Hall of Fame: the Israelites

Hebrews 11:28-30

Moses was not the only person in his generation to have faith. So too did all the other Israelites; for they believed God’s word through Moses and acted upon it. In order to be saved, they first had to obey God’s instructions and smear the blood of the Passover lambs around their doorways (Exodus 12:1-30). Then they had to follow a moving pillar of cloud through the desert. What happened next was an even greater test of faith: God led them to an apparent dead-end on the shore of the Red Sea, then separated the waters to expose a causeway to the other side. The Israelites had to walk along this causeway in order to get to safety, which must have been a nerve-wracking business with deep sea all around them – when the Egyptian army tried to do the same thing, they were drowned… (Exodus 14)

When the next generation entered the Promised Land, the first obstacle they came up against was the strongly fortified city of Jericho. It appeared to be impregnable – but when they had obeyed God’s apparently bizarre instructions to simply march around it for seven days, those massive walls just collapsed, and a task that had originally seemed to be impossible became a walkover (Joshua 6).

Sometimes God tells us to do odd things, things that make no rational sense; but if we follow His instructions, we will achieve His goals for us. Sometimes He tells us to do risky things; but so long as we obey Him, we shall be safe in His hands. However, these acts of faith are effective only when performed in response to God’s call. To take risks on our own initiative, or to blindly copy what others have done in the hope of achieving the same result, is not faith but presumption – as the Egyptians discovered to their cost.

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Reason to be cheerful

Mark 2:19

“How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them?”

Religion is a serious matter, and religious people are generally caricatured as being dour and miserable. Interesting, then, that Jesus’ disciples attracted criticism for being ‘too cheerful’!

Fasting is an indication that you take your religion seriously. And logic dictates that the more serious and committed you are, the more often you should fast. Although the Law of Moses prescribed only one fast day in the whole year (on the Day of Atonement), the strictest Pharisees of Jesus’ time followed a tradition of fasting two days a week; while John the Baptist’s disciples also fasted on a regular basis as a marker of their repentance. Many Christian denominations encourage a partial fast (giving up ‘luxury’ foods) during Lent, while of course Muslims are renowned for daylight fasting throughout the month of Ramadan.

Fasting requires considerable self-discipline, especially when those around you are eating, so there is a great temptation for frequent fasters to look down upon those lesser mortals who appear to be less ‘spiritual’ than they are.

Jesus, however, challenges these easy assumptions. He was better known for feasting than for fasting (“Here is a glutton and a drunkard!” – Luke 7:34), and His justification for this behaviour was quite simple: He was inviting people to participate in the ‘great banquet’ that celebrates the coming of God’s Kingdom, and no normal person fasts at such a time!

Religion is a serious matter – but our God is no killjoy, and we misrepresent our Lord if we make out that Christianity mandates a restrictive lifestyle. The children of the King (that is what we are, for He has adopted us) have no good reason to be miserable!

This is most emphatically NOT to say that Christians should always go around with big grins on their faces and should never feel unhappy or depressed. Illness, bereavement and pain come to all of us from time to time; and even Jesus wept at the grave of Lazarus (John 11:35). Fasting has its place, too; Jesus fasted before commencing His ministry (Matthew 4:1,2), and He certainly assumed that His followers would also fast sometimes, when appropriate (Matthew 6:16-18). But abstinence should be the exception for us, not the norm. Our generous God “richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment” (I Timothy 6:17) – so appreciation of His good gifts should be characteristic of those who follow Jesus!

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Hall of Fame: Moses

Hebrews 11:24-28

The choice facing Moses when he grew up was essentially the same choice that faces all of us: whether to remain part of the godless world, or join the people of God. It would have been so easy for him to accept the comfortable life bestowed on him by his adoptive family; but instead he chose to throw in his lot with a nation of despised slaves and a God that he hardly knew.

For him, this involved an enormous cost. He went from being a man of high rank and power to being a complete ‘nobody’, and gave up a life of untold luxury (everything Egypt could offer) in order to embrace social deprivation and hardship. There was no logical reason for him to do this – unless God is factored into the equation. Moses chose to act as he did because his mind was fixed on the future rather than the present; he reckoned the divine reward to be worth far more than material wealth and social acceptability. And those who have to endure persecution because of their faith need to know that the balance has not shifted. “You suffered along with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions.” (Hebrews 10:34)

Moses was forced to leave Egypt for a while, after killing an Egyptian (Exodus 2:11-15); but fear was not the prime motivation behind his escape. At that point, God was already more real to him than Pharaoh – and he believed that God, not Pharaoh, was in control. And so it proved: forty years later, he returned with a divine commission to rescue his people, and his appeal to Pharaoh was backed up by the power of God manifested in ten plagues.

