13. A People of Faith

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

13.  A People of Faith

Heb 11:6 without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.

Lk 18:8  when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”

Rom 10:17  faith comes from hearing the message

Faith? I have a feeling that as we come to this subject we come to the heart of the challenges that I find confront me as a leader and as I let my eyes wander over the congregation of whom I am a part today. But it is also at the heart of what it is to be a true Christian. It is this subject of ‘faith’, and it is vital that we distinguish belief from faith.

Faith & Belief:  Now we must not confuse faith with belief. The apostle James nailed this one. Listen: faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.” (Jas 2:17-19) We started this particular Part by considering that all Christians are believers (Study 9) but see what James says: (i) Faith has to be accompanied by action.  (ii) Deeds alone are not a substitute. (iii) Belief alone is not adequate. Faith is belief in action.

Belief, the Starting Point: In that previous study no.9 I noted that there has to be a body of belief which led us through into this new life, and we considered believing that Jesus is the unique Son of God who has to be our Lord and Saviour. It is that initial belief that motivates us and which the Holy Spirit uses to convict us so that we come to a point of surrender and repentance. That initial believing and that initial action is what theologians call ‘saving faith’, it is the belief plus action that opens the door for God to come and declare us justified (which we will go on to consider in the next study) and adopted (the subsequent study) and then indwelt by His Spirit. We tend to be a little casual in our language and so we often just call Christians ‘believers’ (as I have done previously) but the reality is that ‘belief’ is just the starting point and the ongoing life is – if there is to be any reality in it – a life of faith. So what does that mean?

Faith comes from hearing: One of our verses above from Romans 10 suggests that, not only is faith belief in action, it is action in response to God. God speaks, we hear and we respond. THAT is faith. Now if you are stuck in unbelief you will say, “But I can’t hear God.” Yes, you can. There are different levels of ‘hearing’. For instance Rom 10:17 that we only partly quoted, goes on, “faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ.” Where do you find that “word about Christ”? In the Gospels in the New Testament. The apostle Paul declared, “And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe,” (1 Thess 2:13) and thus put his own speech on the level as that of the prophets of old, and was therefore ‘the word of God’. The writer to the Hebrews wrote, “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you.” (Heb 13:7) Then of course there are Paul’s famous words, “All Scripture is God-breathed.” (2 Tim 3:16) If God breathes it, it is His word.

We ‘hear’ when we read the Bible, we hear when we hear a preacher or a prophetic word brought, we ‘hear’ when the Holy Spirit whispers truth into our hearts and minds – but it depends on the state of our heart.  You could listen to a preacher and say, “What rubbish!” despite the fact that he was anointed and spoke with God’s authority. You can open the Bible and randomly read and nothing happens. On the other hand you can feel spiritually hungry and pray, “Lord, please speak to me through your word,” and suddenly it goes alive and you are challenged and transformed. So faith is also a heart response – a right heart response – to what you hear. If you have set in your mind that God doesn’t speak then you won’t hear.

A Personal Story: Relationship with God, which is what faith is all about, can touch our hearts and minds and emotions. I was recently reminded of something that happened to my wife and I many years ago. We belonged to a little evangelical church. We knew little of the life of the Spirit, even less of gifts. One day we heard some news about someone in our family, someone not particularly close and also many miles away. I found myself strangely disturbed by this news and felt in real anguish for them. This feeling carried on and I shared it with my wife and said I had a feeling that I was feeling what God felt for this relative. She responded negatively, “That’s presumptuous, we can’t feel what God feels.” Well we had an ongoing conversation about this that went on and off for the next three days. It was three days later that we attended the church prayer meeting and during the course of it, the pastor’s wife brought this ‘prophecy’. It wasn’t directed so no one else knew it was for us but in it the Lord said very clearly that He had been listening to us and, yes, He had shared His heart with me so that what I had been feeling was from him. It then got scary, because the prophecy went on to literally quote things we had both said in this ongoing three-day conversation, giving point by point answers to what we had both said!  That woman spoke out in faith; we heard it as God speaking by faith. That was relationship, that was communication with God.

Belief then Faith: Consider for a moment the first of our starter verses from above: “without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” (Heb 11:6) Do you see that? Belief in God comes first but it is clear that the writer means a belief that goes into action – seeking God – and that action is faith. Indeed, as Christians, everything we do is supposed to be by faith. My starting point is turning to God. I do that freshly every morning. For me, my personal practice is first thing in my ‘Quiet Listening Time’ to declare my submission to Him and reliance upon Him, for His salvation, His direction and His presence. I present me and my family to Him with thanksgiving. And I listen. That is just my practice. These days I have learnt to have a notebook beside me and I jot down the things that start flowing in my mind. I get guidance for the day or the days ahead. Look at the verse again. Do I hear complaints that “God never rewards me”? Is it because we don’t “earnestly seek him”?

