42. Camels and Needles

Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 42.  Camels and Needles

Mt 19:24   Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

Context: a wealthy young man (Mt 19:22) has come to Jesus asking about receiving eternal life and at the end of his conversation he goes away mournful, either because he found Jesus’ instruction to sell up and give to the poor an impossible thing to do, or he went away struggling with the difficulty he knew he would face if he was to do this. As he goes away, Jesus said to his disciples, “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” (v.23) Now that is the basic teaching and the analogy that follows simply confirms or ratifies this teaching.

So why should it be so difficult for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God? Well, the basic requirement for entry is repentance and that may be in respect of specific sins but at the very least it is repentance in respect of the nature of the life we live. Repentance means a one hundred and eighty degree turn about, a turn from a self-centred godless life to a Christ-centred godly life. Previously we lived on the basis of self-will, what we determined was right and wrong and that was largely based on how good the thing left us feeling. Rich people live for enjoyment, for self-pleasure, able to spend what they have on self. They are able to determine what they do and when they do it. Coming to Christ recognizes the empty futility of such a life in reality, and surrenders up that lifestyle and submits to Jesus’ Lordship. Now that is an incredibly hard thing to do and that is why Jesus says what we have just read.

So now comes the analogy: “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (v.24) Now there are usually two interpretations given for what this means.

First, the obvious one, is the more simple. Perhaps where Jesus was teaching Camel Traders were passing by and so if you wanted an illustration of something living that was large, the camel was the obvious thing. Now the women in particular would be familiar with a needle used at home and husbands would have seen their use as well so we have a second thing that was familiar. Indeed the struggle to get thread through the eye of a needle is a familiar thing to any homemaker so it is like Jesus was saying, “You know what it is like, the struggle to thread a needle, well imagine what it would be like if I said you must push that camel over there through the eye of your needle.”

This produced a natural reaction: “When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?” (v.25) Jesus gives a reply that goes to the heart of the problem: “Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (v.26) That is the truth of this analogy, that it is impossible for a rich man to come to God because of his reliance on his riches. But is that the end of the story, will that rich young man never come to God? Oh no, says Jesus, it may be humanly impossible but when God is on your case, nothing is impossible.

I think that sometimes it is not only riches that make it hard for people to come to Christ; it can also be culture or even politics. I have no doubt told this story in some previous study on this site but it bears repeating. Many years ago when I was much younger and worked in an office in the City of London, in the office was a much older man who was a cockney Labour councillor who saw my Christianity as a middle class thing utterly opposed to everything his culture believed in. We became good friends and he regularly made fun of my faith. He was, we might say, ‘as hard as nails’ when it comes to belief. He was absolutely, to use another expression, set in concrete, but one day we were at lunch together and he started sharing a personal problem he had at home, a spiritual problem. I started sharing but after a while I had to say, “My old friend, I would love to carry on talking but unfortunately in this building there is a Christian group that meets regularly to pray and read the Bible and it just so happens that today they have asked me to lead the Bible study and so I have to go and do that. You’d be very welcome to come if you want, but I have to go now.”

I didn’t think he would take up my offer and so I went off to take the Bible study in the second half-hour of our lunch hour. I joined the group and started the study which just so happened to be (previously set) an exposition of John Chapter 3 – all about being born again! To my total surprise, after about two minutes he slipped in at the back and listened attentively. At the end of the half hour this ‘hard-as-nails’ old friend was ‘born again’. If you had asked me a week before, I would have said he was the last person on earth who would accept Christ – but he did. The camel came through the eye. It was utterly a work of God, that which was humanly impossible became possible with God.

Now there is a second interpretation given of this analogy. In the city there would be the large main gate which was shut at dusk, but there was also a small arched gateway that was left open for pedestrians who arrived late in the city. This small gate, possibly because of its smallness, was referred to as ‘The Needle’s Eye’. Now it was only designed for people and so if you wanted to get your camel into the city through this little gate, you would have to take off all its load, and get it right down on its knees and only then might it be able to shuffle through. That analogy is equally instructive – that to come to Christ, you must shed all you have and come empty handed on bended knee in total humility. Now that analogy does not actually fit with Jesus words about the impossibility of the situation, but it does convey the truths about a person coming to Christ.

So, two things to conclude. First, don’t try and make it easy for a person to come to Christ – it isn’t. Whoever they are, repentance and total surrender are essentials. Second, never write off anyone as too hard for God. As my illustration above shows, God has an amazing way of working on the most hard of hearts. It (they) may appear impossible from your standpoint but God may think otherwise. Why doesn’t God convict every single person and bring them to Him? He respects our free will and as much as He may speak and bring pressure to bear, He will never force us into the kingdom. Perhaps another way of putting it, in the light of my old friend, is to say that He alone can see the cracks in the hardest of hearts and He alone knows just how little it may require to help that person on to a place of surrender. Keep praying for your unsaved loved ones, friends and neighbours, you never know who the Lord his going to approach as His next ‘camel’!!!

