Jonah 2

17 “Now the Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.”  [Jonah 1:17]

There have been stories of people being swallowed by whales and surviving, but the veracity of these stories has been questioned. The Bible speaks of a large fish, not necessarily a whale, but still, is it possible?

The writer of Jonah tells us that God “provided a great fish.” That could mean that this fish was specially “prepared” by God, as some translations put it, so that it could swallow Jonah whole. Certainly, Jesus referred to Jonah in the whale for three days and likened it to his own death and resurrection [Matthew 12:40]. The story of Jonah is as improbable (impossible?) as someone being resurrected, but we know that really occurred.

In the end what is important is that God saved Jonah and it happened by means of a large fish. Rather than sending us to history or biology to prove that it could or could not happen, we should marvel at our great God. As one writer puts it, “We have been looking so hard at the great fish that we have failed to see the great God.” [G Campbell Morgan “The Minor Prophets” 1960, p69]

One of the problems with miracles that seem to contravene the laws of nature is that people will rely on the fact they contravene the laws of nature as proof that they didn’t and can’t happen, but surely that is the issue. If we only allow the possibility of God if he obeys all the laws of nature, then we don’t need him. The beauty of the resurrection of Jesus (and by implication the resurrection of Jonah) is that it proves God, because only God can really do the impossible. People who do not allow the possibility of miracles as evidence for the existence of God rule out the very thing that you’d expect from God if he existed. If Jesus was God, surely you’d expect him not to be bound by death!

Getting back to Jonah – imagine his situation, if you can. He’s expecting a relatively quick and painless death by drowning but now he’s facing a slow death in the stomach of some giant fish, in total darkness, maybe cramped up in a tiny space in the stomach, being acted on by stomach juices. Talk about out of the frying pan and into the fire. What is God doing? However, he knows this is from God and so he turns to Him. We’ll take a look at that tomorrow.

PRAYER

God of all power and might, what a wonder is that you care for us, that even the hairs on our heads are numbered. Amen

 From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God. He said:

‘In my distress I called to the Lord, and he answered me.
From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help,
 and you listened to my cry.
You hurled me into the depths 
 into the very heart of the seas, and the currents swirled about me;  all your waves and breakers swept over me.
I said, “I have been banished
 from your sight; yet I will look again towards your holy temple.”
The engulfing waters threatened me,
 the deep surrounded me; seaweed was wrapped around my head. To the roots of the mountains I sank down; the earth beneath barred me in for ever.” 

[Jonah 2:1-6]

 

Jonah is in distress! Is there any wonder? He knows he has disobeyed his God. He’s been thrown overboard in a storm and struggled to breathe in the waves [v3], sinking beneath the waters [v6], and now he’s in the belly of the fish. He describes his predicament as like being in the realm of the dead [v1.] Has he blown it permanently? Has God just given up on him? He describes it as being banished from God’s sight [4].

Things can feel that way at times. Even Jesus cried out “My God! My God! Why have you abandoned me?” Yet even at those times God is not absent. We know that with Jesus God was still carrying out plans, and Jonah understands that although the sailors had thrown him overboard at Jonah’s own insistence, God is in it.

He says to God “You hurled me into the depths, into the very heart of the seas.” His assertion is that even his own actions are not outside God’s control. That is a great comfort! Even in the darkest place, the deepest pit, God is present. King David says

11If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will hide me    and the light become night around me,’
12 even the darkness will not be dark to you; 
 the night will shine like the day,
    for darkness is as light to you.” [Psalm 139:11-12]

From the belly of the fish, all he can do is to call out to God from the pit he’s in, and it’s a deep pit. He sank down to the roots of the mountains [v6], to the place where the mighty mountain ranges have their foundations at the bottom of the sea. Yet God does not abandon his people.

Jonah calls out and God answers him. God is committed to his people, but God puts Jonah right back in the place he did not want to be – on the road to Nineveh. Jesus prayed, “Yet not my will but yours be done.”

God will hear from the pit, but he may not take us out of it. He may have other plans, but he surely hears.

PRAYER

Lord of the nations, give us a firm and steady trust in your goodness. Amen

 From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God. He said:

‘In my distress I called to the Lord, and he answered me.
From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help,
 and you listened to my cry.
You hurled me into the depths 
 into the very heart of the seas, and the currents swirled about me;  all your waves and breakers swept over me.
I said, “I have been banished
 from your sight; yet I will look again towards your holy temple.”
The engulfing waters threatened me,
 the deep surrounded me; seaweed was wrapped around my head. To the roots of the mountains I sank down; the earth beneath barred me in for ever.” 

[Jonah 2:1-6]

 

The irony here is that Jonah ran from the Lord and gets what he wanted – to be as far away from God as he could be. Now he is experiencing what it is like to get his wish, and he finds it terrifying.

It seems that our culture is doing a Jonah, trying to move as far away from God as possible. Theologians talk of something called “common grace”. It refers to God’s kindness and grace that falls on all people, irrespective of their faith in him or not [Psalm 104:13-15]. The Bible talks of the rain that falls to refresh the earth and falls on the godly and ungodly alike. Were God to grant the wishes of our world and withdraw his goodness, this world would be a dark and terrible place. Were God to withdraw the “salty” influence of his people over the centuries, so much that is good would not exist [Matthew 5:13].

Remember the story of Abraham and Sodom? God promises not to destroy that wicked city if even ten godly people can be found within it.

Be encouraged brothers and sisters. Your “salty” influence may well be the reason that God has not brought judgment on our nation.

As we’ll see as we go on in the story of Jonah, the saltiness of one man will preserve a whole people.

PRAYER

God and Father of mankind, forgive our foolish ways. Make us the salt of the earth. Amen

6 But you, Lord my God,  brought my life up from the pit.

‘When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, Lord, and my prayer rose to you, to your holy temple.

‘Those who cling to worthless idols turn away from God’s love for them.
But I, with shouts of grateful praise, 
 will sacrifice to you.
What I have vowed I will make good 
 I will say, “Salvation comes from the Lord.”’

[Jonah 2:6-9]

 

Notice the change in Jonah. He’s run from God, and he’s been in his own version of a living hell. He has experienced what he feels as the absence of God. Now he turns to God and gives shouts of thankful praise. The strange thing is that he does this while inside the fish [2:1]. He has been rescued from drowning [2:5-6], but not from the stomach of the fish. It may be that he does that in the confidence that God will finally rescue him completely, or it may be that the rescue from drowning was enough for Jonah to realise that his God was indeed present and active, and that his life was secure in the hands of a merciful God who had forgiven him for his rebellion, evidenced by his action in saving Jonah from drowning.

Jonah does seem to be repentant. In verse 8 he refers to those who cling to worthless idols and by doing so turn away from God’s love for them. Is that not what he has done? He had turned his back on the living God. He had put something before obedience and that is idolatry.

The way back for Jonah was shouts of thankful praise and sacrifice. The blood of an animal was necessary. He makes vows to God. That would involve a life change worthy of the forgiveness and grace already shown to Jonah.

Do you see the parallel with the sailors back in chapter 1? When they see that Jonah’s God is the real deal we’re told they greatly feared the LORD and offered sacrifices and made vows. The way to God is the same for all people. Jonah did not want the Ninevites to receive God’s mercy [4:1-3]. They were not God’s chosen people, yet all people are in need of God’s grace and forgiveness. It comes through blood sacrifice (pointing forward to the Lords death on the cross) and changed lives, showing the reality of repentance and faith. Jonah did not know of the sailor’s acts of faith, but we the readers can see the parallels that Jonah did not. He was as much in need of God’s grace and mercy as those he did not want to preach to.

Jonah was one of God’s people and the sailors weren’t. But in the end coming to God through the sacrifice of Jesus for the first time is the way that we continue to live in him as well. We live by God’s grace.

PRAYER

Gracious Father, help me to live in the light of you glorious grace shown in the life, death and resurrection of your Son.  Amen

10 “And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.” [Jonah 2:10]

If you read Jonah’s prayer while inside the fish, the final deliverance from the fish was the icing on the cake. Jonah was convinced that God had rescued him before he was vomited onto the beach [v6].

Deliverance is not just a physical thing. Jonah has been delivered. He sings for joy. He commits himself to God (makes vows) yet he is still in the fish. I keep coming back to Jesus’ words “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” [Matthew 10:28].

Why are those words so important to me? Because they remind me that my physical well-being is not as big a concern to Jesus as my soul’s health. My present is not as important as my eternity.

A minister friend told me of a member of his congregation who had been told by the medicos that he was terminally ill. His Christian friends rallied round and held prayer meetings for his healing. They claimed his healing in faith. They would not let my friend visit the sick man because my friend entertained the idea that God might not physically heal the man. The sick man’s family and friends did not want any negativity around. My minister friend remarked, “They were treating his death and heaven as though it was second best.”

Paul says, “For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” [Phil 1:21].

It seems that Jonah had grasped this idea. He might not get a rescue from the fish, but now he can die confident that his God had not deserted him, as evidenced by the remarkable miracle of the rescue by the fish.

Many of God’s people are so rocked by traumas of others, or of their own, that they lose confidence that God is actually with them. Jonah came to understand that God had not deserted him.

For us living this side of the cross, the same confirmation of God’s presence is ours.

“But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” [Romans 5:8]


“He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all – how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” [Romans 8:32]

PRAYER

Heavenly Father, give me such confidence in your love and mercy that for me, to die really is gain. Amen

Jonah 1

1 The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.’

But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord.”

