Sunday, 29 June 2014

Celebrating an Enthronement

The appearance of a new king can for some be an exciting experience, as we have seen recently in Spain. This was the case also when Israel chose its first king, Saul. We can read about the events leading up to this occasion in 1 Samuel. Yet not everyone was pleased about this development, including God. Why was he displeased?

Basically, Israel’s desire for a king was a rejection of God’s methods in favour of the methods of the surrounding nations. This rejection did not mean that God was no longer in control or that he was no longer interested in his people; it did mean, however, that he would chastise them, and the giving of Saul as king was an evidence of this divine chastisement. It is important that we remember this when we read about some of Saul’s actions in later years when he disobeys God. 

Sadly there are some wrong actions that God’s people take which seem to have irreversible consequences. When Israel went down the road of having a king, God gave them over to their choice and he did not reverse the choice throughout their history until the monarchy reached its doom in the exile in Babylon. This type of thing has happened repeatedly throughout church history. There can be long-term effects of some choices.  

Happily, although the institution of the monarchy would not be removed until the exile, God would show his mercy many times in the situation by sending good and godly kings, such as David and Hezekiah, who would attempt to lead the people in the ways of God. 

The enthronement of Saul was the first of many of which God did not approve as far as his kingdom was concerned. Yet even in that process he intervened and intimated that a real King would come as a consequence, not from the line of Saul but from the line of David. That king was Jesus and his enthronement following his ascension to heaven after his resurrection was marked by great celebrations. In fact, the celebrations are still taking place and will do so forever, which is very different from the temporary commotion that marked the crowning of Saul. Today we can participate in the ongoing celebration of our King, whose reign will have no end.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Perspectives on Abraham

One of the outstanding characters of the Bible is Abraham: (a) he is a central figure in the history of redemption: to him God gave promises of blessing concerning his spiritual seed; (b) he is a Pauline example of the doctrine of justification by faith; (c) when Jesus teaches the Sadducees about the meaning of the resurrection, he refers to Abraham, mentioning how God was still in a personal relationship with Abraham long after he had died (Matt. 22:32); (d) he is mentioned of with regard to heaven; Jesus said that heaven would involve sitting down with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Matt. 8:11); (e) James tells us that Abraham is an example of a person who showed his faith by his works of obedience to God.
Clearly, Abraham is an example for believers today and here are four details about him, each of which is important for us.
What his neighbours thought of him. We discover this in the story connected to Abraham attempting to buy ground in which to bury Sarah. Abraham by then had been living in Canaan for six decades, so his neighbours had ample time to assess his character. This is what the Hittites said of him in Genesis 23:6: ‘Sir, listen to us. You are a mighty prince among us. Bury your dead in the choicest of our tombs. None of us will refuse you his tomb for burying your dead.’
Abraham gained this testimony not by isolation from those with whom he lived – he was among them. Yet they realised he was not of them. He maintained a distinction without being remote. The words ‘mighty prince’ can be translated ‘prince of God’, perhaps pointing to their awareness of God’s blessing on his life.
What his wife thought of him. In order to discover this, we have to go to Peter’s first letter (3:6), where he says, ‘Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her master.’ This is a reference to Sarah’s response when God told Abraham he would have a son. She said within herself, in Genesis 18:12, ‘After I am worn out and my master is old, will I now have this pleasure?’
Note that this assessment was from within her. It was not something she was compelled to say. This was her heart attitude towards him. Further, this was her assessment despite Abraham’s failings. We know that twice he had put Sarah into danger because of his fear. She was aware of his weaknesses, yet she still valued him highly. She forgave him his failings, and because she did so there was domestic harmony.
What his God thought of him. We discover this in the book of Isaiah, several centuries after Abraham had died. In Isaiah 41:8, God says, ‘But you, O Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, you descendants of Abraham my friend.’ The friendship began with God’s sovereign initiative, when he appeared to him in Ur of the Chaldees and brought him into a saving relationship with himself. It continued throughout a variety of experiences. On God’s side, the friendship involved promises, protection and power. On Abraham’s side, the friendship involved worship (he built altars to the Lord), loyalty and obedience.
What Abraham thought of himself. We can look at this in two different ways. When he approached God, Abraham likened himself to dust and ashes (Gen. 18:27). In contrast to God Abraham was insignificant and unclean. He knew he was both a creature and a sinner. This was said despite all the previous blessings Abraham had known.
When he spoke to those who lived alongside him, Abraham described himself as an alien and a stranger (Gen. 23:4), even although he was living in the land God had promised to his descendants. He knew he was an exile from Heaven and he was looking forward to going there.
Think about these four areas of Abraham’s life: his public life, his home life, his relationship with God and his opinion of himself. Do our contacts sense that we have their good at heart, are our homes places where forgiveness and respect exist, is our walk with God that of two friends, and do we see ourselves as nothing in comparison to God and are we looking forward to heaven?

Sunday, 15 June 2014

The signs of true discipleship

What does Jesus demand of his followers in order for them to be recognised as true disciples? A brief look at the Sermon on the Mount can help us find out.

