14. God of Variety (1)

Getting to Know God Meditations:  14. God of Variety (1)

Psa 22:1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?  Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish? (Psalm of David – prophetic poetry)

Jn 20:30,31  About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”)  (Prophetic Aramaic fulfillment cry of Jesus Christ on the cross – historical narrative)

Continuation:  I am aware we have been through some challenging areas in the recent days and it seems right to step back with a lighter overview for a moment to give some readers some breathing space perhaps. I did wonder about putting this study much earlier in the series but it feels right to use it here to step back and catch a wider view of the Bible rather than the specific message, although that will almost certainly come through.

Variety: When we look at the world and we look at the Bible and we look towards God, if He is the Creator of all this – and the alternative is, in the words of one leading atheist, a meaningless mess – our conclusion has to be that He is a God who loves variety. I always remember, many years ago hearing someone say, “Did you know there are over 1200 sorts of edible bean in the world?” Since then I’ve heard so much more in science that says this world is a showcase of variety, no more so than when you look at people and cultures, and also no more so than when you look in the Bible.

Variety & the Bible: Every now and then I hear some smart character pontificating about the failures of the Bible and the moment you hear them using and deriding the word ‘literal’ you know they are speaking out of a weak limited area of knowledge and understanding. Hopefully, if you have been a Christian for any length of time, you will have sat in on a sermon or study where you will know that the word ‘literal’ is dismissed. “Is it literally true?” says this smart character trying to make a smart point. Whatever do you mean? Do you understand the variety of writing that is here in this book? Let’s consider some of the variety of genres or styles or writing we find in the Bible.

i) Historical Narrative: There is history, narrative if you like, and yes we can say that is literally true, it did happen in time-space history. The evidence is there, the writings so often supported by archaeology or other history sources. This isn’t always so but there has been an interesting phenomena over the past hundred and fifty years. Critics said, “Oh there is no archaeological evidence for those accounts in ….” and they name some passage, and lo and behold twenty years later the remains are unearthed. Absence does not mean it did not happen. Just be patient!

ii) Teaching: There is much straight forward teaching in the Bible. Let’s take that classic book, ‘Proverbs’ and let’s take one example from early on, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction.” (Prov 1:7) Time and space forbids us meditating on that, but is it literal? What does that mean? Is it literally true? Well, yes. Or consider Jesus teaching his disciples, to take a random example, many prophets and kings wanted to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.” (Lk 10:24) To ask is it literal is meaningless without explanation. Yes it is literally true what he said. Look at Jesus’ parables and you find teaching within a story. Is the story literally true? Don’t be daft, it is a story! Watch out for similes, metaphors and personification and if you don’t know what they are, classes on Literature 101 are needed.

iii) Prophecy: There are big chunks of prophecy in the Bible, the biggest probably being the book of Revelation at the end. In the Old Testament, the big books are Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel (and there are a number of what are called ‘The Minor Prophets’).  Each of those big four contain some narrative as well as prophecies. Is it literal? Well the narrative is but look at prophecy and you find that it is a complete mix of exhortation, teaching and picture language and the picture language (e.g. personification) is clearly not meant to be taken literally but simply conveys meaning. Is this allegory literal? Don’t be daft, it’s an allegory!!!

iv) Poetry: You will know that it is in poetic form because of the way it will be laid out in your Bible. If you ask a poet, is your poetry literal, they will look at you, seeing one who has not got a clue about the style and goal of poetry (this is not the place to do that – do your own research). Poems convey meaning, poems express emotions, poems come from and touch the heart. Read the Psalms and see this.

The Problem with Scripture: There is a problem from our point of time in history, in fact there are at least four problems.

i) The first is historical: The book is spread over a two thousand year period and covers a vast range of changes in history. An excellent example of historical data is that found in Luke’s Gospel (who we have referred to in an earlier study): In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene— during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” (Lk 3:1,2) Note 7 historical figures (if you don’t count John) and five geographical locations and three historical ‘job descriptions’.

 ii) The second is cultural: So often we see behaviour that was common in a particular culture and at first sight, without explanation, it may appear strange to us. We need to learn about the culture. (I will not give examples of these because they each will require too much explanation.)

iii) The third is linguistic: Some of the word patterns or uses of language appear strange to us, but it was the way they spoke back then. Again I hesitate to give examples for the sake of time and space but when you see phrases or sayings that seem strange, look them up on the Internet.

 iv) The fourth is geographical: The action of the Bible takes place over an area from Egypt to modern-day Iraq.  It therefore includes many countries (some of which don’t exist today), and many towns and cities (some of which either don’t exist today or have changed their names).  It also includes geographical features such as rivers, lakes, seas and mountains, that are clearly located.

Each of these things requires an intelligent reading and that will take time and effort.

And So: Our key point within this study is to highlight

a) the variety of styles of writing found in the Bible, each of which needs identifying if we are not to make wrong assumptions about it,

b) the indirect forms of speech that are often used, requiring us to identify them and not jump to false conclusions about what is being said, and

c) the various difficulties or gaps in understanding that may appear because of the Bible recording the ways and culture of people who lived two to four thousand years ago, in a different part of the world from that with which we are familiar.

