23. Humbled

Meditations in Deuteronomy : 23 :  Humbled, Provided For, Disciplined

(Focus: Deut 8:1-5)

Deut 8:2 Remember how the LORD your God led you all the way in the desert these forty years, to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands.

A casual reading of parts of these early chapters of Deuteronomy might conclude there is just a lot of repetition, but a closer reading shows that where there is repetition it is for a different specific purpose and it usually has different elements to it. This is what we find here.

So chapter 8 starts out with something that has been said a number of times before.  Be careful to follow every command I am giving you today, so that you may live and increase and may enter and possess the land that the LORD promised on oath to your forefathers.” (v.1)  Note again that there is a command and a promise so the promise is conditional on the command. The command is a simple call to obey all the laws being reiterated by Moses, and the promise is blessing on their lives and an enabling to go in and take the Land. Normally, previously, the promise has been to have long life in the land but the promise here is the ability to take the land. So the obedience to the Law needs to start right now for it impacts all that is going to follow.

But now it is followed by yet another call to remember the past, but this time it is a call not only to remember it, but understand it, understand what was going on and why! Remember how the LORD your God led you all the way in the desert these forty years, to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands.” (v.2) The basic facts of their recent history were that God had led them while they wandered for forty years in the desert having originally failed to enter the Promised Land. But what was going on while that was happened? God was humbling them and testing them.

When you look back on the records of that time they are limited mostly to different crises that occurred – lacking water, lacking food etc.   Now, says Moses, that wasn’t coincidental, that was God testing you to see how you would react. The crucial issue at every crisis was would they turn to the Lord, would they stick to what they had been told about Him, would they adhere to the Law?  Rather than just waste that forty year period, the Lord used it to teach and train Israel.  The most important thing was that they had to learn to trust the Lord and stick to Him.  Often they hadn’t done very well, but a learning process is like that, you don’t do very well initially but you get better as you learn.

But there was a specific aspect to this teaching: “He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your fathers had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.” (v.3) When they had eventually decided to enter the land on the previous occasion it was a pure example of self-confidence, not confidence in God.  They had to lose that self-confidence because it was not the thing that would see them through in the centuries to come, it was a confidence in the Lord, which is what the Sinai covenant of love was all about – about coming into a relationship of trust in God. So a number of times they had a crisis of provision and the Lord looked to see if they would turn to Him for provision – they didn’t, they grumbled instead, but nevertheless the Lord DID provide for them – manna.  They had to learn that their future lives did not simply depend on material provision, but also provision of the wisdom of God, every word that comes from Him!

He reminds them of what happened: “Your clothes did not wear out and your feet did not swell during these forty years.” (v.4)    Not only did the Lord provide manna, quails and water.   He also ensured that their clothes did not wear out.  One pair of sandal for forty years!!!  Then comes the key principle behind all this: “Know then in your heart that as a man disciplines his son, so the LORD your God disciplines you.” (v.5) There it is! What had been going on throughout those years had been God’s disciplining. Now don’t misunderstand this.  So often we equate discipline with punishment but in the Bible, discipline is God training His people. Yes it does involve correction and yes sometimes it is painful, but the purpose is always good. It is that the people of God learn to trust God.

When crises happen today, how do we view them?  Panic?   Or do we turn to the Lord to hear from Him to see what provision He wants to bring us to cope with the present?  These are profound questions and they deserve some careful thought so that we may trust Him more and more.

 

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30. Gentle Prophet

Meditations on Jesus in John’s Gospel : 30 : Jesus, the Gentle Prophet

Jn 4:16-19      He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.” “I have no husband,” she replied.  Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.” “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet.

There is the well-known instruction, Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Lk 6:31)   It’s well known because it is often quoted and also because it’s acceptable to most people.  Why is it acceptable to most people? It is acceptable to most people because they like its sentiment. We want other to treat us well and so we see that as a good standard for behaviour generally. The apostle Paul when he was teaching the Corinthian church said,everyone who prophesies speaks to men for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort (1 Cor 14:3). In other words, anyone who is bringing a word to individuals from God will be speaking with the aim of strengthening, encouraging and comforting. “Ah, but what about correcting and rebuking,” says my legalistic friend. “Surely the word of God is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness’(2 Tim 3:16). Exactly, but watch how Jesus does it.

