8. God of Purpose: Environment

Getting to Know God Meditations:  8. God of Purpose: Environment

Psa 135:4   For the Lord has chosen Jacob to be his own, Israel to be his treasured possession.

Again?  In the previous study we noted that the two initial goals for God creating the nation of Israel were to reveal God to the world, AND to reveal the sinful nature, tendency or propensity, of human beings, through Israel’s inability to stay on track. To those two goals we added a bigger third goal, the ultimate goal that God has for mankind, not to condemn us but to save us from ourselves.

The Big Picture Alternatives: Post-modernists, we are told, don’t trust ‘big-picture’ solutions to world problems but that creates problems.  For example my atheist friend will say that all we can know about the world is found through science and science says the world came about through the big bang, followed by evolution. We are what we are today, he will say, because we have evolved to this. Now that I have to suggest is as much a ‘big-picture solution’ as any contrary biblical one. The primary big-picture alternative world view to that meaningless, ‘world by chance’ one is the one based upon biblical revelation which is all about divine purpose:

The Biblical Big-Picture Behavioral World View: It is remarkably simple:

  1. God created the designed world (whether by purposeful evolution or some other way, is irrelevant).
  2. The world He created was designed to work in particular ways (see below) that would benefit mankind, with whom He communicates.
  3. Being given free-will we chose to reject God’s design and so we cause self-harm and harm to others (I will explain that more fully later).
  4. From the outset God knew this would happen and so planned to win us back to himself by sending his Son to the earth to show the possibility of life with God and all that that could mean.

Sub-Goals: I am not going into the random nature of evolution or the ‘big bang’ for that matter, even though atheistic scientists try to put purpose into both, for this is not the place to point out the numerous faults within them (we may do that in a later study), but to lay out the far more reasonable and likely scenario to the open-minded, through the biblical record.

That third ultimate goal of saving us from ourselves, that we referred to before, is made up of three sub-goals:

  1. To create a ‘God environment’ into which His Son may come, i.e. Israel,
  2. To reveal Himself through His Son Jesus Christ, and
  3. To satisfy justice by the death of His Son.

The first of those three will form the content of this study, and the 2nd and 3rd in the following studies. We will need to insert a further one that briefly overviews the life and ministry of Jesus Christ to see how he ‘fits’ into all this. I believe there are things here that most people fail to understand about God and His purposes and His Son, Jesus.

Creating a Working Environment for Jesus: I suspect most of us take for granted, once we’ve heard the story or read it in the four Gospels, that Jesus Christ, the self-acclaimed Son of God, came into this world as a Jew, a citizen of the nation of Israel, some two thousand years ago when Israel were under the domination of the Roman empire. What we take for granted, as I say once we’ve read it, is the ‘God-culture’ of that land. Imagine Jesus being born into say France or somewhere in Africa. Where in history could we insert him into our affairs to give him a fighting chance of revealing himself to the world as the Son of God? Let me highlight the background of this nation into which he is born and suggest that this is why God worked so hard to establish Israel and keep them in existence:

– Israel have a history that we have been starting to examine, a history of encounter with God, and so the thought of God, and Him entering into the affairs of mankind, is not unusual to this people, they have a history full of it.

– within this history are ‘prophets’, men (mostly men but not exclusively) who claimed to hear from God and thus speak on His behalf. In the midst of their calls to the nation to return to God and put their lives right (for that was what they mostly did) there came an almost confusing plethora of prophecies about one who would come from God to deliver the nation (and the world?). There are said to be over three hundred of such references. They are a people who are expecting a ‘messiah’, a deliverer.

– their society, their culture is God-orientated unlike any other nation in the world. Locally there are rabbis, teachers of the scrolls of what we now call the Old Testament, who work out of local ‘synagogues’. – in the capital, Jerusalem, there is a great temple. The nation has a history of temples, first the one built by Solomon to replace the tabernacle, destroyed in BC587 by Nebuchadnezzar, and rebuilt seventy years later by the returning exiles, and extended by Herod shortly before Jesus was born. The temple was said to be the dwelling place of God in the midst of the nation.

– with the temple is the priesthood, created under the Law by Moses centuries before but still existing, whose role is to oversee the temple and its activities. The Chief Priest is almost certainly the most powerful man in the nation, even though overseen by Rome, and he and the priesthood administer the culture of the land – a God-culture.

– there are a number of groupings within the nation, some secular revolutionaries who want to free them from Rome, but a number with specifically religious outlooks, the main three being the Sadducees, (liberal in outlook who ruled the temple), Pharisees (orthodox conservative guardians of the Law) and the Essenes, a more revolutionary religious band.

– the culture is uniquely God-orientated, a society that taught their history with God and the requirements of the Law of Moses and how it should be applied to daily life.

Thus when Jesus, at the age of about thirty, stands up and starts his public ministry, he is speaking into a prepared people. In fact not only are they prepared by their history and cultural structure, they are prepared by a prophet who attracted large crowds, who we refer to simply as John the Baptist, who preached in the desert and baptized people to wash away their sins, proclaiming get ready for the messiah is about to come. It was into this doubly prepared people that Jesus came.  Because of the complexity of who he was, what he taught and what he did, we will make those things the subject of the next study.

7. God of Purpose: Introduction

Getting to Know God Meditations:  7. God of Purpose: Introduction   

Gen 12:2,3  “I will make you into a great nation,  and I will bless you; I will make your name great,  and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you,  and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth  will be blessed through you.”

