5. The Big Picture

Studies in Isaiah 54: 5. The Big Picture

Isa 54:6 “The Lord will call you back as if you were a wife deserted and distressed in spirit— a wife who married young, only to be rejected,” says your God.

Two Approaches:  As we look at this verse it appears that there can be two approaches to it. There is the approach that sees it in the context of the history of Israel and then the approach that sees it in the context of the history of the world. Put most simply we have a picture that portrays a wife who has been rejected, deserted and distressed, which can be either Israel or the world (and we will look at both) whom the Lord calls back to Himself. What follows in the ongoing verses is simply an expansion of that.

Israel, the wife: This has to be the primary meaning within a prophecy that comes from a Hebrew prophet to Israel in their time-space history. We must note the words in verse 6, “as if you were”. It is a picture, an analogy, to describe what they are like. The implication is that the Lord is like their husband. He had called them – through Abram and then later through Moses – to become a uniquely identifiable people with a uniquely distinct relationship with Him, a relationship likened to that of a husband and wife.

When? Now there is always a problem with prophecy: it may be spoken out of time, about a future time, a future time that is not yet identifiable, and it may be fulfilled more than once! So the Lord speaks of a time when He had apparently given them up: “For a brief moment I abandoned you,” (v.7a) and, “In a surge of anger I hid my face from you for a moment.” (v.8a) Now in Isa 36 we have an historical insert: “In the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah’s reign, Sennacherib king of Assyria attacked all the fortified cities of Judah and captured them. Then the king of Assyria sent his field commander with a large army from Lachish to King Hezekiah at Jerusalem.”  (Isa 36:1,2)

It was one of those numerous times when the Lord would discipline Israel – to bring them back to Himself – by using an enemy invader. The reality is that it happened so many times – the book of Judges is full of it – that it is difficult to suggest from our perspective when the Lord was referring to. The fact that Isaiah refers to Cyrus, who later becomes an instrument in the Lord’s hand for getting Israel back to the Land after the Exile, suggests it could be that this prophecy is yet to be also used for encouraging Israel in that later time as well as in the present when Isaiah is actually speaking out these words.

A Changed People:  The point of this word – in the present at least – is to reassure Israel that they were not utterly cast away. Now the truth is that the Lord does not just shrug his shoulders and pretend that sin has not happened; He always deals with it. The Exile, possibly many years later, was a time of purging Israel of their idolatry and of creating a new faithful heart in them. Thus when the remnant eventually started returning after some forty years, they came back with changed hearts. We need to realize this, that when the Lord speaks of restoring Israel after a time of disciplining, it is a purged people He will be restoring, a changed people.

He’s not going to just turn the clock back so that the old sinful attitudes are still there and He is doing nothing about it, He is going to change them. Previously, if He appeared to be doing nothing, it was simply that He was staying His hand of judgment to give them time to repent, and if they did not, then the judgment came to discipline them: The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Pet 3:9)

So when we try to understand the ways of the Lord, we should always understand that even though discipline comes, it comes with the purpose of changing us and the end result is to be a restored and changed people, a people who have been cleansed by the judgment (discipline) and had their hearts changed and transformed. Perhaps we should also note the tense at the beginning of verse 6: “The Lord will call you back…” There is a future sense to this. It is the Lord declaring His intention of what is yet to come, but that is how it is so often with prophecy; it is not merely stating God’s will for the moment, it also so often declares it for the future.

The World:  But the second approach we said above is about the world. The big picture of salvation after the Fall is perhaps portrayed here. This is the big picture of God’s plans and purposes for the whole world. At the Fall we were cast away. His relationship with mankind – Adam and Eve – was fractured by sin. When I first studied this judgment of being cast out of the Garden, I marveled that this was not the end of the ‘God + Mankind’ equation. God did not totally abandon us, He gave us what we wanted, what Adam and Eve had revealed, autonomy, the freedom to live our lives as we will – with all the repercussions!  We would learn, we had a need, of someone to save us from the mess that we all make of life.  And thus it was that it was like He hovered in the background. It was clear that He spoke with Cain and Abel, had dealings with various others in the ensuing years, and eventually called Abram into relationship with Him.

