13. Circumcised?

Meditations in Colossians 2: 13:  Circumcised?

Col 2:11   In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ,

There are times when Paul is very Jewish and uses Jewish pictures, ideas and concepts. Now is one such time. Those of us who have been Christians a long time may well have got so used to this that we no longer even notice it, but I have wondered if, when Paul wrote, he realised his writings were going to be read across the world and down through the centuries whether he would have used such language.

Let’s be blunt and not appear coy about this: circumcision was the cutting off of the male foreskin when the baby was only a few days old. It was a practice called on by God of Abraham (Gen 17:11,12) as “the sign of the covenant between me and you.” (v.11). There could be no more intimate ‘sign’ and the Jewish male would be reminded of this covenant every day. In one sense perhaps, it could be said the Jewish male lost a piece of himself to God and its absence was the reminder of the covenant on a daily basis.

But note how Paul starts this verse: “In him”.  A little earlier he had written, “just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him,” (Col 2:6,7) This phrase, or the phrase, “in Christ”, is a familiar one in the New Testament writings. When we become a Christian and are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, we become part of ‘the  body of Christ’, the church, and so he is in us and we are ‘in him’. This concept should act as a reminder to us of who we are and what is expected of us: “you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God.” (1 Pet 2:9,10)

So he now speaks to us as God’s people, indwelt by the Spirit and part of the body of Christ, but uses this Jewish experience language to emphasise what has happened to us when we came to Christ and explains it: “In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature.”   Again this concept of “the old nature” or  “the flesh” as some older versions put it is a familiar one in the New Testament.

Paul used it when writing to the Romans: “For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin — because anyone who has died has been freed from sin.” (Rom 6:6,7) and to the Ephesians, “You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” (Eph 4:22-24) and to the Colossians, “Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.” (Col 3:9,10)

Sometimes Paul simply referred to it as the “sinful nature” as to the Ephesians: “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts.” (Eph 2:1-3) and the Romans, “For when we were controlled by the sinful nature, the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in our bodies, so that we bore fruit for death.” (Rom 7:5   also Rom 8:3,4,5,8,9. etc.). In each case, as we noted above, the translators put in a page note that alternatively this could be, as in older versions, ‘the flesh’, simply meaning life lived that is utterly self-focused. I have often defined Sin as ‘self-centred godlessness resulting in unrighteousness’ and that’s how our ‘old’ lives, our lives before we met Christ, were characterized, self-centred and godless.

The question has to be asked of many modern so-called Christians, is your life still characterized by self-centredness (pleasing self, esteeming self and honouring self) and godlessness (lacking awareness of God or interaction with Him)? The alternative question is, is your life now characterised by the fruit of the Spirit who indwells you and are you God-focussed in all; you do?

To make sure we understand what he is getting at, Paul concludes the verse, “not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ,” i.e. I am not talking about a physical circumcision but by the work of cutting you free from your old life that Christ HAS DONE in you by forgiving and cleansing you (to separate you off from the guilt of the past), putting his Holy Spirit within you to empower you to live a new life, and adopting you into his family, to give you a new identity. Christ has done this; all it requires is for us to live it.  We’ll see more of this in the next verse in the next meditation.

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32. The Obligation

Meditations in Romans : 32:  The Obligation

Rom 8:12-14   Therefore, brothers, we have an obligation–but it is not to the sinful nature, to live according to it. For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live, because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.

Oh look, there’s a ‘therefore’ which means that what follows, flows on from the logic of what has just been said, so let’s pick out the positive bits of what Paul has just said: You, however, are controlled … by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And …. your spirit is alive because of righteousness. And ….he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you.” So, the Spirit lives in us because of what Jesus has done and the way we responded to him, and He will bring life to us in a new way.

But we need to remember that the Christian life is a combination of what God has done for us and is doing for us AND what we do. We cannot save ourselves but we do contribute to who and what we are and how we end up. So there are some Christians who simply totter into the kingdom and hardly move on. Yes, they are saved but there is little more. But then there are others who get saved and go on and mature and become glorious servants of God who achieve great things and the world is changed by God through them.