[Jonah 1:1-3]

A mate of mine is a Christian biker. He once suggested that I go with him to visit a well-known outlaw bikie club. Call me a coward, but I was not all that keen! Luckily it fell off his radar and he never repeated the offer, or maybe he saw the look of terror in my eyes and decided to have mercy on me. The idea was just to visit and keep a low profile.

Jonah was told to preach against Nineveh, a city renowned for its wickedness. Elsewhere, God spoke to the city of Nineveh through Nahum the prophet:

1 Woe to the city of blood,
    full of lies,
full of plunder,
    never without victims!
The crack of whips,
    the clatter of wheels,
galloping horses
    and jolting chariots!
Charging cavalry,
    flashing swords
    and glittering spears!
Many casualties,
    piles of dead,
bodies without number,
    people stumbling over the corpses—
all because of the wanton lust of a prostitute,
    alluring, the mistress of sorceries,
who enslaved nations by her prostitution
    and peoples by her witchcraft.

[Nahum 3:1-4]

As you can see, God’s offer to Jonah would not have been an attractive one. “Just go and tell those bikers they’re all going to hell, will you?” I can understand Jonah’s reluctance.

The Bible tells us he “ran away from the LORD”. We’re not quite sure where Tarshish was in those days, but probably somewhere in Spain. It’s as though Jonah walked out his front door, looked left towards the city of Nineveh some 1100 kms away, shook his head and went “Nah, not doing that!” and headed right instead.

Did he rationalise his decision to disobey? “I know it looks like God said go to Nineveh but he couldn’t have meant that”. Was he just making a statement by heading in the opposite direction, or did he really think he could physically run away from God? We don’t know, but he would soon realise that you can run but you can’t hide.

King David sang:

Where can I go from your Spirit?
    Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
    if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
    if I settle on the far side of the sea,
10 even there your hand will guide me,
    your right hand will hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
    and the light become night around me,”
12 even the darkness will not be dark to you;
    the night will shine like the day,
    for darkness is as light to you.

[Psalm 139:7-12]

PRAYER

God of all nations, thank you for the promise that you will never leave me nor forsake me. Amen

4 “Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up. All the sailors were afraid and each cried out to his own god. And they threw the cargo into the sea to lighten the ship.” [Jonah 1:4-5]

We see here something of the sovereign rule of God. He planned to rescue the inhabitants of Nineveh. He was going to use human action in his plan, but the human actor wanted nothing of the plan, so God brought circumstances to bear on him. God is not going to force Jonah’s will, but he is going to act on what lies behind Jonah’s will in such a way that Jonah will change his will. Jonah will choose to do God’s bidding because God so influenced things in his sovereign rulership that Jonah would make that decision to obey God, freely. As Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones puts it, “the important factor is not the will itself but that which governs or controls the will.” [Martyn Lloyd-Jones “The Final Perseverance of the Saints”]

Jonah will be given such a view of things by God that what he formerly rejected he will now desire to do, albeit reluctantly.

God sends a great storm. For the sailors, storms were part of life, although this one seems unusually severe because they look for a supernatural cause [v 7]. This is not God carrying out his will by doing something like making the sun go backwards or raising the dead. He uses natural events. Nevertheless, Jonah sees God’s hand in it [v10, 12]. I’m reminded of Joseph’s words to his brothers about his slavery in Egypt, “As for youyou meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” [Genesis 50:20]

It’s a relief to know that God will bring about his purposes, especially when we understand that his will is for our good [Romans 8:28]. We can see him at work in the everyday circumstances of life if we look carefully, and where we can’t see it, we can trust that it is so. There are no accidents in the lives of God’s people. There is no luck. There is only the God who loves us and has called us according to his purposes.

What is happening in your life that God is using for your ultimate good?

PRAYER

Father in Heaven, help me to see you at work in the everyday events of my life and the lives of others. Amen

4 “Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up. All the sailors were afraid and each cried out to his own god. And they threw the cargo into the sea to lighten the ship.” [Jonah 1:4-5]

Have you ever stopped to think how much disruption God caused to bring about the change in Jonah? All that cargo thrown overboard. The boat wrecked. All those livelihoods affected. What other damage did the storm do that we don’t hear of? Seaside houses fallen into the ocean? Fishermen not able to make a catch? Deliveries of goods delayed? There would have been a whole web of consequences of one man’s disobedience, and all to bring God’s mercy to a distant city state.

Disobedience – sin – has consequences far beyond the immediate and the obvious. And yet the promise for all those affected who are God’s people is that everything is designed to work for their good. That is not the case for everyone affected by sin, as it wouldn’t have been the case for everyone affected by Jonah’s disobedience. The promise is only for those who love God and are called by God [Romans 8:28].

For others it may constitute a warning to turn to him [Revelation 9:20; Isaiah 9:13], or a just judgment [Romans 1:28]. However, for God’s people no circumstance is wasted, no life experience is frittered away. All work together into God’s wonderful plan. It’s been said by many that life’s circumstances are like a tapestry. When viewed from behind, it’s a tangled mess of threads with no apparent design. It’s only when you view the tapestry from the other side that you can clearly see the picture. So it is with the life circumstances of God’s people – all being woven together into a thing of beauty.

PRAYER

Merciful ruler, thank you for using all the circumstances of my life to bring about your plans for my good. Help me to trust you.  Amen

Then the sailors said to each other, ‘Come, let us cast lots to find out who is responsible for this calamity.’ They cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah. So they asked him, ‘Tell us, who is responsible for making all this trouble for us? What kind of work do you do? Where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?’

He answered, ‘I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.’ [Jonah 1:7-9]

Jonah is deliberately disobeying the ruler of all, the sea and the earth and heaven, and yet he can say that he worships this God.  Sin and disobedience do not necessarily mean that God turns his back on us, or that we have turned our backs on him. There is a doctrine called “the perseverance of the Saints” which rightly says we can sin and yet remain children of God.

It does not condone sin, far from it, no one who is truly a Christian can ever be complacent about their sin, but the Bible teaches that there is always a battle going on within us between the old nature and the new person we have been made in Christ, and that we will sin [1 John 1:8-9]. But God has called us into his family and his call is effective. It is God who calls us into his family and God who holds us there.

27 My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all[c]; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. 30 I and the Father are one. [John 10:27-30]

The Christian will sin, but the sign that they are really called by God into his family is that they repent. They love God, and really want to live for Christ. That is not possible for the person without the Spirit [Romans 8:6-8].

Jonah is like us. Our sin is running away from obedience to God, but there is always a way back for those who want it, and that desire to come back is a sure sign that we are God’s and the Spirit is within us.

PRAYER

God of Jonah, you are the God of grace and forgiveness. Thank you for not giving up on me. Amen

13 The men did their best to row back to land. But they could not, for the sea grew even wilder than before. 14 Then they cried out to the Lord, ‘Please, Lord, do not let us die for taking this man’s life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, Lord, have done as you pleased.’ 15 Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm. 16 At this the men greatly feared the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to him.” [Jonah 1:13-16]

 

Chapter one is not the end of the book of Jonah, but it could end right here on a very positive note, although not necessarily for Jonah. These sailors, who worshipped their own gods and not the One God [v5], come to see that Jonah’s God is worthy of their worship. Of course, we don’t know what followed for those sailors but the record we have ends their part of the story with them glorifying the God of Jonah and making vows, which, I take it, are promises to honour God in the future.

It’s a deliberate contrast with Jonah’s attitude, which at this point has not been worshipful or repentant. Things will have to get worse before Jonah changes. So, we get a foretaste of what will follow as the story unfolds. The man who is privileged to be part of God’s people dishonours his God while pagan sailors, when they are confronted with the one true God, honour Him.

Of course, Jonah doesn’t see the outcome, he’s afloat in the ocean. It’s an irony that is only strengthened later in the book when the reluctant prophet is confronted with the repentance and faith of a whole city-state. Yet God remains faithful to Jonah. As we’ll see, God is not exactly gentle with Jonah, but it could have been a lot worse.

I’m encouraged by God’s firm but committed interactions with this grumpy, flawed man of God. God uses even Jonah’s flaws to bring about good. That should encourage all of us. God is for us! How do we know? Because we are still God’s even when we fail him. “Nothing can separate us from the love of God.” Even in our times of rebellion [sin] he pursues us and brings us to repentance, as we’ll see later in the book of Jonah.

PRAYER

God of Mercy and Love, thank you for your commitment to me. Please help me to live a life worthy of that. Amen

Thanksgiving

16 “Rejoice always, 17 pray continually, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” [1 Thessalonians 5:16-18]

What does God want from us? Well, along with other things he wants us to always rejoice. “Rejoice always!” It’s not a suggestion. It’s an exhortation, a command even [for the grammarians among us, the word “rejoice” is in the imperative], as are all the three exhortations in this passage.

That may seem a little unrealistic, to rejoice always, but maybe that’s because we have the wrong idea about joy. Rejoicing is the outworking of joy. It is not something that comes from outside us. It may be affected to some degree by what is happening to us, but joy really is the result of how we view the external things that happen to us.

If we consider our circumstances to be the sum of all things, then our emotional state will depend on what is happening right at that moment. Good things will give us joy and bad things will cause us anxiety and pain. However, if our lives are based on things bigger than our circumstances, and if those things are good and positive and life affirming, then joy will work itself out of our hearts despite the immediate circumstances.

Nothing is more life affirming and positive than reminding ourselves of the promises of God. Write out a list of the promises that you rejoice in. Go over it each day. The fact that the Bible commands us to be joyful tells us that we do have some control over our emotions. There are things we can do to help this welling up of joy and two of them are right here in this passage.

