Snapshots: Day 24

Snapshots: Day 24

The Snapshot: “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac.” You are a God like all the other gods who demand child sacrifice? No I am not. Then why do you want me to kill Isaac? I don’t. But you said….  I simply said take him. But you said sacrifice him? I want you to be willing to give him up. But isn’t that the same as killing him? No, I simply want you to learn to trust me. And you will raise him from the dead? If that’s how you want to see it. Very well, here he is. Stop. But you said…. No, I said learn to trust me with those most precious to you. Then you don’t want me to kill him? Of course not, I said that. But…. Don’t you realize I love him more than you do? But…. Hold all my gifts to you lightly, don’t make them more than me, otherwise you will cheapen them. What?

Further Consideration: Our problem, so often, is that we don’t realize how much God loves us and our loved ones. A good number of years ago, when our three children were young (they are now in their late thirties) my wife had an accident. I will spare her blushes by not telling you what happened but she was bleeding – badly. We put a towel against the cut and rushed her to hospital. In the Accident and Emergency dept they instantly saw there was a big problem and immediately started work on her while I was asked to wait outside. Their problem was that they could not stop her bleeding. She had cut an artery and nothing they could do would stop it.

In a semi-unconscious state she heard their desperate urgency and realized she could be dying. Lying there while they sought to stop the bleeding she prayed and said, “But Lord, what about my three children, who will look after them?” (I could have felt offended about this except that I was passed it at that point and anyway didn’t know until afterwards what she had prayed). But as she prayed, asking for help, she very clearly heard the Lord who said, “Don’t you realize that I love them and care for them even more than you do?” And that was it. The bleeding stopped, crisis over, but a changed wife.

God did NOT want Isaac dead; He just wanted Abraham (and us) to learn something. At the end of it, Abraham named the place, “The Lord will provide.” (Gen 22:14) Here’s the thing, Mount Moriah where this happened (v.2) is according to 2 Chron 3:1, Jerusalem, the vicinity of Calvary where another son was sacrificed – for you and me. God doesn’t want your death or mine, Jesus has already given himself in our place, to carry our sin, so that we can carry on living – for ever! Some are revolted by the picture of Jesus dying for them but it is only pride that keeps us from facing our need and our hopelessness and then, as a drowning person grabbing a straw, we accept the Cross.

20. No Add-ons

The Wonder of the Church:  Part 3 – Making of Believers

20. No Add-ons

Jn 19:28-30  Later, knowing that everything had now been finished, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.” 29 A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus’ lips. 30 When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

The Cross?  There is an aspect of being a believer that I think we should cover and this appears the appropriate place to do it. In the previous study we touched on the subject of sacrifice and inevitably that takes us to the Cross. Now when we use the words, ‘the Cross’ like that, we don’t just mean the two pieces of timber that were used to execute a criminal, but the work or effect that Jesus dying on that wooden execution piece had. It covers everything that Christ achieved.

Sacrifice: Yesterday we touched on the fact that the New Testament speaks of Christ dying as a sacrifice, and we quoted, Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; (Heb 9:28) but it comes up many times, for example, “Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed,” (1 Cor 5:7) and “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood,” (Rom 3:25) and “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God,” (Eph 5:2) and “Christ ….has appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself.” (Heb 9:26) and “we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all,” (Heb 10:10) and “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world,” (1 Jn 2:2) and “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 Jn 4:10)

The Sin-Bearer: Isaiah had made this clear: “by knowledge of him my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities….. For he bore the sin of many” (Isa 53:11,12) In that he was summing up the work of the whole sacrificial system within the Law of Moses whereby the guilty were to offer a sacrifice of an animal and by placing their hand upon it as it was killed, the picture was that their sin was passed to it and it was dying to take the punishment of the sinner. The apostle Peter echoed this when he wrote, “He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness.” (1 Pet 2:24) When the word ‘atonement’ is used (see above Rom 3:25, 1 Jn 2:2, 4:10) it again reflects the Old Testament Law. It basically means ‘a making at one’ (at-one-ment), bringing us back to God by removing the one thing that separates us, our sin, our guilt, the punishment that justice demands.  In the Gospels we find, the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mk 10:45 & Mt 20:28) There we find implied the same idea of a substitute that was implied in the Old testament sacrifice of atonement. Jesus stood in for us and carried all of our sins in himself on the cross at Calvary. Paul echoes this in 1 Tim 2:6 and the writer to the Hebrew in Heb 9:15.

Finished: looking at our starter verses, just before he actually died, hanging on the cross, we find John observing, “knowing that everything had now been finished,” Jesus received the drink and declared, “It is finished.” There is no further commentary by John in the text but his previous comment indicates an understanding that the life of revealing the Father to the Jewish public and then his work as the atoning sacrifice to take our sins and our punishment, was completed. There was no more that he could do. As he dies he carries our sins and takes our punishment.  There was no more that anyone could do.

