Series Theme: Gems of the Bible
Meditating on the Gems of the Bible: 1. Delighting in God
Psa 37:4 Delight yourself in the LORD and he will give you the desires of your heart.
I have to make a confession as I start this particular series of meditations: I am doing them for particularly selfish reasons. The primary reason is that I feel I need to do a series that will feed my spirit as I do them. Now that may surprise you because you may expect that every meditation should do that, but the truth is that certain areas of the Scriptures do that more than others. I have recently been working (and that's a telling word!) on a series about the judgments of God and as good as that has been, focussing on negatives all the time can get a bit heavy after a while, and so I find I have come to a point where I feel I need something lighter, something to feed by spirit in a different way. Associated with that reason I am aware that I need to be reading, thinking and writing about things that lift my spirit in worship. Bible study or meditation that leaves us simply academically appreciating the word, falls short. The word should leave us worshipping.
I should also explain that I have no plan in mind, no list of Scriptures that I know will bless me when I think more deeply on them. I am simply asking the Lord to put before me verses that will do that. I want the truth to set me free afresh, to release my spirit afresh in worship of the One who is my Lord and Saviour. I want more out of my daily reflections than mere intellectual enjoyment; I want my spirit to soar and sing with God. I have called this ‘Meditating on Gems of the Bible' because Gems or gemstones stand out and catch our attention and they bear examining, looking at, pouring over and wondering at. That is what I hope these studies will do.
So why this verse to start with? Simply because I prayed and it was the one that came to mind. It's one I know from the past and it just came with no more intellectual reasoning; it just came. But then as I have starting writing already, I realise that I have already been writing about this verse about ‘delighting' in the Lord.
What does delighting mean? To delight in something surely means to take pleasure in, get joy from, and isn't this exactly what this is all about. I hadn't got around to putting it in those terms but that was what I was saying. I want to turn to the Lord, reflect or meditate on Him and get pleasure from Him and receive joy from Him? Why? Because He does that! Doesn't that sound a little self absorbing? Well only in as far as you know the Lord does various things that are good to receive and I'm saying, “More please, Lord.” Is it wrong to ask for more love, joy, peace, patience etc. (the fruit of the Spirit – Gal 5:22,23)? Surely not. But perhaps our motivation for asking might be queried. Well in that they are things the Holy Spirit wants to bring in us, surely that is sufficient reason. To want love, joy, peace etc. without God would be a godless and self-centred desire certainly but if we are pointing towards the Bible and taking that as our resource, surely that is unlikely. He is the source of all those things.
In fact the more I think about Him, the more I turn to Him to seek a sense of His presence, the more I realise how wonderful He is. Yesterday we had two parts of our three parts family (one part – son, his wife and two of our grandchildren live abroad) round for a celebration tea, celebrating an impending birthday. One part of the family turned up – daughter, son-in-law and two children and we had a delightful time with them for about an hour before the others arrived (they had been delayed by legitimate circumstances – son, daughter-in-law and three grandchildren). Then we all had a couple of hours together before the first family had to leave and then we had another hour with the second family. As the Patriarch of this particular family I sat in the background watching the wonder of all that was going on and occasionally contributing, but mostly watching and wondering. What had we done to produce this kaleidoscope of lives? Earlier in the day I had heard someone in tears sharing about one of his sons away from the Lord. Our three and their partners are all going for God and I sat there nearly in tears of appreciation. Why had the Lord done this – for this family is of His making. As I look back over the years there are too many things I can see that confirm that truth. It wasn't by any great thing we have done. These beautiful but different family groups reveal the goodness of the Lord and I delighted in the wonder of it and of Him and all He has done to bring it about.
I am mindful of those beautiful prophetic words in Proverbs that has wisdom personified (Jesus) speaking of his work alongside the Father in Creation, “ Then I was the craftsman at his side. I was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in his presence, rejoicing in his whole world and delighting in mankind.” (Prov 8:30,31) The Son delighted in working with the Father and as Creation progressed, brought into being and delighted in mankind. So the first great act of pleasure that we find in the Bible, therefore, is the very act of Creation by the godhead (remember the Holy Spirit hovered over the waters - Gen 1:2) As they delighted in us (for surely what one of them felt, they all felt) so we now delight in them. Because the Godhead have revealed themselves to us, we can now delight in them, we can take pleasure in them, in who they are and what they do.
When David wrote in Psalm 37, “Delight yourself in the I AM (the LORD)”, he knew nothing of the coming Son and possibly little of the wonderful work of the Holy Spirit (although He is there in the books that were prior to David's time). He knew of the work of the Lord in Creation, in His dealings with the Patriarchs, with Moses and the Exodus and through Samuel, and in these things he was able to say, in a sense, there is plenty for you to delight in when it comes to the Lord. For us three thousand years on, there is so, so much more. We have the other three quarters of the Bible revealing the wonder of Him who has saved us.
If we have known the Lord any length of time we can not only ponder these things but we can reflect on our testimony and see His hand that has been on us, and we can marvel and wonder and feel great pleasure and we can bow and worship as we delight in Him.
Meditating on the Gems of the Bible: 2. Delighting in God (2)
Psa 37:4 Delight yourself in the LORD and he will give you the desires of your heart.
Whenever writing a meditation I have always sought to be real and for this reason I (unusually) let a day go by without writing because as I reflected at other times in the day on this verse it worried me and I am not sure how real it is to say that I (or you) actually ‘delight' in the Lord. Do we really take pleasure in Him? It is for this reason that I continue with the same verse (aware also that I haven't touched the second half of it either).
In the Law it was quite simple: “Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” (Deut 6:5) It was a command, an instruction to love God. Somewhat formal perhaps. When we come to the Psalms, there is a more emotional feel: “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God.” (Psa 42:1). That speaks of a deep yearning in the psalmist to know and encounter God. Then that same psalmist speaks again: “Send forth your light and your truth, let them guide me; let them bring me to your holy mountain, to the place where you dwell. Then will I go to the altar of God, to God, my joy and my delight.” (Psa 43:3,4) He speaks about being drawn to the place of God's dwelling, to the place where he will encounter “God, my joy and my delight.”
There it is again, this idea of God being our delight. It is a word that seems to shout strong emotion about God who has so touched him that he is thrilled by God's wonderful presence. He is able to say that he enjoys the Lord. Yes, that is the amazing aspect of this whole thought about delighting in God, it speaks of enjoying God and that is not a concept or idea that we normally think about when we think of the Holy One of Israel, the God who lays down laws and requires His people to obey them, and holds them accountable when they fail.
Yet here it is, this thought that the psalmist in Psa 37 brings to us, that we can (and should) delight in God, take great joy and pleasure in Him. This surely must be one of the most challenging verses in the Bible for it calls us into an intimacy with God that many of us would doubt is possible, a relationship whereby His presence (not just His name) brings us great joy and pleasure. Is this something we really attain to? I ask the question in fear and trepidation of being presumptuous.
And yet, yes, there are times when He has spoken His word and I have been thrilled with it and with Him. Yes, there have been times when He has drawn particularly close and I have known the warmth of His love. It's not like it all the time, but there have been those times and I am sure there will be those times again. I can't delight in an abstract figure the God of pure information that is understood by the intellect, but I can delight in the very real person.
Some of us (many of us?) may delight in learning about Him and we delight in what we know about Him, but this challenges us to go beyond the intellect, this challenges us to focus all that we are on all that He is – when He reveals Himself. Everything about Him must come by revelation, it must be because He shares it with us. But then we respond to the calling. He speaks, it seems, so quietly that we probably don't even realise that it is Him, but we pause up like Moses before the burning bush and we start thinking and maybe even start searching from within our spirit. And so He shares some more of Himself and we respond again but with the revelation of Himself comes the revelation of what we are like, and we don't like that. But we have heard His call and so we surrender our lives as we have heard of His wonderful love through Jesus. And now we have His own Holy Spirit within us and from time to time we catch a special sense of His leading or His teaching or His simple revelation of the presence of the Godhead – and we marvel.
