Getting to Know God Meditations: 1. A Marker in the Sand
Job 40:1,2 The Lord said to Job: “Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him? Let him who accuses God answer him!”
For who? I have over the years written thousands of these meditations (studies) and my general goal has always been twofold: to teach myself and clarify my own thinking AND to provide material that I hope may strengthen and encourage the Christian community. In this new series, I want to make a slight difference, I would like to help new Christian believers AND perhaps shine some light into the darkness for those who cannot yet say they are believers and yet are here showing interest. Can I speak to that latter group first of all.
Questions: The fact that you are reading these words means that somehow you have come across this site, or perhaps been directed towards it by a friend, and are at the very least intrigued by the thought of ‘God'. Now that in itself is intriguing for we live in a world, here in the West, that has been changing dramatically over the last hundred years in ways that are greater than all of previously recorded history and because of that ideas and thinking has been shaken as well. Throughout history there have been ‘signs of religion'. One of my granddaughters said to my wife recently, “But surely, granny, there is no evidence for God.” What a staggering statement built on what appears to be total ignorance. My wife, telling me of this later, said she had to struggle not to tell her all about what she taught every year at upper level education, a whole year of just that, examining the amazing range of evidence. But this meditation (study) is not going to do that; my remit in these studies is much more limited but, I hope, just as rewarding. Put in a nutshell, it is to find out about God from the Bible.
The Bible? And here, briefly, we have to counter the tsunami of ignorance that prevails in many today. Here is a book – a best seller still around the world – or rather 66 books with some 40 or so authors, made up of writings from Jewish history (the Old Testament) and of the first century CE (what used to be AD!) telling of the activity of Jesus Christ and the birth of the Church. To short-cut pages of explanation may I simply put it to you if you are coming to this subject for the first time, that I am a reasonably intelligent person (teacher and retired pastor) who has read and studied the Bible for over fifty years (yes, that makes me old!), questioning, seeking, researching and never being content with superficial answers and have written studies that cover that vast majority of the Bible. At the end of all that, may I suggest to you that a) you can trust its veracity, its truthfulness and its accuracy and, b) no, it is not full of inconsistencies or contradictions as popular ignorant opinion often has it. I would not waste your time with it if it did!
The Basis: The basis of these studies will be what the Bible says about God, not what people think about God or what people think about what the Bible says about God, but what it actually says. For that reason you may find these studies different from anything you've read before. They should, hopefully be full of the Bible, at least be looking to see what the Bible says. Now here's an honest health warning. I want to change your thinking. I say that quite openly because, as I have already suggested, I believe many people come to this subject with a rucksack of ignorant wrong presuppositions that they have been carrying around that has weighed them down. I would like to invite you to lay that down and fill it instead, with reflections about what we find in the Bible. In a later study I will lay out the structure of the Bible for you because it does, despite it being 66 ‘books', stand as a single-story entity.
A Fresh Starting Place: May I suggest, in respect of the Bible, an experimental fresh starting place for all of us. The scholars etc. who know about these things conclude, as I said above, you can trust its veracity, its truthfulness and its accuracy. Now having said that, it is legitimate to ask, why did the 40 or so writers write what they did, and can we believe their reports of their experiences. Now the one convincing thing, I find, is that there is an amazing uniformity from such a wide diversity of writers who together form a compelling picture.
All I ask from the outset is that we ponder, IF all these people are being truthful about what they have written (and why should 40 or so people, spread over a long period of history, convey a lie?) what logically should that leave us thinking about God and, indeed, about our own lives? i.e. dare we assess the truth and be honest enough to say it might change us? I will start each study with a verse of scripture from the Bible, and may include a lot more, but these are after all, Bible studies. We are studying the Bible. The early studies will be light on Bible quotes, not to weigh down those for whom the Bible is new reading, but I will constantly refer to people and places and give references for you to look up if you wish.
Job? The book of Job (which I do not recommend as your first area of reading – try Mark's Gospel) is a tough book about a man who suffered and it is all about what his three friends thought about that suffering. Was God to blame for it? Whether it is history or a story with a point has often been debated. It is thought to be one of the oldest books in the Bible. At the end of all the debating within it (often with confused and wrong thinking, which is why I don't recommend it as starter reading because it can be confusing reading; come to it after you have got more foundational reading under your belt) Job encounters God who identifies Himself as ‘the Almighty' or ‘the Mighty One'. Now philosophers will say that the definition of God has to be One for whom there can be no one greater. We will go on to see what the Bible says about that as an idea, but it is a good starting point and it is the point that Job faced God and concluded, “ I spoke of things I did not understand… My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” (see Job 42:1-6)
The point is we are not talking about an abstraction here, just a nice idea to play around with; we are working towards the idea that there IS a Being as uniquely described in the Bible, who is so much greater than anything or anyone we can comprehend, and that is scary. The more we go on, the more true we will see that is but, at the same time, be given great reassurance that although fear is a natural feeling (which is why many duck away from thinking through these things) the truth is that the Bible reveals Him as loving and for us. That's the simplest way I can put it for the moment. For those of us who are believers, I invite you afresh to pause and worship and ask Him to teach you anew. If you are not at that place, may I simply invite you to keep an open mind and come with me in the studies ahead of us, and possibly experience something you've never come across before. We live in a doubting, disbelieving world, more often built on ignorance, a dry and spiritually arid place. My intent is to draw a line in the sand of this modern-day desert and say, enough of this ignorance, let's have the courage and honesty to face it and say, let's change it! Take a few minutes each day to come with me on this expedition.
Getting to Know God Meditations: 2. God of Record
Psa 105:1 Give praise to the Lord , proclaim his name; make known among the nations what he has done.
Recorders: When we talk about ‘the psalmist' we are actually referring to possibly half a dozen or more writers of the psalms, poetry, a book bang in the middle of the Bible (easy to find). Psalms 105 and 106 are both fairly long psalms that pick up on parts of the history of Israel. Because they are poetry they are not brilliant for the purpose of discovering what went on, but they do clearly make the point that there is a history to be noted, a history of this nation called Israel, a history that involved God throughout it. In a day when reading and writing were not the norm it is quite amazing that we have such records that make up what we now call the Bible and it is very easy to take that for granted.
Now it is clear that whoever wrote those two psalms had it in mind to make the history of Israel a source of praise and worship of God . These weren't written to ‘prove' the existence of God, but simply to record what had happened in their history and say, ‘Hey, we should be worshipping this God who has done these things for us.' Those are my words but they are clearly the intent of the psalmist. Listen to how the psalm 105 goes on: “Sing to him, sing praise to him; tell of all his wonderful acts,” (v.2) and at the end, “Praise the Lord.” (v.45). Psalm 106 continues in the same vein: “Praise the Lord. Give thanks to the Lord , for he is good; his love endures forever,” (v.1) finishing with, “Praise be to the Lord , the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting. Let all the people say, “Amen!” Praise the Lord.” (v.46) In between the first and last verses of both these psalms we find numerous references to the things that had happened to Israel in their history with God so far. Whatever doubts we may have, in the mind of the psalmist there was no doubt, these things had happened and they showed the presence and activity of God in the midst of the life and experience of Israel.
Pause for breath: Before we move on and look at other references to the events of history that the writers claim involved God, we should pause up, step back and just take stock of what we have just said. There was a history, a record of the events and experiences that involved this unique nation, Israel, (and we will see in later studies why they were unique) and each of the writers maintain that these events, these experiences, can only be explained by the presence of God (who exists!), a God who is unique and so great that He demands our worship.
Now this is what the whole Bible is about – events, activities, experiences, call them what you will, that were experienced by human beings and which they all say happened because of the presence and activity of God . This uniformity of thinking, reporting, and experience, is one of the main things that makes the Bible ONE book, yes, made up of 66 ‘books', some of which are mere letters, very short at that, but they all point us in the same direction, these books written over possibly a two thousand year period, they all say the same thing. They aren't pompously seeking to prove the existence of God but in fact come with an almost simplistic naivety, out to prove nothing except the reality of what had happened.
Back to the Records: Perhaps one of the simplest summary records of the early history of Israel and God's dealings with them, comes in a strange way in the New Testament. Stephen is an early Jewish Christian and is being challenged by his Jewish peers and in response he reminds them of their history and you find it in Acts chapter 7. In a later study I will seek to outline the ‘big picture' of the Old Testament, as a starter, but if you want the shortest summary, you must read Acts 7.
Now what is interesting about that account is that Acts was compiled and written by an educated doctor, Luke, who also wrote the Gospel of that name and his introduction to that Gospel is challenging in its claims. Listen, as he writes to a Greek friend named Theophilus: “ Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.” (Lk 1:1-4) Now read that carefully and you find a most careful reporter of highest integrity saying, these are the things that have been going on and I have carefully researched them and can verify them. That is amazing and, as he also wrote Acts, we may assume it equally applies to the record of Acts – about the early years of the Church – and what Stephen said on that day before he was eventually martyred.
Another of these ‘high spots' pointing to the veracity of the evidence of the records comes in the writing of the apostle John who we believe not only wrote the Gospel with his name, but also three letters, and it is at the beginning of the first of those letters that we find, “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.” (1 Jn 1:1-3) This was John speaking to a Greek culture about Jesus Christ. But look at the language of a witness who is basically saying, ‘Look, I didn't make this up, we saw him, heard him, lived with him and experienced him, this is why I am writing.'
And So? So here we are confronted with just a few instances from the biblical record of very down to earth writing that is not mystical ‘out of this world' but comes to us in very easily understood terms that we would use in daily life, and it all says, this is history, this happened, and it cannot be explained without the presence of God . Remember, these are only starting thoughts, but whether we are believers of many years or simply someone coming to investigate for the first time, may I suggest there is material here that is worth that investigation, material that confirms to many of us, yes, all you have believed all these years is well founded. Now I make that last comment because there seem to be a number of rumblings around the worldwide church where people are complaining that they have not been taught or taught wrong things. My challenge is read for yourself. If you have never bothered to take time to read and study the Bible, why not start now. I will help you along the way but get hold of a modern Bible if you haven't got one and start reading. My recommendation is begin in the New Testament to start with, perhaps Mark's Gospel, the most brief of the four. You do the reading. I'll just provide some provocations in the background. Enjoy!
Getting to Know God Meditations: 3. God of Self-Disclosure
Ex 3:6 Then he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.”
Taken for Granted? Do we, who are believers, take for granted what is happening in the verse above, and if you are a new seeker, I wonder if you realise the enormity of what is happening here? As a reminder to believers and to explain to newcomers, Moses is talking with God. This is Moses, otherwise known in more recent cinematic terms as the Prince of Egypt. He has messed up and ended up caring for sheep for forty years in the desert, hundreds of miles from his old home in Egypt. One day he has a strange experience. He sees a bush on fire and yet it is not being destroyed. He wanders over to take a look and at the point a voice from nowhere appears to speak to him, claiming to be the God of his forefathers.
