Monday, 30 July 2012

Olympic Ambitions?

Our fascination with the Olympics is no new thing. The Games were part of the culture of the 1st century and they serve as a rich source of metaphors for several New Testament writers, especially Paul. We sometimes need to dig a little to spot some of the references but they give us a wonderful glimpse into the mind-set of early Christians.

One word which is easily overlooked is the word sometimes translated as ‘strive’;

And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible. 1 Cor 9:25 KJV.

To them God willed to make known what are the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles: which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. Him we preach, warning every man and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus. To this end I also labor, striving according to His working which works in me mightily. Col 1:27–29 NKJV.


I’ve gone with the old KJV in the first of these references here to pick up the word ‘striving’. It is a vivid Olympic picture. In Paul’s day there was just a ‘first prize’ of a laurel wreath; no silver or bronze. That’s what he means when he calls the prize ‘a corruptible crown’. The laurel or bay tree victor’s crown was a very temporary award, unless you added it to the soup!

The word translated ‘strive’ is ‘ag┼Źnizomai’. It is the word from which we derive ‘agony’ but the focus of the original word is not on pain but on effort. It means to enter a context and to strive with strenuous zeal. It is the fierce concentration of the athlete who has a single goal in view. The rest of the world hardly exists for him. I recall seeing, on the TV, Linford Christie win the 100m in 1992. His focus was almost frightening. He didn’t even blink; I'm not sure he even breathed!

In this sense Paul was an Olympian. Not for him the Christian cruise. His mission statement, if he ever had one, was not ‘chill’ but ‘exert’ every scrap of ransomed energy to achieve the goal. And his goal was surprising. For him, the goal was ‘every man perfect in Christ Jesus’. Modern preachers have become very twitchy over the word ‘perfect’. They fear the unreality of ‘perfectionism’ but the opposite danger is just as real; ‘im-perfection-ism’. That’s the notion that we are nothing more than redeemed sinners and we had better get used to the idea. The belief that we are condemned to spend this life as a ‘divided man’ is growing in popularity again. Paul, however, believed that a man or woman could be 100% for God 100% of the time.

How do we stand with the gospel for today? Can God save us to the ‘uttermost’, 100% of the time or if not what percentage do we think will satisfy Him? Mind you, Paul was very clear how he expected to see this through; his trust was not in his own energy and resolution but in the ongoing miracle of the indwelling Christ. His banner was ‘Christ in you, the hope of glory’ and his methodology was ‘striving according to His working which works in me mightily.’

If we have the victor (Greek: nike) living on the inside why should we fail in our Olympic efforts?

Friday, 27 July 2012

The Gentle Commandment

There is an old story told about a farmer who rolled an ostrich egg into the chicken coop with the words; "that's just to encourage you!" It is the kind of encouragement we probably feel when we read of God's next self-revelation to Abraham; And when Abram was ninety years old and nine, Jehovah appeared to Abram, and said unto him, I am God Almighty. Walk before me, and be thou perfect. Gen 17:1 ASV. More modern versions sometimes substitute the word 'blameless' for the older 'perfect'; I am not sure it is much more of a comfort.

How can we possibly react to a word from God which says 'be perfect'? If that commandment stood alone it would be crushing, but it doesn't. It is the culmination of another of God's wonderful self-revelations. God's word to Abraham does not begin with 'be perfect' but with 'I am God Almighty'. The word deserves a little examination.

This title or self-revelation of God became the prevailing revelation of the patriarchs. God's later words to Moses make this very plain; and I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, as God Almighty; but by my name Jehovah I was not known to them. Ex 6:3 ASV. If it was in the 'role' of God Almighty that God began his work with the fathers of the nation of Israel it may repay us to look more closely into the meaning of the phrase.

The Hebrew for this self-revelation is El Shaddai and is usually translated as 'God Almighty'. It conveys the idea of a God who is omnipotent, a very muscular God. This is an honest translation but there is another possibility. The Hebrew word 'shad' is the word for a woman's breast. It is the suckling's place of all-sufficiency and safety. There is at least one verse in the Bible where both words are used together; Even by the God of thy father, who shall help thee, And by the Almighty, who shall bless thee, With blessings of heaven above, Blessings of the deep that coucheth beneath, Blessings of the breasts, and of the womb. Gen 49:25 ASV. It seems that what God was revealing to Abraham was not just a masculine almightiness but a gentler all-sufficiency.