The Point: Why am I writing this particular study?  Because so often we find make-believe believers, or young believers who have not been taught, struggling and striving to be good to appease God, or get on God’s good side, as if there is something they can do to win his approval. No you can do nothing. I find myself so often referring to “the finished work of Christ on the cross,” and I do that because we need to be reminded of this. Listen to Paul: “What happens now to human pride of achievement? There is no more room for it. Why, because failure to keep the Law has killed it? Not at all, but because the whole matter is now on a different plane—believing instead of achieving. We see now that a man is justified before God by the fact of his faith in God’s appointed Saviour and not by what he has managed to achieve under the Law.” (Rom 3:27,28 JBP) The NIV puts it, “Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded.”  None of us can boast, none of us can do anything that can cover up our sins and hide them from God, none of us can do anything sufficient to make up for them, in fact the more we do the more we express our self-centred godlessness, because we are trying to save ourselves and we are rejecting God’s provision for us.

But I want to do good! Of course you do because that is what God wants for you and what the Spirit energizes us to do. But that is just it, ‘good’ for us now is first simply believing in Jesus and utterly trusting him for our salvation, and then, once we are born again, following his word and his Spirit as he leads you. (And that takes us back to the study on being a faith people). Going to church, praying, reading the Bible, worshipping, or witnessing, none of these things make you ‘more worthy’ to be called a Christian, they are just outworkings of the faith you already have. If you try to use them to please God and ‘improve your salvation’ you fall into the trap that the Jewish Galatian Christians fell into when they went back to placing reliance on circumcision and received Paul’s very strong censure (see Gal 3). It is never ‘Christ plus’! Jesus has done everything necessary for your salvation; all you can do it receive it with thanks and praise and worship Him for His gift. Please, rest in that and stop striving.

19. The Reality of Sacrifice

The Wonder of the Church:  Part 3 – Making of Believers

19. The Reality of Sacrifice

Rom 12:2  I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.

Mt 10:37-39  “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38 Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.

Mt 16:24  Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.

Sacrifice?  It is an interesting thing but in the New Testament there is virtually nothing about you and me being sacrifices for God. Now why would that be? Perhaps it is to make sure we don’t try and take on any ‘noble’ thoughts about us contributing to our salvation. There is much about Christ being sacrificed for us, for example, Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; (Heb 9:28) and when Jesus taught, “unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds,” (Jn 12:24), although he was clearly referring to himself, he was also laying down a principle that applies. But there was also the teaching brought from the Old Testament, “go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’” (Mt 9:13) In other words God is not impressed by self-serving sacrifice. Isa 58 is the classic chapter that hammers in nails in the coffin of self-serving sacrifice, seen in that instance in fasting and appearing religious while in other ways not bothering about righteousness.

Right Perspective: As we’ll see there is an element of sacrifice that is essential in being a Christian but it is NOT in any way for winning approval or achieving self-righteousness. In earlier studies we majored on conviction and repentance as two key elements that are necessary to come to Christ and we’ve also talked about giving up the old life of Sin and, indeed, the language of having died to sin (see Rom 6)  should be familiar to us. But consider that life that you ‘gave up’.  There was nothing heroic or noble about giving up that life because it was a life dominated by self and sin and prompted along by Satan, a life where we were enslaved to living by the senses and by human effort and striving. When we came to Christ, yes, there was a surrender, but that involved a recognition that that old life was one to be delivered from and you need God’s help even to come to that point.

Right Values:  When we came to Christ we were, by the help of the Spirit, re-evaluating our lives and recognizing that Christ was to be valued over and above all else. He alone could be the source of our salvation, which is why Jesus taught, “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”. (Mt 10:37) In other words if you value people, even your closest loved ones, more than Jesus, you will always be putting them first and that will hinder you following the guidance that Jesus will bring you. If we listen to people who don’t love Jesus (implied) we will never fully receive his salvation. When Jesus went on, “whoever loses their life for my sake will find it,” he was referring to this letting go the old life so that he could bring us into a new life. Indeed to counter-balance that teaching of letting go close relationships, Jesus taught, “no one who has left home or wife or brothers or sisters or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.” (Lk 18:29,30) It is a promise of blessing that make up many times over for anything you think you might have lost.

Right Sacrifice: Yet there is that one powerful word from the apostle Paul: “offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.”  The Message version is particularly good at this point as it expands verses 1-3 of Romans 12: So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it.” Isn’t that good? The “place it before God as an offering” is almost swallowed up in the goodness of God that follows because it focuses the life God has for us as THE best thing possible for us. It’s like we hand our life to Him each day and say, “Here it is Lord, just as you said, all yours for you to bless!”

Isn’t that exactly what He has promised? the riches of his glorious inheritance.” (Eph 1:18) “the incomparable riches of his grace.” (Eph 2:7) “the boundless riches of Christ.” (Eph 3:8) “his glorious riches.” (Eph 3:16) the riches of his glory.” (Phil 4:19) “the glorious riches of this mystery.” (Col 1:27) “the full riches of complete understanding.” (Col 2:2) If you want fuel for worship then just look up each of these verses in context. It’s like the Lord says, “Hey, let’s do a swap. You give me your old life and I’ll give you all these things.” Nothing to complain about there!

