12. Faith against the odds

Meditations on ‘Focusing Faith’ : 12.  Faith against the odds

Heb 11:11,12   By faith Abraham, even though he was past age–and Sarah herself was barren–was enabled to become a father because he considered him faithful who had made the promise. And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.

In unpacking these verses there are various aspects to be considered. First of all God made a promise. We find it first in Gen 12: I will make you into a great nation.” (v.2a) There is more to the promise but that is the basic aspect of it. The significance of this promise is only realised when you read a few verses earlier, “Now Sarai was barren; she had no children.” (Gen 11:30) So here is Abram, this simple pagan who appears to hear God telling him to leave his homeland and go to Canaan and, ‘oh, by the way, I’ll make you into a great nation.’ Not just a little nation, but a great nation. But my wife is barren; we cannot have children. Now that may have gone through his mind at some point and all the more because Sarai was past child-bearing age, but in the long-term it did not put him off.

The promise of a land and of becoming a nation seem to come together and we are told, “Abram was seventy-five years old when he set out from Haran,” (Gen 12:4) and so if the word had come to him back in Ur, it may have been some years before that, but it would seem he was at least seventy when the promise first came. Later we read, “Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him.” (Gen 21:5) At least twenty five years, if not more, passed between the word coming and the word being fulfilled.

Now not wanting to be too indelicate about it, to have children a couple need to have sexual relations  and if you have been promised you’ll have children, you keep on and keep on – for twenty five years. I cannot think what Sarai must have felt about this. The more the years pass the more impossible it must seem and therefore the more futile it appear, and yet Abram carried on hoping. Yes they go through the disaster involving Hagar (Gen 16) but the actual fulfillment that involves Sarai doesn’t happen for a long time! Yet, for some reason, Abram is sure he has heard God and he believes what he has heard and acts upon it. So first of all they start out from Ur and second they start trying for a child again. This is double faith.

The Hebrews writer marvels over this, “even though he was past age–and Sarah herself was barren,” and “as good as dead,” (which sounds a bit hard but was essentially the truth as far a child-bearing was concerned). Those were the facts, they were both too old, humanly speaking. These facts that make this impossible keep getting put before us as if to say, it doesn’t matter how impossible a situation appears, if God speaks into it, it is no longer impossible!

But this is the thing about faith, “faith is being sure of what we hope for,” (v.1) and it is a hope that is based upon something. Most of the time we focus on the end product – “was  enabled to become a father” and with “descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore” – but the reason that came about was “because he considered him faithful who had made the promise.” What kept Abram trying throughout those twenty five years or more? He trusted in God’s faithfulness. How incredible!

It is indeed incredible. We have the whole Bible that builds our faith but Abram had nothing – except what he was hearing directly from God. Next time you doubt what you are hearing, remember Abram.  Now of course the truth is that after that initial hearing from God that resulted in Abram leaving Ur, there were a reasonable number of times when God spoke and moved on Abram’s behalf and each of these would have built this sense of security, this confidence in God’s faithfulness, this sureness that if God says something He will do it.

The Lord acted on their behalf down in Egypt (Gen 12:17-20), he had a reassurance from the Lord about the land and his offspring (Gen 13:14-17), and reassurance about his son in a dream (Gen 15:1-5) and it was at that point that we read those famous words, “Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness.” (Gen 15;6) After this the Lord reassured him about the land again (Gen 15:7-19) making a covenant with him that was quite spectacular.  After the birth of Ishmael the Lord again came and reassured Abram (Gen 17:1-8) about being a mighty nation and then instigates the covenant of circumcision with him (Gen 17:9-14) and then reassures them both about the child again (Gen 17:15-22). All this happened while Abram was 99 and the Lord changed his name to Abraham and tells him his son is to be called Isaac. Subsequently the Lord appeared to them in the form of three men and yet again reassured them about the child who will be born in a year’s time (Gen 18:1-15). By my counting that is seven times (the perfect number in scripture) that the Lord came and reassured Abram.

There are three points to make here. First, the time between a promise and a fulfillment may be lengthy and in that time the Lord simply looks for your faithfulness – “full-of-faith-ness”. You go on believing and you go on acting in the belief that it will come. The second thing is that the Lord will bring reassurance and encouragement along the way. Very often, I have found, the same prophetic word may come to a person three times, if not more. The Lord knows we need the encouragement. The third thing is that in the waiting period it will be a time in which the Lord will go on teaching you and changing you. They will not be wasted years. You will be a different person by the time the word is fulfilled. Sometimes the word cannot be fulfilled unless we are changed. At other times our being changed is just part of God’s general plan for us and the fulfilment is not dependant on it.