This is not to emasculate God. Paul once referred to himself as a mother feeding her own children at her breast; ...though we could have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. 1 Th 2:6–7 ESV. And the point that Paul is making is that he and his fellow labourers were 'gentle'; it is an adjective not often associated in our minds with apostolic labours. It harmonises with a unexpected testimony of David to God's dealings with him; “You have also given me the shield of Your salvation; Your gentleness has made me great. 2 Sam 22:36 NKJV.

If the command to 'be perfect' comes from the macho strength of a muscular God we may not find ourselves 'encouraged' but what if it comes from the God of tender all-sufficiency? Now, how shall we respond?

There is another level of this God's command that we must consider. The All-Sufficient God did not simply command Abraham to 'be perfect' but commanded him to 'walk before me and me perfect'. God's pattern for Abraham's 'perfection' or 'blamelessness' was not the idealism of some man-made standard of perfection. Rather it was the insistence that Abraham walked, step by step, as the All Sufficient God directed him. Such a man may not meet standards set for him by others or even by himself, but others are not the judges whose standards Abraham must meet. Abraham is only responsible to God. Phew, what a burden that can lift from a weary soul!

Another brought the same gentle, freeing, revelation; ...no one knows the Son except the Father. Nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and the one to whom the Son wills to reveal Him. Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. Matt 11:27–29 NKJV

Monday, 23 July 2012

Esau have I hated...

I was not sure I could handle this in the brief compass of a blog but my morning readings brought me to Genesis 36 and the long list of the generations of Esau, and I felt I could not let it pass without comment. You may need to read this more than once!

Jacob and Esau were together for Isaac's funeral in the last verse of the previous chapter and then we launch into this long list which ends with the words; These were the chiefs of Edom, according to their dwelling places in the land of their possession. Esau was the father of the Edomites. Gen 36:43 NKJV. Esau and his people are the subject of some troubling verses in Paul's epistle to the Romans;
(for the children not yet being born, nor having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works but of Him who calls), it was said to her, “The older shall serve the younger.” As it is written, “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated. Rom 9:11–13 NKJV.
What does that mean? Does it mean that God predetermined that Esau would be damned, as some have interpreted it and set his predestining approval on Jacob? Is this 'calling' to salvation or to service?

Let's see if we can unpack it a little. First we need to observe that the quotation from Malachi is God's comment on the 'people of Esau' and not on the individual. The context makes this very plain;
The burden of the word of the LORD to Israel by Malachi. “I have loved you,” says the LORD. “Yet you say, ‘In what way have You loved us?’ Was not Esau Jacob’s brother?” Says the LORD. “Yet Jacob I have loved; But Esau I have hated, And laid waste his mountains and his heritage For the jackals of the wilderness.” Mal 1:1–3 NKJV.
The prophetic words of Malachi came 1000 years after Esau had been laid in his grave. They are a summary of Esau/Edom's history not a predestining of their future.

The contrast between love and hate needs a comment too. Notice how these verses use the ideas of 'love' and 'hate';
And he went in also unto Rachel, and he loved also Rachel more than Leah, and served with him yet seven other years. And when the LORD saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb: but Rachel was barren. Gen 29:30–31 KJV.
This is a Hebrew way of expressing strong preference and was sometimes used in the divorce formula of the day. In Malachi, in the language of the hearers, God is strongly declaring where his heart is fixed… he is not pre-dooming the descendants of Esau to damnation.

In fact neither of the verses quoted by Paul relates to 'salvation' but to life's destiny and experience. When God strengthened Pharaoh's heart to stick to Pharaoh's line, it was God empowering Pharaoh to stick to his choice. (Ex 4:21) And again, it had nothing to do with salvation but with life's experience. The Hebrew word translated 'harden' has a primary meaning of 'to strengthen'. God empowered Pharaoh to make his own choices and to stand by his own convictions.