Again?  We are sticking for the moment with references from that first book of the Bible, Genesis, and with the man, Abraham, who became known as the father of the nation of Israel. This is going to be the start, the introduction if you like, to this subject of the purposes that God has for the earth. Later we will go on and expand on this. When we understand the revealed purposes, we will understand something of God, and what we find may surprise some of us.

Abram is the first person in the Bible, the first historical figure, to enter into any form of long lasting relationship with God but, and here is the important issue, it is all initiated by God; this is a God-revealed thing that we are considering and what we are reading are words about God’s purposes, revealed to Abram. Look at the simplicity of what He says here to Abram: “I will make you into a great nation.” Why should that be? Why would God create a particular nation from this one man, why did Israel come into being? What was so important about them?

The Developing Revelation: A while after these opening words of chapter 12 of Genesis,  we find, in an ongoing conversation between Abram and God, the following: “God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations.”  (Gen 17:3) In the Bible you will find explanatory footnotes, indicating that Abram means ‘exalted father’ and Abraham means ‘father of many’. We have said previously Hebrew names frequently have a purposeful meaning. Along the way Abraham first had a son Ishmael via his servant maid when his wife did not appear able to conceive, and then later Isaac, miraculously by his wife long after child-bearing age. Ishmael became father of the Arab nations, Isaac father of Israel. But is that all this meant?

A while later God reiterated this: “Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him.”   (Gen 18:17,18) How could that be – and yet it is God’s purpose declared, to bless the whole earth somehow via this nation that would come into being.  We see this promise stated yet again in Gen 22:15-18, and then to Isaac in Gen 26:2-6, and then to Jacob in Gen 28:13,14.   Moving on, Moses was aware that God’s dealing with Israel would be heard by other nations – Ex 15:14-16, Num 14:13-17, Deut 2:24,25.

Deuteronomy is Moses’ talks to Israel before they enter the Promised Land and in it he reminds them what has happened to them and then gives them instructions how they are to live once they have entered into the Promised Land, Canaan: “See, I have taught you decrees and laws as the LORD my God commanded me, so that you may follow them in the land you are entering to take possession of it. Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.”  (Deut 4:5,6) He reiterates this in Deut 28:8-10.   When Joshua leads the nation he speaks to them similarly: “He did this so that all the peoples of the earth might know that the hand of the LORD is powerful and so that you might always fear the LORD your God.”  (Josh 4:24)  This awareness is seen in David and Solomon in subsequent years, it is their clear understanding of God’s purposes in respect of Israel.

Initial Goal: Let’s be quite clear what we have seen so far. It is clear that the first reason at least for the existence of Israel, and the way they are blessed by God, is to reveal something of God to the rest of the world. He constituted Israel as a nation and gave them ‘The Law’ which refers to the Ten Commandments plus a lot of other laws about how to live in peace and harmony as a nation.

Let’s make the note here that these laws were for them uniquely as an agrarian community but, even more importantly, a community that should be contrasted with the pagan communities surrounding it. This was not only by the fact they had a living relationship with God, but by the way they trusted Him and lived according to His guidelines and were blessed accordingly, and therefore some of the apparently really strange prohibitions that critics dig out, are against copying the cultic behaviour of those neighboring pagan nations.

An Early Fulfillment: The outworking of this ‘living according to His guidelines and being blessed accordingly’ is seen most amazingly in an incident in the reign of king Solomon.  The Queen of Sheba hears of all that is happening in Israel and so she comes on a state visit. Thus we see, “She said to the king, “The report I heard in my own country about your achievements and your wisdom is true. But I did not believe these things until I came and saw with my own eyes. Indeed, not even half was told me; in wisdom and wealth you have far exceeded the report I heard. How happy your people must be! How happy your officials, who continually stand before you and hear your wisdom! Praise be to the Lord your God, who has delighted in you and placed you on the throne of Israel. Because of the Lord’s eternal love for Israel, he has made you king to maintain justice and righteousness.” (1 Kings 10:6-9) What an incredible testimony. She is saying, I am amazed by all I see of your affluence and I can see that it is all what ‘The I AM God’ has done for you.

And Yet!  And yet, sadly, this is not typical and, in fact, this episode with the Queen of Sheba is almost unique occurrence (certainly in its impact on her). The tragedy is that so much of the time in the life of this nation – that became two nations – they turned away from God again and again and again and got into a mess. The book of Judges is the classic example of the record of this as we see a recurring cycle – Israel are at peace and are blessed by God, then they drift away from following Him and as a result they become vulnerable to enemy attacks from their neighbors, they get into severe difficulties, cry out to God, and He then sends them a deliverer, they return to peace and harmony, and so the cycle starts over again. It happens again and again. Years later, the prophet Isaiah would declare their failure: “We have not brought salvation to the earth, and the people of the world have not come to life.” (Isa 26:18)

A Second Goal? Now this isn’t stated but one cannot help wondering, from a human point of view, how this state of affairs could have carried on?  God has blessed this people, made them a strong nation, given them a wonderful fruitful land and done everything He could to establish them, and yet time and time again they mess up and turn away from Him and to idol worship and get into trouble. Why didn’t He just wipe them out and start with another nation? Well one of the things that the Bible teaches us is that God knows, He knows everything – He knows about everything and He knows what will come and how things will work out. So, we might ask, why did He create Israel if He knew they would mess up?