Ready for Return: Finally, let’s pick up that verse we’ve mention before, “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” (Lk 18:8) I’ve said it before, but I find that a real challenge. The things I wrote about in study no.4, ‘Wondering about Fitness of Purpose’, make me feel we are rushing towards this Doomsday scenario and I wonder how much more the Lord will allow, and I wonder if He will use these things to bring the catastrophes that are spoken about in the book of Revelation. Godless mankind has brought into being – and is in the process of bringing into being – means of self-destruction in ways and magnitude never dreamt of a hundred years ago. Whether it is then, or simply when He calls us home, will He find in us a people of faith? Not a people who live by rules or rituals but a people who live out of a living relationship with the One True God, mediated by His Son who sits at His right-hand ruling in the midst of his enemies, and enabled by His Spirit who indwells all true believers. A people of faith? THAT is ‘church’.

Next we will go on to see what happens to us that make us different when we come to God through Christ and are born again.

(Here again at the end of this Part we provide an overview of the series)

Part 1 – Falling Short?

  1. Wonderings about Church
  2. Concern for People
  3. Challenged by Scripture
  4. Wondering about ‘Fitness for Purpose’
  5. Problems with Religion and Revival
  6. Appearance & Performance (1)
  7. Appearance & Performance (2)

Part 2 – A Different People

  1. Different
  2. Believers
  3. Supernatural
  4. Repentance and Conviction
  5. Needing to be ‘Saved’?
  6. A People of Faith

Part 3 – Making of Believers

  1. A Guilt-Free People
  2. No Longer Orphans
  3. Growing in Sonship
  4. The Yeast of Humility
  5. Getting on a Learning Curve
  6. The Reality of Sacrifice
  7. No Add-ons
  8. Servant-hearted (1)
  9. Servant-hearted (2)

Part 4 – Pondering on Vision

  1. The Significance of Vision
  2. More on ‘Why Vision?’
  3. The God Focus
  4. Spiritual Expressions
  5. Building People

Part 5 – Starting from Scratch

  1. Clear your Mind
  2. A New Creation
  3. Life (1)
  4. Life (2)
  5. Being Together
  6. Fellowship

Part 6 – thinking about Leaders

  1. Led
  2. Local leaders – overseers
  3. Local leaders – shepherds
  4. Local leaders – elders
  5. Local Leaders – The Nature of the Church (1)
  6. Gifts of Ministries – Introduction
  7. Gifts of Ministries – to plant
  8. Gifts of Ministries – to build up
  9. The Servants – Deacons
  10. The Nature of the Church (2)

Part 7 – Unique Ingredients

  1. Uniqueness
  2. Another quick look at ‘Vision’
  3. Power – for Life Transformation
  4. Power – for Life Service
  5. Power – for Living
  6. The Need for Faith
  7. More on Faith.
  8. Obedience
  9. Finale – the Church on God’s heart

1. A Change of Venue

(For the next two weeks we return to the ‘short meditation’ style we have used to look into John’s Gospel. We are now at chapter 6)

Short Meditations in John 6:  1. A Change of Venue

Jn 6:1 Some time after this, Jesus crossed to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee (that is, the Sea of Tiberias)

There is a similarity here with the beginning of chapter 5 which started, “Some time later”. This is John’s way of just moving us on in the activities of Jesus. But there are two differences that make the present different from the record of chapter 5.

The first difference is the venue or location. Chapter 5 all took place in Jerusalem; this now takes place miles to the north east on the other side of the Sea of Galilee, otherwise known by what was probably its Roman name, the Sea of Tiberias. The other Gospels (for this miracle that is about to happen is recorded in all four Gospels, so significant was it.) indicate this occurred near Bethsaida, a town on the north earth corner of the Sea.

The second difference is the activity. In chapter 5 there was one miraculous healing of the invalid of thirty-eight years at the pool near the Sheep Gate and this was then followed by a long conversation between Jesus and the antagonistic Jews. Chapter 5 is mostly dialogue. We now move into a chapter where there will be two miraculous activities, of provision and of walking on water, that are then followed by the dialogue.

If we remember that Jesus is led by his Father, to follow the Father in doing the things on His heart, we can get an insight into why these things happen as they do, remembering that Father and Son know what is coming. So at the beginning of chapter 5 we saw Jesus going to the pool where there were many invalids and he picks up on one who has been there many years – an impossible case, we might say. Now he goes to the other side of the lake – knowing that the crowd will follow him and knowing that they are far from provision, so they will soon be confronted by a need that is humanly impossible to satisfy.

It is almost as if John is saying to us, see how there was no provision beyond the capabilities of Jesus. It doesn’t matter where he was, or the magnitude of the problem, his power and authority was sufficient that, at the Father’s bidding and directing (see Jn 5:17,19), he could deal with it.  The challenge that must come to us today is do we believe in this sort of Saviour, or is he simply someone we talk about and sing about on Sundays, study in Bible Studies and talk at in Prayer Meetings? This Saviour, says John, is Lord of all and is there, in any and every situation, and has the power and authority to bring change. Is there any sense of impossibility about your circumstances? Do you think your location is not a place where the Lord can make his presence known in power?

46. Conclusion

Lessons in Growth Meditations: 46. Conclusion

Jn 12:32  “when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.”

Rev 1:5   Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.

How to put all these studies together? It is impossible in a relatively small space to cover every one of the studies of the past six weeks. All we can do is observe our starting point, our finishing point and the key parts in between.

