2. Understanding God

The Truth about Guilt Meditations: 2. Understanding God

Ex 34:6,7  The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”

Recap: In the first study we faced the words ‘guilt’ and ‘guilty’ and sought to show that although they are words we prefer to keep in the background of our lives, and hope preachers won’t talk about, nevertheless they are essential to help us face our shortcomings or our blind spots. In this study we are going to confront two verses from the Old Testament that are regularly mis-translated and which, therefore cause many people difficulties and in the midst of them is this subject of guilt.

Not Clearing the Guilty: Our starter two verses are key verses for understanding God. They start out by extolling God as the God who is, “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin,” words that are repeated in whole or part again and again throughout the Old Testament. That part we like but then it starts getting uncomfortable: “but who will by no means clear the guilty.”  This needs thinking about because most Christian teaching seems to suggest a God who, as we considered previously, forgives and cleanses us of our sin, our guilt. But that forgets the word ‘confess’ we’ve already considered. The work of the death of Christ on the cross is not applied to the unrepentant. The guilty remain the guilty and their guilt stands before justice which demands action. God isn’t going to ‘clear the guilty’, pretend the guilt isn’t there. The Cross is about forgiving and cleansing the guilty – those who acknowledge their guilt. The unrepentant are still in trouble.

Confusion over Ongoing Sin: But our verses get worse: “visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”  This again needs thinking about. “visiting the iniquity”? Now most translations impose on this passage a sense of guilt and blame but, I suggest, this is more the translators’ poor appreciation of God’s grace than of accurate conveying of the meaning. For example, the Message version (which I like and use a lot) very badly puts it, He holds sons and grandsons responsible for a father’s sins to the third and even fourth generation.”

Now the Israelites so misunderstood this that the Lord had to correct them through Ezekiel. Read Ezek 18 which challenges a proverb they used, “The parents eat sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’” (18:2b) i.e. the kids suffer because of their parents’ wrongdoing. No, says the Lord, “The one who sins is the one who will die.” (v.4b) He then cites a righteous man (v.5-9) who then has an unrighteous son (v.10-13) and only that son will die. The other way round, suppose there is an unrighteous man (v.14) but the son refuses to follow his father’s path, the son will not die: “He will not die for his father’s sin; he will surely live.” (v.17b)

Resolution: Now I don’t believe the Bible is full of contradictions, so how do we resolve this? Back to “visiting the iniquity”. We need to distinguish between the meanings of practical expression, guilt or blame, and freedom of opportunity. I believe a better way to put part of these verses would be to speak of the ongoing expression of sin and their effects as seen in a father which the sons can (or may not!) follow. Because of the closeness of family life, and we see this so often we perhaps miss or forget it, it is almost usual for children to follow in the footsteps of their parents and that includes copying or continuing their iniquities. Visiting the iniquities of the father on the following generations simply means that father’s example is there confronting the children who may or may not follow it. IF they do follow that bad example, it is probable that they follow the description that comes up in a similar passage in the Ten Commandments: I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me.” (see Ex 20:4-6 & Deut 5:9,10) Following a bad example indicates a wrong heart towards God. That son or grandson has a problem with God, they carry their own guilt. There is an interdependence of father and child which includes the moral or ethical dimension, and thus a bad father is simply leading his child down a similar bad path, if he is unwise enough to follow it and not go his own better way. Love of God restrains sinful behaviour and if that is seen in the father it will reflect into the life of the son.

And Us? There are very strong lessons about family life here. First that each individual, father or child, is accountable to God for their own life. Where there is guilt (i.e. wrongdoing) the individual is responsible for their own life. Second, the older generation can provide a good or bad example and subsequent generations, although vulnerable to bad examples, are responsible for the way they react to those examples, good or bad. Guilt is uniquely individual but behaviour can be transmitted down the generations if the younger ones do not recognize and reject bad. Don’t blame your parents. God will do that. Yet learn from them. If they provided good examples, follow them, if bad examples, reject them. These are vital words for the very mixed up and confused world of family life we have in the West today.

1. Introducing Guilt

PART ONE: General Considerations  (Parts 1-19)

The Truth about Guilt Meditations: 1. Introducing Guilt

1 Jn 1:9 (Living Bible) if we confess our sins to him, he can be depended on to forgive us and to cleanse us from every wrong. And it is perfectly proper for God to do this for us because Christ died to wash away our sins.” (1 Jn 1:9 Living Bible)

Why? Why this series? Well, I had a dream, a remarkably clear dream and one that, unusually, stayed with me when I woke. In it a friend asked me to speak at college  on ‘Guilt’, and I ended up before a class of teens with a very clear idea of what to say to them. When I was praying later, this dream came back clearly with a bigger sense of where it should go.