Is God with us in our times of frustration as well as in our times of fruitfulness? Do we believe that He can work through our failures as well as through our successes? Do we see only our immediate circumstances, or can we learn to look behind and beyond them? Moses disappeared from Egypt for forty years, but that long period of exile was not wasted: he learned how to look after sheep (an excellent preparation for leadership of God’s people) and how to survive in the wilderness. God was at work all that time, though silent and unseen, and Moses “persevered because he saw Him who is invisible.” (Hebrews 11:27)

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The Anointed One

Mark 1:10

“Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, He saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on Him like a dove.”

The title ‘Christ’ or ‘Messiah’ means ‘Anointed One’. The concept of ‘anointing’ means little to most of us today, but for the Jews of Jesus’ time it was rich in significance…

Anointed as priest (Exodus 29:7)

Anointing with olive oil was a common and widespread ritual in ancient times. It implied commissioning, and signified blessing and empowerment. So it would have come as no surprise to the Israelites that God commanded them to make a special perfumed anointing oil with which to anoint their high priest and the items that made up the sanctuary (Exodus 30:22-29). The recipe was an exclusive one, for this was no ordinary oil; everything it touched became holy, and it was for the use of the priests alone.

Aaron the high priest began his ministry with a solemn ordination ceremony (Leviticus 8). After undergoing a ritual bath and dressing in his ornate robes, he was anointed with this sweet-smelling oil. Wherever he went thereafter, he carried around with him an aroma of holiness.

And what about Jesus? After He was baptised by John, “God anointed [Him] with the Holy Spirit and power, and… He went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with Him.” (Acts 10:38) Whatever other reasons there may have been for His baptism, surely one of them was to consecrate Himself to priestly service – that of bringing ordinary people into a relationship with His Father. He demonstrated this by healing the sick, cleansing the unclean, and forgiving sinners. This was His sweet-smelling ‘aroma of holiness’ – and people were attracted to it like bees to a honeypot (Mark 3:8).

Anointed as prophet (Isaiah 61:1)

It was not only the priests who were anointed. The prophets also received an anointing – not an official, public ceremony using oil, but a personal endowment with the Holy Spirit directly from God. Micah wrote:
“As for me, I am filled with power,
with the Spirit of the LORD,
and with justice and might,
to declare to Jacob his transgression,
to Israel his sin.” (Micah 3:8)
It was because of this anointing that the prophets were able to speak with God’s authority…
“The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me
because the LORD has anointed me
to [proclaim good news to the poor…” (Isaiah 61:1)
On the face of it, Isaiah was writing about himself. But when Jesus preached in the synagogue at Nazareth, He chose to read this text – and then claimed to be its embodiment and fulfilment. He was the One commissioned and sent by God – to proclaim God’s love to the ‘nobodies’ of the world, to release sinners from the bondage of guilt and despair (by dying for their sins), and to bring light to those who had been ignorant of God’s truth.

Anointed as King (I Samuel 16:13)

The other group of people in the Old Testament who were anointed were the kings – starting with Saul and David. For many generations the leadership of God’s people had fallen to a succession of ‘judges’ – men (and a woman!) chosen by God and endowed with the Holy Spirit, in a similar way to the prophets. This informal and erratic system was replaced by a hereditary monarchy; and the kings were appointed by being anointed with oil in a more formal way, rather like the high priests.

This anointing was of course intended to be a sacramental action; it symbolised and was accompanied by a supernatural anointing with the Holy Spirit. This is very obvious in the case of Saul (I Samuel 10:1-13) and of David (I Samuel 16:13). These men were equipped for their leadership role by the Spirit Himself (although the Spirit later departed from Saul after he was persistently disobedient – I Samuel 16:14). However, as the generations went by, the ritual became more and more formalised – and the behaviour of many of the kings revealed a sad lack of spiritual anointing. Eventually things got so bad that the nation was exiled and the monarchy came to an ignominious end.

But God had promised that David’s family would rule over His people for ever; and so the Jews waited for centuries for the last and greatest King – the Messiah – to appear. And what happened then? “Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in [Jerusalem] to conspire against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed.” (Acts 4:27) God’s rule was, as always, rejected by rebellious sinners (Jews and Gentiles alike). But we cannot resist Him for ever. “They will wage war against the Lamb, but the Lamb will triumph over them because He is Lord of lords and King of kings – and with Him will be His called, chosen and faithful followers.” (Revelation 17:14)

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Hall of Fame: The parents of Moses

Hebrews 11:23

Amram and Jochebed (Exodus 6:20) are not exactly the most familiar names in the Old Testament. Yet their son Moses, one of the most influential figures in Israel’s history, would have died in infancy if they had not demonstrated exceptional faith and courage.

Moses was born under the shadow of a genocidal edict: the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, and Pharaoh had decreed that all baby Israelite boys were to be drowned. Yet Moses had some exceptional qualities, even as a newborn, that persuaded his parents that he had a special part to play in God’s purpose for His people. In consequence, they made the most strenuous efforts to preserve their son’s life (probably at the risk of their own). Eventually they were forced to take desperate measures, abandoning him in a basket by the edge of the river Nile. In effect, they placed him into God’s hands – and as a result, against all the odds, he survived (Exodus 2:1-10).

