Mystery

Vindicated! (Numbers 17)

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Who hasn’t felt the pain of being misrepresented or misunderstood? Many leaders have known the uncomfortable feeling of not being trusted or feeling confident in your leadership slip or even being challenged. Added to the pain and pressure of such moments are your own internal struggles and doubts which only get amplified by the enemy.

Times of pressure, moments when there are delays, setbacks or significant obstacles often heighten these dynamics. The context leading up to Numbers 17 was that God’s people had grumbled against God and His appointed leaders for bribing them out of Egypt, they had doubted and feared rather than trusted God, there had been internal leadership squabbles and outright rebellion and questions raised continually about who should lead.

In moments like these, it is often inappropriate and ineffective, trying to vindicate yourself. Managing the perceptions of others is not only exhausting; it is impossible in the long run. In a wise, lucid moment the apostle Paul reflecting no doubt on some situations from his own life and ministry said this with fatherly wisdom;

“Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’.” (Romans 12:19)

RT Kendal reflecting on this passage advises that we often want to vindicate ourselves, take revenge, make our point, and we could choose to do so, but that is very unwise. It’s like God then says; ‘Oh you want to vindicate yourself! Go ahead and try but you’ll mess it up and end up sinning.’ Rather Kendal says God’s wisdom is to leave vengeance and the desire to vindicate oneself to Him and to His timing.

In Numbers 17, we see God doing exactly what Romans 12:19 promises He will do, as He vindicated Aaron’s ministry as head of the priesthood in a remarkable, public and miraculous way! God’s intent was to stop the discontent & grumbling which doesn’t help those leading or those following;

“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 2 “Speak to the people of Israel, and get from them staffs, one for each fathers’ house, from all their chiefs according to their fathers’ houses, twelve staffs. Write each man’s name on his staff, 3 and write Aaron’s name on the staff of Levi. For there shall be one staff for the head of each fathers’ house. 4 Then you shall deposit them in the tent of meeting before the testimony, where I meet with you. 5 And the staff of the man whom I choose shall sprout. Thus I will make to cease from me the grumblings of the people of Israel, which they grumble against you.”

The key thing to notice here is that this is God’s initiative, God stepped in to vindicate Aaron, to silence the discontent. Moses and Aaron were not trying to vindicate themselves (although no doubt they were glad for what God was doing) – God did it. God chose how, and God chose when it would happen – and so it was effective. A right reverence returned to the camp, respect for those God had appointed (vs12).

Remember, when we try to vindicate ourselves, we are likely to mess it up! Not the least because we should be slow to think that we have an accurate perspective on ourselves, our own heads and hearts or the situation we find ourselves in.

Wisely, Paul was cautious about judging himself as he wrote to the Corinthians, some of whom were challenging his leadership;

But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. 4 For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. 5 Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God. (1 Corinthians 4:3-5)

So, if it is God’s prerogative to vindicate, what ought you to do if you feel unjustly treated, misrepresented, falsely accused…?

Three things come to mind in sequential order:

  1. Lament – “A passionate expression of sorrow and grief” – Christina Fox. The Psalms are full of this processing raw emotions to God and leaving it with Him.
  2. Forgive – Because we have been forgiven much because this is the only pathway to health and not bitterness & because it honours God.
  3. Leave it to God – Remember that Jesus died without being vindicated! As did many of the heroes of the faith. Vindication is hardly ever on our time scale and is quite likely to be only seen in full at the return of Christ.

Mystery & Clarity (Romans 11:25-36)

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Learning to live with mystery is an integral part of the Christian life. The topics Paul has been writing about, election, human responsibility, God’s plan in redemption for the Jewish people and the Gentiles are hard to grasp fully.