The obvious answer has to be so that we would have, under a microscope so to speak, an insight into human beings. It is not that Israel were uniquely bad or uniquely stupid – we all are! Israel only demonstrated what we are all like when we have the courage to be honest and face it.  The second goal, I may suggest therefore, is that God brought Israel into being to reveal to the world the sinful tendency of humanity in the world. Now that is the first time I have used that biblical word, ‘sin’ and so I had better explain it. Put most simply it means our propensity to be self-centred and godless which leads to wrong living, living contrary to God’s design for us (we’ll look at this more fully later).

Recap: OK, before we move on let’s just recap what I have suggested are the two initial goals for God creating the nation of Israel:

  1. To reveal Himself and His good intentions to the world,
  2. To reveal the sinful nature, tendency or propensity, of human beings.

Now these two goals lead on to an even bigger third goal, the ultimate goal that God has for mankind, not to condemn us but to save us from ourselves, but we will need more space for that so we’ll look some more at this in the next few studies. Stay with me as we continue to consider the God of Purpose!

10. Self Remedies

Meditations in Meaning & Values  10:  Self Remedies

Eccles 1:12-14     I, the Teacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem. I devoted myself to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under heaven. What a heavy burden God has laid on men! I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

We have embarked, we recently reminded ourselves, on a series where we are considering meaning, purpose and values in life, and therefore we have considered the nature of the world and the way we live in trying to come to grips with the world and make sense of it.  In 1943 a psychologist by the name of Abraham Maslow wrote a paper entitled, “A Theory of Human Motivation”. Out of this came his famous pyramid or hierarchy of needs. On the bottom of the pyramid was ‘physiological’ meaning our basic physical needs, our concern to satisfy hunger, thirst etc. Next came ‘safety’ or the need to feel secure. Then came the need to feel loved and to belong. Next came the need to feel esteemed and finally when all these others are in place, the need for what he called ‘self actualisation’ which is about reaching full potential, fully becoming the person you can be. Intriguingly in later years he added a further level and said the self only finds its actualization in giving itself to some higher goal outside oneself, in altruism and spirituality.

Observing Solomon in what he writes in Ecclesiastes, we see a man who, despite all his wisdom yearned to find true meaning in life, find his real purpose. Our verses today go back to chapter 1 where he acknowledges his hunger ‘to know’ and yet the frustration when he limits it to all that is “under the sun” and his conclusion that it is all meaningless. Maslow similarly says we all have a yearning and a drive, and these are to fulfil the needs we have within us. Let’s assume for a moment that he was right in his assessment, all we are saying is that this is how God has designed us, to be people who want to know, who want to understand. We have already noted before Solomon’s sense of frustration when he writes later, He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” (Eccles 3:11) The words “yet they cannot fathom” indicates a search that ends in frustration.

Indeed so far we have considered how men and women, like Solomon, seek fame, fortune and pleasure as means of obtaining a sense of achievement or of meaning or of fulfillment. We have this yearning like an inner hunger. Many of us simply subside under the difficulties and pressures of life and, I suspect, give up on working for these things. Poverty is possibly the greatest burden that makes people give up. They don’t have the luxury of climbing Maslow’s pyramid and are stuck trying to make ends meet and thus meet that most basic of needs, to survive. However, they may be more fortunate than the person of a relatively affluent middle class who struggles, like Solomon, to use their relative affluence to achieve fame, fortune and pleasure in the false hope that these will be the means to achieving meaning and fulfillment, and yet remain frustrated and reach old age with a sense of jaded cynicism abut life.

Many of us pursue these goals endlessly because we dare not give up and arrive at a conclusion of helplessness and hopelessness. This is the predicament of the world and dare I risk saying it, also the predicament of Christians who fail to learn and understand the wonder of what they have entered into when they were born again. Thus many of us try this and try that, steadily moving along the shelves containing all the different sorts of self-help books. It is quite fashionable to have a mentor, a life skills tutor, and yet as I have read their godless writings, within them is a pretense that they have got the answers and yet, as Solomon found out, all this self help is hopeless unless it includes God.

There is a famous Puritan catechism that runs, “Question 1  What is the chief end of man? Answer 1  Man’s chief end is to glorify God, (1Co 10:31) and to enjoy him for ever. (Ps 73:25,26)”. In some senses that over simplified it but later questions and answers unpacked that. Consider again Maslow’s needs and let’s see how the Gospel meets those needs:

  1. To survive physically: When we hear and understand the Gospel we realise that God has come to impart life (which affects our very physical being and for which He promises He will provide).
  1. To feel secure: He makes us secure by dealing with our Sin and putting us right with God who promises to care for us and protect us.
  1. To feel loved and belong: We hear He is love and through the work of Jesus we see His love for us, and He imparts His Spirit of love to us. He calls us sons and daughters, children of God, we are part of His family, we belong.
  1. To be esteemed: We realise we have been lifted up to sit with Christ in the heavenly places, to share in all he has, we are special, we are esteemed (look how the father in the parable of the prodigal son treated his returning son.)
  1. To become what you are designed to be: When we come to Christ, it is just the start; we enter a life of change where, stage by stage, we become more like Christ, more the people we were designed to be, and that includes receiving gifting to grow and to serve.
  1. To give outwards and experience a spiritual dimension: Yes, even that last add-on is worked out as we allow the Holy Spirit to inspire and lead us in serving Him and blessing His world.

Yes, without the Gospel, we are condemned to a life of frustration, just like Solomon. Just like him we will embark on one thing after another in our self help crusade only to find frustration. With Christ we will be fully fulfilled and at rest. Hallelujah!