Sin within us shouts that this cannot be possible and as the revelation grows, that He can't love us like that, but He keeps on speaking and gradually our hearts are won over to the truth and we understand He loves us exactly like we are but, even more, He loves us so much that He wants something better for us. Gradually – so slowly – that becomes a reality and our inner being is transformed to believe, it is true, He loves me, He is for me, He accepts me just as I am and loves me just like this, and love melts hearts and my heart is melted and I realise that I have feelings for Him that can only be described as pleasure and joy.
Along the way I find I can call Him daddy because He is a loving father to me, and even more my heart is melted. But it is all a matter of revelation. It is also a matter of transformation and it is me who is being transformed. On a good day - and not every day is like that because we are still people in a fallen world struggling to put sin to death, to challenge self, and to resist the enemy – but on a good day I hear His voice, I catch glimmers of His heart and I am left wondering and marveling and I thrill over Him.
In this transformation process I realise I am thinking differently. I want the things He wants. I hate the things He hates, I desire the things He desires. I find my desires are different from what they were before I met Him. He has changed them. He has given me new desires and as I walk the path with Him I find He leads me in new paths and find it is enjoyable because I am doing new things, thinking new thoughts, speaking new words, and all these things, I realise, are a way of receiving those desires that have been formed in me. As I have come to a place by His leading where I can delight in Him, I find he puts new desires in my heart and then brings those things into being. How amazing.
Meditating on the Gems of the Bible: 3. Shining more brightly
Prov 4:18 The path of the righteous is like the first gleam of dawn, shining ever brighter till the full light of day.
2 Cor 3:18 we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit
Why these verses? Because they won't go away when I pray. So, let's see what the Lord might want to say to us through them. The Proverbs verse speaks about the righteous and the 2 Corinthians verse speaks to Christians who are God's righteous ones. Both of them speak about changing lives but the second one gives the reason for the change – the Holy Spirit.
The first thought that hit me when I got these two verses is that they are more about the Lord than they are about us. We know that we cannot change for the good left to ourselves and so any changes for good in our lives has to be the Lord. I know that when I came to the Lord I left behind a life of self-centred godlessness which was marred by failure. The transformation that took place when I came to Christ happened because He put His Holy Spirit within me and He was now my guiding, directing, teaching power. If I shone brighter now it was because of His Holy Spirit.
Of course Prov 4:18 says it is “the path of the righteous” that is shining ever brighter and I suddenly realise that Jesus said “I am the way” (Jn 14:6) and another word for ‘way' is path. He is my life, his Spirit lives in me and therefore he is the one who grows brighter with the passing of each day – in and through me. Indeed, as I respond to him and allow his Spirit to lead, guide and change me, my life generally will be brighter, expressing him – but it is him. When the apostle Paul spoke of Jesus' glory he said, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” (2 Cor 4:7) Our bodies are like jars of clay but they contain the glory of God and it is the glory that shines, not the clay.
Now if we accept these foundational thoughts – that these verses apply to us Christians and that the source of the brightness is Jesus and his Holy Spirit – there is something very basic that must flow out of this and it is so simple that it is something we take for granted, and that is that God purposes for us to change for the better. Now I've just said that this is so basic that we probably take it for granted, and if we do I suggest that familiarity had bred contempt and so we don't actually believe it for our lives. Note again what we are saying: God purposes good changes for us and in us. He loves us so much that He wants something better for us that what we are today.
Seriously, check that out. Are you completely happy with all that you are today? Are there aspects of who you are that you are not happy about? I don't mean things like you feel you have big ears or you don't like the colour of your hair. No, I'm referring to things like anger or lack of patience, or constant worries or jealousy, say. There could be a whole raft of issues we could choose from. Are there bits of the New Testament, say, that you skim over because they are uncomfortable? You know deep down that there are things where you don't match to Jesus' expectations of you in his word.
Now we have to make a simple clarification. We don't mean things that very rarely you stumble over. We are all of us still imperfect this side of heaven and so there may be times when you are physically low and that in turn seems to sap your grace and you are not as patient, say, as you normally are. No, these are one-off rare failures; what I am talking about is a regular behaviour. You find you snap at people too often, you find you are impatient with others, you find you are constantly worrying about what might happen next week or how you might handle tomorrow. These are the sort of things which, when we feel safe and secure we can confess to being unhappy about in our lives.
Now here's the thing: God is more concerned to help you move on from these failure repetitions than He is to punish you. He understands you and loves you and sees the ultimate cause why you are like you are (so often it is poor self-image, not realizing who we are in Christ) and why you seem to be unable to break out (so often it is because we just haven't realised our position of freedom in Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit in us). He understands these things and understands that there is coming a time where you are going to be just ripe to receive His word and, hey presto!, it will be dealt with and you will be changed. Suddenly you will be shining brighter!
This is it. The good news is that he is on our side and He is working to help us change so that we will indeed be changing from one degree of glory to another. Why? Because He loves us and He knows we will enjoy life more, enjoy being ourselves more, when these things have been dealt with and we change. But it's not a big heavy thing; it's just part of the wonderful process that started the moment we came to Him and were born again.
One final thing. Very often the changes are slow and almost indiscernible and therefore we will not realise that this process IS being worked out in us. Don't worry about it; just thank the Lord that these two verses DO apply to you and it is happening, because you want it to deep down, and He wants it for you because He loves you so much. Rejoice in it!
Meditating on the Gems of the Bible: 4. Witnesses of God
1 John 1:1-3 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.
I suppose ‘Gems' might refer to verses that stand out in the Bible and the ones above certainly do that. We can perhaps take for granted the most obvious thing that the Bible conveys and that is that God has revealed Himself to mankind. It is not that different human beings have gone looking for God and have found Him, but that God has made Himself known to us. Initially it was through the nation of Israel and the record of its dealings with Him in a period up to about two thousand years ago. Then it was through His Son, Jesus Christ, and the record of him, in the four Gospels of the New Testament. Finally it was through the Church, some of its representatives and their writings, and the working of His own Holy Spirit in the lives of individual Christians and the Church at large over the last two thousand years. There has been non-stop testimony if you go looking for it.
But this testimony of the apostle John, written down somewhere in the latter half of the first century AD, has got to be one of the most amazing testimonies ever written down. Admittedly it is couched in language that comes from a Hebrew and Greek perspective – “the Word of life” – but it is so similar to the language of his Gospel that his intent is unmistakable.
In his Gospel he had started out with the same sort of language: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.” (Jn 1:1,2) Eventually he explained, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (Jn 1:14) and as he unravels the parcel before us, there is no mistake about the fact that he was speaking about Jesus Christ, the unique Son of God.
For John there was no doubting as he used the Greek concept of ‘the Word' or ‘the reason' or ‘the purpose behind all things' to describe Jesus who was not only “with God” but “was God”. Jesus was God in the flesh. Of that there was absolutely no doubt in John's mind and his Gospel, written decades after the other three, reveals that on every page.
So then we come back to this incredible testimony in his first letter. If we insert the name of Jesus into it, it becomes even more powerful: “ 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 Jesus Christ. He appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you that Jesus Christ was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard.
In his Gospel, he picks up things that the other earlier writers had not noticed. They had been so taken up with getting down the bare bones of the story, the basic things that had happened, that they had not dwelt on specific things Jesus had said, as John had in his years of ministry after those three incredible years with Jesus in the flesh. As he got older, John clearly looked back and pondered the things he had seen and heard in those three incredible years and he realised that Jesus had been giving them indicator after indicator about himself and the others had not bothered with those details.
Thus in John we find, in the dialogue in chapter 6, repeated references to him being the bread that had come down from heaven. When Jesus prays in John 17, John remembers Jesus praying, “And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began.” (v.5) There is no question in John's mind that Jesus was telling them indirectly (praying out loud before his disciples) that he had always existed there in heaven with the Father.