The Approach: My sense is that this series should have two parts, the first thinking about guilt and then seeing what the Bible says about it, and then the second considering the guilt of the modern world. I am aware that thinking about ‘guilt’ sounds heavy and not very enlightening as a daily study, but I believe it is essential ingredient for seeking to understand the days in which we live and what the Lord might be saying to the Church in these Days.  In the Second Part we will seek to confront a number of aspects of today’s world that from time to time seem to permeate the life of the Church. I thus hope it won’t be heavy but enlightening and will motivate us to pray for the Church and for our nations in these days. I am fairly sure these is not going to be studies condemning and laying guilt; in fact the exact opposite.

Definition & Importance: A simple dictionary search tells us that

“guilt = the fact of having committed a specified or implied offence or crime” while

“guilty = the state of having committed, or responsible for, a specified wrongdoing.”

We don’t like thinking about guilt – at least when it applies to ourselves – and that may be because we don’t realize that guilt is a symptom of something that needs confronting and addressing. Often it is only when the symptom appears that we realize we have the problem. One approach says that thoughts lead to emotions and feelings of guilt, the emotion of guilt, and is because we think we have done wrong. If the thoughts we have accurately record the truth of what happened – a wrong for which we are responsible – then the feelings of guilt accurately convey the truth – we ARE guilty. If the thoughts only pick up part of what happened, then it is easy to allow them to convey the emotion of guilt but the reality may be that we did not do wrong, we are not guilty, as we’ll see in the following studies.

The Process: From these simple starting thoughts we see a progression that is in fact very obvious: first there is the act of wrong, second there is the recognition that we did wrong, the thoughts that put the act into a context and realize it was wrong, and then there is the emotion or feeling. Sometimes we talk about our ‘conscience’ or, in the spiritual realm, our conviction. Now the feelings help us identify the thoughts and the thoughts help us pin down the act, and all of these things for us as Christians highlight a need for further action.

The Way Through: From the outset let’s remind ourselves of the most basic of New Testament teaching: if we confess our sins to him, he can be depended on to forgive us and to cleanse us from every wrong. And it is perfectly proper for God to do this for us because Christ died to wash away our sins.” (1 Jn 1:9 Living Bible) So we have seen two processes. First the process of diagnosis: the act, the thinking, the emotion, the conclusion (I am guilty!). Second there is the process of response: first our part, the act of will that confesses and acknowledges and repents of the wrong, then God’s action that forgives and cleanses and restores us.

John is seeking to be remarkably simple in this verse and just uses the word ‘confess’ but as we go on we will see that actually it means what I wrote above – also acknowledges the sin and repents of the sin. Simply to say, Oh yes, I did wrong, and leave it at that isn’t enough; it needs to be accompanied by a determination to repent – which means utterly change – and be done with that sin, and let God deal with me. We will need to think about these things more fully in the studies ahead I suspect.

And Us? John in his pastoral role in that first letter is extremely helpful because in the second chapter he says, “I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.” (1 Jn 2:1) His goal is to reinforce the teaching that Christians have been set free from the power of sin and yet there will be times where we will get it wrong. I would suggest that this should take away any defensiveness we may feel about considering guilt. Guilt is merely the signpost that needs to be observed, or an additional motivator to recognize, that guides us along the path of sanctification, our lives being cleaned up and changed by God.  I would hope that I am dealing with any issues that arise in my life at the present time, but I would be foolish to think that before I go to be in heaven, there will not be further issues of which at the present time I am not aware. Perhaps these studies will help us face what we have seen in the past as an uncomfortable subject and come see it as a useful tool that God can use the enable us to be more open to His moving in these times. May it be so.

68. The Truth Declared

Short Meditations in John 6:  68. The Truth declared

Jn 6:68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. 

Peter was either a walking disaster or the most amazing receptor of heaven; he was either constantly putting his foot in it or coming out with amazing revelation from heaven, and so perhaps we should not be surprised that it is Peter who speaks out on behalf of the other committed disciples – notice his ‘we’.

In his reply there are two things of great significance. This is one of his ‘revelation from heaven’ times. The first thing is that simple question, “Lord, to whom shall we go?” Now think about in the light of the life they were living with Jesus. We cannot be quite sure how far through the three years of Jesus’ ministry this was, but even if it was quite early, even the things that have recently happened have been like a roller coaster. One minute they are in the crowded area of Capernaum, next they are on the other side of the lake in a lonely place where Jesus feeds five thousand from virtually nothing. Next minute they are struggling in a storm on the lake and Jesus comes walking on the water to them and Peter also walks on the water. Then they are back at Capernaum and Jesus is fielding hostility in the synagogue. That’s not to mention the healing of crowds of sick people and casting out demons, turning water in wine at Cana, and so on. If fishing on the changeable seas of the Sea of Galilee had been an often-exhilarating job, it paled into insignificance in the light of the incredible life of travelling with Jesus. So yes, purely from a practical level, where else or with who else could they find a life any way comparable to this one? This was a blinding revelation understood by few.  And us?