Taking up your cross? But then there is this unpleasant picture (as we see it) of having to carry our cross that Jesus refers to: “Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  (Mt 16:24) Well, again the Message version puts verses 24 to 26 very well: “Then Jesus went to work on his disciples. “Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat; I am. Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to finding yourself, your true self. What kind of deal is it to get everything you want but lose yourself? What could you ever trade your soul for?” Look, everyone living in this Fallen World ‘suffers’ at some time or other, but Jesus promises to help us through it.  But it’s more than that (and the Message misses this bit) because ‘taking up your cross’ is simply shorthand for saying, ‘keep with yourself a constant reminder that you have died to your old life and you are now walking in a resurrection life.’

Reminder of the Past: We said above that it is all about getting a new perspective.  So how do you “deny yourself”?  Well you remember that HAS happened to you: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Gal 2:20) It is a teaching that is repeated again and again (see Rom 6:6, Gal 6:14). Again the Message version puts it, “I identified myself completely with him. Indeed, I have been crucified with Christ. My ego is no longer central. It is no longer important that I appear righteous before you or have your good opinion, and I am no longer driven to impress God.” i.e. I ditched the old life when I came to Christ, it’s like I killed it off (with God’s help), crucified it, if you like.   This ‘cross’ I’m carrying now is not what I’m walking towards, it’s a reminder of what has happened, what I’m walking away from, resurrected if you like, now living with the power of the resurrected Christ within me. That’s how we now ‘deny ourselves’, not by lots of self-effort, but by remembering that the old life has gone and the life I now have is his life, his power, his energy, his purposes, his plans, his goals.

In Practice? well, yes, there is a dimension of this where we make choices, acts of will, because we still have free will and so we have to employ it and ensure we live in line with what Christ is purposing for us.  Hence the apostle John taught, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.” (1 Jn 3:16)  There it is, the use of our conscious will to conform to or comply with the will of God that Jesus is working in us. That is the life we now live, resurrected with his power in us, dead to the old ways, alive to God, raised by Him. (See Rom 6:11, Eph 2:4-6, Col 2:13, 3:1) This is the truth of your life and mine as those who have been born again. That resurrected life means being open to and receiving his life, his power, his guidance, his wisdom and his grace. “if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.”  (2 Cor 5:17 RSV) Hallelujah!

17. Resurrection Sacrifice

Lessons in Growth Meditations: 17. Resurrection Sacrifice   

Rom 12:1    I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. 

Our Goals Restated: I think more than any other series I have ever embarked on, in this one I (we) need to restate our purpose again and again if we are to get to the heart of the scriptures, and as we consider how we can grow in Christ. Our present goal is to examine the Christian life, considering it as a resurrected life, a life empowered by the Holy Spirit and raised to life after we have previously, pre-Christ, been spiritually dead. We are thus considering various facets of the Christian life observed as expressions of the Spirit reflecting the resurrected life of Jesus – mainly the factor of the Spirit empowered life that overcame death.

We have considered various aspects of this and there will almost certainly be overlaps in those considerations and now I wish to consider a facet of that life I have never considered before in respect of Jesus after he was raised from the dead – the fact that this was a strictly limited period of his overall life plan, if I may put it like that, and he is clearly still working out the will of the Father.

Jesus’ Role Limited: If Jesus had just been doing his own thing, he could easily have thought that having passed through the crucifixion experience, seen to have died and now raised from the dead, he was in an admirable position to draw followers even more than before, but he didn’t. Instead he concentrated on the core of his followers and seems to have focused his teaching on them in an out of the way place in Galilee in the north. The plan was for them to be his witnesses after they had been filled with the Spirit after their return to Jerusalem. He, himself, would ascend back to heaven and leave them to be empowered and carry on his work, as he directed it at the right hand of his Father in heaven.

Yet again, I suggest, we see Jesus sacrificing his will to the plan of the Godhead and it is that aspect we turn to now. Now of course (the overlaps I mentioned), we have considered submitting to the sovereign will of God when we came to Christ and although it might be thought this is more appropriately something considered in the first Part about ‘dying to self’, we bring it right into centre place when it comes to the resurrection life. We could get carried away with the idea of being raised to a new life, a life of freedom, talking about possibilities as we just did in the previous study, but here we need to bring the balancing teaching with the reminder that those possibilities are ‘in Christ’ or ‘in God’; they are possibilities inspired and empowered and directed by him,

Balance: So, with all this talk about a resurrected, empowered life, it is appropriate as we seek to bring balance, that we pick up on a little of Paul’s teaching to the Romans: “I urge you, brothers and sisters …. to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship,” or as the Message version expands it, here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering.” Whatever else this verse means, it can perhaps be summarised as, ‘Give God everything about you, for Him to do with it as He wills, to change it or dispose of it even.’