Jesus our model for growth: Our starting point was our ultimate goal which was to consider the New Testament call to us to grow. Our framework for that was John 12:32 above and I suggested from the outset that there were expressions or outworkings of that verse: first, Jesus lifted up on the cross to die for our sins, second, Jesus lifted up from death by his resurrection and, third, Jesus exalted on high through the ascension, so he is now seated at his Father’s right hand, where his presently ruling.

Jesus’ model applied to us: That was the framework, and I suggested that this same framework can be observed in the Christian life – first, our call to die to the old life and to sin, then second, our call to live the resurrected, Spirit-empowered life, and finally, to realize and see that that we are seated with Christ in the heavenly realms where we are to rule with him, as the Spirit-led body of Christ on the earth, that is bringing in the kingdom or rule of God on the earth. Perhaps a few key items for each of those.

Death: Without death to the old life and to our old way of doing things and our old ambitions, we cannot come and receive Christ as both Saviour and Lord. Christ cannot bring his salvation to us and cannot lead us in a new life if we insist on holding onto the things of our old carnal life.

Resurrection: Without death there can never be resurrection.   Resurrection is the shorthand picture of what takes place when we come to Christ. When we are ‘born again’ it is a work of the Holy Spirit who God places within and so the Spirit becomes an inner source of revelation (teaching) and power (for life transformation and service).  All the virtues and all the gifts and fruits of the Spirit find their origin and expression in Him.

Ascension: This is the area that many of us struggle with most. It is first of all seeing ourselves seated with Christ in heaven, linked by his Holy Spirit, second, it is understanding that now he is there ruling over the affairs of the world, even in the midst of his enemies who will eventually be destroyed, enemies that are all things contrary to the way God originally created this world perfect, and third, it is seeing ourselves as now his body on the earth, directed by him from heaven, led and empowered by his Spirit on a daily basis and, finally, fourth it is understanding that his body now, as two thousand years ago, is to work to bring the kingdom or rule of God on the earth.

It is the enormity of this third phase that leaves many of us struggling and is, perhaps, the most difficult area for growth. Perhaps there are various reasons for that. First, it is a spiritual experience that is expressed into the physical world. We are all right with the spiritual bit (e.g. simple prayer) but when that is extended to hearing God and responding to His directions that mean us stepping out in the physical world to bring physical changes, our faith wavers.

Second, we have settled in the past in the good, but only partial, teaching that the spiritual parts of being a Christian are just about being a witness, sharing the Gospel with friends, family etc. etc. Now that is good and right, but it stops short of Jesus call that said, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing.” (Jn 14:12) and his explanation of those works is seen in Matt 11:5 and Lk 4:18,19. The other ‘spiritual’ aspect that we have watered down is in respect of prayer which is so often simply reduced to telling God what He ought to do and uttering words into the air, instead of it being a life-filled experience where there is a two-way communication. It is the so-often absent ‘hearing element’ of prayer that releases faith for action.

And So: So there we are, death, resurrection and ascended to a place of ruling, that is our syllabus or our learning program, a program that is not merely about learning words but putting them into action (Mt 28:20). To conclude, note our second starter verse from above: “Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.” (Rev 1:5) There again we have the three phases of the life and ministry of the Son of God.

First, he was a faithful witness, sharing in all the Father was doing (Jn 5:17,19), perfectly fulfilling the plan of the Godhead, formulated before the beginning of time and resulting in his death on a cross for the sins of mankind. Second, he is the firstborn from the dead, having been raised to life after death. Third, he is now the ruler of all the earth, seated at his Father’s right hand, working slowly and purposefully in the midst of his enemies on the earth to bring the rule of God which will be culminated in his Second Coming. Oh yes, there is very much yet a future element to all this, as there is for us. That says to us that we are working towards a guaranteed future when, if we learn these things, we will hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” while at the same time being welcomed home as the sons and daughters, the children of God, that we are.  Hallelujah and Amen!

26. The Caring Church

Lessons in Growth Meditations: 26. The Caring Church

1 Cor 14:3 the one who prophesies speaks to people for their  strengthening, encouraging and comfort.

Recap our Goals: In the previous study we laid out our strategy again: we are examining things that will help us grow. We are examining that through the perspective of being seated with Christ in the heavenly realms, and we are examining aspects of the ministry of Christ through us in bringing in the kingdom of God on earth through the body of Christ, the Church.

The Challenges of Change: We went on to reflect on the incredible changes that are coming in our world and the challenges that the enemy would make to our faith in the light of those changes, the challenge of relevancy. I suggested that these things did not affect the reality of the existence of God nor the fact of human sinfulness and our need for salvation.

The Nature of the Church/Kingdom: Now, before we move on into practicalities, I think we need to highlight something that comes out of these two things I have just mentioned, and it is the nature of the church and the nature of the kingdom of God that we have been considering earlier.

Human Need: My starting point is to face the reality of life, and that includes for Christians. Put in its most simple form, it is that each of us needs to feel loved; it is a basic human need. Put another way, each of us from time to time (if not most of the time), need strengthening, encouraging or even comforting. We go through times of feeling weak, we go through times of discouragement and we even go through times of worry or anxiety or pain – and so we have needs to be met.

