Series Theme: Meditations on the Will of God
This Page: Studies 1 - 10
Meditating on the Will of God: 1: Starting Thoughts
Col 1:1 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God
We start a new series but one that is not delineated by following a set pattern as we usually do, working through a paragraph or chapter or book. The very phrase ‘the will of God' has produced books and discussion galore and so now, I propose to simply throw a stone on the lake and watch the ripples. We'll start from one random point and see where our meanderings take us.
How easily we read words of Scripture and pass them by with such little thought! How much we take for granted the words we read, thinking we understand them. Before we have got to the end of this first verse of Paul's to the Colossians, we have one of these times – “by the will of God”. Paul says he is an apostle “by the will of God”. What does that actually mean?
For a start it must mean that he is an apostle because God wanted him to be one. The moment we say that we find ourselves with the question, “Why?” Is it, as some would say, that He takes us as a piece of clay and like a Potter forms us into what He wants us to be? Yes, I am aware that that is the picture that the Lord Himself brings to Jeremiah: “Then the word of the LORD came to me: "O house of Israel , can I not do with you as this potter does?" declares the LORD. "Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel .” (Jer 18:5,6) Indeed we find Isaiah declaring, “Yet, O LORD, you are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.” (Isa 64:8). It is clear in both those sets of verses that God moulds us and reshapes us, but is that all there is to it?
We need to go back to the Lord's word to Jeremiah in the Potter's house and follow through, seeing what He went on to say:
“If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned.
And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it.” (Jer 18:7-10)
Now this is quite strange at first sight because here we have two instances of nations or kingdoms making choices, deciding how they will respond. In the first instance the Lord declares His intentions (His will?) and then the nation repents, so the Lord steps back and does not bring the judgment He spoke of. That is exactly what we see in the story of Jonah going to Nineveh and Nineveh repenting and the Lord ‘relenting' and not destroying them. In the second instance above, we find a nation that God is intending to bless and build up, but they turn away from Him, and so He reconsiders.
In both cases we have a) God stating His intentions, b) the nation choosing a course of action (the former to repent, the latter to turn away) and c) God reconsidering His course of action in respect of them. Now this is the ‘moulding of the clay', surely, that the Lord is talking about, the interaction between God and man that brings about change.
So we come back to our original question: why did the Lord choose Paul? Did God choose Paul because He knew He could MAKE Paul do what He wanted him to do, or did He choose Him because He knew how He could mould him in the years to come?
In each of these questions we are gently treading around that tricky area that has so often brought divisions among Christians, considerations about the sovereignty of God. If we may briefly mention him in passing – for he needs a study to himself – the Pharaoh confronted by Moses is an illustration of a man who God could not mould into a pliable, conforming believer (yes, there is a lot more to the story and we'll look at it separately), but in fact when you look at every person in the Bible who rejected God and died for it, we see people who God did NOT make conform to Himself. God's intent is always for a person's salvation but Scripture, we suggest, is very clear that it is a matter of an individual's free will, their ability to choose the path they take.
God's intention is always clear: “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?” (Ezek 18:23) Now you could possibly, from that verse, suggest that God goes on to MAKE the sinner repent, but the verse that follows challenges that sort of ‘sovereignty': “But if a righteous man turns from his righteousness and commits sin and does the same detestable things the wicked man does, will he live? None of the righteous things he has done will be remembered. Because of the unfaithfulness he is guilty of and because of the sins he has committed, he will die.” (Ezek 18:24) To suggest that God MAKES a righteous man turn and become a sinner denigrates God and all the Biblical descriptions of Him, that He is love, He is good, He is righteous, and so on.
There are those who would seek to take the apostle Paul's stance and say, “Who are you, O man, to question God?” (Rom 9:19-) and we will consider that in days to come, but we are not challenging God's sovereignty, we are challenging those who would abuse (quite inadvertently) the descriptions of God that we have already mentioned. It is more a question of understanding language and that should always be a part of Bible study. We would also go on to say that it is all about ‘knowing' and we will justify this in the days to come.
God knew all about Paul, He knew everything there was to know about him, including his potential, including the way he would act and react in the face of the circumstances before him, and He knew what He could do with him and what He could achieve through him, despite his faults and failings, and all this without violating his free will, his ability, as a human being made in the image of God, to make choices.
And if that was true of Paul, it is surely true of you and me. If at some point we surrendered our lives to Jesus, now we are ‘in the process' where God is leading and we follow. He expresses His will and we have the ability to choose or reject it. Rejecting it means we come to a standstill; receiving it means we move on in the blessing of God and achieve all the things He has on His heart for us. This is what this is all about; these are the sorts of things we will consider more fully in these studies.
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Meditating on the Will of God: 2: A Matter of Accountability
Ezek 18:23 “ Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?”
In the first of these studies we started sowing the seeds that need to flourish to give us a greater understanding of what the will of God is about. We started to consider the free will of mankind, our ability to make choices. (Of course there are some things we can choose and others that are beyond our choice and we will examine this in the days to come, as well). We mentioned along the way our verse above which, note, includes words of “the Sovereign Lord”. Let there be no mistake, God IS sovereign, He IS the Lord; the question is all about how He exercises that sovereignty as a loving and good and perfect God.