But then there was that second part, a straight forward declaration, almost a testimony if you like, “You have the words of eternal life.” The JBP version paraphrases it, “Your words have the ring of eternal life!” I quite like that; but I wonder what Peter actually meant by that, or was it one of those ‘off-the-top-of-the-head’ things that come as revelation beyond the intellect? Was it, your words come from another dimension and bring a sense of another dimension, something far beyond this ordinary mundane physical or material world? You transport us into a realm beyond anything we’ve ever known before, somewhere that takes us way beyond the world of fishing or tax collection administration, you have shown us another world beyond our limited material world, a world of divine encounter, a world of divine provision that enables us to join in and do things we would never have dreamed about  few years back, this is a world that has transformed us, and we don’t know where it will end – if it ever will!  Wow!

44. Distinctive

Lessons in Growth Meditations: 44. Distinctive

Heb 12:14   Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.

The Relevant Church: We must be drawing near the end and as we do we need to sharpen some of the things we have said along the way. We have countered the potential accusation that the church is irrelevant in today’s scientific age, with talk of the unchanging truths about God and mankind, while at the same time pointing out that the church which is genuinely acting as the ‘body of Christ’ will be demonstrating the power and revelation of Christ in such ways that lives and circumstances will be changed.

The Distinctive Church: This, you might think, is enough to suggest that the church, seen like this, will be distinctive and will stand out in society as both a lighthouse that sheds light and shows the way, and a rescue and recovery centre for lost and damaged mankind. Yet I must suggest that its distinctiveness must be seen in its very nature or its character as suggested by our verse above – its holiness.

Holiness in God: So what is holiness? It is the very foundational character of God which, put in its most simple of terms, refers to His utter ‘differentness’. God is different in many ways: in His nature, size and scope – He is Spirit, ever present, everywhere present, all-powerful, all-knowing, all-wise. But then there is the ethical or moral element – He is utterly good, totally perfect (cannot be improved upon), beyond criticism.

Holiness in Us – Generally: Now when this is seen in human beings, and it should be seen in some measure in every Christian, this sense of being utterly different should include

  • our godliness (the presence of God with us and being the focus of all we do), and
  • our piety (the way we express our devotion to God), and
  • our spirituality (fully embracing this material world but also clearly operating in the world of the Spirit)

Holiness in Us – Specifics: But these distinctives, these things that make us stand out in the crowd in a good way, should be able to be seen in specific characteristics that the New Testament speaks about. Here are some of the key ones:

Love: Love is a foundational command (see Jn 13:34) still seen in later centuries: “See, they say, how they love one another” (Tertullian’s Apology, Chapter XXXIX). Love is seen in compassion, care, acceptance, all very ‘tangible’ visible things. It is love (total commitment come what may) that was seen in Jesus and is what binds relationships together today. The love that holds us is often expressed as ‘grace’.

Unity: “I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (Jn 17:23) The presence of God in us – revealed in the ways we have been considering in so many of these studies – working to make the unity that IS, visible. 

Truth: The word comes up about 35 times in the Old Testament but about 102 times in the New Testament. “We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (Jn 1:14) Jesus was truly God and truly man, and in both there was nothing that was unreal, nothing false, nothing of pretense, just absolutely genuine. Can that be us, with no pretense, utterly real? Can it be seen in the ways we live and deal with others, seen in honesty and integrity? Can it be seen in purity, having nothing to do with the distortions and perversions of the life of sinful mankind, so clearly and visibly demonstrated in life in the West today?

Goodness: Goodness is difficult to define but obvious when you see it. Something that is good is something that is right, appropriate, pleasant, apt, enjoyable. Goodness is the expression of that and, yes, it does have a moral dimension but goes further that just ‘doing right’, it goes beyond that with such things as mercy and grace that may be seen in generosity or hospitality.

And So? So, yes, we are to be distinctive by the spiritual power and revelation seen through our lives as we allow Jesus to work through us bringing in his kingdom rule, but it is also to be seen in the nature or character of who we are, his children and his disciples, displaying his nature: “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Gal 5:22,23) Not work or character, but both: working with his character, both revealing him, both glorifying the Father. This is what the kingdom is all about, this is what the body of Christ is all about. Can we grow in this, for this is what growth is all about?