Now here is the challenging thing. We are saying there is a God as described in the Bible and sometimes (not often) He speaks out loud. This God is a communicating God, a God who communicates with human beings – and that is the claim right the way through the entire Bible. He speaks in a variety of ways but the claim is He communicates. (If there is a God, a living Being, why shouldn't He communicate?) Now when He communicates here, He is saying to Moses that He is the same God who had communicated with the men we now refer to as the Patriarchs, the fathers of Israel.
Sequential History: And thus we are faced with sequential history, events following on from one another, not events that are free standing, we might say, but events that have direct links. In Genesis chapter 12 we are introduced to a pagan, a Semite who originated in Ur in Mesopotamia, a man who became referred to as “Abraham the Hebrew” (Gen 14:13). The origins of this word ‘Hebrew' are unclear but the basis means ‘cross over or pass through'. Later Joshua said of him, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Long ago your ancestors, including Terah the father of Abraham and Nahor, lived beyond the Euphrates River and worshiped other gods. But I took your father Abraham from the land beyond the Euphrates and led him throughout Canaan and gave him many descendants. I gave him Isaac, and to Isaac I gave Jacob and Esau.” (Josh 24:2-4) T he river appears to be the Euphrates.
This Joshua was the army commander who led Israel after Moses eventually died. Note again there is this historical flow in what he says: Abram, who God renamed Abraham, had a son Isaac, who had two sons Jacob and Esau and God renamed Jacob, Israel. Israel had twelve sons and as their families grew and developed they became a nation we now call Israel. But here's another challenging thing: in what Joshua says, he maintains God spoke and declared He was the reason these families, and this nation, existed. When you read the story in detail in Genesis chapter 12 on, you can see why this claim is made. It is history, but history that includes the activity of God and that activity includes speaking, as well as a number of other things. The idea of a God who stands back and just watches this world is alien to the Bible, this God interacts with human beings.
More Self-Disclosure: Now in that same account of Moses at the burning bush we find Moses going on to ask a very pertinent question, pertinent in a world full of superstition and lots of ‘gods', “Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they ask me, ‘What is his name?' Then what shall I tell them ?” (Ex 3:13) Now if I was just making up this story I would have God say to Moses, “Just say God sent you, that should be enough,” but He doesn't, He says something I could never have dreamed up: “God said to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.'” (Ex 3:14) As if that isn't bad enough, He goes on, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you.'” (v.15)
Now there is a footnote in the Bible that the translators have put in, in respect of the word LORD seen there in capital letters, “ The Hebrew for Lord sounds like and may be related to the Hebrew for I am in verse 14.” There was a custom in the Hebrew language for names to have meanings conveyed by words with similar sounds. Put most simply, whenever the word LORD appears in the Bible in the capital letters it is shorthand for “I am who I am”. So what are we to make of “I AM”? I would suggest, in line with the rest of the teaching of the Bible that it is God's shorthand for saying, “I am eternal – I am, I always am, I always was, I always will be – I am outside of time.”
Now if we think about this some more, it is also like God is saying, “I am utterly different from all the ‘gods' people make up”. Perhaps you know something of the later gods of Greece and later the gods of Rome, figures with very human fallible characteristics. One well known atheist has said something like, “If there wasn't a god, human beings would have to invent one, it's what they have always done.” So, yes, the nations of what we call the Middle East had their ‘gods' and the voice speaking to Moses is essentially saying, “Don't even think of me in the same breath! I am the Eternal One, the One who has always existed and always will exist.” I said in the first study that philosophers will say that the definition of God has to be One for whom there can be no one greater, and perhaps we should add, who is beyond our comprehension in that He has no beginning and no end.
Limited Self-Disclosure: We have simply started, in a very basic way, thinking about the fact that the Bible shows God revealing Himself to mankind in the ways we find in the Bible, but we have to say that it is very limited. Yes, He is eternal, yes, He does communicate and we will go on to see He is very much a God of Purpose, and that is all very clear from what we find in the Bible. There is also a great deal more of Him that can be found out by reading the Bible – as we will go on to do – but the fact of the matter is that even with all of what great books of theology might say, we know very little of who God is.
Why? Because my mind cannot grasp what eternal means. I know the definition but I cannot (and you cannot) comprehend the fact of a Being that has no beginning and no end. Young searchers often want to ask such questions as, ‘Well, how did God come into being, everything has a beginning?' I have no idea, I just said I don't know what eternal means, I cannot comprehend it. Having said there is a great deal of mystery surrounding the Being that we are constantly referring to as God (with a capital G) that doesn't mean we are completely in the dark, for the point is that the Bible is all about God's self-disclosure, His revelation of Himself, and there is a lot of it – and that is what (hopefully) this series is all about. Stay with me and we'll see where it goes, and I hope you will find it happens in a way that is satisfactory, even though it cannot answer every possible question, I hope it will answer a lot of the questions that usually arise.
Getting to Know God Meditations: 4. God of Intervention
Gen 12:1 The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father's household to the land I will show you.
Enter Abram? We are swimming around in the waters of the early books of the Bible seeking to catch sight of God, but unlike whale watching where you can spend a day out in a boat and see nothing, the early chapters of the Bible are full of ‘God-sightings.' It is certainly about human lives – and from Genesis, chapter 12 on it becomes very personal – but it is also very much about God. In the previous study I said that the idea of a God who stands back and just watches this world is alien to the Bible, this God interacts with human beings. There is much of that in the first twelve chapters of that first book of the Bible, but I want to take the Patriarchs, remember, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to see this God of intervention. In our verse above, somehow God spoke to Abram and somehow Abram ‘heard' God. We aren't told how. At the end of chapter 11 of Genesis we are introduced to Abram, a man married to Sarai, and a man who is childless. Then God tells him to go to what turns out to be Canaan and He promises him, “I will make you into a great nation,” (Gen 12:2) which is pretty amazing as we've been told Sarai is barren.
The story rolls out: What is amazing, and perhaps we believers take this for granted, is that the story of Abram, who God renames Abraham, rolls out over a lot of chapters and the unique thing about these chapters is that they are all about Abram interacting with God. Eventually, when he is a hundred years old, Abraham becomes a father and Isaac is born. More chapters and we see something of Isaac who eventually gets married but for twenty years remains childless. He prays and God answers and his wife Rebekah conceives and has twins, Jacob and Esau. God tells her that the younger, Jacob, will be the superior, and a real soap opera drama ensues, the end of which has Jacob as a rich, prosperous head of a large household with twelve sons and one daughter. Cutting a very long story short, one of the twelve sons, Joseph, gets prophetic dreams from God that show him lording it over the rest of the family. The soap opera drama continues and to cut another long story short Joseph ends up as Prime Minister to the Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, and sees them through a difficult famine period. The result of this is that Israel and his whole family end up living in Egypt, saved from the famine by Joseph's presence there, that had been orchestrated by God. It is an amazing story that takes up the majority of the book of Genesis.
Big Event Time: Four hundred years pass, (and we are now in the second book of the Bible, Exodus,) the family has grown into a nation within Egypt but in so doing became a threat to Egypt and are made their slaves. This has been told in outline to Abraham by God four hundred years before! Enter Moses who we've met before at the burning bush, who God now uses as His mouthpiece to the current pharaoh, a despot of the worst kind. An amazing story in the first twelve chapters of Exodus. Again cutting another long story short, what follows is ‘The Exodus' the first great event in the life of this nation, Israel. They are led by God out of Egypt, up through the area we today call Saudi Arabia or the Sinai Peninsula, and eventually occupy the land called Canaan (later Palestine, later Israel) after God drives out most of the previous pagan occupants, but that's another story altogether we find in the fifth book of the Bible, Joshua.
Nationhood: God has now got Israel in Canaan and the chapters and books that unfold tell the story of how initially they were led by judges (hence the book by that name, the sixth book in the Bible which leads on into 1 Samuel), ask for a king of their own, and are given their first king, Saul, a man head and shoulders above the rest, a great looking leader – but who messes up. God then raises up David as the next king who becomes one of Israel's national heroes. He has a son, Solomon, who starts off very wise but, again, ends up messing up. The result is a divided kingdom, ten tribes in the north referred to as Israel and two tribes in the south, based on Jerusalem, called for shorthand, Judah. The north are a pretty rubbish bunch and go through 19 kings and last 208 years before being overrun by Assyria from the north. The south were marginally better with 20 kings and lasted 343 years, eventually being taken into Exile by king Nebuchadnezzar and his Babylonian army. After some 40 years of what is the second major event of Israel's early history, ‘The Exile', quite amazingly king Cyrus of Persia, now the number one ruler, sends some of them back to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem and indeed restore Jerusalem itself. For some four hundred or so years, little is reported of them in the Biblical record. The books of Nehemiah and Ezra record the return and there are some so-called minor prophets, but otherwise there is silence for some four hundred years, before the coming of Christ and a whole new ball game starts!
God Activity: Now the whole point of recounting this brief overview of Old Testament history is to say this is the human background for God's activity. In later studies we will seek to discern God's purposes behind all this human activity within this unique group of people, but for now I simply want to make the point that in all this, the handprints of God, if we may put like this, are blatantly obvious in the 39 books that comprise the Old Testament (and even more so in the 27 books that comprise the New Testament.) Consider what we've mentioned so far, and some of the things that are the primary features of Genesis 12 on:
God calls Abram, guides him, gets him out of more than one minor mess he gets into, reveals the future to him, enables his aging wife to conceive, helps guide to get a wife for Isaac, warns about the twins to be born, has dealings with Jacob, gives Joseph prophetic dreams that guide his future, watches over him while navigating the difficult path that leads him to become a statesman, reassures Jacob about going to Egypt, watches over and calls Moses to deliver Israel from Egypt, brings plagues on Egypt to extract Israel free from their grip, guide them and provide for them through the ensuing years until they take the Promised Land, Canaan, gives Joshua victories, provides judges for them to deliver them from their enemies, gives them Saul, raises up David and blesses his leadership, gives wisdom to Solomon and speaks to the nation(s) again and again through prophets in the coming centuries. Yes, this is all about people but it is all about the God who intervenes.
But one penultimate point, He does not intervene randomly. In the following studies we will go on to consider the nature of the way He reveals all these thing. Everything that happens here is according to a divine purpose – but it is gradual. And so to a final point which is important to see. Mankind has been given free will and although God interacts with that, He rarely overrides it. Thus the history of the Old Testament is certainly a history with the prints of God all over it, but it is nevertheless the story of the free will of mankind being worked out under the microscope, if you like, of the life of Israel, and that says much about us, but that we will leave until later studies.
