38. Jeremiah (3)

Meditations of Old Testament Highlights: 38.  Jeremiah (3)

Jer 18:6    O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter does?” declares the LORD. “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.

In this longest book of the Bible we first saw Jeremiah’s calling, particularly noting the implied warnings that were there that this would not be an easy ministry. In the second study we saw how that worked out and particularly observed the perseverance and faithfulness of this man who so often had self-doubts but kept on going, being the mouthpiece of the Lord to this unfaithful people. But what stands out, what highlight is there when it comes to his prophesying?

Well we could focus on the many warning he brought of coming destruction in the face of the ongoing apostasy of the people of Jerusalem and Judah, but that can be taken as read and is fairly negative reading at best. We could take any of the visual prophecies that the Lord put before Jeremiah, for example the linen belt that was spoilt (Jer 13:1-11), or the two baskets of figs (Jer 24:1-10), but undoubtedly the most famous of such prophecies is that in the Potter’s house (Jer 18:1-6).

The Lord tells Jeremiah to go to the Potter’s house (v.1,2), which he does and sees the potter working the clay and when it didn’t work out as he wanted, he simply rethrew it on the wheel and remade it (v.3,4). It was at that point the Lord spoke the words of our verse above. The words of verse six are both simple and dramatic and staggering in their meaning. It is incredibly simple. Everything that Jeremiah has been talking about in his prophecies is summed up in this simple verse.

It is both scary and devastating and terrifying AND hope bringing. The scary part is that the Potter takes the pot that is not working out and dashes it on the wheel again. Judah is going to be ‘dashed on the wheel’. Jerusalem is going to be ‘dashed on the wheel’; the existing is going to be brought to an end. The way that that will happen – through the coming of Nebuchadnezzar – will be devastating and utterly terrifying.  That is the bit that will consume the minds of all of Judah and yet there is a hope-bringing second part: the Potter remakes the pot. God will remake Israel and Jerusalem. There IS a future for Israel. This side of the events we take it all for granted, we are ‘wise after the event’, but for Israel at the time of the siege all they saw was destruction. It took faith to believe the occasional words of hope from Jeremiah – but they were there – but this people were not a people of faith.

We have already made brief reference to Jeremiah’s prophecy about the Branch (Jer 23:5,6) but that prophecy concluded, So then, the days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when people will no longer say, `As surely as the LORD lives, who brought the Israelites up out of Egypt,’ but they will say, `As surely as the LORD lives, who brought the descendants of Israel up out of the land of the north and out of all the countries where he had banished them.’ Then they will live in their own land.” (23:7,8) There it is, a clear promise of restoration, the future of Israel back in their land.

Then there was the picture prophecy that we referred to earlier, of two baskets of figs, one bad and one good (Jer 24:1-3). The interpretation of what they mean is surprising. “This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: `Like these good figs, I regard as good the exiles from Judah, whom I sent away from this place to the land of the Babylonians. My eyes will watch over them for their good, and I will bring them back to this land. I will build them up and not tear them down; I will plant them and not uproot them. I will give them a heart to know me, that I am the LORD. They will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will return to me with all their heart.” (24:5-7) You can’t get any more clear than that. The exiles who are already in Babylon will come back under God’s blessing and they will be a transformed people, a pot remade! The bad figs are the people and king still in Jerusalem who refuse to repent and they will be destroyed.

In chapter 25 we find Jeremiah prophesying in 605BC with the destruction of Jerusalem still some nineteen years off, but there he prophesies destruction of Jerusalem and Judah by Nebuchadnezzar and warns of a seventy year period before restoration. (Although Israel started to return within some 40 years, from the time of the destruction of the Temple to the time of its rebuilding completion was exactly seventy years. While it was absent the Lord obviously did not consider Jerusalem His).

Now we have noted the clear warning that the Lord is remaking Israel and it will take a number of years. What we now find is Jeremiah writing to the exiles in Babylon who the Lord says He will bless and bring back in due season. Observe: “This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” (Jer 29:4-7)

What does He say? Settle down guys, you’ve got to wait this one out. Build your own houses, plant gardens and grow your own produce (all these things take time and are a commitment to the future). If you’re not married, get married and have children and increase in numbers. Oh yes, and seek to be a blessing to the people of Babylon because as much as you bless them, you will be blessed. Wow!

I find here one of the most poignant messages to Christians in the West today who are becoming a minority people. Pray for revival by all means, but while you wait for it to come, settle down in the midst of this pagan society, be established, plan for the future AND bless the world around you! There is no room here for enclave Christianity, ghetto Christianity. This is a call to shine in the darkness, to hold firmly to the word of God, to seek to be filled with the power of God and always be obedient to the leading of God – despite the darkness around you. We may live in unsettling times, but the call is still the same: “let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” (Mt 5:16) We will do that, not by being arrogant and isolated, but by being part of the community shedding God’s love and goodness wherever possible.

