36. Unbelief

Short Meditations in John 6:  36. Unbelief

Jn 6:36 But as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe. 

I believe the challenge of unbelief to be the greatest challenge that the modern church faces. It is not a case of ‘total unbelief’ but certainly of ‘partial unbelief’. It is exhibited, I believe, in two primary ways. The first is theological but that doesn’t mean to say it is confined to theologians. Many of us work of the basis of “I believe what I understand or what I feel comfortable with”, and thus if we come across verses of Scripture that are challenging, we find ways of writing them off. I simply ask, do you believe every word of the New Testament’s teaching? If you have problems with such verses, for example, as Jn 14:12 or 1 Cor 14:5 and make excuses why they don’t apply to you, you are in ‘partial unbelief’. The second way unbelief is exhibited is in the ‘social church’ mentality. This portrays church as a nice place to go where we follow set, comfortable-formula services that leave us happy and contented – and unchallenged!

Earlier Jesus has said, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent,” (v.29) and he had already chided them, “you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill.” (v.26) In other words, you saw the miracle that I performed but instead of praising God for the wonder of it, you are simply self-concerned, thinking how you can get more bread from me. You are entirely materialistic in your thinking and you miss the spiritual wonders going on under your noses!

Moreover, that ‘sign’ should have made them focus on Jesus and, instead of wanting to make him king so that he could keep on providing for them, it should have set them thinking about who he actually was, the one from heaven with the authority of God to bring in the kingdom or rule of God. That is a rule to bring about God’s will, not their will. The ironic thing is that the outworkings of His will and their will is basically the same – their blessing, but God knows it is bigger than simply providing a regular meal for them. That is only a tiny part of the package!

To receive this blessing that we have just referred to relies on them coming to belief in Jesus as the Son of God who has come to inaugurate the kingdom of God on earth through his eventual substitutionary death on the Cross. But that understanding is only going to come in slow stages, the first of which is simply coming to a realisation that he is the Son of God. That they are struggling with and that is what so many struggle with, remaining self-concerned and blind to the wonders seen in the Gospels. May it not be us!

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22. The Realities of Unbelief

Meditations in Hebrews 3: 22.  The Realities of Unbelief

Heb 3:19   So we see that they were not able to enter, because of their unbelief

It is a legitimate question to ask, why is this writer to the Hebrews bringing these warnings to his readers?  He started it, we said, back in 2:1 – We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away,” and then he hinted at the same thing in 3:6 – “we are his house, if we hold on to our courage and the hope of which we boast,” and then he came with that big quote from Psa 95, concluding with “See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God.” (3:12) Then there was that final nudge, we saw, “We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first.” (3:14) So, four times there have been indirect and direct warnings to hold onto our faith. Why?

There is, I suggest, a very simple reason: it is so easy to drift away IF our hearts are not firmly committed to Christ. Having said that there will always be three forces or resources that God will use to stop this happening, three POSITIVE forces at work – His own Holy Spirit, who speaks and seeks to convict us when we get it wrong or get into wrong thinking, His own word, the Bible, which He uses to challenge and teach us (see 2 Tim 3:16,17) and indeed the church and its ministries, and other believers.  So, in one sense it is not so easy because God will always be seeking to use all these things to draw you back to himself.

However, we also need to be aware that although there are these three positive forces that God seeks to use to keep us on the right tracks, there are also three NEGATIVE ‘forces’ at work that will seek to draw us away from God. First, the Bible shows us, there is Satan who seeks to tempt us into wrong, distract us from our path and lead us away from God. Second, there is what the New Testament simply refers to as ‘the world’, not the physical planet on which we live, nor all the people who live on it, but the ungodly outlook that sin brings about. We live with this all around us and so we are constantly bombarded by expressions of unbelief through, say, the media. Third, there is our own Sin. Now when we came to Christ we died to that and were revived by the power of the Spirit, to help us live new lives, but the truth is that Sin, which I define as self-centred ungodliness, is always lurking there in the background, which was why the apostle Paul taught, “(You) put to death therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature,” (Col 3:5) and “(You), do not let sin reign in your mortal body.” (Rom 6:11) Now I have inserted the word ‘You’ in both those quotes because Paul is asking us to make an act of will and we need to make the effort to do that.