Getting to Know God Meditations: 5. God of Gradual Revelation
Gen 14:19,20 “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth. 20 And praise be to God Most High, who delivered your enemies into your hand.”
Gradual? There is something about the history within the Bible that many people don't think about. It is what is sometimes called ‘the doctrine of divine accommodation' which can be expressed as ‘God's communications with humans are always limited to their current capacity to comprehend'. Together with this we should note that,
a) Mankind has developed or evolved in knowledge, understanding and ability to where we are today (a slow and gradual process only accelerated in the past century) and,
b) God has always existed, and is unchanging, (and the Bible says He knows and has always known everything) but has only gradually revealed Himself to the human race, in line with our ability to comprehend.
We live in an age of incredible knowledge and, for instance, science and technology are built on that knowledge, but that knowledge had to be gained gradually, as the history of scientific development clearly shows. There is nothing surprising about it, but when it comes to the Bible we hear silly things being said, but they are said because of not having thought about these things we've just noted. The point we need to make is that there is change, progress, and development, and to understand what is being said in scripture requires us to understand the historical context, i.e. where people had got to, if you like.
Examples: We have already seen how God communicated with Moses and declared of Himself that He was the God of the Patriarchs but also could be known as ‘I AM'. Now we like to tie every detail down neatly, defining whatever we can but definition is not crucial to relationship with God. So we have cited Abram as the first person in the Bible with whom God establishes a long-term relationship and we saw that it was with the purpose of establishing a family line and eventually a nation who would know and experience God, and that came into being in Moses' time. But what is missing from the records involving Abraham is definition. God does not explain to him who He is, He does not explain His nature, He does not pour out in one go all the knowledge that we now have with the complete Bible. Why? Because that is not what relationship is all about. When you make friends with someone you don't usually ask them, “Tell me everything about you.” No, instead as the relationship develops so your knowledge of them develops, and the same is true of God in the Bible.
Revelation from Another: Now what is fascinating is seeing how knowledge comes in different ways. Our verse above comes in an incident involving Abraham. He has grown in prosperity and influence and got involved in a conflict in Canaan. On his way back to his home he passes Jerusalem, known at that time as Salem, and we read, “Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, and he blessed Abram,” (Gen 14:18,19) and the blessing is our two verses above. Now what is strange about this is that we have no idea who Melchizedek was beyond this brief description, that he was a priest-king and claimed to worship “God Most High” and this God is “Creator of heaven and earth.” Now up until that point Abram doesn't seem to have been bothered about the character or nature of this One who has been speaking to him, but now he acknowledges this fresh revelation as truth as he explains why he will not take benefit from simply having helped out in the conflict: “Abram said to the king of Sodom, “With raised hand I have sworn an oath to the Lord, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth, that I will accept nothing belonging to you.” (Gen 14:22,23)
Of course we have the early chapters of Genesis but the book had not been written then (it is believed that Moses compiled and wrote it from a combination of the accounts that had been passed down through the generations and the revelation he received from God in the many hours he spent in God's presence in the forty years of his leading Israel to the Promised land) and so the thought that the One who had been speaking to him, calling him and guiding him, was no other than the Creator of all things. That is the claim of the Bible and it comes up again and again, that this world is NOT the product of total random chance and random evolution and thus with no possibility of meaning and purpose beyond basic survival, but is the result of the purposeful working of God who has designed humanity to work in specific ways that avoid self-harm and bring only goodness and blessing. (We'll see in a later study why we don't experience life like that most of the time).
Revelation by Experience: When it comes to observing the life of Abram, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses and Israel as a people, much of our revelation about God is gleaned from the ways He interacted with these people and what He said to them. It is revelation by relationship and it is gradual. When we read, for example, the accounts of God's dealings with Abraham, I suggest the following things come out about Him:
1. God sees and knows and understands everything there is to know about us.
2. He has a purpose for the earth which stretches far into the future.
3. He persists with our slowness to understand, yet He continues to communicate with us.
4. He is a God who can intervene in His material world and bring (from our perspective) miraculous changes.
Those are just some of the things we can learn about Him through His relationship with Abraham, but they are profound and they can be seen again and again throughout the Bible.
Recap: So in this study we have suggested the following:
- God reveals Himself through Scripture only gradually, in accordance with the ability of the people at their particular time in history could understand.
- God is more concerned not to reveal Himself by definition but through relationships.
- there are times of specific additional revelation but they are rare.
- mostly the revelation about God is gleaned from observing how He interacted with individuals or with the nation of Israel.
To this we must suggest that for the fullest revelation we can have of God in the Bible, we must include that which comes from the New Testament. What appears hidden in the Old Testament becomes obvious in the New. But before we can see that in its fulness, we need to take a step back and look again at the how the purposes of God that are revealed in His activity throughout the Bible, are weaved into the activities of mankind. That we will start to do in the next study.
Getting to Know God Meditations: 6. God of Interaction
Rom 5:6 You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.
Questions? We concluded the last study by saying we would see how the purposes of God, that are revealed in His activity throughout the Bible, are weaved into the activities of mankind. I believe this is something that is very important for us to understand because I often hear questions being asked that start with, “Why didn't God…..” and go on to ask why He didn't explain more, or why He do more to bring changes that we can see now needed to come – and yet He didn't. Why didn't He? I'll answer that in a moment but can we note that even in asking such a question we are implying we believe in a God who can interact with this world, who can speak into it and act into it.
Why didn't He tell more? That is one of the frustrations I hear people expressing. Why didn't God explain to Abram what He was doing, tell him who He was, and so on? Well I've already answered that in two ways: first, relationship doesn't need definition, second, to do with this ‘ doctrine of divine accommodation' that I spoke of in the previous study, that God communicates with humans at a level which they can understand at their present stage of development. The funny thing is though, that sometimes, contrary to what we've just said, He seems to reveal more than the person needed at that time, for example, in Abram's case we find God telling him, “Know for certain that for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions.” (Gen 15:13,14)
The plan for the family: So why did He tell Abram that? I suspect there are two answers. First, to encourage Abram with the knowledge that God had an ongoing plan for his family that stretched way into the future and, second, for the sake of those future generations who would have this passed on to them down through the family tree, as an encouragement to them that everything was going according to the Lord's plan.
Combination of Factors: But note two additional things in all this: first , that God did not make this happen – Israel ending up in Egypt needing deliverance. It came about as a consequence of two things, a natural outworking of the Fall, the world going wrong, a famine, and also by human choice – Israel chose to stay in Egypt in their lush surroundings after the threat from the famine had passed.
The Time Factor: The second thing to note, is the time factor in all these things. Years would pass, families would grow and change, there would be human interactions that were good, bad and indifferent, i.e. life would go on with no apparent big changes. But then He shared something else with Abram: “the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.” (Gen 15:16) which no doubt at the time meant nothing to Abram but in the fulness of time it would be seen that those things going on in the land where he now was, would so deteriorate morally and spiritually. The Amorites, one of the tribes who lived in Canaan – and thus shorthand for the occupants of Canaan – were a part of this and if God did not intervene to halt the downward spiral it might spread further abroad infecting more and more people with the superstitious fear-based occult activity that even drove the occupants to worship ‘gods' and sacrifice their children on altars to these gods. God would take the need to deliver Israel out of Egypt and take them back into Canaan and combine it with the need to bring an end to all this pagan horror by driving those nations (tribes) out of the land. Only after that four hundred year period of time had passed would the nation of Israel be strong enough to achieve that.
Revelation & Timing: So we see that God holds back on handing out too much knowledge that will not be understood by the people of the time, yet gives an indication that He knows all that will take place in the affairs of mankind and what will happen on the planet, and will weave His purposes into all of that. I hope we have started to see that God works into human affairs but does not make them happen but will use what is happening to continue His purposes which we will soon go on to start considering.
Spreading the Gospel: the ability to spread the good news about Jesus Christ and what God had done through him, is a classic example of this same thing, God pursuing His purposes (in this case to spread Christianity). Christian writer and evangelist, Michael Green, in his book, ‘Evangelism in the early Church', suggested nearly half a dozen things about the world that made the period two thousand years ago, following the death of Christ, almost certainly the best time for the spread of the Gospel. The fact of pax Romana , ‘a time of peace unparalleled in history', the fact of the amazing road system that the Romans had created, the wide common use of the Greek language, the existence of many false religions in existence that people were only to eager to abandon, the spread of Jewish culture which Christianity flowed through first, a culture found all over that area, all of these things contributed to the amazing spread of the Gospel and the growth of Christianity that say this was not by chance, this was by design, this was God working into the human activities of that time to ensure the news of His Son were spread so easily, so quickly and so widely.
The Conundrum of Slavery: There is a question I often hear, the answer to which fits in with this particular study and which I would thus like to mention briefly; it is the question of slavery. Why, say some people, didn't God condemn slavery. The answer is not stated specifically, but I believe from what is stated clearly we can deduce the following. First, God does not force the world, force nations or force groups or force individuals to act in specific ways, and therefore, if He was to work to change slavery activities, He would have had to impact many if not most primitive nations because slavery has always been worldwide. Yet, His revelation as we have been noting, was to and through one nation, Israel.
When we see his laws for Israel in respect of slavery we find that the Law given to Moses regulated what was an existing practice in the world but forbade Israelites to be slaves or make slaves, to accept slaves from other countries but to treat them well. A slave fleeing to them was to be given refuge. Contrary to much that is spoken about slavery in the Old Testament, there is a caring and concerned element in the Law that helped slaves coming from the surrounding world. Those who worked for another within the society were cared-for servants. In the New Testament, although slavery is seen in the world, when a specific believing slave returned to his Christian master, that master is put under severe pressure to accept him as a brother. (See the book of Philemon).
We might suggest that slavery was just one of many practices that God did not approve of in the world, but He recognised that He would have to wait until the time was right when a group of Christian believers would arise who would hold sufficient positions of power that they could speak into government and change the law and abolish slavery. (What is tragic is that in the world at large today, slavery is as prevalent as it ever has been). This subject, like other similar ones, hinge on this doctrine of divine accommodation and God's refusal to force mankind to comply with His wishes. We must also recognise that, as we have said before, God does not force His will upon humans having given us free will so, yes, there are many things going wrong in the world, but that is the cost of free-will that enables us to be what we call a human being.
And So? To summarise, we have been noting that:
God speaks at a level that mankind at any particular point in their development can understand. Historian Rodney Stark comments, “As St. Gregory of Nyssa wrote in the fourth century, God is so “far above our nature and inaccessible to all approach” that he in effect speaks to us in baby talk, thereby giving “to our human nature what it is capable of receiving.”