86. Saved by Mercy

Meditations in Exodus: 86. Saved by Mercy

Num 16:41  The next day the whole Israelite community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. “You have killed the LORD’s people,” they said.

I finished the previous meditation with the following: What more can one say. It is like coming to the end of some great film full of action and suddenly, ‘The End’.  Silence. It is over, but you are left there, standing and wondering. Why were these men so foolish as to mess with God? The death of Korah and company by what appears a limited earthquake or even sink-hole followed by fire, must have been devastating. Yes, Moses had clearly been the Lord’s instrument but the magnitude of what happened was so great that surely there must have been no question that this was an incredible act of God. I finished as I did because it struck me that this is how it must have been, total silence  and horror, but if it was it was short lived.

“The next day the whole Israelite community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. “You have killed the LORD’s people,” they said.” (v.41) What was it about this people that made them so blind? Well we said it then and we’ll say it again – Sin. Modern Christianity so often says little about Sin but it is the reason for the Cross. It is inherent in every single person. Before we came to Christ we were held by its power. When we came to Christ he not only justified us, forgave us, cleansed us and adopted us, but he also put his own Holy Spirit within us, power to overcome, power to change us, but without Him we would be the sort of people Paul demonstrates in Romans 7 when he speaks of his old life saying, “I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do–this I keep on doing.” (Rom 7:18,19)  Because of this the apostle John wrote, “the whole world is under the control of the evil one.” (1 Jn 5:19) And if we’re still wondering remember Paul said, “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers.” (2 Cor 4:4) There can be no other explanation why these people – the whole community – grumbled against Moses.

Moses and Aaron must have either been outside the Tabernacle or they still used the tent of Meeting outside the camp because we read, “But when the assembly gathered in opposition to Moses and Aaron and turned toward the Tent of Meeting, suddenly the cloud covered it and the glory of the LORD appeared. Then Moses and Aaron went to the front of the Tent of Meeting, and the LORD said to Moses, “Get away from this assembly so I can put an end to them at once.” And they fell facedown.” (v.42-45) The crowd come to have it out with Moses and turn towards the tent at which point the pillar of cloud appears over it – the Lord has come, He has heard and yet again He tests Moses with His proposal to destroy this people. In fact clearly plague has started to appear in the people (v.46b) so Moses and Aaron fall face down in prayer for a third time.

But the role of the priesthood is to intercede for the people and stand between them and God and so we read, “Then Moses said to Aaron, “Take your censer and put incense in it, along with fire from the altar, and hurry to the assembly to make atonement for them. Wrath has come out from the LORD; the plague has started.” So Aaron did as Moses said, and ran into the midst of the assembly. The plague had already started among the people, but Aaron offered the incense and made atonement for them. He stood between the living and the dead, and the plague stopped. But 14,700 people died from the plague, in addition to those who had died because of Korah. Then Aaron returned to Moses at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting, for the plague had stopped.” (v.46-50)

The people with their attitude have forfeited the covenant and are in blatant rebellion against God. It is not an unintentional thing (remember the Law we considered recently) but wilful and purposeful. They don’t care. They are the chosen people of the earth, they have been called to be a blessing to the earth, to reveal God to the earth, to be receivers of His blessings and demonstrate His goodness to the world but instead a bunch of them rebel and when terrible judgment falls on them, the rest grumble against God’s servant. How incredible, how bizarre!

But why didn’t God just strike all of them down in a second, for He could have? The answer must be in what followed. The fact that Aaron stepped in with his priestly role with an act of atonement must have been what the Lord was wanting. The lessons are strong and clear. Blatant sin warrants death but even then where there is an intercessor, God will hold back and give another chance for no other reason than He is merciful. Yes, He is! There is no reason why He should hold back at this point. He is almighty God, Creator of the Universe. He has made a perfect world and mankind have thrown it back in His face, so to speak. He could have just wiped out and utterly destroyed the earth. He has the power and might to do that; we are but ants to Him and you and I tread on ants with little thought. Why hasn’t God wiped out this rebellious anthill? Be very clear: we have done nothing to deserve mercy; that is the thing about mercy it is given for no reason other than God chooses to.

Again we fall back to the Lord’s words through Ezekiel: “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?” (Ezek 18:23) and “For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent and live!” (Ezek 18:32) and “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live.” (Ezek 33:11) THREE times the same message which perhaps the apostle Peter picks up on when he writes, “He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Pet 3:9)

We have emphasised again and again in these studies the battle that is going on to bring this people through to a place where they can truly be a light to the rest of the world but it is hard work in the face of their constant failures. On the one hand with the human race we have a people made in the likeness of God so often revealing His grace (theologians call it ‘common grace’) so good things are seen in us, but all the time there is this struggle, because of free will, with this propensity to be self-centred and godless. It is an incredible battle that is going on and the only reason we are still alive is the mercy of God. Do a Moses and Aaron and fall on your face and worship the One who is holy, the One who is all powerful, the One who sent His Son to satisfy justice on your behalf, to spare you for no reason other than He wanted to!  That is mercy. We didn’t deserve it but we got it.

