45. Judgment or Precursor to Revival?

‘Living with Uncertainty’ Meditations: 45. Q.7 Judgment or Precursor to Revival?

Hab 1:2,3,5    How long, Lord, must I call for help,  but you do not listen? …. Why do you make me look at injustice?  Why do you tolerate wrongdoing? …. “For I am going to do something in your days  that you would not believe, even if you were told.   

Hab 2:1  I will stand at my watch and station myself on the ramparts; I will look to see what he will say to me

The Questions:  There are times when things happen on the earth which should raise questions in the wise – what is happening, why is it happening? The arrival of Covid-19 in the early part of 2020 is one such thing.

Habakkuk’s Experience: Habakkuk was a prophet, ministering, probably just a few years before the fall of Jerusalem to Babylon in 586/7, who looked at the unrighteous state of his nation and asked God, “Why, why do you put up with this?”  When the Lord said He was going to bring disciplinary judgment on his people by bringing the Babylonians to deal with this nation, this left Habakkuk amazed and confused. His response: I’m going to have to go aside and listen and watch to see what He will say.”

God and Judgment (For detail go to my link ‘The Judgments of a Loving God): How God brings about a particular judgment is in some ways irrelevant. In Job we see Satan allowed to come against Job and he does it initially by stirring up the Sabeans to plunder his goods (Job 1:12-15). Howe did Satan do that? Did he make them attack? Only, I suggest, by whispering in their ears that Job was a good target. How did the Lord fulfil His word getting Nebuchadnezzar to attack Israel? Only, I suggest, by getting one of Satan’s emissaries (see 1 King 22:20-23) to go and whisper proud thoughts to him. God doesn’t need to make people do evil, He just lets Satan stir their already sinful attitudes to go that way.

Covid-19?  Is Covid-19 a judgment from God? How did it start? As one website puts it, “The source of the coronavirus is believed to be a “wet market” in Wuhan which sold both dead and live animals including fish and birds. Such markets pose a heightened risk of viruses jumping from animals to humans because hygiene standards are difficult to maintain if live animals are being kept and butchered on site.” It would also appear there was a Chinese doctor who warned about it but was disregarded. Careless workers plus disregard by the authorities? Sounds like the work of the enemy allowed, we have to say, by the Lord. But why?

The Effects: Consider what has happened. The world has ground to a halt, economies are under threat, proud authorities are lost as to how to deal with it, and relatively few numbers have died (over an above those who would have died in the northern hemisphere winter anyway.) Mankind has been humbled and people shut off from their usual activities given time to reflect on life. Discipline? Most certainly.

But Why? Well, what was God’s intent in bringing Nebuchadnezzar to destroy Jerusalem? To discipline and humble the people, to stop the ongoing sin of idolatry that He had spoken against for so many years through both Jeremiah and Ezekiel, to cleanse the people of their sin to prepare them to return to the Land with a new outlook. What, if we are right and God is behind it, even if it is simply Him standing back and letting the sinfulness of mankind bring it about, is He seeking to achieve through it? Well of course only time will tell but what we have already noted might give us a clue: mankind is being humbled and people given opportunity to pause up in their lives and ponder on the important things of life. For some time now, various voices from around the globe have been hinting at the possibility of God coming with worldwide revival and such as this would appear to be a way of preparing people’s hearts to receive Him. The ministry of John the Baptist may be what should be the ministry of the Church to the world at the present time. Check out Isa 43:3, Mal 3:1, Matt 3:3 and see if they speak to you.

Revival or Renewal: But  I find a question rising in me, an uncertainty if you like: does God want to bring Revival or would He prefer to bring Renewal? We need to understand the difference and then listen carefully. Revival, history shows, is God coming in sovereign power for a limited period of time both inside the Church AND outside it bring in a great harvest of the lost. Renewal is where God comes by His Holy Spirit to reinvigorate the Church.  Restoration tends to refer to a restoring of gifts and ministries of the Holy Spirit. If we have renewal and restoration together we have a reinvigorated ‘body of Christ’ that is equipped, empowered, and envisioned to continue to work of Christ as we have never seen before.

Christ’s Calling to the Body: Consider what Jesus said of himself: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour,” (Lk 4:18,19) and “report to John what you hear and see:  The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.” (Mt 11:4,5) As we have seen previously, Jesus sent out the twelve to do these things, then the seventy-two and concluded with an ‘all-church’ commission: “go and make disciples of all nations… and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you,” (Mt 28:19,20) having already declared, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing.” (Jn 14:12).

How to Pray: Praying for Revival is easy: “Lord, please come and sovereignly do all the work.” Praying for Renewal and Restoration is harder: “Lord, please come in the power of your Holy Spirit to bring us together and equip, empower and envision us to be the body you called us to be so that through us you can reach this world – that you have prepared with this virus – with your power and your revelation.”

And So? Uncertain about the days in which we live? Pray.  Uncertain about God’s intents? Pray. Uncertain about your availability? That is down to you, your act of will, just declare it and make yourself available to Him, not only to pray but to be available to do whatever He wants to do as we pray. Amen? Amen!

44. What happens after Death?

‘Living with Uncertainty’ Meditations: 44. Q.6. What happens after Death?

Heb 9:27,28    And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.

The Question:  Death is the cessation of physical life, and many not only fear the way of dying (which can involve a painful and prolonged disease) but also what might happen after death. Moreover it might be helpful to add, what does the Bible teach about the future, beyond physical death? The one thing it does teach is that physical death is not the end. There is existence and experience beyond physical death. Let’s consider the content of our two verses above:

The Fact: “And just as it is appointed for man to die once.”  Death is the one certainty we have; it will happen, we will all experience it.

Followed by: “and after that comes judgment.”  Judgement means assessment and accountability. Now the one thing we cannot say is exactly ‘when’ this occurs. Does it occur the second after our life here ceases, or does it happen, according to our present measuring of time, at some yet future time after a number of other things indicated in scripture happen, and for the person who has died, is there no sense of time passing so it is literally the next thing they experience? (check Rev 20:11-15, 21:27) For the ‘Lamb’s book of life’ see also  Phil 4:3, Rev 3:5, 13:8, 17:8, 20:12.

Salvation Provided: “so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many.” Because Christ died on the cross for our sins, there is forgiveness for all who receive him. Thus those whose names are in the ‘book of life’ referred to above, who God knew from before the foundation of the world would respond to Him and turn to Christ, these people have nothing to fear from appearing before God.

Second Coming: “will appear a second time.” Christ’s coming a second time, prophesied by the angels at his ascension (see Acts 1:11), brings to an end the present dispensation. When he came the first time it was to reveal the Father and to become our Redeemer. Each time he comes he comes to do what no one else can do. When he comes a second time it is for a different purpose.

Receiving Salvation: “not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” The picture of the end of time in this present age is one shown through Revelation where there will be a faithful remnant living in the midst of an ungodly and unrighteous world. He comes, the second time, to bring an end to that ungodliness and unrighteousness and to save his people there on the earth still, from it all. The picture that the writer to the Hebrews brings is of a Saviour who came the first time to bring in the kingdom of God but who comes a second time to wind up the initial expression of that kingdom. Wherever we find ourselves in history and in the economy of God, we can be secure in the love and the sovereign purposes of our God that are established, being worked out and will be brought to a conclusion in our Redeemer, the Christ.