The Anger of the Lord: The words of these verses that we are considering could equally be applied to the Fall and what followed it: “The Lord will call you back as if you were a wife deserted and distressed in spirit— a wife who married young, only to be rejected,” says your God.” (v.6) They had a relationship with the Lord to start with, but their sin meant that, “For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with deep compassion I will bring you back. In a surge of anger I hid my face from you for a moment.“ (v.7,8) The folly of sin evokes righteous anger; it is a right response to wrong.

In our defensiveness we so often fail to see this, perhaps only made clear when one of our children do wrong and provoke anger within us.  Anger is a rising of indignation, a rising of displeasure at what has happened. The thing should not have happened, it was pure folly for it to happen – and of course that is true of all sin, we should know better, but there seems to be this blindness that is part of sin, so that we don’t see the folly and so proceed with the sin. It is stupid and so any onlooker with an unbiased mind would feel a sense of anger that it ever happened. If we could see clearly we would feel it; God does see clearly and so feels it.

The Compassion of the Lord:  “I will have compassion on you,” says the Lord your Redeemer.” We may settle in anger and fume; God never does. It may be right to respond with anger at our folly but God never leaves it there. He looks upon us and anger is tempered by compassion. He is love (1 Jn 4:8,16, Ex 34:6,7) and love always looks for the best in everyone else. Anger is appropriate but it is overwhelmed by compassion and out of that God acts to redeem us.

There is a mystery here that C.S.Lewis sought to address, that God appears to stand outside of history, like He looks down on history, as seen as a road below that He can see from beginning to end, but also He steps into history and acts as if everything is new. So although the Scriptures are clear that the Godhead planned salvation, seeing the effect of free-will, even before they made anything, when the Fall took place God’s response to the moment was anger followed by compassion, and it was that compassion that moves Him to continue to interact with mankind. Never say God doesn’t care for us, He does. He may discipline us, “for a little while” (Heb 12:10) but it is that Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace.”  (Heb 12:11).

Thus in these verses we also have the wonder of our salvation. Whenever we fail the Lord and come under His discipline, always remember it is but for a moment and the compassion of God will be there to restore us to Him: “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.” (1 Jn 2:1) God’s constant intent is to redeem us and that is what the whole of the Bible is all about. See it and rejoice in it.  Hallelujah!

12. Needing to be ‘saved’?

The Wonder of the Church:  Part 2 – A Different People

12. Needing to be ‘Saved’?

Heb 2:3,4 ‘This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him. God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.

2 Cor 7:10  Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death

Salvation?  In the previous study I faced the challenge about the language of ‘salvation’. Apart from the Salvation Army the word salvation gets rarely used in modern life and so for some, the use of this language in a religious context appears either old fashioned or overly emotional. Yet it is a word that appears in the New Testament many times. Talk of ‘being saved’ is slightly more common in modern life for we use it of people being rescued from a sinking ship or people being rescued from a burning building, or even of captives being rescued from the hands of terrorists. In every such case, ‘being saved’ means being delivered from the threat of death. In the Bible that death is seen in the light of the Judgment of God.

A God of Judgment? Because there is a modern tendency to view God through rose-tinted glasses and many see Him as a distant figure who, having once set everything in motion, now just sits at a distance watching us make a mess of things. (That is ‘deism’). The thought of God intervening or interfering in human life is, to such people, almost abhorrent. Religion, for them, comprises performing acts of devotion (going to church and performing the rituals) but expecting no more. The talk of interaction with God and encountering the power of the Holy Spirit, simply frightens such people. But the truth of the whole Bible is that God does judge, God does intervene – now! – and not just at what is referred to as the Final Judgment. But the bigger picture shows a God who does judge but also provides a way of avoiding that judgement through repentance and trusting in the finished work of Christ on the Cross. That is salvation.

The focus of salvation: Because it may be that some might think I am exaggerating here, we do need to eyeball this truth. When the angel came to Joseph in a dream, he said to Joseph, speaking about Mary, “She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus,] because he will save his people from their sins.” (Mt 1:21) You may find an additional footnote in your Bible that Jesus is the Greek form of Joshua which means, ‘the Lord saves’, i.e. another way of saying he will be a deliverer – from sins, and by implication, from the death that follows: “the wages of sin is death,” (Rom 6:23) i.e. death is the end product of sin, of this life that I have referred to as being self-centred and godless.