Jesus knows this woman as he knows every person he encounters. He knows what her state in life is. Does he chide her? Does he rebuke her?  No, he tells her to do something that provokes her to speak the truth about herself. She starts facing herself by Jesus’ seemingly innocent instruction. Once she acknowledges her basic state, Jesus ‘fills in the gaps’ and speaks detail into her life, and concludes with the disarming words, What you have just said is quite true.” He isn’t having a go at her, and so she doesn’t act defensively.  Is his main intention to convict her of her sub-standard life and bring her to repentance? Yes and no!  Ultimately he does want her to face the truth about herself because he knew that, you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (Jn 8:32), i.e. facing the truth about ourselves is the first step towards salvation.  However, he has a greater desire, for her to realize who he really is.  When we realize who Jesus is and come to him, everything else (including our past sub-standard lives) falls into place.

What was the end result of Jesus words?  The woman went away full of the encounter and wanting others to come and meet Jesus. Without any doubt she was strengthened, encouraged and comforted. Her encounter with Jesus had not left her feeling thoroughly embarrassed, exposed or got into a corner. Oh no, to the contrary, it has had a remarkably liberating effect upon her.  And how had that happened?  She had encountered a gentle prophet!

How often do we or others feel we have to put others’ lives right? That’s not the call of the Gospel; it is to introduce them to Jesus so that he can put their lives right! How do we share the Gospel?  I know when I was a young Christian I was in ‘attacking mode’ and I know there are still many people who do that, but Jesus comes to each individual with respect, and care and concern for them. He allowed this Samaritan woman to speak about something of her situation and then he showed he knew all about it, but without condemning her. The result was that she felt good and her life was changed.  That’s how Jesus comes to each one of us. Yes he comes to confront but he does it in such a gentle way we sometimes hardly realize that’s what he is doing, until we find ourselves confessing our state to him. Can we be like him?

33. Growing in Christ

Ephesians Meditations No.33

Eph  4:14,15 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.

Imagine you go to a garden centre and buy a small plant which, the attached label tells you, should grow into a large bush. You faithfully tend it and water it and do everything you should to it – but it doesn’t grow one bit. I think you would be disappointed or even annoyed. Why hasn’t it grown? Yet when we come to the Christian life, do we opt for no change? If we stopped every person going into every church in your area and asked them, “Excuse me, can you tell me how you have changed and grown as a Christian in the past three years,” I wonder what sort of answers you would get. I’m sure there would be some just bemused at the thought, and others defensive and others even angry at the thought that they needed to change!

Many years ago I started preaching what I believe the Bible teaches: God loves you just like you are, but He also loves you so much that He has something better for you than what you are. Why am I saying this? Because the objective of the verses that we considered in the previous meditation ultimately take us towards maturity and these verses today speak of us growing up! Growing up is all about change.

This idea of us growing up comes in a variety of places in the New Testament: “Our hope is that, as your faith continues to grow, our area of activity among you will greatly expand,” (2 Cor 10:15) i.e. Paul expected their faith to grow. He also spoke about “the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.” (Col 2:19). He expected the Lord to help the body (church) to grow.

The apostle Peter taught the same thing: “Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation.” (1 Pet 2:2)) and “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.” (2 Pet 3:18). The same idea was there when Paul spoke about us when he said, “we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory,” (2 Cor 3:18) again indicating the expectation of us changing. The Christian life as something that is passive and unchanging is not a New Testament concept!

What are the alternatives to this ‘growing up’? Paul tells us: “infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming.” Of course if you look at the verses above you will see that this is part of his call that he starts off with no longer be…” He doesn’t want us to be like this, but this is what it is like when you don’t ‘grow up’. If we don’t ‘grow up’ we remain spiritual infants! He says we will be tossed back and forwards. What does that mean? It means in our thinking we will be unstable and we’ll think one thing one week and something else the next, because we haven’t been grounded in the truth and so we don’t know what to believe when new fanciful teachings appear on the scene or people come and try and put us off our faith. Satan’s original unsettling words – “Did God really say…” (Gen 3:1) are still heard today in a variety of guises – and of course the untaught spiritual infant doesn’t know what to believe, and so it is no surprise that they are blown one way and another.