But that is when we confront this thing called free will because we have the choice, always, how we will act. We can choose not to act badly. So it is that the writer to the Hebrews keeps on pressing this point by referring back to the experience of Israel. Israel’s history is tragically littered with unbelief seen in disobedience. So he now says again, “As has just been said: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion.” (v.15) Note the expression, ‘the rebellion’. What rebellion, because there were many in different forms throughout the Old Testament? Researching this some time back, I concluded that the whole of the Old Testament history is there to make us realise the reality of Sin and our need for the salvation which comes in the New Testament.

He wants his Jewish readers to think about the time between leaving Egypt and entering the Promised Land, a time that should have been a matter of a few months but turned out to be forty years! Stop and think about this, he implies, think about what went on back there as recorded in the Pentateuch (Gen to Deut). He asks a series of questions, starting with, “Who were they who heard and rebelled?” (v.16a) We may take this for granted when we read the Bible but there is something incredible here. So who were the rebels? Answer: “Were they not all those Moses led out of Egypt?” (v.16b)

Now stop and think about those people. They had witnessed ten incredible plagues, they had witnessed God drowning Pharaoh and his army in the Red Sea, they had witnessed God cleansing water in the desert, providing fresh water in the desert, providing a constant supply of food in the desert, and had known God help them overcome an attack of the Amalekites in the desert. Then they had come to Mount Sinai and had a series of the most incredible experiences of God there. On their traveling to the Promised Land they had again known God’s provision, as well as His chastising. Again and again and again and again they had experienced the powerful presence of God, there for them, guarding them, guiding them and providing for them AND YET they rebel and refuse to follow God into the Land (and it was ‘follow’ because He had said He would drive out the inhabitants before them) but STILL they were rebellious and refused to enter.

So the writer presses home the point: “And with whom was he angry for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the desert? And to whom did God swear that they would never enter his rest if not to those who disobeyed? So we see that they were not able to enter, because of their unbelief.” (v.17-19) This is the harsh reality. Israel sinned in disobedience born out of unbelief DESPITE their incredible experience of the Lord and as a result the Lord refused to let them try to then force their way into the Land and so that entire generation died of old age, but still in the desert – all because of their unbelief.

Now this is the scary reality: you and I can choose to be foolish, choose not to believe, choose to be disobedient and choose to be recipients of God’s discipline. We too have no excuses. We have the Bible, we have the testimony of the Church over two thousand years, and we have the Holy Spirit, and we have one another. I do not have a problem with people who have a problem with poor church life epitomized by the church in Laodicea (See Rev 3) but if any of us struggle with unbelief and make excuses for just drifting away, I have to say, please, please, look at these things, listen to these things, heed these things. It is down to you. Our unbelief is not God’s fault; it is our choice. Remember God has three resources or forces working to help you stay on track (I may be part of one of them), so listen to His Holy Spirit, read His word with an open heart, listen to your brothers and sisters, because this writer to the Hebrews knows his people, and the Jews are no different from the rest of us; we all have this tendency to drift away and so we must be aware of it and resist it. Amen? Amen!

29. Test Everything

Meditations in 1 Thessalonians

Part 3 :  29. Test Everything

1 Thess 5:21,22   Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil.

The temptation here is to take all three instructions and treat them as one. I have the feeling that if we do that we will miss much, so let’s simply start with “Test everything” and see where we go.  That this follows a concern about prophecies must suggest initially that it may apply specifically to prophecies. Testing prophecies is indeed a subject that arises in the New Testament: Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said.” (1 Cor 14:29) and “The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets.” (1 Cor 14:32) Whatever else these verses say, they say that prophecies should be checked or weighed. We may also add that any ‘word’ that brings teaching that is contrary to the teaching of the Bible is false.