John is full of this revelation: this Jesus is and was God and what is more we are so sure of this because we were there and we saw and heard him and we actually touched him, rubbed shoulders with him in daily life, that we know beyond a shadow of doubt that he was a human being but a human being who was God in the flesh. We were there, we KNOW!
What gems these verses are, just sitting there waiting for anyone with an open heart, who is not so perverted by jaded cynicism, so that they can see the wonder of them. How wonderful!
Meditating on the Gems of the Bible: 5. God's Long-Term Plan
1 Pet 1:18-20 you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake.
Every now and then as I am reading the Bible a word or phrase stops me in my tracks. Reading the other day, in the verses above, it was that phrase, “chosen before the foundation of the world.” I marvel every time I come across this idea, that God's plan of salvation was not something dreamt up along the way when mankind seemed to be going off track, but was something He worked out BEFORE He made anything. But it is not just one odd verse, it comes up again and again:
Jn 17:24 you loved me before the creation of the world - Jesus with Father in loving relationship.
Eph 1:4 For he chose us in him before the creation of the world - agreed how we would come, who would come
Rev 17:8 The inhabitants of the earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the creation of the world - saw who would not come
Rev 13:8 the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world - agreed Jesus would die
2 Tim 1:9 This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time - agreed God's grace would be given us
Tit 1:2 eternal life, which God, who does not lie, promised before the beginning of time - agreed he would give us eternal life
There it is; including our verse above, seven times in the New Testament, references to the fact that the Godhead planned this before anything about Creation happened. But the more you think about this the more amazing it becomes. God planned for Jesus to come as a sacrifice. This means that God knew that we would fall and that sin would enter the world. And still He went ahead and created this world as we know it. He made us in His image and yet He knew from the outset that we would turn our backs on Him.
Now in a previous series of these meditations I have pondered on the will of God and one thing we do know about it is that it is perfect. In other words you cannot improve upon it. So although God did not invent sin, He knew that it would soon exist in any human being He made with free will. Sin is simply self-centred godlessness, and He knew that if He gave us free will, we would be free to turn away from Him, become self-centred and godless and therefore our thinking, speech, and behaviour would become unrighteous (deviating from Gods perfect design for us).
Now there is something else about the Lord that appears in Scripture: He appears to know everything before it happens and yet He also seems to live in the present. He knows long term history before it happens yet when sin starts to abound on the earth He is grieved. Perhaps an answer to this quandary comes from the thinking of C.S.Lewis who imagined history as a line like a road down below with God looking down on it from about, outside of time. Thus from above He can see the whole scope of material time-space history and knows everything that is coming and everything that has been. But the truth is that He is God and the Bible shows us Him interacting with His world and so He is not only above it looking down on it but He is also ‘down here' being part of it, and in that sense He experiences it ‘as it happens'.
Thus (because He is God) He both knows it all AND experiences it in a moment by moment experience. Thus one part of ‘Him' knew that the Cross of Calvary would have to happen at a given point of history but the other part of Him (that lives in the here and now) experiences it as the here and now. Thus for Jesus the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, he came down from heaven (see John's Gospel, chapter 6) and knew in his mind what would have to come when he reached the age of (about) thirty or thirty three, but the actual experience of it was a real to him as it would have been to you or me.
Was the crowning work of salvation the fact that God comes and dwells in all believers, and is able to do that because of the work of the Cross, and thus is able to share intimately with us as we experience the day by day living out of the time-space experience? Perhaps that was stage one, stage two being us going to be with Him in eternity (heaven) and be one with Him there.
Yet the marvel of all of this is that the Lord didn't merely plan it as an academic exercise before He uttered a creative word, but planned a material history in which He would come and express Himself and live out and share in the experiences of each of us. That is what love does; it wants to become united with the object of love. It an only be that love that energises the Godhead to share in and experience our lives which are always (even after conversion) so far short of perfection. But He is here, sharing with us in our trials and tribulations and our struggles and strivings to help and bless us, for that is what love does. How incredible! Hallelujah!
Meditating on the Gems of the Bible: 6. Pondering on God's Love
Psa 48:9 Within your temple, O God, we meditate on your unfailing love .
I have spent quite a lot of the recent years pondering on God's love and so perhaps I should not be surprised at finding myself anchored by the above verse. I am going to overcome the temptation to simply repeat again my many writings of the last few years about the meaning of love and key places it is found in the Bible. Suffice it to say I am convinced that “God is love” and all else follows. The other day I wondered how one might summarise the whole Bible in a single tweet with its limited number of characters. I came up with one offering: “God has come to us to give us better lives than we have at present,” and I realise that behind that over-brief summary of the Gospel is the love of God. The reason He has come down to earth in human form is because He loves us. The reason Jesus died on the Cross is that His love knew this was the only way to deal with our guilt problem and that had to be dealt with first if He was going to be able to come to us and lead us into new and better lives, which His love wanted for us.
But the psalmist found that when he went into the Temple and was confronted with the Lord's presence or, at the very least, reminders of God, he found himself thinking back to all he knew of the Lord, and that all came through Israel's history which had been passed down initially by word of mouth and then in written documentary records. And then, as he pondered on what he knew of God's dealings with Israel throughout their history with Him, he was aware that that history revealed the loving nature of God. Yes, God had disciplined them and chastised them sometimes, but overall it was more a record of the good things God had dome for Israel . Again and again when you read the records of the Old Testament you find God's love or goodness is revealed through His actions and the psalmists and others realised that love through what He had done.
So he comes into the Temple and when he is not overwhelmed by the building (as Jesus disciples were – Matt 24:1), he simply reflects on the One before whom he stands and all this knowledge passes before him (how else would he have known about the Lord). He meditates on God's love; he ponders on it perhaps marvelling at how wonderful it was, perhaps questioning why it was. We do this sort of thing when we meditate. We think on what we know and we chew it over in our minds and think about what we know and what we can conclude from what we know. We question and wonder and seek answers for our questions. There is no way of verifying this wondering, but I wonder how many Christians regularly (or even occasionally) sit before the Lord and meditate on His love, pondering over the wonder of it, chewing it over until it permeates their very being as the Holy Spirit within them bring them greater understanding and revelation.
But, says the psalmist, I ponder on God's ‘unfailing' love. He is so convinced about this love that he is sure that it will always be there for him. It will never run out or be held back from him while he seeks the Lord. (We lose our sense of being loved by God when we turn away from him and turn to our own ways – it is still there but we just don't feel it. Perhaps this is what the apostle Paul had in his mind when he wrote that amazing passage about God's love: “ Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?..... For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom 8:35,38,39)
For the psalmist the place of this meditation was the stone temple in Jerusalem . It is just possible that it referred to the tabernacle than came before the stone temple built by Solomon because that was previously referred to as the Lord's temple (see 1 Sam 1:9, 3:3) but it is more likely to refer to the stone building. Today there is no such building. Solomon's temple was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar in the destruction of Jerusalem prior to the Exile and the temple that followed the Exile was enlarged by Herod but destroyed by the Romans in AD70, and has never been rebuilt.
But in the New Testament teaching, our bodies are referred to as the temple of the Holy Spirit who now indwells us (see 1 Cor 3:16,17, 6:19, 2 Cor 6:16, Eph 2:21). Thus we do not have to go to a specific building to be reminded of the Lord. We have His word (the Bible) and we have Him with us every minute of every day. Persecuted Christians in prison for their faith have been sustained by the word of God that they have memorized before imprisonment, and by the Holy Spirit's presence reminding them, teaching them and even bringing further revelation for them within the cell. Truly, as Paul said, today nothing can separate us from God's love. Wherever we are, He is there and as we meditate on Him so He feeds us and we are strengthened and encouraged. Hallelujah! We will never run out of reflections as we ponder on this wonder – the love of God that has come for us and is with us and will always be with us.
