Acts 8.14-24 – Pride and false motives
Posted: 17 August 2010 in Acts

Now when the apostles which were at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent unto them Peter and John: Who, when they were come down, prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Ghost: (For as yet he was fallen upon none of them: only they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.) Then laid they their hands on them, and they received the Holy Ghost. And when Simon saw that through laying on of the apostles’ hands the Holy Ghost was given, he offered them money, Saying, Give me also this power, that on whomsoever I lay hands, he may receive the Holy Ghost. But Peter said unto him, Thy money perish with thee, because thou hast thought that the gift of God may be purchased with money. Thou hast neither part nor lot in this matter: for thy heart is not right in the sight of God. Repent therefore of this thy wickedness, and pray God, if perhaps the thought of thine heart may be forgiven thee. For I perceive that thou art in the gall of bitterness, and in the bond of iniquity. Then answered Simon, and said, Pray ye to the LORD for me, that none of these things which ye have spoken come upon me.

It is disturbingly easy to imagine Simon’s state of mind in the above encounter. For somebody to be told that some gift of God is a privilege, available only to those whom God has sovereignly chosen, and that they have not been so chosen, is a severe affront to human pride. However, in Simon the Magician’s case, it went even further than that, and he mistook a divine gift for a human skill – a skill which, perhaps, Peter might be persuaded to impart in exchange for a payment. In so doing he demonstrated that he was still occupying the thought world of the magician, where everything operates in the human plane, and without any reference to God. So Simon gets a severe lecture from Peter about the need for humility. I am left with the impression that it was the hope of being able to get his hands on the apostles superior “magic” which provided the real motive for Simon’s nominal conversion.

Pride is a sin because it betrays a greater concern for self, and one’s own status, than it does for God, and for doing his will. Elsewhere in the New Testament, it is two of the disciples who appear to be concerned more with status than with anything else, and who are reminded by Jesus that the Christian life is one about serving God (cf Mark 10.35-45).

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Acts 7.1-19 – Suffering in the history of Israel
Posted: 16 August 2010 in Acts

Then said the high priest, Are these things so? And he said, Men, brethren, and fathers, hearken; The God of glory appeared unto our father Abraham, when he was in Mesopotamia, before he dwelt in Charran, And said unto him, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and come into the land which I shall shew thee. Then came he out of the land of the Chaldaeans, and dwelt in Charran: and from thence, when his father was dead, he removed him into this land, wherein ye now dwell. And he gave him none inheritance in it, no, not so much as to set his foot on: yet he promised that he would give it to him for a possession, and to his seed after him, when as yet he had no child. And God spake on this wise, That his seed should sojourn in a strange land; and that they should bring them into bondage, and entreat them evil four hundred years. And the nation to whom they shall be in bondage will I judge, said God: and after that shall they come forth, and serve me in this place…. And the patriarchs, moved with envy, sold Joseph into Egypt: but God was with him…. Then sent Joseph, and called his father Jacob to him, and all his kindred, threescore and fifteen souls. So Jacob went down into Egypt, and died, he, and our fathers…. Till another king arose, which knew not Joseph. The same dealt subtilly with our kindred, and evil entreated our fathers, so that they cast out their young children, to the end they might not live.

Stephen’s speech in Acts 7 is an extended essay upon the history of Israel and God’s providence within it. The future Israel was to experience much suffering during the early years of the Hebrew nation, but that suffering was never understood to be incompatible with God’s love, either for the nation, or for particular individuals whom he called to serve him. If they seem incompatible to us, that may suggest that our own understanding of God’s love needs a make over.

God’s love is that of a Creator for his creation. He loves it because he created it for a purpose, and at the end of time that purpose will be fulfilled. Whilst Creation is being brought to its consummation, many things will happen, and not all of them will have happy consequences for individual members of the human race. But at no point in that process will God cease to love his creation, and nor will he cease to love those of his servants who are being called upon to suffer for his sake. Perhaps they will be especial recipients of his love (and grace). Our love, in the meanwhile, should ideally resemble that of Jesus, in a willing submission to the will of his (and our) Father.