God interacts with humanity, weaving into our activities His plans and purposes. He does not force us to act as we do, but He works into what we do to bring about His end objectives.
Getting to Know God Meditations: 7. God of Purpose: Introduction
Gen 12:2,3 “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”
Again? We are sticking for the moment with references from that first book of the Bible, Genesis, and with the man, Abraham, who became known as the father of the nation of Israel. This is going to be the start, the introduction if you like, to this subject of the purposes that God has for the earth. Later we will go on and expand on this. When we understand the revealed purposes, we will understand something of God, and what we find may surprise some of us.
Abram is the first person in the Bible, the first historical figure, to enter into any form of long lasting relationship with God but, and here is the important issue, it is all initiated by God; this is a God-revealed thing that we are considering and what we are reading are words about God's purposes, revealed to Abram. Look at the simplicity of what He says here to Abram: “I will make you into a great nation.” Why should that be? Why would God create a particular nation from this one man, why did Israel come into being? What was so important about them?
The Developing Revelation: A while after these opening words of chapter 12 of Genesis, we find, in an ongoing conversation between Abram and God, the following: “God said to him, "As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations.” (Gen 17:3) In the Bible you will find explanatory footnotes, indicating that Abram means ‘exalted father' and Abraham means ‘father of many'. We have said previously Hebrew names frequently have a purposeful meaning. Along the way Abraham first had a son Ishmael via his servant maid when his wife did not appear able to conceive, and then later Isaac, miraculously by his wife long after child-bearing age. Ishmael became father of the Arab nations, Isaac father of Israel. But is that all this meant?
A while later God reiterated this: “Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him.” (Gen 18:17,18) How could that be – and yet it is God's purpose declared, to bless the whole earth somehow via this nation that would come into being. We see this promise stated yet again in Gen 22:15-18, and then to Isaac in Gen 26:2-6, and then to Jacob in Gen 28:13,14. Moving on, Moses was aware that God's dealing with Israel would be heard by other nations – Ex 15:14-16, Num 14:13-17, Deut 2:24,25.
Deuteronomy is Moses' talks to Israel before they enter the Promised Land and in it he reminds them what has happened to them and then gives them instructions how they are to live once they have entered into the Promised Land, Canaan: “See, I have taught you decrees and laws as the LORD my God commanded me, so that you may follow them in the land you are entering to take possession of it. Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations , who will hear about all these decrees and say, "Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people." (Deut 4:5,6) He reiterates this in Deut 28:8-10. When Joshua leads the nation he speaks to them similarly: “He did this so that all the peoples of the earth might know that the hand of the LORD is powerful and so that you might always fear the LORD your God.” (Josh 4:24) This awareness is seen in David and Solomon in subsequent years, it is their clear understanding of God's purposes in respect of Israel.
Initial Goal: Let's be quite clear what we have seen so far. It is clear that the first reason at least for the existence of Israel, and the way they are blessed by God, is to reveal something of God to the rest of the world . He constituted Israel as a nation and gave them ‘The Law' which refers to the Ten Commandments plus a lot of other laws about how to live in peace and harmony as a nation.
Let's make the note here that these laws were for them uniquely as an agrarian community but, even more importantly, a community that should be contrasted with the pagan communities surrounding it. This was not only by the fact they had a living relationship with God, but by the way they trusted Him and lived according to His guidelines and were blessed accordingly, and therefore some of the apparently really strange prohibitions that critics dig out, are against copying the cultic behaviour of those neighbouring pagan nations.
An Early Fulfilment: The outworking of this ‘living according to His guidelines and being blessed accordingly' is seen most amazingly in an incident in the reign of king Solomon. The Queen of Sheba hears of all that is happening in Israel and so she comes on a state visit. Thus we see, “She said to the king, “The report I heard in my own country about your achievements and your wisdom is true. But I did not believe these things until I came and saw with my own eyes. Indeed, not even half was told me; in wisdom and wealth you have far exceeded the report I heard. How happy your people must be! How happy your officials, who continually stand before you and hear your wisdom! Praise be to the Lord your God, who has delighted in you and placed you on the throne of Israel. Because of the Lord 's eternal love for Israel, he has made you king to maintain justice and righteousness.” (1 Kings 10:6-9) What an incredible testimony. She is saying, I am amazed by all I see of your affluence and I can see that it is all what ‘The I AM God' has done for you.
And Yet! And yet, sadly, this is not typical and, in fact, this episode with the Queen of Sheba is almost unique occurrence (certainly in its impact on her). The tragedy is that so much of the time in the life of this nation – that became two nations – they turned away from God again and again and again and got into a mess. The book of Judges is the classic example of the record of this as we see a recurring cycle – Israel are at peace and are blessed by God, then they drift away from following Him and as a result they become vulnerable to enemy attacks from their neighbours, they get into severe difficulties, cry out to God, and He then sends them a deliverer, they return to peace and harmony, and so the cycle starts over again. It happens again and again. Years later, the prophet Isaiah would declare their failure: “We have not brought salvation to the earth, and the people of the world have not come to life.” (Isa 26:18)
A Second Goal? Now this isn't stated but one cannot help wondering, from a human point of view, how this state of affairs could have carried on? God has blessed this people, made them a strong nation, given them a wonderful fruitful land and done everything He could to establish them, and yet time and time again they mess up and turn away from Him and to idol worship and get into trouble. Why didn't He just wipe them out and start with another nation? Well one of the things that the Bible teaches us is that God knows, He knows everything – He knows about everything and He knows what will come and how things will work out. So, we might ask, why did He create Israel if He knew they would mess up?
The obvious answer has to be so that we would have, under a microscope so to speak, an insight into human beings. It is not that Israel were uniquely bad or uniquely stupid – we all are! Israel only demonstrated what we are all like when we have the courage to be honest and face it. The second goal, I may suggest therefore, is that God brought Israel into being to reveal to the world the sinful tendency of humanity in the world . Now that is the first time I have used that biblical word, ‘sin' and so I had better explain it. Put most simply it means our propensity to be self-centred and godless which leads to wrong living, living contrary to God's design for us (we'll look at this more fully later).
Recap: OK, before we move on let's just recap what I have suggested are the two initial goals for God creating the nation of Israel:
To reveal Himself and His good intentions to the world,
To reveal the sinful nature, tendency or propensity, of human beings.
Now these two goals lead on to an even bigger third goal, the ultimate goal that God has for mankind, not to condemn us but to save us from ourselves , but we will need more space for that so we'll look some more at this in the next few studies. Stay with me as we continue to consider the God of Purpose!
Getting to Know God Meditations: 8. God of Purpose: Environment
Psa 135:4 For the Lord has chosen Jacob to be his own, Israel to be his treasured possession.
Again? In the previous study we noted that the two initial goals for God creating the nation of Israel were to reveal God to the world, AND to reveal the sinful nature, tendency or propensity, of human beings, through Israel's inability to stay on track. To those two goals we added a bigger third goal, the ultimate goal that God has for mankind, not to condemn us but to save us from ourselves.
The Big Picture Alternatives: Post-modernists, we are told, don't trust ‘big-picture' solutions to world problems but that creates problems. For example my atheist friend will say that all we can know about the world is found through science and science says the world came about through the big bang, followed by evolution. We are what we are today, he will say, because we have evolved to this. Now that I have to suggest is as much a ‘big-picture solution' as any contrary biblical one. The primary big-picture alternative world view to that meaningless, ‘world by chance' one is the one based upon biblical revelation which is all about divine purpose:
The Biblical Big-Picture Behavioural World View: It is remarkably simple:
God created the designed world (whether by purposeful evolution or some other way, is irrelevant).
The world He created was designed to work in particular ways (see below) that would benefit mankind, with whom He communicates.
Being given free-will we chose to reject God's design and so we cause self-harm and harm to others (I will explain that more fully later).
From the outset God knew this would happen and so planned to win us back to himself by sending his Son to the earth to show the possibility of life with God and all that that could mean.
Sub-Goals: I am not going into the random nature of evolution or the ‘big bang' for that matter, even though atheistic scientists try to put purpose into both, for this is not the place to point out the numerous faults within them (we may do that in a later study), but to lay out the far more reasonable and likely scenario to the open-minded, through the biblical record.
That third ultimate goal of saving us from ourselves, that we referred to before, is made up of three sub-goals:
1. To create a ‘God environment' into which His Son may come, i.e. Israel,
2. To reveal Himself through His Son Jesus Christ, and
3. To satisfy justice by the death of His Son.
The first of those three will form the content of this study, and the 2 nd and 3 rd in the following studies. We will need to insert a further one that briefly overviews the life and ministry of Jesus Christ to see how he ‘fits' into all this. I believe there are things here that most people fail to understand about God and His purposes and His Son, Jesus.
Creating a Working Environment: I suspect most of us take for granted, once we've heard the story or read it in the four Gospels, that Jesus Christ, the self-acclaimed Son of God, came into this world as a Jew, a citizen of the nation of Israel, some two thousand years ago when Israel were under the domination of the Roman empire. What we take for granted, as I say once we've read it, is the God-culture of that land. Imagine Jesus being born into say France or somewhere in Africa. Where in history could we insert him into our affairs to give him a fighting chance of revealing himself to the world as the Son of God? Let me highlight the background of this nation into which he is born and suggest that this is why God worked so hard to establish Israel and keep them in existence:
- Israel have a history that we have been starting to examine, a history of encounter with God, and so the thought of God, and Him entering into the affairs of mankind, is not unusual to this people, they have a history full of it.
- within this history are ‘prophets', men (mostly men but not exclusively) who claimed to hear from God and thus speak on His behalf. In the midst of their calls to the nation to return to God and put their lives right (for that was what they mostly did) there came an almost confusing plethora of prophecies about one who would come from God to deliver the nation (and the world?). There are said to be over three hundred of such references. They are a people who are expecting a ‘messiah', a deliverer.
- their society, their culture is God-orientated unlike any other nation in the world. Locally there are rabbis, teachers of the scrolls of what we now call the Old Testament, who work out of local ‘synagogues'. - in the capital, Jerusalem, there is a great temple. The nation has a history of temples, first the one built by Solomon to replace the tabernacle, destroyed in BC587 by Nebuchadnezzar, and rebuilt seventy years later by the returning exiles, and extended by Herod shortly before Jesus was born. The temple was said to be the dwelling place of God in the midst of the nation.
- with the temple is the priesthood, created under the Law by Moses centuries before but still existing, whose role is to oversee the temple and its activities. The Chief Priest is almost certainly the most powerful man in the nation, even though overseen by Rome, and he and the priesthood administer the culture of the land – a God-culture.
- there are a number of groupings within the nation, some secular revolutionaries who want to free them from Rome, but a number with specifically religious outlooks, the main three being the Sadducees, (liberal in outlook who ruled the temple), Pharisees (orthodox conservative guardians of the Law) and the Essenes, a more revolutionary religious band.