Moses’ parents had no way of knowing how his story would end. But they believed that God had a purpose for His people, and were willing to commit themselves and their children to that purpose. Their faith, translated into action, enabled God to work through them – and thus they played a vital part in the deliverance of their people, even though they themselves almost certainly did not live to see it.

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No guarantees

Cancer is a diagnosis that you can never put behind you…

By the very nature of the disease, the persistence of just one cancer cell after treatment means that it will eventually come back. And even a thousand cancer cells are too small a number for any scan or blood test to detect. Which means that there is no way of telling if someone who has been treated for cancer (or ‘healed’ of cancer) is actually cured or not.

And cancer has another trick up its sleeve. In many types of cancer, spontaneous remissions can occur: this means that even quite advanced tumours can suddenly shrink away and disappear. This happened to one of our cats, a few years ago: after several years of various unsuccessful treatments (including surgery and radiotherapy), we were considering having him put down when his skin tumours suddenly healed up of their own accord. However, the respite was only temporary; a year later (and that’s quite a long time in the life of a cat) they returned more aggressively, and killed him.

This is why doctors are always sceptical of ‘miracle cures’ (and also of divine healing) for cancer. This is why cancer specialists never talk about ‘cure’, only about ‘survival’. They know, from experience and research, that a certain percentage of people treated for a particular type of cancer will still be free of it five years later. Some of these people really will be permanently cured – but there is no way of knowing who.

After going through surgery and radiotherapy, I have no residual evidence of cancer – but am I cured? Only God knows. My chemotherapy has hopefully destroyed any cancer cells that might be lurking elsewhere in my body, and anti-oestrogen tablets will prevent or slow down the future growth of any that do remain. These treatments are well worth having – they roughly double my chances of surviving for ten years or more – but they still don’t guarantee a cure. So I will have to learn to live, as all cancer survivors do, with the uncertainty. The best information my oncologist could give me is a computer prediction based on my age, my type of breast cancer, and the treatment I have received. Now as cancers go, these figures are extremely good: 90% of women in my situation can expect to survive at least five years, and 75% will survive at least ten years. So I can be optimistic and say that I will probably be one of the lucky 75%; but there’s also a distinct possibility that I might be one of the unlucky 10%…

And yet, the fact is that all of us are living with uncertainty, all the time. A diagnosis of cancer merely throws it into sharper focus:
“Since no-one knows the future,
who can tell someone else what is to come?
As no-one has power over the wind to contain it,
so no-one has power over the time of their death.” (Ecclesiastes 8:7,8)
So nothing has changed, other than my perception. My life is in God’s hands – where it has been for the last 43 years, since I surrendered it to Him.

Another thing that cancer reveals is the false dichotomy that some people claim exists between faith and modern medicine. For even after putting me through its whole battery of treatments, medicine cannot pronounce me cured; the best that it can give me is a reduced likelihood of dying from cancer. So I must still trust God (and give Him the glory) for the outcome. What is His will for me? I can’t be sure, but He did show me this verse at a time when my initial scan was suggesting a much worse prognosis:
“I will not die but live,
and will proclaim what the LORD has done.” (Psalm 118:17)

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Hall of Fame: Isaac, Jacob and Joseph

Hebrews 11:20-22

All the patriarchs, as they approached the end of their lives, expressed their complete confidence in God’s promises by imparting blessings of power and prosperity to their children. Isaac conferred the inheritance on his youngest son Jacob (Genesis 27:27-29); Jacob in turn distributed it amongst his twelve sons (Genesis 48:1-49:28). And yet they never actually possessed more than a few square yards of it for themselves!

How could they do this? Not by reckoning up their own possessions, but by believing the promises of God. They remained landless pilgrims, right to the end… but their bequests were, nevertheless, no fantasy. Their descendants did indeed receive their allotted inheritance, hundreds of years later.

Joseph had the same forward vision as the rest of his family. Despite living most of his life in Egypt, he never forgot that the destiny of his people lay in Canaan. That was why he wanted to be buried there, as his father had been – and yet he deliberately asked for his own burial to be delayed. For 400 years his embalmed body lay in its coffin in Egypt, silently witnessing to a promise that still awaited fulfilment (Genesis 50:24-26). But when the time finally came, Joseph’s wish was honoured. “Moses took the bones of Joseph with him” at the Exodus (Exodus 13:19), and he was eventually laid to rest near Shechem (Joshua 24:32). Just as we will, he took possession of his promised inheritance – after his death.

“The children of this world have their all in hand, and nothing in hope; while the children of God have their all in hope, and next to nothing in hand.” (Matthew Henry) We do not receive all our inheritance ‘up front’; we must wait “for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.” (Romans 8:23-25) In the eyes of the world, we have nothing; but by faith, we will possess the whole world.

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