Sovereignty

Yes, Mr President!

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I wrote in my journal this morning that I have noticed a certain word has crept into my vocabulary in the last week or so… It’s the word ‘unprecedented’!

Last night my whole family sat together in our lounge watching the news together – unprecedented!

We then went on to listen to our South African President make some rather unprecedented announcements about our country being in a state of national lockdown from Friday due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

We will remember this moment. Such a drastic announcement with such wide-reaching implications for personal freedom, for businesses large and small, has a way of eliciting a reaction.

Some citizens are compliant, some complaining while others are combative about the measures announced last night.

So, what does Scripture have to say to us at this time? How ought we to respond?

Scripture in Paul’s letter to the Roman believers says the following;

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the One who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. (Romans 13:1-5)

What is our biblically inspired response when the President has announced such dramatic limitations on human freedom and movement?

Essentially it ought to be; ‘Yes Mr President, you have my full cooperation!’

We respond in this way because we believe something – God is the One who ultimately appoints those in authority (vs1) and so to resist authority is to resist those which God has appointed (vs2). Therefore, we submit to authority ultimately out of reverence to God.

Government and authority structures can be understood as being part of the common grace of God. Without order, respect of authority and law, sinful human nature would quickly descend into terrible atrocities.

For example, at present, the military is about to be deployed in our country to maintain the rule of law and to ensure we as citizens comply with the restrictions introduced as part of the Governments efforts to curb the COVID-19 pandemic in our nation. Without police and the military presence of authority, sinful humanity will likely descend into sin and lawlessness.

Sadly, ‘authority’ is like a modern swearword! We hate the idea of authority rather loving freedom in its place.

However, authority, according to Romans 13, is good. It is part of the common grace of God (vs3), and those in authority over you are there as God’s; ‘servant for your good’ (vs4).

In this unique moment in our nation, may we as Christ-Followers be those who are fully compliant with the measures that have been introduced;

  • May we support what our Government is trying to do for the benefit of the whole country by staying home and keeping our families at home too!
  • May we be those who show remarkable selfless love at this time to others around us in a myriad of ways
  • May we be grateful for the Government we have got
  • May we be committed to praying for those in power during these difficult and challenging times
  • May we stand in prayer with all those who will be called on in the coming weeks to work tirelessly to care medically for what is potentially hundreds of thousands of people.
  • And may we be those who never let go of the certain hope that we have in Jesus!

Amen.

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[A little more for those asking; But what about ungodly authorities?”]

God being sovereign over all authorities does not mean that all authorities are good or do good things all the time. Rather it means that God is the One who is in control always and that all authority is under God’s ultimate authority.

God’s good intention is that authority is for our common good (it is a form of God’s common grace), and so God can and does use the good that those in authority do.

However, God can use even the evil things sinful leaders do to fulfil His purposes in our lives and on the earth.

An example of this is 2 Chronicles 25:20 where it says; “But Amaziah would not listen, for it was of God, in order that he might give them into the hand of their enemies because they had sought the gods of Edom”. Amaziah would not listen to the advice given him so that God’s purpose would prevail.

Similarly, Scripture says of Pharaoh that God promised to harden his heart so that he would not let God’s people go (Exodus 4:21), but then Scripture makes it clear that Pharoah hardened his heart and would not let God’s people go (Exodus 8:15,32 & 9:34). This evil Pharoah was in authority under God’s control, and even the evil he did accomplished God’s good purposes in the end.

The challenge in Romans 3 is vs3-4. It is a challenge since authorities in their sinfulness do not always act for the good of those they are in authority over!

It’s helpful to remember that Paul is writing as a Jewish Roman citizen, he has experienced hostility from authorities towards Jewish people and towards Christians. Therefore, he is not naive concerning the experience of those who have lived under ungodly leaders. John Stott on this question from this passage writes;

“Paul means rather that all human authority is derived from God’s authority so that we can say to rulers what Jesus said to Pilate, ‘You would have no power [exousia, authority] over me if it were not given to you from above.’ Pilate misused his authority to condemn Jesus; nevertheless, the authority he used to do this had been delegated to him by God” – John Stott

So, in conclusion. The big idea of this passage is that governmental authorities are part of the common grace of God and are for our and societies good – that is God’s plan for humanity.

However, there are many moments in history when authorities in their sin have acted in ways that were not for the benefit of those under their authority.

And so there are times when to obey earthly authority would mean to disobey God. In those moments, I believe it is possibly justifiable to disobey earthly authority to obey God – but such situations are exceptional rather than the norm.

But in this time, with this COVID-19 pandemic let us give our ‘YES’ to our President and let us all play our part at this time of national threat.