First, a true disciple will have the character defined in the Beatitudes. The list of features includes humility, sorrow for sin and its effects, gentleness, purity of heart, love of mercy, and a desire for peace. If we have these aspects in our character, we are true disciples.

Second, a true disciple will take seriously the matter of his indwelling sin. In a series of references to the ten commandments, Jesus takes his listeners through several situations in which he stressed the necessity of inner conformity to the law of God. He said that it was not enough to refrain from actual murder – instead he stated that hateful thoughts and spiteful words would kill the person’s own soul. He said that it was not enough to refrain from physical immorality – instead he stated that lustful thoughts were as dangerous as physical sin. He said that the command to love one’s neighbour extended far beyond one’s acquaintances – instead the concept of neighbour included loving one’s enemies and doing them good. He even said that to engage in acts of revenge (an eye for an eye) was a sign that the person was on the road to a collapse. But the point he was making is that all these wrong attitudes and actions arise from a failure to deal with indwelling sin. Jesus also stated that dealing with such sins would be difficult and painful; he likened it to cutting off a limb or removing  an eye. Yet it is better to have limited pain than a wholesale collapse. 

Third, a true disciple will engage in regular spiritual activities and Jesus mentions three in particular: giving to the poor, prayer and self-denial (fasting). The first is a practical evidence of concern for those in need and it is such a basic evidence of true Christianity that it is stressed throughout the Bible. A person that does not have compassion on the needy is not a true disciple of Jesus Christ. Of course, it is hard to imagine why a person who never gives to the physical needy should expect to receive anything from God to meet his spiritual needs. 

Prayer is also performed in obedience to Jesus Christ and it is clear from his teaching on it that he regarded prayer in general to be a straightforward activity of a disciple. Prayer for Jesus was the drawing near of children to the heavenly Father, an activity of delight and expectation.  He taught his disciples to speak to the Father about the beauty of his perfections, about the progress of his kingdom, and the provision of their own needs. 

I am not sure if fasting alone is recommended by the reference to it or whether it is as an example of doing without activities that give pleasure in order to pursue more important goals. Fasting was not to be continuous, otherwise the person engaged in it would not be here for long. I suspect that Jesus may be using it as an example of assessing our priorities, of testing our willingness to make personal sacrifices in order to obtain for ourselves and for others greater spiritual blessings. Fasting without prayer is of no value in a spiritual sense, and similarly sacrifices of time and possessions are of no value unless accompanied by prayer and seeking for God. 

Fourth, a true disciple will live primarily for heaven and secondarily for earth. Jesus highlights this distinction by referring to how his disciples react to possessions. He does not mean that his followers should not have any, but he does stress that material things should not distract them away from their priorities. Instead he points out that possessions, as with everything else in life, are under the providential control of God and the understanding of this great reality will enable his followers to have the proper attitude of trust in God regarding these matters.  Their priority in life should be living for heaven day by day. This attitude will give to each true disciple an eternal perspective on all the things of time. 

This brief survey of the Sermon on the Mount enables us to identify four basic principles of true discipleship. So how should we respond to this searching requirement of Jesus? First, his words demand that we become realistic regarding the spiritual life. We are called to a life of spiritual discipleship. It is not enough to have an external list of practices that will satisfy onlookers; our souls are under the eye of the One who can penetrate to the depths of our hearts. 

Second, we must repent of our failings. The fact of the matter is that no disciple is perfect. We can see this is the case from the original disciples that Jesus had, including the twelve apostles. A very important distinguishing mark between the true and the false among them was the issue of repentance. The obvious example of a contrast is Peter and Judas – Peter repented and continued as a disciple; Judas did not and his life ended in calamity. Repentance should not be a reluctant activity of a true disciple. On the contrary, he should enter God’s presence to confess sin with an expectant heart, one that is sorry for sinful failures but which also anticipates receiving divine forgiveness. Therefore, repentance should be a habitual attitude of a true disciple. 

Third, we must continually resolve to walk in the path of inner obedience. This should be our aim each day. And we can have this resolve because we know that the Holy Spirit will continue to enable his people to move on the life of holiness, desiring to be more and more obedient to the Saviour’s words.  

Sunday, 8 June 2014

How to be a good builder (Matthew 7:24-27)

Normally, the illustration of building on a foundation is used in Gospel messages to depict the way that a person is converted. The foundation is Jesus and sinners ‘build’ on him in the sense of trusting him or depending upon him. The Saviour is described rightly as a strong, reliable and permanent Rock on which each sinner should depend in order to have eternal life.  

Yet sometimes the illustration is used in a different way. In Matthew 7:24-27 Jesus uses the illustration in connection to Christian discipleship.

Jesus describes two kinds of disciples – one group contains true disciples and the other false disciples. Both these groups are distinguished from all others who reject the teaching of Jesus as irrelevant. What distinguishes both true disciples and false disciples from all other people is their willingness to listen to the words of Jesus, but in two very different ways.

Jesus also tells his disciples that times of trouble are inevitable. The storms are going to come sooner or later, and these storms will test the reality of each disciple’s commitment to the word of Christ.