This is not a command to pray non-stop but to pray frequently or regularly. It’s a command to be a pray-er. Prayer helps us to keep things in perspective. We step back from our circumstances and put ourselves in the hands of the one who controls all things.

The second thing we can do to keep us rejoicing is “give thanks in all circumstances”. This is not a command to give thanks “for” everything, but “in” everything. It’s counting our blessings. It’s hard to count your blessings and not give thanks, and giving thanks leads inexorably to joy.

Two strategies for rejoicing always – pray and give thanks. It sounds too simple but if we would just do it, even if we don’t feel like it, it will change us. It’s true! We will become a people who rejoice always. Just do it!

PRAYER

Our Father in heaven, help me to be a thanksgiver. May your Spirit keep me focussed on your promises. Amen.

“4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: rejoice!” [Philippians 4:4] 

A member of our church wrote last week in our annual thanksgiving service about her husband’s growing Alzheimers, “During these past few months … I have become so grateful for the wonderful ways Our Father has, and continues to bless me with strength, with courage, with patience as He carries me through each moment with just enough Grace for my needs. I am grateful for the wonderful ways He has shown me His love and stirred in me a deep yearning to know Him more, to love Him more and to serve Him more … however that looks, in all areas of my life.”

Another person shared,

“God has constantly been there during my time of extreme grief to remind me he is taking care of business. Just when I think it is all too much or I don’t know how to take the next step he takes care of it in ways that you could not predict. He has consistently taken care of things that you would think are unimportant in the scheme of things and yet He has made sure they happen for me.”

That is what rejoicing in the Lord looks like. It’s having a heavenly focus. It’s resting in and celebrating the love and security of being a child of God despite what is going on in our lives.

James reminds us,

“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.” [ James 1:2-3]

So there is a sense that we can even give God thanks for the miserable things that happen because we know that He is bringing about good for us. However, God is never the source of evil even if he uses it for his purposes. It’s like death – death is an enemy, part of the evil that has come upon the world [1 Cor 15:56], and yet God uses death to bring us into heaven [Psalm 116:15].

It is also good to pray for joy, as did Saint Paul,

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in Him.” [Romans 15:13]

As with all the Bible’s injunctions, the fruit of faith, including joy, is ours to work at but also God’s to give.

PRAYER

Father, give me joy in believing. Amen

“21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.” [Romans 1:21]

This is an interesting verse because it comes in the middle of Paul’s discussion of God’s hatred of sin and in some senses is a summary of mankind’s wrongful treatment of God. They neither glorify God as God nor give Him thanks. Thanking God is central to our relationship with Him, and our failure to thank God is one of the foundations of our sinfulness. Failure to thank God is a denial that he is ruler, and that every good and perfect gift is from Him [James 1:17]. It is a denial of his grace towards us.

There really is no relationship, (or, at the best, it is an extremely poor relationship), where there is no acknowledgement of one person’s grace towards another. We know that from our own experience. To keep giving and receive no acknowledgement is a very hard relationship to maintain.

We are a people of thanks and praise. They are the hallmark of the Christian just as much as our love. Are they a hallmark of your life?

So what is it that prevents our joy?

  • Losing sight of the spiritual realities that are ours. Paul says, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” [Phil 1:21] We are in a win-win situation.
  • Failing to ask God for his Joy [Rom 15:13]
  • Not fixing our minds, meditating, on the things of God [Matthew 6:28-34]
  • Not counting our blessings and thanking God for them

Why not start and end each day this week with counting your blessings and giving thanks to God for them? If it’s not your practice, consider it an experiment and see if it doesn’t bring a lightness to your spirit.

PRAYER

God and Father of mankind, I want to be a person characterised by joy. Please bring this about in me. Amen

“Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” [Nehemiah 8:10]

The returned children of Israel had completed the wall around Jerusalem and the people met to celebrate. It had been over 70 years since their exile from their homeland. Ezra the priest brought out the Book of the Law and read it to the gathering, and the people wept [8:9].

They weren’t weeping with joy, because Nehemiah’s words preclude that. They were weeping in sadness. We’re not told why but the law was prescriptive. It clearly set out God’s requirements of his people, and was also condemnatory of those who did not obey it. It set out a whole way of life for God’s people, regulating even everyday activities.

We can see from reading the books of Ezra and Nehemiah that the nation had not been adhering to the law. Maybe this was why they wept. Whatever the reason, Nehemiah says “the joy of the LORD is your strength”. What a mighty thing to say!

The joy of the LORD is their strength in the following ways:

  • Their delight in God is the sign that they are God’s people. That is their strength. They worship the One and Only God and he is their shield and defender.
  • Their joy in God is like a barrier that protects them. Real joy in the Lord is a Teflon coating. That is not the case with joy that depends on life going well. It’s like Hezekiah’s tunnel. The city of Jerusalem had a weakness when attacked. Its permanent water supply, running from the Gihon Spring, ran outside the city walls. Hezekiah had a tunnel built that kept the whole watercourse inside the city walls. No attack from outside could disrupt the water coming from the spring. Likewise, while ever our joy is from a source within us, it cannot be disrupted. I’m reminded of Jesus’ words about the water he would give, the living water, being a spring in us welling up to eternal life.

PRAYER

Almighty God, be our joy. By your Spirit keep us safe in your love and peace. Amen

Today, something a little different to finish off our focus on thanksgiving. Pray through Psalm 19, making each line your own prayer.

For the director of music. A psalm of David.

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice[
b] goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.
In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun.
    It is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber,
like a champion rejoicing to run his course.
It rises at one end of the heavens
and makes its circuit to the other;
nothing is deprived of its warmth.

The law of the Lord is perfect,
refreshing the soul.
The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy,
making wise the simple.
The precepts of the Lord are right,
giving joy to the heart.
The commands of the Lord are radiant,
giving light to the eyes.

9 The fear of the Lord is pure,
enduring forever.
The decrees of the Lord are firm,
and all of them are righteous.

10 They are more precious than gold,
than much pure gold;
they are sweeter than honey,
than honey from the honeycomb.
11 By them your servant is warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.
12 But who can discern their own errors?
Forgive my hidden faults.
13 Keep your servant also from wilful sins;
may they not rule over me.
Then I will be blameless,
innocent of great transgression.

14 May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart
be pleasing in your sight,
Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.

[Psalm 19]

Spiritual Warfare

10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on the full armour of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” [Ephesians 6:10-12]

John White in his book “The Fight” makes the point that we make one of two mistakes when it comes to the devil: we either take him too lightly or we take him too seriously. Some people see evil spirits behind every incident in life. I knew a woman who was having trouble in her studies and blamed it on a demon of laziness! Maybe, but I confess I had my doubts.

However, in my circles the more obvious problem seems to be not giving the evil one enough credence. Paul seems to be saying that the real battle is not with the physical world but the spiritual realities that might lie behind the events in the physical world. There are evil forces out to destroy our faith, or at least cause problems in our relationship with God, and they are purposeful.

The devil is described as a “schemer” in this passage. He has a plan, a strategy designed to make you fall. Have you ever thought about how he might do that? In what areas of your life are you vulnerable? If he was to design a plan to bring about your fall from the faith, or to bring about you causing grief to the Holy Spirit, where would he attack you? Pride? Lust? Wealth? Anger? Greed?

He probably won’t make his attack obvious. He will try and sneak in under our defences and get a foothold, after all he is the “Father of lies.” [John 8:44] Deception is his middle name. He will sell us the lie that God does not have our best interests at heart and that our way is best.

It’s a sobering thought but no one involved in a battle can afford to ignore it. Where are the weak spots in our defences?

PRAYER

Dear God, please fill my heart with a dread of grieving you. Amen

13 Therefore put on the full armour of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14 Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15 and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. [Eph 6:13-17]

Yesterday we looked at the fact that we are indeed in a spiritual war, that we need to be aware of the danger we are in, and what the weaknesses in our defences might be.

Paul then goes on to talk about those defences and how we strengthen them. He exhorts us to put on the full armour of God. It’s not good just getting some of it in place. We need the full armour. Notice too, that it is God’s armour. He provides it and it’s his armour. It would be foolish to ignore His help.

We are to put on truth like a soldier’s belt. Such a belt did more than hold pants up. It also protected the region below the waist with thick leather strips that hung down.

Is Paul referring to the truth about God and the gospel, or about our being honest as people?  We can’t be sure, but both are helpful. The Bible gives us the truth about our world and human beings, and so helps us to understand the times we live in and the circumstances of life. We get a true view of our world and where we stand in it, and it’s a very different take on things than our culture has. The truth is that we are in desperate need of rescue and redemption.

As well as that, as we live as people of integrity and honesty, we don’t give the evil one a foothold from which to bring us down. One dishonesty leads to another, like one breach of a diet leads to another. This doesn’t just affect us, weakening our faith and our prayers, but it affects the integrity of the good news. Many a believer has destroyed his or her witness by hypocrisy or some dishonesty.

If you’ve been prone to dishonesty make today the beginning of a new you. It might cost a lot, but not as much as continuing in dishonesty.

“Put on the breastplate of righteousness,” he says. This could be reference to the righteousness that God gives us, but in context it seems more likely that it’s a reference to our godliness. In chapter 4 Paul has described what it looks like to be a child of the light. The more we grow in Christlikeness the harder it will be for the devil to trip us up. It just makes logical sense that when a godly character becomes more and more part of us we will be less susceptible to sin.