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Ezra 9.5-10 – Repentance
Posted: 13 August 2010 in Ezra

And at the evening sacrifice I arose up from my heaviness; and having rent my garment and my mantle, I fell upon my knees, and spread out my hands unto the LORD my God, And said, O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift up my face to thee, my God: for our iniquities are increased over our head, and our trespass is grown up unto the heavens. Since the days of our fathers have we been in a great trespass unto this day; and for our iniquities have we, our kings, and our priests, been delivered into the hand of the kings of the lands, to the sword, to captivity, and to a spoil, and to confusion of face, as it is this day. And now for a little space grace hath been shewed from the LORD our God, to leave us a remnant to escape, and to give us a nail in his holy place, that our God may lighten our eyes, and give us a little reviving in our bondage. For we were bondmen; yet our God hath not forsaken us in our bondage, but hath extended mercy unto us in the sight of the kings of Persia, to give us a reviving, to set up the house of our God, and to repair the desolations thereof, and to give us a wall in Judah and in Jerusalem. And now, O our God, what shall we say after this? for we have forsaken thy commandments….

Ezra’s prayer, or something like it, could easily have been prayed at any time in the history of mankind – from the Garden of Eden onward. Yet when I try to imagine how a similar prayer of repentance would be worded today, I find I can’t do it. The reason I can’t do it is that our situation is not that of Ezra. Instead we are metaphorically living in the time of Jeremiah, with the Babylonians just hours away from the gates of Jerusalem, and Jerusalem’s inhabitants telling themselves that they will be able to carry on the way they always have: Paying the God of Israel at best scant attention, most likely diverting themselves with some kind of idolatry or other, and as far from repentance as it is possible to be.

So what will need to happen before the western world is woken up from its materialism and idolatry? I don’t know, but the near collapse of the world financial system a couple of years back might give us a clue.

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Deuteronomy 13.1-5
Preordination & human responsibility
Posted: 11 August 2010 in Deuteronomy

If there arise among you a prophet, or a dreamer of dreams, and giveth thee a sign or a wonder, And the sign or the wonder come to pass, whereof he spake unto thee, saying, Let us go after other gods, which thou hast not known, and let us serve them; Thou shalt not hearken unto the words of that prophet, or that dreamer of dreams: for the LORD your God proveth you, to know whether ye love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul. Ye shall walk after the LORD your God, and fear him, and keep his commandments, and obey his voice, and ye shall serve him, and cleave unto him. And that prophet, or that dreamer of dreams, shall be put to death; because he hath spoken to turn you away from the LORD your God, which brought you out of the land of Egypt, and redeemed you out of the house of bondage, to thrust thee out of the way which the LORD thy God commanded thee to walk in. So shalt thou put the evil away from the midst of thee.

The first time you read the above, there doesn’t seem to be anything special about it. It is just the kind of prohibition of idolatry which you would expect to find in Deuteronomy. But then you read it again, and you realise that:

a.) God will sometimes test Israel by sending a false prophet, to try and tempt them into idolatry, and

b.) Anybody who acts as God’s agent in that way must be put to death.

So here again, is the tension between divine preordination and human responsibility. Even when it is pointed out that the condemned person had no intention of acting as God’s agent, and that he was acting for his own sinful motives, it still seems unreasonable that he should be punished for a sin God had decreed he must commit.

And yet this is a motif which recurs throughout the Bible, and nobody can say to God, “What doest thou?”

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Romans 1.18-25 – Idolatry
Posted: 10 August 2010 in Romans

….For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men…. Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse: Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, And changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things. Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonour their own bodies between themselves: Who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen.

“Professing themselves wise they became fools,” rings very true today; especially when you vistit a website where the new atheists are giving you the benefit of their wisdom.

People probably kick more against the idea of a sovereign God today more than they did in St Paul’s time. In the western world most people live in democracies, and the idea of an absolute ruler is foreign to them. But there is one absolute ruler who is never going to be removed from his throne by a revolution. We can try to ignore him, and pretend that he is not there, but that has consequences which Paul describes. We become our own rulers, and, except when the civil power intervenes, anything then goes. In making ourselves the arbitrators of good and evil we predicate to ourselves a very great wisdom, which, sadly, we do not have.

For all their much trumpeted free thinking, it is difficult not to notice the way in which atheists always feel driven to create some kind of idol for themselves. In recent years it is science which the new atheists have idolated, but their predecessors all had their own secular religions. When man worships an idol, he is really worshiping himself, or something of his own creation, and the results are always disastrous. He is not capable of carrying the weight of divinity on his shoulders, and when, in the form of calamitous consequences, God’s judgment upon idolatry finally arrives, we once again become aware of our need for salvation.

But the problem is first there must be a judgment, and with things like nuclear weapons present in the world today, that should give us pause for thought.

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