God’s words to us recorded in Isaiah 55:8-9 are a helpful reminder of our limited capacity to grasp the ways of God;

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts; neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

Moses counselled God’s people who were trying to wrap their heads around God’s actions in judging the nation of Israel for their sin in breaking His covenant with them saying;

“The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” (Deuteronomy 29:29)

Similarly, the apostle Paul, having written about the mystery of salvation history and having written to the Roman believers about how the majority of Israel has been hardened so that the full number of elect Gentiles will be saved. Having written about how God will do a new work in the future in Israel in which He will save all “Israel” somehow, in faithfulness to His covenant promises. Then after writing about these things, the apostle breaks out in wonder and worship at the mysteries of God’s ways;

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! (Romans 11:33)

We are so limited in our understanding. If I am honest, I don’t even really know how the toaster I am about to use works! May we remember that, when we dive into the deep end of the mysteries of God’s ways in election and redemption history and what does it mean that ‘in this way, all Israel will be saved’? (vs26)?

Living with worshipful trust in the presence of mystery is essential for the believer. There will be lots of things, even in our little lives and the lives of those we love that will not be solvable to our limited understanding. May you, may I trust God and worship God in those moments, knowing and holding on to that which is clear in Scripture;

And this is what is clear; “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.” (Romans 11:36)

  • All things are from God; God is sovereign over all things
  • All things are through God; God is both the creator, the author & the sustainer of all things (Colossians 1:15-17)
  • All things exist for God’s eternal purpose of His glory being displayed and magnified in all things and by all people and all of creation forever and ever!

And, you and I are part of that good plan of God to glorify Himself. Election, grace and all of the mysteries of redemption history are part of that good plan to glorify Himself. What we can understand and what we can’t understand are all part of God’s plan. So even though we don’t understand it all, we can know with utter certainty that God will always be working in us and through all of creation for His glory and we can know that we who believe in Him are wrapped up in that grand plan and through it are blessed forever and ever!

So trust God and worship Him in the midst of mystery thanking Him for the clarity He has given us which is enough to worship Him forever with.

God: Free to Choose (Romans 9:16-29)

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In Romans 9:1-16, we learnt that God is mercifully sovereign in choosing anyone to be His people.

(Romans 9:16-18): God’s sovereign choice of actions is not limited. God works in all of human history; God even works through evil despots for the purpose of His will – “that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth” (vs17). God is free as the sovereign One to have mercy on those He chooses to and to harden whomever He wishes for the broader purpose of His will.

God is not unjust in acting in this way. After all, as Paul demonstrated in the early chapters of his letter, that all human beings are sinful and guilty in God’s sight (3:9,19&23), nobody deserves to be saved or chosen by God. “Therefore, if God hardens some, He is not unjust, for that is what their sin deserves.” – John Stott

(Romans 9:19): But if God is so much in control and since we cannot resist His will – then the question arises; “How can God find anyone guilty?” The answer to this question completes the verses of the chapter.

(Romans 9:20–23): Scripture never defends God’s sovereign free will to choose to show mercy or to express His righteous wrath and to still hold people accountable for their sin. Instead, Scripture insists that we, as finite human beings, are totally out of order rebelliously questioning God’s ways! When we do so, we are like the clay disrespectfully calling the potter to account for his actions in choosing to make what He wanted to out of the clay. “God created a world in which both his wrath and his mercy would be displayed. Indeed, his mercy shines against the backdrop of his just wrath, showing thereby that the salvation of any person is due to the marvellous grace and love of God. If this is difficult to understand, it is because people mistakenly think God owes them salvation! ” (ESV Study Bible)

(Romans 9:24-29): In his grace and mercy, God has called people to himself from both the Jews and the Gentiles just as He promised He would do through the prophet Hosea (Hosea 2:23 & 1:10). God did this to illustrate His stunning undeserved grace. All people who are called by God are sinful underserving people; God has shown His grace to the Gentiles just as He showed His grace to Israel by saving them and choosing them as His own even though they were all undeserving. Anyone being chosen by God for mercy and not wrath is pure mercy on the part of God!

