Thursday, 21 May 2009

I make all things new

I am preparing, sort of, for a week's conference in Devon beginning this coming Friday. I am pretty sure my topic is going to be the New Covenant! Isn't it always? you ask! Well, perhaps not always but you're pretty close.

I suppose it's partly because I am editing the manuscript for my book, "a better covenant" but much more because this topic constantly grips me. It thrills be to see the way in which God tried to prepare his people for the New Covenant, using just about every image you could imagine.

In the major prophets of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel we have the theme of Israel's exile into Assyria and Babylon. Each of these prophets begins with dire warnings which become more and more urgent. When Judah's unremitting sin made exile inevitable these prophets begin to see 'past' the exile to the time of a restoration.

Their themes are the same although their imagery is different. Isaiah predicts a new exodus which he describes as a 'new thing'. Isaiah 43:19 The people are not to remember the way God did 'exodus' before. The past was no pointer for the future. Jeremiah declares a 'new covenant' that will quite specifically be 'unlike' the old covenant; Jer 31:31. Whereas Ezekiel promises a new heart and a new spirit and the Spirit of God indwelling them; Ezek 36:26 and that the 'old' stoney heart will be removed.

All in all it seems that God used everything he could to make the point that he was about to do something which was 'new'. The writer to the Hebrews declares that it is a better covenant based on better promises; Heb 8:6 You will understand my bewilderment then when one ancient Bible commentator who is followed by millions of Christians states that there is 'no difference of substance between the old and new covenants but only a difference of form'; he means there are different rituals and ordinances.

How can something which is better have no substantial differences? The tragedy is that so many Christians do not enjoy a 'better covenant' but live a life which would be much more appropriate to the old covenant. May the Lord open our eyes to see and our hearts to receive the fulness which he has prepared for us.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

it's illegal, it's immoral or it makes you fat

It was a song from the 1940's and included the lines...
if it's something you enjoy you can be certain that
it's illegal, it's immoral or it makes you fat.
The singer's lament is that whatever they really wanted to do always seemed to fall into one of these three categories. It was perceptive in that it recognised that 'legal' and 'moral' are distinct categories but less perceptive in that it presumed that 'fun' would inevitably be in either one of these categories or another; it reality these categories often overlap.

It is because of the overlap that there is such anger among British folks as I write. Some Members of Parliament have been 'playing the system' or maybe even 'milking' it. It seems that very few will actually have done anything illegal but there is a gathering sense that what they have done is certainly immoral. Few will have broken the law in their far reaching expenses claims but many have breached a hidden law of the conscience that we call morality. Illegal actions should be punished by the state but what about immoral actions?

Polygraph machines, or lie-detectors as they are sometimes called work on a principle that when someone tells a lie the body sets off a kind of moral smoke-alarm. Stresses are created in the inner man that are seen in changes in blood pressure or heart rates. It seems that something in our deepest psyche knows that something is wrong and "sets off the smoke-alarm". Something in the behaviour of our British MPs has set off the smoke-alarm in the public at large. There may be no 'law' that has been broken but we are a 'law unto ourselves', 'the work of law is written in our hearts'. Rom 2:14,15. It has serious implications and not just for the Members of Parliament.

In this same passage in Romans Paul says that 'whoever judges another passes sentence on himself'. Rom 2:1 Some profess to have no conscience and are free from all law but it is a self-deception. If I know that something is wrong when someone steals from me, I also know that something is wrong if I steal from someone else. I cannot assess another's behaviour without acknowledging that in my own behaviour there are things which deserve judgment and justice.

The atheist may say he doesn't believe in God but the real problem is that God doesn't believe in atheists. He knows that he has not left himself without a witness and in some secret part of the consciousness men and women know they are accountable for the way they live. They may make their bold professions of 'freedom from law' but that annoying smoke-alarm keeps going off!