Struggle: Now in the interests of strict honesty, I have to confess that I have struggled with this concept. As I prayed beforehand, it seemed right and yet as I wrote, I felt hypocritical as I felt I didn’t do it, and I felt ignorant in that I am sure I don’t know what it really means, and so I put aside this study and felt uncomfortable. And then a verse came to mind and it all made sense: “Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.” (Mt 10;38,39) The same thing is said almost word for word a little later: “Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.” (Mt 16:24,25)

Death Guaranteed: Look at the elements of those verses: you want “to be my disciple”? This isn’t for everyone; this is for those who will be Christians, who will agree to follow Jesus (like we saw in the case of Levi). Such people “must deny themselves”, i.e. must die to self as we saw in the first Part. Such people must take up that sign of death, the Cross, and follow the walk of Jesus. If again we take that imaginary conversation between Jesus and Levi, it might now go as follows:

“What are we going to do?

“You’ll find out as you follow me.”

“Where will it end?”

“Do you really want to know?  (Silence) My death on a cross, and you too will die, not physically but in every other way. (Silence) At that point you will run away but I will come after you and we will talk again and again I will ask you to follow me. At that time, you will see in my resurrection, a new possibility, but it will always be under the shadow of death, for they will come hunting you and many of you will literally give up your physical lives as you remain loyal to me. Come follow me.”

That is what it meant for the earliest disciples. For some Christians around the world today it will mean exactly the same. For us? We won’t know until our lives come to a literal end on this planet. In the meantime, although we live with his power within us, what I have termed ‘resurrection lives’, we are called to live that life as if we may have no tomorrow. Part of giving our bodies, as Paul put it, means making ourselves available to Jesus for whatever he wants to do with us,

The Reality of ‘Being Sent’: It’s that same old ‘sovereignty thing’ we considered before, and for some of us it seems really scary but that is only because we imagine God sending us to places (it used to be ‘darkest Africa’ or smuggling Bibles into Russia) that scare the life out of us – but if the life has already gone and we are now running on his life, his power, we don’t have a life to defend, just a new one to live on turbo-charge.  The thing is that God knows what is best for each of us and so, yes, there will be some who get a call to Outer Mongolia (I’ve met some of them, they are incredible) but most of us will simply get a call to our neighbours or our unsaved family where we may find rejection but, on the other hand, we may find a prepared ground and we’re just going in to harvest.

Thinking Aright: Part of this ‘finding our life’ when we give it up, is finding a new way of thinking, but we’ll keep that until tomorrow. When we get our thinking right, it is easier to do the things the New Testament says about us. An example? Well the fact that God totally loves us. He is not going to get you to do something or go somewhere that is completely beyond you – well yes it may be, but a) He will always be with you in it and b) He will always enable you to handle it. That’s the joy of this resurrection, empowered life, and so talk of giving up your life is no longer so scary because i) you’ve already done it once when you came to Christ and ii) the power will always be there. Again and again we ‘die’ and say, “Yes, Lord, I will follow you. I will do what you say,” and then to our surprise, it suddenly seems easy!  Amazing! Well, of course, it’s His power you are experiencing.

5. Passover Sacrifice

Short Meditations for Easter on the Cross: 5. Passover Sacrifice

Mt 26:2 “As you know, the Passover is two days away—and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.”

It is almost an oblique reference made by Jesus that links his death with the Passover and yet it is a very real connection. John had recorded John the Baptist’s words about Jesus, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” (Jn 1:29) Later Jesus was to be identified in prophecy as a lamb who had been slain (Rev 5:6)

Now a lamb featured strongly in Israel’s history having been a key feature of the original Passover, a perfect lamb to be slain by each Israelite family in Egypt and the blood smeared on the doorposts of their home so that, “The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are, and when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt.” (Ex 12:13)

At the Last Supper, speaking of the wine, Jesus said, “This is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Mt 26:27,28). The blood, the lamb, his death and our salvation are all closely linked.

I have referred to this, in the title, as the Passover sacrifice for the word ‘sacrifice occurs over 350 times in scripture. A dictionary defines it as, “the act of offering the life of an animal or person or object in propitiation (appeasement) or of homage to a deity,” and the central aspect of ‘a sacrifice’ is the ‘giving up’ or ‘relinquishing’ of life.

Although Jesus himself is not recorded as having used that term of himself (which might sound a bit self-aggrandizing if he did), the apostle Paul did (see Rom 3:25, 1 Cor 5:7, Eph 5:2) and also the writer to the Hebrews (Heb 7:27, 9:26, 10:10-12) and the apostle John (1 Jn 2:2, 4:10) It is a clear and distinctive teaching.

Now we could use this term in a forensic or legal sense and leave it at that, but we have already noted in a prior study the fact that this act was something to be endured, something which Jesus naturally shied away from as he prayed in the garden of Gethsemane, yet he taught, “I lay down my life—only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.” (Jn 10:16,17) i.e. this was a voluntarily, sacrificial laying down of his life for us.

One cannot at this point, help remembering Pauls challenge to us: “I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.” (Rom 12:1) It is a call to similarly give up claims to our own lives and instead submit them to the will of God, not in harsh conforming to the rules, but in loving response to how we see Christ gave his life for us.