The danger that comes for those who might be in that band that we considered earlier as quenching the Spirit by denying He works in such ways today and then by treating prophecies with contempt, is that ‘testing’ becomes a tool for unbelief. Testing is a subject that comes up a number of times in the Bible and by this we do not mean the testing that is equated with trials, testing that God brings to strengthen us.

No, testing is referred to in the Old Testament a number of times as an attitude and behaviour that expressed unbelief in respect of the Lord. The Psalmist refers back to Israel’s behaviour in the wilderness: “They wilfully put God to the test by demanding the food they craved. They spoke against God, saying, “Can God spread a table in the desert?” (Psa 78:18,19). The apostle Paul echoed this: “We should not test the Lord, as some of them did–and were killed by snakes. And do not grumble, as some of them did–and were killed by the destroying angel.” (1 Cor 10:9,10) The ‘testing’ referred to there is clearly an expression of unbelief.

We must distinguish between testing that is unbelief and times when the Lord challenged His people to ‘test’ or prove Him in some manner, for example, “Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz, “Ask the LORD your God for a sign, whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights.” But Ahaz said, “I will not ask; I will not put the LORD to the test.” (Isa 7:10-12) There the Lord invited Ahaz to ask for a sign (?like Gideon?) but Ahaz was not secure enough in God to respond. Through Malachi we see the Lord saying test or prove me: “Test me in this,” says the LORD Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it.” (Mal 3:10)  Those sorts of test were actually positive, stepping out in faith at God’s instigation and finding He was faithful to His word. That is a different slant on the word meaning ‘prove by confirmation of faith.’

In the New Testament we find various other injunctions to test things, for example, “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves,” (2 Cor 13:5) i.e. check out the reality of your faith. Then there is, “If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. Each one should test his own actions,” (Gal 6:3,4) i.e. check the reality of who you are and where you are in the Faith and realise that all you are is from God. The similar call, “A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup,” (1 Cor 11:28) is to check yourself out before God and ensure you are holding right attitudes and behaviour.

The call to “test everything” goes beyond prophecy. It is a call to be aware of what is right and what is wrong, what is true and what is false. One of the condemnations of the Old Testament was that the people had been blurring truth and reality, blurring right and wrong and it is what we find in today’s relativistic ethics: “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.” (Isa 5:20)

There is also the testing of people. We should not take people at face value: “The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” (1 Sam 16:7) This is why there is the gift of “distinguishing between spirits,” (1 Cor 12:10) which reveals the origin of what comes from a person – from God, from purely human selfish  thinking, or from the enemy. The apostle John said, “The man who says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him.” (1 Jn 2:4) This was a whole area that concerned John, false ‘believers’, those who said one thing but did another: “Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates his brother is still in the darkness.” (1 Jn 2:9) Indeed he kept on coming back to it: “Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. He who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. He who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning,” (1 Jn 3:7,8) and, “This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God; nor is anyone who does not love his brother.” (1 Jn 3:10)

Finally John hits this subject firmly on the head: “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.” (1 Jn 4:1-3)  THIS is why we have to “test everything”. It is because we are in a spiritual battle and the enemy uses lies and deception to seek to lead God’s people astray. May we not be so lead!

4. Against all Hope

Meditations in Romans : 4:  Against all hope

Rom 4:18   Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”

We concluded the previous meditation considering the reference in verse 17 to “the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were.” and the challenge came never to write off any person as for ever spiritually dead, for God comes and does what we consider impossible and brings life where we think it can never be. This is at the heart of Christian doctrine: God is a life bringer!