9. The Start of a Story

Meditations on ‘Focusing Faith’ : 9.  The Start of a Story

Heb 11:8   By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going.

Every story has a beginning; this was the beginning of Abram’s story. One day he became conscious that he was hearing God. I still find it sad that for many modern Christians they can accept these words about Abram but deny they are possible for themselves. When did God stop being a God of communication? The whole Bible testifies to this. Perhaps the bigger issue for many modern Christians is not so much the “I can’t hear God” but “I don’t want to hear God because that might put a demand on me that I don’t want.”

Perhaps the truth of this – for such people are Christians and so they did hear God when they were genuinely saved and they do hear God and respond to Him through sermons and such like – is that they are not sufficiently secure in their faith to be able to claim they heard God – even though they did! If that is you, claiming that God spoke to you doesn’t make you a super-saint above everyone else, just that you are an ordinary Christian – by New Testament standards at least. God can speak to us through sermons, through prophecy, through reading the Bible, thoughts while we are praying, words from other Christians, through circumstances and not doubt other ways as well.

The fear that some of us have is that we are unsure about God and therefore we would rather make excuses about not hearing than trust ourselves to a God we think is hard and might ask hard things of us. It’s more likely to be our uncertainty of God’s absolute love for us than about anything else. When we were first saved the conviction we first felt was probably more about our failures than about God’s wonder, the wonder comes second and depending on the sort of church we belong to and the sort of teaching we get, we either hear about that wonder, or we don’t.

The amazing thing about Abram (as he was before his name was changed to Abraham) was that he was a pagan living out in the area of Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq), the area from which the wise men or Magi came seeking Jesus. It was always an area that was known for its seers and so we don’t know how Abram heard God but one way or another he heard sufficiently clearly for the ‘message’ to be written down: The LORD had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.” (Gen 12:1) Note the tense of Genesis 12:1 – “had said”. It looks back.

The story is intriguing and starts in the previous chapter: “Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and together they set out from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to Canaan. But when they came to Haran, they settled there.” (Gen 11:31) Terah, Abram’s father appears to be the one who led the family from Ur with the intent of going to Canaan (the eventual ‘Promised Land’) but settled in Haran, a city on the way, which is why, when we get into chapter 12 we read, “So Abram left, as the LORD had told him; and….Abram was seventy-five years old when he set out from Haran…. and they set out for the land of Canaan, and they arrived there.” (Gen 12:4,5) Now whether the originating word came to Abram back in Ur and he was the one who got his father to lead the family out, or whether Terah caught the sense of God’s intents and set out but gave up at Haran, we don’t know. All we do know is that God spoke to Abram – in Ur or Haran – and Abram heard and responded.

The enormity of this act of faith is noted by the writer to the Hebrews when he says, “even though he did not know where he was going.”  The message had been “go to the land I will show you.”  That ‘will’ indicates a future thing. You start going Abram and I will show you the land. Clearly they must have had some sense of direction and whether the reference to Canaan back in chapter 11 was in retrospect or they heard that as their destination to start with is not certain. The big issue is that, “Abraham, when called to go …. obeyed and went.”

That sums up faith really – God says and we do it. That is faith. It starts with God speaking and is followed by us acting and then there is an outcome which is yet in the future and is in God’s hands. The outcome for Abram was that he would have a new land to live in. As the days went on God made it more and more clear that this land would be his land and the land of his descendants, and of course it has been a land that the enemy has sought to challenge ever since.

So to summarise, dare we ‘hear’ God? Are we sufficiently secure in His love that we can trust that whatever we hear will be for our good and a blessing to us? I have often commented in these meditations (and see the prior brief series on Jeremiah for this) that whenever I have the privilege of bringing a prophetic word from God to someone, so often the response in them is, “Who me? Surely not.” It happened only yesterday when we were praying for healing for a lady who we know from a distance and as we prayed the Lord gave me a lovely word for her. Afterwards she thanked us and I saw that same look of uncertainty in her eyes as she went that said, “Surely that can’t be true? That was too good to be true.” And that takes us back to what I said earlier. Maybe the crucial issue that is before some of us as we go through these thoughts about faith, is whether I dare believe and trust God. Faith is responding to God. You can trust Him. We’ll say some more about this as we follow Abram’s story through. This was just the beginning of it.

23. God’s Work in us

Meditations in Titus: 23:  God’s work in us

Titus 3:4-7  But when the kindness and love of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Saviour, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.