- the culture is uniquely God-orientated, a society that taught their history with God and the requirements of the Law of Moses and how it should be applied to daily life.
Thus when Jesus, at the age of about thirty, stands up and starts his public ministry, he is speaking into a prepared people. In fact not only are they prepared by their history and cultural structure, they are prepared by a prophet who attracted large crowds, who we refer to simply as John the Baptist, who preached in the desert and baptised people to wash away their sins, proclaiming get ready for the messiah is about to come. It was into this doubly prepared people that Jesus came. Because of the complexity of who he was, what he taught and what he did, we will make those things the subject of the next study.
Getting to Know God Meditations: 9. God of Purpose: Jesus
Jn 1:1-3, In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made…. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
Acts 2:22-24 Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God's deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead
New Seekers or Old Believers? Because Jesus Christ is such a significant and crucial figure in human history – and in the life of Israel – and because it is being said that the present younger generation is the first biblically illiterate generation, it would be wise to identify who we are talking about. But how to do that for seeker and those of you who are believers of long-standing? Well may I simply say what I am going to do here is lay out summary notes of what the Bible teaches about Jesus.
For the new seeker this simply says the Bible says a great deal about him; he is no obscure figure in misty history. There are also limited references to him as an historical figure in other writings outside the Bible but the Bible is full of details about him and therefore acts as our primary source. For long-term believers, may these notes simply act as reminders and maybe a challenge to update and enlarge your knowledge. For those who wish to pursue these things in much greater detail you will find much detail in an earlier series of 62 studies I wrote entitled ‘Focus on Christ'.
Big Pictures: The above two sets of starter verses show us something of the diversity of the descriptions that are found in the New Testament about Jesus. The first three Gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke – were written within a relatively few years after Jesus' time on the earth. John was written a number of decades later after he had had time to mull over all the things he had seen and heard in those three most incredible years of his life and was writing, probably from Ephesus where he was still a church elder and probably one of the only remaining original twelve apostles who travelled with Jesus. John writes for a Greek-thinking dominated world and so he uses this big philosophical language that would be understood by them. Jesus, he says, is the Word, (Gk. Logos meaning focus of all life, the meaning behind everything). Meanwhile the apostle Peter on the Day of Pentecost, days after Jesus has ascended, declares under the anointing of the Holy Spirit who fell on the believers that day, that Jesus was a man but enabled to do the miraculous by God, for which he was opposed by the authorities, put to death on a cross but rose from the dead. A short, sharp, non-philosophical testimony. This record was written only a relatively few years after the event and the believers struggled with the concept that this man was God. It took John, and also Paul as he listened more, to understand that this was God incarnate, God with us, the ‘Immanuel' of Isaiah prophecies.
The Prophesied One: We said in a previous study that there are over 300 prophecies about a coming Messiah, descriptions noted by the Jewish scholars through the centuries, that fitted Jesus perfectly and, it should be said, never seen in any other figure. Thus the Jews expected One to come who would be:
A prophet like Moses (Deut 18:18), a ruling conqueror (Balaam's prophecy) (Num 24:17-19), a shepherd (Ezek 34:23), a prince (Ezek 37:25), a ruler from Judah (Gen 49:10), the Seed of David with an everlasting kingdom (2 Sam 7:12-), one bringing the presence of God with him (Isa 7:14), a mighty ruler (Isa 9:6-7), a Son of man coming with the clouds to rule (Dan 7:13,14), God's servant (Isa 42:1-/49:1-/50:4-/52:13-).
Summarising this we might say that in the OT the Jews saw the coming One as a compilation of:
Son of David, a great ruler, a prophetic messiah, a priestly messiah, a son of man (human in form), and a suffering servant.
Past, Present and Future descriptions: to fill out this summary overview we might summarise his being and activity as shown in the Bible as follows:
1. Past History: he came from heaven, lived on earth, taught widely, healed the sick & raised the dead, performed a variety of miracles, cast out demons, was arrested, falsely tried & crucified, took our sins on the Cross, rose from the dead and taught his followers for a number of weeks and then ascended into heaven.
2. Present Experience: he draws people to God, heals & delivers, moves in affairs of world to bring about God's purposes, prepares the church for his second coming.
3. Future Activity: he will return to earth, being seen by every person, will take his followers to be with him, will vanquish the enemy (all evil), will judge every person.
Greater Content: For those who would like a little more detail here, here are some of those things slightly expanded:
1. Jesus left his glorious position in heaven to come to earth ( Jn 17:5 / Jn 6:38). Jesus didn't just come into being when he was born on earth; he had existed throughout eternity with the Father in heaven.
2. He put aside the glory he had previously in heaven and lived in human frailty ( Phil 2:7). In heaven he had been the glorious Son of God in full splendour. He put aside all that to come down to earth and wear a human body.
3. He was tempted in EVERY way we are, but he DIDN'T give way to sin ( Heb 4:15). Jesus lived an ordinary human life with the same sort of human body, had human emotions, and lived among the same sort of people, and therefore faced the same temptations we face in our lives; he understands us! Yet he didn't succumb to any temptation and didn't sin.
4. He came in perfect obedience to his Father in heaven ( Heb 10:7 / Jn 5:19). Despite the pressures of living in a human body, at all times he sought the wishes of the Father in heaven and did all he was told to do, even though that was sometimes incredibly difficult. His rule was “Yet not as I will, but as you will” (Mt 26:39).
5. He allowed the Holy Spirit to minister through him to heal the sick, deliver the demonised, raise the dead, and generally counter the works of Satan on earth. ( Lk 4:18,19 / Mt 11:4,5). His life was one of selfless giving, despite frequent tiredness and constant demands of people on him, he poured out God's love in power.
6. He was plotted against and falsely tried. ( Acts 4:27 / Isa 53:3,8 / Acts 2:23) Because of his total goodness, the self-centred, godless and unrighteous attitudes of those who should have known better, made them vulnerable to the promptings of the enemy and they rose up against him.
7. He was beaten, tortured and crucified by Satan's agents and was railed against by the demons hordes but never responded wrongly (Mt 27:26-30 / Psa 22:12,16 - prophetic insight into the mind of the crucified One) Every violent expression of sin was turned upon him and he received it all in his body. Every violent expression in the spiritual realms was turned upon him and he received it in his spirit.
8. He took our sin upon himself on the Cross. ( 2 Cor 5:21 / 1 Pet 2:24 / Isa 53:12) As he hung on the Cross, it was as if all your individual sins, deserving punishment, were laid on Jesus, as if to say, “Here are the reasons you are hanging here taking this punishment.” In that sense it was, in God's eyes in eternity, as if they were transferred from you to him.
9. He rose from the dead as proof of who he was ( Acts 2:24 / Acts 17:31). The resurrection of Jesus is the ultimate proof that he was who he said he was.
10. He ascended into heaven to rule at his Father's right hand. ( 1 Pet 3:22 / 1 Cor 15:25 / Eph 1:20-22 / Psa 110:1) See also the following for Jesus seated with the Father: Mk 16:19, Acts 2:33, 5:31, 7:55, Rom 8:34, Phil 2:9, Col 3:1, Heb 1:3, 8:1, 12:2. See also the following for Jesus ruling: Eph 1:22, Heb 2:8
11. He is now IN THE PROCESS of putting everything in subjection under his feet ( 1 Cor 15: 24,25 / Eph 1:19-22 / Eph 2:6,7). As he reigns at the Father's right hand, Jesus works out the Father's will on earth, continuing to do the things he started doing, but now through his church. This means Jesus reigns or rules or brings the Father's will through the church, which is a gradual process.
12. That process will be completed when he comes as conquering king (Rev 19:11-17 / 1 Thess 4:16,17 / Mt 24:27,30,31, 1 Cor 15:24-26) The end is quite clear: Jesus will return in glory and all will see him coming. At that point, we who are on earth will be caught up to him. He will then deal with his enemies once and for all.
And So? Whether you believe this or not, this is the clear and specific teaching about Jesus Christ as seen in the Bible. We now need to move on and see how all of this is designed to impact the people we can become, i.e. all about our behaviour.
Getting to Know God Meditations: 10. God of Purpose: Behaviour
Ex 20:13-15 You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal.
Approach: I think I need to lay out what I intend to cover in this particular study because there are other aspects I will need to cover separately in the next study. Here I want to consider human behaviour, signs of God's design – and possibilities. In Study No.7 I suggested four parts of the ‘big picture' and the last part was about how God planned to win us back to himself by sending his Son to the earth to show the possibility of life with God and all that that could mean. To understand this we have to look at how we live our lives and then how we could live our lives.
Great Potential: In a moment we are going to have to face the negative aspects of the human race but to maintain balance, I believe we need to look first at how God designed us to be originally. From the outset we are told that we have been made, “in the image of God.” (Gen 1:26). What does that mean? Well, how do we differ from all other living creatures? It means He gave us the abilities to communicate, think, plan, reason, invent, create, write, compose, design, research, work, order, purpose, worship and enter into the fullness of what we were designed to be . Put another way, He has given us self-consciousness, imagination and conscience, and ability to grow and develop mentally, spiritually, emotionally as well as physically. It is all these things that separate mankind off from the rest of the animal world and, I suggest, are what the Bible means when it says we are made in His image. But even more than that, we are made to show immense care and compassion, of self-sacrifice and even carry out courageous acts of heroism. The potential of the human race is phenomenal. When you consider advances in science, technology, medicine, surgery, exploration and so much more, these are all aspects or expressions of ‘being made in his image', and this applies to every single human being regardless of belief.
Great Pleasure: When you consider the five senses – sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell – they are all about the potential of enjoyment. If we are – as the Bible says we are – ‘designed' by God then we are thinking of very positive things. Ponder on looking at and taking in a wonderful sunset, a beautiful vista, works of art, or listening to the sounds of nature or the sounds of a symphony orchestra or jazz band, or reaching out to touch the skin of a loved one, or the smoothness of polished wood, the taste of a thousand dishes on menus, the smell of fresh coffee and baking bread, and all these thing are for pleasure and without those senses we are severely curtailed in that potential enjoyment. Speech isn't usually considered one of our ‘senses' and yet our speech has incredible potential for good or harm.
Dysfunctional? And yet, as I have pondered these things for many years, despite all these things in the two paragraphs above, I conclude that the best word to describe all of us is ‘dysfunctional' which, as a dictionary says, simply means ‘not operating normally or properly'. The picture of the Garden of Eden in Genesis 2 & 3 may (if I may take in all views) be either factual history or a teaching narrative based on factual geography, but the picture of that original relationship when God interacted with man (and it may be millions of years down the evolutionary scale if you want to believe that) was one of total peace and harmony. Put another way, there was an absence of stress, worry, anxiety, upset, hostility, all the things that characterize so much of modern Western life. The sad thing is that we now take as normal these dysfunctional things I have just listed that were not there in the beginning. Genesis 3 (fact or lesson) declares that these things happen because we reject God and His design for us.