Uncertainties and Questions: There are certainties at the end which we will return to but it is a foolish person who says some of the end of Revelation is quite clear. Uncertainties abound! There are ‘events’ that are spoken of quite clearly, but whether they are to be taken literally or as prophecy to be taken figuratively, is unclear. (The philosophical idea of ‘alternate realities’ existing at the same ‘time’ may be nearer the truth, even though it blows our minds!) There are schools of interpreters who take differing views and so we will not join in but simply note the things John brings to us:

– Christ will come as a conquering king – the Second Coming (Rev 19:11-16)

– he will war against his enemies of evil and will triumph (v.17-21). Note the beast and the false prophet are thrown into the lake of fire (v.20) while all their followers are killed by the sword (word of God) (v.21)

– Satan is bound for a thousand years (20:1-3)

– during this time believers reign with Christ (20:4-6)

– Satan is then released, deceives the nations and they come against the people of God at Jerusalem, fire falls and destroys all his followers but he is thrown into the lake of fire (20:7-10)

– Then comes the final judgment (v.11-13) and unbelievers are thrown into the lake of fire to be consumed. Note there is no mention for them (only the previous three) of it being eternal.  Fire elsewhere in the Bible destroys unless otherwise shown (The burning bush, the disciples at Pentecost, the Beast, the False Prophet and Satan – these latter three being spirit-beings.) The rest of unbelieving humanity is thus destroyed.

– Following this(??) we are shown a new heaven and a new earth (21:1) When he says the first have ‘passed away’ that doesn’t need to mean destroyed but simply moved on from. It is not that the present heaven is inadequate, more likely that the new heaven is simply heaven with a new flavor, if we may put it like that; it is filled with the redeemed and there is sense of conclusion to the initial salvation or redemptive purpose of God. The ‘new earth’ – still distinct from ‘heaven’ is thus presumably still a physical existence for the redeemed people to enjoy. Whether there are dual existences available for the people of God to enjoy, in both heaven AND earth, only time will tell us.

– This new existence is free of suffering (21:4) where God dwells with His people (21:2, 22-26) and all sin has been removed and destroyed (21:8,27)

– Further it is a place (existence) of life and light and abundance (22:2-5).

Certainties: We have already noted that physical death (the ‘first death’) is the cessation of physical life and is the destiny of every single human being. Yet there will be a resurrection of all the dead (Rev 20:13) to stand before the throne of God in the Final Judgment (20:12). Only Believers’ names are written in ‘the Lamb’s book of life’ (Rev 3:5, 13:8, 17:8, 20:12,15,  21:27) and they alone are saved for eternity. The rest, who refuse to believe and so live an ungodly and unrighteous lifestyle (21:8, 22:11,15) are consigned to ‘the second death’ (Rev 2:11, 20:6, 21:8).

We may thus summarize all this, these certainties, as:

–  all godly believers are saved and saved for a glorious eternity,

–  all ungodly and unrighteous unbelievers will be destroyed.

And So?  The offer is clear in Scripture – eternal life and a wonderful existence with God for those who will turn to Christ – but so is the warning – rejection and death for all who reject God’s offer.  Rejoice in the wonder of the offer; tremble for those who disregard it. Amen.

42. Why doesn’t God answer my prayers?

‘Living with Uncertainty’ Meditations: 42. Q.4. Why doesn’t God answer my prayers?

Jas 4:2,3   You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives

1 Pet 3:7 Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect ….. so that nothing will hinder your prayers.

Jn 14:13 And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.

The Question:  “Why doesn’t God answer my prayers?” is a fairly common question among believers and non-believers alike (yes non-believers often pray according to surveys.) There are, when you start thinking about it, some fairly obvious common sense answers as well as some less obvious spiritual answers.

COMMON SENSE PRAYING: The first answer has got to be very simply, because we don’t pray, as James said in our verse above. But perhaps there is more behind that. Prayer is talking to God. Now that may sound fairly obvious but are all words uttered ‘prayer’? If you don’t believe He is there or that He’s not listening, is that really prayer or a mere superstitious act? Do you genuinely pause up and focus on God, the Almighty, Holy, Creator God of the Universe, and address this One, or just utter words?

The second answer has got to be simply we are asking silly, unrealistic things. For example, “Lord please give me a parking space,” or “Lord, please provide a petrol station, I’m running out of petrol.” Such prayers seem to require God to create something. A better prayer might be, “Lord, please make me alert and help me spot a parking place.” A prayer for God to speak to you and guide you as one of His children is legitimate.

A third answer has to be that you are praying contradictory prayers – your prayer may be contradicting one another may be praying, e.g. “Lord please don’t let it rain today,” while down the road a farmer is praying, “Lord we desperately need rain for the crops. Please send some rain.”

SPIRITUAL FOCUS PRAYERS: Some praying is simply limited by our own spiritual limitations. So, for example, first of all there are selfish prayers. James added, “you do not receive because you ask with wrong motives.” (Jas 4:3)

Now that should perhaps be linked, second, to praying God’s will. One of our verses above speaks about ‘asking in Jesus’ name’. That simply means praying what you believe Jesus’ will is that will extend the kingdom and glorify the Father. Praying, “Lord, please give me a big yacht,” is probably a selfish, self-aggrandising prayer but many years ago when computers were first coming on line, I felt it right to pray, “Lord, please will you give me a PCW, a word processor,” because I sensed He wanted to open up writing for me. Where the money came from I don’t know but within a couple of months I had it.

We need an aside here: sometimes when praying, especially for healing of a person at death’s door, it is natural and right to pray out of love for them, sometimes even sure that you want them to live – but even that motivation and sureness isn’t enough. It may just be that God knows that this is their time to go home – and we have to accept that! It may be hard but there we have to humbly bow before the throne and accept their death. Jesus healed and raised the dead, so let us pray for it. The Father is not going to be stressed by our love for our loved ones – and He may intervene!

That in turns leads on to, third, prayers that are half-hearted from lack of assurance. Sometimes, to be sure we are praying in the will of God we just need to start praying and catch a sense, while we are in prayer, whether this is in fact God’s will. If it is, the Holy Spirit will witness to that fact and we can thus be encouraged to press on in prayer. Yes, this does mean we need to learn to be sensitive to the still small voice of God (1 Kings 19:12), but when we do we can listen for that encouragement. Sometimes, associated with this I believe, fourth, prayers are delayed because God is training us, training us to listen, training us to learn to wait upon Him, training us to persevere, and that only comes when we are confident about the things we are asking. Is that why Jesus taught, “Ask (and keep on asking) and it will be given to you; seek (and keep on seeking)  and you will find; knock (and keep on knocking) and the door will be opened to you,” (Mt 7:7 with the verb tenses added) and also, “told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.” (Lk 18:1)

This takes us on to realize that in His training of us, fifth, we need to learn God’s limitations. Yes, there are some things God will not do. Yes, He will perform miracles that go against nature if it conforms to His overall plans. Jesus regularly healed people, sometimes raised people from the dead, and sometimes performed other miracles, but Jesus never forced people to believe. He would teach them, challenge them, and even rebuke them, but he never exercises sovereign power to make us change our minds. Thus, when praying for our loved ones who don’t know Him, “Lord, please make X believe,” is unacceptable, whereas, “Lord please speak again and again to X and help them see their need,” is I suggest legitimate.

We should also note, sixth, that we may be acting unrighteously and that will hinder our channel to God. In one of our verses above, Peter warns husbands to treat their wives properly otherwise that will hinder their spiritual activities, i.e. prayer!

SPIRITUAL WARFARE PRAYING: In addition to the above things, the mature believer realizes that we operate spiritually in a spiritual dimension and within that dimension there is warfare. May we not be casual about the apostle Paul’s teaching: “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Eph 6:12) There are instances in the Old Testament – “Do not be afraid, Daniel. Since the first day that you set your mind to gain understanding and to humble yourself before your God, your words were heard, and I have come in response to them. But the prince of the Persian kingdom resisted me twenty-one days,” (Dan 10:12,13) and the New Testament – For we wanted to come to you—certainly I, Paul, did, again and again—but Satan blocked our way,” (1 Thess 2:19) that suggest to us the way is not always open and easy and when the enemy shouts, “Resistance is futile,” we need to laugh and press on!