So how are we to see the 'generations of Esau' chapter? One of Esau's wives was actually a daughter of Ishmael. (Gen 28:9) This is a dangerous mixture of 'blood-lines'. The people of Esau, the Edomites, set themselves against the people of Israel and it brought inevitable retribution upon them. The Edomites serve as a symbol or type of 'the flesh'; they behaved in the same attitude as Esau before them, putting the satisfying of their fleshly appetites before any thought of spiritual progress. (Heb 12:16)

There is one detail in their genealogies that attracted my attention particularly;
Chief Dishon, Chief Ezer, and Chief Dishan. These were the chiefs of the Horites, according to their chiefs in the land of Seir. Now these were the kings who reigned in the land of Edom before any king reigned over the children of Israel: Gen 36:30–31 NKJV.
It is interesting that those who symbolise the flesh opted for kings long before the people of Israel. Israel had no kings until the times of the Judges and even then, at its beginnings, it was symbolic of their refusal to put their trust in the leadings of the Spirit. (1 Sam 8:6–7) Those who reject the leading of God for their own self-centred choices are sowing a dangerous seed.
For he who sows to his flesh will of the flesh reap corruption, but he who sows to the Spirit will of the Spirit reap everlasting life. Gal 6:8 NKJV.


The old Victorians had a saying; "sow a thought and reap a deed, sow a deed and reap a habit, sow a habit and reap a character, sow a character and reap a destiny". Those old Victorians had many faults but sometimes they saw things very clearly.

Friday, 20 July 2012

I am the God of the past and of the future

Genesis 15 contains one of the most important verses in the Bible. God has undertaken to be both Abraham's shield and his exceedingly great reward but Abraham has a question; But Abram said, “Lord GOD, what will You give me, seeing I go childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” Gen 15:2 NKJV. His safety and provision have no point if he has no descendant. His chief household steward stands to inherit if Abraham has no blood line. God's answer is a breathtaking glimpse of the starry heavens and a breathtaking promise.

This is the context for one of the most important verses of the Bible; And he believed in Jehovah. And he reckoned it to him for righteousness. Gen 15:6 ASV. This event becomes the template for saving faith. He rests his cause in God alone and the record declares that as a consequence God 'reckoned it to him for righteousness'. Abraham's acceptance with God was not to be based on his own achievement but upon God's free grace. This is a thrilling moment in Bible history but I want to concentrate on the revelation that follows.

We have said that these personal introductions or self-revelations of God are vital links to the way in which God wants us to 'see' him. In the moment we call 'now' Abraham is probably elated by his victory but subdued by his childlessness. He looks into the skies and sees myriads of stars, he looks into his own moment of 'now' and sees empty hands; I am childless. This is the exact moment, the perfect context in which God will reveal more of who he is to Abraham. In such moments God chooses to reveal himself to Abraham not only as the possessor of heaven and earth but as the Lord of history. Jehovah holds all things in his hands and he holds time too.

And he said unto him, I am Jehovah that brought thee out of Ur of the Chaldees, to give thee this land to inherit it. Gen 15:7 ASV. When we are mid-process it is all too easy to be lost in the momentary detail. God's revelation of who he is declares that both the past and the future are in God's control. In fact, there is something of a guarantee in the past that stretches into the future. God is reminding Abraham of his own past; I am Jehovah that brought thee out of Ur of the Chaldees. The reason you have come to this moment in time Abraham, is that I did something in your past. I brought you out. You walked on your own feet but the truth is 'I brought you out'.

And my purpose in bringing you out was to take you in, to give this land to you as your inheritance. I am Jehovah that brought thee out … to give thee this land to inherit it. Gen 15:7 ASV. God never runs out of resources. He has counted the cost, he knows he can complete what he has begun. There is a painful cry in the prophecy of Habakkuk; O LORD, revive Your work in the midst of the years! Hab 3:2 NKJV. Sometimes we need a special revelation 'in the midst of the years'. God is the God of beginnings and completions, he is also the God of the middle years, that time of life that we call 'now'.