We’ve said previously that there are in Titus short passages that succinctly lay out essential doctrines, and these verses are another one of those. The previous verse had been full of the negatives of our old life but now Paul brings it right round to the positives of what God has done for us, the work of the Gospel.

He first of all describes this Gospel work as when the kindness and love of God our Saviour appeared.” Jesus coming was first and foremost an expression of the kindness and love of God. It was God’s love that motivated the godhead to devise this plan before the foundation of the world that would entail the Son of God leaving heaven and coming to earth. Behind everything we read in the New Testament is this kindness and love of God. What did he do?

“he saved us.” That is it as briefly and succinctly as you can make it – he saved us! We were lost, helpless and hopeless and Jesus came and saved us. But, says Paul, be under no illusions, it was “ not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy.” God did this, not because he found righteous people on the earth, because none of us were righteous. We were lost, we were away from God, doing our own self-centred, godless thing and unrighteousness was the outworking in our lives. No, God did this for no other reason than His mercy. Mercy is something that is not earned but just given for no other reason than He wants to.  So Jesus coming to die for us wasn’t because God saw something good in us. To the contrary, He saw that there was no good in us and we couldn’t escape this state on our own; we had to have His help

So what has God done in us as a result of Jesus dying on the Cross for us?He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.” This is a funny way of putting it because it doesn’t focus on the work of Jesus on the Cross taking our sin and our punishment, but it focuses on the outworking of that work in us, what has happened to us as a result. He reminds us that we have been washed clean and free of our old life by the fact that we have been ‘born again’ and our lives have been completely renewed  by this working of the Holy Spirit.

Now why is Paul emphasizing this outworking rather than focusing on the work of the Cross? The reason, I suggest, is because he is emphasizing again and again that the new believers are now completely different people, different from what they used to be and different from all those who lived round about them. He wants to remind them what has happened to them to make them different. He wants them to live out new holy and righteous lives but to do this they need to understand or be reminded that they can do this because they are new creatures in Christ, empowered and made new by his Holy Spirit. This is all about living sanctified lives.

So he emphasises the work of the Holy Spirit, “whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Saviour.”  Jesus’ work on the Cross opened the way for us to receive his forgiveness and cleansing so that when we turned to him, Jesus could pour his Holy Spirit into us so that we would be born again and be able live Spirit-empowered lives. Jesus has done all that was needed for us to receive His Spirit and so now all that remains is for us to receive the fruits of his work, or as Paul now puts it, “so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.” (v.7)

Jesus’ grace was his act of dying for us so that now we may be justified before the Father – made right in His eyes, just as if we had never sinned, and now we have been put right with the Father, we have now become heirs of all that He has for us, eternal life and all that goes with that, living out our lives here on earth as His sons and daughters and then living with Him in eternity.

So there we are, new people with a future, all because of Jesus’ work on the Cross and the work of his Holy Spirit in us. How wonderful!  All we’ve got to do is live out these lives in the recognition and fullness of that.

47. Through the Water

Meditations in 1 Peter : 47: Through the Water

1 Pet 3:20-21 God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also–not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God.

Baptism, I have observed over the years, is often a contentious thing in parts of the church. Some want to sprinkle as a symbolic gesture, others use deeper water. Some sprinkle children as a symbol; others wait until the adult is a believer. Peter says some interesting things about it.

He starts by referring to Noah as we have seen in the previous meditation. Note in passing, for the doubters among us, that in the apostle Peter’s eyes, Noah is an historical figure and the Flood a real event in history. Some of us are not so sure, but Peter is. In this he was following in the steps of his master. Jesus said, Just as it was in the days of Noah, so also will it be in the days of the Son of Man. People were eating, drinking, marrying and being given in marriage up to the day Noah entered the ark. Then the flood came and destroyed them all.” (Lk 17:26,27) Clearly the all-knowing Son of God is referring to an historical event.

When John the Baptist baptised people in the Jordan he said, “I baptize you with water for repentance,” (Mt 3:11) indicating that baptism was a form of cleansing from the sin from which they turned away. The apostle Paul spoke of us “having been buried with him in baptism,” (Col 2:12 – also Rom 6:4) indicating the baptism is a picture of us dying to our old life and being buried, and then raised to new life.

Peter now comes with a bigger picture, an all-embracing picture. He refers to Noah building the ark, many dying in the flood with only Noah and his family being saved. Thus, he says, “this water symbolises baptism.” i.e. the Flood waters destroyed the world but the ark saved the faithful. The water symbolises the judgment of God which we all face but (implied) the ark symbolises Jesus who saves us from the judgment.

