Verse of the month: July 2017

“I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols.” (Ezekiel 36:25)

The muddy waters of the lower River Jordan

Can water that is stagnant and filthy be made clean – clean enough to drink? Can our sinful, idolatrous hearts be purified and made fit to serve God? Oh yes…

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Hall of Fame: Prelude

Hebrews 11:1-3

What is faith?

The writer of the letter to the Hebrews has been imploring his readers to keep their faith alive and not give up. Faith is all-important, because “the righteous person will live by his faith.” (Habakkuk 2:4, quoted in Hebrews 10:38) But what exactly is faith?

To the average modern man, faith is a subjective belief without evidence to support it – or even belief in the face of contrary evidence! But in the Bible, faith is the faculty of perceiving what is genuinely, objectively true because God has revealed it to us. “Faith demonstrates to the eye of the mind the reality of those things that cannot be discerned by the eye of the body.” (Matthew Henry) It enables us to look beyond our immediate situation and take account of eternal realities. And then it translates these invisible, intangible realities into concrete, observable actions. Nobody can measure or prove the future life that Christians hope for – but if we believe God’s promise of what is to come, we will not live solely for the present moment.

“Faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” (Hebrews 11:1) Yet it is more than commitment on the basis of probability. Because its object is God, faith itself is part of the eternal reality that we do not yet see! When we live and act in faith, we find it to be a firm foundation; by living as if God’s promises are true, we discover in our own experience that they are true.

And so the writer, rather than trying to explain what faith is, shows us what it does – by inviting us to look at the lives of people who lived by faith in the past. Just like us, the Old Covenant believers were promised things that they did not necessarily receive in their own lifetimes. But they believed the promises of God, and acted upon them – which is what it means to ‘live by faith’.

Faith in who?

But before we can start walking through this ‘hall of fame’, we must answer two fundamental questions. Firstly, what kind of God are we being invited to trust in? And secondly, what is the relationship between the visible reality that we all perceive and the invisible realm in which faith operates?

“By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what is visible.” (Hebrews 11:3) There is no argument that the universe exists; we are part of it, and we all perceive it with our five senses. Scientific observation and experiment have given us an enormous amount of information, not only about how it works but also about the process by which it arrived at its present state. But its actual origin was unseen; we can only observe the consequences. And so science cannot tell us whether or not it was brought into being by God’s Word – this is a matter of faith.

For Christians, the ultimate reality is the word of God. This was what brought both space and time into existence: God uttered a decree, and a dark and anarchic waste – a literal ‘nothingness’ – was transformed into the beautiful and orderly universe that we know. And it is because of this that we believe God has the absolute power to fulfil what He promises to do. “Sovereign LORD, You have made the heavens and the earth by Your great power and Your outstretched arm. Nothing is too hard for You.” (Jeremiah 32:17) That belief causes us to live in accordance with God’s word, rather than trusting in the flimsy promises and facile assurances of the visible world. “Faith is not belief without proof, but trust without reservations – a trust in a God who has shown Himself worthy of that trust.” (A McGrath: Doubt)

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The plans of the Lord

Psalm 33:10-22

Many people think of God as a Being who made the world originally but who long ago ceased to take any interest in it, let alone intervene in its affairs. But this is not the case: He is a God who sees and knows everything (verses 13,14) – including the motives behind the actions (verse 15). And He is no mere spectator:
“The eyes of the LORD are on those who fear Him,
on those whose hope is in His unfailing love.” (verse 18)
His people are under His loving care – and can give countless testimonies to His provision for their needs.

The rulers of this world may appear to do as they will, forever fighting wars and making (or breaking) treaties; but ultimately all human ambitions and decisions will be made to serve the purposes of God. It is His plan that will be carried forward to its conclusion, for it can never be frustrated or overthrown (verses 10,11).

Most of the time, this is far from obvious. To the eyes of the world, it therefore appears that ‘might is right’. Now power and skill do indeed count for something; but they are insufficient on their own. So even the greatest army can never be certain of victory, and force does not always have the last word (verses 16,17). Israel was always a small and vulnerable nation, surrounded by more powerful and frequently hostile neighbours. But time and time again, she experienced deliverances that could only be described as miraculous. Her security was not in her puny military resources, but in her relationship with Almighty God.
“Devise your strategy, but it will be thwarted;
propose your plan, but it will not stand,
for God is with us.” (Isaiah 8:10)
And He can be the source of our security as well – even in the age of the computer and the smart missile. He is a God in whom we can trust; and those who trust in Him will not be disappointed.
“Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD,
the people He chose for His inheritance.” (verse 12)

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By the word of the Lord…

Psalm 33:1-9

Why is it “fitting” for us to praise God (verse 1)? No doubt there are many reasons; this psalm focuses on some of them.

“The word of the LORD is right and true…” (verse 4)

There is a moral order underpinning the whole of creation, because everything comes ultimately from a God who “loves righteousness and justice” (verse 5). Although we may at times struggle to comprehend it, everything that He does is consistent not only with these, but also with His love for His people.

“By the word of the LORD the heavens were made…” (verse 6)

The whole universe was created by God, spoken into existence by His Word. Like a powerful king whose word is law, He had only to utter a decree – and it was done. From the swirling gas cloud that became our solar system to the organic molecules that became the building-blocks of our DNA, everything that we now take for granted was His doing. What He has made is of sterling quality: not only functional, but also beautiful and lasting.

