12. Place of Trust

Wilderness Meditations: 12. The Place of Trust

Jn 3:14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up

Lev 16:10 the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the Lord to be used for making atonement by sending it into the wilderness as a scapegoat.

Recap:  We have been considering how we think, how we look at the world and look at life, how we have to come to the end of ourselves before we can truly be open to God. We reminded ourselves in the last study how we need people in our lives. We can’t get by without God and it is difficult to get by without people. People are one of God’s resources to us, that was a primary lesson we learned afresh in the early months of the 2020 Pandemic lockdown.

Things Taken for Granted: In a previous series about guilt, about how we can fall short of the things God has for us, we noted things we take for granted in our lives, and the wonder of our salvation was one of those things. Now I am sure there are many, many Christians, who have simply attended church, joined in the worship and prayers and listened to the sermons, week after week, month after month and year after year, but as we have done that the shear repetition of it all has meant that it has dulled our appreciation of who we are and what Jesus has done for us. As a result of that, so often our repetitious ‘services’ have meant that we hear the words but we still try to make ourselves good, make ourselves righteous, make ourselves spiritual, in order to win God’s approval. And it is there we fall down.

Through the lockdown period, church-going ceased, services started up online, meetings were conducted via Zoom. Suddenly many felt isolated from what they had known of as ‘church’. Suddenly, with the trappings stripped away, many were looking afresh at what they believed. It was a time of reassessment, of realising God’s salvation through Christ was THE only way, knowing Him personally had to mean more than turning up at a building on Sunday mornings.

The Old Testament Speaks: A snake on a pole? “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up.” (Jn 3:14) As the snake in the wilderness became of focus of both repentance and faith for healing (Num 21:9), so Jesus was lifted up on the Cross, lifted up by God in reputation (Phil 2:9) and lifted up from death into heaven where he rules at his Father’s right hand (Acts 2:33, 5:31, Eph 1:20). We may be in the wilderness but we too have died (Rom 6:2), have been raised (Rom 6:4,5),  and there, in the Spirit, we are seated with him (Eph 2:6). It doesn’t matter about the limitations of Covid-19, rejoice in the fact that we are divinely supernatural people who have been ‘lifted’ with Christ.

But then a scapegoat in the wilderness? The word ‘scapegoat’ is familiar, one who takes the blame – unfairly! There were two goats in Lev 16, one offered as a sin offering to take the guilt, the other sent into the wilderness to take the act of sin out of God’s presence. In the New Testament the application of that is brought to us: Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many.” (Heb 9:28) He took our guilt and punishment on the Cross and passed into the wilderness of death, carrying our sins away. If, in this wilderness, you see this scapegoat more clearly, understand God is just reassuring you that you can’t take your sins away, Jesus can and has. Don’t take them back.

Reality? So there is the teaching which, it is quite likely, you’ve heard before. But there are various things in those two pictures involving the wilderness, that should create questions in us:

Coming to the snake on the pole (the Cross) in the wilderness (of the lost and fallen world) required recognition that, having been bitten by snakes (the many expressions of sin in the world), we were at the end of ourselves and death faced us. Repentance meant facing the pole (the Cross) and the one on it, seeing the cause of our woes being nailed to death and taken by our Saviour, accepting his death was on our behalf. We receive it and are forgiven, cleansed and healed. Have we taken that for granted?

One of the two goats took our guilt. Jesus took our guilt. Do you still live a life tinged with guilt? Your guilt has been dealt with. Once you confessed it and repented, God forgave you. (1 Jn 1:9). Done deal, there is no more to be said. The other goat took our sins away into the wilderness (of death). Do the wrongs of your past still lurk in the background? Realise they have been removed, taken far away, you are a new creation in Christ, “the old has gone, the new is here.” (2 Cor 5:17).

And us? With all the trappings stripped away, have you been able to see in this wilderness with a fresh clarity the reality of your salvation. You are what you are not because of your church-going or other ‘spiritual acts’ but entirely because of the combined work of Christ on the Cross and now the applied outworking of that by the indwelling Holy Spirit: the past work, the present outworking, all coming from Him. Our part? Just to believe it and receive it in reality. May that be so.  