This is why Paul now starts this next paragraph, “Therefore, brothers, we have an obligation….” When you have an obligation or duty, it is to DO something, to take part in something, to be a player. He is saying, because God has put His Holy Spirit in our lives, He looks for our co-operation because He did not take away our free will when we came to Him. Yes, He wants us to submit it to Him but He still wants us to choose and He still wants us to act of our own volition (as led and guided as it may be by Him).

So what is he saying we are to do? Well first he takes the negative, what we are NOT to do. “it is not to the sinful nature, to live according to it.” It is still there, lurking in the background but it has been overcome by the power and presence of God and we could, if we wanted, still live according to it (and some do) but actually when we came to Christ we rejected the old life and the old ways and died to them, so they neither have the power to break through again, nor the inclination to do so. We gave it up for something infinitely better so why ever would we go back to it? Some do but you wonder whether they ever truly came right through will full conviction, full repentance and full understanding.

Some do fall away undoubtedly but that is a choice, and act of the will and Paul warns against that. Indeed he takes his warning a step further: “For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die.”  If you go back to that old life with its old ways, you will die, not physically maybe, but certainly spiritually. God does not relate to that old nature and, indeed, cannot, because it is self-centred and godless. It’s like we turned our back on Him and do not, therefore, relate to Him. If we do not relate to Him and He does not relate to us, His life will not flow to us and in us and spiritual death will prevail. It is no wonder that some unbelievers say, ‘well I never have any sense of God; if He does exists He must be a million miles away.’ Of course that is how it seems for they are spiritually dead because they have never come alive by the Holy Spirit.

So, Paul continues, “but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.” The Holy Spirit is in us as new Christians, we said, and He is working within us to bring God’s will into being in and through us. But, we also said, it is a partnership and we have a part to play, to use our will to conform to what the Holy Spirit is prompting. So Satan and the world – and the old nature – will say, ‘Stand up for yourself, don’t let them treat you like that, you tell them what you think,’  but the Holy Spirit prompts and says, “No, you respond with grace. Be Jesus to them, surprise them.” At that point we have a choice to make: will we stand up for self or will we put to death the misdeeds of the body?

Then, just to really encourage us, Paul reminds us of what has happened and who we really are now, these people who have the Spirit within and are led by Him: “because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.”  Do you remember John declared, “Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God– children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” (Jn 1:12,13) We are children of God because of the work of the Spirit within us, sons of God as Paul describes us.

Sons have a particularly special place in the Old Testament because they carried on the father’s business, they inherited and carried on the father’s business and thus all of us who are Christians, male or female, are called sons of God by Paul because we have inherited a new life from the Father and He wants to lead us in His business – the business of saving people, changing people and transforming the world. How amazing! How wonderful! Hallelujah!

25. A New Way

Meditations in Romans : 25:  A New Way

Rom 7:5,6     For when we were controlled by the sinful nature, the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in our bodies, so that we bore fruit for death. But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.

For those who know Romans 7, you will see words in these verses that will trigger memories of what is to come. The crucial words that Paul is going on to expound are, “the sinful passions aroused by the law.” He is looking backwards yet again to the time before we knew Christ when the motivating force within us was that self-centred and godless disposition at the heart of Sin, which in itself was subject to the pressures of human desires – to eat, drink, have sex, get one’s own way – more and more. We were driven by these things. What made it worse was that if we were challenged and someone quoted moral laws at us, we got all defensive and made excuses why we did what we did because, deep down, we knew we’d prefer not to be like that, but however hard we tried we found we couldn’t keep the rules, even ones we set for ourselves.

This old lifestyle sometimes made great hopeful flourishes – turning over a new leaf, making New Year resolutions, or doing a self-help course, but after a while, after the initial enthusiasm had died down, we were back where we started. It was a deadly existence. We hoped for new life and none came. Again and again we faced the rules as we set ourselves fresh targets. We knew what people expected of ‘nice’ people, of successful people and so on, and so there were these expectations leering at us, challenging us to struggle to meet them, knowing all the while we never would. Whatever we did was self-centred and we had no time for God, and it seemed we just didn’t have the resources to bring change to our tired lives. Spiritually we were dead on our feet. God seemed a million miles away. Some of us made a pretence of spirituality but whatever we did was still self-centred, and we were the ones we were trying to escape from. We were the walking dead and nothing seemed able to help us.

