Verse of the Month: January 2018

“The LORD is my Shepherd, I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
He leads me beside quiet waters.” (Psalm 23:1,2)

Serenity in the mountains above Bergen, Norway

When we live under God’s care, He looks after our welfare. When we have struggled up the mountain path, we will find waiting for us at the top everything that we need (food, rest and refreshment) – in abundance.

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A Biblical Journey through Jordan (2)

River Jabbok (Genesis 32:22-30)

Jacob had spent twenty years in exile near the River Euphrates, working for his uncle Laban. Now he was returning home to his own family – including his elder brother Esau, whom he had cheated out of his inheritance, and who had sworn to kill him. As he and his company (wives, children, servants and animals) headed for the Jordan, they had to cross the smaller River Jabbok…

 

River Jabbok

 

There was no bridge 4000 years ago; the river had to be forded. As night fell, Jacob was the last to cross – but suddenly he encountered a stranger who attempted to bar his passage. A wrestling match ensued, that went on all night until both combatants were utterly exhausted. Yet neither would give up…

All his life, Jacob had been fighting against God, trying to deceive and manipulate Him as he was accustomed to deceiving and manipulating other people. Now, on the riverbank, this spiritual struggle took on a tangible form. It was a struggle that Jacob eventually realised he could not win – but in being broken and submitting to God, he received a great blessing.

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Let’s talk about sin (part 1)

I John 3:4-6

What is sin? The answer may surprise you: “sin is lawlessness” (I John 3:4) In other words, at its most fundamental level sin is an attitude of defiance – the attitude that says, ‘God can’t tell me what to do’. It’s an attitude that starts very young – in fact, we’re born with it. As all parents know: if you tell a small child, ‘Don’t touch that,’ what’s the first thing they’re likely to do as soon as your back is turned? Human beings are hard-wired to be disobedient and to resist authority! Obedience and self-discipline don’t come naturally to us; we have to be taught them. And however well we learn the lesson, there’s always a streak of lawlessness in us. It manifests itself in different ways in different people. It may only show itself when we’re under stress, or when we’ve drunk too much alcohol. But we all have it. There’s only ever been one exception to this universal rule: Jesus. John says, “In Him is no sin.” (verse 5)

It’s this underlying streak of ‘lawlessness’ inside us that causes us to break God’s law, represented by the Ten Commandments. So sin is stuff like idol-worship, murder, theft and adultery. But that’s not all. If sin is just ‘doing things’, then that excludes a lot of what the Bible classifies as sin. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught us that sin can be thoughts as well as actions – hatred is sin, as well as murder. So sin includes things that go on inside our heads, like the so-called ‘seven deadly sins’ – pride, anger, envy, greed, lust, gluttony, and sloth. That means I can sin before I’ve even got out of bed in the morning!

Why does this matter? God’s original intention for us was that we should not die, but live in His presence for ever – and our sin prevents us from doing that. Now if you’re not concerned about being on good terms with God – which the outside world isn’t – you won’t worry about sin. But for Christians our relationship with God is much more important than being able to do whatever we want – it’s literally a matter of life and death! And sin spoils our relationship with God like nothing else. How can I explain it… In times past, if you were leaving a job or a bedsit where the other people had made your life miserable, you might get your revenge on them by taping a kipper to the underside of a large heavy piece of furniture (such as a piano). It wouldn’t actually hurt anyone or do any damage, but after a few days it would stink to high heaven – and it could take them weeks to find where the smell was coming from. And sin of any kind – even if it’s just happening inside our heads and ‘doesn’t harm anybody else’ as far as we can see – is like an unbearable stink in God’s nostrils. We aren’t that much aware of it because we’re all natural sinners from birth and we live in a sinful environment; but God is absolutely pure and holy. If we’re Christians, we’re supposed to be living, breathing, walking temples of God’s Holy Spirit – but the Spirit will eventually be ‘stinked out’ of us if sin is festering away somewhere in our lives.

I John 3:7-10

Here John explains something of the background to this whole issue of sin. There is in fact a war on – a war in the spiritual realm – and it all started with the devil. “The devil has been sinning from the beginning” (verse 8) – in other words, he was the original sinner. Now the Bible nowhere explains exactly why the devil declared war on God, but almost right from the beginning, there have been these two sides fighting each other, and now everyone (including all of us) is either on one side or on the other. In John’s language, we’re either “children of God” or “children of the devil.”

‘Children of the devil’ sounds like something out of a horror movie, but John isn’t talking about psychopaths, or people who are involved in witchcraft. He’s talking about perfectly ordinary, normal people – they may not believe that there is a devil, they may never even have heard of the devil, but they simply follow his lead in not wanting their lives to be under the authority of God.

And it has nothing to do with how ‘good’ you are (because even the devil’s children do a lot of good things); it’s a more fundamental question than that, a question of allegiance. The devil’s children happily “do what is sinful” if they want to, because they don’t care what God thinks; but if we’re God’s children we want to please Him, so we resist sin and fight against it.