Friday, 15 May 2009

The Word of the Lord

The phrase is used over 250 times in the scriptures and over 50 times in Jeremiah alone. It is easy to become desensitised to phrases like this but to pause when we read them is very challenging. When God spoke of his own diligence in sending prophets to the nation of Israel he used a lovely Hebrew idiom which is simply 'he rose up early in the morning and...' The picture, apparently, is of a man loading his camel for an early start. Of course God never sleeps but the urgency and the industry of God sending his word is captured just the same. How faithfully he sent those messengers. Some they ignored, some they opposed, some they silenced, but 'the next morning' God just loaded up another 'camel' and sent another word. Sometimes prophetic messages were simply called 'the burden of the Lord'. God solemnly warned the people of Jeremiah's day that a day would come when there would be no 'daily delivery', no burden of the Lord. Jer 23:33. (see the KJV)

When 'the word of the Lord comes' how are we to respond to it? Jeremiah gives two answers to that question in chapter 2.
1. Hear the word of the LORD, Jer 2:4
2. See the word of the LORD Jer 2:31
To hear doesn't just mean to be impacted by the sound waves. It means to 'hearken' or to obey the voice that is heard. God once warned the prophet Ezekiel that the people were just enjoying the sound of his voice. Ezek 33:31-32 This is a lesson we need to learn. At times we find ourselves locked into complex situations and our tendency is to try to 'understand our way out'. At such times we are better advised to 'obey our way out'. God is under no obligation to explain to us how we got where we are but in his faithfulness, if our hearts are open, we will hear 'the word of the Lord' and our obedience will be our deliverance.

What are we to make of this second answer? How are we to 'see word of the Lord'? How do you see a word? Although God is under no obligation to explain anything to us he often does. He seeks to engage our understanding so that we can 'see' what he is saying or doing. Perhaps Isaiah's words are the best known example of this; “Come now, and let us reason together,” Says the LORD, “Though your sins are like scarlet, They shall be as white as snow; Though they are red like crimson, They shall be as wool. Is 1:18.

There is an old word which has fallen on hard times; it is the word 'condescension'. A modern dictionary definition is sure to give the idea of 'talking down' to someone in a patronising way. (there's another word that has fallen on hard times!) Originally 'condescend' simply meant to 'come down to another's level'. There is a little word in this Isaiah quotation which is astonishing, it is the word 'us'. To use words like 'we' or 'us' there must be some common ground that makes it possible to speak for 'both of us' in the same context. Consider the condescension then of God in 'coming down to our level' and entering into a process where 'he' and 'I' work together in reasoning.

When God condescends to 'get up early in the morning' to burden one of his 'camels' with the word of the Lord he has the right to expect a response. If we 'hear the word of the Lord' and embrace the truth that he has sent the process of 'us reasoning together' can begin. Obedience will lead to understanding and as a wise old man once wrote; Wisdom is the principal thing; Therefore get wisdom. And in all your getting, get understanding. Prov 4:7

Thursday, 14 May 2009

I remember you... My people have forgotten Me...

It must be 50 years ago but somehow it has stayed in my mind. It was a large poster outside a Methodist church in my home town. It read:
God gives and forgives
man gets and forgets.
I am reading Jeremiah in my morning times. The second chapter is an almost relentless accusation against the faithlessness of His people but the chapter begins on a very different note; “Go and cry in the hearing of Jerusalem, saying, “Thus says the LORD: ‘I remember you, The kindness of your youth, The love of your betrothal, When you went after Me in the wilderness, In a land not sown. Israel was holiness to the LORD, Jer 2:2-3. Unless you have read your Bible very carefully you might be hard pressed to 'remember' the event that God has in mind. The failure of the people is an almost constant theme of Exodus and Numbers. 'Almost' but not quite without a brief gleam of light.

While the Covenant was still being established the people turned aside in their spiritual promiscuity to worship golden calves that Aaron had made. God was ready to wipe them out and start again with a single man, Moses. But Moses interceded and God heard his prayer, re-wrote the two tablets of stone and reinstated the Covenant. There followed a whole year of Tabernacle building and the people in the full flush of their gratitude gave their offerings to God with such abandonment that it resulted in the most unusual financial appeal in history; they were asked to stop bringing their offerings!

