Sunday, 20 July 2014

Sunday Thoughts - Getting a Victory (1 Samuel 17)

In 1 Samuel 17 we have the story from David’s life that is probably the best known about him. Goliath was an enemy who created fear by his presence, by his weapons and by his voice. In these details, he is an example of the spiritual enemies that we face in our contemporary world.

As far as their presence is concerned, we know that they are everywhere. Sometimes the opposition is public, at other times it is more restrained. Their weapons seem very strong and certainly they are confident of their effectiveness as they wield them in the intellectual and social areas of life. Often the opposition is expressed in well-chosen words, stated with emphasis and direction, and we can feel the sharpness of their attacks.

How do we respond to the conflict? There is little point imitating the methods of Saul’s army, which was to line up daily and listen to the bragging of Goliath. All that did was create fear and confusion and despair in the soldiers of Saul. Instead we should imitate the response of David.

David knew who God was and he knew who Goliath was. For David, the Lord was the living God and uncircumcised Goliath was not in a relationship with him. These two details gave David great hope of defeating the enemy.

Of course, it is easy to stand up among God’s people, even among those who are afraid, and affirm that he is the living God. I suppose any of Saul’s soldiers could have said so. Yet it looks as if none of them had any previous experience of divine help in situations in which the circumstances were all against them. In contrast to them, David had known such situations, in private when he was guarding his father’s sheep and protecting them from wild animals. Those experiences had told David that his God was really alive. It was not merely a theological opinion for him.

Moreover, David realised that simple steps can achieve great victories if God is on your side. Saul wanted David to wear the latest armour, but David did not know how to employ it. Instead he preferred to make do with the sling and stones that he had already used effectively.

Inevitably, Goliath treated David and his methods with contempt because as a giant he was accustomed to using his own strength. In contrast, David was confident in the Lord because he was accustomed to experiencing the Lord’s help. We all know the outcome. David triumphed and Goliath lost his head.

The question that faces us is how we react to the Goliaths that confront us. Are we merely like the soldiers of Israel who lined up every day pretending to fight and listened to the same repetitive victory speech from an enemy that they had deduced they could not defeat? Or are we like David who, because he knew God’s power at work in his life, was able to use a simple means to bring great victory? After all, Paul does remind us that the weapons (the gospel) of our warfare can and should pull down enemy strongholds.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Sunday thoughts - Thinking about a move

Tests about our spiritual progress can come from a wide number of sources. In chapter 40 of his book Jeremiah describes a test that came his way after the city of Jerusalem had been captured by the Babylonians. What made the test more difficult was the fact that it was a nice offer, made by a prominent person who wished Jeremiah well, and who had the heart and the power to bring it about.

Nebuzaradan was the captain of the guard, a high officer in the Babylonian army. He recognised that the Lord had spoken through Jeremiah, and perhaps he wanted to have such a person with him in his home in Babylon. Maybe Nebuzaradan was a superstitious man who liked to have religious men around him or maybe he had come to believe to some degree in the God of Israel because of the fulfilment of his word through Jeremiah. Perhaps he was offering to become the equivalent of the kind master of a slave who would provide for all the latter’s needs. In any case, the prospect of a comfortable room in a nice house would have seemed much better to Jeremiah than the cistern or even the courtyard in which the king of Judah had placed him recently. Was this God giving him a reward for his faithful service, he might have wondered?

Jeremiah also was aware that the Lord had promised to bless the captives when they went to Babylon (see Jeremiah 24). Although that may sound strange to us at first, yet it would be there that God would begin the spiritual recovery of his people. Why not go and live among those whom he knew would experience the Lord’s blessing? Surely this was God directing him to go there and be part of it. Divine providence seemed to be opening a door and beckoning him to go through it. And if he went, would he not enjoy seeing God at work, fulfilling the words that he had allowed Jeremiah to preach?

