5. Getting a God Perspective

Studies in Isaiah 55: 5. Getting a God Perspective

Isa 55:8,9  “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,”  declares the Lord.  “As the heavens are higher than the earth,  so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

The Flow:  The word ‘For’ indicates a continuation or flow of thought from what has just been said. In the previous pair of verses we saw a challenge to “Seek the Lord”, and “call on him” with a specific following challenge: “Let the wicked forsake their ways and the unrighteous their thoughts.” Note specifically the word ‘thoughts’ which is now picked up in verse 8 above. It is as if the Lord is saying, come to me, search for me and learn to listen to me, especially you unrighteous people. You need to listen to me because your way of thinking is so different from mine that unless you realize this and change you’ll be in trouble! (implied) i.e. you need to get a new perspective.

The Bigger Perspective: First there is this double comparison / challenge:  “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” It’s not only thinking but ways of living that need to be reassessed. The truth is that, ever since the Fall, mankind has done its own thing, each individual determining how they will live and so their thinking is instinctively at odds with God’s thoughts.  In creating ‘Israel’ the Lord gave them ‘the Law’ as a guidance package of how to live as individuals and as a community. It recognized the fallenness of mankind in that, as well as laying down guidelines for good actions, it also showed ways of putting right wrong actions, how to deal with what we would call ‘crimes’, yet it did not stop those ‘crimes’ happening, people still continued to do wrong. Nevertheless, it was God’s way of revealing a right path through life. By the time of Jesus’ arriving, certain parts of the community (the Pharisees) had taken and formalized the Law in its outward appearance yet failed to keep its heart. Again and again, we as mankind, and specifically Israel as mankind under the microscope, failed to understand God’s heart, God’s thoughts, God’s ways.

The Modern Expression of this Failure: So Jesus came and died for us and the Holy Spirit was poured out on believers. The way of the new covenant was opened and yet we still very much remain fallen humanity, even if greatly improved through the work of Christ and of the Holy Spirit. Individually redemption is a learning and changing experience and even the great apostles revealed it – Peter struggled with being sent to the Gentiles (Acts 10) and Paul and Barnabas disagreed over John Mark (Acts 15) leaving an unpleasant taste in the mouth over their parting. But in the modern church there are signs that we are so often more concerned with rules, ritual and liturgy than we are with the life, love and power of God pouring through us to transform the world, with the result that unquestionably the Church loses ground in terms of community or national impact. We are often more concerned on how we ‘run’ church than we are in seeking God and letting His Spirit empower and lead us so that we become a community-changing force in our world.

The Call again: The Lord had declared it: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,”  and we have just been observing the outworking of that. But, as if to emphasis it in case we hadn’t taken it in, he adds, “As the heavens are higher than the earth,  so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”   It’s like God says through the prophet, look up at the skies. See that ‘up there’, as compared to ‘down here’.  That’s how much higher my thoughts and ideas and ways are higher than yours. My thoughts are divine and heavenly, yours are human and earthly. That is how different our ways of thinking are.

Outworking 1: Now there are several things that flow out of this that we should think about. First, the thing to recognize (and forgive me for stating the obvious) is that we don’t think like God. I keep find myself saying in respect of modern Western life, look at the fruits of modern thinking, the harmful things that are the outworkings of unfettered human behaviour seen in modern life.

Outworking 2: The second thing to note is that our thinking differently from God leads us to express our thoughts as deeds and those deeds are increasingly showing that these thoughts, ideas, attitudes, ways of living, don’t work. Observe characteristics of modern godless western society. In politics alienation, hostility, fake news, lie telling and demonising of the opposition have become norms on both sides of the Atlantic.  In our economies we are still suffering from the financial collapse of 2008 that came about from unfettered greed. Many voices are being raised that we are ripe for a further collapse. In our communities crime continues to rise, drug taking continues to be a major problem that is mostly swept under the carpet. On our streets violence, theft and wanton destruction are not uncommon (I heard only yesterday that in a street not a quarter of a mile away, ‘someone’ went down the entire street at night and slashed the tyres on every single car). Family life suffers constant breakdown, divorces prevail where there are marriages, separation where there is cohabitation, and children suffer, become angry and slash tyres!   And so we could go on and on and on. At long last there are voices being raised from the very top of the medical profession that say such things as, pornography is harmful for individuals, families and communities, divorces are harmful for individual, families and communities, and so on.