RIGHT PERSPECTIVE: Our tendency as little children is to want Abba, daddy, to do it all for us but from the beginning we find, “God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it,” (Gen 1:28) or as the Message delightfully and succinctly puts it, “Prosper! Reproduce! Fill Earth! Take charge!” There are times when God delights in stepping in to the affairs of the earth, for example when Jesus came, when Revivals occur, when Renewals of the Spirit occur, when He inspires healing crusades etc. but much of the time I believe the Lord wants us to grow up and “take charge” of our lives.

What does that mean? I believe it means using them wisely, checking that regularly by keeping in close contact with Him, seeking Him for wisdom (see Jas 1:5) while all the while realizing that living in a Fallen World means that trials come so, “the testing of your faith produces patient endurance. And let patient endurance finish its work, so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (Jas 1:3,4) Note the order: trials create patience and endurance that produce maturity in us. Yes, God will sometimes move in sovereign power in our circumstances and sometimes wants us to pray for that, but the majority of the time He wants to speak to us, lead us, guide us, grant us wisdom, and where we get stressed, grace, and where we mess up, the reminder that the path is repentance, reconciliation, restoration, forgiveness, and the grace to press on.

To conclude: If we take a couple of biblical characters, look first at Abraham – the Lord spoke to Him a number of times but only stepped in with the supernatural power once, to enable Sarah to conceive. Look at how the Lord worked with Joseph – spoke prophecies to him, watched over him through the time of rejection by his brothers and being sold into slavery, spoke to his masters in prison to give him favor in their eyes, gave him prophetic understanding and dreams that resulted in him becoming the savior of the Middle East. Throughout Judges the Spirit empowered leaders with boldness, a right attitude. Moses was a different ball game because that involved national judgment and deliverance. David grew to be the warrior he was because of his relationship with God and everything else flowed from that. Do we get the message? Relationship! Listening, obeying, doing, ruling, triumphing! Hallelujah! Let’s pray, let’s keep on praying, sometimes getting it right, sometimes not, but all the while being children with a loving Heavenly Father, children who are gradually growing up and maturing, in knowledge, in understanding and in experience. May it be so.

41. What about Suffering?

‘Living with Uncertainty’ Meditations: 41. Q.3. What about Suffering?

Rom 8:20,21 (JBP)   The world of creation cannot as yet see reality, not because it chooses to be blind, but because in God’s purpose it has been so limited—yet it has been given hope. And the hope is that in the end the whole of created life will be rescued from the tyranny of change and decay, and have its share in

Concerns & Questions:  A regular question or series of questions that arise include: Why is there suffering? Why did God make a world with so much suffering? Why doesn’t He step in to remove it? If He is good and loving and all powerful why doesn’t He step in and act on our behalf? But what is ‘suffering’? A dictionary definition is ‘undergoing pain, distress or hardship’.

Sources of Suffering: The first step is to identify the causes of ‘suffering’ as we have defined it.  Let’s try and pin down the main causes:

  1. Inflicted by others: Pain caused by others may have at least three sources. First, the list of violent acts that the human race shows it is capable of, is long and distressing and runs from individual violence (verbal or physical) that can include beating, abuse, rape, torture, to corporate violence that can include war, genocide, oppression, and terrorism. View the whole world and these things constitute the vast majority of the world’s suffering. Second, perhaps to this we should add the things that we don’t do for one another that we should do, such as caring for the weak, providing for the needy, and that covers not only the large number of refugees from war zones, but also simply the plight of individuals who have not been coping with life generally. Third, there are the hurts, pains etc. imposed on us by the negligence of other people, i.e. accidents causes by lack of care.
  2. Self-Inflicted: this is an area where we are even less comfortable. This is where, living contrary to the design of God for His world, we take on lifestyles that are harmful – over-eating, excessive alcohol or drug use, unrestrained sexual lifestyles that are accompanied by diseases, unwanted pregnancies, abortions, criminal acts, and stress and anxiety from too much self-effort. Choice of attitude, approach to life, and inability to cope with the pressures that the modern world sometimes brings, are maybe the primary ways we cause harm and suffering to ourselves. As above, we should perhaps add pain caused by accidents which are in turn caused by our carelessness or negligence, and maybe we should even include our misuse of the world that causes environmental problems with global warming etc.

These first two are the suffering caused by humanity itself in individual or corporate recognizable acts.

  1. The Breakdown of the World: The fact is that we suffer a variety of other things that cause pain, suffering, even death, things that can be identified as the world mis-functioning, or not functioning as it was originally designed to function (which we’ll consider shortly). This list includes

– illnesses and that may be viral, genetic misfunction or cell breakdown. (look up ‘disease’ in Wikipedia)

– climatic causes – hurricanes, tornadoes, floods from excessive rainfall,

– earth upheavals – volcanoes, moving tectonic plate movement causing earthquakes and tsunamis.

(Note in passing that the Sin of mankind, according to one doctor, causes diseases and releases spiritual forces that cause harm. See more in the next study.)

Where is God? The questions that we suggested above might be rationalised to a) Why did God make the world like this? and b) Why doesn’t He step in to help us?

God’s Design & the Fall: Without the Bible, without God, the atheist is just left with a horrible world and indeed various atheists have described it as such. You can only blame God if you believe there is a God, but the atheist will say to us, “This God that you say you believe in, why….?” and so it is legitimate to ask what does the Bible say about all this?

From the beginning, if you are going to blame a God who exists, we are told that this God created this world – by fiat in a split second or over seven periods of time or by long-period evolution is irrelevant; it is down to Him! But here is the most important thing: “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” (Gen 1:31) There is no room there for saying that any of the things in the three groups above existed. It was a perfect world. So how come the difference between that and the descriptions in the three groups above? The answer is found in Gen 3 in what we refer to as ‘the Fall’ that might be summarized as mankind choosing to ignore or disregard God and live how they decide to live. The consequence of that is ALL the things listed in those three groups above. Do you see why identifying those three groups are so important.

I so often define ‘Sin’ as “self-centred, godlessness that results in unrighteous self-destructive acts” Unrighteous simply means actions that are contrary to God’s design. The Adam and Eve picture of Gen 3 shows them acting in an entirely self-centred way that excluded God from the equation and resulted in them doing something that opened the door to a whole way of living that was godless, hard, and self-harming. They typify what the whole of mankind is like. They and the world (and us) were not as it had been, no longer perfect, but broken, dysfunctional.

But Why? But why did God make us like this? Hold on, what was the alternative? It all hinges on this thing called free-will. Most people don’t realize how much we exercise ‘free-will’, the will to choose at any moment what we will do: when to get up in the morning, what to eat for breakfast, when to leave for work, how to travel to work, how to perform our work, how to respond to people or circumstances, when to enter into or break off a relationship, how to respond when we see a person in need, how to respond to a rebuff, when and how to write a song, a novel or some poetry, or paint a picture, or create a sculpture. Literally everything we do involves us exercising this ability to choose. We each have tremendous potential for being amazing people, in caring or in courage, in creativity and in construction, the potential of being self-less, godly, beautiful people who can be a blessing to the rest of mankind and to God. However, on the other side we can, as we saw above, be utterly self-centred and godless, harming ourselves, harming others and harming the earth, and we grieve God.