7. The Father’s Provision

Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 7.  The Father’s Provision

Mt 7:9-11 “Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!

Again we need to see the context to catch the full import of these three verses. Immediately before Jesus has encouraged his followers:Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Mt 7:7,8) Immediately before that, as we saw in the previous study, he had spoken of us not dropping what we had that was sacred, or our ‘pearls’, before dogs or pigs, and that might lead some to think, “Hold on, what have I got that is sacred, what have I got that are the equivalent of precious pearls?” That leads us to realise that there is more in the Christian life to be appropriated than we have at the moment – and this is always true, there is always more to come from the Lord.

But how do you get this ‘more’? By asking, by seeking, by knocking on God’s door, so to speak. The tense of those verbs is ongoing so it means keep on asking, keep on seeking, keep on knocking. Now many people don’t realise this and they settle for what they have and settle into a state of inactivity and immobility, but the truth is that we are called to be seekers. Why doesn’t the Father just give it without us asking? Well asking is a sign of spiritual health and it also brings about a closeness in relationship with the Father so, yes, as we mature there is always this balance, there is always this tension between being contented with what God has made us but a yearning for more of Him, more of the expression of His kingdom, more of the experience of His Holy Spirit.

But there is a problem. Now in this year of writing (2017) there has arisen a new term used in the media – false news, or fake news. It means things that are said publicly as if they were true but in reality they are false. Now in spiritual warfare this is nothing new for the Bible tells us that Satan is a deceiver; he deceived Eve at the start and he seeks to deceive whoever will listen to him. Now many of us have listened to him unwittingly and so we have heard such ‘fake news’ as “God is a harsh, judgmental God. God doesn’t love you, you are a nobody, you are a failure in life, nobody loves you.” And all of that is untrue! But people believe it, which is why Jesus spoke out the words in our verses above.

He has just encouraged us to be seekers of more, to keep on asking and keep on knocking at God’s door but the problem is that we are reticent to ask because we’ve listened to the enemy’s ‘fake news’ and we need to get over that. So Jesus asks us to think about any normal family: “Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone?”

Imagine the picture. A little child comes in tired and hungry from school, say, and says, can I have something to eat please?  The father goes outside, picks up a rock and brings it in and places it on a plate and puts it in front of him on the table. Oh, come on, Jesus’ listeners would have protested, no dad would do that! OK, replies Jesus, let’s change the picture then, let’s make it a living thing. The child asks for a fish and so dad goes out and finds a snake and puts it on a plate before him. Oh, come on!!! A loving dad wouldn’t do that!

OK, says Jesus, think about this. There’s nothing special about this dad, he’s the same as any other human being, a sinner, basically evil when it comes to it. Now you are telling me that this dad wouldn’t ever do something so unkind to his son, so why do you think your Father in heaven is less than this dad? Why is Father going to hold back on giving good gifts to His children when an earthly father doesn’t do that? We might add, think of all the evidence of the whole Bible that tells us that God has blessed and blessed and blessed His people. Think of all the good He has done for you. Think of the salvation He has granted you – earned by the death of His Son, Jesus Christ, imparting sonship, forgiveness, cleansing, righteousness, and power, teaching and direction of the Holy Spirit. All this was free, you didn’t do anything to earn it. You didn’t go looking for it, He came looking for you, He initiated everything.

This is a serious argument. Why do so many of us think, I’m nobody, I’m nothing, I’m a failure? Answer: because it is true – but it is only half the story. The other half is the things we listed near the end of the previous paragraph. Jesus has got so much more he wants you and me to enter into but we don’t get it because we don’t keep on asking, seeking and knocking for it, because we listen to the likes of the crusading atheists with their ignorant rantings and believe the fake news. No, we are NOT unloved, No, God is NOT a harsh God. He is a loving heavenly Father and if He holds back, it is because He wants to strengthen your heart, strengthen your resolve and draw you closer to Him.

Go back to that Old Testament ‘equation’: “Delight yourself in the LORD and he will give you the desires of your heart.” (Psa 37: 4) When we delight in Him, when we make Him the focus of our lives, then He starts putting desires on our hearts and as we start recognising those desires and asking and asking for them, so He grants them. There is so much more just waiting for you, but it starts with this ‘equation’.