Nebuzaradan recognised that Jeremiah might not want to go to Babylon. Yet he indicated that he would not be offended if Jeremiah refused his offer. Instead he advised him, if that was his choice, to go and live with Gedaliah, the individual whom the Babylonians had put in charge of the area. No doubt, Nebuzaradan assumed that Jeremiah would be safe there. And it was to there that Jeremiah went.

Why did he do so? No doubt he would have deduced that since he had promised to do so the Lord would provide for his people in Babylon. But what about the insignificant ones who had been left behind in Judah? Who was to guide and teach them if he did not do it? He may have seen in Nebuzaradan’s mention of Gedaliah an opportunity of serving those whom others did not think were important.

Jeremiah here seems to have answered a question very few even think about. Instead of wondering where he would be most comfortable, he asked where was he most needed and where could he do the most good. How many hearts of the little remnant left behind in Judah would have been made glad when they saw that Jeremiah had put their needs before his own and decided to remain with them. Perhaps they are still talking about it today in heaven.  

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Sunday Thoughts - Fighting for God

There are three important lessons for us to learn from the story of Saul’s first battle as the new king king of Israel (1 Samuel 11). 

In verses 1-4, there is an illustration of the challenge that faces God’s people. The threat of the Ammonites is a vivid illustration of spiritual warfare that we face from the powers of darkness. Satan knows that he cannot remove salvation from God’s people. But that does not mean he sees no point in attacking them. He will aim to weaken them. What he wants Christians to do is compromise with the temptations he puts in their way. He will attempt to destroy their spiritual vision. This is what happened to believers that Peter describes in 2 Peter 1:9. In that chapter Peter has described the way of Christian progress, and then says that if a believer does not make such progress, he ‘is blind, and cannot see afar off, and hath forgotten that he was purged from his old sins’. The devil had prevented the person developing spiritually and that person became ineffective spiritually. 

Then in verses 5-11 we read about an example of the difference made when a person is under the control of the Spirit. The experience of Saul illustrates the difference the presence of the Holy Spirit makes in a person’s life. Although every Christian has the Holy Spirit indwelling him, this does not mean that his power is available automatically. If a Christian by his sins has grieved the Spirit, he will not experience progress until he repents of that sin. We need God’s power for a wide variety of reasons and purposes. The power of God is not something distinct from the presence of the Holy Spirit; rather it is the Holy Spirit working effectively.

There is also an important lesson here for those who are leaders of God’s people. Before they lead Christians into a new enterprise these leaders must possess power from the Spirit. When they are in a proper spiritual state, the Lord will put the fear of God into those who follow them. The proof that leaders are receiving the Spirit’s guidance will be evidenced by the same details that were seen in Saul: jealousy for God’s cause, harmony in the people, strategy regarding what to do and victory when it is done.

The third lesson from this passage emulates Samuel’s response to the victory by Israel. He saw it as an opportunity for re-dedication. This is the appropriate response to progress in the Christian life  whether it is fresh understandings of Bible passages, answers to prayer, victory over temptation, or the sense of the presence of the Lord. Yet they are not opportunities to sit back and imagine we have arrived, rather they are occasions for repentance and fresh dedication.   

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Sunday Thoughts - Celebrating an Enthronement

The appearance of a new king can for some be an exciting experience, as we have seen recently in Spain. This was the case also when Israel chose its first king, Saul. We can read about the events leading up to this occasion in 1 Samuel. Yet not everyone was pleased about this development, including God. Why was he displeased?

Basically, Israel’s desire for a king was a rejection of God’s methods in favour of the methods of the surrounding nations. This rejection did not mean that God was no longer in control or that he was no longer interested in his people; it did mean, however, that he would chastise them, and the giving of Saul as king was an evidence of this divine chastisement. It is important that we remember this when we read about some of Saul’s actions in later years when he disobeys God. 

Sadly there are some wrong actions that God’s people take which seem to have irreversible consequences. When Israel went down the road of having a king, God gave them over to their choice and he did not reverse the choice throughout their history until the monarchy reached its doom in the exile in Babylon. This type of thing has happened repeatedly throughout church history. There can be long-term effects of some choices.  