In that verse above, the Sovereign Lord declares His desire for men and women to repent and avoid judgment. The verses that follow, which we looked at previously, show that there are possibilities of choice, and for it to make sense there must be real, genuine possibilities of choice, the real ability to choose, otherwise when God puts options before people they will be meaningless unless the individual can genuinely make their own choice. That was true of Pharaoh who we mentioned, and it is true of us.
This concept of genuine accountability comes up more than once in Ezekiel's ministry, but before we look at it there, really understand what we are saying here. If God says, “Choose A and you will live or choose B and you will die,” if that is not to be meaningless gobbledygook, it must mean that this individual can genuinely make their own decision. If we move into hyper Calvinism, it seems to us, those proponents of the extreme doctrine says mankind can only do what God makes them do. It is a form of determinism where there are no real choices, only set responses, but life – and the Scriptures – do not appear like that. Let's consider what the Lord said through Ezekiel.
First of all Ezekiel taught individual accountability in chapter 18: “Suppose there is a righteous man who does what is just and right……. That man is righteous; he will surely live.” (Ezek 18:5-9) Then, “Suppose he has a violent son, who sheds blood or does any of these other things…. Will such a man live? He will not! Because he has done all these detestable things, he will surely be put to death and his blood will be on his own head.” (Ezek 18:10-13) The point he is making and goes on and on making in that chapter is that an individual is accountable for what he or she does. They will not be accountable for what a close relative does but are answerable for their own sins.
Next, he taught about this in the context of himself being a watchman: “When I say to the wicked, `O wicked man, you will surely die,' and you do not speak out to dissuade him from his ways, that wicked man will die for his sin, and I will hold you accountable for his blood. But if you do warn the wicked man to turn from his ways and he does not do so, he will die for his sin, but you will have saved yourself.” (Ezek 33:8,9) Put aside for a moment Ezekiel's responsibility and we are left with something quite remarkable. Look: “When I say to the wicked, `O wicked man, you will surely die… that wicked man will die for his sin, ….. But if you do warn the wicked man to turn from his ways and he does not do so, he will die for his sin.” In each case there is a “wicked man” who in the first case gets no warning and so dies for his sin. In the second case he is warned and fails to repent and dies. The end result is the same in both instances but what it shows us is that even when God speaks through His servants and brings warnings, the individual can still refuse that warning. There is no indication here that God imposes His will on this man. Indeed it is clear that God is trying to get him to repent. A few verses on we find that same declaration we found in chapter 18: “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel ?” (Ezek 33:11) There it is! God doesn't want them to die – but they do!
So, as we are considering the whole subject of the will of God, we see God's will – His desire, at least – may be one thing, but the outcome may be contrary to His desire. We may call this His permissive will, if you like, but in each case we find two scary facts:
i) the individual has a real ability to make choices, and
ii) the Lord allows them to go with that choice and they reap its fruit.
This is what this matter of accountability is all about. Look how Ezekiel continues this teaching from the Lord: “Therefore, son of man, say to your countrymen, `The righteousness of the righteous man will not save him when he disobeys, and the wickedness of the wicked man will not cause him to fall when he turns from it. The righteous man, if he sins, will not be allowed to live because of his former righteousness.' If I tell the righteous man that he will surely live, but then he trusts in his righteousness and does evil, none of the righteous things he has done will be remembered; he will die for the evil he has done. And if I say to the wicked man, `You will surely die,' but he then turns away from his sin and does what is just and right-- if he gives back what he took in pledge for a loan, returns what he has stolen, follows the decrees that give life, and does no evil, he will surely live; he will not die. None of the sins he has committed will be remembered against him. He has done what is just and right; he will surely live.” (Ezek 33:12-16) We have included such a lengthy quote because of what it conveys, following straight on from the Lord's declaration about His feelings. What does it say? A righteous man can become unrighteous (it doesn't mean just a single fall) and an unrighteous man can repent and become righteous. Both are answerable for their end position and one dies and the other lives. And it is all to do with their freely made choices. God doesn't MAKE them act like they do, but He DOES hold them accountable for the choices they make. Read back through this study and see the things we have observed about His will.
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Meditating on the Will of God: 3: Dealing with Hardness
Rom 9:17,18 For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: "I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth." Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden
When it comes to thinking about the will of God, the Pharaoh who opposed Moses must come into the equation. The apostle Paul in our verses above quotes the Lord's words to Pharaoh. Now the last thing that Pharaoh could ever have claimed was that he didn't know why everything was happening as it was. In his pride he may have chosen to adopt a stance of denial but the record is clear that he was told very clearly. Let's examine those verses in Exodus 9.
They start with the Lord's instruction to Moses: “Then the LORD said to Moses, "Get up early in the morning, confront Pharaoh and say to him, `This is what the LORD, the God of the Hebrews, says: Let my people go, so that they may worship me.” (Ex 9:13). Now that sounds very similar to his earlier demands but now note the warning that comes with it: “or this time I will send the full force of my plagues against you and against your officials and your people, so you may know that there is no one like me in all the earth.” (v.14) There have already been 6 plagues and the truth is that God has been holding back: “For by now I could have stretched out my hand and struck you and your people with a plague that would have wiped you off the earth.” (v.15) This is the truth, that so far each of these plagues have almost been gentle warnings because the Lord could have wiped out Egypt at the outset.
