10. Deuteronomy (2)

Meditations of Old Testament Highlights: 10.  Deuteronomy (2)

Deut 6:4,5   Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength    

Six times in Deuteronomy Moses uses this formula, “Hear O Israel” (4:1, 5:1, 6:3, 6:4,  9:1, 20:3) as a special call to take note of what he is saying. In it’s first usage when he turns from reminding them of their history since leaving Mount Sinai nearly forty years before, he used “Hear now O Israel,” as a pivotal point calling them to now heed his teaching there on the Plains of Moab. He is going to remind them of the Law that has been imparted to them, and then there are going to be multiple but varied calls to faithfulness. In some ways Deuteronomy is the most compact and dense book in the Bible and it is Moses discharging his role as their leader before he leaves them to die on Mount Nebo.

It would appear that Moses spoke before the nation several times there. The second, “Hear O Israel” appears in 5:1 at what appears to be the start of his second talk to Israel: Moses summoned all Israel and said….” Now in chapter six we observed the third “Hear O Israel” in the previous meditation noting it was a refocusing on the blessings that would follow their complete obedience.

Now as we arrive at this fourth usage we observe it goes to the very heart of their existence, a relationship based upon love. Now of course we find Jesus referring to this command: Jesus replied: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.” (Mt 22:37,38) Thus we now find ourselves meditating upon a command that Jesus considered the greatest of all commands and, when linked with the command to love your neighbour as yourself (see Mt 22:39), he declared that all the law and the prophets hung on these two commands, essentially meaning that they sum up all other laws.  That is how important this verse is that we have before us.

I suspect that to many, if not most of us, this is a very well-known command, one that perhaps we almost take for granted,  but I want us to step into the shoes of the Israelites who are listening to Moses. What would they think about that command? How do you love a God you cannot see? In fact I think that many Christians have this deep down worry, “How do I love God? Do I really love God?”

Let’s be absolutely basic. What is love? In the past when I have looked in a dictionary I have found, “warm affection, attachment, liking, benevolence or strong benign feelings”  which, if you translate that in respect of all that we know of God, then in respect of Him it means, “selfless, sacrificial, unrestricted good will towards us.” Do either of those sets of definitions suggest what we can feel about God?  Let’s stick with the Law for the moment, trying to apply definitions to our thoughts, feelings and behaviour. I’m struggling. The first definition, I think I can go along with but then I think, there seems a difference between the two sets; the first seem to be about emotions and the second seem to be more about will.

Let’s think about what I have learned about love from my marriage. It started out very emotional but there were times, over the years, when for a variety of reasons (tiredness probably being the main one) I couldn’t conjure up the same emotional buzz that I had for my wife when we first went out together. But then I ponder on what our love is about today after well over forty years of married life. On a good day I am absolutely sure I love my wife more now than I ever did in the past. If you like, I appreciate her more and am amazed at her love for me which constantly blesses me. On a tired day when emotions are all over the place, I declare my love, if for no other reason than loyalty. She has stuck with me over forty years and that’s amazing! I will stick with her accordingly.

So yes, love seems to vary between being an emotional thing and an act of the will. So what was Moses call? To love God with all your heart, soul and strength, that last one changed to ‘mind’ in the New Testament. So what do those three things mean? Heart has to do with acts of the will. Pharaoh was hard hearted in Exodus and set his heart against God. It was an act of will. Soul is all about feelings (ever heard ‘soul music’?) and mind is about intellect and reason.  (Strength is about energy and direction).

So let’s take them in reverse order. Intellect & Reason: When you know about someone you have reason to appreciate them. Israel had been through the Exodus and all that that meant and so their ‘faith’ is built on the testimony of God, what He had done, what He had revealed to them. For us, our knowledge of God through His Son, Jesus Christ has had the content of the Gospels added to it.

Feelings/Emotions: When God had blessed them, like the psalmist they could rejoice and praise Him. When we find ourselves forgiven and adopted as His children and are then indwelt by His Spirit and even filled with His Spirit, we too find ourselves overflowing with gratefulness, thankfulness, praise and worship, all of which involve our emotions.

Will: And whether it is a good day or a bad day we resolve we will remain faithful. That was the call to Israel and to us, and it has nothing to do with how we ‘feel’. It is a pure act of will.

Now as I ponder this, three conclusion rise in my consciousness. The first is that my ‘loving God’ can include emotions but in the absence of emotions then all that is required as my expression of my love for Him is my faithful obedience. (This is love for God: to obey his commands.” 1 Jn 5:3).