PRAYER

God of purity and righteousness, make me like you; true and righteous. Amen.

13 Therefore put on the full armour of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14 Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15 and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. [Eph 6:13-17]

The next piece of defensive armour is for our feet. They are to be fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. Readiness for what? Well, Paul has told us of the need to stand firm (v11, 13, 13, 14). So, the readiness is to stand against the devil and the evil powers that want to damage us. It reminds me of Peter’s words, Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” [I Peter 5:8] 

We need to be ready for the attacks that will come. And it’s the gospel of peace that gives us this preparedness. How does that work? The gospel, the good news that through Jesus’ death we now have peace with God, gives us the assurance that no matter what the evil one whispers in our ears about his way being the real way to life, the gospel is the real treasure. Our adoption into the family of God gives us a foundation that enables us to live for God’s glory. We need nothing else.

Paul then goes on to the shield of faith. Faith in God is, at its basic level, faith in the promises of God. He has made promises and it’s those promises that give us the confidence to stand against all that the devil would throw against us.

“All things work together for good for those who love God and have been called according to his purposes.” [Romans 8:28] Even in the depths of life’s big disasters we have that to hold onto. God will bring good out of it.

“Whoever has the Son has life.” [1 John 5:12] Our eternal future is secure.

“(God) has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms.” [Ephesians 1:3] We have all we need for a life of meaning and purpose.

“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” [Romans 8:1] No matter what the evil one whispers in our ears we are forgiven and righteous in God’s eyes. We can stand firm against any accusation of our unacceptability to God.

PRAYER

Lord and Father, keep me from the evil one and from falling for his traps. Amen

13 Therefore put on the full armour of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14 Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15 and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. [Eph 6:13-17]

The helmet of Salvation. How does our salvation protect us from the evil one? It means that we need not fear him. It means that his seductive suggestions whispered into our ears no longer have the attraction they once did. The power of the evil one lies a great deal in his assertions that God’s ways are not what is best for us, but the Kingdom of God is of greater worth than anything the world of the dark forces can offer.

Jesus told a parable about a farmer finding a treasure in a field, going off and selling all he had in order to raise the money to buy the field. In fact, Jesus says “In his joy” he went and sold all he had and bought the field.” He had nothing that compared with the value of the treasure. Jesus says the kingdom of God is like that.

King David wrote,

“You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound.” [Psalm 4:7]

And the Apostle Peter wrote

Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. [1 Peter 1:8-9]

If that is not your experience, then you need to pray for the truth of your salvation to fill your heart.

He then talks of the sword of the Spirit, the word of God. It is God’s word that the Holy Spirit uses to defeat the evil powers. [Romans 1:16] Did you realise that as you speak the Word the Holy Spirit uses it to cut through and accomplish God’s will? Your own words do not have that power of God’s words. Your own wisdom and arguments will not have the power that God’s reasoning does. We just need to make sure our words align with God’s. Do they? Or do we water down the word, turn it to agree with our own philosophy, weaken it to make it more acceptable?

PRAYER

Heavenly Father, give me all joy in believing. Give me a passion to know your word. Amen

“18 And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. 19 Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.”   [Eph 6:18-20]

Paul writes of the importance of prayer. In the battle this is the line of communication from the front to the command centre. It is vital. The communication lines are always one of the targets in any battle. Knock out the communications and the battle is half won. We cannot afford to give up the spiritual discipline of prayer. We know the importance of prayer, but doing it is the hard part. It’s those whispers from the evil one, “You’re too busy”, “God will do what he wants anyway”, “It never works”, that take their toll. It’s here that the sword of the Spirit is so important. God has said through the Apostle John

14 This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.” [1 John 5:14] 

And from the Old Testament

14…if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” [2 Chronicles 7:14]

And if we don’t know what to pray, we always have Jesus’ model in what we call the Lord’s Prayer. The disciples didn’t know how to pray and asked Jesus to teach them, and that is what he gave them.

Paul exhorts us to be alert to pray, and not just for ourselves, but for all God’s people. I gather that means looking out for instances and situations where we’d love God to act and then praying about it. We are armed with prayer and we’re wanting to use it, so we are on the lookout for opportunities. I confess as I write this it does not describe me, but I want it to.

PRAYER

Lord and Father of mankind, make me want to be a pray-er. Amen

Life Changing: Sharing our Faith

35 Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. 38 Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” [Matthew 9:35-38]

Jesus went through all the towns and villages. The Jewish historian, Josephus, tells us that there were over 204 towns and villages in Galilee at that time. That is quite a commitment!

What was it that motivated Jesus to send out his disciples to spread the good news?

It was his compassion!

The Greek word for “compassion” used here is the strongest word in the language for “compassionate pity”. It comes from the word for “the bowels”, and it refers to the way that real powerful compassion churns up your stomach.

That is how Jesus felt. Moved to the depths of his being over people’s lostness. Churned up inside.

You hear sometimes churches that focus on evangelism getting criticised even by their own members because they focus too much on reaching out and not enough on looking after the members, and yet when you look at where the ministry teams spend their time and energy and where the church finances go, I’d be surprised if you didn’t find that about 90% of it is tied up with looking after the members. Church is for members, small groups are for members, pastoral care is mostly for members and loads of ministries are focussed on members.

And sometimes you hear of people leaving those churches because the church doesn’t meet their needs!

Jesus’ focus was on reaching the lost. That is why he came.

“For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” [Luke 19:10]

Why? Why spend his life in spreading the good news and then accomplishing it in his death and resurrection? Even his healings, a demonstration of love in themselves, were to enhance the message of the good news. [Matthew 11:20-23]

Why not just make it what he did in his spare time? He did it because the alternative to the good news was so dire.

There is a two-fold message of the good news. It is good news because it brings life and hope and fellowship with God. It is also good news because it spares us the judgment of God.

PRAYER

Lord God, Creator of all people, help us to love the lost and fill us with the urgency of Jesus to share the good news. Amen

35 Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. 38 Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” [Matthew 9:35-38]

Jesus looked at the crowds and what did he see? People harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. He saw people differently to us. He sees beneath the veneer. He sees people in their need and their lostness. He knows that the self-confident and arrogant person can be hiding a deep sense of inferiority.  He sees the angry person as someone who is hurting and using their anger to protect themselves. He sees the promiscuous person and sees their deep need to feel loved.  He sees behind the rough exterior to the heart that has been hurt so much. He sees the pain of the abused and hurting behind their protective image. He sees the sense of guilt that drives people to be so agreeable.

Jesus told a story in Matthew 18 about a shepherd who lost one of his 100 sheep. What does he do? He leaves the 99 who are OK and goes looking for the lost sheep. The lost sheep is the priority. And Jesus says that when the shepherd finds the sheep he rejoices. And Jesus sums it up by saying:

7I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who do not need to repent.” Matthew 18:10-14]

Do you see what Jesus is saying there? We’re OK. We’re the 99 in the sheep-pen. We’re on our way to heaven. We shouldn’t be on about looking after ourselves – we are on a rescue mission. Sure, we need to love each other and build each other up and help each other, but for what purpose? So that we can then reach out to the lost.

That was Jesus’ mission in this life. That was his passion! He loves the lost. That is God’s mission through the whole of history written for us in the Bible.  It’s the church’s mission, and it’s our mission.

PRAYER

Lord God and Saviour, give me eyes to see people in all their lostness and the glory of what they could be. Amen

35 Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. 38 Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” [Matthew 9:35-38]

Jesus looks out on the crowd and he says to his disciples, “the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.”

There are men and women ready to enter the kingdom but there is no one to tell them the good news.

No one to tell them how to get into the kingdom. No one to tell them that there is even a kingdom and a shepherd of their souls.

No one to speak tenderly to them of God’s love and grace and to live it out before their eyes.

It wouldn’t be so bad if people didn’t want to hear about Jesus, or if they shut their ears up to the good news. And that certainly is the case with lots of people, maybe even the majority of people, but Jesus is saying that is not the case with everyone. The harvest is plentiful. And things are no different today.

Then Jesus says to his disciples, “Ask the lord of the harvest to send out workers into his harvest field.”

Look at that verse! It’s God’s harvest field! He’s been getting the crop ready. There are people waiting to hear the good news. The Holy Spirit has been working on them and getting them ready. In John 16 Jesus tells us that part of the Holy Spirit’s job is to “convict the world of sin and righteousness and judgment.” The Holy Spirit has been active out there amongst the men and women and children of Sydney.

Ask God to send out messengers of the gospel.

And notice how Jesus begins to answer his own prayer? He sends out his disciples to heal and exorcise and proclaim the good news.

Now some are gifted in evangelism, but if we truly see the lost as Jesus sees them and the consequences of missing out on His rescue, we will all be taking every opportunity to offer people what they really need – the good news.

PRAYER

Father, please help me to take all the opportunities you bring my way to reach out in love with the good news. Amen

Life Changing: Spiritual Guidance

12 For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. 13 Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account. [Hebrews 4:12-13]

Are you struck, as I am, by the strength of these words?  “Sharper than any double-edged sword.” I know that creation came into being with a word [Genesis 1], and that when God speaks things happen. I love, for instance, the words of Psalm 29,

4 “The voice of the Lord is powerful;
    the voice of the Lord is majestic.
The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars;
    the Lord breaks in pieces the cedars of Lebanon.” [Psalm 29:3-5]

We acknowledge that when God speaks his words have ultimate power. We read of people in the scriptures trembling in fear when God speaks out loud, but we don’t always associate that power with the written word of God. Some people even want to drive a wedge between the written word and God’s actual voice. You might have heard the accusation of “bibliolatry” (worshipping the Bible rather than God), levelled at those who presumably have too high a view of the Bible.