Then comes this reason that God has allowed things to go like they have: “But I have raised you up for this very purpose, that I might show you my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” (v.16) The alternative rendering which is noted in your Bible instead of “I have raised you up,” is “I have spared you.” Whichever it is, the Lord is doing what He is doing to show the world it is Him, and He is all powerful.
So He makes clear what the next stage will be: “You still set yourself against my people and will not let them go. Therefore, at this time tomorrow I will send the worst hailstorm that has ever fallen on Egypt , from the day it was founded till now.” (v.17,18) Yet again, though, the Lord makes a way for Pharaoh and his people to avoid the effect of this plague of hail: “Give an order now to bring your livestock and everything you have in the field to a place of shelter, because the hail will fall on every man and animal that has not been brought in and is still out in the field, and they will die.' " (v.19) In other words He makes it very clear that Pharaoh, although bringing this on himself, can still avoid the effects of it. In the response the effects are made very clear in the following account: “Those officials of Pharaoh who feared the word of the LORD hurried to bring their slaves and their livestock inside. But those who ignored the word of the LORD left their slaves and livestock in the field.” (v.20,21)
Thus we have the basic details of this particular phase, very clear and understandable. The tricky bit comes in the verse before the verses we have considered: “But the LORD hardened Pharaoh's heart and he would not listen to Moses and Aaron, just as the LORD had said to Moses.” (v.12) At first sight this appears that Pharaoh is being MADE to respond as he is, but let's look at this matter of hardening a little further.
Three times the expression “hardened his heart” appears in Exodus, and it refers to what Pharaoh was doing: “when Pharaoh saw that there was relief, he hardened his heart and would not listen to Moses and Aaron, just as the LORD had said ,” (Ex 8:15) and “But this time also Pharaoh hardened his heart and would not let the people go .” (Ex 8:32) Also, “When Pharaoh saw that the rain and hail and thunder had stopped, he sinned again: He and his officials hardened their hearts. So Pharaoh's heart was hard and he would not let the Israelites go, just as the LORD had said through Moses .” (Ex 9:34,35)
What we find, therefore, is that we are dealing, from the outset with a man with a hard heart, a heart hardened against God. How? Why? He is a powerful despot and he reigns a highly superstitious occultic religious nation who worship so many things as ‘gods'. His position, his power and his false religions lock him into this belief system – that he is the greatest and is all-powerful. The other six times this expression is used, it is used of God. But what does it actually mean? It simply means that when you challenge and confront a person who has a hard heart, you will simply harden it even further.
We have said previously that so much of the stuff to do with God's will is about ‘knowing'. God knew from the outset the sort of person He was dealing with and had warned Moses back at the burning bush that all these plagues would be necessary (see Ex 3:19,20) and later reiterated that (see Ex 4:21-23). This makes it very clear that God knew not only how Pharaoh would respond but also how He, the Lord, would have to deal with him right through to the end.
In addition, in the light of what we have considered in the two previous studies, we note that although God warned and warned and warned, Pharaoh chose his course of action – to resist. This appears to suggest that God cannot MAKE people respond how He wants them to (because He prefers repentance and salvation than death as we saw before) but that raises a question when we go on to consider the case of that other despot, Nebuchadnezzar who eventually the Lord brought to repentance through madness. The conclusion would appear to be that the Lord knows how different people will respond – even to crisis circumstances and knows that some people will NOT respond while others WILL respond, but to say that He makes them take either course makes a mockery of the language and of the events. The reason each one of us who is a Christian is here, is that the Lord knew that we would respond and brought circumstances and the conviction of His Holy Spirit – and here we are, objects of His benign will.
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Meditating on the Will of God: 4: Who will respond?
2Pet 3:9 The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
You may be slightly surprised at the tone or direction of this set of studies on the will of God because we have been very much focusing on how people respond to God, but note that, it is how they ‘respond' which implies that God initiates, and of course this is what the Bible shows us is the case. God is the initiator, the One who starts everything off, whether it be the act of Creation or the chase after your heart.
We have also been verging on the conversation about the sovereignty of God and whether we have free will and just how much He ‘makes' or ‘brings about' His desires. Our suggestion has been that He limits His desires and works within what He knows He can bring about within the human heart. In the previous study we saw that He just hardened the already hard heart of Pharaoh and confirmed him in his role as a foolish immovable sinner who was bringing about his own destruction, which he could have easily avoided.
But we would emphasise what we have just said that the Lord limits His desires and works within what He knows He can bring about within the human heart. To deny this is to deny the meaning of the words so clearly seen in Scripture. For instance, to take our verse above, observe the latter half of it: “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” This is the reason, says the apostle Peter, that the Lord appears slow in bringing judgment on sinners, because He wants to give them every opportunity to repent. As we saw in the Ezekiel verses He takes no pleasure in the death of man but would much rather they repented and were saved. But here is the point: not every sinner is saved and many go to hell when they die.