Warping the Design: Things go wrong in the way we live. Sometimes we are happy to acknowledge these things, but more often than not it is for economic grounds and not morally ethical grounds. For example overeating (which may be caused by a variety of reasons) causes obesity and obesity is harmful to health and even life-threatening. When that impinges on national health provision, the government health authorities start speaking up about it. Alcoholism and drug addiction are generally accepted as equally harmful.
When it comes to sexual aspects of relationships we are less likely to agree, but repeated studies show that cohabitation is a less stable relationship than marriage, and divorce has a seriously detrimental effect on the children of the marriage, which is worked out later in life in negative, antisocial ways in society. In modern Western society, sex has become for many no different than eating, it is part of the package of the evening out, and then we are surprised that young people struggle to find the meaning and experience of ‘love', and increasingly young people are dropping out of even traditional dating. As the Sunday papers so often show, it is often, a quagmire of emotions. The quaint biblical notion of sex only after marriage with one life-long partner has so much going for it and avoids so much of the angst of modern relationships – but, yes, it does need self-control and it does need working at. It is only a matter of time, I suggest, before the realities of these things bring change.
The ways that we human beings find to abuse other are, it seems, almost limitless: murder, genocide, rape, slavery, torture, racism, violence in the home and on the streets, cruelty, abuse, bullying, sexual abuse, aggression, slander, libel, defamation, malice, theft, vandalism, bribery and corruption, fraud, and the list could just go on and on and on. This is what we do when the restraints are removed. Perhaps we should add the motivating forces that drive some of those things: godlessness, (don't confuse ‘religion' with being godly), self-centredness, callousness, insensitivity, pride, envy, gluttony, greed, lust, sloth, and wrath (the seven so-called ‘cardinal sins'), lies, and deceit. What a bunch we are!
The Christian Perspective: Please don't hear me wrongly here, Christians are not immune from these things, we speak out of turn, act wrongly and harbour wrong attitudes but may I suggest three ways we differ from our unbelieving neighbour:
- we do intend to be righteous, and our reading of the Bible and teaching within church life go to reinforce that intention (we study the New Testament which is full of teaching and encouragement to go for this; this is our primary behavioural goal).
- when we fail, we are more likely to be convicted by God about our failure and then confess it to Him and repent (turn away with the resolve not to repeat it). Also sharing it in a church context means we will be strengthened in that resolve.
- if we do fail, we are more likely to be convicted by God to put right any wrong relationship, and thus act as a peacemaker, and if necessary bring restitution.
On top of these three things I would suggest that believers, as individual disciples of Jesus, are more likely to seek to model themselves on him, by seeking to be obedient to God the Father and be led by the Holy Spirit, having open hearts to others (believers or non-believers), being generous in attitude, seeking to bless others (inside and outside the church), seeking to meet needs presented where possible, with humility, being caring, listening and accepting, while holding firmly to the conviction that God's design is always the right way and never to be compromised.
Where Christian community is operating as it should, there will be open-hearted sharing, caring and concern, being there for one another, encouraging one another, being gentle and patient with one another, blessing one another. I have just said ‘as it should' and my experience is that it often is in large measure, and that is so often missed by the atheist cynic.
And So: Really, seriously, look back over these things under this last heading. We may not be achieving all of them all of the time but it is our intention to do so and we work to do that. Really, can this sort of life and community life come under criticism from the humanistic, secularistic atheist who has no such community and cannot provide such a similar testimony? This is what Jesus came to achieve. This is the behavioural aspect of the purpose of God through the ministry of Jesus. We will go on to see in the next study how he laid the foundation for this to happen and how he works today to help us achieve this.
Getting to Know God Meditations: 11. God of Purpose: Justice (1)
Ex 34:6,7 Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished;
Reassurance: I am sure there are some Christian readers who may have been tutting about the last study in that I have dealt first with the end product and have not yet dealt with how that can come about – the Cross – and I want to reassure you that as with the apostle Paul, “Christ crucified” is first and foremost in my mind. Having said that I put the previous study about behaviour first for two reasons: first, it shows us the need that we have as fallen, dysfunctional human beings and, second, it shows us God's end goal – to redeem us and that means to restore us, change us, remake us, and that very often gets forgotten in Christian circles.
Only the other day I came across the following quote (which may need a little thinking about) from a modern Christian writer who I respect: “Transformation of life and character is no part of the redemptive message” but that came just after references to, “the gospel of sin management…. behaviour modification, avoiding obvious sins through a kind of religious willpower.” What that highly acclaimed Christian writer was saying – and I totally agree with it – is that ‘trying hard to be good' is not what makes a person a Christian. Unless the foundation, that I am now going back to consider, is laid in a person's life, ‘trying hard to be good' is all that we are left with and that is doomed to failure.
Approach: In order to be as clear as I possibly can in this study (and possibly the next one that I may have to extend this into) this is how I intend to cover this subject
Recap the human need.
Initial thoughts about Justice.
What happened on the cross and the potential of what follows.
How that can be applied into individual lives.
1. Recap the human need: I believe I have shown quite reasonably in the previous study, not only the amazing potential that there is for every human being, but also the reality of how it so often works out. We may wish we could live spectacular lives, lives that are positive, affirming myself and others, bring peace and blessing wherever I go, but left to my own devices that is not how it works out.
The Bible is very realistic without being depressing. For instance the apostle Paul addressing just this same problem wrote, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do,” ( Rom 7:15) and then, “I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing,” (v.19) and then, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me ….. Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (v. 24,25) and he then goes on to talk about what Christ has achieved on the cross and what power from God – the Holy Spirit - now does to change him.
But he highlights the dilemma that confronts us: I am faced with my own fallibility, my own weaknesses, my own failings and I am uncomfortable with them. Now there may be three responses here:
i) deny my failings, blame others for them, ignore all this and continue to be a self-centred, godless person getting it wrong, or
ii) start trying to be religious or good, still being self-centred, focusing on ‘my ‘ efforts, or
iii) we accept the Bible teaching.
Before I move on, I must note that when people start thinking about these things – and being concerned about them – it is usually a sign of God moving. People do not move from a quick casual thought to deep reflection and conviction without help from God, yet the moment He sees there is an opening of heart, He will be there, gently speaking in the background, although we tend never to be aware of it at the time; it is only awareness retrospectively.
2. Thoughts about Justice: Justice is a strange concept. As the Internet puts it, Justice is the morally fair and right state of everything and, Justice is a concept … that means that people behave in a way that is fair, equal and balanced for everyone. We may watch TV police dramas and justice is always there in the background.
We take it for granted, yet when it comes to the way we think as a society, or as individuals within society, we find that today there are two prevailing moods or outlooks. One says don't bother me with such things and lives in a happy state of blissful ignorance, but sadly it is neither happy nor blissful. The other says that absolutes and boundaries are restrictive psychological constructs, and so have been abandoned so that, in the eyes of many at least, anything goes and ‘right' is what feels right to the individual and varies with the situation. (hence ‘relativism' and ‘situation ethics'). To talk about ‘justice' in this sort of environment seems quite alien. But when we have the nerve or courage to stop and think about these things, this relative morality backfires on us because a) we don't want it to apply in my own life and b) we do have specific ideas of things that we consider ‘wrong', and c) we are often uncomfortable with applying justice to my own foibles and failings. In fact the second group become clearer when they have become personal in my own life. So let's give some examples.
a) My own life: I can be very casual about behaviour in general until it impacts me personally, for example, someone breaks into my house and trashes it, I scream for the police, and demand justice; I want these vandals caught and punished. My mother is badly mugged walking down the street and ends up a bruised mess in hospital. Ditto response. My daughter is gang raped and severely traumatized. Ditto response. It is right to demand justice; it is right to demand an end be brought to such behaviour and the perpetrators be severely dealt with. That is justice, bringing rightness to a wrong situation.
b) My lists of wrongs: But each of us have, when we pause to think about it, a list of things we consider wrong. For example the moment I use the word ‘paedophile' most right thinking people will say that sexual child abuse is wrong – always. We could, no doubt, create long lists of things that each of us say is ‘wrong'. Sometimes we may hesitate because we feel certain things get a bit close to home, for example anger if we ourselves struggle with it.
c) Hesitant Justice: Because so often we are unsure about ourselves, lacking confidence in who we are, and because we have so often succumbed to the false doctrine of relative ethics, we are so often hesitant to consider the thought that moral failure carries with it consequences, and one of those consequences is a sense of guilt. We can make excuses but deep down – and sometimes we try to suppress it – we know that there are standards and we are guilty of either not having reached them or of having broken them. We also so often have a feeling that there is nothing to be said here because this is just how life is, and I am stuck here. We may have read self-help books, even gone on courses, but then failure struck and as much as we try to deny it, we know it is our failure. For all these sorts of reasons we so often try to duck the issue: I am guilty and there are consequences.
And So? Well, we have run out of space for this study and have only managed to cover two of the four subjects I want to cover – 1. Recap the human need, and 2. Initial thoughts about Justice – and so we will leave the other two until the next two studies.
Getting to Know God Meditations: 12. God of Purpose: Justice (2)
1 Cor 1:22 -24 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
Continuation: In the previous study as we started to approach – and it is only a start – the subject of justice, we looked at the human need and considered some initial thoughts about Justice. In this study we go on to consider what happened on the cross and the potential of what follows, and later how that can be applied into individual lives. In some ways ‘the Cross' (and putting it like that is shorthand for all that happened and all that was achieved by Christ's death) is a mystery and, as the apostle Paul wrote to the church at Corinth in our quote above, it was a problem for Jews who could not understand how any potential Messiah could die by what they saw as a shameful death, and it was pure craziness to the intellectual Greeks of the day, to talk about salvation through an execution. Today it is still an anathema to ‘religious' people who would rather work their way to God's good side, as they see it, and an abhorrence to intellectual atheists who delight in mocking it (but of course they never have any satisfactory solution to the problem themselves.)
The problem restated: The problem we need to restate is that we are failures, we are dysfunctional, and we feel guilty. We may work hard to try to cover up those things but those are the truths about us. Now there is an even bigger problem than what we think about ourselves, it is what God thinks about us. Now some people try to say, “Well you say He is a loving God so surely He understand our frailty and so will not condemn us,” but that forgets a crucial issue – justice.
