James 1.5-7 and Hebrews 11.6 – Doubt and the gifts of God
Posted: 9 December 2011 in Hebrews, James

“If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him. But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed. For let not that man think that he shall receive any thing of the Lord.”

“But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.”

I used to read those verses from James as meaning that nobody who has any doubts will receive anything from God, but I am not sure that is what it does mean. I doubt if there is anybody today who is completely without doubts, because we are surrounded by a secular culture (especially in Europe) which we can hardly fail to be influenced by. We do, nevertheless, have a duty to be faithful to our calling, and I think that is what James is getting at. We cannot expect to receive anything from God unless we first have the intention of using what we are given wholly in his service. He will not bestow his gifts only to see them wasted, and himself dishonoured. In fact, if we were given the means to dishonour him in that way, and we actually did so, we would only bring judgment upon ourselves. Even if they don’t always see it that way, God is merciful to his children.

Similarly with the verse from Hebrews. Few, if any of us, can come to God without doubts, but we can implead him for his mercy – if only we are conscious of our poverty. As Paul has it, God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness. Only when we are aware of our weakness will we have the motive (in fact necessity) of relying upon him. Not that we won’t repeatedly fall into self reliance even then.

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Act 16.23-32 and Galatians 4.3-7 – The mercy of God in salvation
Posted: 8 December 2011 in Acts, Galatians

” And when they had laid many stripes upon them, they cast them into prison, charging the jailor to keep them safely: Who, having received such a charge, thrust them into the inner prison, and made their feet fast in the stocks. And at midnight Paul and Silas prayed, and sang praises unto God: and the prisoners heard them. And suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken: and immediately all the doors were opened, and every one’s bands were loosed. And the keeper of the prison awaking out of his sleep, and seeing the prison doors open, he drew out his sword, and would have killed himself, supposing that the prisoners had been fled. But Paul cried with a loud voice, saying, Do thyself no harm: for we are all here. Then he called for a light, and sprang in, and came trembling, and fell down before Paul and Silas, And brought them out, and said, Sirs, what must I do to be saved? And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house. And they spake unto him the word of the Lord, and to all that were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night, and washed their stripes; and was baptized, he and all his, straightway.”

“Even so we, when we were children, were in bondage under the elements of the world: But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, To redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons. And because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father. Wherefore thou art no more a servant, but a son; and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ.”

I must admit that this is largely continuing the theme of the previous post.

Although the first thought of the jailor in the above passage was to commit suicide, when he thought that Paul and the other prisoners had escaped, the will of God was otherwise for him. He was able to perceive the significance of what had just happened, and to respond appropriately when the word of God was preached to him. By way of contrast, an earlier chapter in Acts tells of Peter’s escape from prison through the intervention of an angel, and on that occasion there was no opportunity for repentance given to the jailor. Instead he was soon afterwards put to death by a much displeased Herod Antipas.

In the second passage it is again God who takes the initiative in sending forth his Spirit to remake the Galatians’ hearts; thus ensuring that they respond to Jesus and come to the Father through him. The Galatians had previously been worshippers of pagan gods, so they could in no sense claim that they had earned God’s favour, or that they were deserving of their salvation. We, like the jailors, are dependent upon the mercy of a sovereignly free God, who can bestow his salvation as and when he wishes, and without being under obligation to any of us.

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Acts 9.1-6 – The righteous justice and mercy of God.
Posted: 30 November 2011 in Acts

And Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, went unto the high priest, and desired of him letters to Damascus to the synagogues, that if he found any of this way, whether they were men or women, he might bring them bound unto Jerusalem. And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven: And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me. And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks. And he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do.

The Bible contains many examples of people who, having tresspassed against God, attract his retribution. For example, in Acts 12.23 Herod Agrippa (the first of two people to bear that name) is struck down dead without so much as a by-your-leave. And yet are other enemies of God, of whom Paul was undoubtedly one, who, instead of attracting God’s wrath, receive his mercy instead – and perhaps even a very privileged vocation, as in Paul’s case.

Why this difference? I suppose part of the answer is, so that we can sit here pondering that very question. If mercy was always on display, and sin never punished, then clearly the idea would soon take hold that sin didn’t matter very much. And yet it is God’s will to have mercy upon those of his creatures he chooses (in his absolute sovereignty) to be recipients of his grace. Those who are not recipients of mercy will have no ground for complaint, because they will be receiving nothing more than justice from a just God. But other of his creatures, who do receive mercy, will worship the Lord in eternity for his righteous judgment, and also for his mercy: Both of which he will have shown forth as being attributes of his holiness, and therefore equally things he must be worshipped for.

