49. Restatement

PART SEVEN: In Defense of the Faith

Reaching into Redemption Meditations: 49. Restatement

Ex 15:13 In your unfailing love you will lead the people you have redeemed. In your strength you will guide them to your holy dwelling.

Questions: Forty-eight studies so far on ‘redemption’.  Is it that important? Is it that significant? Have I wasted the last month and a half writing about something that is just a mere spiritual principle confined to the pages of an outdated book of myths, only believed by a bunch of people living in the dark ages of superstition? Is it just something for theologians living in their ivory towers of irrelevant academia that is high and lofty and divorced from the reality of us ordinary people living out our real lives in this ultra-sophisticated, this hyper-technological world of wonder and provision? Really, what is redemption all about?

The Fundamental Answer: The verse above comes from a song sung by Israel after they have been delivered out of Egypt and out of Pharaoh’s hands. It had been an amazing time and so now they write and sing this song of triumph, summed up in the verse above – God has redeemed us, God has delivered us, and God has got a place for us to get to. And that is what the heart of ‘redemption’ is all about; it is about the reality of having been in a bad place and God intervening to bring us out of that bad place and take us to a new good place.  And that new good place is here and now, AND it is also about tomorrow, an eternal future with Him.

The Significance of the Answer: Hopefully as we have worked our way through this long series, you will have seen the reality of this, how God works in our individual lives to keep us on track for eternity with Him.  In the ‘big picture’ nothing is more important than this. Without it we have no present purpose (than to survive) and no hope for the future (death equals a meaningless end, so why bother to do meaningful things, caring things, heroic things even?) This is the reality here, that all you and I as Christians are experiencing is part of the ongoing process of God to put a real meaning into the present and generate a hope for the eternal future. That hope for the eternal future helps bolster up and support the meaning of the present; we are working towards a very real something.

Our Part in it: Now everything in that immediate paragraph above, is really all about God, His working to deliver us, His working to keep us, and His working into eternity. But the other very significant side of the coin, is that His outcomes in us do depend on our responses. Yes, the person who is indifferent, the person who rejects God’s will, the person who is just self-focused, will not be experiencing the present as a wonder from God, it will not hold gems of glory as heaven breaks in to the mundane, it will not come alive with purpose, meaning and power from above.

The whole deliverance out of the past is dependent on our responding to the convicting work of the Holy Spirit, so that we bow in repentance and submission to the Lord for Him to completely redirect and empower our lives. And once that initial deliverance has taken place, our progress, our growth, will be determined in measure by how we respond to His ongoing leading and guidance. How many are born again and then almost come to a standstill or crawl at snail’s pace through life, knowing little of the wonder of His presence, His power, His purposes being revealed and entered into? It is only as we sense this, or learn this, that we can fully enter into it – and even then, it will never be a perfect involvement on our part – and experience the wonder of the ongoing work of God in our lives. That is what this has been all about.

The mechanics of redemption: The nuts and bolts of this thing start, we said, with our recognition and acceptance of our guilt and failure; that is not to make us feel bad but to enable us to open our hearts to Him for Him to do His work of cleansing and forgiveness in us, and then impart His Holy Spirit into our lives. That, we have seen again and again in the earlier studies. But that was only the start. Then there is the process of getting the old world out of us and releasing faith in us to live in the wonder of the kingdom of God, here and now, even before we enter into the wonder of life with Him in eternity.

The process involves God intervening in our lives to bring correction and fresh direction and fresh enabling – we call that discipline.  The process also involves facing the new challenges that come along as life changes, as societies and cultures change, and as we learn to face the truth of the word of God and measure these life changes against it. We have sought to do that in small measure with limited considerations of the transgender issues that are rising in the world today, in the changes in modern family structures and the breakdown of traditional relationships and the ensuing frailty, weaknesses and pains of the modern alternatives that twenty-first century western man is struggling with.

The Challenges to Belief: Whenever there have been major cultural changes, they always bring a challenge to the Church, a challenge to understand our faith in the light of such changes. ‘Future Shock’ was a book written in 1970, I believe it was, by futurologist Alvin Toffler, possibly the first of a genre that has become common today, that seek to identify the changes going on around us and then seek to predict where they will take us. Essentially, ‘future shock’ was the struggle to cope with the future arriving now. Since that time, now approaching fifty years ago (!!!), changes in technology and outlook and lifestyles, in the West at least, have continued to multiply exponentially.

The result is that, not only has the world changed dramatically in the past fifty years, struggling to cope with the ongoing changes all the time, actually undermine our sense of reality. In some quarters ‘truth’ and ‘reality’ are said to be illusions. With this sort of thinking, my questions at the beginning are truly pertinent – are we talking about ‘a mere spiritual principle confined to the pages of an outdated book of myths, only believed by a bunch of people living in the dark ages of superstition? Is it just something for theologians living in their ivory towers of irrelevant academia that is high and lofty and divorced from the reality of us ordinary people living out our real lives in this ultra-sophisticated, this hyper-technological world of wonder and provision?’