Happily, although the institution of the monarchy would not be removed until the exile, God would show his mercy many times in the situation by sending good and godly kings, such as David and Hezekiah, who would attempt to lead the people in the ways of God. 

The enthronement of Saul was the first of many of which God did not approve as far as his kingdom was concerned. Yet even in that process he intervened and intimated that a real King would come as a consequence, not from the line of Saul but from the line of David. That king was Jesus and his enthronement following his ascension to heaven after his resurrection was marked by great celebrations. In fact, the celebrations are still taking place and will do so forever, which is very different from the temporary commotion that marked the crowning of Saul. Today we can participate in the ongoing celebration of our King, whose reign will have no end.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Sunday Thoughts - Perspectives on Abraham

One of the outstanding characters of the Bible is Abraham: (a) he is a central figure in the history of redemption: to him God gave promises of blessing concerning his spiritual seed; (b) he is a Pauline example of the doctrine of justification by faith; (c) when Jesus teaches the Sadducees about the meaning of the resurrection, he refers to Abraham, mentioning how God was still in a personal relationship with Abraham long after he had died (Matt. 22:32); (d) he is mentioned of with regard to heaven; Jesus said that heaven would involve sitting down with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Matt. 8:11); (e) James tells us that Abraham is an example of a person who showed his faith by his works of obedience to God.
Clearly, Abraham is an example for believers today and here are four details about him, each of which is important for us.
What his neighbours thought of him. We discover this in the story connected to Abraham attempting to buy ground in which to bury Sarah. Abraham by then had been living in Canaan for six decades, so his neighbours had ample time to assess his character. This is what the Hittites said of him in Genesis 23:6: ‘Sir, listen to us. You are a mighty prince among us. Bury your dead in the choicest of our tombs. None of us will refuse you his tomb for burying your dead.’
Abraham gained this testimony not by isolation from those with whom he lived – he was among them. Yet they realised he was not of them. He maintained a distinction without being remote. The words ‘mighty prince’ can be translated ‘prince of God’, perhaps pointing to their awareness of God’s blessing on his life.
What his wife thought of him. In order to discover this, we have to go to Peter’s first letter (3:6), where he says, ‘Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her master.’ This is a reference to Sarah’s response when God told Abraham he would have a son. She said within herself, in Genesis 18:12, ‘After I am worn out and my master is old, will I now have this pleasure?’
Note that this assessment was from within her. It was not something she was compelled to say. This was her heart attitude towards him. Further, this was her assessment despite Abraham’s failings. We know that twice he had put Sarah into danger because of his fear. She was aware of his weaknesses, yet she still valued him highly. She forgave him his failings, and because she did so there was domestic harmony.
What his God thought of him. We discover this in the book of Isaiah, several centuries after Abraham had died. In Isaiah 41:8, God says, ‘But you, O Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, you descendants of Abraham my friend.’ The friendship began with God’s sovereign initiative, when he appeared to him in Ur of the Chaldees and brought him into a saving relationship with himself. It continued throughout a variety of experiences. On God’s side, the friendship involved promises, protection and power. On Abraham’s side, the friendship involved worship (he built altars to the Lord), loyalty and obedience.
What Abraham thought of himself. We can look at this in two different ways. When he approached God, Abraham likened himself to dust and ashes (Gen. 18:27). In contrast to God Abraham was insignificant and unclean. He knew he was both a creature and a sinner. This was said despite all the previous blessings Abraham had known.
When he spoke to those who lived alongside him, Abraham described himself as an alien and a stranger (Gen. 23:4), even although he was living in the land God had promised to his descendants. He knew he was an exile from Heaven and he was looking forward to going there.
Think about these four areas of Abraham’s life: his public life, his home life, his relationship with God and his opinion of himself. Do our contacts sense that we have their good at heart, are our homes places where forgiveness and respect exist, is our walk with God that of two friends, and do we see ourselves as nothing in comparison to God and are we looking forward to heaven?