The second is that without His grace (the presence of his Holy Spirit within) I am doomed to remain a self-centred, godless being. It is His grace than enables me to love my neighbour etc. Grace is more and more available the more and more we draw near to Him and experience His presence.

Third, and finally, because I am less than a perfect (yes, I am in His sight, but we are talking about daily experience!) my love (reason, feelings and actions) may fall short and therefore, ultimately, I rely upon the Cross. The truth is that Moses’ command was ‘the Law’ and we all fall short when it comes to law-keeping and therefore I must rely on the Cross for my salvation in this area as much as in any other area.

Yes, I will use my intellect to build my intellectual knowledge of Him. Yes, I will worship and pray and praise to build my emotional experience of Him and, yes, I will seek at all times to be obedient, but while I do this, I will turn to Him and seek both His grace as the provision I need, and His forgiveness through the Cross to cover my failures and my inadequacies. When I declare, “Lord, I love you,” He knows the reality of that, my seeking to obey His leading and His word, my yearning to feel more about Him, and my desire to be found faithful when He returns. Yes, Lord, I love you, you know I love you, you know all things (Jn 21:15-17).

16. To Jonah

“God turned up” Meditations: 16 :  To Jonah

Jonah 1:1-3 The word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.” But Jonah ran away from the LORD and headed for Tarshish.

Jonah has always appeared a bit of a joke figure to me. I’m sorry, but that’s just how he’s seemed. I mean, God turns up and tells him to go somewhere and hold an evangelistic campaign, and he goes off in the opposite direction.  He “ran away from the Lord.” Now it’s pretty clear that Jonah never read Psalm 139 or if he did he never took in what it said: “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.” (Psa 139:7-10)  Here’s a primary lesson that is worked out in Jonah – you can’t run away from God!

But perhaps the biggest question that might arise in our minds when we first come across a book like Jonah, is why did God choose Jonah when He knew he would be such an unwilling vessel. I mean the same was true of Moses! So why does God choose such characters? There may be a couple of answers.

The first one actually is very obvious. God doesn’t look on the individual as they are now; He sees what they can become and what they can eventually achieve. We look at ourselves and simply work on the limited resources that we consider we have and completely forget that when God turns up and is there for us, suddenly our resources are completely unlimited!  We look at ourselves and think we haven’t got the strength, stamina or courage to say boo to a goose, but God looks at us and, as the psalmist said, He knows us through and through and He knows that there is more in us (and especially with His help) than we realise. The truth is that both Jonah and Moses achieved the end goal! They may have objected bitterly, but they both got there in the end.

I think a second reason might be to do with what Paul alluded to when he wrote, “But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things–and the things that are not–to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.” (1 Cor 1:27-29). I confess I would really like to feel strong and wise, but much of the time I feel weak and foolish. If that’s how you feel, you’re the sort of person God wants to take and use. We’re just pitted jars of clay: “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” (2 Cor 4:7) He is glorious and He delights in revealing Himself through vessels of clay!

There’s something else we perhaps take for granted in this encounter with God and it is hidden within those simple opening words of this little book: The word of the LORD came to Jonah.” I have to suggest that Jonah already was a man who had a relationship with the Lord and who also heard from God – and knew that he heard from God. That later distinction is important because, as I’ve often said in these meditations, I am sure many of us hear God but don’t realise it is Him speaking.

No, Jonah heard the message and knew it was from God which is why Jonah upped stakes and hot-footed it in the opposite direction. He wouldn’t have done that if he hadn’t heard God. We much prefer to just stay where we are minding our own business. But Jonah suddenly remembered somewhere else he needed to be and so caught a boat in the opposite direction. If you have never been aware of the Lord speaking to you, it is unlikely that He is suddenly going to call you to go on some hair-raising mission for Him. He builds up to stuff usually, and He speaks again and again to encourage you. Oh yes, Jonah knew the Lord!

But there is another big issue here to be considered. It is of God who brings nasty stuff into our lives to get His way, because that is what happens in this story. On his boat on the way to Tarshish, Jonah suddenly finds they are being buffeted by a major storm that threatens to sink the ship. He knows this is God getting his attention. It’s an amazing story because, grumpy little prophet he may be, he’s more concerned for the ship and the crew than he is for his own life – and perhaps he knows deep down that somehow – just somehow – God will turn up again to save him. And He does in the form of a big fish! What a taxi!

If God knows it just needs a little turning of the screw to get you under way and into the right place for blessing – He’s not averse to turning the screw! He’s more concerned to bless you in the long-term – and others as well. He won’t abandon you in it and His grace will still always be there for you, but He’ll still use difficult circumstances to get you to your potential! And when you get there don’t, like Jonah, grumble about it, just realise the wonder of what He has achieved.