Drowning: As I have prayed and thought about this, I believe modern man – including Christians – are drowning in these changes. That is the picture I want to hold on to in the next few studies. These changes challenge you and me and threaten to undermine our faith, our well-established and well-founded beliefs, not on any logical grounds but more like a fog that comes down and envelops us and makes us lose sight of reality. So, I realise I have just used two analogies, but I believe they do convey a little of what is going on in this fast-changing world in which we all live.

But the thing about this drowning analogy, is that it pictures a person floundering in an environment – water – and not coping. The thing about water is that you can learn to swim in it, surf on it or sail on it, and all are pleasurable things.  I believe that many of these changes (not all as we will go on to see) are potentially good, but we have to learn to use them wisely, and see them in the light of the reality that this series has been emphasizing. There is no conflict between this series or these changes – except where we allow confusion to overwhelm and drown us.

Drowning means death and death in this context means the loss of reality, the loss of meaning, and the loss of a spiritual dimension which is essential to understand and fully experience reality. That is what is at stake here. So, I thought this present study was drawing near to the end, but we have some more to go, as we seek to put all this in the context, even more than we have been doing, of this modern constantly changing world. Stay with me. Keep the words of the song before you: “In your unfailing love you will lead the people you have redeemed. In your strength you will guide them to your holy dwelling.”  That ‘holy dwelling’ is not a physical building, but a life with the living God, both now and in eternity.

30. Redeemed To (3)

Reaching into Redemption Meditations: 30. Redeemed To (3)

Eph 2:6,7    God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.

Recap Again: We are looking at the verses in Eph 2 that follow on from those where Paul describes our ‘old life’ and we said that from verse 4 he balances out those things with the things God had made us to be and is making us to be: alive to Him (v.5), joined with Christ (v.6), recipients of His incredible blessings (v.7). In the previous two studies we considered something of what it means to be ‘alive’ spiritually, and what it means to be joined with Christ, seated with him in the heavenly realms.  We move on now to the third aspect.

Incomparable:  The idea of ‘the riches of his grace’ sounds manageable until we note the word ‘incomparable’ which simply means cannot be compared to anything else, unmatched, unique, unparalleled, i.e. there is NOTHING else like it! Whatever this means it is mind blowing and because it is that enormous, that incredible, it is probably challenged by our intellect that says, ‘Surely that can’t be!” And of course you know who from Gen 3 is there in the background encouraging us to think like that. Our great danger as Christians, is that we get caught up in family life, caught up in our work, caught up in the bizarre goings-on of the world today, and we lose perspective, we forget who we are, who God is and what he has done for us, and so we live mundane lives of struggle instead of gloriously equipped lives of blessing. Let’s change that! Let’s think about what these things mean!

Familiar acts of God’s Grace:  There are certain aspects of God’s grace, His working out the effects of Christ’s work on the Cross when He finds a responding repentant heart in us, that I refer to quite often in these studies and because they become familiar they tend to lose their wonder.

First, there is the fact of our justification when we turn to Christ, the fact that God puts us legally right with Him and with justice, ‘just as if’ we’d never sinned. That involves forgiveness and the removal of our guilt so that we can be at ease with God and no longer fearful of any punishment.

Second, there is the fact of our being adopted as God’s children (Jn 1:12,14, Rom 8:14-17, Gal 3:26, 1 Jn 3:1) and we receive a new identity, ‘sons of God’ (Rom 8:15, Gal 4:6, Eph 1:5) which implies the possibility of an intimate relationship with Almighty God, a sharing of His heart, and an entering into His ‘business’ (that’s the significance of ‘sons’ in the OT).

Then, third, to enable those things to be worked out practically on a day to day basis, He imparted His own Holy Spirit to indwell us, to both empower us and be a conduit of revelation from Him to us.  Now I just said that these things become familiar and familiarity takes away the wonder of the reality, so let’s try and expand on those things and try and capture something of the wonder that is there.

Our Justification: Many see this as some theoretical, theological aspect with little practical outworking but exactly the opposite is true. The fact that we have been justified by God means that we don’t have to work to try to impress God, get Him on our side or even to forgive us – because He has already done that. How many Christians subtly still try to DO things to make themselves right with God? You can’t He’s already done it. Reading the Bible, praying, witnessing, going to church, are all good things in themselves but they are not what makes you a child of God, they are, as is often glibly said, ‘the icing on the cake’. You and I are guilt free, forgiven, and children of God.