Meditating on the Gems of the Bible: 7. It's all from God
Gen 1:1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth
We live in an age where the voice of the authority of the church has diminished and the voice of atheistic scientists and atheistic media people prevail. We need to recognise that as we approach this incredibly simple verse right at the beginning of the Bible, a gem that must stand out in the darkness and scream volumes of truth at us. The verse above is neither scientific nor non-scientific. It simply states a basic truth. The people I have referred to above will do everything in their godless, self-centred attitudes to explain the world without God. In fact some of them have been blatant about that and said whatever else we might believe we cannot believe in a God. At least that is honest and out in the open but in itself it is a denial of the scientific approach that says we must be open to whatever we find in our researches. But people say these sorts of things because they know that if they recognise a superior Being then surely that Being will have the right or authority (by being superior) to be able to say how we should live – and people don't like being told how to live! So this meditation is not for silly people who deny their own scientific presuppositions, it is for people who might be open to consider all the possibilities.
Now from the outset let's acknowledge that this verse doesn't say how God created, simply that He did. I would love to believe that He started everything off down an evolutionary path except evolutionists insist that it is a mechanical process where survival of the fittest rules. If that is so then it is pure blind chance that we have ended up in the way we have; we could have gone off on a myriad of alternative paths, but the trouble is that that leaves us a creatures of pure chance and words like meaning, purpose and beauty have no meaning in such a context, yet everything within us screams out that they do. We deny we are meaningless results of random chance.
The whole evolutionary idea worries me. When you sit down and think dispassionately about the very workings of survival of the fittest it demands incredible leaps of faith. And no one has yet to give me and adequate explanation of how sexual reproduction developed where two very early ‘things' in the evolutionary chain remained the same but took on exactly opposite features that, when developed, would come together to produce the next generation.
Another of the massive leaps of faith has to be in respect of carbon dating. Here we stand at a tiny piece of time and assume that decay is uniform over millions of years. Think about it in detail and it starts taking on an Alice in Wonderland feel, because we don't have a clue what might have happened a million years ago that makes it all needing to be rethought. It is another of those assumptions that we have to make in the face of much unknown and because it is unknown we don't even know that it is unknown!
And then the further we go back the nearer we get to the great impossibility. Here we have, in present thinking at least – and it may change, the belief in the Big Bang and I am neither denying not challenging it. Maths, they say, can take us back to a millisecond after it happened, but before that we are still left with a conundrum. Francis Schaeffer used to point out the folly of this. He said imagine nothing, not a vacuum but, as he put it, “nothing nothing”. It is very difficult for our finite minds to even grasp that concept of there being ‘nothing' for usually we think of space and lots of it. But space isn't nothing; at the very least it has light pouring through it.
Take away the myriads of stars, the myriads of constellations, take away everything we can comprehend and imagine nothing – really nothing, there is nothing there, absolutely nothing. This is important to grasp. One primary thing that science tells us is that for there to be movement of any kind there has to be some originating force, energy, call it what you will – but it is not ‘nothing' ‘Nothing' can produce nothing. It's the very logic of our language, our thinking, our understanding. Nothing comes from absolutely nothing. Don't talk about atoms and molecules or even smaller units because you are still talking about matter, you are still talking about ‘something'. Our minds can't grasp the meaning of the absence of ‘something' and yet we talk so easily about this big bang as if it will eventually explain what was before it but we cannot grasp the concept of absolutely nothing, and then absolutely nothing changing to become ‘something'.
And then we come to Genesis 1:1 and are confronted with the concept of God at which point some not-so-wise smart-alec asks, “So who made God?” Look we just agreed that we cannot grasp the concept of absolutely ‘nothing' so why be surprised that we cannot grasp God and His origins – or not-origins! The best I can manage when I struggle to ‘define' God in terms to try to satisfy my materialistic scientific friends is that God is “energy with personality” and yes, I know that raises just as many questions but that is as far as I suspect any of us can go. God is Spirit, the Bible says, but I'm not sure what that means. I believe it but don't ask to me to define it beyond what I have just said.
If science has to make so many assumptions and ends up scratching its head when it comes to the ‘nothing into something' part, why is it so difficult to belief there is a God who is defined by His acts as revealed in the Bible and at the end of the day (to use a more inappropriate cliché) simply accept that ‘He' is all powerful and the One behind all that we call creation? Answer: because the moment you do you will have to worship Him, and that faces us up with a challenge that is more about us than it is about Him!
Meditating on the Gems of the Bible: 8. Not Man's Plan
Gal 1:11,12 I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.
At the beginning, in the Garden of Eden, Satan asked, “Did God really say….” (Ex 3:1) and that question has been one he has whispered in many an ear (if not every ear) ever since. Is this Bible really inspired of God? Does it really convey the truth? Was Jesus a real historical figure? Did he really perform miracles? Did he really rise from the dead? Is there really a means of being put right with God? Is it really as simple as they say, believing by faith and not having to work to be good? These questions all have the same origin!
When Paul wrote to the Galatians he was confronting a challenge, both to his ministry and his authority, as Jewish believers had listened to the voices saying, “You mustn't lose your Jewishness. You ought to continue being circumcised. What this man Paul says is questionable. He is undermining our culture.” Thus he writes this letter, and in it he declares that the Gospel that he preached to them wasn't something he had made up but that it had come directly from Jesus Christ.
There is both a challenge and an encouragement in these words. The challenge is to believe Paul's words and his testimony and the encouragement is that we are not kidding ourselves with this Gospel. There is no doubt that the basics or foundation of the Gospel is there in the four Gospels and then in the preaching found in the Acts but it is down, largely, to Paul to spell it out in more detail in his letters. Yes Peter and John also do it and so we have this multi-facetted testimony to the truth of it.
We've hardly noted it so far but it is there – this Gospel has come from God. It is NOT a man-made idea; it is the revelation of God. We find the start of this gospel laid out by Paul in the beginning of his letter to the Romans: “ the gospel of God-- the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son, who as to his human nature was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Rom 1:1-4) There it is; it is all about Jesus Christ, a gospel spoken about in the prophets, about Jesus who was revealed as the Son of God through his resurrection. At the beginning of this letter to the Galatians we find, “Paul, an apostle--sent not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father.” (Gal 1:1) Again there is this emphasis on him being what he is because of God, and (implied) not because he thought it was a good idea!
We have to go to Ephesians to see the other half of the Gospel which is about what God has achieved in us:
“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
(a) who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he
(b) chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he
(c) predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will-- to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. In him
(d) we have redemption through his blood,
(e)[and also] the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God's grace that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding. And he
(f) made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment--to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.” (Eph 1:3-10)
How amazing! Blessed with all we need in Christ, chosen to be special and different, called His sons, redeemed from our old lives, forgiven, and had His will for us revealed. This is all part of that revelation that Paul spoke of in our starting verses, they are all part of the Gospel that he received from Christ.
Perhaps one of the most compact passages about the gospel and about his calling comes in Paul's letter to Titus: “Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ for the faith of God's elect and the knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness-- a faith and knowledge resting on the hope of eternal life, which God, who does not lie, promised before the beginning of time, and at his appointed season he brought his word to light through the preaching entrusted to me by the command of God our Savior.” (Titus 1:1-3) His calling was to stir faith in those chosen from before the foundation of the world, based on the truth of the Gospel which brings about godly lives and eternal life, and this came when he encountered the Lord and received these commands from God. Thus he is a messenger of the Gospel which comes from God.
As we suggested above, we also have the same testimony from Peter who speaks about believers: “who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and sprinkling by his blood.” (1 Pet 1:2) It's the same message: chosen by God before the foundation of the world, so the Spirit can bring changes in us as a result of the work of Christ on the Cross. John adds his part of this same testimony: “Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 Jn 2:1,2)
No, this could not have been dreamt up by man. In one sense it is too complex for that. In another sense it is too simple for that. Salvation that comes simply through believing, through faith. If it has been from man it would have included self effort but as Paul said, “Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.” (Rom 3:27,28) No this excludes human glory; it is all God's.