Therefore, in these 66 books, written by over 40 writers, we find a rich variety of amazing literature, and once we overcome the obstacles I have referred to above, we find a rich vein of history that sheds light on who we are, why we are and where we are going. Oh, yes, this is not merely academic literature that we read for mundane interest, this is a book that reveals to us what life is all about and the One who brought it all into being. In the next study we will compare and highlight some of this ‘literature’ more fully so we can see the wonder of it.

45. Prophecy

Short Meditations in John 6:  45. Prophecy

Jn 6:45 “It is written in the Prophets: ‘They will all be taught by God. Everyone who has heard the Father and learned from him comes to me.”

The Message version builds this verse as follows: “This is what the prophets meant when they wrote, ‘And then they will all be personally taught by God.’ Anyone who has spent any time at all listening to the Father, really listening and therefore learning, comes to me to be taught personally—to see it with his own eyes, hear it with his own ears, from me, since I have it first hand from the Father.”

There are really three parts to this verse. First there is the prophetic reference, a quote from Isa 54:13 that referred to Israel’s future, a time of blessing when God would teach the future generations. Life for the people of God includes receiving revelation from Him, teaching that would guide, lead and change them and make them be seen across the earth as the unique people of God. That was how it was supposed to be.

Second, there is reference to those who have “heard the Father and learned from Him.” The clear implication is that not everyone hears and certainly not everyone learns from Him. Hence the Message version’s, “really listening” emphasis. But this is the condition upon which the verse pivots. The first part is God’s intent, this second part is the response of those with open hearts to God, which leads on to, third, the outcome or response of such people who will take on board what they read or hear, they will turn to Jesus.

There is a sharp logic in this verse with a teaching that is easy to forget. God speaks, that is always stage one. When it first happens, before we turn to Christ, most of us don’t realise what is happening but the conviction that follows only comes because God has spoken into a receptive heart. When that conviction comes it is because we have heard God. As I say, I am sure most of us don’t realise this is what has happened, but it is. When His words penetrate our prepared hearts, we show we have heard by our response, which is always to turn to Jesus.

The apostle Paul asked the Galatians, “Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard?” (Gal 3:2) They had heard the gospel and then believed it and as a result were born again. To the Ephesians he said, “That, however, is not the way of life you learned 21 when you heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus.” (Eph 4:20,21) i.e. you were taught, you heard, and that provided a basis for how you were to live out this new Christian life. God’s word draws us to Christ and then Christ’s word guides us into the future. Make sure it happens.

2. Priest and Prophet?

Gleanings in Jeremiah : 2 :  Priest and Prophet?

Jer 1:1-3   The words of Jeremiah son of Hilkiah, one of the priests at Anathoth in the territory of Benjamin. The word of the LORD came to him in the thirteenth year of the reign of Josiah son of Amon king of Judah, and through the reign of Jehoiakim son of Josiah king of Judah, down to the fifth month of the eleventh year of Zedekiah son of Josiah king of Judah, when the people of Jerusalem went into exile.

In the first study we noted the overall background of the day in which Jeremiah lived, a day initially of decline and then of restoration but then lapsing into decline again. But what about Jeremiah himself?  Chapter 1 is all about Jeremiah and it is only when we get to chapter 2 that we will see the message the Lord gives to him, so for now we focus on him and what happens to him, how he responds, and what it teaches us.

He is a priest who lived in a small town a couple of miles, it is thought, north east of Jerusalem. It was clearly a town given to the priests earlier in Israel’s history:  And from the tribe of Benjamin they gave them Gibeon, Geba, Anathoth and Almon, together with their pasturelands–four towns. All the towns for the priests, the descendants of Aaron, were thirteen, together with their pasturelands.” (Josh 21:17-19). In Solomon’s day we find the following: “To Abiathar the priest the king said, “Go back to your fields in Anathoth.” (1 Kings 2:26). There is a strong link between the town and the priesthood.

Now there are three things about priests that are worth noting:

  • First, their background – it was hereditary. You were born into a priestly family and if you were a male you became a priest and served in Jerusalem in the Temple.
  • The second thing is their role: it was to bring people to God. They would have been those fully acquainted with the Law of Moses because they would need to know all the various requirements in respect of keeping the rules generally, and specifically of administering the Temple worship and sacrificial rules. It is interesting that the other major prophet running parallel to Jeremiah, Ezekiel, is also a priest (Ezek 1:3). So first and foremost, at least as far as Jeremiah would have been concerned, he was a priest because his family was a priestly family. His future, it would seem, is set. Jerusalem is his work place and will be the focus of his life. Well in that respect, it is true for it is going to feature largely in his life but his ministry is going to take him way beyond the confines and comfort and security of the priesthood.
  • Third, being a priest would mean Jeremiah had a strong support network behind him of the other priests, his family and extended family, and we so often tend to forget this of him. The priests were set apart by the Law and that no doubt made them feel different.

But if you ask people about Jeremiah they will say he is a prophet and prophets are different to priests. Whereas it is said that priests bring people to God, prophets bring God to the people. Priests focus on administering the word of God, the Law, while prophets administer the now word of God, prophecy, words coming directly from God today, for today. An interesting thing about a prophet also being a priest was that the priests were to be cared for and provided for by the community so they did not have to have some other job to earn an income (see, for example Num 18).