We have said that there is this thing called justice and justice demands that wrongs are put right and, so often, that necessitates dealing with the past in some way that satisfies all onlookers, if I may put it like that, who can say, “Yes, that is fair, that is right, that is just.” Now it is difficult to be objective about this and so imagine an alien from a distant planet where they still live perfectly according to God's design, and the alien comes here and observes what goes on. He (let's do the ‘legal' he) is appalled. He sees all the negative things we considered in Study No.10 that we do to one another that are bad. He hears you say you want a new life that is free from all these things and he says that is great but what about all the guilt that is here to be dealt with?
He has the ability to see the whole span of your life, present, past and future and he jots down literally thousands upon thousands of instances where you were self-centred and godless (leaving God out of it) and left a trail of bad or unresolved consequences – you lied, you covered up, you blamed other people, you ran away, and so on – because that's just how life is, and he says, “I see you struggle with facing this but when you see the totality of these things, on my planet such a creature would not be allowed to live!” “But why?” you respond. “Well, think about it,” he replies, “Justice demands correction, even punishment (something needs to be done to satisfy everyone these things have been dealt with to their satisfaction) and there is no way that you can either make amends for every instance or indeed for the whole lot. If you say punish me a bit for each misdemeanour, they so mount up that we are talking about your life here, or rather taking it. You need to die to fully satisfy justice, that is how big the problem is.”
And then Jesus: So, we said, the third of the things to be considered is the coming and death of Jesus. Now Charles Dickens in his novel, A Tale of Two Cities paralleled exactly what happened when, in the story, one man is condemned to death and another steps into the breach and dies in his place. Dickens knew that that is exactly what Christ did.
The basic facts: Christ came and lived a spotless life. He went about, to quote the apostolic record, ‘teaching and doing good'. As the Gospels declare, “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.” (Mt 11:5) Jesus said of God, “he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free.” (Lk 4:18) All of that so upset the religious authorities who were shown up by him to be heartless, self-concerned, religious bigots, that they trumped up charges against him and so pressurised the Roman governor that he had him put to death by crucifixion.
The biblical record: Now we might just look on that and say it was just a good man who got on the wrong side of the authorities and died for it, but this ‘good man' proclaimed again and again and again (we see in the Gospels and affirmed by the rest of the New Testament) through a whole variety of teachings that he was the divine Son of God who had come down from heaven to both reveal God and to die in the place of humanity for their sins. (I said in an earlier study if you want to see the detail and biblical references for all this, please go to my previous series entitled ‘Focus on Christ'.)
The Significance of Jesus Christ: This is where unbelieving Jew & Gentile struggle. This IS the clear New Testament teaching, that Jesus Christ was God incarnate, God in the flesh. Why is that important? It isn't if all you want Jesus to be is a witness to God's goodness, but for the claim to be substantiated that the individual sins of every single human being who has ever existed has been taken and dealt with, then no other person is big enough, if we may put it like that, to carry all those causes of guilt, only God Himself who is eternal and both inside and outside of time (we'll look at that in a later study).
Now back in study no.5 about God's revelation we noted what is called ‘the doctrine of divine accommodation' which is about how God speaks in such ways that mankind at a particular point of history can understand. Throughout the pagan world sacrifice to idols was the norm. Thus, in the Law, God instigated the practice of sacrifices to act as substitutes for the offeror's deserving to die for his or her sin (see the early chapters of the third book of the Bible, Leviticus). It was a picture, a way of the guilty Israelite performing a ritual, dictated by God, so that his conscience could be appeased; he has done what God has decreed to show that he was sorry and so the sacrificed animal carried his punishment. That is the picture built into the Law and seen with less clarity of appeasing purpose in pagan religions. The big difference for the Israelite was that he was doing it for Almighty God. This would be a picture that new believers coming from pagan backgrounds could understand.
But it was just a picture. In the New Testament, the remarkable ‘Letter to the Hebrews' recaps all this for new Jewish but Christian believers and acknowledges that “It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins,” (Heb 10:4) but what they had been doing for centuries was acting out a picture of what would happen when Christ came, even though they did not realise it. Very simply, their obedience to the Lord satisfied God that if they had lived in his time and heard about Christ, they would believe in him and be forgiven.
Perhaps an even clearer picture was what occurred at the first Passover, when the destroying angel of God ‘passed over' Egypt but ignored every house where, at God's instigation through Moses, a lamb had been killed and its blood put on the doorposts (see Ex 12). When John the Baptist saw Jesus coming, he said prophetically to his disciples, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (Jn 1:29 and again in v.35). As a good Jew or Gentile you may struggle with that but that is the New Testament clear teaching again and again. Your sin and mine, your guilt and mine, has been dealt with by Jesus, the divine Son of God, dying in our place. We cannot add to that, we cannot improve on that, we can only believe it, accept it and receive all that God has for us as a consequence. That will be the content of the next study.
Getting to Know God Meditations: 13. God of Purpose: Justice (3)
Jn 1:10-13 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God
Continuation: Let's be honest, none of us can fully comprehend what we have been considering in the previous studies, that Jesus Christ, the divine Son of God, left heaven, put aside all the glory he had there, and came and lived in human form, experiencing everything we experience (but without sinning), taught and did good in amazing ways, but was then falsely tried, condemned and crucified. There's more to come but even that bit is hard enough to swallow – it is too good to be true. (We also struggle to face our need and so make excuses!) And the truth, as I have suggested before is that you will only accept it with God's help.
The Process: There is a process that all Christians go through, in a variety of ways, before they become a Christian. It is important to understand this, to understand how God works in this, because it all goes back to what I just said above, it is almost impossible to believe because we have too much pride hanging in the balance. But when I look back on my own experience, when I listen to the testimonies of many other Christians and when I see what the scriptures say, I have to say there is a common process that takes place.
The changes: The first thing that happens is either that the individual starts to find they are thinking spiritual thoughts, or having spiritual questions, or finding themselves in a spiritual context (being asked to church, say). The more they think and the more they read and the more they hear, the more challenged they find themselves getting. The challenge is a) about the sort of person they are and b) who they are hearing Jesus Christ claims to be. Sometimes this process is accelerated by a personal crisis is their life and maybe it is the crisis that provokes them to reassess themselves and their personal lifestyle. And so there will be these two things running in parallel, this growth in personal dissatisfaction and this growth in knowledge of who Jesus Christ could be. And then at some point they find a challenge, a call to recognise this personal dissatisfaction as a need to call on God for forgiveness and a call to recognize Jesus Christ as the Saviour he wants to be.
The surrender: Before a person becomes a Christian, there comes a surrender. It comes as a confession of failure and a call to be forgiven, combined with a declaration, “I believe in Jesus.” Sometimes it is a crisis of a moment and sometimes it may be spread over weeks or even months. And they pray. The transaction with God is always made through prayer. What is prayed? It various according to the individual. For me initially it was, having just been at a meeting where I heard the gospel preached, “God, I've heard it all. I understand you want my life. I give it to you. Please take it and lead me. I've heard about Jesus and thank you for him. Amen” Now looking back over fifty years, I think that was pretty basic and I am sure I prayed more things to do with forgiveness and belief in the following days, but from that moment, there was no doubt, I was changed, I was transformed, I was in Jesus' words ‘born again' (Jn 3:3-8). The Bible speaks about being converted (Acts 15:3) which simply means to be changed.
Pray: I hesitate to proscribe a prayer but if it would help you and you find you want to do this (only pray it if you are sincere) then pray, “Lord, I recognise my failures, and my weakness and my need of you in my life. Please forgive me that I have been self-centred and godless, I want you to change me. I believe Jesus is your Son and he died for me to take my punishment and I invite you to come into my life to change me and lead me from now on. Thank you that you will do that. Amen.”
The Result: The process takes us up to the point of surrender. When we come to that point something amazing happens. This is what the Bible says takes place: God forgives us and cleanses us and sets us free from our past life, declares we are now part of His family (adopted), and that He has plans to bless us as we allow Him to lead us, and that will go on and on throughout our life here on earth and then on past death into eternity, a life with Him, a life blessed by Him. To enable us to live that life He imparts His Holy Spirit who indwells us and empowers us and is the changing force, cooperating with us to lead, guide, inspire, teach, empower and change us.
Death & Resurrection: Remember the Old Testament picture of sacrifices we considered previously, translated into the picture of Jesus dying as a sacrifice for our sins, taking our punishment? Well there are further death AND RESURRECTION pictures that are part of this whole package which we need to look at.
i) Jesus' Resurrection: We haven't touched on it yet but the great truth (and you can see more if this in that previous series of studies I mentioned, ‘Focus on Christ') is that Jesus did not remain dead: “This man was handed over to you by God's deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead.” (Acts 2:23,24) The same testimony is repeated again and again in the New Testament.
ii) Us: The apostle Paul in his teaching letters in the New Testament urges us to see this picture of death and resurrection as what has happened to us when we became believers. Let's see it in the paraphrase version of The Message: “Could it be any clearer? Our old way of life was nailed to the cross with Christ, a decisive end to that sin-miserable life—no longer at sin's every beck and call! What we believe is this: If we get included in Christ's sin-conquering death, we also get included in his life-saving resurrection. We know that when Jesus was raised from the dead it was a signal of the end of death-as-the-end. Never again will death have the last word. When Jesus died, he took sin down with him, but alive he brings God down to us. From now on, think of it this way: Sin speaks a dead language that means nothing to you; God speaks your mother tongue, and you hang on every word. You are dead to sin and alive to God. That's what Jesus did.” (Rom 6:6-11) What he is saying is that when you surrendered, as we said above, it was like you died to your old life (which you gave up) and were empowered by God with a new life, like you have been resurrected, you have a new life: “ if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Cor 5:17) When Paul uses the phrase ‘in Christ' it just means united with him, one with him.
iii) A New Approach to Life: Listen again to Paul's teaching: “I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. 2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romm12:1,2) See the language he uses: ‘your body', i.e. the whole of your life; ‘living sacrifice' – having an attitude of ongoing surrender for God to take you lead you, use you, change you (all things you can totally trust Him with); ‘renewing of your mind' – no longer thinking in a self-centred, godless way, but having Christ as the central focus of all your thinking, making his will – which is ‘good, pleasing and perfect' (it is for your blessing!) – the heart and foundation of the way you look at life from now on.
Justice? Oh yes, this is still all about how our past self-centred, godless lives that got so much wrong, can be dealt with so we can stand up in the court of universal assessment, pardoned and set free, not just because of a whim of the judge but because Justice has been satisfied because someone else – Christ – stepped into the court and took your place and your punishment on the Cross. This is what the ‘gospel' is all about: “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (Jn 3:16,17) Justice has been satisfied and a new life is offered for anyone who will accept Jesus as their Saviour. If you don't do this, you have to ‘carry the can' yourself and face judgment and rejection on the Last Day. What a decision to make! It's a ‘no-brainer' isn't it. It can only be spiritual blindness that hold people back and the answer has got to be to pray with the blind man, “I want to see.” (see Mk 10:46-52) My prayer is that everyone who reads these words, will respond accordingly if they have not done so already.