(vs27-29) Remember that not all of ethnic Israel was saved, or were truly God’s people, but only a remnant was the true Israel of God as was prophesied in Isaiah 10:22–23 and experienced salvation and not God’s judgement (Isaiah 1:9).

Are you battling with some of what’s revealed about God in Romans 9? Ask yourself why you’re battling? Is not all of Scripture God-breathed and useful to teaching and rebuking us (2 Timothy 3:16)? Are you not in danger of being the clay screaming at the potter about what ought and ought not to be? We need to be so careful that we do not elevate our thoughts or questions above the revelation of Scripture in such a way that we end up judging Scripture rather than allowing Scripture to interrogate our hearts and minds!

Spurgeon once said when asked about defending the Bible;

“Defend the Bible? I would as soon defend a lion! Unchain it, and it will defend itself.”

This is the revelation of Scripture regarding God’s sovereign merciful free will in choosing some and not others to be saved. May we, may I humble ourselves grateful that God elected to choose to show mercy to us and may we rejoice in His gracious choice and worship Him for His mercy.

Questions for Reflection:

1. What does this passage teach me about God & faith?
2. What does this teach me about myself, what is God saying to me?
3. What should I do as a result?

God’s Merciful Choosing (Romans 9:1-16)

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Background

Remember that this book of Romans was written to the multicultural church in Rome working out how to be united in Christ despite their diversity.

  • Romans 1-3:20 outlined the common problem of sin.
  • Romans 3:21-5:21 revealed God’s solution, a righteousness that comes by grace through faith in Jesus!
  • Romans 6-8 unpacks the believer’s new relationship with the flesh, sin, Satan, the law & our new position & experiences as God’s children, empowered by the Holy Spirit and Romans 8 ends with promises of the future for all those who believe in Jesus.
  • The question which Paul now addresses in chapters 9–11 is whether the promises God made to Israel will still be fulfilled? This is important because if God’s promises to the Jews remain unfulfilled, how can Gentile Christians be sure that God will fulfil the great promises to all believers that conclude chapter 8?

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(Romans 9:1-5): As a Jew himself, Paul expresses anguish over the many Jews who reject the good news about Jesus the Messiah. He would rather be personally cut off from Christ if that would change the situation. The Israelites were an honoured people; God chose them; they experienced God’s glory; they received God’s covenant promises, the Law & God’s instructions on worshipping Him. The heroes of the faith were Jewish, and so was Jesus the Messiah – they are a blessed people!

(Romans 9:6): Yet the vast majority of Israelites have not believed in Jesus, but this is not because God’s word has failed in some way; instead, it is because of God’s purposes in election.

(Romans 9:7-13): Paul shows how the true Israel (God’s children) have always been not an ethnic group but rather those God elected (God chose).

  • Isaac & Ishmael were both children of Abraham, but God chose only Isaac
  • Jacob and Esau were both children of Isaac, but God chose only Jacob and did so not because of anything good in Jacob (vs11)
  • God did this so that His purposes in election (choosing) might stand (vs11).
  • We are saved (become God’s people) not by works or by ethnicity but by the sovereign choice of God (vs11).

(Romans 9:14-16): But is God unjust in choosing in this way? “By no means!” (vs14). God is sovereign and free. No one deserves God’s mercy; no one deserves God’s choosing of them. God revealed Himself to Moses, saying; “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” God doesn’t need to answer to anyone regarding why He has acted as He has.

Salvation for the believer depends not on the will of human beings or the effort of human beings, but totally on God the merciful one (vs16).

If you are a believer in Jesus, then you have been chosen by God (adopted by God as we learnt from Romans 8)! You have been included in the great family of faith, the people of God, the children of Abraham, the children of promise. All of this was the plan and the purpose of God who has been merciful to you in choosing you in this way so that He might be glorified as the One who chooses.

Questions for Reflection:

1. What does this passage teach me about God & faith?
2. What does this teach me about myself, what is God saying to me?
3. What should I do as a result?