But then he says something that seems even more contentious:this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also.” Baptism, he says, saves us. How can that be? Didn’t the apostle Paul teach that salvation comes by faith alone? Yes certainly, but perhaps Peter has the ongoing work of salvation in his mind. Remember the illustration that we have used more than once in these meditations – saved from the sinking ship, saved as we go across the sea and saved once we land. We have been saved and we are being saved. It is also an ongoing thing – our living out our lives ‘in Christ’ until the day when we are called home and we die on this earth and go to heaven, our eternal destination. So why do I suggest that Peter is speaking of our salvation in an ongoing sense? Well, see what follows.

not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. The point of this picture – being saved through the Flood – is that it is not about cleansing or washing away dirt, but it about how we can now feel about ourselves and God. It is in fact about us being saved from our sins (being washed clean) and from the judgment of God, and it is all because we have an ark – Jesus, who died to save us from that judgment, as we have seen already a number of times in these meditations. Baptism is thus to be an outward act (and there aren’t many of them) that we do that contribute to our salvation, the onward walk with God.

How does it contribute to our salvation? It does it by being a continual reminder to us that we came to a crisis point in our life when we surrendered to God and jumped ship, from the ship of destruction, and are now being carried in Christ to our eternal destination. Christ is God’s provision for us and as we look back we are reminded that there was a time when we changed from a sinking ship to a saving lifeboat and it was all his work. All we had to do was jump into his provision and that was enough. Jesus, the ark, had done everything possible to be done and he qualifies as our ark, our means of salvation, our ongoing salvation.

We are what we are because we are being carried to shore by him and thus our conscience can be clear before God. No longer am I under fear of judgment. Now I am being carried to my eternal destiny by God’s provision, God’s ark, His own Son, Jesus Christ. My being baptized was a visual affirmation of all of this and it is something that I can look back on and know is a real expression of what has happened. It confirms and affirms my salvation and it strengthens my faith and reassures my conscience. There is nothing more I can do except let him take me through the choppy waters of the life in this world until we eventually reach the destination he has in store for me. Hallelujah!

13. Gospel Power

Meditations in Romans : 13 :  The Power of the Gospel

Rom 1:16 I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.

Possibly one of the biggest dangers we can face – apart from being totally apathetic or even hostile to the Gospel – is to accept a counterfeit form of the Gospel that is simply about believing some basic Christian beliefs, going to church on a Sunday and trying to be nice. In the eighteenth century John Wesley wrote of the days before he saw the light when he had a form of religion, “In this refined way of trusting to my own works, and my own righteousness…I dragged on heavily, finding no comfort … I understood it not at first. I was too learned and too wise: so that it seemed foolishness unto me.Later as he heard the truth being read from Romans he testified, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” This was the start of a dramatic change;  he was born again (Jn 3:3)

This verse 16 is an amazing declaration of the truth that we each need burning in our hearts. It declares first that there is obviously a need for salvation that Paul speaks about. Wesley had testified how he had been locked into a life of trying to be righteous and yet it brought him no comfort. It was a life where he was burdened by his sins and he tried to overcome that burden by his own efforts. Without realising it, he was in fact godless. He was lost in self-endeavour and it did him no good. It was only as he heard the good news about Jesus Christ that the Holy Spirit was able to speak to him and he responded in faith.

So if the first thing is that we are lost and in need of saving, the second thing is that there is hope for us because God has provided a way of salvation through His Son, Jesus Christ. It comes by simply trusting in the finished work of Jesus on the Cross, the fact of him dying in my place to take my sins.  For this truth to be received is an act of faith. It is responding to what God has said. We don’t say these things because they seem a good idea to us; we say them because God has said them and it is the testimony of the whole of the New Testament. So, if God has said them, we do well to respond to them. The response of, “I believe, please forgive my sins, please wash me and cleanse me of my sins, please give me a new life,” is the door that opens up a new life for at that point the Lord responds and declares it done and imparts His own Holy Spirit to us to energise and change and guide us from then on. The truth of the Gospel is used by the Spirit to convict us, but the Spirit Himself is the means we are empowered, born again and given a new life. It is utterly life transforming.

But here is a mystery, I note after many years of watching, that for some people this life transformation is mightily dramatic and for others it is quiet and slow. I know not why! I don’t know why it is that the Spirit is able to convict some powerfully so that they turn with tears and are very obviously changed. Sometimes it is because they are great and obvious sinners, and sometimes not; it is just that the Spirit convicts like this. But then there are others who come quietly and gently – but genuinely – and the experience is far less dramatic. There are some, usually children in Christian families, who receive Jesus in their very early years and it is a very simple but genuine thing and they avoid the devastations of the obvious sins, it seems, but it is still a very real thing. My wife was one such young convert. Then there are others who, only later in life, find themselves in a corner being convicted of the Spirit of the truth of the Gospel, convicted of their need, and so turn in tears or at least deep anguish and find a mighty change. I was more in this latter category.