We need to tread carefully here. It is God we worship and to worship anything or anyone else is indeed idolatry. Yet we should not divorce God from his words. Hebrews 3:7-9 points out, the very words of Psalm 95, which the writer quotes, are the words of the Holy Spirit Himself. Jesus quotes Psalm 110 and says the same thing. The Apostle Peter says that Scripture was men moved by the Holy Spirit speaking from God, and Paul says that all Scripture is breathed out by God. Peter refers to Paul’s writings as scripture. [2 Peter 3:14-16]

Our difficulty is one of immediacy. We read in the Bible that we’re to do good to those who hate us (Matthew 5:44)  but I suspect it carries far less weight than if God were to speak in an audible voice that we should do good to that person X who hates us. Why is that? Could it be that we just don’t submit to the authority of God’s word in the Bible? When we read the words “do good to those who hate you” we don’t read it as God speaking to us today in our current circumstances, so we don’t examine our hearts to see how it applies. Could it be as simple as that?

When we read the word of God, do we ask Him to make it clear to our lives? Do we read really expecting God to speak?

PRAYER

Lord God, give me a heart ready and willing to listen when you speak. Amen

Yesterday we looked at how God guides through his word in the Scriptures. There is another way that God guides and that is, as Stefan put in his sermon last weekend, from behind the scenes.

The Bible tells us that God “works all things in conformity with the purpose of His will.” [Eph 1:11] He just might not let us in on the details of his plans at times. That doesn’t mean that he’s not guiding us, he is.

So in Isaiah 10 God says of Assyria

“Woe to Assyria, the rod of My anger
And the staff in whose hand is My indignation.
I will send him against an ungodly nation…

7Yet he does not mean so,
Nor does his heart think so”. [Is 10:5 & 7]

That is, God sends Assyria to do his bidding even though that nation doesn’t realise it. Assyria has its own reasons for doing things, but God brings about his purposes.

God will do what he pleases. [Psalm 115:3]

So what does this tell us about getting guidance from God? Well, we pray. We search the scriptures and search our hearts in the light of them. We then make the best decision possible and trust that God will bring about his purposes. He will put us where he wants us.

Of course, he may do that, letting us in on the process in ways other than directly applying the word of God.

Much is made of what some call “the promptings of the Spirit.”  This refers to those times when maybe you get an inner compulsion to do something and later find, when you do it, that God was in it. Or maybe the Spirit gets your attention through a dream, or through what someone says. It’s wise to examine these promptings in light of two facts:

  • The heart is deceitful and desperately wicked [Jer 17:9]. My inner promptings may well be of the Spirit, but they may not be
  • The Holy Spirit will not speak contrary to the scriptures, so my promptings must align with the Bible’s teachings

I’m sure we’ve all heard people justify actions the Bible prohibits because God told them it was the thing to do. However, it’s wise not to discount such promptings either. What joy we can miss in seeing God act through us if we ignore those opportunities!

The whole earth is filled with the glory of God and every action and situation is infused with opportunity to serve Him and Glorify Him. That is living! If only we could see each opportunity, each decision in this light!

PRAYER

My God and father, give me eyes to see each moment as an opportunity to honour you.  Amen

9Two are better than one,
    because they have a good return for their labour:
10 If either of them falls down,
    one can help the other up.
But pity anyone who falls
    and has no one to help them up.
11 Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm.
    But how can one keep warm alone?
12 Though one may be overpowered,
    two can defend themselves.
A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.  [Ecc 4:9-12]

It is no mistake on God’s part that he puts us into church families. The “one-another” passages in the Bible are everywhere.  “Love one another”, “bear one another’s burdens”, “forgive one another”, “be devoted to one another”, “honour one another” and on it goes.

Romans 12 tells us that we need each other, that without each other we are crippled. It’s a far cry from our individualistic culture where we are to be true to ourselves before everything else, rather than true to God.

And so it is in this matter of spiritual guidance. There is power in family. God never intended us to be an island. Jesus said,

19 “Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.” [Matthew 18:19]

There is something in being together that adds power.

And Paul, the great church planter, habitually appointed elders in each church he planted. The elder was just that, an older person. The idea was the elders were people of wisdom and knowledge of God. It was from the elders that the Bible teachers came and those who led the church. [1 Tim 5:17]

So we find those within the Christian family who are wise, have life experience and who know the Lord and we ask them to help us in this matter of guidance.

I can still remember clearly (though it was 40 years ago), the wisdom of two men of God who helped me make some important decisions with their good advice, which I still use today in making decisions.

We should all have one or two people we can go to help us in our decision making. Just this week I sat with a good friend who did little more than listen and help me work through an issue. What a blessing!

Make use of this gift of being in a church.

PRAYER

Lord help me to value the gift of church family. Amen

18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”  [Matthew 28:19-20]

Yesterday we looked at guidance in terms of decision-making. However “spiritual direction” as a classical spiritual discipline is more than getting help making decisions. It is about a special relationship with another who helps us to grow as a disciple of Jesus. Growing as a disciple of Jesus is not an optional extra but at the very heart of faith. We are saved for a life of good works. (Eph 2:8-10)

There are a number of terms that describe this relationship – mentoring, discipling, coaching, and guiding to name a few, and although each is technically different, they are all ways of getting help in growing in our faith.

Your guide might include someone who you will confess to. James says,

16 “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.”  [James 5:16]

Many have found it helpful to have that mentor to whom they can tell their struggles and who will be able to pray for them about specific things. The passage from James intimates that there are some things we cannot do alone and that we need the help and prayers of others with. Do you believe that?

The guide is someone who knows the Lord, knows his word, has life wisdom and is known for their godly character. This form of spiritual guidance can be a formal arrangement and for a limited time. So, you ask someone to help you work through some issues or weaknesses or questions you might have.

It might also be less formal and more like a friendship where you bring things up from time to time. However in this informal arrangement it’s all too easy to do no real discipling. I have a friend who asks each time we meet about my family, my walk with God, my church life, my personal life and asks me what God is teaching me. That structure forms the first part of our get-togethers and helps to get down to the nitty gritty. It was a bit stilted the first few times but now is just part of what we do when we meet.

If you don’t have such a person in your life you may missing out. Ask God to help you find such a person, then ask the person you think would be best for you. Your church can also help you find someone.

PRAYER

My God and my Creator, please help me to grow as your child. Help me to be a blessing to others. Amen

5“All of you, clothe yourselves with humility towards one another, because,

‘God opposes the proud
    but shows favour to the humble.’

Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.” [1 Peter 5:5-6]

Perhaps the biggest problem with the whole issue of spiritual guidance is that we don’t like to idea of submission, either to some of the express words of God or to someone who is over us in the Lord, or even to a spiritual guide. It can feel like an admission of weakness or an unjust imposition. In the past the spiritual guide was classically called “a spiritual director” and they directed. They would tell you what to do and you would do it. Good or bad, that does not wash today because as a culture we are too averse to any form of direction.

Humility is essential to all that we’ve said about spiritual guidance this week.

Even as we read the Bible we are prone to think “I know it says that but…”.  Humility is not really something you have but rather something you display in your relationships. The humility the Bible speaks of is far more than being self-deprecating. In fact, we are encouraged by the Bible to have a right view of ourselves. [Romans 12:3]

It is so hard to see humility as a good thing when we parade pride as a valued quality. In a world where we are encouraged to be proud of ourselves and of our achievements it is hard to see humility as anything other than something to be done away with.  Yet humility comes up again and again in the Scriptures, and not just humility towards God but towards others.

“All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, “God opposes the proud but shows favour to the humble.” [1 Peter 5:5] 

Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. [Phil 2:3]

Do you read that and find yourself thinking “Yes, but…” I do. And there are other considerations and nuances to these directions, but the “yes, but” is where we go first, looking for a way around the teaching. It’s a sign of our fallenness that we so hedge around the words of scripture that they become meaningless.

PRAYER

Lord, give me aright view of myself and teach me, in a healthy way, to submit myself to you and to others in love and humility. Amen

Life Changing: Confession and Self-Examination

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.1 My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.

John here is writing to believers – he addresses his hearers as “My dear children.” [2:1] As believers we know that we are forgiven and adopted into God’s family. As Paul puts it in Romans 8, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,”. So if Jesus is our Lord and saviour, why does John here tell his readers to confess their sins?

The answer is that, although our sin does not bring us back under condemnation, it still has an effect. John Piper says “Though it does not change our status as saved and free from eternal condemnation, sin hinders a Christian’s current relationship with God.”

How is our relationship with God hindered?

James says 16 Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.”

He tells the believers to confess their sins so that they may be healed. Sin in the believer can either cause illness or it hinders prayer for healing.

In Ephesians Paul tells us that we can grieve the Holy Spirit [Eph 4:30] by our sin.

Save In 1 Peter the Apostle tells husband to treat their wives well or their prayers will be hindered.

These three instances hint at a much wider implication – that of our sin causing damage to our wider relationship with God.

Why confess our sin? Because that is how all good relationships work – when we wrong someone we apologise and change. Why should our relationship with God be any different? All sin is offensive to God. David wrote Psalm 51 after his sins surrounding Bathsheba and there he states that his sin against Bathsheba and Uriah her husband, were sins against God. In fact his sin against God was so big that David sees his terrible wrongs done to Bathsheba and Uriah as almost insignificant in comparison – he says to God “Against you and you only have I sinned.”