Just a quick aside here. Those who would say that God chooses who is saved by simple divine random choice imply therefore that some HAVE to be saved and others HAVE to be lost, or to take it logically further, those who go to hell, go there because God stops them coming to repentance (because they say [and we'll look at this in a later study] repentance is a gift from God). Now here is my problem with that. The Bible declares God IS love and in that word it implies God always wants the good, the best for every person. A God who actively stops people coming to salvation cannot be a God of love. A God who allows people to choose their destiny, even though He speaks again and again to them, is indeed a God demonstrating love.
So the truth is that not every sinner is saved, even though God would much prefer that they were, but implicit in salvation as we see it in Scripture is the need for the individual to repent, because without repentance they cannot (with their backs turned to Him) receive all His goodness. It is just logically impossible. Note this, that it is not because God doesn't want to bless them but they refuse to receive His blessing. Just as Pharaoh refused to heed Moses' warnings and turn to God, so the unrepentant sinner keeps his back to God and refuses the hand that is held out.
But then we come back to this matter of the Lord knowing what He can achieve with the individual. Consider the case of Nebuchadnezzar that we mentioned before. Here is an ungodly, unrighteous, self-centred sinner set in his ways. He is (unwittingly) being used by the Lord, as the prophets amply reveal, to discipline both Israel and the surrounding nations, but the Lord still holds Him accountable for his attitudes. Now the Lord could have simply had him destroyed (as had happened to Sennacherib king of Assyria – Isa 37, esp. v.37,38) but instead He does something else. The king receives a dream and Daniel interprets it: “this is the decree the Most High has issued against my lord the king: You will be driven away from people and will live with the wild animals; you will eat grass like cattle and be drenched with the dew of heaven. Seven times will pass by for you until you acknowledge that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes.” (Dan4:24,25) A year later this was fulfilled: “He was driven away from people and ate grass like cattle. His body was drenched with the dew of heaven until his hair grew like the feathers of an eagle and his nails like the claws of a bird.” (Dan 4:33) His sanity was taken from him and for seven years he was an outcast until, “At the end of that time, I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven, and my sanity was restored. Then I praised the Most High; I honored and glorified him who lives forever.” (Dan 4:34)
The outcome of this experience was a redeemed sinner and he is able to declare, “Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, because everything he does is right and all his ways are just. And those who walk in pride he is able to humble.” (Dan 4:37) What an amazing story! Here was a man who was every bit as violent and powerful as Pharaoh, but the Lord saw and knew the possibility with this man. Yes, God put pressure on both men but only the one repented. The Lord knows exactly what will bring us to our senses but, and the verse from 2 Peter 3 confirms this, not every one will repent. So is the gift of repentance from God the key to it? We'll consider that in the next study. For the time being, marvel and wonder at the Lord who knows and works to bring people to Himself, and worship Him.
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Meditating on the Will of God: 5: The GIFT of Repentance?
Rom 2:4 Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God's kindness leads you toward repentance?
We made reference in the previous study to what is often referred to as “the gift of repentance” but the truth is that that phrase never occurs in scripture. What the Bible does do is show us a God who does things that are meant to lead us to repentance. Repentance is an act of the will whereby the sinner turns around and turns away from their sin, confessing it and acknowledging their need of God's help.
Note the elements of what we have just said. Repentance involves change, a change of heart and attitude and then, subsequently, of lifestyle. Second it is an act of the will, it is something we choose to do. Third it is an acknowledgment of wrong and, fourth, a desire to turn from that wrong. Fifth, it recognizes our own human inability to change and therefore our need of God's help to bring about that desired change. We cannot do it on our own. We can desire to, we can want to, we can determine to, but unless God acts on us by His Holy Spirit, we cannot bring about that change in reality. Thus we find within those elements a combination of the work of God and the desire of man.
Our verse above shows us one of the things that should bring us to our senses and to repentance. God expresses “kindness, tolerance and patience” and the foolish sinner construes these as God's weakness, whereas as we saw in the previous study from Peter's first letter and third chapter, God holding back His judgment is simply Him giving us further opportunity to repent. We should realise that the time ahead of us may be limited and come to our senses and repent. That's why He is giving us this time.
What other things work in us to bring us to repentance. Consider the apostle Paul's words: “yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us. Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.” (2 Cor 7:9,10) One of the elements of repentance we noted above is expressed here as sorrow. Now what was it that caused sorrow in these Corinthians? It was Paul's words in his previous letter. The word of God comes to us and convicts us, the truth is placed before us and we are moved by it as the Holy Spirit applies it forcibly within us.
Suddenly the word before us seems to take on a new life and power and it impacts us. The effect it has is sorrow within us. We realise our failure and our need to bring about change and our need of God's help. This sorrow is godly sorrow, sorrow brought about by God, and Paul says it is good because of the end result it brings about, our repentance. There is also a counterfeit sorrow. Yes, it is a genuine sorrow but its source and effect are not godly. It is what Paul calls ‘worldly sorrow', a sorrow that is self-centred, a sorrow that I have been found out and revealed for what I am, and it is a sorrow that grieves that I am being exposed. This sorrow, which we said is self-centred, does not bring repentance but simply an inner grievance and that quenches the Spirit and cuts off spiritual life.
When Paul was instructing Timothy in his role as a leader he said, “Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.” (2 Tim 2:25,26). Here there were people who opposed the Gospel. Paul reminds us that such people are blinded by Satan to do his bidding. As Timothy brings God's word to these people it is “in the hope” (it is not guaranteed) that this word will have impact in them and will bring them repentance. Now the word in the original there rendered ‘repentance' has a meaning more like ‘conversion' but of course conversion involves repentance.