But the big thing that marked the prophet out is that they heard God. In the modern church in the body of Christ, we make distinction between the office of prophet (see Eph 4:11) and the more common ‘prophetic person’, the person who exercises a spiritual gift called prophecy (see 1 Cor 12:10). Even though the apostle Paul encourages us to “eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy” (1 Cor 14:1) the reality is that it is God who puts such desires upon our hearts or simply imparts such a gift to us. I remember once, when I was inputting to a small church not too far away and found a leadership team of four, and three of them were struggling with the fourth. I decided to meet with this man one evening and listen to him. After about an hour of talking I said, “I know what is your problem. You are frustrated. If you talk for an hour with most Christians there is something they do not keep on saying, but I have heard you keep on saying, ‘and the Lord said to me’.”  The man had a strong prophetic gift which neither he nor the others had recognised and so he kept feeling things about their church which were in fact, guidance from God, but he didn’t recognise it and neither did they. As soon as it was brought out into the open, it could be managed and understood. Prophetic people, and certainly prophets, hear God.

It comes as no surprise to us, therefore, that as soon as we reach verse 4 of this first chapter, we read, The word of the LORD came to me.” Prophets hear God’s word and this young priest hears God!  He’s not just a priest. Indeed the content of the ‘word’ makes that doubly clear for he hears the Lord saying, “”Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” (v.5) Prophetic gifting is not something that everybody has; it is imparted by the Holy Spirit  When the apostle Paul speaks about this to the Corinthians, he says it is a manifestation of the Spirit (1 Cor 12:7) and one gift is given to one person and another gift given to another person. Yes, we can eagerly desire to be used by God empowered by the Spirit, but He is the one who decides who will be what in the body.

In those words in verse 5 the Lord reveals His pre-knowledge, knowledge about it before it happens, and knowing what we will be like; He opens up areas of service for those who will exercise their free will to make themselves available to Him. As we’ll see when we continue tomorrow, we may have queries about that, but the Lord looks past them and knows what he can achieve through us. The big question is, am I available to the Lord for Him to lead me into whatever area of activity or service He may want for me?  For us as Christian believers this pre-knowledge of God still applies – to all of us – for the apostle Paul wrote, “we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”  (Eph 2:10)   God knew us before we came to Him, and He knows what best ‘fits’ us.

Don’t be limited in your understanding of this. Yes, it can be spiritual gifts and ministries but it may be many other things. Maybe the Lord wants you to be a local or national politician to influence the affairs of the community for good. Maybe He wants you to be an author to bring goodness into the realm of literature. Maybe He wants you to be a scientist to open up further areas of discovery and blessing for the human race. Maybe it’s a social worker who will compassionately care for outcasts. Maybe it’s an office worker who will bring the light and love of God into their office. Maybe it will be to establish a company to provide goods and employment to bless the human race. The list is endless and I hesitate to stop there because you may feel, “well he hasn’t mentioned what I do.” No, and it is impossible to cover every eventuality. All we can say is, are we open to receive the Lord’s guidance, direction, anointing,  empowering and wisdom which may be for what we are doing now or for something completely different from what we are doing at present. Rest in His love and direction. Yes, He sees us, knows us and wants to lead us into what best ‘fits’ us. Hallelujah!

3. Be a Leader

Meditations on “God of Transformation: 3:  Be a Leader

Gen 37:2,5-7     Joseph, a young man of seventeen…   had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him all the more. He said to them, “Listen to this dream I had: We were binding sheaves of grain out in the field when suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright, while your sheaves gathered around mine and bowed down to it.

I suspect I have commented more than a few times, when I write these meditations, about watching people receiving personal prophecies. They may not actually say it but the look on their faces says, “Oh yes? In a million years! Who are you kidding!”  Our capacity for not believing God is often very high! (That’s a gentle way of saying we’re good at unbelief). The trouble with personal prophecies is that they come wrapped up for a person who is not yet what the prophecy says; that’s what makes it a prophecy, it speaks to the future. So we look at ourselves or we look at the person receiving a word from a visiting prophet and we find it difficult to comprehend a leap from what is now to what the word says. Especially if we have low self-esteem (and many of us do) we find any sort of elevation somewhat mind blowing, and the greater the elevation the more impossible it seems and we forget that this is God speaking and nothing is too difficult for Him (Mt 19:26, Lk 1:37).

All of these things come together in the case of young, spoilt-brat, Joseph in the Old Testament, one of the younger members of a large family, most of  whom hate him because he’s his father’s favourite and spoilt. So he has a dream. It is a prophecy and he unwisely shares it, which only goes to make the brothers hate him even more, because the prophecy has his family bowing down before him. Their personal animosities cloud their judgment and so they instantly write off what he is saying. There is a grave danger when it comes to prophetic words, of looking at the bringer and, even more, the way they bring it and then writing it off. I have seen it happen.

A women in a large meeting brought ‘a word’ and because she was a bit weird and brought it in a rather dramatic way, the leader of the meeting just quickly passed on to the next thing in worship. I confess my instinctive reaction was relief  but the moment we moved on I had one of those inner checks that said, “No, this was my word”, and so we missed it. One of the disconcerting things I have observed over the years is that when it comes to finding someone to convey His word, the Lord is often more concerned with availability than finding someone who is perfect. The number of perfect people around are few and far between, and so He takes what is available and sometimes that person doesn’t match up to our Pharisaic expectations, and we are the losers.