32. Sovereign God

Meditations in Job : 32 :  Sovereign God

Job 12:9,14 Which of all these does not know that the hand of the LORD has done this? … What he tears down cannot be rebuilt; the man he imprisons cannot be released.

We, in the West, live in a sceptical world. Crusading atheists rant about God being nasty or powerless, and largely the Christian Church seems powerless. Mostly we keep quiet about a God who acts into His world, a God who is sovereign Lord. Not so Job!  Job may be in a mess but Job knows some stuff and we would do well to listen to him. The remainder of this chapter is all about a sovereign God. Job is under no illusion about what is happening and calls on his friends to listen to the rest of the earth: “But ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds of the air, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish of the sea inform you.” (v.8). Look, he says, you may attribute my suffering to my own acts, but the rest of the world sees and knows the truth about it: “Which of all these does not know that the hand of the LORD has done this?” (v.9). This isn’t the mechanical result of sin, this isn’t an accident, this is the work of God as He works out His purposes!

Then he starts to expound God’s greatness: “In his hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind.” (v.10). Every single one of us, he says, is in God’s hand. It’s obvious, he goes on: “Does not the ear test words as the tongue tastes food?” (v.11). There are patently obvious things in this life; the ear hears words and the tongue tastes food, and in the same way – it’s a fact of life – God is sovereign! Don’t you know these things? “Is not wisdom found among the aged? Does not long life bring understanding?” (v.12)  Are you aged men full of wisdom so you know this? Don’t you realise that “To God belong wisdom and power; counsel and understanding are his.” (v.13). God is the all-wise One, the all-powerful One and he knows everything! More than that, don’t you realise that He can do what He likes? “What he tears down cannot be rebuilt; the man he imprisons cannot be released.” (v.14)

So then he demonstrates God’s power in the earth: “If he holds back the waters, there is drought; if he lets them loose, they devastate the land.” (v.15). Don’t you realise, he is saying, that God’s power means that He can bring both rain AND drought, and when it comes to dealing with mankind the same is true, “To him belong strength and victory; both deceived and deceiver are his.”? (v.16). Yes, he says, He has strength than cannot be withstood and so victory is always His against mankind, so it doesn’t matter if it is the foolish who have been deceived by others, or the clever who deceive others, they are all His for Him to do with as He pleases.

Haven’t you realised, he continues (implied), that no one can withstand Him? “He leads counsellors away stripped and makes fools of judges. He takes off the shackles put on by kings and ties a loincloth around their waist. He leads priests away stripped and overthrows men long established.” (v.17-19) i.e. it doesn’t matter if they are wise people (counsellors), authoritative figures (judges), people under the control of others (those made prisoners by kings), those who are supposed to serve Him (priests), or even those who have been around in power a long time, EVERYONE is subject to God!

The cleverness of men does not impress Him and He’s not stopped by it: “He silences the lips of trusted advisers and takes away the discernment of elders,” (v.20) and it doesn’t matter how great and mighty you think you are, you are still subject to Him: “He pours contempt on nobles and disarms the mighty,” (v.21), so there! Haven’t you realised (he implies) nothing is hidden from God?  “He reveals the deep things of darkness and brings deep shadows into the light.” (v.22) and so this ability to see and to know, linked with His incredible power, means that He can do what He likes with the world: “He makes nations great, and destroys them; he enlarges nations, and disperses them. He deprives the leaders of the earth of their reason; he sends them wandering through a trackless waste. They grope in darkness with no light; he makes them stagger like drunkards.” (v.23-25). No nation and no leader is so great that they can withstand God!

Now we have worked our way down this litany in this chapter and possibly in struggling to see what it all means, you might have lost its impact. It is simply summarised as, God is all-knowing, all-wise, and all-powerful and so can do whatever He likes, which means that no one in the world is outside His ambit of activity and no one can withstand Him. Now that needs saying in the light of the sceptical attitude that pervades the world and even seeps into the Church. If you think this is not true, go and find the nearest ten representatives of the local Christian denominations, carry out a survey if you like, and ask them if they believe that God still acts into His world, and listen to the evasive language that comes by way of reply.

We need to boldly declare aloud to this unbelieving day, you may deny it, but God exists, God is alive and this is His world, and merely because He graciously tolerates your folly – for the time being – realise that He is still Almighty God and He still holds men accountable. Think back over the last thirty years and observe the downfall of men and nations who looked impregnable. Their fall was not accident. There is a God who is sovereign and who works into His world for His purposes. Do you believe it? The Bible says it again and again, and you and I need to believe it, pray it, sing it and live it!