This year was a real honeymoon period as God and his people 'set up house' together. It culminated in God taking up residence right at the heart of his people in the Tabernacle. They were wonderful days... and God never forgot them. It is a uniquely divine attribute that God can choose what he remembers and what he refuses to remember.

It is against the backdrop of this continuing memory of 'first love' that God speaks through Jeremiah to the people and there is an interesting contrast that is easily missed. Israel had followed God, When you went after Me in the wilderness, In a land not sown. Jer 2:2. There were no contingencies, no reserves, just absolute abandonment to God; first love will do that every time. The old Methodists sometimes described sanctification as 'the expulsive power of a new affection'. First love is reckless and totally trusting.

The indictment that God brings against Jerusalem in Jeremiah's day is twofold;
1. They have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters,
2. And hewn themselves cisterns—broken cisterns that can hold no water.
They had rejected the uncontrollable resources of God for one that they could measure and control. It is one of the sure signs that 'first love' has been lost. We become measured rather than abandoned, controlling rather than trusting. God never forgets the 'first love' and is always ready to refresh and restore. The way back is simple enough... forsake our man-made cisterns and come again to drink from his fresh springs.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Do not say, ‘I am a youth'

You might have thought I would have outgrown this particular temptation but there is a delicate balance to be found between a consciousness of weakness and a debilitating consciousness of weakness. A B Simpson once wrote "The biggest enemy of true spiritual power is spiritual self-consciousness."

The title comes from the first chapter of Jeremiah. Jer 1:4-8. Jeremiah's prophecy begins with a statement about the 'word of the Lord' coming to him; Jer 1:1-3. When the 'word of God' comes it changes everything. Jeremiah came from priestly stock and might have been expected to follow in his father's footsteps but 'the word of the Lord came' and that changed everything; it always does. God had planned that Jeremiah would be a prophet even before he was born but it was the coming of 'the word of the Lord' that changed his career path.

Jeremiah is one of the great men of history. In fact, he caused quite a bit of it. The circumstances of his life were not impressive; a would-be country priest who ultimately spent a fair bit of his life in various captivities. His CV would not have been very impressive; he spent part of his life imprisoned in a well, and another part as a hostage. His prophecies were 'published' and then publicly shredded by the ruler of his day. And yet this man's link with God changed the destiny of empires. His words changed the destiny of millions.

When God first spoke to him he protested that he was far too inexperienced to be trusted with such a responsibility; "I cannot speak, for I am a youth". Jer 1:6. At this point he had not realised that the only qualification a prophet needs is 'the word of the Lord'. God brushed aside his protest; you shall go to all to whom I send you, And whatever I command you, you shall speak. Jer 1:7. It is the coming of 'the word of Lord' that makes a man a prophet. The prophetic ingredient may show itself in prayer or preaching but prophecy must not be confused with either of them. It is not desire nor truth but God's timely word which 'comes' at God's right moment and it has almost unbelievable power.

It is a challenging fact that if anything might be called the 'proof' of the coming of the Spirit it is prophecy; And on My menservants and on My maidservants I will pour out My Spirit in those days; And they shall prophesy. Acts 2:18. It is recorded, in the account of the Ephesus outpouring, that when Paul had laid hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke with tongues and prophesied. Acts 19:6. To be the bearers of God's present word is a key element in this New Covenant.

Jeremiah became the agent of God's living word. The words came through Jeremiah's mouth but they were 'spoken' by God. Those words had in themselves the power To root out and to pull down, To destroy and to throw down, To build and to plant. Jer 1:10. Only 'the word of the Lord' has this power. The same is true today. It is not eloquence or skilful Bible teaching that 'roots out, pulls down, destroys or throws down.' Nor yet that 'builds and plants'. Prayer and teaching and preaching are necessary but without that prophetic edge they are powerless to pull down or build up. Perhaps this is what Paul had in mind when he counselled the church in Corinth; Pursue love, and desire spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy. 1Cor 14:1. Such words are 'the word of the Lord' that may come in many ways and through many servants of God... even a youth.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Are you fulfilling your ministry?