30. The Arrival of ‘Revelation’

Lessons in Growth Meditations: 30. The Arrival of ‘Revelation’

1 Cor 14:3 (Msg) when you proclaim his truth in everyday speech, you’re letting others in on the truth so that they can grow and be strong and experience his presence with you.

(NIV) the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort.

Different Responses: Moving into these practical outworkings of this picture of us being seated with Christ in the heavenly places to reign with him in bringing in the kingdom of God on earth, will almost certainly mean that a number will be feeling uncomfortable and even defensive because it transforms our concept of ‘church’ from a place where we go every Sunday and join in some rituals, sing some songs and listen to some teaching somehow connected to the Bible, to a living body that is an expression of the Son of God who actively speaks and moves in this world today. If you see Christ as anything less than this, I have to very gently suggest to you that you have an inadequate understanding of who Jesus Christ is and what Christianity is all about.

God on our case: In yesterday’s study we went from principles to practicalities and I suggested a very simple faith model example that allows Jesus to move in and through His body when they gather together. Because it is such a simple picture and yet a challenging one, perhaps we need to briefly look again at its significance. Back in Study no.26, ‘The Caring Church’, we observed two crucial things: the fact that as humans we still have needs to be met and, second, God is love and love delights to help, if I can put it as mundanely as that!

Start with the Bible: In the Evangelical wing of the church we have emphasised salvation through faith in Christ, the need to make a commitment, and the value of Bible teaching, and I would be the first to shout a loud ‘Amen!’ to all those three things, but then we stopped there. Indeed, some defensively then took on that ungodly and unbiblical stance that God is no longer the communicating God that we see throughout the Bible and everything we needed to hear was there in the finalised canon of Scripture. Yes, we do need to hear everything that we have in the final canon of Scripture, and I think you would agree that I am one of the foremost who value it so much I meditate on it every single morning, but as much as I do value it, I have to tell you that the life pivoting moments of my life have been when God has spoken directly to me. Yes, sometimes it has been when something in His word stood out so directly that it was clearly Him speaking to me, but there have been a number of other times when His word has come directly to me – and changed me!

Is it God? How do you know it is Him?  First, it is in line with His written word. Second, it brings a sense of peace, of goodness and even worship. Third, it cuts across your existing train of thought in a way your natural mind would not have done. Now I am sure these three examples from long back, that I am going to give, are somewhere in the myriads of studies I have written but they have not appeared for a long time so bear repeating.

Conversation 1: When my daughter, our first-born, was just a couple of months old (forty years ago but it seems like yesterday it is so vivid still) she was in a crib in our room and as a new dad I crept into our bedroom one day and looked down at her. It was then a ‘conversation’ ensued (and I was a sufficiently young Christian as to just take it for what it seemed) when into my thinking came, and it came just like this:

“Son, what are you feeling for your daughter?”

“Oh Lord, I love her,” I thought back.

“What does she do?”  That was a strange question. I paused and thought.

“Well, she cries a lot, she wakes us in the night, she’s always wanting feeding and she messes her nappies (diapers) and keeps on needing to be changed.”

“And you love her?

“Oh, yes Lord!”

“Why?”

Without a blink, “Because she’s mine!”

“And that, son, is why I love you, because you’re mine.”

End of conversation but I was never the same again.

Conversation number two (and there were others but this one stands out) came when I was preparing for a ministry trip to Malaysia. Now I had been several times before under someone else’s leadership, and each time, by way of preparation, we had prayed and fasted for ten days before we went.  This time was my first time to lead a small team and although I didn’t impose those on the others who were young people, I had decided to do the usual ten days fast.  The only problem was that ‘this voice’ had said, “Son, I do not want you to fast,” but I had rejected it as having come from the enemy, but the Lord is very gracious. There is nothing romantic about fasting, they are times of self-discipline, but I had previously got through the first three days without a problem. This time on the first morning, just a few hours from when there had not been breakfast or the customary cup of tea or coffee, I was literally rolling around the floor in agony and cried out to the Lord for His grace to cope. Back came the voice in my mind, quite clearly, “Son, I told you not to fast. Get up now and eat and I will bless your trip.” Chastened but still in agony, I got up and ate. I was fine. What is more the Lord blessed that trip and the subsequent one I did, doubly! I am not sure if I heard it, but I knew it: I didn’t need to try to twist the Lord’s arm to bless these ministry trips; He wanted to bless and use us more than I did!