All over the world there are millions of people who do not know that about themselves, and it has crippling effects. Only yesterday I sat in a (non-Christian) forum about homelessness and listened to a number of those from the local authority and other agencies who work with the homeless, and as they rolled out the causes, again and again they mentioned relationship breakdowns and even mental health issues, and both causes, they said (these non-Christians) were increasing daily and are often interlinked. This in a nation that is one of the most affluent in the world, that has so much and yet so little because the vast majority (possibly between 93 to 95%) are self-centred and godless. Most show little interest in God or spiritual matters, so caught up are they in materialism. On the outside, so much seems good in the nation, but look into individual lives and you find people who feel guilty but don’t know why, people who struggle with themselves and with the people around them for self-accreditation, self-approval, but constantly fail to get it. Why? Because it only comes with God’s forgiveness because of Christ.

Our adoption: Then, we said, there is this matter if our being adopted as children of God, even ‘sons’ of God. The world derides us and says how dare you make such claims, but our answer has to be that it is not OUR claim but that of the Bible and of God. This is our anchor point in life, everything hinges on this, my goals, my desires, my aims and objectives, my endeavours. Yes, I may have a job, yes I may have various roles in life – husband, father, worker etc. etc. – but actually the meaning that underpins my life NOW is that I am a child of God.

Father: Some of us struggle with the concept of God as Father, because of our earthly experiences, but dare you see Him as loving, gentle, caring, compassionate, understanding, forgiving (all things the Bible says of Him) and see yourself in a picture, as a little child snuggled up on His lap, totally secure, utterly bathed in love and peace, because that is what this idea of adoption enables us to have.

Empowered: This is what He is redeeming us to, to realise the reality of this, that His Holy Spirit really and truly does indwell us, a concept that is unbelievable by the world, that God could put a part of Himself in us, to link us to Him, and to act as a power source and channel of revelation. While the world struggles with self-help courses and so often wakes each day with a sense of dread at the day to come, you and I wake with the knowledge that we are children of God and have within us a spring of living water, just waiting to spring up afresh for today, to refresh us, wash us, to satisfy our thirst and be a life source for the day. But it is not just an impersonal power source, like adrenalin, it is HIM. But here is the challenge; if you are like me, it is a struggle to believe that reality, it is something we have to declare again and again. The Bible says it, so I must believe it. It is a reality and yet it is a reality that clashes with my old self-centred focus that so often is there. I have to purposefully pause and be still to know that He is God – here, now this moment, and He indwells me, and He’s here for me.

The Reality: Be honest, the things of the day call, the concerns of the day distract, I wake up after a poor night and feel weak, the burdens of life call to me, the lacks of church life cause me anguish – but He is here and I need reminding of that, I need to declare it afresh and then experience it, and when sometimes it is not so clear and obvious, just trust. But the truth is still here in this; on a bad day when I feel weak, suddenly, almost inexplicably, strength seems to come from somewhere, and I sense His provision to enable me to get on being the person He’s called me to be and do the things He’s called me to do. On a bad day when I feel confused and the way of the world seems even more chaotic and the church doesn’t seem to be living up to its potential, suddenly, almost inexplicably, a peace descends, and I know He is still in charge, and together we can face it. On a bad day when I am confronted with perplexing problems and paralyzing situations and antagonistic people, suddenly, almost inexplicably, a sense of what needs to be done settles in my mind and that sense of peace returns and He conveys His wisdom to see us through the maze of life.

Perhaps more than any other study I have ever written, I am left with a sense of having fallen short as we have started to ponder what these words – incomparable riches – mean, a sense that rather like the iceberg, still nine-tenths of it is still hidden. Maybe I’ll have to try to continue it tomorrow, maybe not, we’ll see.  But this is what He calls us to, this is what He is redeeming us to. I am a child of God.

27. Redeemed From (3)

Reaching into Redemption Meditations: 27. Redeemed From (3)

Eph 2:1-3    As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.  All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts.

Following ‘Passion’?  I’m never quite comfortable with our interpretation of Paul’s words in verse 3 above even with, “We all lived like that in the past, and followed the impulses and imaginations of our evil nature,” (JBP version) and even less with, “You filled your lungs with polluted unbelief, and then exhaled disobedience. We all did it, all of us doing what we felt like doing, when we felt like doing it, all of us in the same boat,” (Message version), or “All of us used to be just as they are, our lives expressing the evil within us, doing every wicked thing that our passions or our evil thoughts might lead us into.” (Living Bible). What these various paraphrase versions show us is that we struggle with the idea that Paul is seeking to convey here. Now when you look up synonyms for ‘passion’ you do come across such words as craving, desire, or appetite. The various paraphrases above also use such words as ‘impulses’ and ‘felt’, both implying responses to feelings.