The Caring Saviour: The second thing is that we have a Saviour who cares for us and who wants to help us. If we had been one of the twelve travelling with Jesus and we were looking down and dejected, I don’t believe Jesus would have ignored us or even chided us; I believe he would have strengthened, encouraged or comforted us privately. But now he has a different body, you and me, but his intentions do not change. His intention is still to strengthen the weak, encourage the downcast, comfort the grieving.

Failure Talk? It may be that someone reading this comes from a military background or a background of high achievement expectations (family expectations can often lay some ungodly perfectionist expectations on us) and emotions get suppressed by macho “get a grip on life for goodness sake!” outlooks. In some churches there is an inability to be honest – everything is just fine (always!) – and any talk about weakness etc. has been made to sound like failure.

Reality: Look, Paul would not have written, “Do not be anxious about anything,” (Phil 4:6) if we didn’t get anxious sometimes, and as for, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God,”  (2 Cor 1:3,4) he certainly wouldn’t have described God like this if we didn’t need comforting from time to time “in all our troubles”. When it comes to times of contact with God or His angels, there are numerous “fear not” or “don’t be afraid” times (e.g. Jud 6:23, Mt 1:20, 2:22, 8:26, 10:26,31, etc. etc.) so that when we are real we can see there are many, many situations where the natural response is fear and so God comes to lift us above that – but it is the natural thing!

Beware Hardness: The problem that also arises here is that when we have been brought up or trained or disciplined into this hard-nosed way of confronting life, not only do we suppress our feelings, but we also look down on those who appear weak or who are showing their feelings. Over the years I have been to many funerals, and taken quite a few, and the spectrum of human feelings is more clearly revealed at a funeral than any other place. Some people stand in the funeral service absolutely stony-faced, while others cry or even wail in ways that are symptomatic of Old Testament Judaism. There is no ‘right’ response and if we look down on people who don’t grieve like we do, or down on people who find it difficult to express their emotions, we are not walking the walk of Jesus. “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn,” (Rom 12:15) said the apostle Paul.

Carriers of Love: Now why am I saying these things in this Part when we are thinking about reigning with Christ to bring in the kingdom of God? I am saying this, because whatever else we might say about this, if we are not a church of love brought into being by One who is described as love (1 Jn 4:8,16) we are missing the goal. The kingdom is an expression of the love of God and the way we ‘reign’ over circumstances is, at the very least, to be a demonstration of God’s love. When I witness to someone, when I pray over someone, when I preach to people, when I share a word from God with someone, if I do not do it in love, I am missing the point! And that goes for you too!

To Church & World: When I look around me in the church, if my heart is not moved by compassion for those expressing obvious needs, I am missing the point. When I encounter people in the world expressing their needs, if my heart is not moved by compassion to pray for wisdom to know how to act on their behalf, I am missing the point. The kingdom, I say again, is all about bringing and expressing the love of God. That has to be of paramount importance. There is another of these things to be considered in the next study before we move on to the practicalities but these things, I suggest, very much flow over into the practicalities.

60. The Challenges of the Kingdom

Focus on Christ Meditations: 60.  The Challenges of the Kingdom

Mt 6:9,10    Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Before we come to the end of this series, we should note how all this talk of Christ’s kingdom affects us or, to be more precise, how it affects our will. So far we have sought in various overviews to see that all authority has been given to Christ to reign, and we saw how Jesus reigns and we saw the way, from our perspective at least, we might consider that reign has limitations (sometimes he saves from death, sometimes he doesn’t). But all of that is really about how our lives benefit from being in his kingdom in a fallen world, but there is another view that needs considering and that is how we exercise our will in respect of our king.

Options: We know that the Fall took place because Eve and then Adam exercised their will, contrary to the will of God and that is how every person since has expressed their will. However, we are now in his kingdom and under his rule, and so we need to remind ourselves how we came to be here and what is expected of us in his kingdom.

Our entry into the kingdom:  We are here under the rule of Christ because, at some point in time, his Holy Spirit convicted us of our sin and our need to get right with God and accept the salvation that He offered us through the finished work of Christ on the Cross. In other words, we surrendered our lives to him. We took Jesus as our Saviour but to be able to receive all of what the package of salvation means, we also had to accept him as Lord. Now this is critical to who we are and our future, both here on earth and with him in eternity.

A Partnership Formed: When we surrendered to him, we were adopted into God’s family, declared justified by Jesus and were then ‘born again’ (Jn 3) when he placed his own Holy Spirit within us to empower us for the years and eternity ahead. But the crucial point is that a partnership began at that point so there is Jesus inspiring us and encouraging and guiding us, as he directs from heaven, at the right hand of his Father where he is ruling, and we receive all that by his Spirit within us. That is one side. The other side is the fact that we still have free will, and so we have the capability of choosing to obey – or not.

Consequences: Now there are two things to be observed at this point. The first is what we have just been considering, that the Christian life is a combination of Christ blessing us and us responding to him. How we respond is what is crucial here. The second is the significance of our obedience or disobedience. Now under the Law, Moses was given this as a number of propositions seen as blessings (Deut 28:2-14) and curses (Deut 28:15-68) i.e. God’s decrees of good or for bad. With God, life would be wonderful, without Him, everything would go wrong.

