His only explanation for the tongues-speaking, is to refer to Joel’s prophecy about the Spirit coming.

But the important thing here is that Peter was motivated to preach that sermon that resulted in some three thousand people turning to God, by the questions and doubts of the onlookers. Now I can think of no better motivation to share the Gospel with doubters.

It was Peter himself who was, in years to come, to write, Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” (1 Pet 3:15) Now I think that most of the time, we as Church are not very good at providing such things that provoke people to ask us why we do what we do and what we believe, but that is surely what is behind Peter’s words here. Of course Jesus had taught, “let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” (Mt 5:16) Although the outcome is not quite the same, the intent is; that the things we do cause people to respond favorably.

Listen to this testimony of the early church: “The apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders among the people. And all the believers used to meet together in Solomon’s Colonnade. No one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people. Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number. As a result, people brought the sick into the streets and laid them on beds and mats so that at least Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he passed by. Crowds gathered also from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing their sick and those tormented by evil spirits, and all of them were healed.” (Acts 5:12-16) Observe the key points: God was doing serious stuff through the apostles, mainly we might suggest from what follows, in the realm of healing. The fear of the Lord was present and so people feared joining them but, nevertheless, more and more people were saved and added in to the church. What was happening? The same as with Jesus’ ministry: healing happened, people came and questioned and got saved. Good deeds resulting in praise to the Father!

At the present, the crusading atheists focus on the silly things said and done by those on the fringe of the church. When will the world be arrested by the acts of the leaders of God’s people, flowing in power, so that people ask what’s going on?

We find this very process going on when Philip started his ministry: “When the crowds heard Philip and saw the miraculous signs he did, they all paid close attention to what he said.” (Acts 8:6) The crowds saw the power of God manifested in his ministry and that made them listen to what he had to say.

We then find the same thing with Peter’s ministry: “As Peter traveled about the country, he went to visit the saints in Lydda. There he found a man named Aeneas, a paralytic who had been bedridden for eight years. “Aeneas,” Peter said to him, “Jesus Christ heals you. Get up and take care of your mat.” Immediately Aeneas got up. All those who lived in Lydda and Sharon saw him and turned to the Lord.” (Acts 9:32-35) God’s healing power flowed through Peter and when the local people saw what had happened they turned to the Lord. Clearly Peter had shared the Gospel with them in response to their coming and asking.

To conclude, we might ask on that day of Pentecost, why Peter? Why was it Peter who stood up and responded? Part of the answer must be that Jesus had appointed him to be a leader but there is more than that. Why had Jesus done that? We aren’t given reasons in Jn 21 but surely it must have been that Peter had been with Jesus for three years, Peter had been part of all that went on, and Peter’s character was such that he kept on stepping out, speaking and doing crazy things in his desire to follow Jesus. In other words, he had a wide open heart for Jesus, even if he did get it wrong sometimes! So here on this day, it wasn’t James or John who responded but Peter, loud mouthed, impetuous Peter, and the Holy Spirit took him and gave him a most wonderful ‘sermon’ that follows, resulting in thousands turning to God.

So finally, are you and I people who are motivated by people’s misunderstandings? Are we there to give answers? Are we bold enough to stand up and confront those misunderstandings with the truth? May it be so!