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!
Meditating on the Gems of the Bible: 10. A Kingdom of Impossibilities
Luke 1:26-28 In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin's name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, "Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you."
Perhaps when you read Scripture regularly there is the danger of it becoming commonplace and our attitude casual. When these verses are read every year in Christmas Services and maybe even at Nativity plays, then there must be that danger of reading the words but losing the impact. Luke, who at the beginning of his book is so careful to explain that he has carefully researched everything and now wants to write an account that is full of integrity, drops this bomb on us and we don't realise the enormity of it.
There is no room for half-hearted belief here. You either believe it as it stands or evaporate it away by saying – well I don't know what you would say, but people do manage to overcome their intellects and rubbish the truth! But just look at what he says so simply: “God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee.” (v.26). There are three things of note here for sermon constructors.
First, things happen here because God takes the initiative. In fact nothing of the Christmas story will happen unless God is in it. Even before this passage in chapter 1 of Luke, God sends an angel to Zechariah in the Temple and then God enables aging Elizabeth to have a baby. In the verses that follow, God is going to speak to Mary through the angel and then God is going to enable her to conceive without the help of a man. God is going to come to Joseph in a dream, to convince him not to break off his relationship with Mary. After the baby is born, God is going to send an angel to shepherds on a hillside and God is going to provide guidance for wise men from the East. God is going to warn the family to flee to Egypt and then later to return to Israel . God is in this every step of the way. If you have a trouble with believing in God, this is not a story for you!
Second, note that this God communicates and for this task He uses an angel so that a human figure stands before Mary and holds a conversation with her. Have you noticed in Scripture, it seems that often a word simply comes to someone but sometimes it needs more than a simple word, it needs a conversation, and so in those times God sends an angel. On this occasion quite a lot of information is to be imparted and so Mary has an angel sent to her by God.
Third, in this one simple verse, note the mention of places – “Nazareth , a town in Galilee .” We have this remarkable supernatural event but it is anchored in time space history in a known geographical location. Again and again in Scripture we find this mix of the supernatural with the down to earth daily life or here and now time-space history. This is not a book of weird and wonderful spiritual goings on and you may find in other religions. This is the record of activity of God here on this earth with very ordinary people in very ordinary circumstances. Mary was an ordinary Jewish girl living an ordinary life there in Nazareth and until this thing happens, she probably had no inkling of her destiny.
But then, as an even greater challenge to the materialistically fixed mind-set people, the next verse starts moving us towards an uncomfortable challenge: “to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin's name was Mary.” (v.27) Twice there Luke seems to almost emphasise the fact that Mary is a virgin. Now there are those who would seek to suggest that the word for virgin can also be used to simply describe a young woman but the account that follows refuses to allow us to go down that path. Mary is going to question the possibility of having a child without a man, and the angel explains it will be the Holy Spirit who will bring about what is otherwise impossible. You have to go to Matthew's Gospel to see Joseph's side of it and see that he has had nothing to do with it.
For the skeptic, the only other possibility is that Mary had a sexual relationship with some other man but in that culture that would have been virtually impossible without it becoming public knowledge but no such thing was suggested. Luke is absolutely sure in his researches that this is just as it says. God intervenes and we have a miracle of a virgin birth. Once you believe in God, this should be no problem.
What are some of the outworkings of this story? First, the God we hear of is a communicating God and has no trouble with communicating with us. We may have a problem with hearing (because of our unbelief) but that is another story. It is unlikely that you or I will have an angelic encounter; they seem to be saved for major occasions and so if you do, you're either in big trouble or God is about to lead you into major life changes.
Second, the God we find in the Bible is no God who stands afar off and leaves us entirely to our own devices. He comes and involves Himself in our lives and from time to time, when the circumstances demand it, He does what we would otherwise consider impossible. How much we hear or see Him in our lives depends, I believe, on how open we are to Him. If we maintain the materialistic mindset that the rest of the world has, we will rarely hear Him and never see a miracle. If we open our hearts to Him and make ourselves available to Him and listen for His quiet voice, and then respond to what we hear, we will find ourselves venturing out on the waters of faith and will find our testimony growing exponentially. When you hear this gem of a story every Christmas, don't let it pass you by leaving you untouched. When Christmas comes, pray, “Lord open my eyes to see the wonder and the truth of these accounts and may my life be changed for ever because of them.”
Meditating on the Gems of the Bible: 11. God of Initiative
Ex 3:1-3 Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the desert and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. So Moses thought, "I will go over and see this strange sight--why the bush does not burn up."
There is always a danger with spiritual matters in thinking that we have to take the initiative and yet the Biblical testimony is that God is ALWAYS the one who takes the initiative. He created the world to start with. He initiated a relationship with Adam and Eve, He reached out to a pagan called Abram and started off a long-term relationship. And then we come to the verses above where a failed prince of Egypt who has been looking after sheep for forty years comes across a burning bush that is not burning, and finds himself in a conversation with God that will mean life will never be the same again. What we see in those verses is the start of the revelation of the plan of God for the deliverance of His people from Egypt .
The day before I would guess that Moses had no thoughts for the life he had forty years ago, the memories had probably dulled. He is, after all, eighty years old, a time when most of us today would consider we ought to be in retirement. But God has His plans and they include using this man for another forty years.
That is the trouble with the will of God, it stretches out in ways beyond our dreams. We may have had ideas once upon a time of what we might like to become, but the ways of the world, the knocks of life got all that out of us, and so we opt for settling in a quiet lifestyle that upsets no one and allows me to drift on through life. But God looks down and sees a need and sees me and sees what He can do with me, and suddenly there is a burning bush, something that catches my attention and breaks into the hum drum of life. God has plans to do things with me. I would have considered them presumptuous but He simply sees the potential of His child that His child fails to see, and suddenly He creates a burning bush, and I pause and look.
Recently we considered the angel coming to Mary, the same angel that had recently come to Zechariah. Both were instances of God taking the initiative, of God moving His plans on, plans which include human beings. It will be thirty years before the next phase of His plan for salvation comes into being, but then He has waited over four hundred years for the time to be ripe for this phase to come. And so we start to realise that what appears to us as a unique taking-the-initiative is, in fact, just the next phase of a plan that had been thought out from before the foundation of the world – but each stage is brought on by God Himself when He sees the time is right.
So I wonder, perhaps, can I see this life as a plan being rolled out by God and somehow He has a part for me to play in it: “ For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Eph 2:10) The ‘good works' that God has got for me are things He knows I can do with the gifts and enablings He gives me, and they are all part of that bigger long-term plan that He has on His heart. Now if this is so then it changes me from being someone who either wonders if he is ‘good enough' to be used by God, or berates himself for not doing enough, into someone who simply says, “Lord, show me what you want of me today, and if you need me to change to fit more fully your plans for my future, please show me what you want of me.” May my response to what comes be the same as Mary's, “I am the Lord's servant. May it be to me as you have said." (Lk 1:38)
So what is happening when someone seems to be so burdened that they pray their heart out to bring about the will of God? Surely if God has it all mapped out already they don't need to be interceding like that? Well that intercession is simply part of the process that God uses to bring about His purposes. Prayer is always a mystery but it seems that sometimes God waits upon our praying, as if our praying actually brings about changes in the heavenly realms. As we say, it is a mystery and so when we catch a sense of what ought to be and start praying for it, we suggest that it is God putting the burden on our heart. Without doubt He does seem to burden some people more than others to become intercessors and that to bring about His purposes, but even in that we suggest He takes the initiative.