Thus, more for personal reasons than for anything else, the family write off young Joseph’s dreams and the drama of his life unfolds. The sons sell him into slavery and from slavery he ends up in prison. It looks like it goes from one bad place to a worse bad place. Some fourteen or so years pass before Joseph gets known as a dream interpreter in the prison. Then when the Pharaoh (for he is now in Egypt) starts having dreams and casts around for a dream interpreter,  it is not too long before Joseph is dragged out before him. He gets the interpretation of the dreams and before he knows it, Pharaoh has promoted him to Prime Minister of all Egypt, second only to himself, because he alone seems to exhibit the wisdom and revelation necessary to manage the country through the good years and then bad years of the next fourteen years. Thus at least twenty eight years have passed before his family turn up in Egypt seeking food to help them cope with the famine back home, and in the time he has changed and his role has changed and everything about him has so changed that it takes some time before he reveals to them who he is.

Now that is the story and there are two vital things to note in it. We’ve already considered the first one, that prophecy may come through unlikely vessels and to unlikely people, but God knows what He is about. The second thing though, that only comes out when you look at the unfolding story, is that it took nearly three decades to be fulfilled, and herein is a crucial point.

Very often the transformation that God wants to bring about and which He spoke about in the prophetic word, takes time to be fulfilled. So often the end result is after a process of transformation – our transformation – and that takes time. Previously in this series we considered God breaking through into the material world that He had created, and it took time. Then we considered Sarai and other barren women, and it took time before they conceived. Now we have seen the transformation of Joseph and again it has taken time. The lesson that should be shouted from the roof tops is that God loves to bring transformation but so often He takes His time with it, because He is thorough and He is working with human beings who He does not force on faster than they can go. God is not in a rush, even though we may often exhibit impatience. It is a very significant lesson for many of us. Let’s heed it.

8. Lack of Revelation

Meditations in 1 Samuel   8. Lack of revelation

1 Sam 3:1-4   The boy Samuel ministered before the LORD under Eli. In those days the word of the LORD was rare; there were not many visions.  One night Eli, whose eyes were becoming so weak that he could barely see, was lying down in his usual place. The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the LORD, where the ark of God was. Then the LORD called Samuel.

I find this particular passage one of the most poignantly symbolic passages of the Old Testament. The setting, as we have recently observed, is that the young boy Samuel has been left by his mother in the care and under the instruction of Eli the chief priest. We have just pondered on the whole business of the two sons of Eli who are abusing their positions as under-priests and Eli’s failure to do anything about it. From that we might rightly assume that those in charge of the nation of Israel at this time were not in a good spiritual state.  Now look at the words that pile up in these verses above that speak to this situation.

First, “the word of the Lord was rare”  Now I have a horrible feeling that most Christians when looking at these words take them for granted but they bring a tremendous assumption to the people of God – that God is a communicator and that He speaks on a regular basis to His people. Now we are going to think more deeply about this in the next meditation but for the moment can we note this assumption, that the expectancy is for God to speak on a regular basis – but at this time He wasn’t or perhaps, to be more accurate maybe, there was no one with an ear open to Him, to hear His words. What an awful picture that would be – God speaking to His people Israel and no one taking a blind bit of notice about it, no one hearing, no one responding, a spiritually static people. How terrible! Are we different today?

But then it is repeated but in another way: “there were not many visions”. Visions are simply one of the ways that God speaks to His people and thus for our era Joel being quoted on the Day of Pentecost said, “Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.” (Acts 2:17) Prophecy, dreams and visions, all ways God communicates with His people in every age.

Who has visions? Those with eyes to see. Of course we mean spiritual eyes which makes the next words so poignant: “Eli, whose eyes were becoming so weak that he could barely see.”  Yes, that is physical but actually it also describes exactly what he was like spiritually: he could barely see because he had allowed his spiritual vision to become clouded by old age. We aren’t told any other reason for it and it that is so, how sad: “The righteous will flourish like a palm tree ……  They will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green, proclaiming, “The LORD is upright; he is my Rock, and there is no wickedness in him.” (Psa 92:12,14,15)  That is the challenge for those of us in older years.

But it gets worse for it continues about Eli that he “was lying down in his usual place.” Again,  now this is a physical description but again it describes his spiritual state. The call is to “Stand!” (Eph 6:11,14) not to be lying down spiritually. You lie down when are going to sleep and sleep is the way of the sluggard, the lazy person (Prov 6:9), or the person who has given up. Spiritually Eli has given up. He still knows what is right and what is wrong but when it comes to his sons, he just hasn’t got the spiritual energy to bring the changes that are needed, he is lying down on the job. “in his usual place”. Yes, again it is physical but also true spiritually; he is in the same old place he always is in, spiritually indifferent or spiritually impotent, and so nothing changes.