14. A Broken Body

Short Meditations on the Body of Christ:  14. A Broken Body

Luke 22:19  And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”

There is something about this phrase from Jesus, “This is my body given for you.”  I always thought it was ‘this is my body, broken for you’ but it isn’t there in the text although the language of action conveys that, as Jesus then broke the loaf and gave it to his followers. The giving that Jesus refers to must surely mean his giving himself to the will of God to die on the Cross, particularly when he goes on to speak of the cup of wine, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.” (Lk 22:20)

There are two thoughts about the body that flow from this. First it is all about self-sacrifice. Without doubt, not only was the Cross a sacrifice of the Lamb of God (see Jn 1:29,36) for the sins of the world, but the Cross was also a picture of supreme sacrifice as Jesus’ words of anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane show (Mt 26:36-44). As we have noted earlier in these studies, Jesus came to do his Father’s will, as painful and awful as it was about to be. A willingness to die for the world was at the heart of Jesus’ mission.

For many of us ‘church’ conveys peace, comfort, nice songs or chants, liturgy, and joyful Sunday mornings but actually the attitude of willing self-sacrifice for the needs of those around us should be a characteristic of this body. Sacrifice means time, energy, work and a willingness ‘to go’, to volunteer, to be available to the Lord for whatever He wants to use us for.

The second thought that flows out of these thoughts is related to the above one which would have preferred peace and comfort and, above all, lack of change. Many of us feel upset whenever change is mooted but this loaf was broken so that it could be shared around, and that spoke of change. We have already referred to the growth factor in these studies about the body of Christ, and growth means change. There is something very intimate when a small group comes together and church life is expressed, but if it is genuine ‘life’ then the group will grow and develop and change.

Whereas in a small group it is easy to minister to one another and have words of prophecy brought, say, when the numbers grow, that is difficult to administer (though not impossible). And then someone gets a vision for a church plant and volunteers are called for to start the new plant, and people leave to do it. Uncomfortable change. We miss people and miss their contributions, but these things are necessary if the church is truly to grow. Constant ‘breaking up’ is an essential for kingdom growth.

58. A Life of Praise

Meditations in Hebrews 13:  58.  A Life of Praise

Heb 13:15   Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise–the fruit of lips that confess his name.

We will jump the verses on leadership because there are more later and we’ll take them all together. Instead we will pick up on the two exhortations in verses 15 and 16 which complement the two ethical exhortations we have just considered in verses 4 and 5, in that they are about the Christian’s general outlook on life. First of all we’ll consider verse 15 and the life of praise and then in the next study, verse 16, a life of goodness.

Praise, a Bedrock: We have commented before that there have been a number of instructions about very basic things in the life of the Christian, and this is certainly true of this present verse. In fact one might go as far as to say that how the individual reflects and lives according to this particular verse will say a great deal about them. I have entitled this study ‘A  Life of Praise’ because when the writer uses the word ‘continually’, he does not mean every second but that we have a general outlook that is filled with praise for God. It is more than just an occasional thing, because as Christians we have so much for which to praise God that is should be the very bedrock of our lives.

Through Jesus: Now we could praise God for being the Creator of all things and that would be legitimate and right, and I often do that, but that can be a little impersonal and so there are two little words at the beginning of the verse that we could miss but which are important – ‘Through Jesus’. Now there are two things to be said about those two words. The first is that who Jesus is and what he has done for us, provides a rich treasury from which praise should flow, and of course that is more personal because it applies to us; it is what he has done for me. The second thing is that the Spirit of Jesus, the Holy Spirit, always seeks to honour and glorify the Father. Praise for what He has done through His Son Jesus, always glorifies Him.

Definitions: Now perhaps we should pause up to define the language we use.  Praise means to acknowledge achievement, and it honours and congratulates a person for what they have done.  Thankfulness is about gratitude, appreciation, thanks, and so there is a difference between praise and thanksgiving. Praise is more objective in that it highlights a person’s activity and achievement in general and then praise focuses that achievement on how it has personally blessed or changed us through what has been done and expresses our personal thankfulness for it.

Now in our verse above there is another word we should note – sacrifice. This very simply acknowledges it is all of God and not me and, as in the Old Testament they brought animals to say thank-you, we simply bring as our ‘sacrifice’ or ‘offering’ praise, the acknowledgment that all else has been done so we need to nothing to put ourselves right with God, Jesus has already done it.  It is that awareness, I would suggest, that should bring praise to our lips every day. This isn’t to make you a better Christian or anything like that, but it just acts as a reminder to me,, and to the onlooking powers and principalities, that I am what I am because of what God has done through Jesus on my behalf.  This stops me striving to be something – for I already am, His child! It also stops me trying to appear great in the eyes of others, for it reminds me that I was lost and helpless and hopeless and so what I am today is not a result of my efforts but of his.

Reasons we don’t & effects: A failure to bring this daily offering of praise can be by casual indifference (which indicates an insensitivity to the Holy Spirit) or specific ignorance (we haven’t ever given real thought to it), and it makes me vulnerable to enemy attacks, for he will try and either make me feel a guilty failure because my efforts to become holy and good are inadequate, or he will drive me to ever greater self-efforts and make the Christian life seem drudgery – which it is not!!!!