Going on feelings? Christian preachers or teachers often say ‘don’t go on your feelings’ and that is what this is all about, but when Paul says in the NIV “gratifying the cravings of the flesh” he is implying something more than just feelings; he is directing us towards thinking about desires that stem from physical or bodily expressions so, for example, we get hungry because we haven’t eaten for a while. Sexual drive can also be linked to physical state. Now psychologists often distinguish ‘desire’ from ‘emotions’ for ‘emotions’, they say, arise from a person’s emotional state.

So we have two ideas here which come out of Paul’s writings: motivation by physical gratification and motivation by mental state, and both of these, implies Paul, are things that should be consigned to past history. However our studies in redemption have suggested that so often God’s work in us has to be an ongoing process because, although our identity has changed, and we now also have a new power source, it is so easy to allow these things of the past to still ‘echo’ in the present and hence Paul had to instruct us to Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature.” (Col 3:5) i.e. you make an effort, an act of will to do this. The teaching is clearly that the old is still there waiting to rear up and we have to positively put it down.   Now when we moved into the fifth Part, I thought of our sub-heading as ‘Practicalities’ but changed it to ‘Nuts & Bolts of Redemption’. These things, the nuts and bolts of our lives, have very practical outworkings in our lives.

Physical Desires: We shy away from such words as ‘greed’ or ‘gluttony’ but they are words that fit when it comes to physical appetites. However, as Christians, perhaps we should call a spade a spade and call these things ‘lack of self-control’. Food: Obesity is the Western pandemic and is clearly (in the vast majority of cases) a consequence of lack of self-control. But that lack of self-control may have two origins. First, it may just be giving way to greed: I like this and I want more and more and more. Second, it may be what we call ‘comfort eating’, it is a way we deal with mental anguishes (I feel rubbish about me) and seek to bring physical pleasure to compensate for the loss of mental peace.  The first needs simple self-control, the second needs a reality check about identity, realizing afresh the truth about ourselves, loved by God and special to Him, people with purpose in life. All of these things need working through and really taking on board.

Drink: So far we have been considering desires that focus on food, but they can equally apply (if not more so) to alcohol. Now I don’t have a problem with drinking alcohol within limits (though I rarely drink) but I am sure there is a common assumption (and it appears in Christian circles) that alcohol creates a social environment that promotes sociability. There may be an element of truth in that but there are at least two difficulties with it. First, it is false that you cannot be sociable without alcohol and if for you it is true, then you have a personal identity problem again. Second, regular drinking (‘to be sociable’) becomes a pattern and a pattern often develops into a bondage and that brings about what we call alcoholism and all the health and social problems that go with that. In passing, may I note that in all these sorts of things there is so often deception here, for the individual strongly denies that there is a problem, and nowhere is this more true than in the case of sex.

Sex: All of these things we consider here, that God is seeking to lead us away from, are excesses of things that He gave us as a gift to be used within confines. Sex, the Bible reveals, is for within a lifetime committed relationship. Now I am aware that when we say that in the Western world it is like calling for light in darkness, it is so alien, but merely because the world casts off God’s design criteria, that should not be true of us Christians. It is almost impossible to watch TV without being bombarded by the philosophy that sex is all right with whoever you like, whenever you like, and however you like, and becomes no more significant than eating a cheese sandwich. The result is to debase sex and create whole rafts of relationship problems and where to speak of love is banned except after the relationship based on sex has existed for a long time (watch long running historical ‘soaps’ such as ‘Friends’ or ‘Big Bang Theory’ to see the truth of this.) Deception reigns! Fortunately voices are gradually (if only occasionally) being raised by newspaper or magazine columnists that this approach is having disastrous effects, and we will have to face some of these things as we progress down the path of redemption. For some, sex comes by computer screen and is called pornography but all that does is stimulate mind and body in ways that are less than God had in mind with His design for couples.

Wandering in the Desert: My feeling about all these things that are rising up in the Western world, is that they are expressions of life in the wilderness or the desert, life that is arid and where people are resorting to things outside the parameters of  God’s design for human beings, to try to make sense of this crazy godless world, and try to find pleasure in it, yet trying by eating more and more, or drinking more and more, or having more and more sex, simply works on what economists call ‘the law of diminishing returns’. As any junkie would tell you, you need more and more to get the same pleasure. But we’re not meant to live in deserts; the truth is that at the edge of every desert is a wonderful world that is lush and green and full of good things. This ‘desert living’ is what God seeks to deliver us from and so perhaps we should move on in the next study and move away from the depressing area (when you have eyes to see it) of the desperate scrabbling for pleasure and meaning that is so prevalent in modern Western society. So let’s move out of the desert and see the world that the Lord seeks to deliver us in to.

And So? But before we do that, let’s go right back to the beginning and remind ourselves what Paul has been saying: don’t base your life on desires or emotions, there is a better way. It is a way that is first and foremost founded on a relationship with the Lord and out of that relationship we live according to His design parameters and know His blessing in all aspect of our lives. His word, His will, His way, His wonder, and all these bring light and life and blessing and goodness, and that is what He is working to lead us towards in this path of redemption. He HAS redeemed us from that old life of self-orientation, of self-pleasures, self-concerns, self-desires, self-based-emotions, and He is now in the process of redeeming us on a daily basis into a new world. We’ll see more on to that in the next study.