Now although we aren’t told in that chapter ‘how’ God will do these things, an examination of the judgments of God throughout the Bible reveals that most of the time when the Lord does the negative things, it is disciplinary (with the intent of drawing the person or people back to Him, i.e. to change their behaviour) and it becomes clear from Roman 1 and the book of Judges that so often it simply means that He will lift off His hand of blessing and protection (as our disobedience indicates we want!) and we become vulnerable to the enemy in this fallen world, and things go wrong. We may attribute these things to natural causes because when you eat too much, obesity results and obesity means the body breaks down in a variety of ways.

That example may be multiplied many times and we see these ‘fruits’ throughout our Western society although perhaps because they are so familiar, the world takes them for granted or tries to ignore them. Nevertheless, they are there, and this is how God has made us to work but it isn’t only ‘natural causes’, it is also the direct working of God who always works for our benefit. The short term may appear painful, but the long-term intent is always for our good, and that works out best when we are in a genuine living daily relationship with him. THEN he may guide us, direct us, inspire us, encourage us, give wisdom to us and generally bless us. When we are pointed in the wrong direction, if we may put it like that, He cannot do that.

Our starting verse from what we tend to call ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ is fundamental, the desire for God’s will to prevail throughout the earth. Now we cannot ensure it for the rest of the world, but we can for our own lives, as we ensure we have that daily, real and genuine relationship with Him. This happens when we seek to be open to Him, to hear from Him and receive His guidance, blessing etc., and when we seek to do all we can to ensure we are living our lives in accordance with the teaching of the New Testament.

This will involve our lives gradually changing to become more and more like Jesus in both character and service, as he teaches us through his word and Spirit, the way for us to walk. That is a gradual and continuous process which will continue throughout our time on earth and which we call ‘sanctification’. The more this process continues, and we co-operate with it, the more the kingdom of God will be expressed in and through us. The more we change, the more we become open to be used by him, tends to be a truth. Then the more we are used by him, the more we will impact and change the world around us, and this is our part in bringing that prayer into fruition: “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  May it be so.

53. Christ in Heaven: His Authority

PART SEVEN: The Present Rule of Christ

Focus on Christ Meditations: 53.  Christ in Heaven: His Authority

Eph 1:19-22   That power is like the working of his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything.

We have seen Jesus ascend to heaven and then pour out his own Spirit to continue the work of the Father but from a position of power and authority at his Father’s right hand. As we concluded study no.51 we noted that there were at least 13 mentions in the New Testament of him having ascended to the Father’s Right Hand: Mk 16:19 / Acts 2:33 / Acts 5:31 / Acts 7:55 / Rom 8:34 / Eph 1:20 / Phil 2:9 / Col. 3:1 / Heb 1:3 / Heb 8:1 / Heb 10:12 / Heb 12:2 / 1 Pet 3:22 which spoke about how Jesus:

– has a place of honour at the Father’s right hand

– is there as Prince and Saviour

– pleads for us there

– has been given a name above all others

– and all angels and authorities bow before him

To fully appreciate his position, ruling in heaven today, let’s simply go through some of the verses we find in the Bible (mostly New Testament) and see what they say to us. Let’s start in Psa 110:1,2: The LORD says to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.” The LORD will extend your mighty scepter from Zion; you will rule in the midst of your enemies.”  i.e. the “I AM” says to the Messiah these things. Although written by David, I suspect we have prophetic insight here of what was decreed before the foundation of the world. The Father appoints the Son to be seen at His right hand, in the place of authority and equality, while he deals with the Fallen World in which he has enemies resulting from free will – Satan, Sin and death. There he must reign until he has overcome those three things, and that is still yet in the future but that doesn’t mean Jesus is not reigning; it just means that part of his reign means allowing these things to work out in the overall process of his drawing people to himself. To summarise, there is a process whereby he is dealing with his enemies and he rules despite them, or in the midst of them.

Next, let’s consider Eph 1:19-23 that we have above. Let’s repeat it: That power is like the working of his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way” Note: i) Christ is raised and seated at the Father’s right hand. ii) He is over and above every other sort of rule or authority. iii) God has given him this position over everything else, for the benefit of God’s people.  Consider the JBP Version of the last part of that: “the church is his body, and in that body lives fully the one who fills the whole wide universe” Wow! So, to summarise, Jesus is above every other rule or authority and every other great name, and everything has been put under his feet so that he is head over everything for the sake of the church in whom this expression of God lives and rules.

Now see 1 Cor 15:24-26: the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” So again we see the process that continues through the present age, of dealing with his enemies, and the amazing fact is that he reigns in the midst of those enemies who, in the fullness of time and in accord with the perfect will of God, will be defeated.

Then there is 1 Thess 4:16,17:  the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.” This is the fact of his Second Coming where he leaves heaven a second time to finally defeat his outstanding enemies and take us to be with him, so we will eventually join him there for eternity. To see the power and authority of this action, read Rev 19:11-21 and see the guaranteed outcome.