Obviously, the prevention of a spectacular collapse is not achieved by mere listening to the teaching of Christ. If we apply this to ourselves, it means that regular church attendance to hear sound sermons is not sufficient for ensuring we are true disciples. The ability to analyse a sermon, to appreciate distinctions in theology, to value insights will not prevent the collapse of the house we are building.

Jesus states quite clearly that the essential preparation that will ensure stability and perseverance when difficulties come is obedience to his teachings. Therefore we can easily deduce that a disobedient disciple is heading for a calamity, in this life as well as in the next. Further we can see that obedience to the words of Jesus should be the highest priority in the life of a professing disciple. It is always possible to assess our spiritual temperature by the extent of our obedience. 

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Spiritual Armour

In Ephesians 6, Paul tells his readers that they need to wear spiritual armour and he specifies various aspects of it.

He begins by telling his readers to wear the belt of truth. The belt was used to tie up any loose garments a soldier was wearing so that they would not hinder him. It is not too difficult to see what the belt signifies. First, it means that we must have the right understanding of the doctrines of God’s Word.  But ‘truth’ refers to more than head knowledge of the Bible; it also includes our characters, which are to be marked by truthfulness. This was the character of the righteous man described in Psalm 15:2: ‘He that walks uprightly, and works righteousness, and speaks the truth in his heart.’ Such a person lives out from the heart the character of God. In other words, he becomes Christlike.

The second piece of armour mentioned by Paul is the breastplate of righteousness. A Roman soldier’s breastplate covered his chest and stomach and protected many of the vital organs. What does the apostle have in mind by righteousness? Paul is speaking about imputed righteousness, that is, the perfect lawkeeping of Jesus that was credited to our account. We wear this as our breastplate, and it is a breastplate that fits comfortably as well as giving a sense of security.

The third item in the armour concerned the soldier’s footwear, which Paul says is the readiness or preparation of the gospel of peace. We need shoes to keep our balance, they provide protection as we move, and they enable us to move more quickly. Paul is not saying that we are being prepared to pass on the gospel; rather he is saying that the gospel prepares Christians to defend themselves against the enemy. A Roman soldier had always to be ready for a sudden change in the enemy’s tactics. Each Christian has to be ready as well because he does not know when the devil will change his tactics. 

The peace here is not with our enemy but with our Commander. So it is a reminder that we were once at enmity with him. Yet Paul is not referring only to a cessation of enmity; he is also referring to an experience of peace in our hearts; he is not only referring to our Christian standing before God, he is also referring to a Christian’s sense of security. The first aspect concerns the removal of hostility, which occurs at conversion because of what Jesus did when he was on the cross; the second concerns the confident sense of God’s favour, which should be our ongoing experience. The first is reconciliation between God and us; the second is assurance. Paul is saying that the preparation we need to fight the devil is an understanding that we are reconciled with God and are enjoying the assurance of his favour.

The fourth item in resisting the devil is, according to Paul, the shield of faith. We should note that Paul here changes the verb from ‘having’ to ‘taking’, which suggests that some items have to be utilised in specific locations. Obviously a shield in battle had to be flexible: sometimes a soldier would hold it in front of him, at other times he would hold it above his head. A believer’s faith has to focus on matters that are suitable to a particular time. What matters about faith is not its strength, but its object, and the object of Christian faith is Jesus. Such faith will concentrate on the aspects of Jesus that are needed at the moment. So if a person is under Satanic attack, he will focus on the power and on the sympathy of Jesus. 

A Roman soldier prepared for battle by drenching his shield in water. Then, in the battle, the fiery arrows of his enemies would be extinguished when they attached themselves to the wet shield. A soldier who failed to wet his shield did not make adequate preparation for the battle. We need to saturate our faith in the Word of God, and then we will diminish the effects of the devil’s roar. 

The fifth item mentioned by Paul is the helmet of salvation.  The Roman helmet was designed to protect the head from blows and from arrows. Paul is saying that salvation is the particular doctrine that will protect the believer’s mind and vision. This salvation enables the Christian to resist the devil by looking back (a good memory), looking up (a good attitude), and looking ahead (clear-sighted about the future). He can look back to conversion, indeed even further back to the eternal counsels when Jesus agreed to become the Saviour. And he can look back to deliverances he has known in the Christian journey. Then he can look up to where Jesus is and see how he is willing and able to help each of his people. And he can look ahead to what he will receive when Jesus returns and there will be the great resurrection and transformation of his people. 

The sixth piece of armour is the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. A soldier’s sword was for using at close quarters and we have to use the Bible when we find ourselves under attack. The Bible was produced by the Spirit and he ensured that it is full of Jesus. It is also always his property, even when we are using it, so he will enable us only when we use it in a right way. Yet we have to familiarize ourselves with it in order to use it. The Bible is a very effective way of dealing with the roaring lion. 

Paul adds another feature, which we can call the Christian soldier’s battle cry, and that is prayer. When the lion roars, respond with the battle cry, which is prayer in the Spirit. In a sense, all we do is tell our Commander that the enemy is roaring. Such prayer is very specific in asking for divine help.