The message of Jeremiah? God has a long-term plan and it is to restore His transformed people in due season. As He does that they will be a light to the rest of the world, revealing His power and His might. In this ‘alien land’ we must break free from ‘words Christianity’, a faith that just utters words. We are called to be a people who DO what Jesus did (Jn 14:12) and that means we must seek Him, know Him, obey Him, receive His power and His wisdom and His revelation, and live and work with it. When the world sees this, they will believe. Thank you for the message Jeremiah!

17. More on Pottery

Meditating on the Will of God: 17:  More on Pottery

Rom 9:21    Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?

In the early meditations of this series we considered the matter of us being clay and of God being the Potter. Well, perhaps we gave only some preliminary thought to it as we pondered on how God does that, and having pondered some other areas in between, we now come back to this picture again.

Those who portray God as the One who determines all things, the One who thus must be said to create both good and evil, those people love this verse of Paul’s and they say about this and the verses surrounding it, “See, God does just what He likes and so He does MAKE all beings as they turn out.”

I know we have touched on some of this before but I did also say that repetition is helpful. I have difficulties with that attitude just expressed because a) it is clear that God is holy and righteous and wants us to be holy and righteous and anything that is not holy and righteous does not conform to His original perfect design for this world. (That is what the Fall is all about).  b) God may give human beings the freedom to be unrighteous and, indeed, the freedom to be evil, but He does not MAKE them be that. c) The other associated difficulty is what we are told about God, and which we have touched on once or twice, and it is the nature or character of God – that He is perfect, He is love and He is good. All of those words which Scripture is quite clear apply to God, deny that God can create and make evil human beings. Everything about unlimited love wants the good for every person and the good is that they are returned to their original design, free of sin and free of unrighteousness and free of evil.

Very well, that has established a foundation for approaching Paul’s words above. The hard fact is that virtually all Scripture needs interpreting and seeing in the light of the big picture. Our folly is that we start from one set of ideas, which may or may not be preconceived, and we only see the outcome as our (often defensive) stance allows.

So let’s come again to Paul’s verse: “Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?”. In as far as we are so NOT like God in so many ways, we are mere clay. God is the Creator of all things and the upholder of all things and as such He alone could be called a Potter, a wielder of the clay

Isaiah brought God’s word, “You turn things upside down, as if the potter were thought to be like the clay! Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, “He did not make me”? Can the pot say of the potter, “He knows nothing”?” (Isa 29:16)  How foolish of clay to ‘speak’ like that to the Potter; the Potter is so, so much greater than the clay! Later on Isaiah said, “Does the clay say to the potter, `What are you making?’ Does your work say, `He has no hands’?” (Isa 45:9)

When I look at my life I realise a number of things. First I do not know what I will be like in the years ahead. I do not know how the workings of God in my life will change me, only that I have said, “Lord, do it.” When we put ourselves into His hands when we come to Him through Christ we trust Him for the rest of our lives. We know He wants to make us into the likeness of Jesus, but being only a part of his body, we really don’t know how that will work out in detail, but we just trust that He loves us so much that He has something better for us than we are at the present.

The apostle Paul wrote, “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Phil 2:12,13). The Living Bible expresses it, “For God is at work within you, helping you want to obey him, and then helping you to do what he wants.”  That is what the Potter does and He does it by His Spirit who stirs you from within, who speaks to you and challenges or encourages or comforts you. The ‘hands’ moulding the clay are simply the Holy Spirit moving within us and yet – and here is the scary thing – He never forces us. He may speak strongly and He may bring pressure to bear, but at the end of the day the decision making is still ours. How else can you account for people who come to a standstill in their Christian lives, how else can you explain people who backslide and drift away or, even worse, actively turn away from their faith?

But what about, “the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?”  Back to God’s foreknowledge. God knew that Jacob could be moulded into a man of God who would end up prophesying over his entire family, while Esau would continue to reject the whole possibility of being part of the family of God. We might even go as far as to say God sees and knows that within some, for whatever reason (and ultimately it is pride but even there it is a mystery), whatever He says or does they will continue to exercise their free will to be hostile to Him, just like Pharaoh and just like Esau.

So does He continue to speak to them until they depart this earth? We believe so, just as He did with Pharaoh throughout those plagues and down through Edom’s history. The fact that they have set their heart is another thing so, yes, they will appear to miss the target, rejecting God’s ‘noble purposes’ and end up as ‘common use’. When Pharaoh, Esau or anyone else for that matter who rejects God’s purposes for their lives, stand before God on the Last Day, they will never be able to say, “You didn’t tell me.” He did, again and again, and they rejected it. Thus they chose their destiny and God complied with that and we see ‘common use’.