Monday, 16 July 2012

a rose by any other name?

Shakespeare's Juliet asks a question;
What's in a name? that which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet;

…I wonder.

I have been reading the account of Isaac and his wells. It begins with God setting the scene and giving it a long-view perspective.
Then the LORD appeared to him (Isaac) and said: “Do not go down to Egypt; live in the land of which I shall tell you. Dwell in this land, and I will be with you and bless you; for to you and your descendants I give all these lands, and I will perform the oath which I swore to Abraham your father. And I will make your descendants multiply as the stars of heaven; I will give to your descendants all these lands; and in your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed; because Abraham obeyed My voice and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws.” Gen 26:2–5 NKJV.
Isaac's prospects were good because Abraham was faithful. There is an unbreakable link here. Isaac was intended to build on the foundation that Abraham had laid. He cannot choose his own ways and traditions, he is part of a continuum.

God was preparing Isaac for the tests that would surely come. They came in the form of hostility from the people of the land that he was camped on. They had blocked up all the wells that Abraham and his servants had dug. No doubt it was a way of telling Isaac to 'move on'. So Isaac 'moved on' and came to the valley of Gerar and pitched his tent there. (Gen 26:17) The place had a history; Abraham had stayed there. But the people of the land had already blocked up Abraham's old wells so Isaac had the task of unblocking them, and of doing something else. He not only unblocked Abraham's old wells but he insisted in changing their names back to the names that Abraham had given.
And Isaac dug again the wells of water which they had dug in the days of Abraham his father, for the Philistines had stopped them up after the death of Abraham. He called them by the names which his father had called them. Gen 26:18 NKJV.

This is a glimpse into the culture of the day. If you owned something you had the right to change its name. God worked on this principle when he changed Abram's name to Abraham and Sarai's to Sarah. Later he would finally get Jacob in his grip and change his name to Isaac. So Abraham had dug these wells and named them but those who wanted to erase the memory and testimony of Abraham had blocked the wells and renamed them. It is the ultimate re-writing of history; change the name. The idea is scattered through the Old Testament as the names of significant places receive new names.

But Isaac didn't give the reopened wells new names; he gave them old names. He was not innovating but building on old foundations.

We live in days when innovation and enterprise seem to be the watchwords of God's people and their mission. The search is on for more relevant methods of evangelism and 'church' planting and meetings. In some circles the search is on for different words and concepts that will better build the bridge between the local church and the community. The old words and concepts have too many disappointing and dusty memories; they are a 'turn off' to the 'current generation'. Some biblical phrases are too loaded with theological baggage; Baptism in Spirit, Sanctification, New Covenant, Regeneration.. they are all yesterday's words. Time to move on?

Of course to go back to the old names when the wells are still blocked would be folly. That would be a simple but deceptive paint-job. You don't change the nature of the well by giving it back an old name, but we should be cautious about finding new names for old truths in order to make them more acceptable. And there is a another danger that faces us. To use the old word but to change the definition is a well tried and tested method of perverting truth. No, a paint job will not do, nor the the pretence that all is well just because we are using the right words. We need to reopen the old wells AND give them back their old names. After all, to return to an ancient refrain of mine; "words have histories". Ah, some will say, this is just semantics and pedantry… but I wonder…

Who was right? Juliet or Isaac?

Friday, 13 July 2012

I am your shield and your exceedingly great reward.

Let's try out the principles we identified in last week's Friday blog.

In the Bible revelation this is the first time that God introduced himself in this way. The words stand in the very first verse of Genesis 15. Almost certainly they should have been the very last verse of Genesis 14.

Let's start with the dramatis personae, the characters or a list of characters in a play or story, of this special revelation. It is a complex cast. We have 9 kings, three brothers, three alliances, Abraham and his nephew and a mysterious king-priest and all in one chapter! We also have a major set-piece battle and a night raid. We also have two 'deals' set before Abraham and a choice to be made and all this in just one chapter! It's the kind of chapter we need to read slowly and thoughtfully.