I AM… (John 8:12-59)

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God who encountered Moses in the burning bush moment, God who revealed Himself to Moses using the name; “I AM who I AM” (Exodus 3:14) is the unseen Almighty God of Scripture.  John in his gospel reveals that Jesus is the visible, tangible, personal revelation of that same unseen God, Yahweh (John 1:18).

In this encounter, Jesus is engaging with the Pharisees & Scribes who had just prior to his brought the adulterous woman to him in an attempt to catch him out and have him arrested.  Jesus authoritatively restores the woman to a place of dignity and challenges them regarding their self-righteousness and spiritual blindness.

They’re still standing there in what appears to be a hostile mood and so Jesus engages them in some verbal jousting.  Jesus is provocative!  He uses a phrase translated “I am” 13 times in this single encounter.  Now in one sense he is just using an ordinary phrase; “I am going” but He knew what He was doing.  He was making a point implicitly which he eventually makes explicitly in vs58.

The Greek translation of the Hebrew OT (called the Septuagint) uses the same phrase Jesus uses 13x in His conversation with the Jews opposing Him here in the Genesis 3:14 account of God with Moses. 

Here in John 8, the Jews are demanding that Jesus answer the question; “Who are you?” (vs25) and throughout this conversation Jesus is hinting at Exodus 3:14 until eventually He says it explicitly in John 8:58 and when He does they immediately picked up stones to stone Him on the spot as they got it – Jesus was claiming to be the same God who encountered Moses in Genesis 3:14.

Who is Jesus?  

This is the question that every person on the planet needs to answer at some stage in their life or ultimately on the day Jesus  Himself returns.  And when it comes to this question, we really only have three options;

    • Jesus is a ‘Conman’
    • Jesus is a ‘Madman’
    • Jesus is ‘God/man’

Some people would want to add that maybe Jesus was a simply a ‘Good man/Good teacher’ but that’s not an option really if you consider that we don’t call people who have delusions of deity good and would not encourage people to sit and learn from such people either – we would resign such a person to the Conman or Madman categories!

When Moses encountered God in the burning bush moment, God told Moses; “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” (Exodus 3:5) and in that moment in response “Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.” (Exodus 3:6)  Similarly, when Isaiah encountered God and saw a vision of God in glory in heaven, he crumpled before God falling on his face keenly aware of his sinfulness and God’s greatness (Isaiah 6) – this is who Jesus was claiming to be.

Friend, although Jesus was and is a man, don’t for a minute loose sight of the fact that He is one and the same God of glory, majestic and mighty, holy, or as Colossians 1 says of Jesus;

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.  (Colossians 1:15-20)

So, worship Jesus, stand in awe and wonder at Him, bow before Him and surrender your whole life to Him and then live the rest of your days for Him and for His purposes alone.  Amen.

Meaning-Makers (John 9:1-41)

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We are meaning-makers.  We want to know, love to know, try to know – why?  We look for cause and effect, we are inquisitive.  Now this is mostly good, but it can get us into trouble too!  As we all too often from our limited finite human perspective reach the wrong conclusions!

The man in John 9 was born blind.  The meaning-makers wanted to know why?  Who’s fault was this? Was he blind because God was punishing him or punishing his parents in some way?  Sound familiar?

As a pastor, I often encounter people who have had something hard happen to them and often the big questions are something like; ‘Why did this happen?’ or ‘Why has God done this to me or allowed this to happen?’

Jesus answered their question with an emphatic “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” (John 9:3)  This will not always be the reason for sickness or suffering, but it was the reason given by Jesus in this instance.  ‘This man is blind SO THAT I can show God’s power over sickness and suffering’ – Jesus essentially said.