But now see Eph 2:6,7: And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.” As part of the work of the Cross, we are sharing NOW in his reign (by his spirit) and we receive his grace and kindness, i.e. we are now recipients of the full blessing of God in our lives. I wonder if we appreciate that and appropriate that? We will consider it more fully in a later study.

Finally see Jesus portrayed in Rev 5: 1,6,7  “Then I saw in the right hand of him who sat on the throne a scroll with writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals …I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing in the center of the throne …. He came and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne.” As the chapters move on we see that each seal, (sealed along the edges of the rolled up scroll) as it is broken, reveals a portion of the document which is part of the history of the end time. Here we see Christ in that prominent and preeminent position of rolling out the end times. Ruling in heaven at the Father’s right hand, we now have a vision of him presiding over the final years of this world as we know it now.

This is the supremacy of Christ. Never see him as anything less than this and realise that whatever is going on around you, HE is in supreme control over it. Yes, we may see the work of the enemy, the work of Sin and the effects of the godless self-centred world causing havoc – at least in our eyes with such limited vision – but Christ is ruling over it all, allowing some, inhibiting some, and stopping some, as he sees best for the will of the Father as he continues his work of drawing men and woman to himself in the midst of it. Never forget that.

In the midst of the godless materialism that we witness in the West, and various other forms of religion in other parts of the world, Christ is still supreme, working to draw men and women to himself, but nevertheless, in overall control of all that happens.  So for you and me, Paul’s famous words are given a foundation in what we have been considering: we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Rom 8:28) Hold to this truth as you comprehend something of the glory of all we have been considering in this study and the previous ones in this series.

9. Anticipation – the Shepherds

Focus on Christ Meditations: 9.  Anticipation – the Shepherds

Lk 2:8,9   And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.

We have moved from the Old Testament into the New and are observing the different ways that God communicates in His revealing the coming of His Christ. In the previous study we saw how He communicated with Simeon via the Holy Spirit. Two of these three studies focus on those who were anticipating the ‘Coming One’ but this study focuses on a most unlikely group who God came to – you’ve guessed it, the shepherds who turn up in every Christmas Nativity with little children with towels around their heads clutching their favourite toy sheep. Now there are two emphases to their story but they, the shepherds, are only one. They are very undramatic, in stark contrast to the angels who form the second and even stronger element to their story.

Most of us are not very good with angels because we’ve never encountered them, but I have heard enough plausible testimonies from very credible people to believe that there is no question but that they exist. I would love to start telling stories here but if I do that we’ll never have enough space or time to write the accounts. But angels appear over the Bible. The first reference to an angel coming to someone is in Gen 16:7 when an angel comes to Hagar in the desert to encourage and reassure her. After her child is born another angel comes to her son in the desert (Gen 21:17). Further we find angels turning up in Gen 22:11,15,  24:7,40, 31:11, 48:16,  Ex 3:2, 14:19 etc. etc. etc. Very often it is clear that the angel comes to convey the will of God and in the text it is often almost impossible to distinguish between God and His angel as far as the communication is concerned.

Scripture describes them as ‘ministering spirits’ (Heb 1:14) sent to serve God’s people, usually in human form and who exercise power (2 Pet 2:11) and they come to convey God’s will. They appear a number of times in the early parts of the ‘Jesus story’ on earth, for example it was an angel who came to Zechariah (Lk 1:11-), to Mary (Lk 1:26-), to Joseph in three dreams (Mt 1:20, 2:13,19) as well as to the shepherds in today’s verses.

Not unsurprisingly the shepherds were terrified, no doubt more from the bright light that appeared to shine from and around this individual. Now although these shepherds are quite possibly outcasts from society because they lived in the hills, day and night, seven days a week, it is probable that at least when they were children they would have been told Israel’s history, complete with angelic accounts. However it is a very different thing to be told about such a divine encounter and to have such an encounter.

The angel seeks to allay their fears by telling them he was the bringer of ‘good news’ Now watch this carefully! See what he says: Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” (v.10,11) He tells them where to find this child (v.12) and then just to make it more dramatic, “Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” (v.13,14)

Now to shatter the complacency that so often accompanies the familiarity of this story, can I say I find this whole episode utterly mystifying! You don’t? Stop and think about it. Suppose you are God and you want to announce the arrival of your Son on the earth. Presumably you want to tell people who will be credible and who will respond well and no doubt go and tell others as well. So you look around the community, not very impressive, so you look wider afield and you come to Jerusalem. Herod is bad news, so he’s out. The chief priest is not known for his political and spiritual integrity so he’s questionable. Is there a local mayor or someone of that ilk who could spread the news? The trouble is that such people so often tend to be unbelieving. An angel, good news, a baby? It’s the middle of the night for goodness sake. Come back in the morning. So yes, it is a difficult job finding suitable people to tell, but shepherds, the great unwashed, the outcasts of society, who is going to believe them? At first sight at least, this is the last bunch of individuals I would choose.

So let’s see what happened: “When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” (v.15) OK, good one guys, they go. They don’t keep talking about what an amazing experience they have just had; they go. They don’t settle by the fireside recounting their individual responses and then gradually fall asleep. No, they go. “So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger.” (v.16) We tend to take this for granted but this may have needed a bit of perseverance and it is the middle of the night and the sheep are up there unattended????