As the curtain opens Abraham's family tent is pitched on the land that belongs to one of those three brothers whose name was Mamre. They were Amorites and the three brothers were the leaders of a defensive alliance which included Abraham. We are told that they were 'the masters of a covenant' (baal-berith) with Abraham. It seems that one of the conditions of Abraham's tenancy of the land was the understanding that in the event of attack Abraham and his household warriors would stand with the Amorite brothers in defending the territory. Seen from the other perspective the Amorite brothers were Abraham's 'Desert Shield'.

There were two more alliances. Four city-state kings in the North exercised dominion over several city-state kingdoms in the South. Initially the Southern kingdoms paid tribute but then rebelled. Abraham's nephew Lot lived in one of the Southern cities. The Northern alliance marched South to punish the 5 Southern Alliance city-states and won a resounding victory. The battle was known as '4 kings against 5'. The Northern alliance plundered the cities of the South and took many hostage, including Lot.

Abraham led a night-sortie against the homeward bound Northern alliance. The end of the chapter makes it clear that the household warriors of the Amorite brothers were part of the rescue party. Abraham's attack was successful and the treasure and the hostages, including Lot, were rescued.

As he returned home Abraham has two encounters which will have great significance. The encounters are with two kings, the mysterious priest-king named Melchizedek and the king of Sodom; they each have an offer to put to Abraham. The king of Sodom offers unimaginable wealth to Abraham, the entire battle spoils on condition that Abraham restores the people of Sodom to their king. (It is interesting, in the light of later events, that Abraham was once 'the deliverer of Sodom' and its people.)

Abraham, however, had already made a choice that rendered the Sodom offer redundant. His meeting with Melchizedek had opened his eyes. The priest-king offered Abraham the symbols of fellowship in the service of God Most High, the Possessor of Heaven and Earth. In the lights of the day, this was a stirring revelation. The general belief was that 'gods' were territorial and ruled over designated areas. Melchizedek revealed to Abraham that this was not so and that God Most High was the Possessor of All. Abraham's response was dramatic. He raised his hand in a solemn oath that his only allegiance would be to Jehovah, God Most High. Abraham had built altars to Jehovah and had called upon the name of Jehovah, now he was beginning to see just who Jehovah really was. Such an allegiance ended Abraham's alliance with the Amorite brothers. He had given up his 'Desert Shield'. The oath included a refusal to join any kind of financial partnership with the his old allies. Abraham had given up his reward of battle plunder.

It was, as the record tells us, 'after these things' that God revealed himself to Abraham. Abraham's choice is the context in which God reveals himself to Abraham. "Do not be afraid. I am your shield and your exceedingly great reward". Who needs the Amorite brothers or the king of Sodom when God has promised to be all in all. As Jim Elliott was to say much later "He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep and gains what he cannot lose."

Monday, 9 July 2012

The Father is seeking...

I have just restarted my Biblebase Daily Bible Readings readings based on the Earley Christian Fellowship's Church Life School which we ran some years ago. I am reading in Genesis, the book of beginnings. In many ways Genesis is like a seed plot, all kinds of wonderful truths that flower later in the Bible can be found in the seed-plot of Genesis.

For example. How often have you heard it said that the first reference to worship in the Bible is in the story of Abraham's intended sacrifice of Isaac? This is the verse in mind:
And Abraham said to his young men,“Stay here with the donkey; the lad and I will go yonder and worship, and we will come back to you.” Gen 22:5 NKJV.
It is true that this is the first use of the English word worship but it is not the first time the Hebrew word for worship is used.

The Hebrew word for worship used here in Genesis 22:5 is [Hebrew Strong’s 7812] shachah, it is a word which means to prostrate oneself (especially reflexive, in homage to royalty or God): and is usually translated by the old King James Version as 'worship'. This is the word used by Abraham en route to Moriah. It is used earlier in Abraham's story in the record of 3 mysterious visitors to his tent door;
So he lifted his eyes and looked, and behold, three men were standing by him; and when he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them, and bowed himself to the ground, Gen 18:2 NKJV.
That is a vivid picture. Old Abraham runs to meet them and then throws himself on his face at their feet. Later we find Lot greets these mysterious messengers of God in a similar fashion. (Gen 19:1 NKJV)

If we were trying to find a modern equivalent what words would be use? I have a suggestion, surrender. The position adopted by Abraham and later by Lot indicated total and absolute surrender to another.