Jesus focus: If the beginning of that verse focuses us on Jesus, so does the end: “Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise–the fruit of lips that confess his name.” Confess his name? We who are Christian believers, we alone are the ones who can praise God for the work of Christ on the Cross and of the Holy Spirit applying it into our lives. The rest of the world remains silent, self-absorbed and godless, for they have never come to a realization of just who it is who brought this world into being and who upholds it by the word of his power and who has provided a path back to heaven if they will only take it.

The OT Support: The Psalmist summed it up well in one of his exhortations: “Praise the LORD, all you nations; extol him, all you peoples. For great is his love toward us, and the faithfulness of the LORD endures forever. Praise the LORD.” (Psa 117) God is WORTHY of our praise and so when we fail to give it, we reveal our own poverty of knowledge and vision. Why praise him? The psalmist says it well: “For great is his love toward us.” That is the starting place and all that followed in time-space history flowed out of His love. Moreover, “the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever.”   i.e. He is utterly unchanging and so His love and the things He has done to restore us to Himself will remain there, valid and for the taking for ever, although we now there that there is a time limit, because one day Jesus will return as a conquering king to wind it all up, but until then we can utterly trust Him and for that we should praise Him AND give thanks.

38. The Old Order

Meditations in Hebrews 9:     38. The Old Order

Heb 9:1   Now the first covenant had regulations for worship and also an earthly sanctuary

Tabernacle Ministry: Our writer goes on to compare what went on in the earthly tabernacle (the earthly sanctuary) with what goes on in the heavenly one. In the earthly one the high priest carried out the ‘regulations for worship’ which comprised instructions for sacrifices and offerings. That was what the Tabernacle, and later the Temple, was all about. He reminds us that it was set up with a lamp-stand, a table and consecrated bread in the first room, the Holy Place (v.2) Then behind the curtain was the curtained off area called the Most Holy Place in which were the golden altar and the ark which contained a jar of manna, Aaron’s staff and the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments. (v.3,4) Above the ark were the cherubim but, he says, “we cannot discuss these things in detail now,” (v.5) so we likewise will simply move on.

He then reminds us that “the priests entered regularly into the outer room to carry on their ministry, but only the high priest entered the inner room, and that only once a year, and never without blood, which he offered for himself and for the sins the people had committed in ignorance.” (v.6,7) So, two rooms, the inner one only being entered once a year by the high priest, ad the outer one where daily service to God was provided.

He explains, “The Holy Spirit was showing by this that the way into the Most Holy Place had not yet been disclosed as long as the first tabernacle was still standing.” (v.8) i.e. there wasn’t general access to that inner room and to God’s presence as long as that Tabernacle or Temple service continued under the Law. But then he shows its further limitations: “This is an illustration for the present time, indicating that the gifts and sacrifices being offered were not able to clear the conscience of the worshiper. They are only a matter of food and drink and various ceremonial washings–external regulations applying until the time of the new order.” (v.9,10) i.e. the priests and the people did these things because they were told to, but they still felt guilty. Their obedience to the Law was good but it still didn’t leave them with any understanding that in fact justice had been done and punishment taken for their wrongs –  apart from by the animals they sacrificed. It DID provide a means of providing an obedient response to God showing the heart had turned but it DIDN’T appease their conscience. That was the old system, the old order, purely external things until the new order came and showed the reality.

Christ’s work: He then turns to what Christ has done: “When Christ came as high priest of the good things that are already here, (or ‘are to come’) he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not man-made, that is to say, not a part of this creation.” (v.11) We have to wait until later on when he explains, “Christ did not enter a man-made sanctuary that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence.” (v.24)  Christ’s activity on our behalf was acted out here on earth (although I don’t think ‘acted out’ is a good description of his dying on the Cross!) but the reality of it and what it achieved was brought about in heaven.  Then comes the key verse: “He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption.” (v.12)

‘The Blood’: For the new believer, references to “Christ’s blood” may seem strange but it is simply shorthand for “his death on the Cross for our sins”. Having said that, ‘blood’ was a key feature of the sacrificial system or, to be more precise, shedding it by killing the animal, and scripture declares that “the life of a creature is in the blood.” (Lev 17:11 and a number of other verses). We know that when our heart stops pumping blood around our system, life ceases. Remove the blood and you remove the life; it was that simple.

The Impact of a Sacrifice: Without doubt the sacrificial system was horrible, the taking an animal into the Tabernacle or Temple, placing your hand on its head and then having its throat cut so that the blood poured out so you could literally see the life ebbing away out of this creature, but I am certain that people would realise the seriousness of sin in a much greater way than any of us do today. Once you had done it once, you would resolve not to sin and have to do it again! (In comparison to modern Western societies it would certainly be almost crimeless!)

Christ the Offering: He explains that the sinner who was sprinkled with blood under some of these rites would be declared ceremonially clean and if that was so, how much more would Christ’s death on the Cross, “who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!” (v.14)  That is rather a heavy verse we had better delve into.

