Verse of the Month: May 2018

“Be still, and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth.”
(Psalm 46:10)

Pyramid Lake and Pyramid Mountain, Alberta, Canada

Whatever our problems are, God dwarfs them.

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What’s the point of it all?

Psalm 39

This psalm was composed out of frustration (verses 1-3) – frustration at the prosperity of the wicked at the expense of the righteous. It’s all very well for God’s Word to tell us that the wicked man’s success will be brief – but isn’t the life of the righteous just as fleeting?

This leads David on to meditate on the brevity and futility of life. Not only are we short-lived (on God’s time scale), but we leave no trace behind. “Everyone is but a breath” (verse 5)“a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” (James 4:14) All our achievements, all our accumulated possessions, are not ours to keep and enjoy; they will ultimately crumble to dust, as we do. What then is the point of living at all?

In practice, most of us are anaesthetised to the fact of our mortality because we live in the present, focusing our minds on short-term goals. But in the end, the only thing that gives life meaning is a relationship with God.
“But now, Lord, what do I look for?
My hope is in You.” (Psalm 39:7)
This life is not an end in itself, but a temporary stage – a pilgrimage towards a destination. David’s forefathers, the patriarchs, understood this; they were nomads with no permanent home on earth, but they believed that by following God they would reach “the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” (Hebrews 11:10) In Him, as they discovered, we have both hope and a future.

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Focus on Jesus: He is the ultimate priest (part 1)

“Fix your thoughts on Jesus” (Hebrews 3:1)

Hebrews 4:14-5:6

The writer of this letter has so far shown that Jesus is greater than the prophets (Hebrews 1:1,2), greater than the angels (Hebrews 1:5-14), and greater than Moses (Hebrews 3:1-6). Now he will show that Jesus is greater than the Levitical priests…

The priests of the old covenant acted as mediators between God and the people, by making sacrifices on their behalf; every offering had to pass through their hands. Now in order to represent the people adequately before God’s throne, the high priest had to be one of them. This meant that they were by nature no better or holier than the rest of the people; they themselves were sinners in need of forgiveness and purification, which limited the effectiveness of their ministry. But it did have one advantage: they could identify with the people in their failures, and deal gently as well as firmly with their sins.

Jesus fulfilled this criterion for priestly office, by becoming human. He therefore understands us totally, from His own first-hand experience. He knows our desires, our sorrows, our fears and our weaknesses – and He takes full account of them (Isaiah 42:3). The only experience that He does not share with us is committing sin. His sinlessness was not an innate inability to sin, for He was genuinely human, and as susceptible to temptation as the rest of us. Rather, it was the end product of 100% victory over temptation – by determined obedience, submission to His Father, and reliance on the Holy Spirit (see Matthew 4:1-11). “He has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet He did not sin.” (Hebrews 4:15)

No-one could volunteer for priestly office. The priests had been chosen and appointed by God (Exodus 28:1), and there was a stiff penalty for anyone trying to usurp their functions (Numbers 18:7). Jesus fulfils this criterion also, because He didn’t volunteer for or demand the privilege of being our priest; He was appointed by God (Hebrews 5:6, quoting Psalm 110:4). And at His baptism (Matthew 3:13-17), He went through the priestly ordination ritual of complete washing followed by anointing with the Holy Spirit.

Under the old covenant, only the high priest could go behind the curtain of the Temple into God’s ‘throne room’, the Most Holy Place. But because of Jesus, God’s throne is no longer a throne of judgement but a throne of grace – and His people have free access into God’s presence. We should therefore never be reluctant or embarrassed to pray to God. Through Jesus we have access to all the resources that we need: forgiveness for our sins, and grace to cope with our problems (Hebrews 4:16).

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Forgiveness and prayer

Mark 11:25

“When you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”

Why is forgiveness an essential precondition for effective prayer?

We cannot approach a holy God in a state of sinfulness. So if we expect Him to hear us on our own merits, we shall be disappointed; we need to be forgiven. Now if we treat other people as we feel they deserve, then we are inviting God to treat us as we deserve – and do we really want Him to do that? “Judgement without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful.” (James 2:13) An unforgiving spirit therefore destroys the very foundation of our praying.

We need to realise that Jesus is not talking about forgiveness for our salvation here, but forgiveness for our father-child relationship with God. Otherwise our ability and willingness to forgive other people would be a precondition for salvation. But we all know that we go on sinning, even after becoming Christians; and so we need to ask God (as in the Lord’s Prayer, for example) to go on forgiving us so that we can continue to enjoy fellowship with Him.

This is the process that can be disrupted by an attitude of unforgiveness. It’s not that God won’t forgive us unless we forgive others, but that He cannot. It’s part of a general principle: give as you wish to receive (Luke 6:37,38). If my heart is hardened against someone else, it can’t at the same time be open to receive anything from God. So I must be as generous in my attitude towards other people as I want God to be to me.

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Focus on Jesus: He is greater than Moses

“Fix your thoughts on Jesus” (Hebrews 3:1)

Hebrews 3:1-6

Moses is greatly revered by the Jews, and rightly so, because he established the nation of Israel as God’s people. In obedience to God’s command, he brought the Israelites out of Egypt and led them through the wilderness towards the Promised Land. He had a uniquely close relationship with God (Deuteronomy 34:10), and carried out his commission as the steward of God’s ‘household’ with extraordinary diligence. And yet, great as he was, he belongs to the past era. He himself prophesied that there was a greater revelation to come: “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him.” (Deuteronomy 18:15)

Just like Moses, Jesus was sent by God to establish a people for God and lead them to their heavenly destiny. But Jesus is superior to Moses, not only in what He has achieved but also in His very nature. Moses slipped up once, near the end of the journey (and was therefore forbidden to enter the Promised Land); but Jesus was obedient right to the end of His life. Moses was an ordinary human being who served God, but Jesus is God – not a part of the house, but its Owner and Builder! “And we are His house, if indeed we hold firmly to our confidence and the hope in which we glory.” (verse 6) All those who followed and obeyed Moses all the way reached their destination; and if we follow Jesus all the way, relying on His strength and faithfulness, we cannot fail to reach ours.