There are two verses that may help you if you are in a waiting phase. First, “His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms.” (Eph 3:10) The heavenly powers look on with wonder as they see God’s grace being worked out in you and they praise Him for it. Your faithfulness brings praise to God in the heavenly realms. Second, “Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Heb 12:2) Jesus coped with the Cross by looking beyond it. You and I can cope with waiting by looking to and beyond the fulfillment. See it and praise the Lord for what will come. That is faith.

7. Families

Meditating on the Wonders of the Ten Commandments:  7. Families

Ex 20:12   Honour your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you.

Deut 5:16  Honour your father and your mother, as the LORD your God has commanded you, so that you may live long and that it may go well with you in the land the LORD your God is giving you.

Eph 6:1-3  Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honour your father and mother”–which is the first commandment with a promise– “that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.”

The fifth commandment moves from speaking about a right attitude towards God to having a right attitude towards people. Jesus summed up the Law with, Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: `Love your neighbour as yourself.” (Mt 22:37-39, being a combination quote of Deut 6:5 and Lev 19:18) The first four commands are about loving God and the latter 6 about loving everyone else (‘neighbour’ simply means everyone with whom you come in contact.)

But in starting to bring laws that protect humanity, this very first one is about the building block of civilization, which is under such attack today. If the Bible says Satan is a lair and a destroyer (and it does) then we should not be surprised that his strategy in the Last Days is to destroy the basic building block of civilization, families. How many families today in the West are missing a parent (mostly a father) and how many are torn by dissension as parents war against each other and children war against parents. We have ignored this command and we have ignored it at our peril.

The command is simple and straight forward: “Honour your father and your mother.” The big question is what does ‘honour’ mean? First of all it means to esteem or think highly of (see Prov 4:8). It is also in scripture linked with caring for or protecting (see Psa 91:15) and it certainly has a ‘respect’ element to it (Lev 19:3). Indeed the opposite of respecting and honouring might be considered to be cursing and the Law specified the death penalty for cursing your parents (Lev 20:9); that is how significant this is. Rank ongoing disobedience and rebellion also brought the death penalty (Deut 21:18-21), Those latter verses end with a significant, “You must purge the evil from among you. All Israel will hear of it and be afraid.” (Deut 21:21).

So honouring includes respecting, obeying, esteeming, caring for and protecting (these latter two apply more obviously in older age). Of course there are two sides to every relationship and parents are charged with loving and caring for their children and Paul’s instruction to fathers is not to be overbearing in disciplining them: “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.” (Eph 6:4) In passing, it is interesting to note that in the past forty years, say, the roles of fathers appear to have changed dramatically, sometimes for the worse and sometimes for the better. For the worse, many fathers abandon their children through separation and divorce. For better, many fathers take a much greater part in looking after and caring for their children. Where the father stays with the family, the picture of the distant Victorian father who has little emotional attachment to their children, is rare.

Now we have already indicated how important this simple command is to God by the references to the death penalty for cursing parents and for ongoing outright disobedience and rebellion resulting in a dissolute life (that’s what the Law indicates) but the second part of the command further shows this. In the original impartation of this command on Sinai, it simply says, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you.” (Ex 20:12) The apostle Paul spoke of this as “the first commandment with a promise.”  The promise is of ongoing blessing in their new land IF they followed this law. We have already referred to the family as the basic building block of civilisation and it most certainly was, in God’s eyes, as they settled in the Land.

In repeating this on the plains before they entered the Land, Moses slightly changed it to, so that you may live long and that it may go well with you in the land the LORD your God is giving you.” (Deut 5:16) which separates the original, “so that you may live long in the land,” into “so that you may live long” AND “ that it may go well with you in the land.” Length of life indicates God’s blessing generally and reference to going well in the land also implies His ongoing blessing on their life and security in the Land. However you look at it, God promises blessing on those who hold to this command and, by inference, curses those who don’t.

The apostle Paul expands this double promise to apply to us who don’t live in the Land to, ““that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.”  When he says, “that it may go well with you,” he is referring to the daily lives we live, under God’s blessing, and of course the latter part of the verse refers to length of life.