Then we find a word of hope: “The lamp of God had not yet gone out,”  Yes, yet again it refers to a physical lamp, probably the lamp-stand  in the Tabernacle, but spiritually it was true as well. God had not been pushed out of this situation and He had not left Israel (as we see in Ezekiel where the glory of the Lord was seen to be moving in stages away from its place in the Temple in Jerusalem, as a warning of what was about to happen to Jerusalem). There is a glimmer of hope yet in this situation. What was it? “Samuel was lying down in the temple of the LORD, where the ark of God was.”  Yes, the young boy was there. Yes, he was lying down reminding us that as yet he had not moved into a position of spiritual ministry for he hasn’t yet had his encounter with the Lord (that is coming next) – but he IS in the right place, he is there in the Tabernacle which was where, in the inner place, the ark resided, the ark that represented the presence of God.

This is why all that talk about the providence of God was so important. If change is to come about in Israel, it will happen when someone in the leadership gets in contact with God, listens and then obeys. Where are they most likely to make contact with God? Where He resides – in the tabernacle. Samuel is in the right place and so very soon God is going to initiate the contact and it will all change, the leadership will change from a blind, inactive, ineffective, worldly and dissolute leadership, to one that is holy, one that hears from God and is able to impact the nation accordingly. Now I believe that is all so clear that I really don’t have to labour the point. How is your spiritual leadership?

11. God of Initiative

Meditating on the Gems of the Bible:  11. God of Initiative

Ex 3:1-3  Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the desert and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight–why the bush does not burn up.”

There is always a danger with spiritual matters in thinking that we have to take the initiative and yet the Biblical testimony is that God is ALWAYS the one who takes the initiative.  He created the world to start with. He initiated a relationship with Adam and Eve, He reached out to a pagan called Abram and started off a long-term relationship. And then we come to the verses above where a failed prince of Egypt who has been looking after sheep for forty years comes across a burning bush that is not burning, and finds himself in a conversation with God that will mean life will never be the same again. What we see in those verses is the start of the revelation of the plan of God for the deliverance of His people from Egypt.

The day before I would guess that Moses had no thoughts for the life he had forty years ago, the memories had probably dulled. He is, after all, eighty years old, a time when most of us today would consider we ought to be in retirement. But God has His plans and they include using this man for another forty years.

That is the trouble with the will of God, it stretches out in ways beyond our dreams. We may have had ideas once upon a time of what we might like to become, but the ways of the world, the knocks of life got all that out of us, and so we opt for settling in a quiet lifestyle that upsets no one and allows me to drift on through life. But God looks down and sees a need and sees me and sees what He can do with me, and suddenly there is a burning bush, something that catches my attention and breaks into the hum drum of life. God has plans to do things with me. I would have considered them presumptuous but He simply sees the potential of His child that His child fails to see, and suddenly He creates a burning bush, and I pause and look.

Recently we considered the angel coming to Mary, the same angel that had recently come to Zechariah. Both were instances of God taking the initiative, of God moving His plans on, plans which include human beings. It will be thirty years before the next phase of His plan for salvation comes into being, but then He has waited over four hundred years for the time to be ripe for this phase to come. And so we start to realise that what appears to us as a unique taking-the-initiative is, in fact, just the next phase of a plan that had been thought out from before the foundation of the world – but each stage is brought on by God Himself when He sees the time is right.

So I wonder, perhaps, can I see this life as a plan being rolled out by God and somehow He has a part for me to play in it: For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Eph 2:10) The ‘good works’ that God has got for me are things He knows I can do with the gifts and enablings He gives me, and they are all part of that bigger long-term plan that He has on His heart.  Now if this is so then it changes me from being someone who either wonders if he is ‘good enough’ to be used by God, or berates himself for not doing enough, into someone who simply says, “Lord, show me what you want of me today, and if you need me to change to fit more fully your plans for my future, please show me what you want of me.”  May my response to what comes be the same as Mary’s,  “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.” (Lk 1:38)

So what is happening when someone seems to be so burdened that they pray their heart out to bring about the will of God? Surely if God has it all mapped out already they don’t need to be interceding like that? Well that intercession is simply part of the process that God uses to bring about His purposes. Prayer is always a mystery but it seems that sometimes God waits upon our praying, as if our praying actually brings about changes in the heavenly realms. As we say, it is a mystery and so when we catch a sense of what ought to be and start praying for it, we suggest that it is God putting the burden on our heart. Without doubt He does seem to burden some people more than others to become intercessors and that to bring about His purposes, but even in that we suggest He takes the initiative.

What happens when someone moves to bring a word of prophecy or a word of knowledge or pray for healing? The are being prompted by the Holy Spirit – God is taking the initiative to intervene through what we now call gifts of the Spirit. ANY ministry should, we would hope, be a response to the prompting of the Holy Spirit and in each case it is God taking the initiative to bring about a change here on earth. Moses’ burning bush was just one classic example of what God does in a variety of ways again and again as He acts into our lives and works in cooperation with us – He initiates and we respond. Good isn’t it!

5. The Gifted Body (1)

Meditations in Romans, Ch.12: 5:  The Gifted Body (1)

Rom 12:6-8   We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully.

We have in these verses what we might call ‘gifts of grace’. In Eph 4:11 we find gifts of ministries to the church while in 1 Cor 12:8-10 we find what we simply tend to call the gifts of the Spirit, although the truth is that all these ‘gifts’ in whatever form we find them, are expressions of the Spirit of Jesus in us.