That is what this is all about, of God providing a way whereby we can be delivered from a self-centred and godless life and from the death that it brings. NB. Death here should be contrasted with the eternal life that is so often referred to as the outworking of salvation: “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.” (Jn 3:16)

The Language of Salvation: But this is not a rare or occasional use of this language. Let’s spend a little time considering this by picking out a few of the verses of the New Testament. Observing the apostles in Acts, we find as Peter speaks about Jesus, Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12) That is somewhat uncompromising, especially in this modern world that wants to be all things to all people.

Again, speaking of this coming to the wider world and not just the Jews, the apostle Paul declared, “I want you to know that God’s salvation has been sent to the Gentiles,” (Acts 28:28) and then to the Romans he declared, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.” (Rom 1:16) There we see it, a declaration that the good news of Jesus coming as a saviour-deliverer, came to the whole world, Jew and Gentile. But was it a passive thing, simply an act of God so now we can ignore it because God has simply forgiven us, and we are all saved? Well, not exactly.

“And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit.” (Eph 1:13) So writes the apostle Paul to the church at Ephesus.  This takes us back to an earlier study (No.7) about Christians being believers, and belief is the first stage towards all that subsequently follows. What follows is a transformation that we have considered in Study No.8, first at the act of conversion, of us being ‘born again’ and then in the ongoing life: continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfil his good purpose.” (Phil 2:12,13) There salvation is seen, not just as what happens as we surrender and repent, but everything that follows in our lives thereafter.

We started this section with a quote from the apostle Peter in Acts, so let’s finish it with a quote from his first letter: “Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” (1 Pet 1:8,9) Faith opens a door to life with Christ and Christ delivers us (an ongoing process) from our old self-centred and godless life. Being a Christian thus means receiving and living out this life of relationship with Jesus. (You can check out a few further ‘salvation quotes’ in 1 Thess 5:9, 2 Tim 2:10, Heb 2:3, 5:9.)

And So? What are the key points that stand out in what we have been considering in this study? First, I would suggest, this language of ‘salvation’ is not merely common to the New Testament, it is fundamental to it. Second, it is seen as something available for the whole human race and yet only applied in conjunction with belief.   Third, it is spoken of so many times and in such a basic and fundamental way, because the big issue that the New Testament deals with, is how can sinful men and women (all of us) be saved from the demands of justice, applied by the judgment of God? Fourth, but it doesn’t stop there; having been saved from it once, how can that deliverance be continued on throughout our lives on this earth, in such a manner that justice is still being satisfied? The answer to this, more fully, is how God then views us, and that will take us into exactly what happens, as far as heaven is concerned, at our point of conversion, and that is where we will go on to soon.

40. The Salvation Process

Short Meditations in John 6:  40. The Salvation Process

Jn 6:40 For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.”  

Hell or annihilation (depending on what you believe) is the ultimate fear when death is faced – what comes next? One of the things about the whole record of the Bible is this looking towards ‘something next’ after death, and although there are in the Gospels warning against a fiery destruction for unbelievers (e.g. Mt 3:10,12, 5:22, 7:19, 13:40, 18:8,9, 25:41) there are also many encouragements about eternal life (e.g. Jn 3:15,16,36, 4:14,36, 5:24, 6:27,40,47,54,68, 10:28, 12:25,50, 17:2,3). This ‘eternal life’ was often expressed in the terms of ‘being raised up at the last day’ (see also 5:28,29) and thus we now find in v.39,40,44,54 – this reference that Jesus will “raise them up at the last day” i.e. four times in this chapter to make the point.

But this point is, in the light of the complete verse, the last part of a process that takes place, and has to take place, with every fallen sinner who wishes to avoid the destructions warned against above.  The start of this ‘process’ (an ongoing action with a number of elements) is, for the fallen sinner (all of us) turning to Jesus. It is seen in this verse as two stages: a) looking on the Son and b) believing in him. We can see those two stages so clearly in people coming to the Lord.

Initially most are very largely ignorant of Jesus but then as the individual has their attention drawn to the Gospels which they read, or are told about, they become aware of Jesus in a new way. Believing in him really should have three aspects although, as we’ve said before, they often only filter into our consciousness in stages. They are that a) he is the unique Son of God, God in the flesh, b) he has come to be Saviour of the world, and also c) he is Lord.