"Rescue the perishing", "compel the diners to come in", "decisions for Christ"... there are lots of images of the work of evangelism. I was reminded of a little mentioned one just this morning reading in the final chapter of Isaiah. Isaiah 66:20. It speaks of a great mission and outreach to the Gentiles and a great ingathering that will follow. They will go to 'Tarshish, Pul, Lud, Tubal and Javan, and to 'the isles afar off'. Isaiah 66:19. As a resident of one of those 'far off isles' I love this passage of scripture! But those who come, come not as 'seekers to a Saviour' or 'diners to a wedding feast' but as 'an offering to the LORD out of all nations'. I wonder how often we recognise this motivation in evangelism. This is not so much a 'passion for the lost' as a desire for God to have what is rightfully his. Of course the sinner will benefit but the focus is God's glory in that the Son might have the Gentiles as his inheritance. Psalm 2:8

Those who are brought as such an 'offering' are just like the 'sons of Israel', they are 'an offering in a clean vessel'. The notion of the Gentiles being an acceptable and clean offering was one that Peter had difficulty getting his head around. Acts 10:13-16. That the Jews could be brought to repentance and receive cleansing was part of his traditional mind-set but 'Gentile sinners'? Gal 2:15 ...that was several bridges 'too far'. But the truth is there in Isaiah, the priestly work of the evangelist is not primarily to bring 'sinners to Christ' but to bring an acceptable offering to God; coming to Christ is the means not the object. An old gospel hymn hit just this note;
'Come to the Father,

through Jesus the Son

and give Him the glory

Great things he has done'

...And what does God do with this clean and acceptable offering? Well he transforms them into priests and levites so that they too can share in the work of this priestly evangelism. Isaiah 66:21 and so the whole cycle takes one more turn.

It is not a dominant theme in the scripture but it was a dominant theme in the life of one man in particular who described his God-given mission in exactly these terms. He described himself as a minister of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles, ministering the gospel of God, that the offering of the Gentiles might be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit. Rom 15:16.

And what happened to that 'acceptable offering'? Well they became priestly evangelists, in their turn, and reached further and further out, until they reached even this 'far off isle'.The priesthood of all believers makes evangelists of us all, priestly evangelists. It is a role that each one of us is called to fulfil. 2Tim 4:5

Monday, 11 May 2009

God's Provision for the Church Age

I think most Christians will know the verse and have quoted it in prayer at one time or another. When the enemy comes in like a flood, The Spirit of the LORD will lift up a standard against him. Is 59:19 NKJV It is an encouraging verse and we do well to consider it in times of trial in particular. One of the problems which such great verses is that they become easily detached from their roots. If we put this verse back into its context it is an even greater encouragement. Is 59:16-21

It is a messianic prophecy which speaks of Christ's work as a warrior. It predicts total victory and assures that even in the most overwhelming tsunami of conflict Christ himself will be the standard or ensign that the Spirit erects against the foe. The purpose of the standard in ancient times was as a rallying point. In the time of the greatest danger we are to rally to our great Captain and put ourselves under his spoken command.

God then declares a sure covenant with his people which is dependent on Christ himself. As for me, this is my covenant with them, saith the LORD; My spirit that is upon thee, and my words which I have put in thy mouth, shall not depart out of thy mouth, nor out of the mouth of thy seed, nor out of the mouth of thy seed’s seed, saith the LORD, from henceforth and for ever. Is 59:20-21 I have gone for the old KJV as it identifies Christ so plainly by using the singular pronoun 'thee'. God's covenant with his people is possible because of something which is true of Christ and the thing that is true is that God has anointed him with the Spirit and put his words into his mouth. In the time of the greatest conflict the Spirit of the Lord will contend against the enemy through that anointed Man who has the word of God in his mouth.