Make it a regular part of your time with God to spend part of it in confession.

PRAYER

Spend some time going back over the events of the week and confessing your wrongs. Then thanks God for his great mercy and forgiveness.

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us. 2 My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world. [1 John 1:8 – 2:2]

We’ve been looking at the need to confess our sins to God, but James tells us that we might need to confess to others as well.

“16 Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.”  [James 5:16]

Surely all we need to do is to confess our sins to God! That is true but in Christian community there is the need for truth and openness in our dealings with each other. John Piper says of this passage in James, “I take this to mean simply that in the normal life of the Christian, honesty and truthfulness and purity of heart involve continual admission and confession of sin to appropriate people in our lives.” [John Piper – Desiring God]

Furthermore, sin can have community ramifications. If the church really is the body of Christ then just as my failure to meet and contribute to the body weakens the whole body, [“the eye cannot say to the hand ‘I don’t need you.’” 1 Cor 12]  so my sin, even private, can affect the whole body. There may well be the need to confess to the body, or one or two who may represent the body for this purpose.

If sin has got a hold on you take it to a good faithful man or woman of God whom you trust and confess to them. Ask them to pray for you – as James tells us the prayer of a righteous person is effective. In our fight against sin and the evil one we need all the help we can get! And that is another benefit to confessing our sins to someone.

PRAYER

Father in Heaven, help me to see my sin aright. Thank you for the wonderful gift of a fresh start each day. Amen

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us. 2 My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world. [1 John1:8 – 2:2]

Sin does not just have consequences that are immediate and obvious, but it can cause damage to our very souls.

David writes about the need to confess in Psalm 32:

“When I kept silent,
    my bones wasted away
    through my groaning all day long.
For day and night
    your hand was heavy on me;
my strength was sapped
    as in the heat of summer.

Then I acknowledged my sin to you
    and did not cover up my iniquity.
I said, “I will confess
    my transgressions to the Lord.”
And you forgave
    the guilt of my sin.”  [Psalm 32:3-5]

Persistent sin can affect our health and our effectiveness in Christian ministry. That is not to say illness is always caused by sin because that is not what the Bible says. Nevertheless, it would do us good to examine our hearts and our actions and confess our sins and failures. Hebrews 12 tells us that God disciplines his children and that discipline will include hardships of all sorts, including illness.

It is good news, is it not, that my effectiveness in Christian ministry and my effectiveness in prayer may be enhanced if I confess my sin and determine with the help of the Holy Spirit to turn away from it. And as we saw in yesterday’s devotion, others may be able to help us in that.

PRAYER

God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, give me a hatred of sin and a readiness to confess an turn away from it. Give me the joy of your salvation. Amen

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us. 2 My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world. [1 John 1:8 – 2:2]

Notice how John ends this section, with Jesus being our advocate with the Father. That is how our sin is dealt with. The wording here does not seem to be harking back to an historic, once-and-for-all advocacy, but rather to an ongoing intercession on our behalf. This is supported by the writer to the Hebrews:

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]

Isn’t that something! Jesus is constantly praying to the Father for us. He is doing that until we go to be with Him. He’s praying for those “who come to God through Him.” Someone might ask “Does this not take away our assurance – if Jesus needs to keep interceding for us as we draw near to God? What if we don’t keep drawing near to God?” Well, Hebrews 13:21 says that God works in us what is pleasing in his sight through Jesus, so he is working in us to draw us near to him. Our constantly drawing near to God is the condition of Christ’s intercession on our behalf, and Jesus Himself works that drawing in us.

So our ongoing confession of sin is an indication that we are indeed drawing near to God, that we are indeed saved and living in the light, as John puts it in 1 John 1.

Can you see how the message about self-examination and confession is a positive message? As we carry out these disciplines it is proof that we belong to God; that Jesus has indeed saved us. This Jesus, our Saviour and friend, constantly intercedes for us with the Father.

What a mighty Saviour! What a mighty God who brought it all about! What a mighty Spirit who works in us to do God’s will!

PRAYER

Almighty God, thank you for your wonderful plan carried out by our Lord Jesus and for his constant prayer for us.  Amen.

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us. 2 My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world. [1 John 1:8 – 2:2]

See how John ends this section – with the wonderful good news: Jesus is our atoning sacrifice. There is much discussion in some circles about “atoning sacrifice”.

For the explanation of the meaning we are helped by Romans chapter 3. Leading up to chapter 3 we find [Romans 1:18] that God’s wrath against ungodliness is being revealed from heaven. Paul goes on in chapter 3 to prove that no one is innocent. So chapter 3:21-26 sets out to deal with the problem of God’s wrath at sin – our sin, the sin of every human being.

The word translated “atoning sacrifice” is a reference to “The Mercy Seat” in the tabernacle, the moving temple/tent used before the temple was built. Paul then is saying that “Jesus is the ultimate mercy seat.” [Don Carson in “The Glory of the Atonement”] In other words, Jesus is the sacrifice that makes God well-disposed towards us. God did this “in order to demonstrate his justice” [Romans 3:26]. That is Jesus’ shed blood as the sacrifice for sin satisfies God’s justice.

Self-examination should lead to confession and repentance, the latter being a gift from God and therefore further proof of our being God’s children.

So Paul says to Timothy:

“Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth,” [2 Timothy 2:25] 

The same thing is said in Acts 5 where Peter says of Jesus:

31 “God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Saviour that he might bring Israel to repentance and forgive their sins.” [Acts 5:31]

The Spiritual disciplines of self-examination and confession are not about wallowing in negativity but rather rejoicing in the truth that we are indeed children of God. The fact that we carry out these things is proof of our adoption. They are how we live as children of God. What a great God for allowing us these wonderful means of drawing close to Him.

PRAYER

Father of all, thank you for the gift of repentance and the means to draw close to you. Amen

Life Changing: Service and Submission

“Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” [Ephesians 5:21]

As Stefan said on the weekend, this part of the Bible’s teaching is perhaps the most counter-cultural of all the spiritual disciplines. I was watching some of the anti-govt protests in America and there were signs saying things like, “No one has the right to tell us what to do!” If there’s a phrase that sums up our idea of freedom this is it. As we used to say when we were kids, “You’re not to the boss of me.”

In nearly all discussion about submission the underlying assumption is that it’s being forced upon us. The point with submission as the Bible speaks about it is that it’s not to be taken but willingly given.
Submission means “yielding to a superior force or to the will or authority of another person.” But in the Bible we are to submit even to those who have no authority over us.

So what does God mean here when he says through the Apostle Paul, “Submit to one another.”? It seems pretty clear, but as I try to work out in practice what it means I find myself wanting to say “Yes, but…” and I hedge it around with so many exceptions that I empty the words of any meaning.

I’m OK about submitting to God, at least in theory, but it’s not so easy in practice.
What does that mean, for instance, in terms of what I watch on TV or the internet, when God says to fill my mind with things that are wholesome and pure? What does it mean in terms of that person I can’t get along with, or the person who has wronged me? What does submission to God look like at that point when he says “Do good to those who mistreat you”?
Can you see what I’m getting at? I really don’t want to submit, even to God at many points. How am I ever going to submit to others?

In what areas of your life are you having difficulty submitting to God? Are there parts of the Bible you wish weren’t there because they are so “in your face”?

Our submission to God is to be given willingly.

PRAYER
Lord make me willing to submit to you and help me to see where I am not submitting. Amen

Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” [Ephesians 5:21]

It’s just the wrong word, isn’t it – “submit”.  I’d much prefer “love”, “care for”, “forgive” … almost anything else really. The idea of submitting to anyone is fraught with problems, but that is the word that Paul uses. There is no getting around it.

The trouble is that people misuse power. We do well to be careful.

Submitting to one another does not mean that we should put up with abuse. Heaven forbid! This is not a warrant for anyone to stay in an abusive relationship, for instance. That would be submitting to something that is contrary to God’s will. God hates all forms of abuse and staying in an abusive relationship is not loving to the other person – it merely enables them to continue in wrongdoing.

Yesterday I said that we may need to submit to those who have no authority over us. I need to explain that.  The passage is not saying that every single person should submit to every other person by obeying them, because it later goes on to talk of children obeying their parents, for instance. Paul goes on in the passage to describe the different ways we submit in family and society. So parents “submit” to their children by leading and guiding and disciplining. Parents “submit” to the needs of their children. We may be straying into the area of service at this point but the two are very closely linked.

John Piper puts it like this “Submitting yourself to someone means not rebelling with a sense of superiority or a feeling that you are too good to stoop and help when someone puts upon you for service. It’s what Paul means when he says in Ephesians 4:1–2, “Lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called in all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love.” And in Romans 15:2, “Let each of us please his neighbour for his good, to edify him.” And Romans 12:10, “Outdo one another in showing honour.” And Philippians 2:3, “Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in lowliness count each other better than yourselves.” [John Piper]

Submission is a form of service, the other of the two spiritual disciplines we’ve been looking at this week.

It’s about humility; putting others’ will above our own. Let’s be honest – most battles of the will are not about truth or right and wrong. If they were, we’d have no trouble; we’d do what God says to do. No, most of our problem with submission is that we want what is best for us, not others, or we want things done our way.

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” [Philippians 2:3-4]

PRAYER

Lord God, give me a humble spirit that want what is best for others. Amen

Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” [Ephesians 5:21]

Today I’d like to draw your attention to how we are to submit to others. “Out of reverence for Christ.”, Paul says. This also applies to our service of others.