1. Considering Redemption

PART ONE: Introducing the Theme

Reaching into Redemption Meditations: 1. Considering Redemption

Ex 15:13 In your unfailing love you will lead the people you have redeemed. In your strength you will guide them to your holy dwelling.

Approaches: There are times when I come to the end of a series of studies and wonder where I should go next. How does God want to feed me or challenge me next? And then there are other times – and this is one of them – when as I pray early in the morning I find the Lord filling my mind with a completely new train of thinking that challenges and stirs and demands to be written down.

Significance: For the last week or so, while I have been writing another series, I have found the Lord challenging my thinking into an area that I have never been before, and I have found it mind blowing. So it is time to start writing it. These will not be short meditations because the content is too important and too significant to be dealt with casually. If you want quick and easy and effortless daily readings, this will not be for you. However, if you will journey with me along the path I believe we will travel, I think I can promise you that you will be blessed and maybe even your whole outlook on yourself and others transformed. Yes, that is where I believe this is going.

Old Testament basics: Let’s take this word ‘redeem’ which has been imposing itself on me. My Bible dictionary says: “1. To buy back. 2. To get back, recover, by paying a fee. 3. To pay off a debt.”  In our verse above, Moses and Miriam sing this song of triumph after the Exodus and they look at what God has done, delivering them from slavery and they speak of themselves as “the people you have redeemed”.  Perhaps they take their language from the language the Lord used earlier: “‘I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment.” (Ex 6:6)

New Testament Parallel: Today, in respect of our own salvation, the New testament speaks of, “Jesus Christ who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.” (Titus 2:13,14) Also, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law …..  He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:13,14) It is the same sort of picture in the New Testament in respect of our salvation as in the Old Testament in respect of the deliverance of Israel from Egypt. The two sets of verses above speak of us being delivered FROM something (the old godless life of wrongdoing) and delivering us TO something (all the blessings that now flow through the work of the Cross – justification, adoption, glorification etc.)

Questions: So where are we going here? Well let me ask a simple question. How extensive is the redeeming work of Christ? Who will it cover? Does it cover a murderer? Does it cover an adulterer? Does it cover a denier? If you say no to these, you are running contrary to what the Bible tells us about the ‘heroes of faith’ who we will consider in this series as a preliminary to looking at how we live our church lives.  Oh yes, that is where this is going. How do you feel about Christians who have killed, Christians who have committed adultery, Christians who have denied Christ, Christians who have been caught with their hands in the till, Christians who have been found to be frauds?

No Jumping to Conclusions: Be careful here. I hope we are going to look into this in sufficient depth that we will avoid the two extremes of judgmentalism that writes off people and the opposite that simply shrugs and says, “It doesn’t matter, we’re all human.” God has given us case study after case study in the Bible and what we will see is a God who is both a Judge who declares guilt and a Redeemer who pays for our punishment. This means that on one hand we cannot be casual about sin – and we need to call it for what it is – and on the other we cannot withhold grace from the sinner. The thing about redemption is that God looks to deliver the person under the sentence of death and restore and elevate them to a position of sonship. It can be a painful process but a wonderful one.

Basic Truths: In case you might think I am going soft on you, let’s remind ourselves of some New Testament teaching from the apostle John. First, “My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” (1 Jn 2:1,2). Next, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1 Jn 1:9) These two sets of verses lay out three very important truths for the Christian:

Sin is an exception: “so that you will not sin”. The apostle doesn’t expect the believer to sin. The standard is to aim for perfection (Mt 5:48 –“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect”, perfect meaning complete in Christ.)

Yet we can fail: But if anybody does sin.” It is a possibility. These are hopefully just one-off failures, one-off sins, things where, to use my phrase, ‘we trip over our feet and it goes pear-shaped’.

Confession is the way back: “If we confess our sins.” Acknowledgement of sin, of a failure, of our guilt, is a pre-requisite to restoration. Often, we struggle with this because we are not in a secure place and we fear the people around us will condemn is. We will deal with this as we go along. That must change.

Consequences: Now it would be foolish to pretend that there are no consequences to our acts of failure (Sin!) and part of our journey ahead must be to face those consequences and consider how grace may abound. However, let’s keep in mind throughout (and the scriptures will help us see this) that God’s intention is always to help us come to a place of restoration. When we look into the Bible with ‘redemption focused eyes’, we will see people who didn’t get there, and we’ll see why they didn’t, but we’ll also see some surprising cases where people who seriously blew it and got it very badly wrong, still ended up in God’s good books – and that is really encouraging for each of us as we live out each day with the Lord. Oh yes, it is all there, so will you be prepared to join me in this mind-blowing experience and be prepared to have your mind changed (not by heresy but simply by what the Bible shows us) and your outlook transformed?