But it doesn’t matter when it occurred or even how it occurred, the outcome is always the same – change! Why? It is because there is a power at work, bringing us into a new life in a new way, a way that transforms into the likeness of Christ. It is a life that is no longer in darkness, a life that is no longer self-centred and godless and unrighteous; it is now a life that is God-centred, God-focused, God-energised and God-directed.

A final point: this is for all peoples and there are no exceptions. Paul speaks of Jew and Gentile which is a way of saying, those who appear religious and those who do not. It is nothing to do with class or culture or cleverness for we all have to come the same way, and having come, are all changed by the same way, by the good news of the work on the Cross of Jesus Christ the Son of God, and then by the convicting and empowering work of the Spirit. Thus we are saved!

60. Lessons in Love

Meditations in Job : 60. Lessons in Love

Job 33:14,17,18 For God does speak…… to turn man from wrongdoing and keep him from pride, to preserve his soul from the pit, his life from perishing by the sword

Now I know the word ‘love’ is not mentioned in this chapter but I would suggest that everything the Elihu says about the way God works, describes God as a God of love.  Elihu has listened (33:8) and heard Job say that he is pure and without sin (v.9) yet Job has blamed God for finding fault with him and for making him an enemy (v.10), the way He has dealt with him (v.11), and with this Elihu has a problem (v.12)

Now the truth we know from earlier in the book is exactly the opposite: God hasn’t found fault with Job, He has praised him for his righteousness and there is no way that God considers Job an enemy.  In fact, without realising it, he is God’s emissary, displaying faithfulness on behalf of God in the face of Satan’s attacks.  There has been a wrong assessment of the situation by Job.

But then comes Elihu’s second complaint: Job says he’s cried to God but the Lord hasn’t answered him. Elihu launches into a declaration that God does speak again and again, “though man may not perceive it.” (v.14b)  The Lord speaks in a variety of ways (v.14a), in dreams or visions (v.15) or directly into our ears (v.16).  The REASON God speaks is then given: to turn man from wrongdoing and keep him from pride, to preserve his soul from the pit, his life from perishing by the sword.” (v.17,18)  When God speaks He is trying to get man to turn away from those destructive attitudes and ways of behaving so that he will be saved.  If we refuse to heed his voice we may simply end up in hell, and we may even go there through a violent means brought on by our own folly.

Another way that the Lord ‘speaks’ to us is through personal suffering that brings us to the edge of death (v.19-22), yet Elihu is aware that God sends angels as personal messengers “to tell a man what is right for him” (v.23c) and also to remind the Lord that He has provided a ransom to save this man (v.24) so that this man might be saved and restored (v.25).  Now whether that ransom is reference to the sacrifices made for sin (see 1:5) or whether it is a prophetic reference to the Lamb of God, Jesus, is unclear.  Such a man will pray and be restored (v.26) and then he will go and confess to others that he had sinned but had not received what he had deserved (v.27) because God has redeemed him (v.28).

He reiterates that God does this sort of thing, “twice, even three times– to turn back his soul from the pit, that the light of life may shine on him.” (v.29,30)  Yes, God uses this sort of thing to bring people to their senses.  We see this exactly in Jesus’ parable to the Prodigal Son (Lk 15:14-17) where the bad circumstances drive the son to his senses.

Elihu concludes this chapter with a call to Job to answer up if he has got an answer.  Now the only trouble with all this is that, of course, Job doesn’t have an answer because neither he nor Elihu know what has gone on in the courts of heaven (ch.1 & 2) and they don’t know that this actually has nothing to do with Job’s sin.  Everything Elihu has said has been absolutely correct – except it doesn’t apply to Job, because he is a special case and he is going through trials for no other reason than God has chosen him to go through them – and that because he IS righteous!

So, having looked at this chapter, there are various things we need to check out in ourselves.  Elihu maintains that God does speak to us in a variety of ways.  Are we open to believe that?  Do we believe that the Lord speaks to us personally – and if so, what have we done with what He has said?

Second, are we aware that in God’s sanctifying processes, making us more like Jesus, He uses physical suffering and circumstances generally?  Can we, therefore, when things aren’t going well, be open to learn from Him?

Third, do we realise that whenever God ‘speaks’ it is to extend our experience of salvation and keep us away from things that would harm us or draw us away from Him?  Are we so aware of God’s love that we can be utterly secure in all that happens to us, secure in the knowledge that He loves us and is working to bless us?

Finally, can we learn that lesson that we have observed previously but which arises again here, that unless we have had revelation from God we should be slow in assessing people negatively (judging them).

Moses asked the Lord, “teach me your ways so I may know you.” (Ex 33:13). In this meditation new have been touching on the ‘ways’ of God, the way He works and why He works as He does. May we learn these things!

27. Be Honest

Meditations in Job : 27 :  Be Honest

Job 10:1 I loathe my very life; therefore I will give free rein to my complaint and speak out in the bitterness of my soul.