The message is very clear: family division that comes from children breaking away from their parents is NOT God’s will. There is a message here that many modern children would do well to heed. The cry of the defence is always, “You don’t know my parents!” True, but psychologists tell us that when children reach their teenage years they start to sense their uniqueness, i.e. that they are distinct from their parents, and they seek to show their independence. How they do that is all important and it is also important that parents give them space for them to become themselves. They can rebond with us when they have done this, but they do need to do this, and this is the danger zone when it comes to this command which still applies today!

Learning who you are, young person, does not mean you have to demeans or reject your parents. Yes, they were less than perfect but so will you be this side of heaven. Nevertheless, they were there for you (hopefully). If they weren’t then you have much greater need of the Lord’s grace to cope with that. Something I have observed over the years, is that the revelation of what the parent was going through sometimes helps. It doesn’t excuse them leaving you, but it may help in understanding and if and when they seek your forgiveness, it makes giving it easier. Don’t ever say, “I will never forgive them,” for you step out beyond the Lord’s love at that point. With God’s grace you can, as and when they come seeking it. Honour them by seeking God’s grace to be able to say, “I do” if and when they should come asking for forgiveness. This is a minefield in the present age, so don’t let the strategy and works of the enemy ruin your life. God’s grace is there to enable you to comply with this law, as difficult as that sometimes seems. Confronting with grace and talking through the past with grace, may bring a healing to your relationship and his life (it is usually in respect of the disserting father) and healing within the whole wider community.

Thank the Lord that His grace is available to us today through Jesus to counter the lies and works of the enemy who seeks to destroy our lives and communities. May we receive that grace to do that.

3. Law or Promise

Meditations in Romans : 3:  Law or Promise

Rom 4:13   It was not through law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith.  

Paul has just dealt with circumcision as a possible form of ‘works’, something to be done which may make a Jew feel ‘justified’ or approved by God, by their actions, but then, thinks Paul to himself, if you are going to think of works by conforming to requirements as false causes for justification, the greatest example of that has got to be the Law.  Again, a Jew might think that by keeping the rules of the Law that makes him righteous and right with God, not realising that there is still plenty of scope to be unrighteous in our thoughts.

So Paul thinks back to Abraham again, but this time to the original promise of blessing that Abraham had received: “It was not through law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith.” Wow!  The promise came to Abram (Gen 12:1-) that the world would be blessed through him and his future offspring, but to receive that offspring he had to respond positively in faith to God. As far as he was concerned his body was as good as dead when it came to having children – and the same was true of his wife – yet he responded to God’s word to him with belief, and that was the thing that justified him and enabled the Lord to declare him righteous.  The Law hadn’t been given until over four hundred years later. He was declared righteous before the Law came. His faith-response hadn’t been in respect of the Law but in respect of the Promise.

No, look, says Paul, you’ve got to think about these things, “For if those who live by law are heirs, faith has no value and the promise is worthless.” (4:14). Abraham was promised future generations who would be heirs or receivers of that promise of God that they would be blessed. However, if doers of the Law given centuries later were the receivers of the blessing, the original promise was meaningless, for it was given to those who simply believed God. More than that, it is worthless “because law brings wrath.” (4:15a).

The promise of blessing given to Abram meant a good relationship with the Lord whereby He imparted this blessing, but all trying to keep rules does, is create a sense of guilt in the person who constantly fails, and anger in God who is displeased at their failure. The Law, was meant to be a help to guide people into a good way of living but, because of the presence of Sin in each of us, just means that we yet have something else that highlights our sin. The fact is, says Paul, “where there is no law there is no transgression.” (4:15b) i.e. if there were no rules to be kept we wouldn’t constantly be failing. As we just said, the Law simply highlights our propensity to get it wrong! Behind all this, don’t forget, is the point that Paul is trying to make to Jews who might be relying on Law-keeping for their status before God: it doesn’t work like that!

No, says Paul, this justification that comes via a promise is actually all-inclusive and covers Jews trying to keep the Law and Gentiles who don’t have the Law: “the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring–not only to those who are of the law but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all.” (4:16) Yes, that promise given to Abraham covers everyone who turns to God, those who simply by faith believe without knowing about the Law, AND those in Israel who are seeking to keep the Law and whose hearts are turned to the Lord.

Paul summarises it: “As it is written: “I have made you a father of many nations.” He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed–the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were.” (4:17) The Lord had promised Abram that he would be father of many nations (see Gen 17:5) but was actually referring to him being a father to all who had faith in God. You may think (possibly implied in the direction of Jewish believers) that Gentiles are dead to God and there’s no hope for them but Abraham’s experience of God bringing life from his apparently dead body, makes the point: God can bring life where we think there is only death.