To speak of God “granting” them repentance simply recognizes the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing conviction. The process involves God speaking to the individual – although they are not aware that that is what is happening at the time – and as they take note He leads them on to a place where they find that the truth is so strong that it stirs a strong emotion within them for the need of change, that we call repentance. The truth is that there will be many who ‘hear' His words calling to them but they will not respond and so do not come to the point of conviction. Why some respond and some don't is a mystery. The responders get led by the Spirit to a point of conviction and with that comes repentance. God's help IS needed for the process that leads to conversion but that does not mean He holds back help to stop others, simply they have not asked for it, for at some point they drew back and turned away and refused to heed His calling voice.
The reality is that we may (we do) have a responsibility to respond to the voice of God but when we do, even then it is the work of God that makes us new people, and that was not because we deserved it but simply because loves to give it freely: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God - not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus ….” (Eph 2:8-10) We can come to crisis but unless God would move, we are stuck there at the crisis point, still not able to move. As the apostle Peter preached he declared, quoting the prophet Joel, “ "Whoever calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved." ( Acts 2:21) – He convicts, we repent and cry out – He does the rest. Yes, we have a responsibility to respond to God's voice, but once we do, it is all the work of God to bring that initial change in us. Thereafter it is a partnership that requires our acquiescence to His leading, and that we'll look at in the days ahead.
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Meditating on the Will of God: 6: Seeing but not seeing
Isa 6:9,10 He said, "Go and tell this people: " `Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving.' Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed."
Perhaps we should remind ourselves or at least clarify, that when we are talking about the will of God, we are talking about what God wants and how He goes about getting it . That latter part is all about the ways of God, the ways He works, how He does things, and of course it is all about how He interacts with us human beings, and therefore a part of this has to be examining how we work – or don't – and seeing how what He is weaves in with what we are, and what He does weaves in with what we do.
We have been considering already some of these things both from the side of God, the ways He works, and from the side of man, which seems more variable. God doesn't vary in who He is and how He works but we as individuals do and individual varies from individual.
When we come to Isaiah 6 we find the Lord laying down a process and a principle. Perhaps to break free from familiarity, let's consider these verses in the Living Bible: “ And he said, “Yes, go. But tell my people this: ‘Though you hear my words repeatedly, you won't understand them. Though you watch and watch as I perform my miracles, still you won't know what they mean. Dull their understanding, close their ears, and shut their eyes. I don't want them to see or to hear or to understand, or to turn to me to heal them.” Or perhaps the Message Version: “ He said, “Go and tell this people: ‘Listen hard, but you aren't going to get it; look hard, but you won't catch on.' Make these people blockheads, with fingers in their ears and blindfolds on their eyes, so they won't see a thing, won't hear a word, so they won't have a clue about what's going on and, yes, so they won't turn around and be made whole.”
Amazingly the Lord says to Isaiah, speak to these people in such a way that they won't understand and get cheap salvation. The fact was that Isaiah made very clear the message from God but the message was direct and not explanatory and so the hardness of people's hearts reacted against being told to repent.
This comes even more clearly when Jesus takes this prophecy and uses it to partly explain why he used parables so often: “ Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. This is why I speak to them in parables: "Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand. In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: "You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.” ( Mt 13:12-14) So often the listeners, for example the Pharisees, heard the words being spoken but did not accept them or understand them; they saw the miracles but did not realise the origins of them and therefore failed to accept Jesus.
The apparent mystery of all this is compounded in the beginning of that quote, “ Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.” (v.12). To the ignorant and the spiritually blind this is a mystery but it all goes back to the human heart. The one who goes seeking God with all their heart will find Him and finding Him they will be blessed. Once they have found the source of all truth, then it will flow in them in abundance if they continue seeking Him. There is this condition but once it is fulfilled, then the outcome will always be the same. When people say, “I don't understand Scripture,” the reason is because they are not seeking with all their heart. When you seek Him with all your heart then He reveals truth to you. He knows that until you come to that point of seeking Him with all your heart, then you will remain blind to any truth He shows you.
The other side of the coin is the person who does not have this source of truth. Any little truth they might have gleaned from life will be taken from them and become meaningless and God does that so that we might realise our poverty and in desperation go seeking Him with all our heart. We thought we knew some things but the more we thought out of our self-centredness, the more we realised we know nothing and that frustration laid there, waiting for the Spirit of God to prod it and stir it until it rose up and cried out and then He brought conviction that drove us ever more strongly into crying out for Him. It was only when we surrendered and gave ourselves to Him, that He recreated us by the power of His Spirit and the source of life and light opened our understanding. Suddenly we ‘saw'.
So often we who are preachers seek to make everything so simple and straight forward, but the truth is that people will not ‘see' until their hearts are stirred to seek Him with all their hearts. Perhaps this is why God doesn't lay out the Bible as a text book with headings and subjects and themes that can be easily followed because He knows that if He did, people might approach it with their intellect and study it in a self-centred manner and take on a form of religion and an appearance of spiritual life but it would be lacking the key issue – a living relationship with the Lord, out of which all supply comes.