Paul’s emphasis here, remember, is awareness of who we Gentile believers (and the few Jewish believers) are, that we are redeemed sinners (Rom 11:32) who are what we are by the joint working of the work of Jesus on the Cross and the work of the Spirit in us now. We are what we are, first and foremost, because of what the Holy Spirit has done in us and what He has given us. Why He gives any individual what He gives is a mystery. It may be that He looks at the sort of person He sees we are and apportions ‘gifting’ to match what He finds in us. It is a mystery, but when we say he apportions gifting, we simply mean He gives us a specific enabling – that is grace in this context. Grace is God’s ability in us to enable us to cope with life and to be the people He calls us to be. It is God’s ability being expressed in us that enable us to be and to do.

Thus Paul says, We have different gifts, according to the grace given us.” This is the marvel that God gives us different things; we don’t all have the same, so what we see is that we find ourselves particularly comfortable doing one particular thing  and that is the ‘gift’ that others observe in us.  That ‘thing’ seems natural to us, although it may not to someone else. Now before we look at the list of examples that Paul gives us here, note that we could each do every one of the things here but what happens is that we become ‘good’ at doing one particular thing. Look at each of the things in this light for a moment.

Paul starts, “If a man’s gift is prophesying” (v.6a) but in 1 Cor 14 we find him saying there, “eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy…I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy.” (1 Cor 14:1,5) What I have observed in my own experience is that if I am teaching a group of say ten people to learn to step out in the gift of prophecy, on that evening (as it tends to be) every one of them will receive a word from God for another in that group, i.e. they all prophesy, but watch say six months later and of that ten, two of them never get and bring a word again, five of them will have a word on occasion and three will receive words regularly. It is as if the grace is there to do it, but the faith is not there for it, which is why Paul continues this verse about prophesying, “let him use it in proportion to his faith.” (v.6b)

Bearing in mind “everyone who prophesies speaks to men for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort,” (1 Cor 14:3) there is a lot of difference between a word that says, “The Lord says he loves you and is blessed by you,” and another word that says to a childless couple who have been told they cannot have children, “The Lord says that this time next year you will have a baby.” Both are good words but the significance of them, or the potential for them to be wrong, is clearly very different.  Thus person ‘A’ may have confidence to bring the more simple but nevertheless encouraging word but not go beyond that, while person ‘B’ finds greater faith rising in them to speak out God’s word and finds the  ‘weight’ of what they bring grows and thus the ‘proportion’ of their faith grows. I suspect that that is how it is with each of these gifts of grace that Paul puts before us here.

The second thing on Paul’s list of examples is ‘serving’: “If it is serving, let him serve.” (v.7a) Now again Scripture indicates that we are all to have a servant heart. Do you remember Jesus’ teaching his disciples, “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant.” (Mt 20:26) and of course at the Last Supper after washing their feet he told them, “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” (Jn 13:14-17)  Being a servant is thus the calling of every disciple.

So why does Paul make ‘serving’ a gift of grace? The word used is ‘diakonia’ meaning a practical service ministry. It is the word used to describe Martha’s serving Jesus (Lk 10:40) In Acts 6:4 it is used in the phrase “the ministry of the word,” simply meaning serving in the ministry of the word. In 2 Cor 5:18 it is the word used in the phrase, “the ministry of reconciliation,” again simply meaning serving in the ministry of reconciliation. So here we have ‘serving’ or ‘working for others’ as something that naturally flows out of this particular person and they find a joy in it, in ways that others do not. Perhaps, we might suggest, this working develops into the ministry we might call it of being a ‘deacon’ in the church, one who serves the church in the more practical ways (see Acts 6). We’ll consider the others in the next meditation

19. Abandoned by God?

Meditations in David’s Psalms : 19 : Abandoned by God?  – Psa 22:1,2

Psa 22:1    My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning?

When we come to psalm 22 we come to a psalm which has the most amazing prophetic overtones to it. Because of this and because it is quite long, we will have a number of bites at it. For those of us who have been Christians a long time, there is a trap we fall into (at least I do!). We see the incredible prophetic overtones which are specifically laid out in the New Testament and we forget that this was first and foremost the anguish of David. David was NOT bringing it as prophecy; he was not saying, “Thus says the Lord, this is how it will be for my Son,” and yet the words have that significance as the New Testament testifies. In some cases Jesus takes and uses the very words of this psalm and in other cases the Gospel writers take them and apply them.

This first verse, to prove our point, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is found on Jesus’ lips on the Cross: “About the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?”–which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt 27:46) Other similarities are too great to be coincidence, and we need to bear that in mind when we consider other not so specifically New-Testament-defined verses. In each case let’s consider what David was saying and feeling and then see how it fits in the New Testament narrative.

David is clearly in a time of extreme anguish where he feels utterly alone, so alone that it feels like God has left him. He continues, Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning?” (v.1b). As so often, we will see later, it is because he has got people around him who are out to get him. Now please don’t fall into the trap of thinking that God made this happen so David would essentially prophesy what was happening to Jesus on the Cross. David, like us, lives in a fallen world and in this fallen world, people are nasty! Within that context we find David, and he expresses what will later, many centuries later, fit and shed light on what happened to Jesus. At this moment in his life there are those coming against him and he feels so weak that he cries out for God – and apparently gets no answer. The conclusion? The human conclusion is that God must have left him.