22. Wrong Methods

Meditations in Colossians 2: 22:  Wrong Methods

Col 2:23    Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence

As we come to the end of the second chapter Paul drives his final nails into the coffin of human spirituality or human salvation, that brought about by our own endeavours. Again to catch the full flow of the logic of what is being said we need to go back to the previous verses. Earlier he denounced following rules: Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”?” (v.20,21) and he had gone on to say that such rules were doomed to disappear: “These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings.” (v.22). It was these ‘rules’ that were “based on human commands” that he now refers to when he says, “such regulations”.

There is a temptation, I suspect, in many to feel these are words of warning against Gnostic malpractices and which therefore have little relevance to life today. I don’t think such a view could be more wrong. We live in a world where excessive provision of material blessing – especially in the West where choice of food is amazing – has actually caused much concern for health and wellbeing which in turn has resulted in an abundance of approaches towards dieting and other fitness regimes. A considerable number of people are concerned about their weight or their shape and perhaps greater numbers are concerned at following self-help manuals or the guidance of mentors or trainers to keep their lives in shape generally.

At the time of writing this meditation (mid 2015)  the trend towards pleasure through materialism is showing signs of collapse, as increasingly in the media there is a recognition that pleasure or satisfaction gained through collecting or owning ‘things’ is short lived. The signs are that people are moving away to seek meaning or pleasure or excitement through ‘experiences’ whether it be sky diving, going on cruises, taking drugs  or a multitude of other experience-creating activities.  So here we have these two streams – self-help and looking for ‘experiences’ – which although very much being twenty-first century manifestations of misguided mankind’s search for meaning and purpose, very much echo the lives and experiences of those following the Gnostic trail in the first century.

So let’s look again at our verse above. All of these approaches of following rules – or someone else’s self-discipline regime – “indeed have an appearance of wisdom.” How eagerly people scan these things today in the weekend papers. The eastern outlook on ‘mindfulness’ has become one of the more recent fads to sweep the Western world taking in both believers and non-believers, for both individual and corporate business  development. Each new thing creates an interest because past things have failed and just maybe this latest thing will provide the wisdom we need.

Note again the things Paul identifies in the Gnostic way that is also common today. First he speaks of “their self-imposed worship.”  Worship is simply highly esteeming something over everything else and when he says it is ‘self imposed’ he means it is brought about by the false teachers and does not flow naturally out of a genuine encounter with God.  If we ascribe to any regime, method or discipline honour that exalts it as ‘the answer’, we are in deception, for nothing and no one is worthy of our worship except God Himself.

Second he speaks of “their false humility,” which simply speaks of their appearance – they look good. You watch these people and initially their regime gives them a buzz and for a while they look good; it seems to work. Look again in two years and you will probably find them trying something else. The present is a false appearance.

Then third, he speaks of “their harsh treatment of the body,” and how people today are subject to fitness regimes which are really hard work. Yes, the motivation of the Gnostics was to do with thinking that the material or physical was bad, whereas today the workout is to improve personal health and appearance, but ultimately both have false foundations.

Paul concludes with a damning condemnation: “but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.”  For the Gnostics they beat themselves up because material things were evil, but actually their assessment was false and they often soon gave way to falling back to sensual pleasures. How often today does the person who struggles for months on a really harsh diet eventually give way and fall back into bad eating habits. The thing is that without the proper motivation, all these things are doomed to failure.

We so often hear of people “comfort eating”, meaning they eat to make themselves good because they have such poor self-esteem. When you really come to know you are loved by God and have a place in His plans for the world, you no longer need to use food (or even a fitness regime) to feel good. You feel good because you are loved and you know it! All of these things we have been considering can be summarized as self-help, and people do them because they do not go to the true source of all real help – Christ.

All of the things Paul has been speaking about in the later half of this chapter are substitutes for a genuine relationship with the living God through His Son, Jesus Christ. Observing special days, following rituals, trying to follow self-disciplinary rules, all of these things are substitutes that DO NOT WORK. That is the lesson of this chapter. Make Christ THE focus of your life, enter into a real relationship with him via his Holy Spirit, and you will know a sense of meaning, purpose and fulfillment. May it be so!

7. It’s all from God

Meditating on the Gems of the Bible:  7. It’s all from God

Gen 1:1   In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth

We live in an age where the voice of the authority of the church has diminished and the voice of atheistic scientists and atheistic media people prevail. We need to recognise that as we approach this incredibly simple verse right at the beginning of the Bible, a gem that must stand out in the darkness and scream volumes of truth at us. The verse above is neither scientific nor non-scientific. It simply states a basic truth. The people I have referred to above will do everything in their godless, self-centred attitudes to explain the world without God. In fact some of them have been blatant about that and said whatever else we might believe we cannot believe in a God. At least that is honest and out in the open but in itself it is a denial of the scientific approach that says we must be open to whatever we find in our researches.   But people say these sorts of things because they know that if they recognise a superior Being then surely that Being will have the right or authority (by being superior) to be able to say how we should live – and people don’t like being told how to live! So this meditation is not for silly people who deny their own scientific presuppositions, it is for people who might be open to consider all the possibilities.

Now from the outset let’s acknowledge that this verse doesn’t say how God created, simply that He did. I would love to believe that He started everything off down an evolutionary path except evolutionists insist that it is a mechanical process where survival of the fittest rules. If that is so then it is pure blind chance that we have ended up in the way we have; we could have gone off on a myriad of alternative paths, but the trouble is that that leaves us a creatures of pure chance and words like meaning, purpose and beauty have no meaning in such a context, yet everything within us screams out that they do. We deny we are meaningless results of random chance.