Gareth is one of the elders at Reconciliation Road Church in Amanzimtoti, South Africa – click the link to get more information about our church.

A True God-Follower (Hosea 1:1-3)

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Are you a Christ Follower? Not in name but in reality! I am drawn to ‘Christ Follower’ as a way of identifying believers in Jesus because it speaks of movement – it’s not simply an idea but a lifestyle that can be observed. 

And so if Jesus said ‘go left’ and you’re going right at the moment then you can justifiably be challenged to alter your current trajectory.

Being a Christ Follower also necessitates looking for Jesus, His will, His ways (laid out for us in Scripture) and listening for His voice in Scripture and also in all of life.

Now Hosea was a prophet in the Old Testament times. And he was a remarkable God Follower (since Jesus had not come as our incarnate Messiah yet) as we shall see from the shocking first three verses of the book bearing his name.

In the days of the evil king, Jeroboam 2 of Israel’s Northern Tribes God spoke to Hosea (1:1). And it’s a rather shocking thing God said to him;

Hosea 1:2 (NLT): “Go and marry a prostitute…”

Gulp! I can imagine some of Hosea’s dialogue with God.

Hosea: Who’s this speaking to me LORD? 

Hosea: It sounds like the enemy again unsettling me.

Hosea: Or maybe I’m having a bad dream, indigestion not inspiration!

God: Nope, it’s me speaking Hosea. Go and marry a prostitute.

Hosea: But Lord! That wasn’t my plan for life and marriage.

Hosea: You want me to be happy, right?

Hosea 1:2 (NLT): “Go and marry a prostitute…”, so that some of her children will be conceived in prostitution. This will illustrate how Israel has acted like a prostitute by turning against the Lord and worshipping other gods.” 

Remarkable. God as God, is entitled to ask us to do anything for Him. How we react to this command of God to Hosea says something about our perspective and how we are relating to God. Is God in His rightful place in your life or is God not much more than a ‘genie in a bottle’ for you, someone who must come and do what you command when you summons Him in prayer?

It’s easy to say Jesus is your LORD, easy to label yourself as a God/Christ Follower until Jesus tells you to do something that will require serious sacrifice, discomfort or challenge.

  • What’s Jesus calling you to do about your commitment to His church?
  • What’s Jesus calling you to do about using your time/talents for His plan & purposes?
  • What’s Jesus calling you to do about that relationship that’s not honouring Him or that relationship that needs restoration?
  • What’s Jesus calling you to do about the money He entrusted to you?
  • ….

What makes us Christ Followers is not what we say, but what we do when God has spoken to us through His Word or some other means.

Hosea 1:3 (NLT): “So Hosea married Gomer, the daughter of Diblaim, and she became pregnant and gave Hosea a son.”

Hosea was a true God Follower because he did what God had said; he obeyed God. Even though he must have had questions about how this was all going to work out to accomplish God’s purposes which clearly transcended his comfort and convenience.

Now, it is a relief that Hosea is the only guy in the Bible that God told to marry a prostitute. So we imitate not his action as our pattern, but his heart and his obedience and trust displayed. 

May you and I be like Hosea who trusted God enough to obey even though he could not have understood fully.  

May we be like Jesus who likewise trusted and obeyed the Father in the Garden of Gethsemane and so destroyed our enemies of sin, Satan and death and won for us our freedom.

Christ Follower, trust and obey. For then, we shall see God’s plan and purposes unfold in and through our lives, and God will be glorified in us.

What’s your lens? (Philippians 1:12-20)

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What’s your lens? What gives you meaning in life, and what helps you make sense of all that happens in your life?

As he writes to the Philippian believers, the apostle Paul is a prisoner of Rome because of his faith in Jesus. We know he was confined to ‘house arrest’ for two years, and yet he is isn’t found complaining in his letter to the Philippians.

Consider this for a moment, what would you have been writing about if his experience was yours?

It’s hard to know for sure how I/we would have responded, but a brief analysis of our prayers when life is feeling unfair or hard for us now are probably a good indication.  

And yet Paul was rejoicing! (vs18) How could this be?  

Paul’s joy, his sense of meaning and purpose was clearly not tied to his personal comfort or freedom – since he wrote this from a period of imprisonment, most likely chained to a Roman soldier.  

His lens for life, his life purpose was that the good news of Jesus would be proclaimed & that Jesus would be glorified through his life or death.

And because of this, he wrote; “I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel” (vs12)

His imprisonment gave him access to the praetorian guard (vs13) – a special unit of ten thousand selected soldiers in Rome that had unusual privileges & were influential. He could write that the whole guard knew that Jesus was the reason for his imprisonment. It seems as though God, through Paul’s imprisonment, had inserted him inside the ranks of those who were influential in the great city of Rome, sowing gospel seeds for the future behind enemy lines.