Now on a good day no ‘good’ Christian will acknowledge that God leaves people, but on a bad day it feels like that. Be honest, there ARE times when it feels that God is at the opposite end of the universe. This is a time to distinguish between feelings and facts.

Facts: The writer to the Hebrews wrote of God saying, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you,” (Heb 13:5) which is a quote of Moses’ words: “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.”  (Deut 31:6)  Now Moses was being very specific – God IS with you and will NOT leave you. That same promise is transferred to us.  It doesn’t matter what you FEEL today, the truth is that the Lord IS with you. So even if with David you cry out, “O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, and am not silent,” (v.2), it is not that the Lord has left you. He is still there with you. Possibly it is a case that He is waiting to see how you will respond in such circumstances and with such feelings.

So what was happening when Jesus uttered these same words?  He was hanging on the Cross carrying our sin. Now the New Testament teaching is that the sin of the world was put upon him. For example, Peter wrote, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree.” (1 Pet 2:24) Now this is difficult to both imagine and understand. Imagine Jesus putting on clothes that were Sin; such awfulness on the perfect, spotless Son of God. Imagine you being forced to put of clothes saturated with vomit say. The smell is revolting and it fills your entire being. But if, in some way beyond our understanding Jesus actually took sin into himself so it was as if he was a sinner, we have this terrible experience of perfection struggling against evil in the most awful of experiences. From the side aspect of the Cross, it must have been THE most terrible experience of the Son of God in eternity. Add to that, what we will see later in the psalm, the attacks being made on him from outside, and Jesus is being consumed by awfulness. For the human side of Jesus at least, at that moment at least, it filled his entire awareness and he was aware of nothing but nothing else – including his Father.  For him at that moment it seemed like he was utterly alone.

Was he alone?  There is a (wrong) teaching that says the Father turned His back on His Son at that moment. I don’t believe that is so for two reasons. First, the Godhead cannot be split and so Father cannot be separated from the Son and the Son not separated from the Spirit.  Second God is love and love does not abandon a loved one whatever is happening. Observe the human response of Jesus’ mother who refused to abandon her Son at the Cross and stood there and watched him die. Would the Father do anything less? No! Never! The Father NEVER abandons us His children!

That is sufficient for the moment; we’ll see the response that follows in the next meditation.

5. Confusion

Meditations in Acts : 5 :  Confusion of Prophecy

Acts 1:8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Before I start in here, I think I need to make a statement for clarity sake. I have known the Lord for well over forty years and I’m sure I love Him more today than ever before. Moreover I am blessed by His word and am utterly convinced He is totally faithful and unchanging and His love for me is absolute and unchanging. Now I need to say those things for those who might read what follows and think that I am now doubting the Lord. I am not! I am certain of Him!

But there is something else I have come to see – well two things really, two related things. The first is that so often when we read the Bible, we read it with such little thought and miss so much. The second is that when we read words like we find in verse 8 today, we just don’t realise how confusing they probably were to the disciples. Now I am sure that there are some prophecies that are simple, clear cut and quickly fulfilled, but I’m going to suggest that these are the minority! I have no question about the Lord’s truthfulness when he said through Amos, Surely the Sovereign LORD does nothing without revealing his plan to his servants the prophets.” (Amos 3:7). I think understanding the overall plan of God is a lot easier than understanding individual prophecies.

I’ll start justifying what I’ve just said out of personal experience. I have operated in the prophetic role and watched a lot of others operating in it for many years, and as I have watched people receiving prophetic words I am utterly convinced that 99.9999% of them are not fully understood and the things that they will involve are just not thought about. So why does God speak these things if we are so clueless at understanding them? Because He loves us and wants to share His heart with us. Every prophetic word is an expression of His love, even if we don’t fully understand it. If a father or mother says to their little child, I love you and forgive you, that child will only catch a glimmer of the reality of that love which, under certain circumstances would lay down its life for the child. So it is with God, and His ways are so complex that He doesn’t tell us all the details of what He says is going to work out. Why? It’s because we wouldn’t understand what will be entailed in its fulfilment and we wouldn’t understand His grace that would be there to see us along the path to fulfilment – and so we’d worry!

In the Old Testament the story of Joseph and his dreams (Gen 37-) is a classic illustration of this. If you had told Joseph that to become the Prime Minister of Egypt he was going to have to be sold into slavery and then put in prison with little hope of getting out, I don’t think he would have been blessed.

So now we come to Jesus’ words describing the future of the early church. “God’s power is going to come on you.” Wow! We’re going to be great individuals – maybe just like the Judges when the Spirit came on them and empowered them. Wow!

“And you’ll be my witnesses.” OK.

“In Jerusalem.”  Wow, hold on; not so OK! They’ll be out to get us there!

“And in all Judea.” Oh, thank goodness, away from Jerusalem!

“And in Samaria.” Hold on; they’re aliens and we don’t like them; they’re a mixed race people, not real Jews. That’s not so good!

“And to the ends of the earth.” What?

How is that going to happen? Well I’m not going to tell you now but I’m going to allow persecution to come and many of the church are going to flee from Jerusalem and will end up all over the place. Actually if you read the early chapters of Acts – after chapter 2 – it’s not very comfortable. In fact it is downright hostile!  Oh yes, all of this is going to be fulfilled but it’s what he doesn’t tell them that is the tough stuff because this is what it is often like being a believer in this Fallen World.