But where is God in all this? More questions. If God allowed us to be this sort of creature – capable of incredible good and incredible bad (evil)  – has He created it like this and then walked away? Definitely not! There are three things we should note about God in this:

  1. He feels: It is clear from the picture of Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus (Jn 11) that he feels for us. It is clear when God was speaking to Moses at the burning bush that He felt for His people (Ex 3:7). God does not hold Himself aloof from people, He feels for the young parents who have just lost their new-born baby, He feels for the woman who cannot conceive, He feels for all of us who anguish. Jesus allowed his compassion to motivate him (see Mt 9:36, 14:14, 15:32, 20:34) and told of his Father’s compassion in one of the best known parables (see Lk 15:20).
  2. He involves Himself: The Bible is full of God who intervenes on behalf of mankind. After the exclusion from the Garden at the end of Gen 3, God did not just leave mankind to it; there are instances again and again and again of God who was interacting with people (Gen 5:24, Gen 12:1, Gen 3 etc. etc.) to reveal Himself and be revealed through them. Jesus is the peak of God’s intervention in the affairs of mankind, described by John as God (Jn 1:1), Creator with the Father (Jn 1:3), yet who came from heaven (Jn 6:38) to dwell in flesh (Jn 1:14) to reveal the Father and die as a sacrifice for our sin. In his ministry, through Jesus we see, The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor,” (Mt 11;5) or, as Peter summarised it, he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil.” (Acts 10:38) This was God NOT accepting the status quo of the fallen world but intervening in it to change it – as He still does today. (For His sovereign will see the next study) Today, by the presence and work of His Holy Spirit, the Lord provides all the grace we need to handle this world.
  3. He has a new end goal: The present world is not the end goal of God. Yes, He has given us free will, yes He gives us space to exercise it, yes He works to bring redemption here on earth, but none of these are the end goal. There will come a time, the Bible declares, when He will bring an end to this present existence and establish for the redeemed, who throughout history have responded to Him, a new heaven and a new earth (Rev 3:12, 21:1,2). Not only will there be a new place in which the redeemed may live and enjoy their God, but there will also be a Final Judgement where all will stand before God to account for their lives and those who have rejected Him will be rejected for the new heaven and new earth (Rev 20:12-15) and destroyed. Justice will be seen to be done for every wrong and every injustice seen in history.

Recap:   

– there are clear and obvious causes of suffering.

– most of it is down to the effects of the sinfulness of mankind, resulting from wrong use of free will.

– God doesn’t stand outside our suffering but feels with us and often intervenes to alleviate it.

– all wrongs and injustices involving suffering will be held to account at the end.

– this world of suffering is not the end but a world without “death or mourning or crying or pain” (Rev 21:4)  is the ultimate destiny of all who will respond to His call.

May that be the ultimate experience of each of us.

40. Can I Trust the Bible?

‘Living with Uncertainty’ Meditations: 40. Q.2. Can I trust the Bible?

1 Tim 3:16,17   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.

Continuation:  In the previous study, at one point I used the words, ‘We can read the Bible, study it in depth, find out all about its origins etc., and become completely assured as to it veracity, its authenticity and accuracy.”  One might have thought that such an exercise should, after all these years of so much scholarship and so many books written in this subject, be unnecessary, that there should be do doubts, no uncertainties about these things.

Concerns: But the reality is that a new generation comes along that displays serious concerns (my concerns about them, not their concerns!) that have been having a negative effect in recent years on parts of the Christian community, invoking uncertainties. My concerns are:

  1. Inadequate Historical Reading: These people clearly have not read the incredible writings of such people as Josh McDowell (yes, even the updated version ‘The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict’ was right back in 1999! but still stands as a monument to apologetics), have not bothered to investigate the wealth of knowledge and scholarship that goes to being assured about the origins of the Bible.
  2. Inadequate Apologetics Reading: There is also obviously an absence of reading of such great writers as Norman Geisler and many other scholars who seek to make sense of the Bible and come up with legitimate answers.
  3. Inadequate Bible Reading: The Liberal critics who appear to be having a voice in parts of the church today (haven’t they always been there in the background) demonstrate two worrying characteristics: first, their knowledge of what the Bible says as a whole, seems very limited and, second, they appear to come from a materialistic stance of unbelief that question the very basics of belief in the divinely supernatural (no miracles, no prophecy etc.).

From these inadequacies, unbelief spreads but it demonstrates two things: first an absence of knowledge in such semi-believers and, when it is accepted by the Christian community, second, a poverty of teaching in many churches to equip believers so they know a) what the Bible is, b) it’s origins, and c) why is can be trusted for accuracy and authenticity.

But??? But, you may be saying, you have not been giving me helps to trust the Bible. Well, actually, indirectly, yes I have. I have put before you suggestions of approach, scholars to search out, books to read that will give you understanding of why you can trust the origins of the Bible, trust the historical content of the Bible and its general accuracy. Beyond that – and those previous things are massive areas of study which, if you aren’t a great reader, you will have to trust me about, and maybe ask your pastor, minister, leader, to teach on – the biggest issue is will YOU become a Bible scholar? All I mean by that is will you (and any questioner you find yourself with) take the trouble to read the Bible? I recently heard of one local young woman who read the entire Bible in the 40 days of Lent and is now going to reread it in the chronological order (not the book order) that things happened. There is someone of credibility!

In approaching understanding the Bible may I suggest you need to set yourself a curriculum of study: a) catch the ‘big picture’ of what the Bible is all about – see my series ‘Big Picture Studies’,  b) focus on Jesus in the Gospels – read a Gospel a week, c) catch something of the historical narrative of the Old Testament – my series ‘Struggles of Israel’ does something of this.

That is just a start to catch something of the overall content of the Bible. I have been reading and studying and writing on the Bible for approaching forty years. You can trust it and the more you read it the more assured you will be about it, and about your faith.

It’s claims: 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. God breathed? “given to us by inspiration from God” (the Living Bible paraphrase version). That is the ultimate summary of what the Bible is.

The Problems: But it is sixty-six books, can that apply to them all? Yes, why not? That doesn’t mean that every book is full of truth. Job, one of the most difficult to read, comprises largely of conversations between Job and his three ‘friends’. The only trouble is, they don’t always speak truth. Oops! Then there is Ecclesiastes, the best read for modern cynics because it shows the hopelessness of life without God, the testimony of a jaded Solomon late in his life when he has allowed himself, after a life of mega-success, to be seduced away from a relationship with God and now feels helpless. Yes, see the truth it conveys. Then there are records of bad people. That is not the Bible justifying them, but simply revealing them for that they are.

Then there are multiple viewpoints that I so often liken to a variety of reporters at a car or train crash, each reporting from their viewpoint. Oh yes, God inspired each of these ‘reporters’ to write what they saw from their perspective and that ends up creating an amazing ‘painting by numbers’ end work that is brilliant!  So yes, there is a human element, a human dimension, in it all but that just adds to the beauty of what is there –  or at least it does when you read it!

Attitude: Possibly there is no book like the Bible that reveals the sort of people, the sort of heart we may have.  If you come with a critical, jaded, distorted perspective of life, as can be seen in some well known atheists, you will read and walk away still criticising because you just couldn’t see it. However, if you approach it with the heart of a learner, a seeker, you will indeed find a book that thrills you with its wonder, its truths and so much more. Yes, sometimes those truths are uncomfortable. I have often written about how the nation of Israel shows up the sinfulness and stupidity of mankind. It is not that their history is unique (although it is)  but it is they just show us what we’re all like. They are given amazing revelations of God, His words, and His will, which initially they receive joyfully, but as time passes they drift away from God into superstitious folly that brings self-destruction – just like us. It’s all a matter of attitude.

On one hand there is the need to use your mind, but on the other there is the need to be childlike in having a simple, straight-forward approach to this unique book.  I am sorry if this ‘study’ was not what you expected, because I did not take you though detailed studies, but I have:

  • directed you to the resources,
  • challenged you to check your heart and your attitude, and
  • challenged you to set a life-long goal of reading the Bible

and IF you will do these things, you will not regret it and find that you have been “completely assured as to it veracity, its authenticity and accuracy.”   Moreover, you will have been fed and nourished and will find that you look at the world in a new way, where so many of its uncertainties are put into perspective and are removed as worries. Enjoy!