As a Christian pastor I sometimes struggle at coping with people. It is not the people who are loud or angry or bitter or hostile. No, they are not the problem; it is the Christians who cannot be real. These are the Christians who are ALWAYS ‘fine’! They always have a testimony of how wonderful God has been to them. They also tend to be a bit brash. And they never tell about their doubts and fears because “Christians shouldn’t have doubts and fears.” It is only when the disasters of life fall, that their superficial exterior is cracked and the real shows through. Now before we go on to look at Job, I think I am required to say to those who feel hurt by these words that, yes, I do believe in victorious Christian living but it is more the “glory in earthen vessels” (2 Cor 4:7). Jesus came full of grace and truth, and we are to be a people of truth, not afraid to face how we really are.  How are we really? Frail but glorious children of God who on a bad day can feel very frail, weak and even alone – and that is not a sin!

When we continue to look at what Job is feeling, we need to remind ourselves yet again that at the end of the book the Lord did not chide him for speaking badly against Him. That is important to hang on to. For some of us who feel somewhat insecure in God’s love for us, we may struggle with this and we prefer to point fingers when someone doesn’t measure up to our expectations. The only thing is that the Lord doesn’t have the same approach because He knows the future as well as the present and He knows how it will turn out and how we will work out. Perhaps this is why He doesn’t deal with us harshly, as some of us expect Him to do.

There are many who have the James and John mentality, Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” (Lk 9:54), “But Jesus turned and rebuked them.” (v.55) Jesus is more concerned to help us change than he is to destroy us. Perhaps he remembers his Father’s words, “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?” (Ezek 18:23). Father and Son much prefer us to be changed and saved rather than destroyed. They are working to change us. They understand what we are like. It is only those who are utterly set in their ways, like Pharaoh in Exodus (and we won’t know who they are) and who the Lord knows will not change, that He removes. Even then, I am sure there are other reasons why the Lord takes His children home prematurely sometimes. So let’s see where Job has got to.

As we start chapter 10 we find him reiterating what he feels about his life and we have to say again, by way of reminder, that if you’ve never been in this state, you would do well to hold in any negative comments about him. He is desperate which is why he comes out with what, in any other circumstances, would be a very silly comment: therefore I will give free rein to my complaint and speak out in the bitterness of my soul.” Because he is past caring, he’s just going to speak out. Now if you are insecure in God’s love, you may read with horror Job’s words and you may look for a lightning bolt that you expect to come and strike him down! But God understands His kids. That’s got to be a major underlying lesson that comes through in these studies. When little children come home from school, the wise mother knows that they are cranky because they have low blood sugar levels, and so rather than chide them, simply seeks to get some calories into them. If someone is nasty to us about us, we may be sufficiently insecure about ourselves that we get stressed, but God is too big to do that. He is utterly secure in Himself and doesn’t have to feel defensive about silly words from some of His children in bad places. He understands and has compassion!

So listen to where Job dares to go in this “I don’t care” attitude. He pours out a whole load of accusatory questions. “I will say to God: Do not condemn me, but tell me what charges you have against me.” (v.2). Why doesn’t God answer him here? Because He hasn’t got a whole load of charges against Job, so He just lets His son pour it all out.

“Does it please you to oppress me, to spurn the work of your hands, while you smile on the schemes of the wicked?” (v.3). No son, this is breaking my heart and so I certainly don’t smile over what is happening to you, but I’ll wait until you get here to tell you about that and you can watch with me how my Son is going to anguish over my people when he goes down in human form.

“Do you have eyes of flesh? Do you see as a mortal sees?” (v.4). Well actually in this moment in history, no, son, but in the wider history yes, so that I do actually know it now, because we are going to step into human flesh and live out some thirty three years on earth, but you wouldn’t understand that at this moment if I told you, so I won’t.

“Are your days like those of a mortal or your years like those of a man, that you must search out my faults and probe after my sin.” (v.5,6) No, son, I don’t have to be picky and pick up on other people’s faults. Those are the actions of the insecure and hurting and I am neither of these, but you won’t understand that yet, so forgive me if I don’t reply!

“Though you know that I am not guilty and that no one can rescue me from your hand?” (v.7) You speak truth, son, for indeed I do know you are not guilty and indeed you are helpless in these circumstances which I have allowed,  but hang in there because they won’t last forever, but I can’t say that to you at the moment, because part of it is coping with not knowing that.

Is that how the Lord might have been thinking as He listened to Job? Perhaps, perhaps not, but from what Scripture tells us of the Lord, I suspect they may not be far from the truth. You see it is a strange and mind-bending truth that God operates in the present, it seems, but knows everything in the future. So at this moment He is listening to Job ranting on, but He peeks into the future and He sees Job’s humble responses at the end of the book, and so in His love, He remains silent, does nothing but just feels with Job.