The whole evolutionary idea worries me. When you sit down and think dispassionately about the very workings of survival of the fittest it demands incredible leaps of faith. And no one has yet to give me and adequate explanation of how sexual reproduction developed where two very early ‘things’ in the evolutionary chain remained the same but took on exactly opposite features that, when developed, would come together to produce the next generation.

Another of the massive leaps of faith has to be in respect of carbon dating. Here we stand at a tiny piece of time and assume that decay is uniform over millions of years. Think about it in detail and it starts taking on an Alice in Wonderland feel, because we don’t have a clue what might have happened a million years ago that makes it all needing to be rethought. It is another of those assumptions that we have to make in the face of much unknown and because it is unknown we don’t even know that it is unknown!

And then the further we go back the nearer we get to the great impossibility. Here we have, in present thinking at least – and it may change, the belief in the Big Bang and I am neither denying not challenging it. Maths, they say, can take us back to a millisecond after it happened, but before that we are still left with a conundrum. Francis Schaeffer used to point out the folly of this. He said imagine nothing, not a vacuum but, as he put it, “nothing nothing”. It is very difficult for our finite minds to even grasp that concept of there being ‘nothing’ for usually we think of space and lots of it. But space isn’t nothing; at the very least it has light pouring through it.

Take away the myriads of stars, the myriads of constellations, take away everything we can comprehend and imagine nothing – really nothing, there is nothing there, absolutely nothing. This is important to grasp. One primary thing that science tells us is that for there to be movement of any kind there has to be some originating force, energy, call it what you will – but it is not ‘nothing’ ‘Nothing’ can produce nothing. It’s the very logic of our language, our thinking, our understanding. Nothing comes from absolutely nothing. Don’t talk about atoms and molecules or even smaller units because you are still talking about matter, you are still talking about ‘something’. Our minds can’t grasp the meaning of the absence of ‘something’ and yet we talk so easily about this big bang as if it will eventually explain what was before it but we cannot grasp the concept of absolutely nothing, and then absolutely nothing changing to become ‘something’.

And then we come to Genesis 1:1 and are confronted with the concept of God at which point some not-so-wise smart-alec asks, “So who made God?”  Look we just agreed that we cannot grasp the concept of absolutely ‘nothing’ so why be surprised that we cannot grasp God and His origins – or not-origins! The best I can manage when I struggle to ‘define’ God in terms to try to satisfy my materialistic scientific friends is that God is “energy with personality” and yes, I know that raises just as many questions but that is as far as I suspect any of us can go. God is Spirit, the Bible says, but I’m not sure what that means. I believe it but don’t ask to me to define it beyond what I have just said.

If science has to make so many assumptions and ends up scratching its head when it comes to the ‘nothing into something’ part, why is it so difficult to belief there is a God who is defined by His acts as revealed in the Bible and at the end of the day (to use a more inappropriate cliché) simply accept that ‘He’ is all powerful and the One behind all that we call creation? Answer: because the moment you do you will have to worship Him, and that faces us up with a challenge that is more about us than it is about Him!

1.6 God’s Will and Purpose

Meditating on the Judgments of God: 1.6  God’s Will & Purpose

Rom 12:2  Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will.

We’ve just noted in the previous meditation that God rules on a throne in heaven and a ruler rules with a purpose always. He establishes laws and seeks to maintain order in his kingdom. Now I’m told that painters using water colours lay a background ‘wash’ on the paper, let it dry and then start the painting proper with all its details on top of the wash. As we approach the whole subject of God’s judgments there is a background factor which is easy to forget but which should be held in mind at all times, and that is that God has a will, a purpose, i.e. God has desires, wishes, plans, purposes for His world, things He wants to happen. These are the things that form the basis of His rule from His throne in heaven.

Now we have already considered some of the characteristics or attributes of God – love, goodness, wisdom, perfection etc – and His will is simply an expression of all these, and having just considered the fact that God rules on a throne from heaven, we noted that He works to bring righteousness and justice, although previously we didn’t have time to think much on them.

So God works to bring righteousness on the earth. What actually is that?  If it is His will to bring about righteousness on the earth we ought to understand what that means. Let’s give a very simple definition:

  • righteousness is behaviour that conforms to the way God has designed us to live.

 When He created the world we read it was “very good” (Gen 1:31) – including us.  He made us to live in harmony with Him and in harmony with each other and with His world.  Now any behaviour that is contrary to that is unrighteousness.

Now of course we live after the Fall and so God’s will and God’s activities are given over to seeking to restore us to the place we were in before the Fall. Of course He starts by having to work with sinners, those who have fallen, and even after He has saved us we will still be battling against that old life.  God’s way of redeeming us, or buying us back from that old sinful, unrighteous life, was to send Jesus to die for us to pay the penalty for every sin we’ve ever thought, said or done, and then when we repented and received that work for us personally, He put His Holy Spirit within us and we were born again – washed, cleansed, forgiven, adopted and empowered to live the new life.

Once that has happened His intent is to help and encourage us to live out that life, a life living in harmony with Him, with other people and with His world, i.e. to live righteously because we have been restored to the position of righteousness. Thus when you read in the Bible references to ‘the righteous’, that is us Christians.

Now it may be that you are thinking, ‘Hold on, what does all this to do with God’s judgment?’ Well perhaps there are two answers to that. First, when we are thinking of God’s activities, and especially when we are focusing on this subject, we can become judgment-focused and that is all we see – an angry God who deals with the sin of the world by bringing judgments – but that is only part of the picture. The ‘wash’ in the background on which all else is painted, is God’s will which is to bless and restore whoever will come.