In these studies thus far, we have tended to avoid personal conclusions, but may I ask in the light of these things, have you accepted God’s salvation in its fullness and are you allowing Him to mould you for ‘noble purposes’ or is your life missing the mark so it is not being fruitful and you are just ending up as ‘common use’, just filling in time on their earth until the day when you will be called to account? The choice is yours. He will work with whichever you choose!

1. Starting Thoughts

Meditating on the Will of God: 1:  Starting Thoughts

Col 1:1   Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God

We start a new series but one that is not delineated by following a set pattern as we usually do, working through a paragraph or chapter or book. The very phrase ‘the will of God’ has produced books and discussion galore and so now, I propose to simply throw a stone on the lake and watch the ripples. We’ll start from one random point and see where our meanderings take us.

How easily we read words of Scripture and pass them by with such little thought! How much we take for granted the words we read, thinking we understand them. Before we have got to the end of this first verse of Paul’s to the Colossians, we have one of these times – “by the will of God”.  Paul says he is an apostle “by the will of God”.  What does that actually mean?

For a start it must mean that he is an apostle because God wanted him to be one. The moment we say that we find ourselves with the question, “Why?”  Is it, as some would say, that He takes us as a piece of clay and like a Potter forms us into what He wants us to be? Yes, I am aware that that is the picture that the Lord Himself brings to Jeremiah: “Then the word of the LORD came to me: “O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter does?” declares the LORD. “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.” (Jer 18:5,6) Indeed we find Isaiah declaring, “Yet, O LORD, you are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.” (Isa 64:8). It is clear in both those sets of verses that God moulds us and reshapes us, but is that all there is to it?

We need to go back to the Lord’s word to Jeremiah in the Potter’s house and follow through, seeing what He went on to say:

  • “If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned.
  • And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it.” (Jer 18:7-10)

Now this is quite strange at first sight because here we have two instances of nations or kingdoms making choices, deciding how they will respond. In the first instance the Lord declares His intentions (His will?) and then the nation repents, so the Lord steps back and does not bring the judgment He spoke of. That is exactly what we see in the story of Jonah going to Nineveh and Nineveh repenting and the Lord ‘relenting’ and not destroying them.  In the second instance above, we find a nation that God is intending to bless and build up, but they turn away from Him, and so He reconsiders.

In both cases we have a) God stating His intentions, b) the nation choosing a course of action (the former to repent, the latter to turn away) and c) God reconsidering His course of action in respect of them.  Now this is the ‘moulding of the clay’, surely, that the Lord is talking about, the interaction between God and man that brings about change.  

So we come back to our original question: why did the Lord choose Paul?  Did God choose Paul because He knew He could MAKE Paul do what He wanted him to do, or did He choose Him because He knew how He could mould him in the years to come?

In each of these questions we are gently treading around that tricky area that has so often brought divisions among Christians, considerations about the sovereignty of God. If we may briefly mention him in passing – for he needs a study to himself – the Pharaoh confronted by Moses is an illustration of a man who God could not mould into a pliable, conforming believer (yes, there is a lot more to the story and we’ll look at it separately), but in fact when you look at every person in the Bible who rejected God and died for it, we see people who God did NOT make conform to Himself. God’s intent is always for a person’s salvation but Scripture, we suggest, is very clear that it is a matter of an individual’s free will, their ability to choose the path they take.

God’s intention is always clear: “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?” (Ezek 18:23) Now you could possibly, from that verse, suggest that God goes on to MAKE the sinner repent, but the verse that follows challenges that sort of ‘sovereignty’: “But if a righteous man turns from his righteousness and commits sin and does the same detestable things the wicked man does, will he live? None of the righteous things he has done will be remembered. Because of the unfaithfulness he is guilty of and because of the sins he has committed, he will die.” (Ezek 18:24) To suggest that God MAKES a righteous man turn and become a sinner denigrates God and all the Biblical descriptions of Him, that He is love, He is good, He is righteous, and so on.

            There are those who would seek to take the apostle Paul’s stance and say, “Who are you, O man,  to question God?” (Rom 9:19-) and we will consider that in days to come, but we are not challenging God’s sovereignty, we are challenging those who would abuse (quite inadvertently) the descriptions of God that we have already mentioned. It is more a question of understanding language and that should always be a part of Bible study. We would also go on to say that it is all about ‘knowing’ and we will justify this in the days to come.

            God knew all about Paul, He knew everything there was to know about him, including his potential, including the way he would act and react in the face of the circumstances before him, and He knew what He could do with him and what He could achieve through him, despite his faults and failings, and all this without violating his free will, his ability, as a human being made in the image of God, to make choices.

            And if that was true of Paul, it is surely true of you and me. If at some point we surrendered our lives to Jesus, now we are ‘in the process’ where God is leading and  we follow. He expresses His will and we have the ability to choose or reject it. Rejecting it means we come to a standstill; receiving it means we move on in the blessing of God and achieve all the things He has on His heart for us. This is what this is all about; these are the sorts of things we will consider more fully in these studies.