27. The Battle of the Snakes

Meditations in Exodus: 27. The Battle of the Snakes

Ex 7:8,9    The LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “When Pharaoh says to you, `Perform a miracle,’ then say to Aaron, `Take your staff and throw it down before Pharaoh,’ and it will become a snake.”

The passage we are about to have a look at is without doubt one of the strangest or most weird in the Bible, I believe. To start from basics it either happened or it didn’t. Skeptics and atheists would say it was just made up and so didn’t happen, but you have to ask why should Moses bother to include it or make it up because it is fairly minor in effect when compared to the ten plagues that follow. So let’s accept it happened, but why? Let’s see if we can tease the truth out of the verses to come. I’m sure these are verses we may have read many times before but like many commentators pass over very quickly noting it happened but nothing more. So…..

I confess I had never noticed one part of the above verses. The Lord anticipates Pharaoh is going to demand a miracle: “When Pharaoh says”. Although verse 10 doesn’t tell us that that was what happened we must assume it was so. The bit about throwing down the staff, we encountered before when it first happened at the burning bush in Chapter 4 that we considered in Meditation 15. Now it is going to be Aaron who throws the staff down.  But it is this disconcerting thing of Pharaoh expecting or demanding a miracle. Now there are two possibilities.

Possibility no.1 is that Pharaoh neither believes in gods of power nor miracles and just uses all the superstitious worship of gods to his own ends and so he says it out of unbelief as a means of blocking Moses. That doesn’t seem to be very real. The superstitious beliefs of Egypt are well known as is the occult character of them. No, the second possibility seems more likely, that he is saying, “Very well Moses, you are introducing a new god to us, what can he do?” As we go on we’ll see that the occult powers were very real and so maybe indeed he was challenging a power encounter.

So it happens as God said: So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and did just as the LORD commanded. Aaron threw his staff down in front of Pharaoh and his officials, and it became a snake.” (v.10) As we said, presumably Pharaoh makes the challenge and Aaron throws down the staff and it turns in a snake. Nasty! Presumably the snake doesn’t do much and so Pharaoh’s immediate response is to call for his occult-operating priests or magicians: “Pharaoh then summoned wise men and sorcerers, and the Egyptian magicians also did the same things by their secret arts: Each one threw down his staff and it became a snake.” (v.11,12)

Now it is at this point that commentators go all over the place. There are those, with a more materialistic bent, who suggest that these ‘magicians’ or ‘sorcerers’ were in fact clever snake handlers who by pressing the vein or nerve behind the snake’s head could make the snake go rigid and appear like a staff in their hands, so when they threw them to the ground they regained control and appeared as the snake it was the whole time. Other commentators fluff around the alternative, that somehow they did literally copy Aaron’s little party trick, as Pharaoh obviously saw it. This is why I say this must be one of the weirdest passages in scripture for, with the plague that follows which they copy, these are almost uniquely in the Bible the only times when occult power is manifest in such a tangible manner, and yet the hints are often there that such powers were possible.

It is often said that Satan, who must be behind these occult powers, can never do anything original, he can only copy what God does, and that is exactly what we have here, a copy-cat miracle. These wise men, sorcerers or magicians, call them what you will, did seem to have power of some occult sort. But then see what follows: “But Aaron’s staff swallowed up their staffs.” Oh, gross! I don’t know how many of these other snakes there were but Aaron’s snake goes round and gulps up all of them. Presumably his snake didn’t get bigger and bigger and although we aren’t told this, we must assume afterwards his snake went back into the form of his staff again. Were these things illusions? I haven’t a clue, I cannot explain it, I’m just like all the other commentators. I don’t know how it happened.  However, as predicted, it didn’t achieve the desired for effect: “Yet Pharaoh’s heart became hard and he would not listen to them, just as the LORD had said.” (v.13)

So why this weird episode? Well there are some specific things we can note.

First, there is power, magic of some form some might say, there in Egypt which counterfeits the work of God. Isn’t that what any false religion does? It counterfeits the true thing, and because it is counterfeit, it deceives and leads people to believe that which is false and that which is wrong. Magic, spells, incantations and manifestations appear to be common in ancient Egyptian literature.