Deliverance and guidance in our time of peril comes from the living word of God who stands his ground against every attack. It comes not from adherence to sound doctrine or from a fresh organisation but from Christ speaking in the midst of his people. This is not just the Bible although he may well use the Bible; this is 'the word of his grace which is able to build you up and give you and inheritance among the sanctified'. Acts 20:32

And this word will be in the mouths of his 'seed' and his 'seed's seed'. This is a promise that as long as the church lasts God will speak his word into our contexts and bring deliverance. In the face of statistics and predictions of the last downwards spirals of evangelicalism we will be tempted to find our solutions; better this or more of that. God's solution to two millennia of trials has always been the same when the enemy comes in like a flood the Spirit of the Lord will raise up a Standard against him; Christ himself, the anointed messenger of the covenant, and those who have his 'seed' in them will be the agents of God's deliverance. From the early days of conflict the apostle John's confidence still echoes this same truth; But the anointing which you have received from Him abides in you, and you do not need that anyone teach you; but as the same anointing teaches you concerning all things, and is true, and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you will abide in Him. 1John 2:27

If you would like to sing along with this go to...
The Spirit's Standard

Friday, 8 May 2009

The Lord's Prayer

I am not thinking about the familiar passage in the gospels which begins..."Our Father" Matt 6:9-13 I am not even thinking about that amazing prayer we have recorded in John 17:1-26, but of the prayer we read in Psalm 22. It begins in the desperation of dereliction and abandonment and gives a chilling sense of the real passion of Calvary, but it reaches a watershed and the whole mood changes. While still pinned on the horns of the wild aurochs he declares; "You have answered Me." Psa 22:21 It is easy to forget that what happened on the cross was a prayer.

Prayer is the heart's cry to God. Some prayers may be beautifully crafted but if they are not heart cries they are not genuine prayer. Consequently real prayer can be without words at all as we discover in the story of Hannah 1Sam 1:13 or in the powerful teaching of Paul Rom 8:26. The agony of Christ's death records only a few spoken words but the heart cry was 'heard'. He suffered the separation from God which is the consequence and penalty of sin. He carried our own sins in his own body and the moment left him 'God-forsaken'. And yet even as he was held to the cross by the nails a powerful conviction bursts from his broken heart; "You have answered me." In his spirit he heard God's 'Amen'.

What was the answer? What was the request? The request was that, as man's substitute, he would suffer the penalty of sin so that others would not need to do so. The prophecy of Isaiah tells of his sin-bearing and of its purpose. ...He poured out His soul unto death, And He was numbered with the transgressors, And He bore the sin of many, And made intercession for the transgressors. Is 53:12 Christ's sacrificial death was an act of 'intercession for transgressors'. Centuries before Moses had offered his own relationship with God as an act of intercession for the people of Israel, but God had refused the offer but forgiven them all the same. Ex 32:32-33 God's purpose is clear; there must be no confusion, there could only ever be one substitute, and that would be Christ.

The assurance of the 'answer' came while he remained on the cross and is the source of the triumphant cry; 'It is finished'. John 19:30 The prayer and the answer are written indelibly upon Christ himself and will be forever. ...if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world. 1John 2:1-2 His presence before the throne of God is the permanent record of the 'answered prayer'. If we sin, there is no need for any further sacrifice; He Himself is the propitiation; the price paid to effect reconciliation. Before we call God has answered.

Christ's resurrection was God's endorsement of his successful intercession. He was raised because the prayer was answered. The 'answered prayer' now has its permanent record before God's throne; that is why we can (and must) come boldly to the throne of grace. The writer to the Hebrews tells the same story; who, in the days of His flesh, when He had offered up prayers and supplications, with vehement cries and tears to Him who was able to save Him from death, and was heard because of His godly fear, Heb 5:7

What a prayer! and what an Amen! It echoes down the centuries in all its original power and touches hearts throughout the whole world. May it touch our hearts today giving us the solid assurance that "The Lord's Prayer" is answered and sinners may approach a holy God. We can (and we must) come boldly to the throne of grace to find mercy and grace to help in time of need. Heb 4:16

(There is a new feature on this blog. If you allow your cursor to hover over the Bible references they will appear in a small floating window. Neat, isn't it?)