39. What is God like?

PART FIVE: Key Questions

‘Living with Uncertainty’ Meditations: 39. Q.1. What is God like?

Acts 17:27   God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.

A Surprise:  I thought we had finished this series but as I was praying early morning I sensed that we should, before we finish, confront some of the key questions that confront believers and seekers alike, questions about God, the Bible, Suffering, Unanswered Prayer, Identity and Death and what follows. These seem to be the subjects I find being laid on my heart for us to deal with before we complete the series. The purpose of these pages, I believe, should be so that we ourselves may be assured and that we may communicate that assurance to others. It is first an intellectual assurance and then an assurance backed by spiritual experience. We may have covered a few of these issues in small ways in the previous studies but I hope each of these will be a resource in itself. We start with God Himself.

What is God like? I have taken our starter verse from the apostle Paul’s message to the Greeks of Athens on Mars Hill. He was waiting for some of the other apostles to arrive (Acts 17:16a) and while he was there, apparently wandering round Athens, he was struck by the number of idols there were in the city (v.16b) and this grieved him. Now if we don’t rush past this, it is legitimate to wonder why Paul should be grieved over the fact that there were idols all over the place. Well it was a strange thing because this city was the centre of a nation that had been known for its intellectual culture, it’s big thinkers – e.g. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle – people who worked on reason and intellect, and yet despite all this, they are a superstitious people who have idols to the gods. But superstition is about believing in the supernatural or supernatural influences at work in the world so when Paul “stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus” he was able to say to them, “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious.” (v.22)

Many people today submit to the idea of ‘materialism’, the belief that nothing exists except physical matter, yet that does still not sit comfortably with very many of us for there seems to be something in each one of us that senses something more, as Solomon wrote of God, He has also set eternity in the human heart.” (Eccles 3:11). Now I have written extensively on who God is according to the Bible in a previous series, “Getting to Know God”, and so this is very much a summary.

God the Communicator: Our starting point has to be the fact that the Bible reveals so much about God and indeed the claim is that it is inspired by God (2 Tim 3:16), which we will consider in the next study. That claim in itself is enough to suggest that if God inspired this book then He must be a God who desires to communicate much to us about Himself. But there is more than that sense behind the very existence of the Bible, there is what we find in it. Again and again and again we find such words as, “God said.” So He communicates through specific words He speaks, either out loud or into the minds of various people, but He also appears to inspire men to speak out what they are sensing He is saying. These are the Prophets. But then there are things taking place that are attributed to Him which reveal Him, reveal His nature, reveal His power and reveal His emotions and ways of thinking. All of this is communication. This God is a communicator. The peak of this communication comes with the arrival of His Son, Jesus Christ. The writer to the Hebrews was to write, “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.” (Heb 1:1,2). That “by his Son” may, in the light of what we find in the Gospels, be taken to mean what the Son said as well as what the Son did. Indeed everything he did was designed to reveal something about God. He was God’s purest means of communication, if we may put it like that.

Almighty God: The testimony of the whole Bible might be summed up in Paul’s words there to the Greeks: “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.” (Acts 17:24,25) i.e. this God is the Creator of all things, is greater than anyone or anything else we know of. He is the provider of all life. The attributes of God you will find in that previous series, “Getting to Know God” include the fact that He is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-wise, eternal, loving, goodness and so much more. The Bible tells us so much.

Relational God: But this all-powerful, Creator, Sustainer of the world, is not an impersonal ‘force’ but a Being with personality, a being who communicates, a God who desires relationship with mankind. Paul, speaking of this and His work in establishing the world as it is, continued, “God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him.” (v.27). In our goals at the beginning of this study we said it is that we have first an intellectual assurance and then an assurance backed by spiritual experience. We can read the Bible, study it in depth, find out all about its origins etc., and become completely assured as to it veracity, its authenticity and accuracy, but that merely remains an intellectual exercise. The Bible reveals that God’s desire is that we respond to His overtures and enter into a living, two-way relationship with Him through the person and work of His Son, Jesus Christ.

But Me? The question that many people find they have is expressed as, “Me? I understand all you are saying but can that apply to me? Can I be good enough to encounter this God? Why would He want to do that anyway?” and the answer is found in three little words that the apostle John wrote: “God is love.” (1 Jn 4:8,16) with everything that the word ‘love’ means. The apostle Paul was so overwhelmed by this concept that he wrote, “I’m absolutely convinced that nothing—nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable—absolutely nothing can get between us and God’s love.” (Rom 8:38,39 Message paraphrase version) i.e. nothing but nothing but nothing can keep God’s love from you, to which we might add – except you yourself.

This series has been all about uncertainty and, yes, many people are uncertain about God Himself, but that is because they have never taken on board the wonderful things we find in the Bible, and especially the New Testament, and responded to it. Yes, you can read it, but for it to ‘go live’ it needs responding to. In fact, every time we want the Bible to ‘go live’ for us, we need to pray and after we’ve read it, to pray again. This is us making contact with the author of the Bible, the One behind all things. The Book is not there merely to be read, it is there to open a door for us into God’s presence. That is what these studies have all been about. But that leads us into the next study which is the answer to the question, “Can I trust the Bible?”

37. Effects of the Spirit’s Moving

‘Living with Uncertainty’ Meditations: 37. Effects of the Spirit’s Moving

Jn 3:8   The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.’

Acts 4:8  Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them…

Acts 4:31  After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.

Acts 11:24   He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord.

Be at Peace:  As I have suggested before there are often fears and doubts and uncertainties about the Holy Spirit which the Lord understands but simply warns us against speaking wrongly of Him (Mt 12:31,32). To deny the work of the Spirit is to deny God. But uncertainties are understandable, but it is the way we respond to them that is important. I testified in the previous study how I foolishly experienced the Spirit moving, backed away from it, yet was graciously drawn back in repentance to receive again. The Lord looks for hearts that are open to him, even if they are uncertain. Be at peace in all this.

Uncertainty is Natural: If a leader like Nicodemus (Jn 3) was confused, don’t be surprised if we often get confused. To take Jesus’ analogy about the wind, many of us feel fearful simply because don’t know when He is going to turn up and what He might do. We live in a world that teaches us to be in control so it is natural to be nervous when God turns up and takes control out of our hands. It is natural but we are not called to be natural, we are called to be supernatural. We are to live by faith not by sight (2 Cor 5:7), we are to live not by human wisdom but by Holy Spirit and scriptural guidance.

Effects: I want to finish these reflections about the uncertainty of the Spirit by noting the fruitfulness that comes when we allow the Spirit to lead, inspire and empower us. In the previous study I used the analogy of a son growing into his father’s business as a picture of what God wants for us, and when we see the things He says He expects of us, we realize that these are things we cannot do by our own ability.

Boldness: Using our verses above, in Acts 4  when Peter is brought before the authorities we see him, “filled with the Holy Spirit,” (v.8) and Luke surely means us to see that it was because of this that he could answer them fearlessly and proclaim the Gospel. In Judges we have seen the Spirit come upon people to make them bold and courageous leaders. When we are filled with the Spirit there comes a new freedom to stand up and be God’s people. At the end of Acts 4 when the church are praying, the Spirit comes on them all and they were all filled so that “they spoke the word of God boldly”. (v.31) We desperately need some Holy Spirit boldness to speak into the world today.