Second, the point of the episode is to show that God’s power is supreme over the occult powers manifested by the magicians. This is going to become manifestly obvious as the plagues progress and no objective observer would be able to deny that. All that follows is really all about power.

Third, Moses and Aaron were no doubt delighted by the scary outcome and I suspect Aaron was very wary when he had to pick up the snake, turning back into his staff. However, I would guess that both he and Moses were greatly encouraged by the outcome; the Lord WAS there for them!

Fourth, it shows that Pharaoh’s hardness is there from the outset and was not going to be easily moved. Nice magic trick boys, but I’m not impressed; I’m still Pharaoh.

We should also note, fifthly, that this was a miracle that had no effect beyond the spectacular. This is what distinguishes it simply as a preliminary warning of what is coming; the plagues caused widespread havoc. This simply caused a stir in the palace – but it no doubt did leave Pharaoh thinking and he is now paying attention – but that won’t be good enough for an end result, but then the Lord knew that from the outset, so perhaps this was just to encourage Moses and Aaron more than anything else. The Lord delights to encourage His people.

So this was a ‘sign’ for Pharaoh but people don’t always take note of signs. That didn’t put Jesus off doing them though. His miracles and the incredible number of healings he brought were signs for those with eyes to see. Signs and wonders were clearly part of his ministry. (Acts 2:22) and he is the same Son of God today (Heb 13:8), so can he still bring that level of ministry through his body today, the Church?

13. The Son lifted up

Short Meditations in John 3:  13. The Son lifted up

Jn 3:14   Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up,

Poor old Nicodemus must be really struggling now as he listens to Jesus and Jesus puts into his lap all these truths, truths that are likely to challenge his mind, his intellect, his understanding. We’ve been through him struggling with concepts of being born again and the Spirit moving like the wind, and we’ve been through Jesus alluding to having come from heaven and if that wasn’t bad enough for this legalistic leader now Jesus starts using a picture from Old Testament history to reveal what his true purpose on earth is.

What is intriguing about this first half of chapter 3 is that there is not another reference to Nicodemus and John doesn’t tell us what his response was to all this. All we do know is that Nicodemus later speaks in defence of Jesus (Jn 7:50) and that he accompanied Joseph of Arimathea to bury Jesus and provided the spices for embalming the body (Jn 19:39). He became a follower.

Was it, I wonder, that when Jesus died on the Cross Nicodemus remembered this part of the conversation?  What happened back in the Old Testament with Moses, what does Jesus mean? On one occasion when Israel rebelled in the desert they came to a part of the desert particularly inhabited by snakes and many of them were being bitten by the snakes. It was God’s disciplinary judgment on them. Then we find this: “The LORD said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived.” (Num 21:8,9) This bronze snake on a pole was God’s provision so when the people came to look at it after they had been bitten they were returning to God and God healed them. Such was His grace and mercy. The snake on the pole was simply a way for the people to physically come to God, and in so doing be healed by Him.

Now this is a part of their history that Nicodemus should have known about and the analogy should be quite clear – at least in part! Without any other knowledge you would understand Jesus to mean that in the same way that that snake had been lifted up, so he, Jesus, must be lifted up or exalted. It might simply be him saying he has been sent by God to take a place of prominence, as the Messiah no doubt. Of course, in retrospect, we now realise that Jesus was meaning that his ‘lifting up’ was in fact on the Cross at Calvary and he was God’s means of bringing salvation to all peoples Thus anyone who comes to the Cross and believes in Jesus will be healed from sin (saved).

9. God of Transformation

Lessons from Israel: No.9 : God of Transformation

Ex 4:1-4 Moses answered, “What if they do not believe me or listen to me and say, ‘The LORD did not appear to you’?” 2Then the LORD said to him, “What is that in your hand?” “A staff,” he replied. 3The LORD said, “Throw it on the ground.” Moses threw it on the ground and it became a snake, and he ran from it. 4Then the LORD said to him, “Reach out your hand and take it by the tail.” So Moses reached out and took hold of the snake and it turned back into a staff in his hand.

