Verse of the month: August 2017

“The LORD declares… ‘Those who honour Me I will honour, but those who despise Me will be disdained.'” (I Samuel 2:30)

Jan Hus memorial, Prague

Jan Hus was an early reformer of the church, who campaigned principally against the corruption of the priesthood. For that, he was burned at the stake in 1415. But he is still honoured as a Czech national hero and as a martyr, while the names of his enemies have been almost forgotten.

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Hall of Fame: Abel

Hebrews 11:4

The Biblical account of Abel’s life (Genesis 4:1-8) is tantalisingly brief, and it’s unclear why his offering should have been acceptable to God while his brother Cain’s was not (it wasn’t because it was a blood sacrifice; these offerings were not for atonement, but to express homage and allegiance). There is obviously some ‘back-story’ that we are not told about, for the apostle John writes that “[Cain’s] actions (note the plural) were evil and his brother’s were righteous.” (I John 3:12)

“By faith Abel brought God a better offering than Cain did.” (Hebrews 11:4) The only difference between Cain’s worship and Abel’s was that Abel worshipped ‘by faith’. Maybe it wasn’t so much what they did, as how they did it: Abel evidently took great care to give the very best of what he had (fat portions of the firstborn lambs), whereas Cain seems to have offered whatever happened to be going spare (Genesis 4:3,4). Everyday living and worship go together; if Abel approached God with such reverence and honour in his worship, he probably showed the same attitude in his daily life.

Abel had no reward for his faith in this life. His testimony is a martyr’s testimony: God’s approval is all that matters.

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Pilgrims’ Progress: Handing on the baton

Numbers 27:12-23

Like Aaron, Moses has excluded himself from the land of Canaan by his failure to uphold God’s honour at Meribah. With Israel now poised to cross the Jordan, the time of his death is rapidly approaching – and his main concern, as always, is for the wellbeing of his people. The conquest of Canaan will place exceptional demands on them, and without exceptional leadership they will be desperately vulnerable – “like sheep without a shepherd” (verse 17). So he prays earnestly for a suitable successor.

Moses himself could not take the responsibility for making such an appointment; only God (who knows us all intimately) can choose the right person for such a vital job. And God announces His decision: the leadership will not pass to either of Moses’ two sons, but to Joshua – a man already marked out by his close relationship with God. The transfer of responsibilities will begin straight away, so that the people will get used to taking orders from Joshua before Moses departs from the scene.

Once again Moses displays exceptional leadership qualities. Instead of hanging on to his power and position until the very last moment, he takes immediate steps to ensure a smooth transition between him and his successor. After forty years, it will be hard for the Israelites to come to terms with Moses’ departure. And his will be a particularly hard act to follow, because his role has been unique and his performance of it exemplary (Hebrews 3:5). But Joshua has been called and commissioned for his task by God Himself, so he can undertake it with confidence: God is with him, and will not let him fail.

Human leadership must change from one generation to the next; but God is always the same, and He will never abandon us.

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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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