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2 Chronicles 13 and Leviticus 10.1-2 – True and false worship of God
Posted: 28 November 2011 in 2 Chronicles, Leviticus

“And Abijah set the battle in array with an army of valiant men of war, even four hundred thousand chosen men…. And Abijah stood up upon mount Zemaraim, which is in mount Ephraim, and said, Hear me, thou Jeroboam, and all Israel; Ought ye not to know that the LORD God of Israel gave the kingdom over Israel to David for ever….? And now ye think to withstand the kingdom of the LORD in the hand of the sons of David; and ye be a great multitude, and there are with your golden calves, which Jeroboam made you for gods. Have ye not cast out the priests of the LORD, the sons of Aaron, and the Levites, and have made you priests after the manner of the nations of other lands? so that whosoever cometh to consecrate himself with a young bullock and seven rams, the same may be a priest of them that are no gods. But as for us, the LORD is our God, and we have not forsaken him; and the priests, which minister unto the LORD, are the sons of Aaron, and the Levites wait upon their business: And they burn unto the LORD every morning and every evening burnt sacrifices and sweet incense: the shewbread also set they in order upon the pure table; and the candlestick of gold with the lamps thereof, to burn every evening: for we keep the charge of the LORD our God; but ye have forsaken him.”

“And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took either of them his censer, and put fire therein, and put incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the LORD, which he commanded them not. And there went out fire from the LORD, and devoured them, and they died before the LORD.”

Although the Bible contains much history, it never relates history for history’s own sake. Here the point being made is that any worship, not regulated by what God himself has commanded, will inevitably degenerate into idolatry. The reason for that is simply human sinfulness, and the way it comes to infect almost everything men (or women) touch. Although the worship of the northern kingdom was still formally that of Yahweh, it had clearly degenerated into idolatry, with images which had been expressly forbidden by God, and with a priesthood open to anyone – again in clear contravention of the divine ordinance explicitly reserving the priesthood to Aaron and his sons.

Worship which is presumptuous, and perhaps even idolatrous, is an offence to God’s majesty. He cannot allow it to go unpunished, and that which happened to Nadab and Abihu is an extreme example of what could follow. Both the Old and the New Testaments contain explicit injunctions to fear God, but in spite of that there is a lot of worship around today which is based upon a “Jesus is my buddy” type of spirituality. Jesus is our Lord and saviour, and perhaps (in a certain sense) our friend – if we do whatsoever he commands us (John 15.14). But he is not our buddy. The sovereign Lord of the universe can only rightly be approached in a spirit of fear and reverence, and, if it is not to be presumptuous, it must also be in ways which the New Testament authorises as being pleasing to God.

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Psalm 44 – The outworking of God’s will.
Posted: 18 October 2011 in Psalms

“We have heard with our ears, O God, our fathers have told us, what work thou didst in their days, in the times of old. How thou didst drive out the heathen with thy hand, and plantedst them; how thou didst afflict the people, and cast them out. For they got not the land in possession by their own sword, neither did their own arm save them: but thy right hand, and thine arm, and the light of thy countenance, because thou hadst a favour unto them.”

“But thou hast cast off, and put us to shame; and goest not forth with our armies. Thou makest us to turn back from the enemy: and they which hate us spoil for themselves. Thou hast given us like sheep appointed for meat; and hast scattered us among the heathen. Thou sellest thy people for nought, and dost not increase thy wealth by their price.Thou makest us a reproach to our neighbours, a scorn and a derision to them that are round about us.”

Whatever happens on earth, or anywhere else in the universe, behind the scenes it is always God’s doing, and not that of his creatures. In the early verses of Psalm 44 the psalmist recalls a time when the working out of God’s intentions produced results favourable to the nation of Israel. But now he lives at a time when the reverse seems to be the case, and he can’t understand why.

Further on in the psalm he asks whether it might be punishment for idolatry which is responsible for Israel’s predicament, but that does not seem to be the case. There haven’t recently been any prophets in Israel warning of God’s displeasure, and the impending dire consequences if there is no repentance. So why, he wants to know, is this happening? It is in circumstances such as the psalmist finds himself in that the theology of the prosperity gospel (if we can grace it with the name of either theology or gospel) comes badly unstuck. God’s pursuit of his plans for the universe may have consequences which we find agreeable, but it might just as easily have consequences which we find disagreeable, and the Lord of the universe owes us no explanations whatsoever.

It may sometimes be the case that misfortune can be understood as the consequences of idolatry, and other sins, but at other times it is simply the outworking of God’s will for the universe. The part we have to play in those plans may not be wholly to our liking. None of Jesus’ first disciples had a particularly easy time of it, and we know that some of them paid for their discipleship with their lives, but that was God’s will for them.

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