Characteristic: When a problem of administration arose in the church in Jerusalem the instruction of the apostles to the other believers was, “choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom.” (Acts 6:3) The experience of being filled, that results in visible changes in a person, was apparently obvious in the early church. “They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit.” (v.5) If you referred to someone as a ‘Spirit-filled believer’ you were saying there was something about them that stood out – a freedom in God, a love and joy in the Lord, and often wisdom – that could be seen! There was no wondering. Shortly afterwards we read of Stephen, “Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people.” (v.8) Is this what caused the enemy to stir up opposition against him and yet, “they could not stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke.” (v.10) This opposition was to lead to him becoming the first Christian martyr. But see all those things describing him: full of faith, full of the Holy Spirit, full of God’s grace and power, performing great wonders and signs, speaking fearlessly with great wisdom, and able to face death fearlessly. This is the life potential for those “filled with the Spirit”. If the modern church cannot live up to these descriptions, is it because we use the words but don’t experience the reality of the Spirit?

Similarly in Acts 11, Barnabas was described as, “a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith.” (Acts 11:24). He was the man we know as an encourager (v.23), the one who drew Paul into ministry (v.25,26), who clearly was a significant teacher (v.26b)

A Quick Glimpse at History: We are sometimes not very good at understanding church history but let’s conclude this study with a quick refresher in respect of history and the Holy Spirit. It is said that you can find throughout the two thousand years of church history, little pockets of believers who were open to the Spirit but the so-called Azusa Street Revival, in Los Angeles, that started in 1906, brought out into the open the place and role of the Holy Spirit, which had already started to be considered in some ‘holiness churches’. Pentecostalism was born resulting in the formation of Pentecostal churches & denominations which spread worldwide. This teaching and experience restored the Holy Spirit to His proper place, but mostly stayed within Pentecostal churches

That is, until in the 1960’s when a change came which someone described as, “individual believers seeking the Father for his promised gift of the Holy Spirit.”  Out of his came a fresh awareness of the existence, experience, function, and role of ‘the body of Christ’.  The Charismatic Movement was born with personal Spirit-filling and gifting, and our place within the body, being taught and experienced in new ways. Unlike Pentecostalism the charismatic movement did not create new denominations but Spirit-filled believers continued their experience within their existing denominations.

In the 1990’s a new wave of Holy Spirit activity burst out across the world with the phenomena referred to as the Toronto Blessing, where the Spirit, sovereignly it seemed, broke in on individual believers as they gathered and brought a new joy and a new freedom to the people of God. It was not revival and mostly did not appear to stir evangelism into being. It was first and foremost a restoration of the wonder of being God’s children.

Now we may not have been around and experienced these times of blessing but the truth was that in each case new life poured into and through the church. Each of these were different from revival which is a sovereign powerful moving of God inside and outside of the church to bring fresh life to believers and a harvest of souls into the kingdom.

And Us?  Wherever we stand, whatever our experience of the Spirit and whatever our feelings in respect of Him, one thing in today’s world and today’s church is obvious: we need a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Whether He comes in revival sweeping all before Him sovereignly, or whether He comes in renewal and reinvigorates His Church to be what He wants it to be, is down to Him and we will have to wait to see. In this again there is uncertainty. There are signs in all that is going on in the midst of the world activities that the Lord may be getting ready, thus Isaiah’s (Isa 4:3-5 Msg) call is appropriate:

Thunder in the desert!  “Prepare for God’s arrival!
Make the road straight and smooth, a highway fit for our God.
Fill in the valleys, level off the hills,
Smooth out the ruts, clear out the rocks.
Then God’s bright glory will shine and everyone will see it.

How can we put it even more clearly?  Speak into this spiritual desert, this wilderness that is the modern world. Put your lives right for God is coming. Do all that needs doing to set your life right so that there is no hindrance in it to prevent Him coming and working in and through you. Clean it up, get rid of things you know would not bless God when He comes, fill in what is missing in your life and experience, and open up your heart to receive all He has for you, and then look for the coming of His glory.   Amen.

34. The Uncertainty of Pentecost

‘Living with Uncertainty’ Meditations: 34. The Uncertainty of Pentecost

Acts 2:4   All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues[a] as the Spirit enabled them.

More Whaaat?  The Day of Pentecost and the record of Acts 2 is both amazing and glorious AND a source of uncertainty, questions and doubts in many.  Was this a one-off marker-in-the-sand event or did it have greater ongoing significance? Was it just for those caught up in it, or does it have meaning for us today as well?

Personal Testimony: I need to make a confession before I go any further. I come from an Evangelical, Pentecostal, Brethren, Baptist, Free Church, Charismatic, Restorationist background. I have had the privilege of having friends from each of these areas and experiences within them in the Christian Church.  I was filled with the Spirit, rejected the experience, came back to the experience, spoke in tongues and have a reasonable gift of prophecy. My biggest concern in these studies is that we study what the Scriptures actually say and if our experiences don’t match the word, we pray that God will bring us in line with His word. I believe in all the Eph 4:12 ministries and all the 1 Cor 12 gifts.

Yet today I am retired and part of a church that would like to think of itself as charismatic but isn’t. I know of Elim Pentecostal churches that would like to think of themselves as Pentecostal but aren’t. As I look around the Church I don’t think many of us are doing what Scripture reveals. When it comes to the Spirit, I believe we often talk the talk but rarely do the real stuff – and I include myself in that. It is probable that in these studies about the Holy Spirit I am going to ask some awkward questions, but I ask them equally of myself. There are rumblings in the Christian undergrowth that God may be coming in worldwide revival – and don’t we need it – but mostly although my heart feels it, my eyes see little signs of it yet. (April 2020) I am uncertain where we are going, both in these studies and in the Church. I do not stand on a high place and preach down, but I do believe we each need to be honest as we face what the Scriptures actually say. Can we try and do that? Let’s consider what happened to the disciples first.

First the Disciples: They have received Jesus’ marching orders – or to be precise his ‘sitting and waiting’ orders (Acts 1:4) – they have been waiting and wondering in Jerusalem, praying much of the time. What else can you do when the Master has left you and you feel helpless? Peter tries to bring a semblance of order and normality to reinstating the Twelve (Acts 1:15-26), according to scripture you understand (Acts 1:20). Yes, they have and know their scriptures, and they have their marching orders. That ought to be enough surely? We’ve got the completed canon, we’ve got the Great Commission, what more do we need?  They organised and appointed a twelfth apostle, so we’ve got the leadership sorted out. We’re ready to go. What more do we need? But the Master spoke of waiting for power (Acts 1:8), saying we will be baptised (immersed) in the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:5). How long do we have to wait for that? He just said, “in a few days” (v.5). How long is that?  What does it actually mean?

The Pentecost Experience: What then followed on the Day of Pentecost….. hold on, Pentecost? There were three annual feasts all Jewish men were required to attend: the Festival of Unleavened Bread, the Festival of Weeks, and the Festival of Tabernacles. (Deut 16:16). Unleavened Bread followed Passover, as we’ve seen, and the Feast of Weeks, otherwise known as the Feast of Harvest or Pentecost, came fifty days after Passover (Gk. pentekostos means fiftieth) and celebrated the completion of the grain harvest. In God’s economy this was a day of harvest, at the end of which at least 3000 souls had been brought into the kingdom. What a harvest!

But what happened? First of all the experience: This is a preacher’s delight – there was a sound, a sight and strange speech. There was “a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting.” (Acts 2:2) The sound is of a violent wind and wind signifies power. Then, “They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them.” (v.3) Now fire normally burns up but when, like the famous burning bush of Ex 3, it doesn’t destroy, it is a sign of the holy presence of God. Finally, “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.” (v.4) They were empowered to do something they were not naturally able to do. These ‘tongues’ were languages that visiting foreigners could identify as being their own native languages (v.8) and so they were empowered to cross cultural and linguistic boundaries – the curse of Babel (Gen 11:7) appears to be removed supernaturally.