Moses is scratching around looking for reasons why he can’t do this thing. He now comes up with his third question: what if they won’t believe me?  Hold on, Moses, the Lord has already said they will listen to you (implying acceptance because they will then go to Pharaoh with you) so you haven’t been listening or certainly you haven’t taken in what the Lord says. However, to be fair to Moses, I note this sort of behaviour is common in Christians when God is saying something completely new to them. In our confusion or wondering we just don’t take in fully what the Lord is saying.

Now note that the Lord doesn’t chide him. We might expect the Lord to tell him off after not having listened properly but perhaps we should identify the Lord as the God of understanding. We said in the previous meditation that He knows us and knows all about us, so He understands Moses and simply encourages him. The Lord gives him a visual demonstration of His power that is available to Moses, and turns Moses’ attention to what it is in his hand – his shepherd’s staff, the tool of his trade if you like. Throw it on the ground He tells Moses and when Moses does it turns into a snake – and Moses runs! It is obviously a big snake, possibly a cobra, and we’ll say why we make this suggestion in a minute. Moses has seen a miracle and it can be described in no other way.

Now comes the tricky bit. The Lord tells him to take it by the tail. You fancy taking a cobra by the tail? It’s likely to swish around a bit (to say the least) and you may get bitten. But Moses is beginning to realise that this God is a supernatural God, One who turns on miracles at a word and so if He says pick it up, it’s OK to pick it up. Now I want to suggest that this is a major learning step for Moses. He’s still going to stumble all over the place in his mind, but picking up this snake was a pretty big act of faith. When he does it turns back into his staff. Wow! A double miracle!

So what does all this say to us as we ponder it?  Well, the staff was, if you like, an emblem of Moses’ calling. He doesn’t realise it yet, but this is his calling, to be the Shepherd of Israel. At the moment he’s a literal shepherd but he’s soon going to be the shepherd of a nation! Where is the right place for the staff? In his hand!  If he let’s go of it, it will get transformed into a sign of the world. Now of course the first picture of Satan in the Bible is as a serpent (Gen 3). If you see pictures of the Pharaoh’s of that period, you will usually see they have a bronze cobra’s head as part of their headdress. Some suggest this symbolises Wadjet, who was a Lower Egyptian god, one of the oldest Egyptian goddesses, and was considered a protector of Egypt. Wadjet was revered as the goddess of childbirth, and protector of children, and in later years she became the protector of kings. This serpent is thus likely to be a picture of one of the key goddesses of Egypt. Let your ministry go and it gets absorbed by the spirit of the age and dissipated.

But what else does this visual aid suggest? It suggests that when you obey God you can take the spirit of the age by the tail and transform it! That’s what the Gospel does. It transforms our lives. Do you remember how Paul referred to our old pre-Christian lives: 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.” (Eph 2:1,2). We were subservient to the spirit of the age. If you read through Ephesians you see how Paul talks about how we have been transformed by the Gospel and are now part of the body of Christ with Christ-given gifts and ministries, with which we bless the church and the world.

Oh yes, the clear message here is that God is a God of transformation. He has the power by the work of Jesus on the Cross, and the Spirit within us, to transform lives. Have you ever seen the wonderful picture of transformation that comes through Ezekiel’s prophecy in chapter 47 of his book? It is of a river that flows out from the Temple of God and as it flows it gets deeper and deeper, but the really thrilling thing about it is that where it flows it brings transformation (47:8 on). Consider two other pictures of transforming activity that we so often take for granted – salt and light (Mt 5:13-16). Salt purifies and light reveals. Both are transforming agents. The history of the Church is the story of millions of lives that have been transformed for good. Yes, we still get it wrong but essentially it is all about lives being changed for good. Bad lives, evil lives, messed up lives, that encounter the wonderful news of Jesus Christ, that they are loved and that he has died for THEM, and they are transformed! I watch this transformation taking place on a regular basis as we see people coming to the Lord through Jesus Christ. The poor atheists cannot understand this and so argue on bad intellectual grounds, not realising that they are fighting against an impossibility. They can say what they like, but the truth is that the Church, for those who have unprejudiced eyes to see, is a story of simple transformed lives, wonderful lives.  And it’s all of God! Hallelujah!