And then, “When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child.” (v.17) Here we have the first childlike believers who can’t keep it to themselves. Who are they telling? It’s still the middle of the night isn’t it, or has dawn broken or have they made so much noise they’ve woken up half the town? We don’t know, just that they shared it. And the result? “and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.” (v.18) Not outright rejection, amazement. Perhaps shepherd-outcasts were just the right people to tell!

But perhaps also, there is a hint here of the way that God works. Already we have noted a number of times how God only gives part of the picture, almost as if He is wanting only those with seeking hearts to find His revelation. When Jesus came thirty years later it was so often with the poor and outcast sinners that he sat and talked for they were the ones most open to him. It is as true today as it was then, that those who are affluent, those who are ‘somebody’ rarely see their need and so rarely reach out to God.

What have we seen so far in this second part? An old man living on his own (probably), shepherds living on their own, and in the background, that we’ll see in later studies, a young couple and a baby, far from home, with their baby in either a stable or a cave. This is God reaching out to the outsiders, the less comfortable, the not-so-affluent, those who know exactly where they are in the food chain, those who are just ‘more aware of themselves’ and therefore more aware of their need. How about you and me? Are we comfortably well off? Does that make us spiritually lethargic? God reveals Himself to the hungry and thirsty and to the poor (see Mt 5:3,6)  Are we hungry and thirsty for God?

9. Continue in Christ

CHAPTER 2: Part 6: Exhortation: Stand strong and free

Meditations in Colossians 2: 9:  Continue in Christ

Col 2:6,7   So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.

You will know that I like link words, so I like “So then …”  It’s a short way of say, “Very well because of what I’ve just said, this is what should follow.” i.e. you’ve heard me speak about the mystery of Christ and also warning against wrong thinking that leads astray, so as a means of capitalising on the one and working against the other, this is what you should be doing. There is a logic or flow in Paul’s thinking and this is the natural follow-on to what I’ve just said.

He starts, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord,” and takes them back to the point of their conversion, of receiving their salvation.  There used to be a worry about new believers only receiving Christ as Saviour and not as Lord, and perhaps in some quarters that is still a valid concern. For Christ to be Saviour he HAS to be Lord as well. The ‘Saviour only’ approach focuses on the point of conversion but that is meaningless unless the life that follows is lived out under Christ’s direction for salvation isn’t just for a conversion moment, it is for being worked out in a lifetime. To get the fruits of salvation throughout the rest of your life, you have to let Christ lead you and be Lord. Christians live substandard lives and fail to appropriate all Christ has for them if they fail to let him be Lord of their life.  So when Paul says just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord,” he is subtly reminding them of the fundamental approach to life they have adopted – letting Christ be Lord, and that is for every day they have left on this earth.

But he then spells out what that Lordship means: “continue to live in him,” When we speak of living ‘in Christ’ we are saying imagine you are one with Christ, because you are; you are part of his body, the Church, and his Holy Spirit indwells you. Be aware of him, be aware that he speaks to us – through his word, through his Spirit – and that he is here for our good, guiding and directing us, so be aware of him and focus on him when you pray, for instance. Remain Christ focused is how we may sum thus up.

And then he expands on that: “rooted and built up in him.” When a plant is rooted in soil, it relies upon that soil for its nutrients and for water; it gets its life from the soil, being fed by it and by being supported by it. This is how we are in Christ; he is our foundation, he is the one from whom our life comes, he is the one who supports us, and this is not merely words but practical reality. ‘In him’ we are also ‘built up’. His presence, his life, supports and energises us.  This may sound obvious but remember that Paul is laying down the basics for a young church, for new believers as well as, at the same time, providing resources to help counteract false teachings that may come and seduce these people away from their experience of Christ.

There are two more things to encourage them to do this. First, be “strengthened in the faith as you were taught,” which is a natural continuance from thinking about being strengthened in your experience of being ‘in Christ’. Be also strengthened as you hang on to the teaching you have received concerning your faith. It is not only experiential via the Holy Spirit, it is also sustained by the practical teaching imparted through the church.

Then he adds, “and overflowing with thankfulness.” Now you may not think that that instruction strengthens new believers and counteracts false teaching, but it does! If you maintain a prayer life filled with thankfulness, it means that you are continually reminding yourself of all the good things that we have been considered in these studies in these two chapters. And if you are being thankful you will be thanking someone, and that someone is God, and so you will be continually be turning back to Him, focusing on Him, giving to Him and receiving from Him. Thankfulness sounds so innocuous but it is a key to good spiritual health, to remaining focused on God, to holding firm to the truth of all that He is, all that He has done and all that He has made you. Being thankful is a major element of a healthy life.

So there he is, calling on these new believers to remain strong as they walk out their new faith, by remembering who they are – those ‘in ‘Christ’, and what that means – we are founded in Christ and he is our resource and support and Lord, the bringer of all good things into our lives. Holding firm to this and to the teaching we have received, and maintaining an attitude of thankfulness, will mean that these new believers will grow, will be strong and will be able to stand against the wiles of the enemy and resist false teaching that undermines and seduces away from Christ. This is powerful stuff!