Outworking 3: We need to listen to God. That is what this is all about. It is God saying, ”Listen to me!” We will only do that when we come to our senses and realise that the descriptions of the barren woman and the thrashed city of chapter 54 are descriptions of us today, that we are left spiritually hungry and thirsty, and we’re putting a wrong focus on what is meaningful. So, when He reaches out a hand offering a fresh start as we seek Him afresh, we need to grab it.

Outworking 4: There is another aspect to be considered here. The danger that we have in this part of history is that we have greater technology, greater medical facilities, more food, more provision than any previous generation in history, and this leads us to self-deception. The knowledge and information on our mobile phones gives us a sense of being in charge in a way never known before – and there’s more to come. This breeds a false optimism that covers over all of those other failures I mentioned in Outworking 2 above. We can cope with them as the cost of this brave new world. No we can’t; they will undermine our societies they will breed contempt for truth that leads the way for abuse of all this technology. Distraction ad deception are things that say, “Oh, this is all scare mongering. We don’t need to listen to God, to seek Him out.” We do. This is a call to wake up. It started in chapter 54 and continues in chapter 55. Let’s heed it for today.

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58. The Ways of the Kingdom

Focus on Christ Meditations: 58.  The Ways of the Kingdom

Ex 33:13   If you are pleased with me, teach me your ways so I may know you and continue to find favor with you.

I think Christians are often confused about the way the Lord actually works into the world – our world – today and therefore, as part of these studies, we need to look at what we might call the practicalities of these things, the way Jesus rules from heaven or, as I put it in an earlier study, the balance of the glory and the grace.

It is important that we face realistically the way life is as a Christian whose Lord is expressing the rule of God on the earth. In our verse above Moses asked the Lord to teach him the way He worked, and we need to do the same. What I simply intend to do is cover various aspects of life as we experience it, particularly as it is not always easy, to realistically face how the Lord works into these lives with both glory and grace.

  1. Death: Starting with the ultimate concern of so many, what do we observe? Sometimes Jesus, as he rules from heaven, saves people from death – Peter (Acts 12:5-11). At other times he clearly allows death – Stephen (Acts 7:60), James (Acts 12:2) to come. At the end of the day, we may pray for someone’s life to be preserved and when we do we MUST simply trust, when the end outcome is obvious (they die or are preserved), that he knows what is best for this situation and remain at peace in him. I have watched, over the years, and know people who were at death’s door but who are still alive, and also know of cases where the church has prayed with apparently great faith and yet the person died. There are no easy answers except, ‘He knows best’ and we must trust his decision.
  2. Health: When it comes to praying against illness, sickness etc., as I have struggled with this over the years (often in a very personal way that would be too long to explain here), my end conclusions are that I absolutely believe that Jesus heals today, even as he did in the Gospels, but I also absolutely believe he also uses the National Health Service that we have in the UK. I have been the recipient of both more than once. One also has to recognise, and I think this should be seen as only in more rare cases, that it is his will for no healing to come. This was clearly true for Paul (2 Cor 12:7-10).
  3. Strength: Now sometimes it is clear that the Lord provides great strength and stamina which may involve more than mere physical strength. We see it in the boldness of the early apostles. Having said that there are also times when he allows us to have a great sense of weakness so that we will rely upon him even more. The apostle Paul testified to this, in the things he experienced and in his ‘thorn in the flesh’.
  4. Under Attack: Because we are part of a spiritual war (see Eph 6) there are times when we are aware of enemy activity. Now as I have watched this over the years, I know there are times when the grace of the Lord comes to enable us to resist and so the Lord sometimes gives a word of authority for us to speak which brings an end to the current opposition. However, there do seem to be other times when he simply says turn other cheek and his grace will enable us to cope with what is going on.
  5. Testing: There are times where sometimes life is easy – no problem! However there are also times where circumstances get difficult – times of testing – and these are times of learning, learning how to receive the grace of God in whatever form it is needed.
  6. Satan: We have already referred to spiritual warfare and so there are times when we triumph and he has to flee (Jas 4:7) but there are also other times when it seems he is allowed to hinder our activities (e.g. 1 Thess 2:18) and at those times we just need to get the Lord’s grace to handle it.
  7. Faith: It would be nice to believe that ‘faith’ comes as a fixed portion of God’s grace but it isn’t like that. Sometimes we are full of faith and sometimes we lack faith, and that can be observed in the disciples in the Gospels.  Faith is about starting to be God-aware and we can have ‘little faith’ or we can allow faith to grow and develop.