“How much more, then.”  If the old order was able to declare a person ceremonially clean how much more can a ritual involving the Son of God.

“will the blood of Christ.” i.e. his death on the Cross.

“who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God.” This was God himself, the One who is Spirit, who died, perfect without sin.

 “cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death.” i.e. our sinful acts are dealt with, acts that lead to spiritual death.

 “so that we may serve the living God!” The end outcome of Christ’s death is that we are left knowing we have done what God laid on for us, i.e. accepted HIS way of salvation, and knowing that justice has been served and our sins properly dealt with.

Us Today? The next verses are also information-packed so we’ll leave them to the next study. Today we may be grateful that we do not have to trek miles to a place where we are required to take an animal to be put to death. Today – and it is almost too easy and therein there is a danger that we become casual about it – we simply turn to God in prayer, confess our sins and declare our acceptance of Jesus as our Saviour and are forgiven and cleansed immediately.

The old was making a primitive people aware of the seriousness of Sin as far as God and people are concerned. The fact that we do not have to follow through those rituals should not make us casual. Perhaps that is the main reason the writer to the Hebrews spells it out as he does; it is another of his warning-encouragements that he keeps on bringing to encourage us to stay on track. Being reminded and being aware of the seriousness of Sin and the wonder of what Christ has done for us, should truly be a motivating factor to keep us in the Faith. Amen? Amen!

45. Sins Sorted

Meditations in 1 Peter : 45: Sins Sorted

1 Pet 3:18 For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.

There are a limited number of verses in the New Testament that stand out as encapsulating the Gospel. Obviously John 3:16 is probably the best known one: For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Next to that, our verse above should perhaps be a close contender. There are three parts to this verse and each part heralds an amazing truth which, put together, comprises what we call the Gospel.

It’s starting point is outstanding but tragically we perhaps take so much of what it says for granted because maybe these truths are too familiar to us. It speaks about Christ, the Messiah, the Sent One and Anointed One, the one sent with a task from God, the Son of God who left heaven and came and lived in a human body called Jesus. This Christ came and died. But everybody dies! Yes, but this person died on purpose for a purpose. His death, it is claimed, had an eternal significance; it wasn’t an accident but a carefully planned and orchestrated strategy of God. This death had to do with dealing with sins!

How we take sins for granted!  Sin has so permeated the world that we take it for granted, just like the air we breathe, and so we take sins for granted. It is sins that create the interest in TV ‘soaps’ or mystery dramas. Without sins we wouldn’t have these things. Without sins families would be happy and content and faithful, businesses would be honest and integrity the name of the game, and life would be free from threat and fear and untruth.

And what we don’t see so often is that sin always has its consequences. That, at least, is seen graphically in the TV soaps. We also fail to remember that every sin will be answerable to God and punishment awarded. If we punish criminals in courts, why should we think that the mass of sins that we accumulate throughout our lives – all the things we thought wrong, said wrong or did wrong, things we shouldn’t have done and things we should have done but didn’t – all these thing incur a penalty or punishment, but we try to forget that.

But then this verse tells us that Christ died for sins which is another way of saying, he was and is the eternal Son of God who could die in the place of each one of us, and take the punishment for any and every sin we will commit in our lives while on this planet. His death was the absolute punishment that would cover every sin. It happened once in time-space history some two thousand years ago. It doesn’t need to happen again and we can’t add anything to what he achieved.  THAT, heaven declares, is the truth, and all we are called to do is believe it.

But then there is the second phrase, “the righteous for the unrighteous.” Just in case you hadn’t taken in the wonder of what Christ did as I just explained, we are reminded that he was righteous and we are unrighteous. Note the two things. Jesus was the only man in history who did not sin: “just as we are–yet was without sin.” (Heb 4:15). He was exactly as the Old Testament offerings required – a sacrifice without blemish. He was righteous in a negative way in that he never sinned but he was also righteous in a positive way in that he did exactly what was required of God’s will. He was an obedient Son fulfilling the Father’s will, fulfilling the plan formulated before the foundation of the world.

But we are unrighteous. Sometimes, on a good day when the sun is shining and everything seems to be going well, we think we just might be righteous, but we kid ourselves. Lurking there, just waiting for the opportunity to express itself is this thing called Sin, that tendency to be self-centred, godless and unrighteous. Wrong thoughts predominate, wrong words so easily come to our lips, and wrong actions so quickly follow. Every time we criticise, gossip or judge, we have fallen into the murky depths. We are unrighteous, but then The Righteous One comes and declares us righteous in God’s sight when we surrendered to him, sought his forgiveness and his sovereign leading. Suddenly, but only then, he declares us righteous – at least in God’s sight. (We have yet to work it out in our practical lives).