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.

32. Assurances

Meditations in David’s Psalms : 32 : Assurances  – Psa 27

Psa 27:1   The Lord is my light and my salvation—   whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life—  of whom shall I be afraid?

Sometimes when encouraging people to build self-esteem in themselves, we say, look in a mirror and speak the truth to yourself, the truth about yourself and your position in life. That’s rather what David seems to be doing here in this psalm. By the nature of what he says in it, he has in the back of his mind that he has enemies and they trouble him, but he is going to declare the truth about the Lord to counter those concerns.

Thus he starts with this assurance about the Lord: “The Lord is my light and my salvation.” (v.1a)  What does light do? It shows the way or it lights up your surroundings and lets you see and understand what is there. The Lord does this for David. But life is full of difficulties and David’s experience of the Lord says that God is for him and will be there to save him from those difficulties. With that in mind he can say, “whom shall I fear?” (v.1b) If God is for him he doesn’t have to be afraid of anyone. Do you want to stand in front of a mirror and say that to yourself? This sense of security that he has in the Lord makes him feel it’s like he’s inside a castle and protected by the Lord and so, indeed, why be afraid of anyone:  “The Lord is the stronghold of my life—  of whom shall I be afraid?” (v.1c)

This sense of security has very practical outworkings. If he is this secure in the Lord then when enemies come, they are the ones who are going to fall before the Lord: When the wicked advance against me to devour me, it is my enemies and my foes who will stumble and fall.” (v.2)  One thing follows another in this spiritual logic. If God is his light and salvation and stronghold, then it doesn’t matter who or how many come against him for it is the Lord they will encounter:  Though an army besiege me, my heart will not fear; though war break out against me, even then I will be confident.” (v.3)  We don’t know who David has in mind when he writes this; it could have been Saul or it could have been the Philistines or some other national army invading. Whoever it is – he is secure in the Lord! OK, so much for enemies and his security in the Lord; now it’s time to move on.

It’s like he turns his back on thoughts of the enemy and turns to face or consider the wonder of knowing the Lord’s presence: One thing I ask from the Lord,  this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord  all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the Lord  and to seek him in his temple.” (v.4)  That’s the big issue in life – his relationship with the Lord, knowing the Lord, seeking the Lord in the Tabernacle (house of the Lord), seeking the Lord in heaven (in his temple [the Temple wasn’t yet built so this must refer to His home in heave]) It was actually being able to be close to the Lord that was at the heart of his security: For in the day of trouble  he will keep me safe in his dwelling; he will hide me in the shelter of his sacred tent  and set me high upon a rock.” (v.5) If he can be close to the Lord in the tabernacle, then he knows the Lord will protect it and him and so when the enemy comes he will be safe there.  Wherever we are in life, if we can know the presence of the Lord, there is safety for us, His people.

David has this picture in his mind, of his enemies coming like a hoard to overcome him, and of the potential of him going down before them, but he knows that while he stays close to the Lord, the Lord will be there for him and he will be lifted up and so will not fall before them and, in fact, he will be lifted above them and therefore, in that place of worship he will be able to praise and worship the Lord, regardless of who comes: Then my head will be exalted  above the enemies who surround me; at his sacred tent I will sacrifice with shouts of joy;  I will sing and make music to the Lord.” (v.6)

So having given himself this talk in the mirror, so to speak, he turns away and speaks directly in prayer to the Lord. This needs to be appropriated and it starts in prayer: Hear my voice when I call, Lord; be merciful to me and answer me.” (v.7) Sensing and knowing the Lord’s presence starts when we seek Him in prayer. Prayer does a lot of things and one of them is that it gives us a sense of the Lord being there. In his heart David knows what he has to do: My heart says of you, “Seek his face!” Your face, Lord, I will seek.” (v.8) That’s what he is doing in prayer, seeking the Lord’s face or, to put it another way, seeking to sense the Lord is there.

As he prays, he voices his worst nightmare: Do not hide your face from me, do not turn your servant away in anger; you have been my helper. Do not reject me or forsake me, God my Saviour.” (v.9) God not drawing near, God being angry with him  for some reason, God rejecting him or leaving him, these are the anguishes of insecurity that we can find within us. But David knows better than these fears: Though my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will receive me.” (v.10) Even if his closest family might reject him (but they hadn’t) God would never do that. That was the confidence that he had in his relationship with the Lord.

In this confidence, he prays for guidance: Teach me your way, Lord; lead me in a straight path because of my oppressors,” (v.11) but then expresses the practical outworking of that: Do not turn me over to the desire of my foes, for false witnesses rise up against me, spouting malicious accusations.” (v.12). This is what he needs, deliverance from enemies who tell lies about him and yet, even as he prays, that confidence, that we have seen so many times when he prays, breaks through:  I remain confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” (v.13) The confidence that he has in his spirit as he prays will be translated into a practical outworking so that his experiences in life will reveal the goodness of the Lord.

With all this in mind, it’s like he returns to the figurative mirror and speaks again to himself: Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.” (v.14) That’s it, that’s all he’s got to do, trust in the Lord, wait on Him, hold to the truth and just wait and God will do what God will do. Excellent!