Addendum – Satan: Now there is another big area of understanding we need to get hold of as we look out and ponder on the workings of the Christian life and the way Jesus works as he rules from heaven, and it is to do with Satan. Here is what sometimes shocks Christians: God USES Satan. Scriptures seem to indicate that he uses him to reveal men’s hearts  (1 Chron 21:1), to bring judgement on unbelievers  (Rev 9:11), to bring discipline to believers  (1 Cor 5:5), to subjugate unbelievers  (1 Jn 5:19b), to maintain humility in our lives  (2 Cor 12:7), to develop faith & righteousness in our lives  (1 Pet 1:7), to bring about trials whereby we can be rewarded  (Jas 1:12), to teach us how to fight  (Jud 3:2) and to demonstrate God’s power over the enemy  (Eph 3:10).

Having said all that, we need always to remember that God IS working in ALL things for our good (Rom 8:28). But what is the ‘good’? We also need to learn that he may be teaching us to persevere (1 Pet 1:6), to pray (Mt 6:5-13), to take authority (Mt 16:19, 18:18), to mature (Eph 4:12,13) and to remain faithful (Lk 18:8). Faithful in this context means a) in attitudes, not becoming angry or cynical in test situations, or b)  remaining pure in face of temptation and rest of world and c)  remaining loving when others get hostile.

This has been a fairly information-packed study and if you are unsure about it, then may the above act as a learning resource to be slowly worked through in more depth. To complete this section, looking at Jesus’ work from heaven, we would be remiss if we ignored what the book of Revelation tells us, and so we will look there in the next study.

4. Exodus (2)

Meditations of Old Testament Highlights: 4.  Exodus (2)

Ex 33:13,18  If you are pleased with me, teach me your ways so I may know you and continue to find favor with you. Remember that this nation is your people…. Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.”

In these two verses there are two requests, one fairly obvious and the other quite mysterious, but both of them stand out as revealing the depth of the relationship that had formed between the Lord and Moses. Perhaps we need to observe what had been going on to catch the reasoning behind these two requests.

Moses, we saw in the last meditation, had encountered the Lord at the burning bush on what was in fact Mount Sinai, while looking after his sheep (which he had been doing for forty years there in the wilderness of Midian and into the Sinai Peninsular). There he had received his calling to lead Israel out of Egypt. This had all happened and as they left Egypt, the Lord had provided a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night to guide them. He had guided them across the south of the Sinai Peninsular to Mount Sinai where He had revealed His presence in the cloud on the mountain and entered into covenant with Israel, giving them the Ten Commandments and other laws by which to guide their community life. The promise was still there that He would yet lead them into the Promised Land, Canaan.