We must never see our salvation in mechanical terms, one thing automatically following another. The promise of eternal life is given to the new believer and the indwelling Holy Spirit (who is eternal) is the means of our lives being carried on after death and into eternity. It is because of the work of Christ on the Cross that this becomes possible and so it is Christ (and his Spirt, the Holy Spirit) who will raise us up to be with him in eternity. The reference to “at the last day” which appears in these verses three times, we so often think of as either Jesus’ second coming (see Rev 19:11-) or the final judgment day (Rev 20:11-) but it could also very simply mean the last day of our physical lives. Applying Scripture to this part of our existence is not easy, suffice it to say we are promised a new raised up life that Jesus will enable to happen after our deaths. Hallelujah!

68. God who Equips

Meditations in Hebrews 10:  68.  God who Equips

Heb 13:20,21   May the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.  

So Jesus, the great Shepherd has come to earth and drawn us to himself and sometimes some of us just focus on our conversion as if that was all there is, but of course the truth is that our conversion, our being ‘born again’, was merely the start of a life with Christ. We may have before us, years and years of living out the Christian life.

God’s Initial Purpose for us: Now because God has given us free will, I believe a lot of the things to come are things we choose but behind whatever we plan and want, the Lord is working in and through us to bring about His plans and purposes. These are spoken about by Paul to the church at Ephesus in general terms: For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Eph 2:10) Add to that his words to the church at Corinth: “we… are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit,” (2 Cor 3:18) and we can see that God’s initial purpose in us is to change us to be more Christ-like which, I would suggests means both in character and in service. Add to this another important truth, “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it,” (1 Cor 12:27) and the teaching that goes with it in that chapter, and we see that God gifts us in particular ways that harmonise with the gifts of other believers, so that together collectively we express the life and ministry of Christ which, in itself, was to fulfil the will of the Father.

God’s Primary Resource: So there is our target to become like Christ and do his works as he leads; that is the will of the Father. So how does He quip us to go about this, for this is what our verses above are all about? I think different Christians would put this order in different ways, but I am convinced that THE primary resource that He gives us, is Himself, His own Holy Spirit. The New Testament is quite clear that when we are born again we are indwelt by the Holy Spirit who remains in us for the rest of our existence. Jesus taught that the Holy Spirit would teach us and guide us and empower us. I have often said that I believe every practical expression of God’s grace is in fact an expression of the indwelling Holy Spirit. He is, without doubt our first resource.

God’s Second Resource: But then coming a very close second is God’s revealed word, the Bible. Those most famous of Paul’s words speak of this: All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16,17) As we take and allow the Holy Spirit to apply God’s word to us, we are changed and that change makes us morel like Jesus in character and service as we said above.

Put on equipment: But how does this work? Well, the apostle Paul explained it in his graphic ‘warfare passage in Eph 6: “Put on the full armour of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armour of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” (Eph 6:11-17)

There are certain aspects of the Christian life that we have to ‘put on’ (v.11) just like a soldier puts on armour.  We have to realise that all these things we are talking about, whether it be in respect of equipping or to do with armour, are all in the spiritual realm (v.12) so we are not talking about material or physical things here, we are talking about expression of the life of the Spirit in and through us. These things that we have to ‘put on’ are things that will equip us and enable us to stand in the face of the attacks of the enemy. (13). The things we are to ‘put on’ or apply to our lives to equip us are truth and righteousness (v.14), ready with the Gospel of peace (v.15), faith (v.16), the fact of our salvation and God’s word itself. (v.17). In Paul’s analogy truth and righteousness protect the upper body, covering the heart. The fact that the soldier’s feet are covered with the readiness to bring the Gospel of peace says that we are constantly ready to be God’s ambassadors, peace bringers, and as such we will come with the authority of God. Both faith and the facts of our salvation  equip us to ward off the lies of the enemy and then, as the Holy Spirit directs us, we can wield His word to defeat the enemy, release captives and generally do the will of God.

Jesus’ Mission: Let us again put God’s will in context as we consider Isaiah’s words that Jesus read out declaring to be his mission: he has anointed me  to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners  and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free,    to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” (Lk 4:18,19) THAT is why we need to be equipped by God, for this is His will for us to bring to the earth. That is why we pray with the writer, May the God of peace,… equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.” As we receive His equipping, so we will glorify Him. Indeed, may it be so!  PS. Just note in that His equipping it will be with “everything good”. The God of peace, the God of goodness, equips us with all good things to bless us and make us a blessing. Yes? Yes!