This perhaps is one of the fundamental basics of the will of God in respect of mankind: He hides Himself (Isa 45:15) from all who will remain self-centred and godless. Yes, He will call out in their darkness to them, to see who will respond, and when there is a glimmer of response, He will call some more and draw and draw the one who will allow himself to be drawn to the place of truth and surrender, and there He will do that marvellous work of recreation by His Spirit. This is how He works.
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Meditating on the Will of God: 7: He leads, I follow
Rom 12:1,2 I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God--this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer 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.
We made reference in the previous study to the partnership that requires our acquiescence to His leading, in our ongoing Christian lives. Let's consider that some more. The apostle Paul in our verses above calls us to present our bodies to God for His use, His disposal some might even say. Talk of ‘God using us' implies that God leads the way and I follow and allow Him to bring about His will on earth through me. That, surely, what must be in Paul's thinking when he says what he says above.
Now there is a danger that is observable in modern-day Christianity that can flow out of this talk, and the talk of Christian discipleship. The danger is that we adopt a wrong attitude to our ‘service'. We see ourselves sometimes as slaves who are at God's beck and call, who are available to be burnt out on the altar of His service, and in one sense something of this is true but such thinking forgets bigger thinking. Let me try and explain.
Let's start with Jesus parable that we of the refer to as the parable of the talents in Matt 25. There are three recipients of the talents from the master. When the last one, who had received only one talent faces his master, he declares, “ I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.” (Mt 25:24,25) Many of us see God as ‘a hard man' and our life and our service, deep down, is motivated by fear and as a result we are not fruitful. We do what we do because we ‘ought' to, because it is expected of us, not out of the love and wonder of the relationship that we have with the good and loving God. We see Him as hard, to be ‘obeyed'. Well of course a young child obeys its loving parent because it loves the parent and it is a natural response. The child who obeys out of fear has a poor relationship.
When our children were small we caught them one day holding what was obviously a church service and one of them leading it was clearly supposed to be me! They took me off well. Little children copy their loving parents because they love and admire them. Where we feel we ‘ought' to pray, read our Bible, worship, witness etc., each of those actions is pretend and artificial because they come out of duty not out of the loving flow of the Spirit. ‘He leads, we follow' is supposed to be a natural flowing thing.
When the disciples followed Jesus they did so because they saw something in him that was otherworldish and which was good and worth being with. When God leads it is always to lead us into something good, something which will bring blessing – to us and to others. When God called Moses at the burning bush it was to make him into a great leader and deliver His people. When God challenged Pharaoh it was to confront the one thing that stopped him becoming a giant in God's sight – his pride. It was – and this would only be seen if Pharaoh had recognized God moving through Moses – a call that would deliver him from superstitious worship and lead his own people out of that as well, into a relationship of blessing with the living God, but his pride and his hard heart rejected that. What a classic picture of folly. Nebuchadnezzar, used by God to discipline Israel and the surrounding nations, didn't understand that he has acting as the arm of the Lord and so went over the top in his activities and had, himself, to be disciplined as we considered before, but ending up with that real relationship with the Lord where he concluded, “I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, because everything he does is right and all his ways are just.” (Dan 4:37)
Coming back to our starting verses from Rom 12, I suspect that there are some of us who fear such language: “offer your bodies as living sacrifices.” We fear because deep down we feel God is a hard God who might cause us pain. Another way I have heard it put is that we come with the attitudes of orphans, we don't see ourselves as sons with a loving heavenly Father. Orphans struggle on their own and have every reason to feel that life can be hard, but we are called to sonship: “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” (1 Jn 3:1) and “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus,” (Gal 3:26) and “Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, "Abba , Father." So you are no longer a slave, but a son,” (Gal 4:6,7) Sons in the Bible are those who enter into the inheritance and joy of the father; they are those who have a relationship and all they do flows out of that relationship. When they ‘work' it is an expression of that loving relationship.
So often in the parable of the prodigal son, we highlight the wrong attitude of the elder son at the end of the parable: “Look! All these years I've been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders.” (Lk 15:29) That is the language and mentality of a slave. How many of us serve the will of God like this? Instead of enjoying the wonder of the relationship we get bogged down with ‘serving' with ‘discipleship' with ‘laying down our life'. We miss the wonder, the freedom and the abundance of joy and blessing that comes when we realise that God is a loving, giving, good God who desires our constant blessing. If you struggle with these words, it is probable you see yourself as an orphan or a slave or a worker, instead of a glorious son of God. Ask Him to open the eyes of your heart to see the reality of what He has on His heart for you and the wonder of His daily, giving love for you.
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Meditating on the Will of God: 8: The Nature of God's Will
Rom 12:1,2 I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God--this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer 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.
These verses from Romans 12 bear looking at again. Previously we considered something of verse 1, this call to give ourselves over to God so that He can do with us what He wills. There are two aspects to that – what He wills in terms of changing our character, i.e. what He can do in us, and then what He wills in respect of what He can do through us. Perhaps before we go considering those two things further, we will consider His will as it is described by Paul in the second verse.