Everything that now exists belongs to him and is under His control. And that includes us; so why are we so slow to acknowledge His sovereignty and give Him honour?
“Let all the earth fear the LORD;
let all the people of the world revere Him.” (verse 8)
The word of the Lord is so powerful; the least we can do is listen – and obey.

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Pilgrims’ Progress: Eyes on the prize

Five wise virgins (Numbers 27:1-11)

In an intensely patriarchal society such as ancient Israel, daughters do not normally inherit any share of the family estate. But a certain Israelite (Zelophehad) has died at some point during the nation’s wanderings without leaving a son to claim his promised inheritance in Canaan. His five unmarried daughters perceive the traditional system to be unjust, and dare to challenge it. Moses seeks God’s advice – and not only does God uphold the women’s claim, but He commands that the principle of female inheritance be written permanently into Israel’s lawcode.

These ‘five wise virgins’ are remarkable not only for their initiative but also for their faith. Even though the land of Canaan is as yet unentered, let alone conquered, they petition for a share in it as if it were already in Israel’s hands! They believe (probably with good reason) that once the land allocation actually begins, the men won’t give them a chance to put their case. So by staking their claim in advance, they are making sure that they won’t miss out.

Could this passage shed some light on the notoriously hard-to-understand parable of the ten virgins (Matthew 25:1-10)? What makes five of them wise, and why are the other five foolish for not being prepared? The wise virgins are thinking ahead; they are determined not to run any risk of missing out on their places at the wedding feast. Like the daughters of Zelophehad, they want their inheritance – and they make sure that they get it. But whether through lack of faith or lack of desire, the foolish ones are less motivated; and they suddenly wake up to the fact that they may get left out at the last moment. So we must ask ourselves: do we give the Kingdom of God a high priority in our lives? If we do not think it sufficiently important to invest in it now, might we risk losing it altogether?

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Long before social media, long before Islamic terrorism, King Solomon noted that it’s not difficult to recruit people for violence:
“A violent person entices their neighbour
and leads them down a path that is not good.” (Proverbs 16:29)
There are many possible reasons for this. Violence is fun (if you’re not on the receiving end); violence gets quick results (e.g. mugging); violence wins you admiration. The temptation to jump onto the bandwagon is therefore strong – and without at least an equally strong cultural pull in the other direction, few can resist it.

Throughout human history, certain forms of violence have been legitimised, and all cultures have had their particular preferences. The inhabitants of the Roman Empire enjoyed gladiatorial battles (to the death) as a good afternoon’s entertainment; and for a bit of variety, a few Christians might be eaten by wild beasts in front of an audience of thousands. We consider ourselves more ‘civilised’ now – but boxing and other martial arts continue to flourish, despite the constant stream of injuries that they produce. Violence in films seems if anything to be on the increase: at my local cinema this week, five out of the eight films being shown contain scenes of violence. Does the fact that it’s not ‘real’ somehow make it OK? We can enjoy watching murder, war and other forms of mayhem, knowing that nobody is actually getting seriously hurt. And most of us are not induced to copy what we see… but a few are.

But it is when violence is justified by an ideology that it becomes truly pernicious. Nations have often gone to war with terrifying cheerfulness, convinced that God was on their side. Mediaeval popes whipped up enthusiasm for their crusades by issuing free indulgences to participants. The guerrilla and the terrorist not only experience the ‘normal’ gratifications of violent behaviour, but also have the satisfaction of believing that they have contributed to a noble cause. Add in a sense of ‘belonging’ and comradeship, and you have a proven recipe for recruitment. The path is well-trodden here; the problem of radicalisation is not specific to Islamic terrorism, but has its roots in our basic human nature.

Violence often looks like the ideal solution to a perceived problem; but inevitably there are long-term repercussions. The trouble is that neither life nor history come in self-contained episodes; we are always travelling “down a path”, and what we do now will inevitably have consequences later on (sometimes much later on). In our own culture, we have some shining examples of the good that can be achieved by non-violent protest (one thinks of the successful political campaigns led by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King in the last century). Is there anything comparable in the Islamic world? “Love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44) has proved difficult enough for Christians to put into practice; yet there is nothing that comes even close to it in the Qur’an. This makes the actions of Imam Mohammed Mahmoud (in defending a man who had just run a van into a group of Muslims leaving a prayer meeting) all the more noteworthy. Let us hope and pray that his example will lead many others down a good path.

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Gone for ever

We believe in… the forgiveness of sins…

Psalm 103:12

As far as the east is from the west,
so far has He removed our transgressions from us.

God has promised that if we confess our sins, “He will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (I John 1:9). But do we realise how completely those sins have been dealt with? They are not merely forgiven; they are removed out of His sight for ever.

The ritual of the scapegoat on the Day of Atonement was symbolic of this truth. After the required sacrifices had been offered, this goat, symbolically bearing all the sins of the nation, was taken far away from the camp and released into the wilderness – never to return (Leviticus16:20-22). Thus all Israel’s sins and uncleanness were taken away, and their relationship with God was restored. It was a visual demonstration of what Jesus’ death would potentially achieve for the sins of the whole world.

We may believe this to be true; but how many of us ‘cling on’ to memories of our past sins, even after we have confessed them and turned away from them, so that we continue to feel guilty for what we have done? God draws a line under our past; but we can find it much harder to do so. Unlike Him, we may not be able to forget – but we nevertheless have to learn to ‘let go’. That goat must not be held back, but allowed to disappear over the horizon…

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