But then we came to a crisis point in life and although we didn’t realise what was happening, God’s Holy Spirit started convicting us of our need, showing us our plight as we’d never seen it before. Suddenly we started feeling disconcerted with what we saw of ourselves and we recognised that we didn’t like what we saw. We wanted to be free from it but we knew, if this was just another set of expectations, we were still helpless to change. But in our yearning and openness we were ready to hear about Jesus Christ. Suddenly what we were told about him was like a straw to a drowning man and we grabbed for it. Nothing else mattered. The old life, we recognised, had been a waste of time and we gladly turned our back on it as we knelt before God.  We surrendered our lives to Him, willing for Him to do whatever He wanted to do with us; we died to the old and with longing held our arms out to Him in surrender.

And with that death to our old selves came death to all the striving to meet the expectations that had been laid on us, the ‘Law’ from the world around us. We had strived for those expectations and failed and given them up.  It was a waste of time striving to meet all the expectations that we and others laid on us. Any moral rules, ethical standards, self imposed hopes, all went into the dustbin at the point we surrendered to God. They died in our thinking and as we turned from them to God, they lost their power to inflict a sense of failure and guilt upon us. No longer were these ‘rules’, these ‘laws’, these ‘expectations’ leering at us any longer for we saw them for what they were – unobtainable goals. When we came to God, He seemed to be merely asking us to believe in His Son and follow him as he would lead us by his Spirit. No longer were we led by the world’s expectations, but by a man, the Son of God.

Yes, as his Spirit came into us, we felt different, we were born again, and we were filled with joy. Something wonderful had happened. We didn’t understand it but we knew it had happened. Suddenly we started having new thoughts, new ideas, a new purpose in life. The Bible started coming alive to us and we found a new purpose and new direction emerging and as it went on, we learnt that it was God by His Spirit now leading us, now motivating us, and it was wonderful! Hallelujah!

12. Good News

Short Meditations in Mark’s Gospel: 12. Good News

Mk 1:14,15 Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!”

Repentance is one of those words in the Christian vocabulary which is necessary but so often disliked. Because of that sinful nature we were all born with, none of us like to be told to change. Change is what repentance is all about. Some people describe it as making a hundred and eighty degree turnabout. It is turning from unbelief to belief, from being self-centred to God centred, from being unrighteous to righteous.

So Jesus came proclaiming good news. Again many people, if you ask them about the Christian faith, say it is a bunch of ‘you must not’ or ‘you should not’ things, yet Jesus came bringing good news and those things by most people’s standards don’t constitute ‘good news’. No, good news is news we all like.

So what was this ‘good news’? It was that the time had come, the kingdom of God was about to be revealed. Yet again that old sinful nature doesn’t like the sound of that – God’s kingdom? What about my own? What about my rule, what I think? And therein in the deception because if we were able to think about it dispassionately, we might concede that, so far, we haven’t made the best out of our lives. The truth of the Gospel is that God is far better at getting the most out of our lives than we are, and that is what He wants to do when we hand the reins over to him. That is what ‘the kingdom’ or rule of God is all about, but we struggle to believe that.

No wonder that Jesus had to cry that out: turn from your unbelief and turn to believing that God loves you and wants to bless you and make the most out of your life. Believe this good news! How the people, the religious authorities and even Jesus’ disciples struggled with this. How we still struggle with this! It is a sign of the old sinful nature that clings on, that we find it so difficult to believe these wonderful things – that God loves me and has come in the form of His Son to set me free from that old unbelieving nature and to release in me a new hope and a new wonder.

Lord, I am so sorry that I am so slow to believe the wonder of the Good News that the New Testament speaks about – that you love me whole heartedly and have plans for my life that just mean goodness and more goodness for me. I believe it! I really do!

7. Purposeful Blessing

Lessons from Israel: No.7 : Purposeful Blessing

Ex 3:8,17,21,22 So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land…. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land…. 21″And I will make the Egyptians favorably disposed toward this people, so that when you leave you will not go empty-handed. 22Every woman is to ask her neighbor and any woman living in her house for articles of silver and gold and for clothing, which you will put on your sons and daughters. And so you will plunder the Egyptians.