The default option for human beings is to be children of the devil: we’re all born with that streak of lawlessness, whether we like it or not.

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A Biblical Journey through Jordan (1)

About ten years ago, we had the privilege of travelling through Jordan, visiting the many sites that have links with the Bible story in both Old and New Testaments.

Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19)

The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is one of those ancient stories that makes an indelible impression on the mind. A community so hardened by years of godlessness that they thought nothing of committing the most horrendous atrocities; the sudden judgement of God; the rescue of a single (relatively) devout family; and the death of Lot’s wife on the very brink of safety, transformed into ‘a pillar of salt’.

And here she is (or at least, a suggestively shaped rock formation), forever overlooking the valley that was once her home:

Lot’s wife

There is no archaeological trace of ‘the cities of the plain’ – causing some people to doubt that they ever existed. Whatever disaster overtook them has completely obliterated them, and the valley that was once renowned for its fertility (Genesis 13:10) has become a barren salt desert.

On the shore of the Dead Sea

Whether myth or history, we are meant to learn an important lesson from this: Sodom and Gomorrah “serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire.” (Jude 7) We may choose to live without any regard for God all our lives – but when the Day of Judgement comes, the result of that choice will be that we are destroyed as completely as if we had never been.

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Was Jesus a legalist?

Matthew 19:16-21

Many Christians find this incident confusing. When the rich young man asks how to gain eternal life, why does Jesus tell him to keep the Law (verse 17)? Is Jesus implying that we can be saved by obeying the Jewish Law, and does that contradict what Paul teaches about justification by faith (Galatians 2:15,16)?

It’s important to read the whole interchange between Jesus and the rich young man. Jesus begins with the Law, because that’s where the young man is: he’s a seemingly devout Jew, and he endeavours to obey the Law. But the conversation doesn’t stop there, because in actual fact the young man has not kept (and cannot keep) the Law; he is an idolater who worships money. By the end of the dialogue, the Law has vanished out of sight (selling all one’s possessions was never one of its requirements!); perfection and eternal life can be gained only by renouncing our idols and following Jesus. So what this passage really demonstrates is how “the Law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith.” (Galatians 3:24)

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The Journey (part 9)

Going home

My father always used to say: “Never admit that you are wrong.”

We could not feel safe until we had crossed the Jordan and left Herod’s territory. But when we finally camped for the night, we ate and drank, and discussed what we had seen.

The Librarian was full of joy; his cup of happiness was overflowing, and he already had plans for what to do when he got back home.

“Our story must be written down,” he declared. “The world must know that we were the first to recognise and worship the great King.”

He turned to the Astrologer. “I’m sure your colleagues will be eagerly awaiting your report. How envious they will be!”

But the Astrologer was silent for a long time. Finally he spoke:
“I will not be returning to the Academy. I dedicated my career there to reading the messages written in the stars. But I never stopped to think about what I was doing. It never occurred to me – to any of us – that if there was a written message, then there must also be a Writer. But now I have met Him face to face. I have looked into His eyes. I cannot go back to my time of ignorance.”

Then the Librarian looked at me. “What about you?” he asked.

I had been doing a great deal of thinking since we left Bethlehem, for I could not get the young carpenter out of my mind. It was so unusual for any man to willingly accept and care for a child that was not his; but I had no doubt that he would indeed lay down his life for that little boy, if necessary. Yet I was refusing even to acknowledge my own son… I had wished him dead.

“There is just one thing I must do,” I replied. “I left behind a betrayed woman, and a son. I must be a husband to her and a father to him, if he is still alive. Nothing else seems to be of any importance now.”

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Deep clean

We believe in Jesus Christ… who was crucified, died and was buried,
and descended into the grave.

Hebrews 9:14

The blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself unblemished to God, will cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God.

Hospitals are obsessed with cleanliness, for obvious reasons; a chest or wound infection can delay recovery from an operation, or even kill someone whose immunity has been lowered by disease or by powerful treatments such as chemotherapy. But thorough cleaning is difficult in a working environment, and bacterial contamination can build up in hard-to-reach places. Hence the concept of a regular ‘deep clean’ – which cuts infection rates if done properly.

Sin, like spiritual ‘dirt’, contaminates everything we think, say and do. We can improve our lives to some extent through self-discipline and resolutions to ‘do better’, but these don’t really get to the root of the problem. Some things are just too hard to shift by such ‘everyday’ methods. Under the Old Covenant, Israel were given God’s Law to tell them what to do and what not to do – but even then they couldn’t keep it! When they sinned (and made God angry), they could obtain forgiveness by making an animal sacrifice. And yet all the animal sacrifices in the world could not have achieved what Christ’s death has done…

For under the Law, no-one could be absolutely certain of forgiveness; the cleansing obtained through the sacrifices was only superficial and temporary. But Christ has set us free for ever, and we do not need to live under a burden of guilt. By dying the death that we deserve, He has cleansed us inwardly as well as outwardly – a real and lasting spiritual ‘deep clean’ that old covenant believers could only yearn for! This is why we are now able to live continually in fellowship with a holy God.

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