What happens when someone moves to bring a word of prophecy or a word of knowledge or pray for healing? The are being prompted by the Holy Spirit – God is taking the initiative to intervene through what we now call gifts of the Spirit. ANY ministry should, we would hope, be a response to the prompting of the Holy Spirit and in each case it is God taking the initiative to bring about a change here on earth. Moses' burning bush was just one classic example of what God does in a variety of ways again and again as He acts into our lives and works in cooperation with us – He initiates and we respond. Good isn't it!
Meditating on the Gems of the Bible: 12. God's Publicity Machine
Acts 2:5-12 Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. Utterly amazed, they asked: "Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs--we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!" Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, "What does this mean?"
I think when it comes to gems in the Bible there is always the risk that we pass them by without realising the wonder of them. I've got a feeling if I asked 100 Christians to give me a verse that they might consider to be a ‘gem', none of them would come up with these verses. They are, I suspect, by and large, verses that most of us skim over quickly. We focus on the wonder of what was happening on the Day of Pentecost and note in passing that it was verified by many Jews in the vicinity but it struck me just recently how wonderful these verses are.
The start is interesting. The onlookers are “God fearing Jews”. They have travelled from their homes all over the place to attend the feast of Pentecost, that great feast celebrating God's provision through harvest. It was a great feast to attend if you were a Jew.
But then it says they were God-fearing Jews “from every nation under heaven”. Now the New Testament writers were not like modern researchers who would be careful in the literal way they used words. So it doesn't mean that every single nation in the world is represented here but it certainly does mean that very many nations were represented here, able to witness this incredible event. Now whether they accepted it or not, these Jews who would return home to their particular nation would go home and tell what they had seen and heard. One way or another, this event was going to be broadcast around the world.
In a day when we are used to tens of millions being able to witness an event through the medium of television we may be a bit blasé about this, but the truth was that by sending His Holy Spirit on this Feast Day He ensured that many, many Jews would see and hear what He was doing. The terrible and remarkable events that had occurred fifty days earlier at Passover might have been forgotten by some and those from foreign lands would have heard about it only second hand as a piece of new gossip. As yet it had not had impact. But now something amazing is happening and it has happened on a day when representatives from around the world were there to see it.
There were Parthians who came from the territory from the Tigris to India, Medes from east of Mesopotamia, Elamites from north of the Persian Gulf, those from Mesopotamia, some from there in Judea, including Galilee, some from Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, all d istricts in Asia Minor, some from Egypt, and some from Rome. This wasn't the entire world by any means but it was certainly over a large area of what we today might call the Middle East, and even further afield.
Now what we sometimes forget is that not only did these God-fearing Jews witness the new freedom of the disciples, praising God in the languages of all these foreign Jews, but they were also the ones who then heard Peter preaching what is the first Christian sermon, anointed by the Holy Spirit. These men are included in “those who accepted his message” and are in the “three thousand … added to their number that day.” (Acts 2:41) These men would have returned home as born again believers and would certainly take that news with them.
Today, at a local level, if we want news spreading we put up advertisements or put leaflets through the door. At national level we use television advertising. What we have just witnessed is not only the birth of the Church but also God's means of ensuring the good news would be spread, not merely as cold information but as changed and Spirit empowered lives. We often get so caught up with Paul's part in spreading the Gospel that we perhaps forget that long before Paul got under way and long before the apostles spread out from “Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) these forerunners would have already gone ahead and would have started to spread the kingdom. This is a gem indeed!
Meditating on the Gems of the Bible: 13. Divine and Human Interaction
Acts 2:23 This man was handed over to you by God's set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.
I was reviewing what I had written earlier in this series and at the end of the first meditation I note I had written the following: “ If we have known the Lord any length of time … we can reflect on our testimony and see His hand that has been on us, and we can marvel and wonder and feel great pleasure and we can bow and worship as we delight in Him.” Getting on in years a little these days, I do what older people do and reflect back on the years that have been and I do marvel at the wonder of God's blessings that have come to us as a family (as I wrote in that first meditation).
Now the marvel is not just that God has poured out blessing upon blessing upon us over the years, but He has done that despite the people we are – failures, inadequate, with tendencies of getting it wrong. Yes this is the fuller truth. I know what I am and I look back at what I was and I cringe at the memories of what I said or did, at my immaturity, my lack of grace, my confusions, and I marvel that despite all of this – and it is very real, I am not just trying to sound humble, this is how it was and is – yes, despite all this God blessed me and used me.
And then I come to this gem of a verse in the middle of Peter's preaching on the day of Pentecost. For a guy who had been an uneducated (probably) fisherman, he did OK in that sermon. He has understanding, he quotes the Old Testament and he is full of passion. That's what the Holy Spirit does for you! But there in the midst of it is this gem of understanding. When Jesus went to the Cross it was a combination of two things.
First it was the plan of God worked out before the foundation of the world. Moreover I dare to believe that my life also fits that category, “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world,” (Eph 1:4) so that now I am, “God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Eph 2:10). There was no mistake back there two thousand years ago when they arrested Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane . It was not the world getting out of control; it was the plan of God reaching a climax.
Second, it was the work of sinful men. God didn't make us band together against Christ and crucify him, but God knew we would given the circumstances. I use the pronoun ‘we' because I dare not exclude myself from what went on. I would hope that I would not have been part of the crowd baying for Jesus' death, and I certainly hope I would not have been part of the religious or civic establishment that brought about his death (but even there I may delude myself) and the best I could hope for was that I would have been one of those disciples who hid themselves away and left him to his fate on his own.
Am I being too hard on myself (or you)? I don't think so. As I said earlier on, when you have a lot of years to play with, you have more examples of life to put under the microscope and although God's grace has genuinely been there in some good measure, if I am honest if the Lord in heaven took me back through my life and we reviewed it together, I would have to agree that there were times where I would like to change how I spoke or acted in the years gone by.
We are all of us less than perfect this side of heaven and the wonder and marvel of God's love and grace is that those imperfections didn't put Him off from being with us there and prompting and using us, despite our inadequacies and, on rare occasions, because of them. Sometimes He can only use us when we have lost all sense of self-confidence and the ensuing words and actions come out of weakness or even failure but He still uses them to His purposes.
It is not good, this down side of humanity. It was not good that the religious and civic authorities schemed together to bring Jesus down, or in Pilate's case just abandoned him to injustice. It was not good that the crowd allowed themselves to be manipulated into crying out for Jesus' death. It was not good that most of the disciples ran away and hid. No, none of these things were good but nevertheless God used them to sacrifice the Lamb of God.
I come across people who preach a hard form of holiness and present a God who is hard and holy and demanding, but when I examine Scripture and I examine human experience I find that this preaching is false and untrue and unkind and fails to see the wonder of who God is. Here is the paradox: yes, He is holy and He does call us to be holy and after the apparent debacle of the events in the Garden of Eden you might have expected God to abandon this planet and go and find another one in some other galaxy, but He didn't. Before he released His power in Creation He knew that giving us free will would mean the very early arrival of Sin in mankind. He knew that justice (and Satan, the accuser) would cry out for justice and demand that Sin be punished and so the Godhead planned how justice might be met and mankind (or at least those who would receive it) could be saved.
And so He took the sinfulness of mankind and used it to bring about the means for justice to be satisfied, by the death of His own eternal Son. No one less than God Himself could take punishment for so many sinful beings, and so we find the awful events of Calvary appearing like a blot on history. Yet out of that blot comes redemption, salvation available to you and me if we will bow and receive it. When we do, it is the direction of our life that is all important. Yes, I will stumble and on occasion fall, but He will be there to get me back on my feet and help me take further tottering steps in the direction of heaven. My desire is to do His will and that, it seems, is enough now. I may miss it or get it wrong but as I keep directed towards Him, His grace will be there again and again to turn my fumbling efforts into something glorious that will bless Him and others. How amazing! This verse is indeed a gem and it genuinely releases a sense of wonder and awe and worship. Hallelujah!