But we need to realise the impossibility that challenges faith sometimes. Paul continues, “Against all hope.” When you gaze on a dead body being lowered into a grave, there is no hope. When they have switched off the life-support machine, there is no hope. In the material, human world, there is going to be no last minute reprieve. It is finished. In an aging human body, male and female, there comes a time when child bearing is well and truly passed. There is no hope. This is what the situation was with Abraham. What made it worse was the fact that his wife had never borne a child. It wasn’t just a case of a wish for another child in old age.   The scriptural record is quite clear: “Now Sarai was barren; she had no children.” (Gen 11:30) And then God speaks. This is the bizarre thing: faith flies in the face of the absence of hope, in the face of the impossible. Humanly it’s just not going to happen – and then God speaks and says it will!

It is at this point that we have a choice: to believe God or to focus on the impossibility and declare it cannot be so. And so then we read, “Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed.” (4:18) It was utterly hopeless, but this amazingly frail believer did just that – he believed God. His knowledge of God was limited, he came from a pagan background, and he had every reason for not believing – but he believed!

He believed God and so “became the father of many nations.” This was spiritually true. Because he believed and continued to try having children, God enabled he and his wife to have a child in old age, Isaac, and from Isaac, Jacob and the nation of Israel and eventually into Israel, God’s Son, Jesus, and through him, children of God from every nation on earth. It was exactly as prophesied: “just as it had been said to him, “So shall your offspring be” (4:18) quoting Gen 15:5 – “He took him outside and said, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars–if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” That had been God’s promise and in the fullness of time that was what happened.

But Paul restates this again so that we will not forget it: “Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead–since he was about a hundred years old–and that Sarah’s womb was also dead.” (4:19) Faith does not ignore the facts; it faces them but believes God. It is the attitude that says, “Yes, I can see that there is absolutely no hope of life here – but God has said there will be, so I will believe Him!” Notice the phrase, without weakening in his faith.” Faith holds on and actions follow. He might have said, “Oh, this is crazy, this is hopeless, I’m giving up this pointless activity!” but he didn’t. Paul then reinforces that: “Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God.” (4:20) Unbelief is the opposite of faith and Abraham didn’t allow unbelief to rise up and quench faith.

No, something else happened: “Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God.” (4:20) He believed and then God spoke again and again, confirming and strengthening his faith. God sees our heart inclination to believe and He comes and strengthens that resolve and speaks the word again and again into our hearts.

But it really started with Abraham’s simple faith: “being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised.” (4:21). It was then that God strengthened him, and encouraged him so that he and Sarah persevered and eventually gave or brought glory to God.  Yes, He is the God who brings life where there is none!

The challenge of this passage is obviously, will we believe the Lord when He speaks. We believed Him when we came to salvation for we declared our trust in Jesus, but that was just the starting place. The Bible declares a number of times, “The righteous shall live by faith”. Now, yes, that does mean that life flows to the righteous when they exercise faith and come to Christ, but it also means that their ongoing lives will receive the life of God as they exercise faith. Faith is the channel, if you like, which allows the blessing and life of God to flow to us. It is that important!

100. Unbelief (1)

Short Meditations in Mark’s Gospel: 100. Unbelief (1)

Mk 5:37 He did not let anyone follow him except Peter, James and John the brother of James.

Faith is catching – and so is unbelief!  Those with open hearts hear the word of truth being spoken in faith and it stirs faith within them and it rises up and action follows.  On the other hand there are those whose hearts are more disposed towards unbelief and they only need to see some bad circumstances for their spirit to be deflated and they come to a halt. There are people around us who are people of faith and there are people around us who are not! If we are a leader in God’s Church, then we do well to learn these things and learn to discern who is who.

You said faith – or its absence – is a cause for God to move – or be hindered. Do you remember, of Jesus home town it was written, And he did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith” (Mt 13:58) Mark recorded the same thing: “He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. And he was amazed at their lack of faith.” (Mk 6:5,6) Lack of faith, or unbelief, was a clear hindrance to Jesus’ working.