This is especially true when the enemy demeans us and says such things as, “You’re rubbish, you’re a failure,” or “You’re a nobody and nobody loves you”. At such times the spiritual infant doesn’t know the truth and doesn’t know what to answer. What is the answer? That we grow up!

Yes, the alternative to remaining spiritual infants is spelled out: “Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.” But what is the reference to speaking the truth in love’ about? Maturity comes through teaching and teaching takes different forms. Consider Paul’s famous description of the word of God: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, (2 Tim 3:16). Often we see this as a list of four different things the Bible is useful for, but in reality teaching involves the other three. Teaching involves rebuking (pointing out error), correcting (showing the right way) and training in righteousness (showing the way to live according to God’s ways). Becoming mature involves bringing our minds, our thinking and our lives in line with God’s will and that means change and to help that change come about, we need teachers who will speak the truth to us in love.

When that is a regular process in our lives, “we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.” i.e. we grow in our union with Christ and although we remain separate and distinct from Christ himself, we will harmonise with him in our thinking and our feeling and our actions more and more or, even as we noted above, we are being transformed into his likeness.” (2 Cor 3:18). Maturity thus involves becoming more Christ-like as we grow.

So, to summarise, Paul is indirectly warning us against remaining as vulnerable spiritual infants, and exhorts us to grow up as we receive correction and training and become more and more Christ-like. It’s a challenge. May we rise to it!

God who disciplines

God in the Psalms No.10 

Psa 6:1 O LORD, do not rebuke me in your anger or discipline me in your wrath

Our initial response to these words may not be one that lifts our spirit. Most of us would read these words and say, “Oh dear!” (or something similar!). The thought of being rebuked or disciplined is not a comfortable one! These exact words are repeated in Psa 38:1. In fact the concept of the Lord disciplining His people is a very common one in Scripture, and when we see it in context we will see what a good thing it is.

Psa 39:11 says, “You rebuke and discipline men for their sin”. So, there discipline is linked with our sin. Well we would expect that perhaps but look at Deut 4:35,36: You were shown these things so that you might know that the LORD is God; besides him there is no other. From heaven he made you hear his voice to discipline you”. The ‘things’ referred to there were His acts of deliverance in Egypt before the Exodus and their experience of Him at Sinai.  This idea is repeated in Deut 11:2,3: “Remember today that your children were not the ones who saw and experienced the discipline of the LORD your God: his majesty, his mighty hand, his outstretched arm; the signs he performed and the things he did in the heart of Egypt.” Again the discipline that is referred to comes about by observing the mighty acts of God as He dealt with Pharaoh and led them to their land.

Well let’s consider a general definition of discipline and see how it might fit what we’ve seen here:

discipline = training that develops self-control and character.

Now what would have been the effect upon Israel of watching God at work in Egypt? It would have gradually brought the revelation to them that He is all-mighty, all-powerful and that He deals with pride, arrogance, idol worship and sin generally. This should have taught them that God was not to be trifled with!   Psa 94:12 says, “Blessed is the man you discipline, O LORD, the man you teach from your law”. In other words, discipline comes about when we realize God’s Law, when we realize God’s standards, the way God has made things to be, when we realize the boundaries God has given us in life.

Discipline can thus be seen to be conforming our understanding and our lives to God’s design, God’s character and God’s will. The Lord made us perfect when He made the world but with the Fall, sin made us think and do things contrary to that perfection. Discipline is both the process and the product that brings us back to God’s way of thinking and acting. David was feeling very low in Psalm 6. It wasn’t that He objected to discipline but he didn’t want God to have to discipline him in anger because of sin.

Heb 12:5-11 is probably THE New Testament passage on discipline. The writer encourages us to
not lose heart when he rebukes you (v.6) and then gives the reason: the Lord disciplines those he loves” and “God disciplines us for our good” (v.10), so that Later on… it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” (v.11). Now substitute the word, “trains” for discipline and we see more clearly what this is about. It’s not about punishment; it’s about bringing us into conformity with the truth – the truth of who God is, how He’s made the world to be, and how we are to live to get the best out of it.