Now do you see what I mean when I say we don’t know half of it when we get a prophetic word? The Lord seems to delight in telling us ‘end products’ but misses out the means to get there. Oh yes, His grace will always be there for us, but do you remember what we said in the previous meditation?  He’s working to teach us to trust Him even when we don’t understand what is going on, and the truth of it is, that there’s a lot of that! You’re not going to learn to trust until you’ve been through circumstances that necessitate trust!

Supposing Jesus gave us a detailed itinerary for the next month – this is what is going to happen tomorrow, and then this on the next day…. and so on. Not a surprise on the horizon. We’d probably become a bunch of Jonah’s and emigrate as fast as we could! Or once we’d settled to what was coming, we’d be able to say, “It’s OK this is only going to last until Wednesday. I can handle it on my own until then.” But that defeats the object. The Lord is teaching us to stick close to Him and trust Him. If we knew what was coming in detail, we wouldn’t need Him. So just relax; He’s there and He’s there for you and if He’s said what is coming, rejoice in it, but still realise that you are still going to have to turn to Him for His grace along the way. That’s what this is all about! Have fun!

17. To Asa

“God turned up” Meditations: 17 :  To Asa

2 Chron 15:1,2 The Spirit of God came upon Azariah son of Oded. He went out to meet Asa and said to him, “Listen to me, Asa and all Judah and Benjamin. The LORD is with you when you are with him. If you seek him, he will be found by you, but if you forsake him, he will forsake you.

Asa’s summary at the start of the record in 2 Chronicles is good: Asa did what was good and right in the eyes of the LORD his God. He removed the foreign altars and the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles. He commanded Judah to seek the LORD, the God of their fathers, and to obey his laws and commands” (2 Chron 14:2-4). We also see that when he went to battle he called on the Lord (2 Chron 14:11) placing his reliance on the Lord, and so the Lord gave him victory. It is as they return from this victory that Azariah gets stirred by the Holy Spirit to come and prophesy over him. The Lord has turned up!

Yes, the Lord had been with him previously and yes the Lord had given him victory, but now the Lord comes close, so to speak, and speaks personally to Asa. This is a new level of experience for Asa. It is a significant prophecy.

It starts out with this somewhat strange sounding word: The LORD is with you when you are with him.” i.e. the Lord will be for you and will bless you as long as your heart is set on the Lord.  It continues: If you seek him, he will be found by you, but if you forsake him, he will forsake you.” This is both a reassurance and a warning.  Seek God and you will find Him but forsake Him and He won’t stay with you,  i.e. your blessing from God is conditional upon you sticking with Him.  It says you cannot take the Lord’s blessing for granted.  Blessing comes with obedience.

The prophecy then continues to speak of a past time of apostasy that had continued until Israel had sought the Lord (v.3-5). It had been a troubling time for the Lord had brought corrective troubles to turn the people back to Himself (v.6) but now is a time for Asa to take courage: “But as for you, be strong and do not give up, for your work will be rewarded.” (v.7). It has effect: “When Asa heard these words and the prophecy of Azariah son of Oded the prophet, he took courage. He removed the detestable idols from the whole land of Judah and Benjamin and from the towns he had captured in the hills of Ephraim. He repaired the altar of the LORD that was in front of the portico of the LORD’s temple.” (v.8). What we find here is the Lord speaking to motivate this king to move out further in his reforms.

Isn’t this what prophecy is all about? Paul taught, “everyone who prophesies speaks to men for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort.” (1 Cor 14:3). Yes, sometimes there will be a corrective element in it, even a teaching element sometimes, but primarily it is to strengthen, encourage and comfort. The Lord knows that in this Fallen World so often we feel weak, so often we feel down and defeated, and so often we feel heartbroken, and thus He speaks to support, build and energise us.

See the effect on Asa.  He gathers the people together, which includes some of the Israelites from the north (v.9,10) and they sacrifice (v.11) and enter into a covenant together to seek the Lord (v.12) and this they did (v.15). Furthermore he dealt with idolatry within the royal family (v.16) and although he didn’t go up into Israel and purge that land (v.17) he was committed to God and restored the Temple (v.18).  This is how prophecy should work!  It should have the effect of bringing transformation and kingdom life.  This prophecy had been a strong encouraging word and it had effect – for a time.

Unfortunately time passed – 36 years (2 Chron 16:1) – and Asa forgot the importance of that initial word that had set him on a good path.  When Israel arose to threaten them he did not call on the Lord but on the king of Aram (2 Chron 16:2-).  Thus the Lord turned up again through another of His men and rebuked him for it (v.7-9) Asa took it badly (v.10) and so when he was afflicted with a foot disease he did not call on the Lord for help (v.12) and two years later he died.

The lesson is clear: the Lord loves us and will come with words of encouragement and we are to hold on to those – and keep on holding to them. Within them there is a basic principle – blessing comes from obedience. The other side of that same coin is that we are not to take the Lord for granted and drift from Him for the blessing remains only as long as He does, for it is a Fallen World and we need the Lord in everything we are and everything we do. When we move away from Him we become vulnerable to sin and Satan and the ways of the world. The call is to hold fast to the Lord.