There is a challenge here for us today: never look at anyone and write them off as too hard. It doesn’t matter how hard they appear, how evil they seem, how steeped in sin they seem; no one is impossible for God. There will be those who leave this planet to go to hell by their own choice, but they may be people who even appear good to us – ungodly but good. Goodness isn’t the criteria; it is response to God. I have looked back in my life and I have two examples of men who appeared utterly hard and hopeless. Never in a million years were they going to come to God – but they did! We don’t know why it is that some, however hard they appear, do turn and others who appear good, don’t. It is a mystery – but it is so. You and I cannot look at any man or woman and say they’ll never come to Christ. We just don’t know!  So keep your heart open to all people. You never know what might happen!

52. Be Simple

Meditations in James: 52: Be Simple & Straight Forward

Jas 5:12 Above all, my brothers, do not swear–not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. Let your “Yes” be yes, and your “No,” no, or you will be condemned.

I don’t know if you’ve ever come across the practice of children crossing their fingers behind their backs to annul the promise they are making to other children, but that’s rather like what was happening in James’ time. Put in its most simple form, it is people excusing themselves from promises they have made. Children, especially, are good at using words to tie up friendships or try to bring honour to an agreement. Ah, that is what is at the heart of the whole problem of agreement; it is trying to bring honour to it. When someone swears an oath on a Bible in the witness box in a courtroom, the court are trying to make that person feel there is a solemnity in that oath-taking that will ensure they honour the court and tell the truth. People ‘swear’ by their mother’s grave, or goodness knows what, to try and give the other person a sense that they will honour their promise, or to reassure them that they are speaking the truth. Ensuring an agreement is honoured, or convincing others that you are speaking the truth, is sometimes difficult if your credibility or integrity is at stake. It’s a very important area of life.

It was to counter this dubious trend at that time that James wrote this verse. There had come a practice of distinguishing between oaths that were binding and those which were not. If God’s name was invoked, that made it binding, but otherwise oaths were not considered binding. Also oaths were used a great deal which also tended to undermine their trustworthiness. The whole point of an oath is that it is solemnising something that is special, something rare. The oath makes it special, the oath makes it something that everyone should feel MUST be kept. If an oath was used all the time, that would completely demean the use and value of oaths.

Oaths are all about validating the truth, but the truth should not need to be validated. If we are Christians we should, above all other people, be concerned to live in the truth and speak only the truth. This may limit our lives but it is what is required. Now this is such a simple yet profound thing that we need to repeat it again and again until we really do take in the significance of what is being said. The truth should not need to be validated by us, only on special occasions where there is a particularly significant or serious matter at hand, where we wish to convey to all onlookers that we are utterly, one hundred per cent, serious with no possibility whatsoever of doubt creeping in over our sincerity.

The writer to the Hebrews (Heb 6:13,14) cited God’s promise to Abraham (in Gen 22:17) which he considered an oath. A promise by God is the most serious of promises because God NEVER lies (Num 23:19), therefore if He resorts to a promise, it is a most serious thing. If He promises to do something that is the equivalent of taking an oath in His own name. Jesus clearly felt himself under a similar responsibility before the charge of the high priest: The high priest said to him, ‘I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.’ ‘Yes, it is as you say,’ Jesus replied.” (Mt 26:63,64).  Paul involved God as his witness on rare occasions when he wanted to convince his readers: God, whom I serve with my whole heart in preaching the gospel of his Son, is my witness how constantly I remember you in my prayers at all times” (Rom 1:9,10). Oaths should, therefore, be used very rarely, to ensure they keep their sense of seriousness, and they should also only ever be used to create that sense of utter seriousness, to confirm a promise in the eyes of the onlookers in such a measure that there can be no doubt about the integrity of the person making the oath.

Now James starts this verse with  “Above all.” Now remember that in this chapter he has been warning against unrighteous rich people who cause trouble for the poorer Christians or warning against the tendency to let riches bring you into unrighteousness. He has counseled his readers to be patient as they wait for God to come and sort out either the unrighteous rich or the struggle of the individual with sin and temptation. He has called them to be patient as they wait for the Lord to come and do this.

So what he is now saying is, while you are waiting for all of these things to be resolved, ensure that over all of that, you ensure that you keep your lives simple and truthful, avoiding the deceitful tactics that the rich (implied by context) and others use. YOU remain truthful and in simple honesty, having an integrity that ensures you don’t have to keep bolstering up your appearance by lots of oaths or other techniques to justify your position and integrity. May it be so for us today!