While at the mountain Moses, Aaron, Aaron’s sons, and seventy elders had been called up the mountain to meet with the Lord and we read, amazingly, Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel went up and saw the God of Israel. Under his feet was something like a pavement made of sapphire, clear as the sky itself. But God did not raise his hand against these leaders of the Israelites; they saw God, and they ate and drank.” (Ex 24:9-11) You may think that that was so amazing, it should be the focus of our meditation, but I simply mention it because it is just another of the many encounters with the Lord that Israel had. Moses gets called up on the mountain alone again and while he is there Israel become restive and the awful events involving a golden calf occur (Ex 32) which results in Moses having to intercede for the people. Nevertheless, those involved are put to death and the Lord sends plague on the people, perhaps killing off the guilty ones who had been missed in the executions.

Now following all this, and it is all very significant in respect of our two verses, the Lord tells Moses to lead the people to Canaan (Ex 33:1) but He would not come with them lest He destroyed them – implied, for their sinfulness – and it is in the light of this that Moses makes the first of his two requests, “teach me your ways so I may know you and continue to find favor with you.” (33:13) i.e. if I am to lead this people by myself, I want to know that I am doing it in the way you will approve. I need to know ‘your ways’, the ways you think and work. If I am to be your servant and get this right, I need to know what you would do in each circumstance.

Now this puts me in mind of the bracelets that were fashionable a while back with WWJD on them – “What would Jesus DO?”  They would be a reminder of the way Jesus worked, and I believe there was even a book that followed this idea through. It is an idea which appears to have merit. We know something of Jesus’ character in the Gospels and so we can imagine how Jesus might act – full of love and goodness – in the circumstances we find ourselves in. The only problem with that, is that it virtually recreates the Law and is godless! I mean we can live without reference to the Lord.

Look at the answer the Lord gave Moses to his first request: “The LORD replied, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” (v.14) Note the Lord doesn’t give Moses instruction as to His ways; He simply says My presence will be with you.  Now this is monumental! Moses catches something of this: “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?” (v.15,16) i.e. I recognize that your presence with us is what will make us different from any other people, because you will be God and do what you do, and I can rely on that. It is as if Moses’ pleading has brought a change of mind between verses 3 and 14. The Lord will go with them; how else will they be a holy people?

Now what is the parallel today? It surely must be the fact of the indwelling Holy Spirit in each of us. His presence goes with us. Do we have a set of rules to guide us? Well yes, we have the teaching of the whole of the New Testament, but when it comes to specific, individual situations where the way is not clear, we need Him to inspire us, guide us and teach us, and He is there within us to do that. That is how significant His present-day presence is.

But Moses isn’t content with a sense of a far-off presence of the Lord, he needed something more. Yes, he’s been through the exodus, he’s led the people to Sinai, he’s had amazing encounter after amazing encounter with the Lord there, and even apparently ‘seen’ the Lord (Ex 24:10) but presumably that was a vision, for they had all lived and as wonderful as that had been, Moses needs reassuring. I want to see you! Really see you!

Essentially in what follows the Lord says, “I’ll let you see a tiny part of me, but not full on.” The impression of Scripture is that if you see the ‘face’ of God it is so full of light, splendour and power (all of that is His glory) that you could not cope with it but would die on the spot. What is amazing is that Moses had the temerity to ask this. What is more incredible is the Lord’s gentle dealing with him. He does not scold him or tell him off. It is almost as if He is pleased with Moses asking this, even though He knows he cannot grant it if Moses is to live.

What am I left with here? My call is to ‘follow’ Jesus, that means go as his Spirit calls me and guides me and directs me, and if along the way I ask presumptuous things, he will put up with me and just take me on. He delights in me stretching out in faith, even if sometimes it verges on presumption. When you have little children, you don’t expect them to always get it right, do you? You understand their enthusiasm, even when it is misjudged. You know they will grow up and mature, and that is how it is with us and the Lord. Hallelujah!

9. Maths of the Kingdom

Meditating on the Gems of the Bible:  9. Maths of the Kingdom

Matt 13:10-12   The disciples came to him and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?” He replied, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.

There were times when Jesus appeared to speak in riddles, we might say today, and in our verses above is one of those: “Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.” Now this is one of those times when context is very important (it usually is!).  Jesus has just referred to “the secrets of the kingdom”. In other words he is speaking about how the way His Father’s kingdom works.