Conversation number 3. I was reading a book and came to a bit where the author was writing about American TV evangelists who made big money, fail off the rails and so on, and I found myself thinking, “Lord, how can you use such people?” Now it was just a thought with, to my understanding, no significance or direction, but instantly I ‘heard’ back, and it came from beyond me, “The same reason I use you, son.” I sat bolt upright. Where did that come from? That didn’t sound good! But before I had time to think any more came the following: “Son, I use you, not because you are right but because you are available.”  Again, I was never the same again.

When you hear it and learn to know it and know where it comes from, there is nothing so precious as the Father speaking directly to you.  He knows me. He is here. He loves me. Yes, all this His written word tells me, but the ‘now-Presence’ is life changing in a way nothing else is. When the voice comes with ‘The Presence’ nothing is ever the same again.  I remember another time, many years ago, when a group of us had been praying and fasting for the day, and The Presence had been very real. When we broke up and I returned to my home, after a little while I realised something strange: I was tip-toeing everywhere around my apartment; The Presence was still there. I have taken up my space but there is more to say, so I’ll continue it tomorrow.

38. Absence of Truth

Short Meditations in John 5:  38. Absence of Truth

Jn 5:38   nor does his word dwell in you, for you do not believe the one he sent.   

I suspect that if there were verses we placed low down on our list for meditating upon, this would be one of them, but our goal is to ponder on every single verse of this chapter. The fact that the verse starts with ‘nor’ suggests it is a continuation verse, so let’s remind ourselves what went before it: You have never heard his voice nor seen his form.  So Jesus is challenging his challengers over their experience and their knowledge. It’s all very well for them to criticise him, but they have lacks that they need to face.

They weren’t around when the Father spoke at Jesus’ baptism and they have little experience of encounter with the Father anyway. The implication may be that Jesus, of course, has. They certainly haven’t seen God face to face and again, the implication is that Jesus has.

But now Jesus moves on to put two things together which present a further challenge: nor does his word dwell in you, for you do not believe the one he sent.” The first part of this verse says that they don’t have God’s word within them, and the second part goes on to challenge them and say that this is shown because they reject the one the Father has sent.

Of the paraphrase versions, the JBP version pouts it well: “Nor do you really believe his word in your hearts, for you refuse to believe the man who he has sent,” but the Living Bible puts it best: “And the Father himself has also testified about me, though not appearing to you personally, or speaking to you directly. But you are not listening to him, for you refuse to believe me—the one sent to you with God’s message.”

Now there the interesting link between the two things is displayed well, the absence of God’s word in their hearts, and their rejection of His Son. If they had been people who truly treasured God’s words in their hearts, that would mean they were truly people of God and if they had truly been people of God, they would have recognised His Son when he came with words of life and power than transformed.

It works the other way around as well. Those who receive and accept Jesus as he is, the Son of God, show that their hearts are open to God and therefore they will also have hearts that are open to His will and His word and they will treasure and uphold His word in their hearts.

If we say we are Christians, can we check ourselves out?  We take on his name and so do we truly worship him or is he simply a name to attach our religion to? We say we believe in his word, but do we take time to study it, to learn it and understand it, and what is God’s will?

64. Holding the Truth

Meditations in Hebrews 13:  64.   Holding the Truth

Heb 13:9   Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings.

Conflict: The first century of the Christian Church was much involved in intellectual conflict. Not only were they having to battle against outright heresies but also against simple distortions of the truth of doctrine agreed by the apostles: They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching,” (Acts 2:42) and when there were major questions over doctrine the apostles got together in Jerusalem to consider it and make a decision (see Acts 15) which would be followed: As they travelled from town to town, they delivered the decisions reached by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem for the people to obey.”   (Acts 16:4)

Church Sayings: In the early days it is clear from the writings of the apostle Paul that there were a number of ‘sayings’ that the early church used to teach basics of the truth, for example, “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners,” (1 Tim 1:15) and “Here is a trustworthy saying: Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task,” (1 Tim 3:1) and “Here is a trustworthy saying: If we died with him, we will also live with him;” (2 Tim 2:11)  Each one conveys a nugget of doctrinal truth and it is clear there are at least a half a dozen of these sayings that Paul uses. We just don’t know how many more there might have been.

Gospels: As the years passed questions were raised and it soon became obvious that the basics of what had happened with Jesus needed to be written down. It is thought that Mark (aided by Peter) was the first to put together his Gospel somewhere between AD50 and 56, then Matthew the tax collector, somewhere between AD56 and 58, then by Luke somewhere between AD58 and 60, and finally many years later after many more years reflection on what Jesus had said, John wrote his somewhere about AD95.