This is God laying out His blessing for the Israelites. A blessing is simply a decree for good from God, and these verses are certainly that. The more I watch lives, the more I marvel (in a negative way) at how the old sinful nature still seems to be allowed in so many Christian to dominate their thinking so that they have negative thoughts about God and seem unable to realise the wonder of His love. Even when we read that He is for us (Rom 8:31) we cannot take that in. So, if need be, before you read any further, stop and pray and ask the Lord to open the eyes of your understanding, so that you can see something more of His love and His good intentions for His people.

There are three facets to this blessing in these verses today. The first blessing is deliverance FROM or OUT OF. In verses 8 and 17 we see Him twice saying that He has come to deliver Israel out of the hands of the Egyptians. Some people act like they would like to stay well and truly in the world and for God to bless them while they continue to live under the oppression of the enemy. It doesn’t work like that. If you are a slave to someone else, you don’t want to be blessed while you are a slave; you want to be set from being a slave. Before you became a Christian your thinking and actions were dominated by Satan. That’s why Paul referred to it as being in the dominion of darkness” (Col 1:13) and John wrote that “the whole world is under the control of the evil one.” (1 Jn 5:19).  No, salvation means that we are delivered OUT of his hands or FROM his hands. He no longer holds sway over our lives. We have been delivered. We are now free.

The second blessing is deliverance TO or INTO. In those two verses we see Him twice saying that He has come, not merely to deliver Israel out of Egypt, but to deliver them into the land of His choosing, the land of His blessing. He describes it as a “good and spacious land.” That is our Christian inheritance. God doesn’t simply set us free from the darkness of the old life but He delivers us INTO a new life that has a whole set of different characteristics that are good and which give us a great sense of freedom.

The third blessing is the blessing of provision and it is provision from the world, from the Egyptians. How will that come about? “I will make the Egyptians favorably disposed toward this people.” The way that God will deal with this people will mean that the Egyptians will be glad for them to go and will bless them to ensure they go! The result? “When you leave you will not go empty-handed.” No, provision for the future will come from the past. This is going to be open and obvious: “Every woman is to ask her neighbor and any woman living in her house for articles of silver and gold and for clothing, which you will put on your sons and daughters. And so you will plunder the Egyptians.” That is how it is going to work.

Now the previous two blessings have parallels in modern life and in our salvation today, so does this latter one? I would simply suggest that God uses the provision of the world to bless His children, and He takes the provisions of the world and blesses them so that His children flourish. This may apply to education or it may apply to employment or to finances generally. Yes, we may be educated alongside the world, but as we allow the Lord to lead us so He will bless us in our learning. He is always there to help if we will only turn to Him and rely upon Him. When it comes to work we either work for an employer in the world (and unbeliever), or for a Christian (who is blessed by God) or we run our own business which God will bless as we allow Him to. Whichever it is, as we submit to the Lord, we will know His blessing coming from the world!

That is the condition for blessing of course, that we obey the Lord (His word) and allow Him to lead us (by His Spirit). When we give ourselves over to Him then He will bless us with the things of the world. Poverty is not a blessing and God’s desire is to bless His children (and anyone can become one of His children, remember, simply by believing in Jesus) in all aspects of their lives so that they can be a blessing to others. Our potential affluence and blessing is not merely for our good, but for the good of the kingdom of God and for others.

I know of a lady who was in poverty – or to be more precise she was in serious debt so the little she had was owed. Then she came to the Lord and then she decided to no longer take ‘short cuts’ (illegal practices with money) but instead would seek to be strictly righteous in all her dealings. Slowly and gradually her circumstances are changing and I am just watching to see how God is going to honour her commitment to Him – for He will! He has delivered her out of the ways of darkness into the kingdom of light and now here He is blessing her. It is a story repeated again and again as people come to God, put their lives right with Him, and then His blessing flows. How wonderful!

16. Evil Men

‘WHY?’ QUESTIONS No.16

Psa 10:13 Why does the wicked man revile God? Why does he say to himself, “He won’t call me to account”?