Yes, it so often needs difficult circumstances to mould us. That was what was happening to David. We learn patience by having to wait, endurance by having to hang on in with difficult and trying circumstances, to love by being given difficult people, and so on. Each of these is God training us, disciplining us, and conforming us to His likeness – because He loves us and wants the best for us.

15. Discipline

The Anguish of Job – Meditation 15

Job 5:17 “Blessed is the man whom God corrects; so do not despise the discipline of the Almighty

Oh no! Does Job need to hear this in his anguish? Although the cane was still in use in my school days, fortunately I never received it. I received clips round the ear, detentions and, on one occasion a visit to the headmaster’s study, but never the cane, I’m glad to say. Punishment is unpleasant. It’s supposed to be; it’s supposed to deter us and put us off doing something or of doing it again. Ultimately it is to bring about a change in behaviour in us – and it’s not pleasant!

Now correction is something that arises often in Scripture, for example, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim 3:16,17) Yes, that is in one of the more famous verses of the New Testament. God’s word sometimes has to rebuke or tell us off, correct or put right our thinking or behaviour, and train us or bring about changes in us. That is what correction, training and discipline is all about. Solomon was very strong on it: “he who hates correction is stupid.” (Prov 12:1). Why is that? It is because sin in us warps our thinking, distorts our perception, creates off-kilter attitudes, and leads us into silly patterns of behaviour, and none of those things do us any good. We need to change but another facet of sin is that it doesn’t like being told what to do, so we need God’s help to change.

So here is Eliphaz still beating up on Job. We’ve said a number of times already that he is basically judging Job and assuming that his plight is to do with sin. The implication of this verse today is that, “Of course you are a sinner and so God is having to beat it out of you with harsh circumstances, so think well of what is happening to you!” But of course, again as we’ve said several times, that isn’t what this is all about. If you can narrow it down to a tight description, we might simply say that God is testing Job’s resolve and his faithfulness and, no doubt, giving him a number of lessons along the way.

Eliphaz is very positive about it though. Yes you are a sinner and God is correcting you, but correction always has a good outcome; that is the gist of what follows. Listen to him: “For he wounds, but he also binds up; he injures, but his hands also heal.” (v.18). It’s all right, he says, He may have wounded you, but He’ll also heal you up afterwards. Well that happens to be true, but for the moment it’s not a great deal of help! He continues: “From six calamities he will rescue you; in seven no harm will befall you. In famine he will ransom you from death, and in battle from the stroke of the sword.” (v.19,20) The ‘six’ and ‘seven’ usage was a cultural way of saying ‘many’ or ‘lots of’. In other words lots of things can go wrong but he will rescue you and save you from harm, keeping you from death. Yes, but Job wants to die! That’s how bad he feels. This may be true but it doesn’t make Job feel better!

See how he continues: “You will be protected from the lash of the tongue, and need not fear when destruction comes. You will laugh at destruction and famine, and need not fear the beasts of the earth.” (v.21,22) Yes, he says, when it goes bad God will protect you from the gossips and you won’t go to the same destruction. You can laugh at death. Well, yes again, that is true, but you actually need to get God’s grace to cope like that. You can’t do it on your own, so perhaps a nice act here by Eliphaz would be to say, “I feel with you in your anguish. May I pray for you that either God will release you from it or give you grace to cope with it, because I don’t know that I would be able to cope in your shoes without his help?”

Then he goes on: “For you will have a covenant with the stones of the field, and the wild animals will be at peace with you. You will know that your tent is secure; you will take stock of your property and find nothing missing.” (v.23,24). Perhaps we might put that, “You will be at peace living in God’s world and know that your home will be secure and everything you own will be secure.” What! Just a minute! Job has just had his home taken and his flocks taken and his family taken! So what is Eliphaz saying? Once you have been disciplined and straightened out, this is how things will be. Right! Thanks!

He finishes off: “You will know that your children will be many, and your descendants like the grass of the earth. You will come to the grave in full vigor, like sheaves gathered in season.” (v.25,26) Yes, this only confirms what we’ve just said. Once God has sorted you out, everything will be wonderful again. Implication: you’re in a mess and need God’s discipline to sort you out – THEN everything will be fine again. And this man is a friend????