There was meaning in his suffering, in the curtailment of his freedom. And so there could be rejoicing because his lens was God’s purpose, plan and God’s glory, not his comfort or liberty.

What’s your lens? Your lens will focus your attention and define your reaction to life’s varied circumstances.

Paul was strengthened in his imprisonment, knowing that the Philippians were praying for him & knowing that the Helper was with him. And so he was confident that God would deliver him either in the present from Roman captivity or in the glorious future at the return of Jesus (vs19).

Paul embraced his circumstances because of his lens which was that all of his life was to proclaim Jesus and to bring glory to Jesus in how he responded to all of life’s circumstances believing that God was sovereign in them.  

And so he wrote;

“…it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death.” (vs20)

What’s on display here is the focus of Paul’s life – that Jesus Christ would be honoured by my life whether that means I live or whether I die – Jesus be glorified.

What an inspiration! May his lens be your lens and mine. May Jesus being proclaimed and Jesus being glorified be the priority that pulsates through our every decision and our every thought in every circumstance we endure.

Confidence! (Philippians 1:1-11)

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What are you confident in? What are you relying on when it comes to faith and the continuation of that faith? Life is filled with unexpected complexity and challenge – so what anchors you and your faith?

Paul prayed for these Philippian believers, thanking God with great joy and certainty for their faith because he had great confidence that was anchored in God alone.

The early converts of this church were a successful businesswoman, a redeemed fortune teller & a converted jailer (see Acts 16 for the full story of this churches inception). This diverse bunch of newly saved ones must have faced many challenges to their faith. Challenges that came from both from within & from outside the church. 

To this group of believers in Jesus Paul could write;

“I am sure of this, that He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” (vs6)

He wasn’t there to hold their hands! But he was confident that they would make genuine progress in spiritual growth. So what was Paul’s confidence anchored in?

1. That salvation is a work of God

No doubt Lydia, the Slave-girl & the Jailer could all remember the day that they put their faith in Jesus. But this is not Paul’s confidence; it is not that they ‘really’ believed. His confidence is that God started it all! Acts 16:14 says of Lydia’s salvation moment; “the LORD opened her heart”. God was at the bottom of it all as Charles Spurgeon said;

One week-night, when I was sitting in the house of God, I was not thinking much about the preacher’s sermon, for I did not believe it. The thought struck me; How did you come to be a Christian? I sought the Lord. But how did you come to seek the Lord? The truth flashed across my mind in a moment—I should not have sought him unless there had been some previous influence in my mind to make me seek him. I prayed, thought I, but then I asked myself, How came I to pray? I was induced to pray by reading the Scriptures. 

How came I to read the Scriptures? I did read them, but what led me to do so?  Then, in a moment, I saw that God was at the bottom of it all and that he was the Author of my faith, and so the doctrine of grace opened up to me, and from that doctrine I have not departed to this day, and I desire to make this my constant confession, “I ascribe my change wholly to God.” — Charles Spurgeon 

Friend, your faith is sure and secure only if God is at the bottom of it all.   

2. God will bring what He started to completion.

‘So my faith had a good start, but will I be able to keep it going?’ – I hear you wondering.  

Friend, Philippians 1:6 says that not only was God the originator of your faith in Him, more than that it is God Himself who will bring to completion what He started in you.

God doesn’t do half-jobs. God doesn’t get distracted or dejected because of slow progress. The writer to the Hebrews says it like this; “Therefore, he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.” (Hebrews 7:25 in NIV).

It would make no sense; it would not honour Jesus’ life, death & resurrection in our place for our sin for God to start and not bring to fullness our salvation. Friend, God is supremely invested in, God is behind not just the origination of your faith but the sustenance and progress of your faith. For some more verses on this theme check out: 1 Corinthians 1:8-9 & 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24 & Colossians 1:21-22.

3. The Outcome and the Day are Guaranteed

There is a timeline when this completion will be fully realised. It is not today or tomorrow or in 1years time, but it is on THE DAY of Jesus Christ – the day Jesus returns in glory. 

Sometimes spiritual progress in our own lives or in the lives of those we love or lead can feel like three steps forward and two backwards! Don’t despair, don’t give in during the long dark nights when you feel like you have to hold on to what faith you still have.

There is a day coming. And you can be confident that God who inaugurated your faith will bring it to complete fullness by the time of the return of Jesus Christ. That day on which you will see Him face to face, and you will be transformed & raised in glory (1 Corinthians 15:42-43 & 51-55).