There is a mystery in many people’s minds, a mystery about evil and specifically about evil in people. Why are people like they are? Why do dictators do the terrible things they do? Why do men and women murder, why do men rape, why do fathers abuse children, why do people steal from other people? I once led a law class where the whole class were unanimous that we needed laws to protect the weak “because people are nasty”. What an indictment of the human race!

There are two possible aspects to this verse today – the reason why men act like this, and the reason God lets them act like this. First of all, what is the reason men act like this? Why do people do wrong and then deny the presence of God? Why does the wicked man think he will get away with it?

Well there are two parts to the answer to that. Looking at Scripture, we see that we have an adversary, Satan, who comes against us to tempt us to do wrong, and he does that by getting us to think wrongly. We did consider this the other day but we will look at it more deeply now. At the Fall we find the following sequence of events: He said to the woman, “Did God really say,’You must not eat from any tree in the garden? (Gen 3:1) This was Satan challenging the truth in Eve’s mind as part of his endeavours to get her to go against God. That was followed by,You will not surely die,” the serpent said to the woman (Gen 3:4), his denial of the consequences of her actions. So we see he whispers into people’s minds that it’s all right to do this thing because who’s to say it’s wrong, and anyway, it will be all right. It is wrong and it won’t be all right – A man reaps what he sows.” (Gal 6:7) There are always consequences to our wrong doing.

Now there is a second reason men now do wrong. It isn’t only Satan; it is the fact that since the Fall, every man, woman and child has been tainted by this thing called Sin, this tendency towards self-centred godlessness which results in unrighteousness. Note that it is now a tendency within us. Once we become Christians we have a greater power within us, the Holy Spirit, who enables us to overcome the old tendency, the old nature. However until a person comes to Christ for salvation, that old nature prevails and Sin prevails in them. Godlessness is most natural; self-centredness is most natural, and unrighteousness is most natural. Now David didn’t have this understanding when he wrote this psalm, but we have all the revelation of the New Testament teaching so we should understand it and we shouldn’t be surprised when we see such things. Satan plus the old sinful nature means that evil is expressed in human beings.

But we said there is a second aspect to this verse – why God allows wicked men to act like this. This is so often the cry of lack of understanding, “Why doesn’t God do something about it?” the ‘it’ being the wrong doing of evil people. Well actually when you think about it there is an easy answer to this one. The Bible indicates quite clearly that God has given us free will. It would be a nonsense if God told us to do things if we did not have the capacity not to do them. The fact that Eve and then Adam ‘fell’, were disobedient, is a clear example of this free will. A variety of other people in the Bible also clearly didn’t do what God told them to do. No, free will is a capacity that God has obviously given us. So when we cry, “Why doesn’t God do something?” we are in fact saying, “Why doesn’t God override this person’s free will?” and that’s where it gets difficult. Put simply, where should He stop? Obviously He should stop murderers and rapists and criminals, you might say. OK, but why stop with them for there are lots and lots of acts of wrongdoing that are not criminal acts? OK, you say, do away with all wrongdoing! Ah! Including in you? Including your wrong thoughts, wrong words and sometimes wrong acts? You want God to take away your free will and make you into a robot who can only do good, whose action will be severely curtailed, and whose human experience will be radically cut back? You want God to do that, because that is your only alternative?

As soon as we come to this point we see the awfulness of Sin and the awfulness of free will, but then we start seeing the wonder of salvation that wins sinful human beings to God’s side to be good. That’s what salvation does, but we have to have the other awful freedom first. Yes, God does act into this world and sometimes He does obviously move against evil men, and yes, men do reap the consequences of their actions, but in the meantime the terrible downside of free will is that man can be evil!

Never blame God for your wrong doing and never demand He takes away free will of other people – or you! Free will is the staggering responsibility that God has bestowed upon mankind. It is, if you like, a sign of His respect for us. He gives us our lives to live as we will, with the potential to achieve wonderful things, but also to do terrible things. The choice is ours. He will be there to help us achieve the former, and His wrath will be there against the latter, but the choice is still ours. Choose wisely.