We have to observe that these dates, and even the order [Matthew & Luke being reversed] are open for discussion. All we can say is that we have these four accredited records, the first three of which each have similarities, using common sources for part of each of their Gospels.  Over the next hundred years all of the writings (of what we now call the New Testament) were collected and read in the churches and in the following hundred years they were carefully examined and compared with dubious writings and between 300-400 AD complete agreement was arrived at as to which books were to be included in what we now call ‘the canon’ of scripture. It is little wonder that while this process went on, there would be those who questioned the truth.

The beginning of Luke is especially good at showing us the care that these men took in compiling these ‘Gospels’: “Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.” (Lk 1:1-4) Note the integrity of this doctor (a professional man) and particularly the words, “so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.”  i.e. you can be assured there is no question as to the truth of what you have been taught by the apostles.

A Body of Truth: Thus we come back to our beginning; there was a body of truth being passed on by the apostles to the early church which comprised the truth about Jesus’ coming, his ministry, his life, death, resurrection and ascension, and the teaching about what he had achieved and how it is applied into our lives.  Thus the apostle Paul was to eventually write, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,  so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work,” (2 Tim 3:16,17) meaning both the Old Testament scrolls and the new writings. There is, therefore, this established body of truth and we need a) to know how it came it to being and why it can be trusted, b) to know what it teaches, and c) obey its teachings and finally, ensure we d) do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings, that run counter to the truths that we have before us. May it be so!

9. The Start of a Story

Meditations on ‘Focusing Faith’ : 9.  The Start of a Story

Heb 11:8   By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going.

Every story has a beginning; this was the beginning of Abram’s story. One day he became conscious that he was hearing God. I still find it sad that for many modern Christians they can accept these words about Abram but deny they are possible for themselves. When did God stop being a God of communication? The whole Bible testifies to this. Perhaps the bigger issue for many modern Christians is not so much the “I can’t hear God” but “I don’t want to hear God because that might put a demand on me that I don’t want.”

Perhaps the truth of this – for such people are Christians and so they did hear God when they were genuinely saved and they do hear God and respond to Him through sermons and such like – is that they are not sufficiently secure in their faith to be able to claim they heard God – even though they did! If that is you, claiming that God spoke to you doesn’t make you a super-saint above everyone else, just that you are an ordinary Christian – by New Testament standards at least. God can speak to us through sermons, through prophecy, through reading the Bible, thoughts while we are praying, words from other Christians, through circumstances and not doubt other ways as well.

The fear that some of us have is that we are unsure about God and therefore we would rather make excuses about not hearing than trust ourselves to a God we think is hard and might ask hard things of us. It’s more likely to be our uncertainty of God’s absolute love for us than about anything else. When we were first saved the conviction we first felt was probably more about our failures than about God’s wonder, the wonder comes second and depending on the sort of church we belong to and the sort of teaching we get, we either hear about that wonder, or we don’t.

The amazing thing about Abram (as he was before his name was changed to Abraham) was that he was a pagan living out in the area of Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq), the area from which the wise men or Magi came seeking Jesus. It was always an area that was known for its seers and so we don’t know how Abram heard God but one way or another he heard sufficiently clearly for the ‘message’ to be written down: The LORD had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.” (Gen 12:1) Note the tense of Genesis 12:1 – “had said”. It looks back.

The story is intriguing and starts in the previous chapter: “Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and together they set out from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to Canaan. But when they came to Haran, they settled there.” (Gen 11:31) Terah, Abram’s father appears to be the one who led the family from Ur with the intent of going to Canaan (the eventual ‘Promised Land’) but settled in Haran, a city on the way, which is why, when we get into chapter 12 we read, “So Abram left, as the LORD had told him; and….Abram was seventy-five years old when he set out from Haran…. and they set out for the land of Canaan, and they arrived there.” (Gen 12:4,5) Now whether the originating word came to Abram back in Ur and he was the one who got his father to lead the family out, or whether Terah caught the sense of God’s intents and set out but gave up at Haran, we don’t know. All we do know is that God spoke to Abram – in Ur or Haran – and Abram heard and responded.

The enormity of this act of faith is noted by the writer to the Hebrews when he says, “even though he did not know where he was going.”  The message had been “go to the land I will show you.”  That ‘will’ indicates a future thing. You start going Abram and I will show you the land. Clearly they must have had some sense of direction and whether the reference to Canaan back in chapter 11 was in retrospect or they heard that as their destination to start with is not certain. The big issue is that, “Abraham, when called to go …. obeyed and went.”

That sums up faith really – God says and we do it. That is faith. It starts with God speaking and is followed by us acting and then there is an outcome which is yet in the future and is in God’s hands. The outcome for Abram was that he would have a new land to live in. As the days went on God made it more and more clear that this land would be his land and the land of his descendants, and of course it has been a land that the enemy has sought to challenge ever since.