Application for further thought and prayer: Lord, I may have question marks over my life but today I rest secure in the knowledge that you are working for good in it, and whenever I see failure, I will rejoice that you want to take me to a new level of restoration as you work to redeem my life on a daily basis. Thank you so much.

51. Two Mountains

Meditations in Hebrews 12:  51.  Two Mountains

Heb 12:18,22  You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire…. but you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem

The flow: This book is full of analogies and now we come to yet another one. It is difficult at first sight to see the continuation, how this flows on from what he has just said but in the verses we have recently been considering he was speaking about discipline from God which only showed we are sons (v.5-11), then there was a call to strengthen up (v.12,13) and then some practical exhortations (v.14-17), at the heart of which there is the emphasis on the need for God’s grace (v.15) in order to be holy (v.14) and not to demean our spiritual heritage (v.16,17).

Two ways of looking: Now depending on how you think about God, those verses can either appear bad (painful discipline, needing to be holy, hard God who calls you to account) or good (God treating as sons who he loves and for whom He desires strength and blessing in the Christian life.) It depends very much on our starting position, what we think about God, and so perhaps that is why our writer now gives two pictures of how God has been revealed, in the Old and then New Testaments.

Sinai NOT our experience: Verses 18 to 21 remind us of some of the aspects of the experience Israel had with the Lord as an embryonic nation but says that this is NOT what WE have come to: “You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them, because they could not bear what was commanded: “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned.” The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, “I am trembling with fear.” There was mount Sinai, scary signs, and a trumpet blast and a warning to not even touch the mountain and even Moses found it scary. But that is NOT our experience. It was their because they were in the early stages of learning about God but in our case we are a long way down the path of revelation with the whole Old Testament, and now much of the New in existence when this writer was writing.

Our Experience, Mount Zion: No, our experience is something quite different: “But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” (v.22-24)  We need to look at the various elements of this passage.

God’s home: A threefold description of the dwelling place of God which perhaps is more easily understood in reverse: “But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God.” (v.22a) The city of the living God – the dwelling place where the heart and life of all existence dwells. It is a heavenly city, a place of fellowship and community, the reality of the dwelling place that had for years been considered to be the temple on one of the hills of earthly Jerusalem, Zion.  But that had been like a temporary stopping place for God’s presence which had slowly departed prior to the Exile, as seen in the book of Ezekiel. But we haven’t come (notice the verb indicates this has already happened  – ‘have come’) to a temporary place but the eternal dwelling or place where God can be found.

Home of the angels:  “You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly.” (v.22b) Wherever there is revelation of the heavenly throne room, there are angels. Be under no illusion, we have access to the heavenly throne room, for the moment purely by the Spirit in prayer or worship, but one day in reality. This is our home, our ultimate destination.

Home of the church: “to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven.” (v.23a) Again revelations of heaven in scripture show there are people there. This is the destination for the church, all those born again, known from before the foundation of the world and whose names are recorded there.

Home of God the Judge:  “You have come to God, the judge of all men.”  (v.23b). We’re on a repeat track now, a form of Hebrew parallelism. We’ve already noted that it is God’s home, but it is also the place where He holds court , where He judges and  holds all mankind accountable.

Home of the redeemed:  “to the spirits of righteous men made perfect.” (v.23c) But it is not the place of condemnation, it is the place of revealing the saints, all the believers who have received Jesus as their Saviour, who have come to perfection, completion in the work of God. it will be a place of great joy.

Home of the Redeemer:  “to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” (v.24) Jesus comes bringing in the new covenant sealed with his own blood, bringing about a completed work.

The blood of Abel?  Abel was slain by Cain and God said to Cain, “Your brother’s blood cries out” (Gen 4:10) i.e. it cries out for justice. Jesus said, “Therefore this generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, this generation will be held responsible for it all.” (Lk 50:51) i.e. Abel was the first human being to have his blood shed by violent means, the first to cry out for justice. The Hebrews writer writes of him, he “still speaks, even though he is dead” (Heb 11:4),  and so there is a sense whereby his spilled blood continues to cry out to God for justice to be applied, i.e. it demands for justice to be done, but, we now read, the blood of Christ “speaks a better word”  The Message version puts it well: The murder of Jesus, unlike Abel’s—a homicide that cried out for vengeance—became a proclamation of grace.” And the Living Bible puts it, “ Jesus himself, who has brought us his wonderful new agreement; and to the sprinkled blood, which graciously forgives instead of crying out for vengeance as the blood of Abel did.”  Abel’s blood demanded justice, Jesus blood brought mercy and grace and forgiveness through justice being satisfied.