Our motivation to submit to others and to serve them is far bigger than our respect or love for them. That is a good thing because it is not always easy to respect or love others. If my service of others depended on those things, then it would be patchy at best. No, we act out of reverence for Christ.

Our service could be motivated by all sorts of things – compassion, duty, compulsion, or even guilt. But just as we’re called to do all things for the glory of God, so Paul tells us that we submit out of reverence for Christ and we serve for the same reason. Peter says:

“If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.” [1 Peter 4:11]

And Jesus, after washing his disciples’ feet, said to them:

“Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” [John 13:12-14]

As we serve, as we submit, it honours our Lord. Our submission and our service may not be appreciated by those we serve or submit to, but it brings honour to Jesus as we do those things to honour him. It is him we are serving as we do these things. We are bringing him praise and honour. We are reverencing him – we are showing that he is indeed our Lord and Master and that he is worth whatever cost our submission may bring in terms of humility.

PRAYER

Lord give me a heart that wants first and foremost your glory. Amen

“Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.”  [1 Peter 2:13-14] See also Titus 3:1, Romans 13:1-7

And again, talking about church leaders:

Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you.” [Hebrews 13:17]

The Bible is consistent at this point of submitting to those over us. Again, this is not an absolute rule as we should not disobey the Lord in order to submit to those over us. In John’s third letter he speaks about Diotrephes, who seems to be a church leader, in the following terms:

I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will not welcome us. So when I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, spreading malicious nonsense about us. Not satisfied with that, he even refuses to welcome other believers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church.” [3 John 9-10]

However, even in those cases where we do not submit to others, there should be respect and care.

The Bible’s view about submission to others is that all those who can call for our submission have been placed in positions of authority by God. God is sovereign. In Romans 13 Paul says that society cannot function well without those who rule. In fact, Paul says that to rebel against the authorities is to rebel against God (Romans 13:1-6). This submission even involves paying taxes.

It seems to me that we are allowed to dispute with our Government but to do so in a way that is lawful. So, the recent protests against government lockdowns are fine, being an acceptable means of putting our views out, but disregarding the rules on social distancing in those protests is contrary to what the Bible says about submitting. Submission does not mean agreement. It means that even if I disagree, I will defer to your right to govern me at this point, and I will do it with great respect towards you.

PRAYER

Father, sometimes all that is inside us cries out for rebellion. Please give us hearts that want to honour you by honouring the decisions of those you have given authority over us. Amen

If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love.” [John 15:10]

12When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. 13 “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. 14 Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. 16 Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.  [John 13:12-17]

And so we come to the passage preached on last weekend. Notice again the motivation for serving. We are to be like our Lord and Master. If it was good enough for Jesus to do that menial task, then it’s good enough for us.

Really, there is not a lot in my mind that is worse than washing someone else’s feet but as we know there was more to it in Jesus’ day. It was a humiliating thing to do. It was the role of the person on the very bottom of the pecking order. Jesus didn’t stand on his dignity. He was “Lord and Teacher” and yet he was not above washing feet.

He lived out what he taught –  “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.” [Mark 9:35]

We talk lots about the importance of using our gifts, and it is important, but our gifts are to enable us to serve others, not for our own aggrandisement. We love the perks that come with position; the dedicated car space, the office, the new car, the admiration and respect of others, but it doesn’t often enter our heads that with it comes servanthood. Position is not so that others can serve us, but that we can serve others. Here is Jesus again turning things upside down.

Do you find yourself standing on your dignity?

Do you treasure the perks?

Are there things that need to be done that are beneath you?

You know you don’t necessarily need any gifts to serve others – to do what needs to be done. All we need to do is to swallow our pride.

And the result of doing the humiliating things, the lowly things, is that we will be blessed. God will bless us. It doesn’t get much better than that.

We avoid serving in lowly ways because we think it will lessen us and lessen our enjoyment of life. Jesus says that serving others will be life-enhancing.

PRAYER

Holy God, your Son Jesus was a servant. Make me one too.  Amen

Life Changing: Celebration and Sabbath

22” But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” [Galatians 5:22]

If joy is part of the fruit of the Spirit (and note the word “fruit” is singular in the original – there is one fruit and it involves all of these qualities. Paul doesn’t envisage us having kindness, for instance, without the other aspects) then it stands to reason that the Godhead is joyful. God is the source of the fruit after all, yet the concept of a joy-filled God is foreign to many people. The Bible says that God does whatever pleases him. [Psalm 115:3, 135:6; Ephesians 1:5,9]

What about you? Are you joyful?

Jesus prayed for his followers that they would be filled with His joy.  

13 ‘I am coming to you now, but I say these things while I am still in the world, so that they may have the full measure of my joy within them. [John 17:13]

Peter says,
Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, [1 Peter 1:8]

Paul commanded his readers to rejoice in the Lord always. [Phil 4:4]

This joy is meant to strengthen us. Nehemiah says the joy of the Lord is your strength.” [Nehemiah 8:10]

Our joy in the Lord can act like Teflon, forming a barrier around us that causes the troubles and stains of this life to have little effect.

What do you think prevents us from experiencing this joy in the Lord?

We’ll be taking a look at that over the rest of this week.

PRAYER

Lord God, fill me with all joy in believing. Amen

4” Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” [Phil. 4:4-7]

I’ve always found it challenging that Paul’s first words are not a suggestion that we should rejoice, or that it would be a good thing if we rejoiced. No, Paul’s words are as they seem. Do it! This is an imperative, a command. “Rejoice in the Lord always.”

And it’s not just here but also in 2:18, 3:1. It’s a theme in Philippians. As Kent Hughes says “Paul wasn’t writing while he lounged in a Roman bath or sipped espresso in Café Roma. We must never forget that Paul delivered his defiant command to rejoice whatever the circumstances when it was unsure whether he would live or die and while he was confined to helplessly watching his competitors and enemies make advances among the churches of Rome and Philippi.” [R Kent Hughes Philippians, Colossians and Philemon  p167]

What makes Paul think you can “do” rejoicing?

Notice the following:

“Always” – that really leaves no room for ifs or buts: no loopholes or excuses.

“In the Lord” – joy comes as we live a life oriented towards God.

Paul is saying “you are suffering, you are undergoing trials, nevertheless rejoice in the Lord.”

So how can Paul command joy? Joy comes to those who make a deliberate choice to set their hearts on the Lord. And as Hughes says “Rejoicing in the Lord is not a luxury – it is a necessity.” [p168]

How can we do this?

Well, it’s of note that after Paul’s second command in as many words in verse 5 “(let your gentleness be evident to all”) he says “the Lord is near.”

That does not mean “the Lord is coming soon” but rather “he is right at hand.” He is as close as he can be for he dwells in us by His Spirit. Is that not a cause to rejoice? As we keep that in the forefront of our minds and meditate on it we will be filled with joy.

It is a question of constantly reminding ourselves what our God has done for us in Christ. “The Lord is near.”

PRAYER

Father please keep my mind returning to the fact that you are near. Amen

4” Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” [Phil. 4:4-7

The second thing to note in this passage is that Paul gives us another strategy to becoming joy-filled. He tells us not to be anxious about anything. Again it’s not a suggestion. It’s in what is known as the “imperative mood”. It’s a command. Further, just as his command to rejoice allows no exceptions or excuses (“always”) so this command is also absolute. He says “have no anxiety about anything.” No exceptions.

Nothing rids life of its joy like anxiety. We are living in the midst of an anxiety epidemic. Beyond Blue tells us that in any one year two million Australians will have anxiety. It is the most common mental health issue in Australia today.

So how we do get rid of anxiety?

Paul says,

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” [Phil. 4:6-7]

It is a complex issue and there may be a number of underlying physical conditions that require medication. However, part of the process of healing will be to be able to trust God with the matter and be confident that he will work it out in the best way and will give us the strength to cope with whatever may occur. We do that by prayer.

Notice the “condition”, though? We pray “with thanksgiving”. We pray but we are also give thanks. This a tough call sometimes. He is not saying “thank God for the thing that’s making you anxious.” No! We’re back to what it means to “Rejoice in the Lord.” We give thanks for His love for us, His rescue of us, the inheritance He has waiting for us, the gift of His Spirit, and so much more. We thank him for his blessings.

Seriously friends, if you want to overcome your anxiety issues get medical help, but each day count your blessings one by one and give God thanks. If you want to bask in the joy of the Lord, make it a habit to be thankful. It will change your life. The joy of the Lord will indeed be your strength.

The result? “And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” 

PRAYER

Loving Father, teach me to count my blessings and to cast all my cares upon you.  Amen

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.” [Phil. 4:8-9]

This follows straight on from the passage about rejoicing and concludes in the same way, with God’s peace.

Here is the next strategy for being joy-filled.

You become what you fill your minds with. If you allow your mind to dwell on things that are negative or unhelpful, those things will begin to dominate your thinking.  Paul says fill your minds with things are going to be helpful – things that are lovely and admirable. Verse 9 indicates that he’s thinking of filling our minds with the things of God.

He says the same thing in Colossians:

“Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.” [Col. 3:1-2]

And again in Galatians:

 Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. [Gal. 6:8]

This is not Paul laying down the law so much as telling us what is good for us. If you want life a life of joy, do what is necessary to sow the seeds of joy into your heart – live a life full of thanksgiving, and fill your minds with the things of God. And as we’ve seen in the past week, that involves the Bible and recalling it to mind in meditation and memorising it.