If you have believed in Jesus, you can know with absolute certainty that you have believed because God is at work within your life, and you can rest assured that what God has started in you He Himself will continue until it is fully complete at the Day of Jesus Christ. Be secure, be full of praise and thanks!

The Day of Jesus’ Return (2 Thessalonians 1:5-10)

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Writing to believers enduring persecution for their faith and wanting to encourage and fortify them the apostle Paul lifts their gaze to the future horizon – the great Day of Jesus Christ’s return.

Right thinking or understanding about the impending return of Jesus will help one to know how to live today and tomorrow. A biblical and eternal perspective focusses us on what’s truly important and fortifies us in the present realities which might be hard.

‘God considers it just to repay…’

Have you ever questioned the revealed will of God or the revelation of God’s ways in Scripture? I am astounded how commonplace this is these days. People read something in Scripture only to then react with statements like;

  • ‘Well I’m not happy with that!’ or
    ‘I don’t think that’s fair/right/loving.’
  • And yet Scripture never apologizes for God, never tries to defend God. Here in our passage, it says that;

“God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven.”(1 Thessalonians 1:6-7)

A passage like this calls one to decide whether or not Scripture has authority over our thoughts and questions over our preferences.

Someone once said to me; “Well my Jesus would never…” To speak like this is tantamount to making your own god (idol).  But then the god you made is not the God of Scripture!

God considers it just to repay evil for the evil done to His beloved children and therefore, it is just.

Are you wrongfully accused or mistreated in some way? God will repay that person. You don’t have to try to take revenge or fight back or defend yourself; God will do it, He will repay that person for their wrong.

And when will this happen? At the Day of Jesus’ second coming. You might not see the wrong being righted in your lifetime, but you can know God will vindicate you.

Only Two Groups of People

It is human nature to want to belong to a group of people to identify with others. The world is full of a myriad of tiny groups of people who all hold on to their differentiated sense of identities.

And yet according to our passage, on the Day that King Jesus returns there will only be two distinct groups of people;

  1. Those who did know God, who did obey and accept the Gospel about Jesus
    And those who did not
  2. On that Day, all other identities will be worthless & irrelevant. All that will matter is whether or not you believed the good news about Jesus Christ or not prior to that Day’s sudden arrival.

Two different experiences

And depending on whether you believed in Jesus and knew Him as your Saviour and LORD or not, there will be two very different experiences on that Day and into eternity.

  1. You will be in the great crowd of ‘saints’ (vs10) to whom God will grant relief from their suffering (vs7) and who will glorify Jesus as they marvel at His majesty (vs10).
  2. Or you will experience the judgement and the vengeance of God (vs8) and ‘suffer the punishment of eternal destruction’ being shut out from the presence of God forever (vs9) – terrifyingly bad news.

Who would not want to be in the first group? And who would not do everything in their power to urge all those they know and love to do the same by believing in Jesus Christ?

Surprised? (1 Thessalonians 3:1-13)

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In 1 Thessalonians 3:3-5, we discover that Paul desired deeply that no one in the church in Thessalonica would be moved/shaken/unsettled by the afflictions/pressures that faced them. Because of this, Paul sent a person, Timothy to encourage them, to help them think clearly. In addition to this through his letter, Paul also reminded them of truth. He did so because it’s the truth that undergirds us, reinforces us so that we can face trials, stand firm when pressure situations hit.

So what truth did Paul seek to reinforce them with?

He said;

“YOU YOURSELVES KNOW that we are destined for this. For when we were with you, we kept telling you beforehand that we were to suffer affliction, just as it has come to pass, and just as you know.” (vs3-4)  

He expected these believers in Jesus to know that pressure, suffering, persecution are not abnormal for the believer in Jesus but rather part of our normal experience.

We often say we are ‘followers of Jesus’, but did we forget that Jesus suffered from almost continual opposition during his 3yrs of ministry on earth and ultimately that Jesus died on a cross at the hands of His enemies!

Did we forget that Jesus said things like; “then you will be arrested, persecuted, and killed. You will be hated all over the world because you are my followers” (Matthew 24:9 NLT) & “you will be hated by all for my name’s sake” (Mark 13:13)

Jesus knew Paul knew that we are living through wartime, not peacetime this side of Jesus’ return. Having a biblical perspective and expectation regarding suffering, trials, persecution and pressure will help you massively when such things do come. So let’s not be naive, but rather let’s KNOW that we are destined for such things but also KNOW that greater is He that is within us than he that is in the world (1 John 4:4) and let us KNOW that ;

28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose…35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:28&35-39)

Are you surprised when suffering or pressure comes? Does it knock you sideways?

Be strengthened by knowing what Scripture teaches in these verses & knowing that God has promised amazing things concerning His ever-present help to you IN what you are going through.

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.