God’s word through Jeremiah, although first meant for another context, is applicable here: For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” (Jer 29:11-13)  That does sum up God’s will for each one of us – to prosper us and give us hope and a future. That hope and future is about living righteous lives, lives lived in accord with God’s perfect design for us.

But there is a second answer to that question about blessings being spoken of in the same sentence as judgment, so to speak. In that previous study on the throne of God there were two words that go together that we noted above: righteousness and justice.

  • Righteousness is for those who will respond to God and repent and turn to Him to receive all of His goodness.
  • Justice is for those who refuse to heed Him and turn back,

and that’s where judgment so often comes in. It is a necessary part of bringing justice.

We need to reiterate what we said in that previous study to ensure we take it in. In His role as Judge we may suggest that:

  • 1) He assesses all that happens and determines whether it was righteous or unrighteous (i.e. conforming to His original design, or not!),
  • 2) He decrees what should happen in respect of those events, and specifically in respect of the people involved, and
  • 3) He then acts in accordance with that decree, and this we see as the act of judgment that appears in the records of Scripture.

When He assesses, decrees and acts in judgment, it is to

  • bring justice in respect of the offender and
  • also for the rest of the world.

In other words, justice brings right order and outcome to the offender and everyone else. As we will see as we progress through these studies, acts of judgment come with a variety of reasons or anticipated outcomes:

  • to stop wrong behaviour in an individual,
  • to punish an individual,
  • to correct the individual, and
  • to act as a warning and teaching to all onlookers.

When justice has been done, we can say, ‘The right thing has been done!’, it was just and fair and right. That is justice and it helps bring righteousness to God’s world.

But remember, the focus is not on the hard aspects of the judgment, but on God’s blessing of His world. We may not have seen this before, but judgment also is blessing. The removal of a terror or threat of evil by the judgment, blesses the world by leaving it free from the effects of that terror or evil. It stops and removes that terror or evil and leaves the world open to be blessed by all of God’s goodness. Evil prevents God’s goodness flowing and so sometimes it has to be removed so that His goodness can be received. That we will see in future studies.

18. Things Beyond Choice

Meditating on the Will of God: 18:  Things Beyond Choice?

Phil 2:12,13    “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

In an earlier meditation we wrote, “Of course there are some things we can choose and others that are beyond our choice and we will examine this in the days to come, as well.”  Our ability to choose is closely tied to the subject of God’s will because, as we have noted a number of times, there is every appearance in both scripture and life that we have free will and the ability to choose which path to take, God’s will or not!

As an aside, let’s just consider that yet again because it is so important. There are different levels of choice. There is the simple, ordinary choosing between things or people – who to invite to a party today – “Now then, choose twelve men from the tribes of Israel, one from each tribe.” (Josh 3:12). No big issue there. But then there is choosing moral or spiritual paths and they may have deep and lasting consequences, for example,  “Now fear the LORD and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your forefathers worshiped beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.” (Josh 24:14,15) That was a matter of serious choice with serious consequences.

Now, to reiterate the point we have made a number of times before, unless these verses are pure gobbledygook, then they have to speak of real abilities to freely choose between different options and those options bring different consequences, and the Bible is full of such instances – of choices and consequences.

But what are the things that influence the way we make our choices? Are we always free to make whatever choices we like. Obviously there are restrictions. A five year old cannot go to university. Most of us cannot jump the heights of great athletes or run as fast. We cannot play wonderful music like great musicians or sing like opera singers because we are limited physically, we are the people we are. Yes, there are very obvious things that limit us as human beings. We cannot be in two places at once.  We cannot read people’s minds (well most of us can’t). Some of us are not good at maths, others are poor with languages. We have limited financial resources and so money limits what we can do sometimes. There are, in fact so many things that limit us.

So what ARE the main things that influence us. Well genetic makeup appears to have a strong influence on us but contrary to opinion often espoused in the media when a new gene is found, we are NOT bound by the things we’ve inherited from our parents. We ARE strongly disposed to act in certain manners like them but we do not have to be bound by those things; we can choose not to be.

Some things children learn from their parents such as manipulative anger, but this has taken us into the ‘nurture’ part of the ‘nature versus nurture’ discussion and without doubt many of us make choices on the basis of what we have learned as our parents have brought us up.

And then we became Christians and found that God has designed life in a certain way whereby we work best as human beings. We might not have seen it like that initially, just that we had a Bible full of “do this” and “don’t do that” things and we slowly began to realise that there was a way of life that was different from  the way we had lived it so far – and this was the will of God, what He wanted for us.

And from the moment we realised that, we had a new set of choices to make, but they really all come under the umbrella of ‘surrender to God’. If we truly surrendered our lives to God when we came to Christ, then every else is easy – or relatively easy. The first decision has been made – to go God’s way. From then on Paul’s injunction to “work out your salvation”  was about learning what God’s will was for every aspect of life and then living it.

But that is where we realise it was not so easy. We had existing relationships and we need God’s wisdom to know how to handle them in the light of His will.  We find we have prevailing attitudes and habits, things we have learned, accepted and developed over the years and, to our horror, guilt and shame, we find they are contrary to God’s will and we struggle to overcome them.  It is at that point we find the apostle Paul’s instructions to “put them to death” relevant. At that point his teaching about being alive to God becomes relevant. We need the help and power of His Holy Spirit to change, to come in line with His will.