So to summarise, dare we ‘hear’ God? Are we sufficiently secure in His love that we can trust that whatever we hear will be for our good and a blessing to us? I have often commented in these meditations (and see the prior brief series on Jeremiah for this) that whenever I have the privilege of bringing a prophetic word from God to someone, so often the response in them is, “Who me? Surely not.” It happened only yesterday when we were praying for healing for a lady who we know from a distance and as we prayed the Lord gave me a lovely word for her. Afterwards she thanked us and I saw that same look of uncertainty in her eyes as she went that said, “Surely that can’t be true? That was too good to be true.” And that takes us back to what I said earlier. Maybe the crucial issue that is before some of us as we go through these thoughts about faith, is whether I dare believe and trust God. Faith is responding to God. You can trust Him. We’ll say some more about this as we follow Abram’s story through. This was just the beginning of it.

1. So what is Faith?

Meditations on ‘Focusing Faith’ : 1 :  So what is faith?

Heb 11:1  Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.

I need to start this new series of meditations with a confession, well, perhaps two confessions. The first confession is that I have often sat in church services and wondered, “What about this is faith?”  Now that wasn’t always a negative denunciation of sterile ritual, but an honest desire or appraisal to know what, in what we were doing, was genuinely faith and, as we’ll see as we go on, I have been surprised that there was more of faith in our services than I had thought. The other confession is that I sometimes sit and ponder and wonder how much faith plays a part in my own life and that has had more negative overtones, and yet by the very fact that I am writing these meditations suggests an element of faith, which we’ll see in the days to come. I’m not sure where this is going but I suspect we may need to look at what is faith, why is faith important, how does faith come, is faith static or does it grow, and no doubt a few more things about ‘faith’.

The starting place has to be the so-called ‘hall of faith’ in Hebrews 11 and the writer’s opening statement, our verse above. Faith he says is being sure about something, about being assured of something. There is a confidence about faith. There is a sureness about faith. It is not wishy-washy half-hearted wondering. To reflect on that more fully we perhaps need to turn to the apostle James’ letter.

The apostle James, while not actually using the word faith in the opening part of his letter, clearly has it in mind when he speaks about our needing wisdom: 5If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. 6But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. 7That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; 8he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does.” (Jas 1:5-8)

Verse 5 builds faith as he says we need to ask God for wisdom  because he says God gives (a) generously, (b) to all and (c) without finding fault and (d) He will give it when we ask. Do you see that? God is a generous giver, you don’t have to earn wisdom, He’s got lots of it and is very happy to give it away. Moreover He is very happy to give it to anyone who comes to Him asking, “to all”.  Further He is not going to interrogate you to check to see if you are good enough or up to it, He isn’t looking for faults in you that will put you off getting His wisdom, He simply will give it when you ask.

Now after you have read that verse, hopefully you are feeling confident about asking God for wisdom (the knowledge of ‘how to’).  It may be that there have been other negatives in your life that quench belief  but in the absence of those things, something will have risen in you that says, “Yes, I CAN ask God for wisdom.” That is faith, a sureness about a course of action which has been brought about by the word of God (James’ writing) and no doubt prompted and confirmed by the Holy Spirit as I encouraged you. When you go away and ask the Lord for wisdom for some aspect of your life now, that is faith. It came by God’s word, it stirred the truth in you, witnessed by the Holy Spirit in you, and brought a confidence on which you act.

But James knows that not everyone is open like this, hence verse 6: “But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.”  Doubting has no place in asking and getting, doubting has no place in faith. Remember the two key words at the beginning – ‘sure’ and ‘certain’. You cannot be sure and certain AND doubt. If you doubt, nothing is going to happen. God responds to faith – He responds to you responding positively to His word coming to you, bringing in you a sureness. You see, to take the example above, when you ask for wisdom but are uncertain about it, you spend more time thinking about your doubts than taking notice of thoughts that may be coming from God. It’s not that God doesn’t want you to have the wisdom for the situation; it is that you clutter your mind with doubts (unbelief) and so CANNOT hear God. When you are sure and certain, you ask God for it and then listen and, with an open, believing heart, suddenly ideas start flowing in your mind and you realise you have the answer to your problem that needed wisdom. You HAVE the wisdom!

You can recognize faith when you are alert to these sorts of things. You have faith when you suddenly know “It’s true!” or “He’s here!” or “Yes, I can do it because He’s said so!” You suddenly recognize a confidence that wasn’t there previously. You have a gift from God (which we’ll see some way down the line) and it is a confidence in Him; what He says IS true. That is faith Now of course there was another whole side to our starting verse – the ‘hope’ and ‘unseen’ part of it, and we’ll look at that in the next meditation.