But how often do we deal with people like this? How often do we point fingers? Someone has said the Christian army is the only army that shoots its soldiers when they are down. That was not how Paul saw it. We’ve seen it before; let’s see it again: “Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself.” (Gal 6:1-3). If Eliphaz had been in Job’s shoes, I wonder how he would want to have been treated? Line on line here, Eliphaz is revealing his ignorance of the true facts of the situation and is just piling up more and more evidence of his own spiritual poverty. Jesus reached over and touched the leper (Lk 5:13). If only Eliphaz could have touched Job meaningfully. If only people would ‘touch’ me meaningfully when I’m down, if only I could always ‘touch’ people meaningfully when they are down, what a different church it would be!

God’s Training

Lk 1:19-20   The angel answered, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time.” 
   
Any church leader will tell you that they wish that every one of their congregation were on fire for God with their lives well and truly sorted out – but people are people and unbelief in various forms is often the most human characteristic observable. If only we could wave a magic wand over people and all their spiritual ills would disappear! If only people would respond instantly to God’s word. We even pray for better responses because the hard truth is that most of the time the Lord moves very gently in dealing with people. 
    
This good man, this law-keeper, Zechariah, finds it so hard to believe that he and his wife could have a child, in their old age, even when he is being told by an angel from God. When we look at what now happens it seems as if God feels He has to do something a bit more dramatic to urge him along the path to blessing. The Lord knows that if only He can get Zechariah to respond, the outcome will be the blessing of producing the man who will prepare the people to receive Jesus, a son who will bring joy to this aging couple. God is planning blessing for this couple and for the nation in about thirty years.
   
It all hinges on this. If God can’t get this man to respond there will be no John the Baptist, and if there is no John then the people will not be prepared to receive their Saviour. Could God not have used another family and there been a different ‘John’? Obviously He thinks not! The Lord sees the potential of what this child could be and no one else will achieve what John will achieve.  Perhaps we don’t realise that we have potential and it is the potential to do what no one else can do.  We have a unique place in this world, with a unique bunch of contacts and no one else will ‘fit’ my place in this world.
    
So the Lord has determined to deal with this situation so that there is a good outcome. The angel could have berated Zechariah, flashed bolts of lightening around and him and generally scared him some more, but that isn’t God’s way. That could have turned Zechariah off, it could have made him completely give up, and so no, the angel doesn’t do that. He is operating with God’s wisdom as well as God’s power and authority and so he does something that will stay with Zechariah until this child is established. This has got to be something that will encourage Zechariah to be obedient right through to the naming of the child, not just conceiving him.  This isn’t about punishing Zechariah but motivating him into a place of blessing.
    
So the angel speaks a word and Zechariah is dumb for the next nine months. He doesn’t know when it will end; he just knows he is dumb. It is something that is constantly with him. Time and again he feels the frustration of not being able to speak out and get someone’s attention, or speak out and give an answer. He has to learn to communicate through sign language, and he realises that he’s not too old to learn new things!
   
Does God move like this today? Yes, I’m convinced He does, maybe not so dramatically but He certainly does stuff to motivate us. I am convinced there are things that happen that are the simple, straight forward discipline of God – and remember that discipline in the Bible is not about punishing, it’s about training. I suspect that much of the time we don’t realise what is happening, but nevertheless these things that come as trials will test us and change us, even if we’re not aware of it at the time.
   
When difficulties come into our lives and we complain about them, what we are unable to see is the good outcome that God is working towards for us. We can’t see the future and very often we can’t even see the whole picture of what is happening in the present, and so we don’t realise where this is going and don’t realise that it is working to change us and perhaps change other people, so that at the end of it, blessing will be there that couldn’t have been otherwise.
    
Zechariah no doubt struggled with being dumb right up until the naming of John. At that point, when he confirmed the boy’s name in line with God’s wishes, his tongue was released and not just to talk, but now to prophesy. We need to see the big picture and we need to see the end outcome, and until we can, we need to have and open heart, that says, “Lord, what do you want of me?” and be willing to do what God says in answer. Do you and I have that sort of heart?