It IS a given in the Christian life that we are to conform to HIS will and that means often overriding our will. I would like to get back at an enemy, but Jesus says pray for them and love them, and there are many such instances of our wills clashing with His. Transformation, or sanctification, is all about our lives changing to conform to His will and as we enter into that process so we face up to the things we have inherited, or the things we have learned along the way and we have to challenge them to see if they fit with His will, and if they don’t then they will have to go. For, as we have seen previously, His will is good and pleasant and perfect and that is why He wants us to conform to it, so that we may be blessed by Him.

40. Greatest Assurance

Meditations in Romans : 40:  Greatest Assurance

Rom 8:28   And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

I always believe that this verse has got to be one of THE most assuring verses of the New Testament. First of all, let’s note that it flows on in Paul’s mind from all that he has been saying and hence it starts with a link word, “And”.  The flow of Paul’s argument goes right back to when he was speaking about us being sons of God (v.14) and therefore heirs (v.17) as long as we take the sufferings as well as the glory (v.17). Having mentioned suffering he contrasted it with the wonder of what is coming (v.18), noting that the world is groaning and waiting for us to be revealed as God’s sons (v.19-22). We too groan inwardly as we wait for the time when we will be changed in heaven (v.23). In the same as we groan inwardly so the Spirit does when we don’t know how to pray. The picture is of a world and a life that is waiting incomplete, a world that is often uncertain that leaves us wondering what God’s will is. THIS is the context for our present verse.

Against the uncertainty of this Fallen World, Paul now balances it with a wonderful assurance for believers, that whatever is going on (which we may not understand!), God will be working for our good. Let’s note this verse bit by bit because it is so amazing. We note first it is about God working and we note that He is working “in all things”. There is nothing in your life or mine where God is not active. God is never passive. Jesus said, My Father is always at his work.” (Jn 5:17). We may not discern His activities and we may not catch His voice but He is always moving and acting on our behalf.

And it is always for our good! There may be various elements working in our lives. Things happen because of what we say or do. Things happen because Satan or someone that he uses intervenes. Things happen because God intervenes. Our motives may be selfish, Satan’s intentions may be harmful, but God’s intentions are always for our good: “God works for the good.”  God always works to bring good, not bad – because He IS love (1 Jn 4:8,16). The Bible shows that God weaves His actions into the actions of humanity, sometimes even using Satan, to bring good.  Sometimes, as we’ve just noted, as we’ve noted WHO may be involved in our lives, things start out badly as self, sin or Satan are at work, but despite that, God in His wisdom will be working into the situation to somehow bring good to us, His children.

Yes, the target of God’s loving goodness, in this context at least, are “those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” Now don’t sink into some subjective wonderings about, “Do I really love Him?”  Love isn’t just a nice warm, fuzzy feeling, it’s commitment. When you came to Christ you committed yourself to Him and, perhaps, initially you had feelings of gratefulness but you might not have identified that as love. But the fact that you are a Christian means you love God. The other side of the coin is that you are what you are because God called you with a purpose. You eventually surrendered and were born again because the Holy Spirit was working to convict you, but He was calling you to God, to come to a place when you knelt before God and surrendered your life to Him. His purpose? It was to save you, redeem you, change you, forgive you, cleanse you, and then take you on in a lifetime adventure of change as a son of God!

Now there is about to follow a most amazing overview of the process of God and we mustn’t rush it and therefore we will leave it to the next meditation. In the meantime if you are someone who sometimes worries about what is going on in your life, remember that your loving heavenly Father is working there in the background of your circumstances to bring good to you, either through the circumstances or despite the circumstances. And God never fails!  Let that truth sink in. Amen? Amen!

37. Like Animals

Meditations in Ecclesiastes : 37 :  Like Animals

Eccles 3:18,19 I also thought, “As for men, God tests them so that they may see that they are like the animals. Man’s fate is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; man has no advantage over the animal. Everything is meaningless.

When you lose contact with God, you lose contact with reality and when you lose contact with reality it means you lose contact with the truth. You may still retain partial truth, but away from God you are prey to negative thoughts, half truths and utter deception. Three dangerous little words: “I also thought.” How different from the strong words of the prophets who were able to say, “God said…. and God showed me….” It is a sad thing to watch an elderly person lose their grip on reality. Solomon was never a prophet but he was known to be the wisest man in the world – while he stuck with God, but once the deception of idolatry entered the royal palace it was a downward slope, and he’s left thinking his own thoughts, not God’s thoughts!

We have to be careful here for indeed all Scripture is inspired (see 2 Tim 3:16) but sometimes that means God inspired or nudged the writer to write, not that what they wrote was absolute truth. We see this in the arguing of Job; some of it is distinctly off the rails – but it is still useful to teach us! What Solomon says in these verses is basically true, but the sense of it is negative and it is only half truth. Let’s explain.

As for men, God tests them so that they may see that they are like the animals. In ONE sense this is true. In many others it is false. It is the one sense that Solomon is focusing upon. So what is he saying? He is saying that when pride takes a turn and we think we are so great, we need to see that we are just on the same level as all animals. Why? Man’s fate is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; man has no advantage over the animal. There is it; we are on the same level as the animals in that both we and they are all going to die. That is a common feature of every living creature.

See how he continues: “All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. Who knows if the spirit of man rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?” (v.20,21) There he moves in the same thinking – we’re all going to die and what is worse, we don’t know what is going to happen then, so like the animals we don’t know our eternal future.  Well of course this was Solomon speaking without the revelation that we now have in the New Testament. Don’t join in Solomon’s ‘Doubt Club’ for that is not where we are today. The New Testament is quite clear that when we receive the Lord Jesus Christ into our life we receive eternal life and that means a life that goes on after death, a life in heaven with God.