6. The Glory of God

Meditations in 1 Samuel   6. The Glory of God

1 Sam 2:1   Then Hannah prayed and said: “My heart rejoices in the LORD; in the LORD my horn is lifted high. My mouth boasts over my enemies, for I delight in your deliverance.

It is interesting that we often speak of the glory of God which refers to His manifest greatness and wonder and the Bible does clearly speak of Him as one who is infinitely great and absolutely wonderful, and sometimes that revelation comes out in scenes of revelation – such as Ezekiel’s or Isaiah’s or John’s revelation of things in heaven and especially God – but often these things come through songs of revelation, when a person is being inspired to sing about God and as they do so revelation comes. Truth and revelation often come through a heart of praise.

So as we come into chapter 2, we find Hannah praying what is tantamount to a song of praise. She rejoices in the Lord because the Lord has exalted her for He has delivered her from childlessness (v.1). When she says she boasts she may be meaning that she now calls out the truth that has exalted her over her adversary who has chided her for so many years, because now she can say (which her adversary cannot) God has specifically blessed her with her child. That surely is all that is there behind verse 1.

But she quickly moves away from herself to the Lord: There is no one holy like the LORD; there is no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God.” (v.2) He is unique, there is no other who is like Him in being (holy) or who comforts and supports us like He does (our Rock). But then she turns back to her adversary who has been chiding her for years, perhaps taunting her that God is against her: “Do not keep talking so proudly or let your mouth speak such arrogance.” (v.3a) You don’t know what you are talking about, for you are talking about God: “for the LORD is a God who knows, and by him deeds are weighed.” (v.3b) He see and hears what you say and He judges all things.

Then she compares the two of them to two opposing warriors (for it had seemed like an ongoing battle): “The bows of the warriors are broken, but those who stumbled are armed with strength.” (v.4) Her adversary had appeared strong for so long, firing barbed arrows of malice at her, but now her bow is broken, so to speak, for she no longer has anything to say, and although Hannah had stumbled all those years, now the Lord has blessed her and she is strong.

In a parallelism she speaks of “Those who were full hire themselves out for food, but those who were hungry hunger no more.” (v.5a) Her adversary had, for years, appeared full of herself in her position as a mother but now Hannah appears as the one blessed of God and no doubt giving joy to her husband, so now it is her adversary who feels second class suddenly, and Hannah who had hungered for a child, hungers no more for, she declares, “She who was barren has borne seven children, but she who has had many sons pines away.” (v.5b) Now whether this was written down after she had had other children or is just poetic exaggeration, we don’t know but their roles have been reversed, now that Hannah is the one bringing joy to their husband.

Then comes the revelation about God: “The LORD brings death and makes alive; he brings down to the grave and raises up.” (v.6) He is a life-bringer, He is the one with power over life and death.  “The LORD sends poverty and wealth; he humbles and he exalts.” (v.7) The Lord oversees the affairs of mankind and can bring affluence when He wants. He can exalt or humble people, He is God!  It seems He cares especially for the poor, needy and downtrodden: “He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap; he seats them with princes and has them inherit a throne of honor.” (v.8) You may be one of the downtrodden but the Lord can lift you up. Hannah knows for He has done it for her!

Suddenly her vision enlarges and she sees the Lord for who He truly is: “For the foundations of the earth are the LORD’s; upon them he has set the world.” (v.8) This one she had been singing about in her spirit is the Creator and Sustainer of this world – God Almighty, all-powerful. But He’s not the one the deist thinks about, a God who made it all but now sits at a distance, indifferent to all that happens on this planet: “He will guard the feet of his saints, but the wicked will be silenced in darkness.” (v.9a) No, He is a God of justice who intervenes in the affairs of this world to preserve His children and deal with the wicked. No, she says, when you look at unjust and unfair situations and long to bring change, “It is not by strength that one prevails;” (9b) for “those who oppose the LORD will be shattered.” (v.10a) No, we may not be able to deliver ourselves from such situations and so we must leave it to Him knowing that He will deal with those who oppose Him and who oppose us.

Yes the Lord will come bringing justice, “He will thunder against them from heaven; the LORD will judge the ends of the earth.” (v.10b) Negatively He will thunder against the unjust from heaven and, positively, “He will give strength to his king and exalt the horn of his anointed.” (v.10c) Yes, His anointed one will come in due season to deal with these things.

What a transformation! For years she had been the downtrodden one at the mercy of the barbed tongue of ‘the other woman’, but now the Lord has come and changed her, enabled her to conceive and have a son, and now her spirit soars in a peal of praise and she sees the Lord as the one who does not stand afar off, a distant Creator of the World, but as the one who draws near and delivers those who cry out to Him. Hallelujah!