16. Multiple Witness

Meditations in Hebrews 2: 16.  Multiple Witness

Heb 2:3,4   This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him. God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.

We did briefly mention something of these verses in the previous meditation but there we were focusing on the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, noting how it was good news that came with both words and power but, as we said, the emphasis was on the message itself. Now we want to focus on how the message came and open up even more what we have previously seen. There are, as the heading above suggests, multiple witnesses to the truths we have been recently considering about the coming of Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God.

The first of these witnesses was Jesus himself: This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord.  The apostle John picked up on this when he reflected on Jesus ministry: Jesus said to them, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working.” For this reason the Jews tried all the harder to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.” (Jn 5:17,18)  Jesus brought this very oblique testimony and yet the Jews clearly recognized what he was saying – I am God.  When they objected, Jesus spoke of another witness: “If I testify about myself, my testimony is not valid. There is another who testifies in my favor, and I know that his testimony about me is valid. You have sent to John and he has testified to the truth.” (Jn 5:31-33)

Yes, the Law required two witnesses for a testimony to be valid, so Jesus pointed out that John had testified to Him. But Jesus wasn’t satisfied with that: “I have testimony weightier than that of John. For the very work that the Father has given me to finish, and which I am doing, testifies that the Father has sent me. And the Father who sent me has himself testified concerning me.” (Jn 5:36,37) i.e. the very things Jesus was doing testified to who he was. Consider the lists of what we saw Jesus doing in the previous meditation and you realise this is no mere man. In that sense the Father testified to Jesus, empowering him, but the Father had also testified to His Son at his baptism. (see Lk 3:22) That same voice testified to him on the Mount of Transfiguration (see Lk 9:35) and a third time on Psalm Sunday (Jn 12:28)

But then the second witness were the disciples: “confirmed to us by those who heard him.” The Gospel writers, first of all, collected the testimonies of those who had been with Jesus.  Luke, for example, wrote, “Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word.” (Lk 1:1,2) John would eventually write at the end of his Gospel, “This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down,” (Jn 21:24) and who write in his first letter, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched–this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard.” (1 Jn 1:1-3) Yes, this is language of witnesses.

But then there was the third witness: “God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.” (v.4) We have already briefly referred to the Father’s testimony in the work of Jesus but this is familiar language used by the early disciples, for example Peter on the Day of Pentecost: “Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know.” (Acts 2:22) Again the Easy to Read version says it most simply:My fellow Israelites, listen to these words: Jesus from Nazareth was a very special man. God clearly showed this to you. He proved it by the miracles, wonders, and miraculous signs he did through Jesus. You all saw these things, so you know this is true.”  ‘A very special man’ accurately records it but understates it. ‘Proved it’ – the language of evidence.

Now remember this is all about ‘the salvation’ conveyed through these witnesses. Out salvation is the key end issue here. How can we believe what we are told? Because Jesus said it, his disciples confirmed it and God the Father backed it up by signs and wonders and gifts of the Spirit manifested through the Son and then through the disciples and the early church and the church down through the centuries. We can believe because the evidence is so strong. More than that, we must believe otherwise we will fall away and that’s what the writer to the Hebrews wants to avoid.  Thus the warning not to drift away comes with a reminder that we have so much supporting evidence as to the truth about Jesus and our salvation, that no one really has any excuse if they reject these things.

22. Wrong Methods

Meditations in Colossians 2: 22:  Wrong Methods

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. Peace?

Meditations in Colossians: 5:  Peace?

Col 1:2b   Grace and peace to you from God our Father

Have you ever wondered why in so many of his letters the apostle Paul in his greeting to his readers seeks grace and peace for them, and now as we are considering it, specifically peace?  A simple and short answer may be because peace is a part of the salvation package and as such is something we would want to ensure we all have.  And that suggests it is possible that we do not appreciate and appropriate it, and that it is possible to lose it!

Perhaps a useful starting point would be to ponder on the absence of peace in the world. The absence of peace is anxiety, so why are so many people anxious? Let’s look at the main reasons and then we’ll see how the Gospel meets them. I am going to start out by suggesting that anxiety is a response to a fear and so if we can identify the fear, we will see the cause of the anxiety and then go on to see how the Gospel meets that with peace.