Now Jesus has just been confronted with a statement of belief from the world – the little girl is dead; it’s a waste of time you coming. These servants are locked into the outward appearances and Jesus doesn’t want people of unbelief around him when he has come to heal. So he stops the crowd then and there. The crowd will have heard what these bringers of bad news have said. The crowd will come and go with their beliefs; most of them are not Jesus’ followers, just those who are there to see what will happen, and so they are prone to unbelief. Jesus doesn’t want them around cluttering up his mind and his spirit with their unbelief, so he stops them.

Apart from Jairus (presumably) Jesus only allows the inner circle of the disciples to come with him. It’s interesting to note that he doesn’t even take the whole twelve, but only those closest to him. Even within the band there are varying levels of faith and Jesus only wants those who are closest to him to come along. Maybe it is because it is from them that leaders of the church are going to come and so it will be good for them to learn something here. Peter was to remember this years later when he was confronted with he dead body of Dorcas and we read, “All the widows stood around him, crying and …Peter sent them all out of the room; then he got down on his knees and prayed. “ (Acts 9:39,40). He had learned it – get rid of unbelievers in such a situation.

 

12. Good News

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. Locked in Unbelief

ADVENT MEDITATIONS No.6

6. Long-Term Unhappiness Locks in Unbelief

Luke 1:18-20 Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.” 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.”

It’s a strange thing, but you might think that people who have a tough time in life would be really grateful when God turns up to bless them, but you would often be mistaken. We’ve already referred to that tendency that we all have, that the Bible calls ‘Sin’, and in such situations it frequently shows itself in ungratefulness or unbelief.  If we can put it gently, perhaps we might say that it is quite natural, after you’ve been in a particular prison for any length of time, to be wary when you’re told you’re now free from it.  This phenomenon is quite common, and it may be as you read yesterday’s meditation, you struggled with the concept that God is good.  If you did, it’s most likely that it is simply because you’ve lived with circumstances that seem to fly in the face of that.

In the Old Testament, Gideon is a classic example of this. An angel comes and tells him that God is with him (Judges 6:12). His reply is, “If the Lord is with us… where are all the wonders that our fathers told us about?” In other words, how can you say God is good, how can you say He’s with us, when I’ve been through what I’ve been through, and there’s still no sign of change? Do you see how long-term unhappiness over the past can lock us into unbelief in the present?

Now the interesting thing, when Zechariah responds like this, is that he’s not given an explanation why he didn’t have children. We’d like to have explanations and then come to belief, but it doesn’t work like that. The truth is that until our hearts can accept God’s love is there for us, we’re going to constantly criticize and grumble. Zechariah is still in grumbling mode when he basically says, this is stupid, this can’t be, because I’m too old. When we start telling God what He can’t do, we’re in trouble! God can do anything; it’s just our unbelief that thinks He can’t, so we reject His words of goodness towards us.

The angel’s response is basically this: OK, you don’t think God can change your circumstances, you don’t think God can make you become a father, you want a sign, I can see that. All right, I’ll give you a sign that will remain with you every day until the child is born – you won’t be able to speak until then. This is going to happen, you having a son, but you obviously need a bit of encouragement along the way.

You see God loves us so much that sometimes He does intervene in our lives and bring ‘unusual’ circumstances, if He sees that is the only way we’ll come to belief. (There are some people He sees that won’t ever come to belief so He leaves them – but that doesn’t include you, because you wouldn’t be reading this if it did!). If a little crisis is the only thing that will bring us to our senses and bring us to a place of believing (and that without the explanations!) then that’s what He’ll bring to us – in love of course. Of course it’s in love because that’s what He’s trying to bring us. It’s much easier to believe without a crisis! Can we say, yes Lord, I believe what I’m reading in this Christmas story – teach me; I receive all the good you’ve got for me in this season? Dare to, go for it!