Second, the effect: First of all note the disciples.  It is often thought the disciples were in the upper room, hence “the whole house” of v.2 but the fact that Jews in the neighborhood heard it all suggests the disciples we impelled out of the house by the Spirit into the open, out of their place of security, out of their place of quiet prayer, into the public forum. Dare we suggest that when the Spirit comes in power he bursts into and through His people into the public domain, the same domain where Jesus ministered.

But then notice, second, the watchers and listeners. They come to see what is going on, they are attracted by the noise and want to see what it is all about. Dare we suggest that when the Spirit comes in power, the world will beat a path to our door to see what is happening. But then don’t expect them to come clear-headed: “a crowd came together in bewilderment.” (v.6a) Why? “because each one heard their own language being spoken.” (v.6b) When they see the power and presence of God it will leave them bewildered. How can these things happen? Moreover, “Utterly amazed, they asked…” (v.7) This bewilderment will turn into amazement as they take it in and that in turn will provoke questions, and then more questions: “Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?” (v.12) Amazed speaks of surprise, perplexed speaks of being puzzled, even baffled, by events that are beyond them. So don’t be surprise when some will jump to wrong conclusions: “Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.” (v.13)

So then note again, third, the disciples again. Questions need answers. “Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd.” (v.14) The fact of Peter standing up may negate the earlier comments of being expelled from the house, but not necessarily. The fact that this experience went on and on for at least a short while, may mean it was somewhat overwhelming requiring them to sit down again. His standing “up with the crowd” may simply be a description of him moving into the midst of the growing crowd. However, whatever is the truth of the situation, the fact that the crowd are acting this way, and jumping to wrong conclusions, provokes Peter to get up and speak out loudly and boldly presenting an  answer to the questions and confusions of his fellow Jews. We are given the main gist of his ‘first Christian sermon’ but he obviously goes on – “with many other words” (v.40) – warning and pleading with them to repent (see v.38) and some three thousand responded to his word (v.41). Although the words are not there, it is obvious he is speaking under great anointing, with the Holy Spirit so empowering his words that this large number responded.

To Recap: Now before I recap, I realize this will raise many questions and perhaps it is right to suggest that this is a unique day but a day that demonstrates perhaps true revival, the coming of the powerful presence of the Holy Spirit and the effects of this, which we will need to consider before we finish. But what have we seen?

  1. The Spirit: came with the sound of power, came with the sight of the holy presence of God, came releasing supernatural speech
  2. The disciples: were empowered to do something not possible before, were expelled from the place of safety to the public arena, were anointed to preach with power that brought a great harvest.
  3. The ‘world’: heard what was going on and were perplexed, confused, amazed, asked questions and jumped to wrong conclusions, listened to anointed answers, and responded in large numbers.

Questions that Arise: The presence and the work of the Holy Spirit has always been controversial, both outside the church as on this day, and inside it, sadly, as people have struggled to cope with a sovereign work of God that bypasses intellect and opens up the supernatural power of God in and through the body of Christ, the church. I suspect many of us would respond positively to what we have read here but will question, if this happened then, why doesn’t it always happen and is there anything we can do to make ourselves available to God for Him to do it regularly? Some would describe this unique day as the first Christian revival taking place and perhaps that is true, which means it is a sovereign work of God that cannot be repeated, and we certainly can’t make it happen, only God can.  However it is not the only picture of the coming of the Spirit in Acts, so perhaps we should lay all our uncertainties on the table and simply see what Scripture says as we move on in the next study.

In the meantime, as we look at the world around us and the relative ineffectiveness, in the West at least, over the past fifty years say, of the Church, can we see the effect of that? Can we see that the world has moved steadily away from God with the result that self-centred godlessness prevails and brings behaviors throughout society that are unrighteous and self-destructive? What is the answer to all this uncertainty? It is that we pray for God to come in power again, in and through us (which means making ourselves available to Him) to change the Church and challenge the world. Can we do that – daily?

33. A New Uncertainty – Ascension

‘Living with Uncertainty’ Meditations: 33. A New Uncertainty – Ascension

Acts 1:9   After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.

Whaaat?  I don’t know if it’s just my imagination but the ascension of Christ rarely seems to be preached today, but that is a shame because it says something vitally important. Is it because the thought of a human body going up into the sky to disappear in a low cloud seems to stretch modern credulity to breaking point? It shouldn’t any more than Christ’s resurrection or any miracle for that matter.

Historically Accepted: It is strange if we seem to be unhappy with proclaiming it because historically Creeds, Catechisms and Confessions all made a point of including it: The Apostles Creed – “who ascended into heaven”, the Nicene Creed – “he ascended into heaven”, the Athanasian Creed – “rose again from the dead, ascended into heaven”, the Heidelberg Catechism Q49 “Of what advantage to us is Christ’s ascension into heaven?”, the Westminster Shorter Catechism Q28: “Wherein consists Christ’s exaltation? A28: Christ’s exaltation consists in his rising again from the dead on the third day, in ascending up into heaven,” and even the wordy Westminster Confession of Faith, “which also he ascended into heaven “. There it is declared again and again.

But Scripture? Our key verse here must be out starter verse in Acts 1 but note how each Gospel writer concludes their Gospel.  Matthew, we noted previously, in his kingdom-focused Gospel concluded with the Great Commission and went no further. For him, that was the important point with which to finish. In Mark, the add-on we’ve seen before, included, “After the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, he was taken up into heaven and he sat at the right hand of God.” (Mk 16:19) Luke concludes his Gospel with, “When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God,” (Lk 24:50-53) and then picks it up in his continuation in Acts. John makes no mention of it, obviously feeling the others had covered it adequately and he didn’t need to confirm the points he was making about Jesus ministry time, that this aspect added to it.

In Acts, in his sermon on the day of Pentecost, the nearest Peter gets to it is, “Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear.” (Acts 2:33) In this and subsequent preaching his big emphasis is on the resurrection that vindicates the work of Christ. The apostle Paul speaks of how God, “raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms.” (Eph 1:20) but numerous times speaks of how Christ is seated at the Father’s right hand in heaven (e.g. Rom 8:34, Phil 2:9, Col 3:1)implying he has ascended there. But it is the writer to the Hebrews who spells it out most clearly: Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess.” (Heb 4:14) He also refers to Christ beside the Father – Heb 1:3, 8:1, 10:12, 12:2 – and Peter makes a similar declaration in his letter – 1 Pet 3:22. We’ll expand on this in a moment.

The Event:After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.  They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them.  “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:9-11)  From these verses observe the following: i) Jesus ascended bodily, ii) the angels declared that this would be the same way he will return – seen in the sky. But why did it happen like this? Forgive me if I take three paragraphs from a previous series, “Focus on Christ”:

Visible Ascension: Look at the language of the verses surrounding this event: “After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes , and a cloud hid him from their sight. They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. “Men of Galilee ,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky ? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.” (v.9-11) Five times there is reference to the fact that the disciples SAW Jesus leave. There is surely significance to this. It is as if Jesus wanted there to be a number of witnesses to his departure. He wanted them to be able to say, he has definitely gone – we saw him go!

Leaving the Earth: There is a second thought that follows on from this. It is the fact of him going up into the sky away from the earth. Now of course we would say that heaven is not “up there” but another dimension, but the fact of him “leaving the earth” says his time on the earth has come to an end and so don’t ever go looking for him. He’s not an eternal, ageless man who continually walks the earth. He has left and gone back to heaven. In other words, the period or time for his earthly ministry has finally come to an end. His activity on earth will continue, but now by his Spirit in his followers. His person now exists in heaven as many references in the New Testament testify to.