At the end of the verse he describes God's will as “good pleasing and perfect” Now on the assumption that we so often take for granted the words we read in scripture, let's analyse each of those words. First of all, ‘ good'. Good simply means fine, igh quality, excellent, morally excellent and if something is good, we approve of it. When we come to understand God's will – and an assumption behind each of these studies is that we do not naturally understand it but have to think about it and seek it, and it comes by revelation – we will see that it is good.
But it is also ‘pleasing' and we have just said that we will approve it, but more than merely approving it we will see its excellence and that will create an emotion within us that we describe as pleasing, we're feeling good about it. Now if we take a tangent and remind ourselves that “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8,16) then everything God thinks, says and does is an expression of love. Now love might be described as warm affection, attachment, liking, benevolence or strong benign feelings for us and in God it shows “selfless, sacrificial, unrestricted good will towards us. If that is so – and it is – then if there is someone who constantly has for us “warm affection, attachment, liking, benevolence or strong benign feelings” for us and who shows “selfless, sacrificial, unrestricted good will towards us”, I think we can say without contradiction, we will be blessed by that, we will like that, and it will be pleasing to us.
Yet there is also a third description: “perfect”. Put in its most simple of terms, if something is ‘perfect' it cannot be improved upon . When we come to understand the will of God we will come to see that there is no way that it could be improved upon. It is because we do not understand it that we find criticisms rising up within us, but once we come to see the fullness of His will we will understand that there is no way that whatever He did or didn't do could be improved upon.
Now that is actually staggering when you come to think about it. Whatever it is that God has on His heart for us, is good, is pleasing and is the absolute best so there is no way it could be improved upon. I commented previously in a series on Romans in respect of these scriptures that if when we get to heaven God allows us to look back on our history through His eyes, we will never be able to criticise anything He has ever said or done or not done in respect of us. We don't have the whole picture at the present and so sometimes it seems confusing or unclear, but when we see the whole picture and it becomes absolutely clear, we will say that what happened in respect of our lives was good, pleasant and perfect.
But we need to backtrack in these verses to note something important. Paul's order is 1. Give yourself wholly to God, 2. Change your thinking to conform to God's thinking, so that THEN 3. you will understand God's good, pleasing and perfect will. In other words until you have been through the first two, you will not be able to come to the third one. The Christian life starts when we give ourselves over wholly to God for Him to save us, change us and then lead us throughout our lives. In the process of all of that, we then starting learning the truths of the Gospel and we start to understand that God has created His world in a particular way, and so it works best if we live according to the divine design.
We come to understand that part of the process of sanctification, us being changed into the likeness of Jesus, involves us changing our thinking to realise that He knows best, that He has a design for our lives that means the best being worked out in and through them. In all of this our thinking is being changed to conform to His and not to the self-centred and godless ways of thinking found in the fallen world. As this process develops within us, we come to ‘see' what He is about and, even as we are doing in these studies, start to understand what His will is all about. The details may not always be clear and they will perhaps only be come clear as He reveals them in our relationship together with Him.
God knows what He is about. He sees everything, He sees the big picture – past, present and future – and He understands everything, how the thoughts, ideas, plans and ambitions of mankind work out. His wisdom is such that He also knows what He can do to promote what is best, within the context of the fallen world and within the context of our blindness and limited understanding because of the effects of sin. As He releases us from sin, He works to change our thinking from the patterns of thinking we had before we came to know Him, and bit by bit He wins our cooperation with Him as He seeks to work out the best for us. How amazing, how incredible, how wonderful! Hallelujah!
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Meditating on the Will of God: 9: God's Sovereign Wisdom
Acts 12:1-5 It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them. He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword. When he saw that this pleased the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also. This happened during the Feast of Unleavened Bread. After arresting him, he put him in prison, handing him over to be guarded by four squads of four soldiers each. Herod intended to bring him out for public trial after the Passover. So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him.
Beware trying to formulate the will of God and turn it into something mechanical. God is a person and His knowledge and wisdom are unlimited and sometimes we will not be able to foresee where He is going. That is why it is so important to maintain a living relationship with Him. If we want to know, we have to talk with Him!
Perhaps nowhere is this more true than in these verses above. Put very simply, James died and Peter was saved. We are told nothing of the spiritual dynamics leading to James' death, just that Herod, persecuting the Christians, did it and then had Peter put in prison. The story then opens up to reveal an angel delivering Peter while the church prayed for him. Why one apostle becomes a martyr and the other is saved is unknown. We simply have to trust the wisdom of God; it fitted His plans for James to come home while Peter stayed on for a while.
Sometimes the people of God have walked unwittingly into the jaws of death, or certainly to have their lives under great threat. Being a child of God does not ensure protection from martyrdom always. Job is the classic instance of a man who followed God but was led through the most terrible of times simply, it seems, to prove that a man can walk through such times, even if imperfectly. Stephen was the first martyr and perhaps it was the vision granted him from heaven that pushed his oppressors over the top to stone him.
There seem to be two main critical aspects to all this. First life does not just mean three score years and ten on this planet. There is life after this planet and in the divine economy it is the wider dimension that counts. Second, the wisdom of God sees all things, things we don't see and so He allows, at the very least, things to happen that appear negative to us, death being the final one. As the Lord said through Isaiah, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways," declares the LORD. "As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isa 55:8,9)
Indeed there will be times when we cry out to the Lord for deliverance but it doesn't seem to come. Sometimes it seems the deliverance waits until we have come to a place of complete trust in the Lord IN the midst of the trial. Habakkuk came to a place where he could say, “Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Savior.” (Hab 3:17,18)
Daniel's three friends also had to come to a place of trust in God when confronted with a death by burning declared, “If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” (Dan 3:17,18) i.e. we're not certain whether our Lord will save us from this or not, but whether or not He does is irrelevant; we will trust and obey Him!