34. Victories

God in the Psalms No.34  – God who gives victories

Psa 21:1 O LORD, the king rejoices in your strength. How great is his joy in the victories you give!

Victories are all about battles. The battle may be one football team against another, one basketball team against another, one fencer against another but in every case there is a victor and a loser after a battle. Historically, depending where we come from in the world, we can look back to days gone by of great battles in wars.  At the present time we look back to the past hundred years and, seeing two wars that engulfed the globe, hope we will never have such things again.  Yet David still lived in a time when there were those who sought to fight against him to bring him down. In the face of this he turned to the Lord and the Lord gave him victories, and it was in this he now rejoiced.

Many Christians don’t realize this dimension in their lives.  The apostle Paul spoke about this in Ephesians 6 when he started speaking about our ‘armour’.  He said,our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms (Eph 6:12). Yes, this is the truth; we don’t fight a physical battle but a spiritual one. This battle is waged at two levels. First there is the obvious external battle, then there is the internal one.

The external battle is people who, under the enemy’s prompting, come against us. It may be with words, it may be with actions. Whichever it is, it comes as hostility and it’s probably because we are Christians. Hopefully we did nothing to bring it on; we were just targeted by the enemy. It happens. It’s a battle where he seeks to wear us down and bring us down.  But there will also be an inward battle going on whereby the enemy tries to make us give up, tries to get us to respond badly, tries to get us to respond using the same ungodly and unrighteous methods that he uses. If he can do that we are no longer representing Jesus. The battle on the Cross was Satan trying to get Jesus to rail out against humanity, to curse us – be he remained sinless, he had the victory!

So how does God give us victory?  When temptations come, He shows us a way out (1 Cor 10:13). Sometimes he gives us the wisdom to know how to act in the face of it, the knowledge of what to speak (Acts 7:10), but sometimes that wisdom is just simply to flee the thing (Gen 39:12). In any and every situation God’s grace is there for us (2 Cor 9:8). Grace, that thing that Paul wanted for his readers in every letter he wrote, is simply the divine ability in us to overcome, to handle the situation like Jesus, with the goodness of Jesus or the kindness or gentleness or truth or love of Jesus. These are the things we use to overcome because ours is not a physical battle but a spiritual one.

There was something else that Paul wrote in Eph 6 that is pertinent here: put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then (v.13,14). Do you see that? Three times he says stand. You see the truth is that we have been given a position to hold, ground to hold onto. Our role in this battle is to hold on to what we’ve been given. What is that? Sonship!  We are children of God, temples of the Holy Spirit and therefore holy people. Satan will try to get us to forget that and think and act just any unbeliever. The battle is to hold onto that, and you know what? God is working to give us the victory by His Spirit within and by sovereign acts without! Let’s rejoice in that!

27. My Strength

God in the Psalms No.27    

Psa 18:1    I love you, O LORD, my strength.

Such a simple description: my strength. In a world that sees so many people stressed, this must surely be a most important meditation. What is stress? It is the inability to cope with the pressures of life or work or family difficulties. The presence of stress means that we have run out of personal resources that would enable us to cope well. Stress means that we are being pushes further than our physical resources can cope with. Stress means we are being pushed beyond what our mental resources can cope with, and stress means we are being pushed beyond what our emotional resources can cope with. Oh yes, we mustn’t forget one other area, stress is being pushed beyond what our spiritual resources can cope with. But actually our lives are one and all these interact within us – physical, mental, emotional and spiritual.  If we get ourselves into circumstances that are beyond our God-designed resources, we are into stress.

I have a busy day and the demands upon me may be many. I am at a time of life when my physical strength and stamina is not what it was when I was thirty years younger. Therefore I have to be wiser in conserving what I have and the way I use it, but if I believe my circumstances are God-given and God-guided, then like the apostle Paul, I must trust that the Lord will provide my physical strength: I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” (Phil 4:13). But the key here, is checking that all the things I allow to come and make a call on my life are things I believe are God sent. Sometimes I may have to reject some things. I also need to ensure I have a healthy lifestyle – healthy food, reasonable exercise and no late nights and early mornings!

Then there are difficulties to be overcome, problems to be solved, things that challenge my mind, and I need mental strength to be able to work at these without worry creeping in.  Are these problems my responsibility? Are they things the Lord wants me to deal with?  They appear to be things that require knowledge, wisdom, understanding and possibly insight, things which God said Jesus would have (Isa 11:2) and now because Jesus lives in me, must be resources available to me. All I have to do is commit it to him: Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 4:6,7). Ah, look what is in there in the midst of that, a promise of peace, i.e. emotional strength!   How did that come about? It came by turning to God, by seeking Him, and by pouring out my heart to Him. Therein is spiritual strength. Yes, He does live within us, but spiritual strength and stamina come by conscious awareness of His presence, by seeking Him and finding Him and knowing Him and finding that His glory is reflected in us (2 Cor 3:18).