And so: We started out by saying that it is possible to take some of the earlier verses negatively and so that is why the writer comes with these explanations. Everything about these verses shouts, “God loves us, Jesus died for us, he’s for us, all so we could share eternity with him in the most wonderful of experiences.”  Hallelujah!

27. Redeemed

Meditations in Colossians: 27. Redeemed

Col 1:13,14   For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption (through his blood) the forgiveness of sins.

In the previous meditation I commented on how in this series I have felt the need to pick up on specific words or phrases to stop and pause afresh over their meaning. We come now to that highly important and significant word ‘redemption’.  I ended that previous meditation commenting that Jesus came on a rescue mission, to establish legal grounds that satisfy justice, to enable all these other things to happen to release us and set us free to live entirely new lives. That was in the context of the great rescue but in the midst of that sentence I draw your attention again to the words, ‘to establish legal grounds to satisfy justice.’ That, in as few words as possible, sums up Jesus’ work on the Cross.

Few of us think deeply enough to realise and acknowledge the existence of this concept of ‘justice’ in the human experience and then vocabulary. Justice starts out in childhood when one child wails, “It’s not fair; you gave more to him than to me!” The child appeals to an idea of fairness. Nobody taught it to him or her but they knew its absence and cried out for a remedy.  A dictionary might define it as “behaving according to what is morally right and fair.”  Every tribe, people group or nation in history has exhibited this concept. They may exercise it differently but they all have exercised it.

In our modern age foolish philosophers and moral thinkers have sought in various ways to do away with guilt and blame, or rather the blame is passed on to others. For example, he stole because he was poor and never had a chance in life to better himself.  Or, she gave her body to him because she needed to feel she was loved because throughout her childhood she had lacked love and her father had abandoned her. The terrorists exploded a bomb because they were a repressed people. Or, he shot fifteen people in the shopping mall because he was unloved, and had been abandoned to a solitary life of playing violent computer games.

We may go along with the philosophy that excuses people their sins until it affects me personally. When a pair of burglars break into my house and violate my family, I want the police to do something about them – and not just scold them. Justice says in some way they should pay for the wrongs they have done; there needs to be a balancing up; that’s what justice demands – that they be stopped but, even more, they be made to suffer as I have suffered. This was essentially what was behind the ear for an ear, or eye for an eye law (Ex 21:24) in the Old Testament primitive Law given through Moses.

Now all of these things may contribute to the person’s behaviour, but as individual’s made in the image of God, they have the ability to choose exactly how they will behave, and God thus holds them accountable. In fact He holds every single one of us accountable for every wrong thought, word or deed. He doesn’t look on us as a bunch of children who don’t have a clue about life, but He respects us as those who know exactly what we are doing and who thus can be held accountable for what we did.

Imagine, if you will, you suffer from amnesia and you can remember nothing about how the human race works. You travel around the world and observe human behaviour through completely new eyes with no preconceived ideas. I am sure that again and again you would see things that would stir a response in you of, “Why doesn’t somebody stop that? Why doesn’t somebody do something about that?” as you observe a man abusing his daughter, a wife violently beating her husband, men holding up a bank, a man stealing from work, a tribe wiping out another tribe, one religious group warring against others who don’t hold the same beliefs. As a human being, even though you have lost everything else, you will still have this sense of ‘justice’ that says, this is wrong, someone should stop it  and deal with the perpetrators.

Now imagine you are outside of time and you confront God at the end of time, as all things are being wound up. You cannot help but ask Him, “God, there is this inherent sense of justice and yet as it has come to an end, all these people, groups and nations have got away with behaviour that is wrong; they should not be allowed to get away with it! Why don’t you do something?”  He asks gently, “What would you have me to do?” You pause and think and eventually say, “Well all those wrong doers should be punished, justice demands it.”  He asks again, “Which wrong doers? Where do you want me to draw the line?” I reply, “I don’t know I need help. Can you somehow show the severity of the wrongs up on a big screen so we can get an idea of the magnitude of what they have done?”  A big screen appears and it is covered with small red dots, so many as to almost cover the screen. I ask, “Which criminal does this represent?”  Instead of giving a direct answer He says, “Well each dot represents every wrong thought, wrong word, or wrong act throughout this person’s life. What would you have me do about them as they stand here now before my throne?” I respond boldly, “Well justice demands you punish them. There is so much red altogether it has to be the ultimate punishment, death I presume, exclusion from your presence!”  Very quietly He says, “That is your screen.”