Getting to Know God Meditations: 14. God of Variety (1)
Psa 22:1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish? (Psalm of David – prophetic poetry)
Jn 20:30,31 About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) (Prophetic Aramaic fulfilment cry of Jesus Christ on the cross – historical narrative)
Continuation: I am aware we have been through some challenging areas in the recent days and it seems right to step back with a lighter overview for a moment to give some readers some breathing space perhaps. I did wonder about putting this study much earlier in the series but it feels right to use it here to step back and catch a wider view of the Bible rather than the specific message, although that will almost certainly come through.
Variety: When we look at the world and we look at the Bible and we look towards God, if He is the Creator of all this – and the alternative is, in the words of one leading atheist, a meaningless mess – our conclusion has to be that He is a God who loves variety. I always remember, many years ago hearing someone say, “Did you know there are over 1200 sorts of edible bean in the world?” Since then I've heard so much more in science that says this world is a showcase of variety, no more so than when you look at people and cultures, and also no more so than when you look in the Bible.
Variety & the Bible: Every now and then I hear some smart character pontificating about the failures of the Bible and the moment you hear them using and deriding the word ‘literal' you know they are speaking out of a weak limited area of knowledge and understanding. Hopefully, if you have been a Christian for any length of time, you will have sat in on a sermon or study where you will know that the word ‘literal' is dismissed. “Is it literally true?” says this smart character trying to make a smart point. Whatever do you mean? Do you understand the variety of writing that is here in this book? Let's consider some of the variety of genres or styles or writing we find in the Bible.
i) Historical Narrative: There is history, narrative if you like, and yes we can say that is literally true, it did happen in time-space history. The evidence is there, the writings so often supported by archaeology or other history sources. This isn't always so but there has been an interesting phenomena over the past hundred and fifty years. Critics said, “Oh there is no archaeological evidence for those accounts in ….” and they name some passage, and lo and behold twenty years later the remains are unearthed. Absence does not mean it did not happen. Just be patient!
ii) Teaching: There is much straight forward teaching in the Bible. Let's take that classic book, ‘Proverbs' and let's take one example from early on, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction.” (Prov 1:7) Time and space forbids us meditating on that, but is it literal? What does that mean? Is it literally true? Well, yes. Or consider Jesus teaching his disciples, to take a random example, “many prophets and kings wanted to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.” (Lk 10:24) To ask is it literal is meaningless without explanation. Yes it is literally true what he said. Look at Jesus' parables and you find teaching within a story. Is the story literally true? Don't be daft, it is a story! Watch out for similes, metaphors and personification and if you don't know what they are, classes on Literature 101 are needed.
iii) Prophecy: There are big chunks of prophecy in the Bible, the biggest probably being the book of Revelation at the end. In the Old Testament, the big books are Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel (and there are a number of what are called ‘The Minor Prophets'). Each of those big four contain some narrative as well as prophecies. Is it literal? Well the narrative is but look at prophecy and you find that it is a complete mix of exhortation, teaching and picture language and the picture language (e.g. personification) is clearly not meant to be taken literally but simply conveys meaning. Is this allegory literal? Don't be daft, it's an allegory!!!
iv) Poetry: You will know that it is in poetic form because of the way it will be laid out in your Bible. If you ask a poet, is your poetry literal, they will look at you, seeing one who has not got a clue about the style and goal of poetry (this is not the place to do that – do your own research). Poems convey meaning, poems express emotions, poems come from and touch the heart. Read the Psalms and see this.
The Problem with Scripture : There is a problem from our point of time in history, in fact there are at least four problems.
i) The first is historical: The book is spread over a two thousand year period and covers a vast range of changes in history. An excellent example of historical data is that found in Luke's Gospel (who we have referred to in an earlier study): “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene— during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” (Lk 3:1,2) Note 7 historical figures (if you don't count John) and five geographical locations and three historical ‘job descriptions'.
ii) The second is cultural: So often we see behaviour that was common in a particular culture and at first sight, without explanation, it may appear strange to us. We need to learn about the culture. (I will not give examples of these because they each will require too much explanation.)
iii) The third is linguistic: Some of the word patterns or uses of language appear strange to us, but it was the way they spoke back then. Again I hesitate to give examples for the sake of time and space but when you see phrases or sayings that seem strange, look them up on the Internet.
iv) The fourth is geographical: The action of the Bible takes place over an area from Egypt to modern-day Iraq. It therefore includes many countries (some of which don't exist today), and many towns and cities (some of which either don't exist today or have changed their names). It also includes geographical features such as rivers, lakes, seas and mountains, that are clearly located.
Each of these things requires an intelligent reading and that will take time and effort.
And So: Our key point within this study is to highlight
a) the variety of styles of writing found in the Bible, each of which needs identifying if we are not to make wrong assumptions about it,
b) the indirect forms of speech that are often used, requiring us to identify them and not jump to false conclusions about what is being said, and
c) the various difficulties or gaps in understanding that may appear because of the Bible recording the ways and culture of people who lived two to four thousand years ago, in a different part of the world from that with which we are familiar.
Therefore, in these 66 books, written by over 40 writers, we find a rich variety of amazing literature, and once we overcome the obstacles I have referred to above, we find a rich vein of history that sheds light on who we are, why we are and where we are going. Oh, yes, this is not merely academic literature that we read for mundane interest, this is a book that reveals to us what life is all about and the One who brought it all into being. In the next study we will compare and highlight some of this ‘literature' more fully so we can see the wonder of it.
Getting to Know God Meditations: 15. God of Variety (2)
Eccles 1:2 “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.
Jn 20:30,31 Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
Continuation: In the previous study we briefly pondered some of the varieties of styles of writing, and gaps in understanding we find in the Bible because of when and where it was written and when and where we live today, but now I want us to move on to the much bigger observable varieties, those of the nature of the books of the Bible.
A Brief Outline of the Bible
Pentateuch: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers & Deuteronomy – thought to be compiled by Moses, covering Creation, early history up until the Exodus.
Historical Books: Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther – a period from about 1280BC through to about 430BC.
Poetical Books: Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs.
Prophetic Books: Major Prophets (4 + Lam), Minor Prophets (12).
The Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke & John – the life & ministry of Jesus Christ
The Acts of the Apostles – the activities of the early church continuing Jesus' ministry.
The Epistles – 21 letters from the leading apostles.
Revelation - a book of prophecy for the End Times.
Even from this listing we can see the varieties of writing styles we considered in the previous study: history, teaching, prophecy, poetry.
Books of Cultural Context: In one sense all the books of the Bible come in the context of God and Israel, developing and opening up to God and the whole world. Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers & Deuteronomy in the Old Testament and maybe Hebrews in the New, really paint the background, often in great detail, of the life and culture and beliefs of Israel. Hebrews takes those beliefs and translates them into the context of Christ. It is important to understand this ‘cultural context' because it stops the modern believer getting confused and wondering should they be living like a Jew. The simple answer is no, because those early books were written first and foremost for Israel and only secondarily for us so that we can learn how God moved with them and the principles by which He operated with them. For the modern Christian the New Testament is the essential reading, with understanding of God and the cultural background of Christ coming from the Old Testament. We need to study both.
Books of Different ‘Weight' and significance: Our first header verse above comes from Ecclesiastes, a book I love because of the way it shows how pointless a work-driven life is. It was written by Solomon, clearly one of the wisest and eventually richest rulers of history. His basic message is, I have done everything and got the tee-shirt five times over and my conclusion is that all this effort is pointless without God. It has a boldness and brashness about it found nowhere else in the Bible, but its message is vital for these most affluent and materialistic days in which we live. It is simple and straight-forward to read, but uncomfortable if that is your outlook on life. Could you be a Christian without ever reading it? Yes, but you'd be missing out on a powerful message to the Western world today.
Now come to the book from which our second header verses are taken, John's Gospel. First, its setting. If you want the simplest and straight forward of the four Gospels to read, it is often said Mark should be your starting place. The first three Gospels – Matthew, Mark & Luke – are often called the Synoptic Gospels, meaning presenting the same view, and it is clear that there are three different writers or compilers of the things that happened in Jesus life but with some different sources and perspectives. The early pages of Matthew and Luke include what we call the Christmas story, Jesus' birth. It is usually though that Matthew is clearly written for a Jewish audience with more prophetic Old Testament references to suit that background, Mark (practically) for the Gentiles, Luke (historically) for the whole world, and John (spiritually) for the church. It is sometimes said that Matthew conveys power and authority, Mark conveys servant-heartedness, Luke conveys sympathy, care and compassion (that you might expect of a doctor writing), and John conveys wisdom and understanding.
John: I believe to catch something of the wonder of John's Gospel we have to understand something of the traditional scholars' assessment of John. He was one of the inner three or four of the twelve apostles who travelled with Jesus for three years. He was an elder of the church in Jerusalem and after the sacking of Jerusalem in AD70 (the Christians probably left before then) he ended up as an elder and apostle in the church at Ephesus. For his beliefs he was relatively briefly exiled to the prison island of Patmos where he would have lived in a cave, praying and contemplating the past. It is believed he probably wrote his Gospel when he was at least ninety. Now something I have observed is that as people get older, their short-term memory fails but their long-term memory strengthens.
I can imagine this elderly saint sitting with his young students in the church at Ephesus and his memory drifts back to those three most incredible years of his life when he was probably in his early twenties. Because of the incredible nature of what happened and with strengthening long-term memory, he reminisces with his younger believers and as he does (and I see this happening with older Christians) he finds things coming to the surface, the things Jesus said which the earlier three writers had never bothered with. They had been concerned to record the bare bones of what had happened, but John now recalls what was said and why it happened. Maybe they encouraged him to write it down or it was simply the Holy Spirit's prompting, but the result is his amazing Gospel, full of depth and profundity, wisdom and understanding that cannot be found in the other three. The depth of revelation, the blatant declarations of John, leave no room for any other conclusion than Jesus Christ was and is the unique Son of God who came from heaven, lived and served on this earth, was put to death by crucifixion, rose from the dead and ascended back to heaven. Take it or leave it, that is the clarity of John and the New Testament.
And So: I have sought to give a simple outline of the Bible and then give an example of the variety by giving a brief comparison of two of its books, finishing with John's clear and obvious aim. Perhaps in line with that, it would be appropriate here to conclude this study with a famous quote from that great Oxford scholar and writer, C.S.Lewis, writing about Christ:
“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I'm ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don't accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”