Meditating on the Gems of the Bible: 14. Jesus the ultimate gem
Mat 1:20,21 "Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins."
The name Jesus or Jeshua was fairly common and is akin to Joshua of the Old Testament and it means deliverer. The thing about this particular baby, this particular Jesus, was that he would not deliver people in a physical sense but in a spiritual sense. The claim of the angel speaking to Joseph in a dream was that this Jesus would come and do something that no other person on earth could do, he would deliver people from their sins. Now when we think about that we realise that it must mean that he will deliver them from the guilt and punishment that their sins deserve AND he will deliver them from the actual sins, from continuing to do them. That is what salvation through Christ does, and just in case you have never seen it like that before, let's repeat it: he delivers form the guilt and punishment of sins AND from the ongoing having to continue to sin. The first is what puts us right with God and the second is the life we live out subsequently with Him. This, as briefly as possible, is what Jesus has come to achieve, and he has done it for millions and millions of people.
How, again as briefly as possible, did he go on to do it, this? There were two parts to his ministry. First of all, for three years he lived out a period of ministry from about the age of thirty, revealing his Heavenly Father's nature. In the words of the apostle Peter on the Day of Pentecost, he was revealed as “a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him,” (Acts 2:22) Later on, to Cornelius and his Gentile family and friends Peter declared, “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.” (Acts 10:38) Jesus himself had declared to John's disciples, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.” (Mt 11:4,5) In the things he did he revealed Himself as a unique being.
Three times his Father testified to the wonder of who he was. First at his own baptism, “As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, " This is my Son , whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” (Mt 3:16,17) The second was on the Mount of Transfiguration: “Then a cloud appeared and enveloped them, and a voice came from the cloud: "This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” (Mk 9:7) The third time appears to have been on Palm Sunday, as recorded by John, “Then a voice came from heaven, "I have glorified it, and will glorify it again." The crowd that was there and heard it said it had thundered; others said an angel had spoken to him.” (Jn 12:28,29)
The second part of his ministry was dying on the Cross to take the punishment for our sins. Jesus knew exactly what he was doing when he allowed this to happen: “From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” (Mt 16:21) Also “We are going up to Jerusalem , and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!" (Mt 20:18,19) He spelled out the purpose of this at the Last Supper: “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Mt 26:28) The apostle Peter also spelled this out: “The God of our fathers raised Jesus from the dead--whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel .” (Acts 5:30,31) God raised Jesus from the dead and then took him back to heaven with him, confirming who he was and his purpose.
This is the unique ministry of Jesus Christ, the revealed Son of God. After he ascended and returned to sit next to his Father in heaven, ruling at His side, we find there are three people who saw him there. First there was Stephen just before he was stoned to death as the first Christian martyr (see Acts 7:56). The second was Saul on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:3-6) and the third was the apostle John in his revelation on the isle of Patmos . In the first part of the vision he saw Jesus as the one holding the seven churches of Asia Minor in his hands – the Lord of the Church (Rev 1:12-18). In the next part of the vision he saw him before the throne of heaven, as the Lamb of God, the Saviour of the world (Rev 5:5-10). In the latter part of Revelation he saw him as the returning conquering king (Rev 19:11-16).
So when Joseph gets this message from the angel in a dream, we have all this wrapped up in a short description. The wonder of the New Testament is that being opened up and revealed to us in much greater detail. Of all of the gems we might find in the Bible, this surely has to shine the brightest.
Meditating on the Gems of the Bible: 15. The Grace of Jesus
Psa 45:2 You are the most excellent of men and your lips have been anointed with gra ce, since God has blessed you forever.
The psalmist has this idea running round in his mind that produces a song: “My heart is stirred by a noble theme as I recite my verses for the king; my tongue is the pen of a skillful writer.” (v.1) I like the way the Message version puts it: “My heart bursts its banks spilling beauty and goodness. I pour it out as a poem to the king shaping the river into words.” That expresses more fully, I think, those words “My heart is stirred…”
Now whether the king is a physical king and it is a physical wedding that he goes on to write about, or whether it is spiritual is unclear, but I believe from the vantage point of later in history we can suggest that so much here is prophetic and speaks of Jesus. We'll come back to verse 2 in a moment but consider – “Gird your sword upon your side, O mighty one; clothe yourself with splendor and majesty,” (v.3) and then “In your majesty ride forth victoriously in behalf of truth, humility and righteousness; let your right hand display awesome deeds,” (v.4) – we cannot but help be reminded of Revelation 19 where Jesus is seen as the conqueror coming forth When we reads, “Let your sharp arrows pierce the hearts of the king's enemies; let the nations fall beneath your feet,” (v.5) we cannot but think of his earthly ministry where his words acted like arrows piercing hearts.
But then we find this comment, “your lips have been anointed with grace.” Not only do those words pierce like arrows but at times they come forth with amazing grace. The difficulty of reading the words of Jesus in the Gospels in cold black and white print, is that you can never catch the tone of voice. Sadly we interpret Jesus' words according to the direction of our own hearts, and so some hear Jesus' words as coming with sharp and hard authority. Others hear the gentle and accepting heart that accepted harlots and tax collectors and drew them to himself.
Which leads me to think of John's description of Jesus: “We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (Jn 1:14). There is that ‘grace' word again. A dictionary defines this grace as, “beauty or charm of form, composition, movement, or expression, an attractive quality, feature, manner, etc.” Grace here is a combination of things – goodness, kindness, loving acceptance, gentleness. When Jesus speaks to us, he speaks with these characteristics.
Early in the Gospel accounts, we find, “And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him,” (Lk 2:40) which is not surprising because he had been conceived by the Holy Spirit (Mt 1:20) and the child was in fact God incarnate. But it was clear, even from childhood, this grace – which always comes from God – was his. Later on this grace would be the thing attributed to be the motivating force that enabled him to do all he did: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” (2 Cor 8:9)
This ‘being rich yet becoming poor', I believe, refers first to his leaving the glory he had in heaven and coming to earth with no visible glory, then leaving his family and living out a life of faith as he exercised his ministry, as he described, “the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” (Mt 8:20). It may also be applied to his willingness to forgo any reputation (and his was quite amazing when you thought of all the amazing things he did in Galilee) and come to Jerusalem and be portrayed as one who received the dismissal of both the religious and civic authorities and deemed worthy of a criminal's death. What enabled him to do all these things? Grace. It is part of the divine attributes.
When you think of the wonder of what God has done through Jesus, it can only be grace that explains it. They knew we would all be sinners if they gave us free will at Creation – but they did it nevertheless. They knew that the Fall would happen, they knew that every single person they sought to come alongside and build a relationships with, would stumble – whether that was individuals or nations. They knew that failure was the only sure thing that could be guaranteed about the human race, and yet they went ahead and created us as we are. Why? Grace! That disposition of the godhead that looked with loving kindness upon us, understands our folly and perseveres with us.
Observe Jesus calling his disciples. These were those who had the greatest privilege in history – of walking and talking with God on a daily basis for three years. Yet what do we find? One of them betrays him, one of them denies him three times and the rest run away and leave him to his fate. But he still chose them and left the future Church in their hands. Amazing, but that is what grace does! Hallelujah!
Meditating on the Gems of the Bible: 16. I am not God
Jn 1:19,20 Now this was John's testimony when the Jews of Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, "I am not the Christ."
I have just been struck by the clarity of the two Johns, John the Baptist and John the Gospel writer. It is probable that John the writer included these verses to speak against a cult that existed at the time when he wrote near the end of that first century AD, a cult that declared that John the Baptist was the Messiah. John the writer is quite clear as he writes about the other John, that he openly declared that he was NOT the expected Messiah. Indeed he recounts the conversation he had with priests and Levites sent from Jerusalem to find out who he was: “They asked him, "Then who are you? Are you Elijah?" He said, "I am not." "Are you the Prophet?" He answered, "No." (v.21) As others have commented, I like the way his answers get more brief as he goes on. Instead of seeking to explain more and more, having made his simple declarations, he leaves it at that. But they persist.