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Hardness of heart

Mark 10:1-12

Divorce has always been a touchy subject. John the Baptist was imprisoned and executed because he criticised Herod Antipas for divorcing his first wife and marrying the wife of his brother. Our current cultural climate encourages easy divorce and accuses any dissenting voices of being cruel and heartless. And inevitably, re-married divorcees make up a high percentage of the congregation in many churches.

So Jesus’ ultra-tough line on divorce is something of an embarrassment to modern Christians. “What God has joined together, let no-one separate.” (verse 9) Even though Matthew tells us that He made an exception for adultery, that’s still pretty absolute – and even stricter than the Law of Moses. Why?

“It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law.” (verse 5) The Law permitted divorce, though without stipulating what might be acceptable grounds for it. And it did so because in real life laws have to be practical. Like many other undesirable practices (such as polygamy), divorce was allowed because we have sinful natures. This is why we often destroy our own marriages (e.g. by adultery, or domestic abuse). An ‘escape route’ for the innocent party therefore has to exist.

But this is no let-out clause for the Christian. One of the key Bible verses I learned as a young Christian was this promise of what happens to us at conversion: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” (Ezekiel 36:26) We’ve all been given a spiritual ‘heart transplant’, exchanging our old hard hearts for new soft ones! So why is there so much divorce inside the Church? Actual statistics are hard to come by, but my personal impression is that divorce is commoner than it ought to be. I know so many Christian couples who have divorced – sometimes as long as 40 years after getting married (the Church has ‘silver splitters’ too). At least they aren’t separating over trivialities; in virtually all the cases where I know the reason, it has been persistent adultery. But I don’t think we can say, “Well, that’s OK then.” I find it not only sad, but rather worrying. If we have indeed been inwardly transformed by the Holy Spirit and have God’s law written in our hearts, why are so many of us committing adultery?

To put it another way, why are our hearts still hard? They shouldn’t be!

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Focus on Jesus: He is fully human

“Fix your thoughts on Jesus” (Hebrews 3:1)

Hebrews 2:14-18

Many early Christians with a background influenced by Greek philosophy struggled to accept that a divine being could become a human being. There was a very early heresy (Docetism) which maintained that Jesus was not really and truly human, but just appeared to be.

But the witness of the apostles is that Jesus did not merely appear to be human; He was human. Like all of us, He was born of a woman, grew up, ate and slept, and felt pain, sadness and fear. Finally, like all of us, He died.

No human being could have become God; but the Son of God laid aside His glory and voluntarily restrained His power in order to accept the limitations and hardships of a human existence (Philippians 2:6,7). He didn’t simply ‘parachute in’ to solve our problems; He became one of us in the fullest possible sense.

Only as a real man could Jesus offer Himself as a ransom in our place and atone for our sin.
Only as a real man could He experience what it is to be human, and thus fully understand us.
Only as a real man can He continue to represent us before God, as our High Priest.

And so He is more than just our Saviour; He continues to sustain and help us in our pilgrimage, all the way to the end. There is nothing in our everyday struggles that He cannot sympathise with, help us through and rescue us from.

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Grieving the Spirit

We believe in the Holy Spirit.

Ephesians 4:30

‘Do not grieve the Holy Spirit,with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.’

The Holy Spirit is God’s most precious gift to us – His own self, no less. It is the Holy Spirit who marks us out as God’s people (see also Ephesians 1:13), and who is the ‘first instalment’ of the glories to come (Ephesians 1:14). He enables us to know God (Ephesians 1:17) and pray to Him (Ephesians 2:18). He brings the presence of God into our churches (Ephesians 2:22) and the power of God into our individual lives (Ephesians 3:16). In all our diversity, He is the One who unites us (Ephesians 4:3).

How then is it possible for Christians to grieve Him?

In the Old Testament, we are told that God was grieved by the rampant sins of the people that He had created (Genesis 6:6), by the high-handed disobedience of King Saul (I Samuel 15:35), and by the persistent idolatry of the Israelites (Ezekiel 6:9). And this had grave consequences: the early human race was decimated by the Flood, Saul was removed from his throne, and the Israelites were sent into exile.

Persistent, deliberate sin is what grieves the Holy Spirit, because it obstructs His primary work of making us a holy people. It can take many forms, but maybe those sins that cause division amongst God’s people are the ones that cause Him most sorrow. It’s no accident that Paul’s warning comes in the middle of a long passage dealing with what is – and isn’t – appropriate Christian behaviour. In other words, how we live really does matter!

The generation of Israelites who were rescued from Egypt were immensely privileged, experiencing many miracles and blessings from God.
“Yet they rebelled
and grieved His Holy Spirit.
So He turned and became their enemy…” (Isaiah 63:10)
This implies that grieving the Spirit is a very serious matter. What will happen to us if we do? Christians will not lose Him altogether (for a seal is permanent); but we will lose His power, His gifts and His fruit.

The Holy Spirit is the seal of a holy people. Let’s not let Him down.

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