Jesus’ answer wasn’t one of the potential causes they had thought of.  And maybe there is a hint there for us: we often will not know.  And so the trite little answers like those of the people surrounding this blind man, are often just unhelpful as they don’t help us to know the ‘why’.  It’s tough for ‘meaning-makers’ but it is true, we will not always know or be able to answer the ‘why’ questions fully.  However there is a grid that might be helpful:

The 3 possible sources of pain/hurt/suffering:

In my experience and from Scripture, I believe that one can understand there being three potential sources for pain/hurt/suffering:

1. Our own sinful actions

One of the sources of pain and hardship in our lives is in fact ourselves, our own actions.  We do at times bring pain upon ourselves!  We make bad mistakes, we have character flaws, we make bad/ungodly/unwise decisions and do sometimes suffer the natural consequences thereof.

So many of the pastoral issues we end up dealing with as a church leadership are the result of ungodly decision-making and the mess that inevitably follows.  But, think about this for a moment.  This is the one source of pain and suffering/hardship over which we have some control.  There is not a lot you can control in your life, but you can seek to grow in godly wisdom and it will have a direct positive impact on your life.  

2. The Age we live in

Much of what is hard in our lives can simply be put down to this BIG category in which a number of sub-categories or sources of pain fit.  This age we live in post-Fall & pre-Jesus’ Second Coming:

    • Is an age in which we have a very real enemy who can bring suffering (Job is an example) 
    • Is an age in which the systems of this world are impacted by sin and so cause inequality, poverty, oppression, injustice
    • Is an age in which the natural world itself is impacted by sin and so there are things like erosion, pollution, natural disasters…
    • Is an age in which our bodies are decaying (death, sickness is part of the curse), and so in this age we are struck down by sickness & disease battling scourges like cancer and HIV…
    • Is an age in which the sinful actions of others impact us; hijacking, robbery, relational hurt, rape, abuse… 

3. God’s loving Fathering of us  

Hebrews 12:5-11 teaches that part of the plan of our loving Heavenly Father is to produce holiness & Christlike character in us and to use us to fulfill His good purposes on the earth and to ultimately bless us in eternity.  Sometimes, God is at work in the trial or the pain in order to accomplish something in us or through us.  The John 9 man is an example of this potential source of trials, as Jesus Himself declared that to be the reason for his suffering up to that point.

Knowing the potential source of the pain, should inform our best response to that pain.  If it’s self-imposed then stop it, repent and change.  If it’s the age we live in, you might need to pray more for God’s guidance as to how best to respond.  If it’s potentially your loving Father at work in some way, you need to ask Him to help you know how best to respond or what to do or pray.

The John 9 man gets healed miraculously and his previous disability becomes his powerful testimony to the rulers opposing Jesus!

Mystery & Treasure (Colossians 2:1-5)

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WhatsApp Image 2018-04-09 at 17.28.34As people we are inquisitive by nature.  You can see this clearly in children, the desire to know, to understand propels learning and growth.  Many people love riddles, or stories with plots that unfold, mysteries that need resolving, that draw us in as they press on our desire to know more.

This passage describes Jesus as the mystery of God!  The God of the Bible is so much bigger, more loving, more magnificent, holy, wrathful against sin, just, holy, righteous, powerful, gracious…. than we could ever imagine.  What we know of God, just reveals how little we truly know of God.  What we know of God simultaneously satisfies us and stirs up within us an insatiable desire, an inquisitiveness wanting to know more of our glorious God.

Here in Colossians 2:2-3 Jesus is described both as ‘God’s mystery’ and as the One in whom are hidden ‘all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge’.  What an intoxicating combination.  If we want to pursue the mystery of God, then we need to focus on Jesus, and Scripture here confirms that as we pursue relationship with Jesus, we will find that Jesus is the One in whom ALL the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are found.

Friend, Jesus is the answer to every problem, every need.  Jesus is the only One who can truly satisfy our souls, Jesus contains the wisdom we need for life and for godliness, for parenting, for our career choices and our relationships…  Jesus deserves not only all our worship but all our reflection, all our attention and as we focus our lives on Him, we discover more and more about God, who He is and what He is like, we discover treasures that will thrill our hearts and satisfy our souls and we discover wisdom and knowledge for life.

Oh may we make Jesus our vision and our pursuit.