Are you sowing the seeds of joy into your heart? Are you following the Apostle’s advice on how to do that? Although joy is part of the fruit of the Spirit we nevertheless can put ourselves in a place where He is able to do his work or we can hinder Him.

PRAYER

Dear God, Give me the desire to sow the seeds that please the Spirit in my heart. Amen

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.” [Phil. 4:8-9]

The last thing Paul says in this passage about sowing joy into our lives is that we need to put what he has said into practice.

It is not good going to the doctor, getting a script for medication and then not taking it. In Philippians 4, Paul has given a script for joy. Rejoice in the Lord, give thanks, remind yourself that the Lord is near, ask the Lord to take care of the things in your life that make you anxious, and fill your minds with things that will focus you on the things of God.

Paul says this will lead to peace.

“And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” [Phil 4:7]

God’s peace will guard our hearts and minds. The word “guard” means “garrison”. His peace is our protection. It reminds me of the words of Nehemiah we looked at last week. Just as the joy of the Lord is our strength so the peace of the Lord is our defence. This passage puts joy and peace together.

Paul’s last words in this passage are Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.”

What a promise.

Life will not always be easy, Paul testified to that on numerous occasions. The wonder of our relationship with God is that while in the midst of pain and difficulties we have a joy and a peace that cannot be undermined by anything this life throws at us. We can rejoice in the Lord.

Of course, if we don’t put these things into practice it does not mean we are not a child of God, but rather it prevents us from the blessings of joy and peace.

PRAYER

My God and Father, please help me to listen to the leading of your Spirit to put these things into practice.  Amen

Life Changing: Meditation and Study

16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of Go may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. [2 Timothy 3:16-17]

It’s easy to read the Bible and for it to have no impact on our lives. If we were to but put what God says into practice its relevance would be huge.

It was great to hear from Paul Hudson on the weekend about his Bible reading habit. He said he was struck by the cost paid by so many in Reformation times to make sure we could have the Bible in our own language. For them it was so important that some risked their lives and yet here was he with a number of Bibles in his house that he hardly ever read. Since then he has only missed reading the word 3 days in the past two and a half years.

He said forming a habit was really important for him.

It’s not that every time we read the Bible we will be impacted. That does happen from time to time, but Paul talked about how reading day after day formed his thinking patterns, and built his picture of God. What you immerse yourself in becomes the way you think. It’s this day by day filling our minds with the words of God that starts to affect our world view.

Jesus himself said “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

The words of the Bible are the actual words of God. Are we feasting on them?

You know you can’t separate God from his word. Jesus himself said “ For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” God is present in his words. You read the word and you get the Father.

PRAYER

God give me a hunger for your word.

“I meditate on your precepts and consider your ways.”  [Psalm 119:15]

And again “I have more insight than all my teachers, for I meditate on your statutes.” [Psalm 119:99]

Today we move on in our consideration of study and meditation on the word.

The Old Testament speaks often about meditating on the word.

The Hebrew word used for meditate means “to murmur, ponder, imagine, mutter, speak, study, talk, or utter”. Another word for “meditate’ is “ruminate”. When we ruminate we “chew” on something, like a cow chewing the cud. It sounds a little gross but the same way that the cow chews grass, swallows it and then brings it back up and chews it some more, we digest the word of God.  That is what meditating, or ruminating on the word of God is like. The first time we read the word and take it in, but we then go back over it in our minds and consider what it means and how it applies. We meditate on it.

In the New Testament the word “meditate” is not used in our translations but we find similar words like “consider”. So Jesus says

“Therefore consider carefully how you listen. Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what they think they have will be taken from them.”  [Luke 8:18]

The writer to the Hebrews says “Let us consider how to stir each other up to love and to good works.” [Hebrews 10:24]

Meditation is considering carefully.

Here are some tips for meditating on the word:

  • Read the passage and then go back over it and ask questions:
    • What is this passage actually saying – how would I put this in my own words?
    • What is the main point here?
    • Where does this fit in the main story line of the Bible?
    • Does it tell me anything about God and his character?
    • What does it tell me about me?
    • Is there some direction for me or something to avoid?

Not all these questions will be relevant to every passage you read. Don’t let that stop you asking.

  • Some people find reading the passage out loud to be helpful.
  • You might find it useful to write things down. Some people find it helpful to journal or diarise their answers.

PRAYER

Father teach me to meditate on your word.

These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates. [Deuteronomy 6:6-9]

There are a couple of women in our church who phone each other every morning and read a passage of scripture together and then talk about it. There is no better way to meditate on the word or God than to discuss it. That is one of the reasons that our Growth Groups are so important. They give us the opportunity on a regular basis, to talk about the Bible. There is no reason it should stop there though. If you have others living in your household why not discuss with them what you are reading, and maybe ask them the questions we talked about in yesterday’s devotion. You could get a Bible buddy and text each other each morning with the passage your both reading and your thoughts and questions.

The idea in Deuteronomy of putting the word of God in places to remind you of it is helpful as well. In fact the patriarchs often put up or enacted symbols to remind them of God and his actions and words. The festivals, for instance, were designed to do just that. One example is the Passover Feast, where symbolic actions were tied to the words and actions of God. Our communion services are meant to do just that.

To help your rumination on the word why not write out helpful passages or verses on piece of card and blue tack to your bathroom mirror, or put it on the fridge, or somewhere on the desk or on a corner of the computer screen? That’s a helpful thing to do if your trying to memorise verses of the Bible, but more about that in tomorrow’s devotion.

“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” [John 6:68]

PRAYER

Heavenly Father, please keeping bringing to my mind your words of life.

“I want you to recall the words spoken in the past by the holy prophets and the command given by our Lord and Saviour through your apostles.”[ 2 Peter 3:2]

Memorising scripture seems to be a forgotten art these days, but what a great way to recall the words of the Lord, and to meditate on them. If you haven’t made memorising parts of the Bible a habit, why not give it a go? As you chew over the words to memorise them you can chew over their meaning as well.

Here’s an example of a well-known verse:

16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” [John 3:16]

As you memorise it you can meditate by asking the questions:

  • What is “the world”? Is God’s love universal?
  • Why does it say “God’s one and only Son” instead of just “Son”? Is that significant?
  • Why does “Son” have a capital letter?
  • What does it mean to believe in Jesus?
  • What does perish “mean”? Does it mean merely “cease to exist” or something more? How can I find out?
  • How can I be sure that I truly believe? Is it possible to believe without conviction?
  • How can I be sure I’m saved

If you decide to start out on the memorising pathway, write out a verse, put it on a post-it note and put it somewhere you’ll often see it. Alternatively, put the verse away but bring it out to go through it at certain points of the day, e.g. when you start a new task, when you have a coffee etc.

I used the Navigators Topical Memory System with 72 verses to memorise. The beauty of this system is that the verse you learn is in a passage that unpacks the verse or gives more meaning, so you learn the verse and you get an index to some of the things the Bible says on that topic. Find information about the Navigators Topical Memory System here.

Give it a go.

12 So I will always remind you of these things, even though you know them and are firmly established in the truth you now have. 13 I think it is right to refresh your memory as long as I live in the tent of this body, 14 because I know that I will soon put it aside, as our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me. 15 And I will make every effort to see that after my departure you will always be able to remember these things. [2 Peter 1:12-15]

PRAYER

Lord God, help me to get your word into my mind and heart.

29 Jesus replied, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God. 30 At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. 31 But about the resurrection of the dead—have you not read what God said to you, 32 ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.” [Matthew 22:29-32]

Jesus’ method of dealing with his opponents here is instructive. They came to try and trick him up with what seems to be a pretty sophisticated theological problem. Jesus points them to God’s word. He says “you only need to know your Bible to be able to work out the answer, and by the way you’re suppositions are all wrong.” Why are they wrong? They think there will be weddings in heaven, that is where they are in error.

They just didn’t know their Bibles well enough. There are a couple of things to note in this passage:

  • Firstly, Jesus treats the Old Testament as authoritative. It is the standard for deciding on life’s issues.
  • Secondly, even the tense of the verb is important. So the individual words themselves are God’s actual words. He says “Have you not read what God said..” [verse 31]. Jesus then goes on to base his argument on the tense of the verb – he says that God said “I am the God of Abraham” etc., not “I was the God of Abraham” etc. So Abraham must still be alive, and hence there is a resurrection of the dead.

In Galatians 3 Paul bases an argument on the fact that the word “seed” is actually plural in the Old Testament. [Gal 3:16]

  • Thirdly, if you want to know God’s mind on most issues you will find it in the Bible. You will, however, need to work at understanding and synthesising what you read. There are lots of aids to help us do this.
    • Commentaries are books written to unpack what the Bible says. Each commentary normally focus on one book of the Bible. They are invaluable if you really want to understand the Bible. Why not buy one and have it open as you read the Bible?
    • There are many good books [and many rubbishy one too] that deal with themes in the Bible, such as the different sorts of God’s love, the meaning of the gospel, and what happened on the cross. You name it and there will be a book written on it. A good book to start with in this area would be “Desiring God” by John Piper.
    • A concordance is a book that lists all the mentions of a particular word in the Bible, so that you can read what the Bible says elsewhere about the thing you’re looking at. Some Bibles have a simple one at the back end.

You can study the Bible without having to spend a lot of time or enrol at a Bible college. You just need to put in a little work. Make it a plan to study for half an hour one morning a week, maybe on your day off. Get one of the aids mentioned above and go for it.

“For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”  [Hebrews 4:12]

PRAYER

Lord God Almighty, Give me a heart for your word.