But look at the negativity that Solomon is left with: “So I saw that there is nothing better for a man than to enjoy his work, because that is his lot. For who can bring him to see what will happen after him?” (v.22)  Just try and get some enjoyment out of your work today because you don’t know what will happen when you leave this earth. That indeed is what many people are left with – godless people, unbelievers. Try to get the most out your work; that all you can hope for. Well fortunately there is much more we can hope for.

In the beginning we are told that God made us in his own image (see Gen 1:26.27). Now what does that mean? What characteristics or abilities do we see in us that makes us anything like God and which differentiates us from the animals?  We have the abilities to communicate, think, reason, invent, create, write, work, order, purpose and plan. Put another way, He has given us self-consciousness, imagination and conscience, and ability to grow and develop. Go back over these things and catch the wonder of who He has made us to be.  So this doesn’t just leave us with mundane work; this opens up a panorama of possibilities of doing things for pleasure and to please others that means far more than struggling for survival.

We are fortunate to live in a part of history where these things are beginning to come to fullness and we have opportunities to do far more than only work. Meaning in life comes with a sense of fulfilment as we allow God to lead us to become the people He’s designed us to be. Yet there does need to be a warning. We can do all these creative things and yet still not find meaning for that only comes when we are in harmony with God. That IS how He’s designed us to work best and anything less than that means we struggle for meaning just as Solomon did in his latter days. Let’s ensure we avoid the ‘aged-Solomon syndrome’!

1. Meaninglessness!

Meditations in Ecclesiastes : 1 :  Meaninglessness

Eccles 1:2 Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.

Many people find Ecclesiastes dry and boring. I find it exciting. It reveals to us a fundamental truth, that without God, life is seriously tedious if not depressing. Ecclesiastes comes from that latter part of Solomon’s life when he had been drawn away from God because he took many foreign wives and gave way to their demands to have their foreign idol worship in the palace. Gradually he drifted away from God and into their confused and deceived lives. Here he paints an amazing picture of godless life, life seen from a purely human or earthly perspective, life that should speak volumes into modern Western society.

The last two hundred years have seen the rise of a number of atheists who have made their voice heard and who have pressed their beliefs that there is no God. In a number of cases these were men whose lives became emptier and emptier. One of these key people was German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). He was described as a most introspective person and so effective was his thinking on himself that he spent the last eleven years of his life insane.

True thinkers who start from the place of the atheist, that there is no God, must always come up with the conclusion that life is meaningless. One modern philosopher, Peter Atkins wrote: “We are children of chaos, and the deep structure of change is decay. At root, there is only corruption, and the unstemmable tide of chaos. Gone is purpose; all that is left is direction. This is the bleakness we have to accept as we peer deeply and dispassionately into the heart of the Universe.” The truth is that when you take away God there is no personality in Creation and therefore all we are left with is pure blind chance, and those words are summed up in the one word, ‘meaningless’!

The truth is that Solomon, in his old age, had abandoned God and so looks at the world as simply an incredible bank of data that makes no sense. Here is an important point to note: people don’t look at the evidence and move away from believing in God to a place of atheism; they start out from the place of atheism and then assess everything from that standpoint. Solomon didn’t reason his way to an atheistic position, he slid into it to please his wives. Once he was in that position he found all of his thinking was changed and this book is the result. When you find yourself with atheistic friends, ask them why they are, challenge them why they are. If they are able to be honest, they are atheists because that’s an emotional stance they took for convenience and not because they have examined with an open mind all the evidence. Those who do examine the evidence with an open mind become believers. The tragedy is that most atheists refuse to examine the evidence. They have adopted a stance and that’s it!

This is what we find with Solomon and when he views all he has seen and done from his position of immense privilege and wealth, views it from a godless perspective, his conclusion is that he can find no meaning or purpose behind it all. The Hebrew for the word we have here as ‘meaningless’ was originally ‘breath’. Perhaps another way of putting this therefore, might be, “Breathless, breathless, life is breathless” or to expand on that, “Lifeless, lifeless, there is no driving life force to give life meaning.” You find this word in Psa 39:5 You have made my days a mere handbreadth; the span of my years is as nothing before you. Each man’s life is but a breath.” There the sense is similar. Life is but a breath, and so fleeting that it is meaningless. Yet the psalmist went on, But now, Lord, what do I look for? My hope is in you.” (v.7). Life on its own is meaningless and it is only the Lord who puts meaning into it.

Christian leaders of the past obviously wrestled with this. In the Westminster Catechism we find: Question 1: What is the chief and highest end of man?  Answer: Man’s chief and highest end is to glorify God, and fully to enjoy him forever.  Did you see what their conclusion for the meaning of life? It is to glorify God and enjoy Him. Everything, in other words, comes out of knowing God and responding to Him. Paul said, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” In other words, as God raised Christ from the dead, so he raises us from spiritual death and gives us life. Meaning is suddenly given to us because God gives us a new life and from then on everything about our lives is seen in relation to Him. When I see everything in my life as before Him, my life takes on new meaning and significance.

The question for us in the light of all this is, do I see that I have meaning and purpose in my life and that is it discovering and doing the will of God?  Do I see that God Himself is the one who brings meaning to my life? My life today is living out this life, responding to His guidance and direction and empowering. As I do that I have a sense of well-being and fulfillment. Suddenly life is full of meaning and I am significant because my significance comes in the plan of God. Hallelujah!