“Finally they said, "Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” (v.22) Come on, they say, you must give us some answer! “ John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, "I am the voice of one calling in the desert, `Make straight the way for the Lord.' “ (v.23) Do you see what I meant about the two Johns. John the writer understands exactly who the Baptist is quoting and so John, further amplifying his previous denials, merely says in our words, I am not him. The best I can say is that I am one seeking to prepare his way to make it easier for him to come but, no, I am not him!
Now you may wonder why I have included this passage is a series of gems from the Bible. I do so because of the crisp clarity with which John recounts what happens and the implied significance that we can take from it.
The first of the Ten Commandments is, “You shall have no other gods besides me.” (Ex 20:3) It is based on the truth that there is only one God. When you look at our modern world we tend to make little gods of celebrities. Merely because they act well or sing well or play football well, we pay them an excessive amount of money and they live expensive lives that seem so high and lofty and above ours, that we tend to elevate that as superstars, almost little gods. Super-heroes have become a thing, beings with powers greater than we have and we sometimes look at people and almost elevate them to this level. The media loves championing clever people who come up with silly thoughts about why God doesn't exist and why Christianity is make believe and we, foolishly, cower before these giants like Israel cowered before Goliath. They are little gods and we elevate them to great heights.
The story of John the Baptist, as he prepares the way for the coming of Jesus says two things about Jesus: First, I am not the Messiah from heaven; second, he is! John knew his place, he knew his calling and therefore his role and it was to be no more than a messenger who said, “Get yourselves ready to meet God.” It therefore comes as a reminder to us that we are not God, we cannot do what God does beyond that which He gives us to do. We can speak words but beyond that we cannot change people. Only He can do that. We can plan our lives in a limited way but we will ultimately be limited by circumstances because have neither the wisdom, the knowledge, the strength, nor the power to overcome the obstacles that crop up in life – ill health, accidents, loss of loved ones, loss of jobs, and so on. Without God we are prey to these things. But He is God and He is not affected by such things for His knowledge is unlimited, His wisdom is unlimited, His strength and His power is unlimited. We are not God but He is.
When it comes to Jesus, there is no competition. Sometimes we are foolish enough to believe we can be the answer to people's problems, but we can't, only Jesus can. He is God and so He has the knowledge, wisdom, strength, power and authority to bring changes to people's lives as they give him access. You may not think this is a ‘gem' in the Word, but it is because it is a fundamental and basic truth and as far as we are concerned all else hinges on it. No, says John, I am not the Christ, just his messenger. No, we must say, I am not the Christ, just his messenger. You want life changing? You must talk to him. That's his business. I can't deal with your sins but he died on the Cross to deal with them, so you must go and talk to him about them and receive his forgiveness.
Perhaps some of us need to look in mirror and say to ourselves every morning, “I am not God. I cannot save my family, only Jesus can. I can tell them about him, I can pray for them and I can seek to be an example for them but beyond that I cannot change them. I cannot change my husband (or wife), I cannot change by employer, I cannot change…(?) but I can tell them about him, I can pray for them and I can seek to be an example for them. I am aware and thankful for the gifts and abilities that God has given me but I still need Him to lead, guide and inspire me and show me the way to go and who to speak to and what to do. He is God. I am not.” This passage with the two Johns is like a beam of light that shines on us. May we heed it.
Meditating on the Gems of the Bible: 17. A Guaranteed End
Phil 2:9-11 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
The problem with these verses is that they are on the end of verses that seem even more attention-getting and so I think we almost take these amazing verses for granted. Many think that verses 6 to 11 were part of an early Christian hymn or even one of those famous ‘sayings' that crop up in Paul's writings, that the early church used to teach new believers. Together they are full of immense significance and I wonder why I haven't picked them up before in this series – except for the reason I've just given of taking them for granted.
Verses 6 to 8 are staggering enough – that Jesus who is and was God, put aside all his glory and came and lived as a human being with little or no glory and gave his life for us on the Cross. That in itself it staggering enough to be worthy of a meditation on its own, but then you come to our three verses above.
Because Jesus did that, the Father raised him from the dead and then took him back to heaven (see the remarkable event in Acts 1:9) where He seated him at His right hand – “the highest place” (Check it out - Mark 16:19 / Acts 2:33 / Acts 5:31 / Acts 7:55 / Rom 8:34 / Ephes. 1:20 / Phil 2:9 / Col. 3:1 / Heb 1:3 / Heb 8:1 / Heb 10:12 / Heb 12:2 / 1 Pet 3:22 – reference after reference to Jesus being exalted at the Father's right hand. It is of major significance in the New Testament!)
And there He “gave him the name that is above every name,” a recognizable identity of which there is no doubt, a name that is now exalted above EVERY other name. There is no figure in history who – claimed to have come from heaven – who lived out a life and ministry that used the miraculous power of heaven to bless humanity – who gave his life to satisfy justice with its demands on our sinful lives – who rose from the dead – who ascended visibly into heaven – who empowered his church to do the miraculous and transform millions of lives with love. NOBODY from any other faith, belief system, political persuasion or whatever has ever done all this. No wonder Paul could say this name was above every other name.
But it doesn't end there. Because of who he is and because of what he is done, “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” Now I used to read this wrongly as, I suspect, a lot of us do, because it doesn't say “every knee will bow”. Now I believe that every knee will eventually bow to Jesus as the picture in Revelation 19 of the conquering King of Kings and Lord of Lords shows, but this verse doesn't say that. It says that they should bow (one of two versions say ‘shall' but most say ‘should') and that ‘should' suggests ‘ought to' rather than ‘will'. Commentators often suggest that there is little difference in meaning or outcome but the word is there.
Now why this particular way of putting it? I suggest it is because of the context. Paul starts out, “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus ,” (v.5) and so he is teaching attitude or outlook. He's saying, follow Jesus example who put aside his glory and became nothing, and leave the outcome to the Father, as Jesus did. He has been exalted by the Father to a place where he is now worthy of worship – and that including from us. It ought to be but it isn't always and we too can be remiss and not be part of that worshipping company, but that just puts us in the wrong because Jesus deserves our worship.
But this verse with its ‘should' shows us that is conforms to the reality of the world which often doesn't worship Jesus. The truth is that it should and in its failure to, it will be held answerable to God. Jesus is the bench mark of the wonder of heaven. He reveals the wonder of the grace and goodness of the godhead. Failure to realise this and respond in worship is an indication of spiritual blindness and willful self-centred godlessness. Yes, there will come a time when every knee will bow before Jesus and confess he is Lord, as we've already indicated that Revelation 19 shows, but in the meantime there are those who go against what should be happening.
This is significant because it explains what is going on in the world today. There is coming a guaranteed end when Jesus will reign over all but the reality of the present is that many fly in the face of that ‘should' and will be judged precisely on that one thing. They may appear to be allowed to get away with it in the present moment, and that is true, but the truth is there, and they will be judged according to it, and that WILL happen in a day ahead of us.
These verses elevate Jesus above all else and set the level of expectation. Failure to reach that level is the bench mark against which all will be judged. That is why these verses are so amazing. They not only show what Jesus has done, but they also establish the measure against which every person will be judged. As a Christian, I have already bowed the knee and confessed that Jesus is Lord; that was an essential part of the process that brought about my conversion, that opened the way for me to be born again, and so it is for every believer.
But the measure has been clearly displayed in the New Testament and in these verses in particular – Jesus IS Lord and we SHOULD bow before him and declare him as Lord. If we have not already done that, we stand before God judged. We have whatever time we have left on this earth to remedy that; the only problem is that we do not know how long we have left. You dare not leave it if you have never bowed before him and surrendered your life to his lordship. Action now is the only sure way. Do it.