It seems that sometimes in the history period covered by Scripture, there are times when the trial requires us to pass through death to the other side, and at other times just to remain faithful as we face death but are then delivered. The skeptic says, ‘Well it is just luck whether you live or die, and if it is not, then your God is a harsh God if He puts you through that!” Well, no, actually what happens to us happens by the sovereign will of God and in all circumstances His grace is there to see us through the time, whether it ends in death or not. It is God's choice, God's decision when James is killed and Peter is delivered. This side of heaven we may not know why this has worked out like this, but one day we will.
The truth is that in a fallen world people are put to death by sinners all the time; that is the tragedy of the fallen world, that sinners do have the freedom to hurt or kill others, and history is littered with them. The Bible doesn't try to avoid this reality. At one point in the book of Revelation we find, “When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained.” (Rev 6:9) It openly acknowledges that people are killed unjustly, this is the price of free will, but without it we would cease to be human beings.
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Meditating on the Will of God: 10: God's Goodwill
Jn 3:16,17 For 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. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.
Rom 8:28 we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, J who have been called according to his purpose
There is a sense whereby this meditation is going to be The most obvious one going, but the truth is that because we are tainted by sin, when push comes to shove, a very large number of Christians doubt it. I refer very simply to God's goodwill towards us. We have previously spoken of His love which is clearly displayed in scripture, as the first verse above declares, but it seems to me, having watched Christian people for well over forty years, that we have a tendency to romanticize words sometimes and thus rob them of their meaning. ‘Love' is one such word. I described it previously as, “ warm affection, attachment, liking, benevolence or strong benign feelings for us, and in God it shows selfless, sacrificial, unrestricted good will towards us.” Note the ‘good will' aspect to that definition.
When Adam and Eve first sinned they ran away and hid. Guilt and shame and even possibly fear entered their experience and those things have been with us ever since. They are things that, even after we become Christians, lurk in the background just waiting to make their presence felt, and because of that they either show or anticipate our negative feelings towards God. In a previous study, speaking about words such as service and sacrifice we noted the tendency to take on the ‘hard man' attitude towards God that comes out in Jesus' parable of the talents. So important is that in today's Christian world that I need to repeat and expand on it here.
If our Christian life is all about duty and we worship in a church where the words ‘ought' and ‘should' prevail it is probable that we see God as a ‘hard man' one to be obeyed and feared (and yes those words are there in scripture) and talk of laying down your life is often heard. As true as all these things are, it is the motivation behind them that counts. What I believe is prevalent in today's Christian world is this ‘my activity' focus rather than ‘His love for me' focus.
If my life is all about what I should be doing as a Christian – I ought to pray, read my Bible, worship, witness, and so on – then there is a ‘driven' element to it. The school of thinking that speaks about the ‘spiritual disciplines' that comes out of America encapsulates partial truths and as good as their hearts are (and I am sure they are good) they come from a culture where ‘The American dream' has been defined as “a national ethos of the United States, a set of ideals in which freedom includes the opportunity for prosperity and success, and an upward social mobility achieved through hard work ,” and that has filtered into Christian life.
Am I denigrating the work ethic and putting forward a doctrine of idleness? No, very far from it, but I am talking about motivation and starting points. Jesus won my heart by offering me salvation when I was down and out. He reached out to me, drew me to himself, put his own Holy Spirit within me, told me I was now an adopted child of God, a son of God even, and that He had a wonderful life ahead for me whereby he would never leave me or forsake me and he would be there at every moment to guide me and provide me with all the grace I needed. Now that is the truth declared by Scripture and it is true for every one of us who is a Christian. He died in my place (Jn 3:16) and has given me an eternal life with him that started when I came to him and I was born again, and it has no end (Jn 3:17). Now he is there, constantly working on my behalf to bring good into my life in any and every situation (Rom 8:28). If that doesn't win and move my heart and motivate me to run with him, nothing will and I must be hard hearted!
But it does! I refuse to see God as a hard man. He IS love and everything He thinks says or does is an expression of love. He is perfect and therefore nothing that He thinks says or does can be improved upon – nothing! Even when I stumble, Jesus is there speaking to the Father on my behalf (1 Jn 2:1). As Paul said, he is FOR me (Rom 8:31) and that means God is for me, whatever happens. I am His child after all and so He guards me, protects me, is there to pick me up when I stumble, He's there to teach and guide me, not in any heavy way but to help me in all things. There is nothing of my life that is outside His interest. Yes, He observes and helps and inspires me when I worship, when I pray, when I read His word, when I speak about Him and so on, but He's also there interested and there to help and inspire when I write, when I do gardening, when I make love to my wife, when I go shopping, when I go on holiday; nothing is outside of His concern for me and in all these areas He is there to bless me, because He has good will towards me – that is what is involved in “God's will”. Hallelujah!