Ascended to the Father’s Right Hand:  We should also note that not only was the Ascension about leaving the earth, it was also about arriving back in heaven, where we are told a number of times Jesus sat down at his Father’s right hand. But first, let’s note that there are 13 mentions of this fact: Mk 16:19 / Acts 2:33 / Acts 5:31 / Acts 7:55 / Rom 8:34 / Eph 1:20 / Phil 2:9 / Col. 3:1 / Heb 1:3 / Heb 8:1 / Heb 10:12 / Heb 12:2 / 1 Pet 3:22   Note the things these verses say about Jesus in heaven. He:

– has a place of honour at the Father’s right hand

– he is there as Prince and Saviour

– he pleads for us there

– he’s been given a name above all others

– all angels and authorities bow before him

To Conclude: I would also add as a summary that he is there to oversee and administer the kingdom. One of my favourite set of verses that I believe clarifies the day in which we live is, “Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” (1 Cor 15:24-26) See it clearly: he IS reigning in heaven over the earth and will continue to reign until he has finished his present work that is to rid the earth of everything that was not there when the Father and he first created it, i.e. all forms of sin and its effects. I always link this with the prophetic Psa 110:1,2 – “The Lord says to my lord: “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.” The Lord will extend your mighty sceptre from Zion, saying,  “Rule in the midst of your enemies!”

When Jesus ascended it wasn’t just to terminate his earthly ministry, it was to return to heaven to sit beside his Father, and in a few earth weeks pour out his Holy Spirit, and then through Him administer the coming of the kingdom through his body, the Church, for as long as the Father decreed until the end. Without the ascension we have the great uncertainty – how did the story finish on earth, where did he go, what did he do? No, we have none of that uncertainty because we know he returned to heaven to continue his work from there, but in and through us. How amazing! Worship him and rejoice in your part in all this.

29. Amazing, Incredible, Unbelievable – Sunday

‘Living with Uncertainty’ Meditations: 29. Amazing, Incredible, Unbelievable! – Sunday

 Jn 20:1   Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance.

Uncertainty??????????: If you are not expecting something… no, if you know something is impossible, then if you were trying to measure the ‘uncertainty factor’, on this day you would be right off the scale! At the risk of sounding tedious, but ever making this point about trying to get into the shoes of the disciples from this point of history, put aside (and I know it’s impossible but imagine it) the fact that you have read Matt 28, Mk 16, Lk 24 and Jn 20 before. If you were one of the disciples, you DIDN’T know any of this. You are just shut in behind closed doors, grieving, fearful and no doubt full of guilt. And one further thing that you have learnt through life – dead men stay dead! You might have seen the Master raising the occasional person from the dead, but that was him. He’s now dead, hung on a cross for hours, struggling to breath as he hung there until his body collapses, and some Roman sticks a spear in his side to make sure he was dead. No question about this; these guys are professional executioners and their lives depend on it – he’s dead!

Expectancy Levels: Somebody said to me the other day that ‘hope’ is a great word, but hope went out the door before sunset on Friday. When Jesus was put in a tomb and a mega-stone rolled over the entrance, what is the point of even thinking about rolling it back and taking the body out? Friday night they were all too devastated to even think about it – and what would you do with a dead body anyway? The Jewish authorities hadn’t given it any thought then; it was only the next day that they thought about putting a guard on. (Mt 27:62-66)

At the end of Friday as sunset came Luke notes, “It was Preparation Day, and the Sabbath was about to begin,” (Lk 23:54) then adding in respect of the women who had wanted to bring spices, “they rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment.” (Lk 23:56)  No one has any expectations whatsoever now, of anything happening. But then early on Sunday morning there is a violent earthquake and the stone is rolled away (Mt 28:2), all this caused by an angel who scared the life out of the guards (Mt 28:2-4). The guards report all this to the authorities and are bribed to say the disciples stole the body (Mt 28:11-15). Confusion (and unbelief?) among the authorities. Uncertainty where Jesus’ body might now be.

Further Struggles to Believe: The two Mary’s who had gone to the tomb are spoken to by the angel and told that Jesus has risen (Mt 28:5-7). As they leave they meet Jesus (v.9,10). They dash back to the rest of the disciples and tell them, “But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense.” (Lk 24:11). Nevertheless Peter and John go and see for themselves that the body had gone. (Lk 24:12). Later in the day two disciples, on the way to Emmaus encounter Jesus, although they initially don’t realise who it is, and return hastily to Jerusalem to tell the others (Lk 24:13-35). While they are telling them, Jesus appears with them.

Their responses to him are instructive: “They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost,” (Lk 24:37) and when he seeks to reassure them, “they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement.” (v.41) Their expectancy level, again and again, despite having been told of his resurrection by the women and then later by the two disciples returned from Emmaus, is zero. Don’t be hard on them, you and I would have been the same. Dead men stay dead – even if they have prophesied this. Some things are just too hard to believe.

There is some more to come but that is for another day. This day has ended, Jesus is back but we don’t know where he went after he had met them all. Uncertainty! It keeps on and there is more to come. The fact that he is back doesn’t make everything great, there are still some questions to be answered, some serious conversations to be had, and we must be patient.

Certainty: But there one certainty that is impossible to deny – unless you are of the closed mind type – that Jesus has risen from the dead. If you’ve never come across it before, the book, “Who Moved the Stone,” by lawyer, Frank Morison, is worth a read, a very thorough and detailed assessment of all that happened with the ultimate-certainty conclusion, He is risen! One of the most compelling reasons to believe, I find, is the fact that these scared-for-their-lives disciples within a very short period are utterly fearless in their testimony that he had risen and of the remaining eleven (Judas having committed suicide), ten of them died martyrs deaths, John being the only one who died of old age, but even that after having been persecuted and sent for a time to the prison island of Patmos.

Bad Explanations: Various people over the years have sought to deny the possibility of Christ rising from the dead. One favourite was that the Jesus on the cross was a stand-in. Who would do that and would the disciples give their lives for a lie? Another favourite is that it was Jesus but he never actually died. Read again what happened to him, the awful beatings he received before being taken out, the awfulness of the crucifixion process, the spear in the side, the certainty of the Roman executioners that he was dead, being left in a cold tomb for hours, and then you expect us to belief this wreck of a body is able to walk about without causing consternation in those who met him, that he walked miles in the heat to Emmaus – and back at high speed – and again appeared fine to his followers; who are you kidding? A fourth favourite was that his body was stolen by the disciples. If you believe that you haven’t been listening to the last few days, taking in this utterly dispirited bunch of disloyal, denying failures, who struggle to believe it when they meet him. These men don’t have the ability to pull off such a thing – and then live and die in the face of what they know to be a lie.

All of these lame explanations actually fall at the first hurdle, and that being the required unbelief that says the whole story is a fairy-tale, and made up, and such wilful unbelief can only be put forward when the intellect is put to sleep and somehow you believe that all these writers, all these witnesses, and all the millions whose lives have been transformed by this piece of history, were utterly conned. Why should such large numbers give their very lives for such a belief if it were not true.

And So?  At the end of this day our response need to be that of believing-Thomas, “My Lord and my God!” (Jn 20:28) and if it takes a while, with him, to believe, that’s all right, we’ll see that next. Slow belief is better than no belief.  For those who want to be secure with God, carefully read the records prayerfully, come to your own conclusions – and worship. Anything less than worship and you haven’t seen the truth.  To conclude: “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) Such clarity, such certainty. And, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make your joy complete.” (1 Jn 1:-4) In a world of uncertainty, let this clarity, this certainty, dispel your uncertainties and rejoice in it, so that on this day we can be confident with all uncertainties swept away in this final, glorious truth: He IS risen, He us still with us! Hallelujah!