When the Hebrew scholars translated the word shachah into the Greek language for a translation known as the Septuagint they usually used the ordinary Greek word for worship, [Greek Strongs 4352] proskuneO. It is a word with an interesting history. The letters kune link it with the Greek word for a dog. It seems that originally the word indicated the kind of total surrender that a dog gave to its master when it licked his hand. We are back to that word surrender again.

Apparently the Bible's idea of worship is constantly linked with the idea of total surrender. Perhaps, mischievously, I found myself putting the Bible word into some of our more common uses of the word worship. How does a Surrender Service sound? or a Surrender Band or perhaps even a Surrender Leader?

And it was not curiosity alone which made me try using the word in its older sense. I found my thoughts centring around two profound statements of Christ...

Then Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the LORD your God, and Him only you shall serve.’  Matt 4:10 NKJV.
But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him. God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth. John 4:23–24 NKJV.
We magnify Your name, Lord,
We worship and adore You,
For who You are, for what You've done
Among Your people here.
We open up our lives to You,
Lay down our minds and wills,
We want You Lord to have Your way,
For we delight in You.

Friday, 6 July 2012

God's Self-Revelations

Canst thou by searching find out God? canst thou find out the Almighty unto perfection? It is as high as heaven; what canst thou do? deeper than hell; what canst thou know? Job 11:7–8 KJV. It is a question from one of Job's unhelpful helpers. But it is a profound question none the less. How can feeble men and women ever discover truth about God? We can't reach high enough or low enough. God is beyond us. The human mind and man's ability to reason is a powerful tool but is inadequate for this task. How can the finite fathom the infinite? How can we ever know anything about God, it is all beyond our reach.

It is true that genuine truth about God IS beyond our reach but it is also true that man is not beyond God's reach. And this is where it must all begin, not with mankind discovering God but with God revealing himself. We could know nothing of eternal truth if God had not revealed himself.

Have you ever been asked to introduce yourself at a meeting of any kind. "Just say a few words about yourself" says the host and we hardly know where to start. Just suppose we were in a smaller meeting with God, how would you introduce yourself, and how would God introduce himself? It's likely that you would be begin with the words "I am…". Where you go from there depends on what aspect of your character you want the meeting to know. These 'self-revelations' are fascinating things. We usually hide more than we reveal. The version of ourselves that we want to portray will be finely tuned to the event and to the hearers.

That is why the times that God says "I am…" are so fascinating too. The words that follow this simple formula are what God wanted men and women to know about him. 'By searching' they could never really discover God and an infinite God would overwhelm us if he revealed himself in all his unrestrained god-ness. God's self-revelations then are occasions of his condescension. That's a word that has fallen on hard times. It now means talking down to someone in a patronising manner. It wasn't always so. The word originally meant 'to come down' not in a patronising way but in mercy. One of the Hebrew words translated as 'mercy' (chanon) actually means to 'stoop down to someone'. God has condescended, stooped down, to reveal himself to mankind. Those revelations of who is he is are true but not complete; there will always be 'more' for God to reveal of himself, even eternity will be too short. So when God says "I am…" it is never the whole story but it is that part of the story that God intends to bring into focus. That's why it is valuable to take note not just of what God says about himself but why, and to whom and when.

John Wycliffe (1320 – December 31, 1384) advised his followers that in reading the scriptures to observe the context is as important as to observe the words.

It will greatly help you, for understanding scripture:

If you pay attention not only to...

WHAT is spoken or written,

But also OF WHOM it was spoken or written,

And TO WHOM,

With what CHOICE OF WORDS,

At what TIME, WHERE ,

For what PURPOSE,

In what CIRCUMSTANCES;

Considering also WHAT IS SAID BEFORE

And WHAT IS SAID AFTER.
Those questions cannot be bettered and especially when we consider those times when God says "I am…". Revelation always has context.