Later on in this Psalm 18 David says, It is God who arms me with strength and makes my way perfect. He makes my feet like the feet of a deer; he enables me to stand on the heights. He trains my hands for battle; my arms can bend a bow of bronze.” (v.32-34) There he links strength with the way ahead being made perfect. When we are weak, we may stumble and fall, but with God’s strength we can walk or run steadily and surely (like the deer), and we find a new strength there that enables us to fight the battles that confront us. You can’t explain his strength really, you just ask for it, and then suddenly you realize you have it and step out to do His will for your life and find you can do it; the strength is there physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually, and you achieve His purposes!

28. Glory

Ephesians Meditations No.28

Eph  3:20,21 Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen

Again and again in this letter, my feeling is that there is so much truth in each of Paul’s sentences that it is impossible to plum the depths of them and therefore anything we cover here tends to be very surface. Every phrase, it seems, holds so much that we could make a single meditation of it, but for the sake of time and space, we must limit what we say. See each one, therefore, as simply a launching pad for further meditations.

Consider Paul’s starting description of God: Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine.” This I can cope with, at least in small measure, because as a Pastor, one thing I know is that most people really have so little expectation of what God wants to do for them. Here Paul is thinking about what Godis able to do,” and he implies, ‘think about what we ask God to do, or think about what we imagine He can do, and it is immeasurably more than that!’ In other words, whatever we ask or whatever we imagine God doing, it is so much more that it will be impossible to measure it!

How little expectations do you and I have of God? “Oh, I’m not a leader,” I hear people say, or “I’m not special,” or “I’m not a great saint.”  Why not? Is it simply because we don’t ask for it or imagine God would do it for us? The life coaching world has discovered a measure of truth when they teach about thinking well about yourself, but of course they will always fall short if we are being godless, but listen to Paul’s language elsewhere: “And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.” (2 Cor 9:8). Then there are people who say, “Oh, I just don’t have the strength to serve God”. Listen again to Paul: “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” (Phil 4:11-13) Do we need to start taking hold of Scripture and, by faith claiming it for our own lives?

But then he continues by reminding us what these verses above tell us, that it is all “according to his power that is at work within us.” Now we’ve seen this again and again; it is God’s own Holy Spirit within us that is the source of our strength and our power and our wisdom. It is because it is God Himself, by His Spirit, who lives and works in and through us, that Paul said He was able to do immeasurably more. The Spirit is God and God is without limit! That we really do need to think, pray and meditate on!

But all of this that we have been considering, has really almost been an aside or an introduction or explanation of what Paul is basically saying:Now to him … be glory in the church.”  This is really Paul’s winding up his prayer with exaltation of God. He is saying, “May God be glorified in the church” and he’s saying that because of all that he’s said previously about God, the Gospel and the church which God has brought into being. What should be happening is that God is glorified by His church. I’m not sure how often overall in the Church, that that really happens. Is God truly glorified by all that your church is and does? Does the community look on in wonder at what it sees in the church? The reality, tragically, in the West at least, is that much of the time the church has allowed itself to be marginalized and is not seen as the glorious body of Christ still doing the things he did, or it is not seen as the temple of God filled with His glory. Jesus, before his death, prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, speaking of the church, “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” Now merely because there are millions of local churches that does mean there has to be disunity. The local church is where local Christians are, but the crucial question is, do we see ourselves as one with other believers in our area? It starts there. Our unity should be both a means of working to share the Gospel, and a sign that the Gospel works. As a result God will be glorified. Are we a church still doing the same things Jesus did? If we don’t Jesus won’t be glorified. No excuses!

But Paul didn’t just say, “to him be glory in the church,” but also “and in Christ Jesus,” the inference being, we suggest, that God be glorified in the body that is the Church, and in Christ who is the head. You really can’t separate the head from the body and hence when the church glorifies God then the head will be glorified as well. Now this wasn’t just for then but, “throughout all generations, for ever and ever!” This outcome – that God is glorified in the church and in Christ – is to be an ongoing one that goes on from one generation to the next. The people may be different but the Spirit is the same and God remains the same throughout history. There is not coming a time when this does not apply. Our objective, surely, is to be that God is glorified in and through us, that other people see and are drawn and come to know Him. Thus He is truly glorified. May it be so!