I am condemned by my own words. I believe in justice. I believe wrong doers should be punished, and yet I find I am a wrong doer and the court of my own  mind has condemned me. I pronounced  my own sentence as I stood before the throne in heaven. As I stand before God with my head hung down, He makes me an offer. “You may remember the stories of how Richard the lion heart was ransomed from prison. You may have come across pawnbrokers who require money to redeem the articles sold into hock. In each case there was a person or an article that was lost to the world. The only way it could be redeemed was by the giving of money. One of your famous writers, Charles Dickens, wrote a book called a Tale of Two Cities and in it, one man gave his life to ransom or redeem the life of another man. He swapped places. If you will believe it, my Son, Jesus, when he as the eternal Son of God died on that Cross at Calvary, gave his life so that your life could be spared. If you will receive it, I will spare you and adopt you into my family.”  I nod dumbly and then whisper, “Yes, please.”  And I am redeemed.

Of course I pictured this as occurring at the end of the world and there perhaps will be re-enacted what took place, in my case, over forty years ago, for that is essentially what happens before we are born again. Jesus’ death earned my redemption. I was lost, guilty, condemned by justice/ I was helpless and hopeless and then this offer was presented to me and I took it and was redeemed. The work was done by Jesus two thousand years ago but it has to be appropriated by each person as an individual. We either accept it, or are left in the hands of justice.  What a choice!

9. No Need to Sin

Meditations in 1 John : 9 :  No Need to Sin

1 John  2:1   My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense–Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.

We have observed so far, John telling us that we are all sinners, people who are tainted with Sin. Note the capital letter we use to distinguish the tendency from the individual acts we refer to as sins (small s). Sin is the tendency or disposition that is inclined to being self-centred and godless, and thus in behaviour, unrighteous. When we give way to that Sin we commit sins, individual acts – thoughts, words, or deeds – that are wrong. John has said, If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves.” (1:8) But he didn’t leave us there, he told us how to deal with those sins: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins.” (1:9)

Many Christians are uncomfortable with this language because it focuses on the negatives, on failure. Those who would want to speak about the victorious Christian life feels such talk takes something away from victory. No, it simply helps us realize our vulnerability and our constant need of Christ and of the power of his Holy Spirit. This is the point the apostle Paul reached at the end of Romans 7: “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God–through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom 7:24.25) In the following chapter he explains how Christ has dealt with our Sin and the Holy Spirit empowers us so that we can avoid sins.

This is now where we come to with John who doesn’t want to leave us faced with sin, but moves us on to realize that although we are still vulnerable to it, we don’t have to give way to it. This is the same sort of thing that I feel we have to say when we find ourselves in discussions about the genes we inherit from our parents. Every now and then the media latch on to the comments of some genetic scientist and are pronouncing that a particular gene makes us behave in certain ways. The truth is that a particular gene may give us a disposition that veers towards that particular behaviour.

Take the example of anger. A particular father clearly has a short fuse and blows up at the smallest thing. Even more than that, he uses his anger to get his own way. The child inherits some of his genes (not all of them because the child also inherits the genes of the mother and she never had a problem with anger!) and so has this same tendency, but more than that, the child has learned to use anger just as they have seen their parent use it. Now the only trouble is that this is wrong! So is the child condemned to be an anger-filled adult? No! The truth, as we’ve just noted it, is that there is only a tendency towards anger. We still have free will and we can chose to accept that behaviour or we can reject it and learn behavioral strategies that overcome the anger tendencies. And we can certainly refuse it to manipulate others. There may be a tendency but we don’t have to give way to it. Even more, when we are a Christian, we have the Holy Spirit living within us and His power will help us control our temper, for He is a Spirit of self-control (2 Tim 1:7 older versions)

Now we must recognize that these changes may take place in different people at different times. For all of us some changes take place instantly, at the moment of our conversion, when we confess and surrender and are forgiven and given the Holy Spirit. But after that it becomes a lifetime of change. Some things take a very long time to change in us simply because we don’t realize they are wrong and it is only as we receive God’s word at some point – whether by reading the Bible or by preaching, say – that we suddenly see that a particular attitude or habit is wrong and needs changing. Other things just need working at. In my own case I had previously used swear words every fifth word almost and it took six months to completely break the habit, and I have never sworn since. Sometimes there may be an addiction, say to smoking. For some people giving up with the help of God through a simple prayer is no big deal. For others they struggle and struggle. I had a friend who really struggled to stop smoking, but it was only when the Holy Spirit fell on him was he truly delivered.

But John writes to show us that we don’t have to sin. It doesn’t have to be a part of our lives anymore. This IS the reality. I remember a friend who had sat in a meeting when the Speaker had asked, “How many of you have not sinned today?” He and one other put up their hands. When he talked about it later he said, “I have been too busy doing what God’s given me to do to sin today.”  Yes, we may stumble, but John’s teaching is that these should be exceptions and not the rule. Yes, we are vulnerable as redeemed sinners and when we try to walk the walk on our own, we become very vulnerable. As we trust on Him and lean on Him and fellowship with Him and as we obediently go about doing the things He’s given us to do, then, yes, our lives will be free from sinning. Hallelujah!