Which brings us to the last phrase: “to bring you to God.” Again, because it is so familiar we take it for granted, this sense that we are alone in the universe and if there is a God He is a million miles away.  Indeed deep down we are glad of that because deep down we know we are guilty and we fear the thought that we will be answerable to God. We were separated from God by our sins and our guilt and something had to happen – something beyond us, because we were incapable of changing – and it was Christ coming to die in our place as an expression of the Father’s love. There came a time when the Holy Spirit convicted us of the truth about our lives and like a drowning man or woman we grasped for the wonder of what was being presented to us – there IS a way for you to be forgiven, there is a way for you to be reconciled to God. Jesus has done it on the Cross and now all it requires is for you to believe it. THAT is the Gospel! Isn’t it wonderful!

Just should you be reading these things for the first time and it is the first time you’ve heard these things, it can’t remain just passive knowledge. It is true and it requires a response from you, a response that acknowledges your Sin and your sins and your need of God’s help, a response that declares belief in all that Jesus has done for us on the Cross, a submission to him and a request for forgiveness, acceptance and help from God Himself on the basis of these truths. May it be so!

46. Vows

Meditations in Ecclesiastes : 46 :  Care with Vows

Eccles 5:4-7 When you make a vow to God, do not delay in fulfilling it. He has no pleasure in fools; fulfill your vow. It is better not to vow than to make a vow and not fulfill it. Do not let your mouth lead you into sin. And do not protest to the temple messenger, “My vow was a mistake.” Why should God be angry at what you say and destroy the work of your hands? Much dreaming and many words are meaningless. Therefore stand in awe of God.

Handling the Bible requires a little wisdom. Perhaps that is why in the Middle Ages the Church wasn’t very keen on it being left in the hands of the layman. I would never take that stand but I do encourage people to read the Bible and read it with understanding. Now this is one of those times where we need to realise three things about the text before us. The first thing is that it was written by Solomon from an earthly standpoint, hence the phrase which crops up again and again, “under the sun.” The second thing is that it was written during a phase in his life when he had drifted from God and succumbed to the folly of his foreign wives who worshipped idols. The third thing to note is that the Bible is progressive and so we now have far more revelation through the New Testament than Solomon ever had.

Now I say all this because I am going to make a suggestion that is almost unique in these meditations and it is this: Solomon’s understanding was limited and therefore his teaching is limited and we shouldn’t let it condemn us. It is wrong in its incompleteness!. Having spoken in earlier verses about keeping quiet before God, he does recognise that there will be times when people feel constrained to come before God and make a vow or promise before God. An example of such a vow from the Old Testament would be that of Hannah: In bitterness of soul Hannah wept much and prayed to the LORD. And she made a vow, saying, “O LORD Almighty, if you will only look upon your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the LORD for all the days of his life.” (1 Sam 1:10,11) In the New Testament there is a reference to a vow that the apostle Paul had made: “Before he sailed, he had his hair cut off at Cenchrea because of a vow he had taken.” (Acts 18:18). In other words he needed a haircut because probably he had previously made the vow of a Nazirite (see Num 6:1-21) and separated himself off to the Lord for a period. We see a similar reference in Acts 21:22-26.

Now previously Solomon has said, “Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God.” (v.2) so here he adds, It is better not to vow than to make a vow and not fulfill it. Do not let your mouth lead you into sin.” i.e. guard your mouth and don’t make hasty promises before God that you cannot keep, for in so doing you are committing a sin. Look, he says, don’t turn up in the Temple one day and make a vow before the officials there and then later do not protest to the temple messenger, “My vow was a mistake.” Yes, it obviously was a mistake and you shouldn’t have made it if you can’t keep it now but, he says, don’t try and just squeeze out of it now.

Now we come to the part where I believe Solomon is adrift in his old age: Why should God be angry at what you say and destroy the work of your hands?” i.e. God will destroy what you do because of your sin. This is only half the story! The whole purpose of the Temple was to provide a place where people could come and meet with God – and especially when they had sinned! A large part of the sacrificial system was about saying sorry to God, of repenting and seeking to put things right as God had decreed.

A chunk of the early chapters of Leviticus is all about coming to God when you have sinned! You came to say sorry; you came to put it right in the prescribed manner. Solomon in his jaded state seems to have forgotten that. The deception of his idolatry seems to have wiped from his mind the big thing that separates off God from his idols. The Lord is holy and will deal with sin and where there is a hard heart that fails to repent, then He will take severe action, but God is primarily a God of redemption! The plan of redemption, we’ve seen before, was in God’s heart before He created the world. He knew people would sin and so He made provision in the Law for that failure to be dealt with. There WAS a way back to God!

Yes, his final words are right, we are to “stand in awe of God” because He is holy and we were not, but both in the Law and the Gospel God has provided for us to come back to Him. So even where there was a foolish vow that would lead to bad things (see Jud 11:30 on) the right way of dealing with it was to acknowledge that the making of it was presumptuous sin and to confess it and seek forgiveness through a sacrifice according to the Law. Today we do it through the blood of Jesus shed on the Cross for us, but the process is ultimately the same: conviction, confession, repentance and cleansing and forgiveness (1 Jn 1:9). If you are rash with you mouth, the way back to God is through the Cross – but there IS a way back! Hallelujah!