If we were talking about material possession it would sound quite unfair: whoever has a lot will be given more and whoever is poor will have the little he has taken away. Yes, in material terms that sounds quite unjust. And surely the Bible shows that God is concerned for the poor!  But if this is about the principles of how God works then it is more likely to be about spiritual principles than about material ones.

So what is the ‘has’ and ‘more’ and ‘abundance’ that is being referred to? Look at the text: “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. Whoever has will be given more.”   It is the knowledge of how things work in the kingdom. As you come to God, and His Holy Spirit starts teaching you about the new way to live as a Christian, you first of all start learning basics: you can now pray,  worship, read your Bible; those are what are sometimes called spiritual disciplines. But then we learn that this new life means no to bad attitudes, words and behaviour and yes to good, Jesus-like behaviour. Christians are good and loving people as they are being remade in the image of Jesus.

Then we start finding that God has equipped us by the presence of His Holy Spirit and has given us gifts and abilities to be used to bless us and bless His world. Some we may call natural talents and so a person may be a good dancer, or artist, or homemaker, or a hundred and one other things that help them enjoy living in this world and making it a better place. But then we find out about spiritual gifts and we realise that as God leads us we can do the things Jesus did, bringing revelation and power into His world as he enables us.

But in a sense, this is merely the start. As we grow in Christ, we grow in our understanding of how God works. Moses asked, “Teach me your ways,” (Ex 33:13) meaning teach me the ways you work so I can know and understand you more fully, obey you and please you.  What he actually said was, “If you are pleased with me, teach me your ways so I may know you and continue to find favor with you.” He wanted to know God and please Him. That was Moses heart and it is the heart of the seeker.

And that brings us back to our starting verses. Again and again in Scripture there is this clarification that it is seekers who will find and know God.  Moses’ call to Israel was to “Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” (Deut 6:4) That was a basic. But before that he had warned about Israel going astray and the path back was quite clear: “if from there you seek the LORD your God, you will find him if you look for him with all your heart and with all your soul.” (Deut 4:29) Note in each case it is a whole-hearted seeking after God. The person who is wishy-washy in their intent towards God is not going to find.

Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount taught about right priorities: “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Mt 6:33) The “these things” in this verse are material things and so Jesus is saying make spiritual issues priorities and God will sort out your material issues for you. Jesus also taught, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you,” (Mt 7:7) but the tense in each case there means, for the present context, “seek and go on seeking and you will find.”

It’s a little bit like the meaning behind James’ teaching: “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does.” (Jas 1:5-8) If you ask for wisdom believe that God WILL give it to you. The faint hearted half-believer won’t get it because they won’t believe it when it comes!

So returning to our original verses,  “Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance,” it is the whole hearted seeker who will have insights and understanding of the ways God works and what God wants, and the more he has the more he will see and want to see more. Seeing and understanding is satisfying and makes you want more. Thus the seeker isn’t a seeker just for a moment but for a lifetime.

But then we have the other person: “Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.”  This is the half-hearted person who is really little concerned for the kingdom, little concerned for what God wants and, although at the beginning of their spiritual life the Holy Spirit does a work in them, their response is still half-hearted and, failing to have a whole-hearted seeking approach, they shrivel spiritually or stay in a state of suspended spiritual animation, losing any real signs of life.

Jesus taught this in the parable of the Sower that precedes this teaching and is explained after this teaching: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants.” (Mt 13:3-7) and then, “The one who received the seed that fell on rocky places is the man who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since he has no root, he lasts only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, he quickly falls away. The one who received the seed that fell among the thorns is the man who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke it, making it unfruitful.” (Mt 13:20-22)

The message is clear: different heart conditions produce different results. The final one is “the one who received the seed that fell on good soil is the man who hears the word and understands it. He produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.” (Mt 13:23) Good ground is a good heart. A good heart is a seeking heart. A seeking heart gets more and more from God. What a gem of truth!