Fear of God: I think that the first fear that the world struggles with is this fear of or about God, which is why there are so many so-called ‘world religions’.  An awareness that there is a hidden world, a world more than mere materialism, is prevalent in all cultures. Ours (temporarily at least)  has the majority putting their trust in materialist declaring that there is nothing more that that which can be seen or touched, and yet increasingly there is a disillusionment creeping in that recognises that this is not fulfilling, and so we are gradually moving from getting our kicks from things and turning towards getting experiences, but that too will prove a hollow hope.

Yes, there are many who are honest enough to say that they sense that there is something more and they often tend to be superstitious, fending off the ‘who knows what’ which is very similar to animists and the like from third world countries. The worry that many have is, if there is a God what will He be like? The enemy seeks to convey a distorted picture from a largely ignorant knowledge of the Old Testament and conveys that He must be a nasty God. Perhaps it is better to remain in ignorance of Him. And then Jesus comes and reveals a God of absolute love and at the heart of the Gospel is this, that perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment,”  (1 Jn 4:18) and we find that the perfect love who is God has come to deal with our punishment and suddenly we are presented with the wonderful possibility  that we can be adopted children of a loving heavenly Father who just desires good for us. Peace!

Fear of who I am: Observe human beings and you observe people who are constantly striving to make something of themselves or present themselves well to all others.  Yes, that is what we do, and then suddenly reality breaks through and we realise we are not the nice people we wish we were. We act with hostility towards others, we denigrate others, we are unkind or uncaring. We eat to much and wish we were thin. We smoke and justify why we can’t give up. We drink too much and deny we have a problem. That’s life in the human race and we could say so much, much more. We snap at loved ones and wish we could control our temper, and so it goes on. We buy self-help books or go on personal improvement courses but ultimately nothing seems to help. And then we are presented with the Gospel and with it comes forgiveness through the Cross and empowering by the Holy Spirit and we are ‘born again’ and we are new people; and suddenly everything is different. since we have been justified through faith, weA have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”  (Rom 5:1)   Peace!

Fear of my guilt being found out (about yesterday).  We all of us have a past and many of us have things we would rather forget and things we dread might come to light and show us up in bad light.  We were violent, we had an abortion, we stole something, we took drugs, we took a bribe to look the other way, so many things that can act as something nasty in a dark cupboard in the recesses of our memory. And then Jesus saves us and he not only deals with our present sins but all the sins of yesterday. Yes, we were wrong, yes we are sorry and yes, only he can wash us clean of the past. Today is another day, a new day and we are a new person: if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Cor 5:17) That old sinner, that old guilty person has gone. They have died and are dead and buried. This person that is you today is a completely new person, cleansed, forgiven and given a new life and a new hope. Peace!

Fear of not coping (in today):  But then we have anxiety about today, how I can cope, how I can cope with people, how I can cope with difficult circumstances, how I can cope with the pressures of life, how I can make the money go round, how I can cope with failing health, how I can cope …. with it all!   And then I meet Jesus and I am told that I am  God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do,” (Eph 2:10) and I realise that I am now living within his plans for me and he has it all mapped out and whatever he puts before me, he will give me the grace to handle (and I now know all about grace!) Suddenly I realise he is in charge and he cares for me, loves me, provides for me- and that includes all of today. Peace!

For of what might happen (tomorrow): And not only does that include today but it also includes whatever might happen tomorrow and I hear the same whisper that the apostle Paul heard, “My grace is sufficient for you,” (2 Cor 12:9)  and the same word that came through the Hebrews writer, Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you,” (Heb 13:5) and I realise that he will be there tomorrow and his resources will still be there for me tomorrow, and as I browse the words of the New Testament, I find more and more verses that show he will always be there providing for me. Peace!

So there it is. No wonder Paul includes peace in his greetings, as one of the things he wants for us. We need it to handle the world and we handle the world because of what He has done for us and because of what He has said He will do for us. No wonder Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (Jn 14:27)  Jesus was at peace knowing he was in his Father’s plan, in control of all that went on, and knowing what would be the outcome.  And he gives that peace to you and me – knowing that he is in control, he has a plan and we are part of it, he has done everything that needs doing to deal with our Sin, and he has given us his Spirit to empower us every day. Peace! Receive it, enjoy it, hold on to it!