Does all this excuse Job?  Well why do you want to assess and judge him? God is not judging him, (that is clear later in the book), so why should we?  Is Job being silly? In any other circumstances, possibly, but in the living hell he is experiencing, perhaps not, and if you’re still not sure, ask the Lord to take you in your imagination into what it must be like, to have had everything you own snatched away, everyone you love (except a nagging wife!) snatched away, and then dumped on with some terrible disease that disfigures you, causes you intense pain and discomfort. If you can think into that, then think about how you would like the Lord to deal with you, as you mutter (yes you will, you do when the weather is bad or you get a cold!) and grumble and far worse. In the place of ‘I’m past caring’ you will say silly things. Afterwards, you will be incredibly glad that God’s love just coped with you and felt with you and did nothing more!  You need the revelation? Pray for it!

16. Saved by Grace

Ephesians Meditations No.16

16.  Saved by Grace

Eph  2:8,9 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God– not by works, so that no one can boast.

These are possibly some of the most famous ‘grace verses’ in the New Testament. We’ve been saying a lot about grace in the previous meditations but, because of misunderstandings about the Christian faith, perhaps we can’t say enough about it. Despite education we still hear of many misunderstandings about the Christian faith in today’s world.

At one end of the scale there is the public perception. Here in the West, drawing closer to the end of the first decade of the twenty first century, public perception has been honed by the constant scraping of an unbelieving media and unbelieving government, to believe that ‘being a Christian’ is rather like being a member of the Women’s Institute, a member of a minority grouping that is fun to laugh at but which has little relevance to everyday living. Of course the truth is that nothing could be further from the truth. At the other end of the scale is the person who ‘goes to church’, who is nice and respectable, middle class, and sees their once a week attendance at a Sunday morning performance as their entry ticket to heaven. Again very far from the truth!

Yet again we would do well to pick up on the ‘link word’ at the beginning of these two verses – “For”. Verses 1 to 3 were full of human pronouns – you, we, us, but at verse 4 it turned to what God has done: God… made us alive with Christ ….And God raised us up with Christ …in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace … to us.” The first three verses emphasise our foolish activity before we were saved; the next four verses emphasise God’s activity in saving us.

Thus it is when we come to verse 8 we find, “For” where Paul could have written “And so” or “And thus it is” summarising all that has gone before in these crucial words. Some of us may have blanched as I referred to us being saved in the paragraph above, because people don’t like using that expression today, perhaps because it reveals the need that we had that verses 1-3 showed up, but Paul is unapologetic in using it here: “For it is by grace you have been saved.” ‘Rescued’ is a word with a similar meaning that Paul uses elsewhere: For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves.” (Col 1:13) As we commented previously, we were hopeless and helpless and the only way for getting us out of that darkness in which we lived, was by God moving and saving us.

The old analogy of a lifeboat is a good one. You were on a sinking ship and the lifeboat came to rescue you. Once you were winched off the sinking ship you were saved. As the boat took you back to shore you were being saved. When you stepped on to the shore you were well and truly saved. No one objects to that sort of language in that situation and we should not here. When you were converted or ‘born again’ you were saved. Between now and the time when you die and go to heaven you are being saved. When you arrive in heaven you are well and truly saved. That is al the work of Christ and the work of his Spirit.

So did you have a part to play in all this? Yes, of course but it was a minor part: you have been saved, through faith.” The “through faith” part refers to you. It was simply you responding to what God said. He drew you and when, like Moses at the burning bush, you responded and went to see what it was all about, He spoke (even though you were probably not aware that it was Him) and He convicted you of your need. In your desperation you cried out to be saved, to be forgiven, to be given a new life. That was you responding to Him; that was faith, but it was a pretty lowly level of faith wasn’t it! When you put it like that you can see that it was 99% Him and 1% us. As Paul explains it, “and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God– not by works, so that no one can boast.”

Oh yes, the person who ‘goes to church’ once a week’ or does the flowers or whatever else it is that makes them feel they are doing good, ‘helping the church’ completely misses the point. It’s nothing to do with their activities.  It is “not by works” because nothing we do can be good enough to make up for all the other times when we sin by thought, word or deed. Because we were godless and self-centred THAT was our sin and it only changes when we surrender our life to God and accept Jesus as our Saviour (to save us from our sins) and Lord (to lead our lives from now on).

Oh yes, when we have been through this process of being drawn, of being convicted to bring us to a point of surrender, and then of receiving His Spirit so we are ‘born again’ (see Jn 3), only then do we start to fully realise the wonder of all this. Until we do, we remain defensive and seek to justify ourselves and try to convince ourselves why Paul and these notes are wrong! No, “this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God and so if you are still ‘trying’, it’s time to give up and surrender to God and receive the salvation that Jesus earned for you at the Cross. Give up – now!