Sunday, 24 November 2013

It is Who You Know that Matters

Sometimes a situation in life depends on who your connections are. If I was in debt, I would value a rich relative; if my car breaks down, I am grateful if I have a mechanic for a friend. In olden days, if a person was summoned to appear before the king, that individual would be glad to have ‘friends at court’ who would speak on his behalf. We can imagine many circumstances in which we would need help from others.

The same is true in the spiritual life as well. We all have a form of spirituality, even if we think that we do not. Everyone has an opinion about God, and that opinion, even if it denies his existence, is an expression of spirituality. As we are well aware, there is a wide range of spiritualities around today, each of them claiming to offer spiritual help in one way or another.

The Christian life is a unique form of spirituality, not only because it is true, but also because everything connected to it depends on knowing Jesus Christ. Unlike the scenarios I depicted earlier in which each situation required a different person to provide help, Jesus personally supplies the help in every situation. Here are some such situations.

With regard to obtaining salvation from the effects of our sins, we receive it through faith in Jesus and in what he did. We believe that he did two things for us in order for us to be forgiven. We had two needs: we had to live a perfect life and we had to pay the penalty of our disobedience to God’s law – and we can do neither of them. Yet Jesus did both on our behalf: he lived a perfect life as our representative and he paid the penalty of our sins when on the cross. When we trust in Jesus, we do so knowing that he performed those two requirements.

With regard to living the Christian life, every spiritual blessing is given to those who are in Christ (united to him by faith). They receive the help of the Holy Spirit because he is given to them by Jesus. Their prayers are heard by the heavenly Father because they are offered to him in the name of Jesus. They have a role model to imitate day by day, and that role model is Jesus. He instructs them how to live and enables them to become like him increasingly. Yet they also know they still commit sins, and when they confess them to God they do so knowing that Jesus is their Advocate in heaven. They have many benefits in this life through knowing Jesus.

On the Day of Judgement, Jesus will be their friend and will ensure that they will be publicly acknowledged as his people. Throughout the endless ages that will follow that awesome event, Jesus will share his limitless inheritance with each of them. He will continue to function as their Shepherd, leading them into all the aspects of the glory of the new heavens and new earth. Although they will then be perfect in holiness, they will still depend entirely on Jesus and value him in a manner far beyond what they can do in this world. It will all depend on the fact that they know him.

Obviously, it is in our own interests to acquaint ourselves with Jesus. If we trust in him, we will discover that he is faithful and reliable, the One who will always be there for us, and whose help we will receive from him personally whenever we need it.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Being Different

Andrew Bonar wrote on one occasion, ‘Believers are not to be like the world. It is their peculiar honour and privilege to be quite different from it.’ In what ways are they different?

The basic difference is that they trust in Jesus alone for their salvation. Trust in Jesus means dependence upon him. It is not the strength of their faith that matters, but the object of it. Jesus is the object of their faith in the sense that they depend on what he has done for them, particularly his sin-atoning death on the cross when he suffered, in their place, the wrath of God against their sins. Since Jesus paid the penalty, they depend upon his work. If I was in debt, and a rich person paid it for me, it would be strange if I were then to depend on someone else to pay it. A believer had spiritual debts, Jesus paid the cost for them, and now that believer depends on Jesus and what he did. This is the crucial difference between Christians and others.

There are other differences between followers of Jesus and the world. What is meant by the ‘world’? It is not a reference to the physical world. Instead the term ‘world’ describes the system of things that is hostile to God and his ways. There is a very simple way of discovering if something is worldly or not. The method is to ask oneself, ‘Will this attitude, action or intention cause me to break one of the ten commandments inwardly as well as outwardly?’ If it will, then it is worldly. And according to Bonar, it is an honour and privilege for believers to be different.

Of course, it is always possible for them to turn difference into a negative outlook and focus on what they do not do. Instead they are to show how different they are by becoming increasingly like Jesus in character. One biblical description of such a character is the fruit of the Spirit detailed in Galatians 5:22-23 (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control). What a difference, and a privilege, to be like that!

The final difference between believers and the world is in their destinies. Followers of Jesus will be taken by him to heaven after their lives here are over. It is always good to know where one is going in this life; it is even more important to know where one will be going in the next. Because of the promises of Jesus, his followers have assurance of their destiny, and that is a great honour and privilege. 

Monday, 11 November 2013

Jesus in Psalm 40 (2)

In Psalm 40:6-8, the Son of God, who is the speaker, states that he is about to become a man (these verses are a prophecy). The Son refers to a book or scroll in which certain matters are written about him. While we are not told exactly what the scroll signifies, there are two possibilities. One is that he is referring to the book of God’s eternal purposes in which the Father’s intentions for his Son were detailed (obviously, this would not be a reference to a literal book in heaven).

The other possible meaning of the scroll is that it refers to the Old Testament scriptures. As far as David himself had been concerned, when he became king of Israel he would have discovered God’s requirements in the books of the Old Testament that were then available, mainly in the Pentateuch (Genesis–Deuteronomy). By the time of the Incarnation, the Old Testament was complete and it is full of teaching about Jesus. He himself refers to this in Luke 24:44: ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.’ There is no doubt that the Old Testament was a primary source of how Jesus understood his Messianic work.

The Son also addresses the Father as ‘my God’. Psalm 40 is not the only Messianic psalm that has this manner of speaking on the lips of the Son (Ps. 22:1, 10). Jesus after his resurrection addresses the Father as God in John 20:17 when he speaks to Mary Magdalene of his imminent ascension to heaven. It is evident in Psalm 40, from the connection that the Son makes with God’s will, that he is speaking to the Father as his servant, and this is one reason why he calls him ‘my God.’

The willing Son also describes his inner life when he says that God’s law is within his heart. The law of God was written on the human heart of Jesus and all that was needed for it to be displayed was the passing of time. This is what took place. Because he had a perfect heart, Jesus lived a perfect life.

The humanity of Jesus, the body that was prepared for him by the Father, should often be on our minds. From heaven he came to the womb of Mary and united himself with his human nature simultaneously to its creation by the Holy Spirit; when he was born, he emerged from the womb to live a perfect life as a child, a teenager and as an adult until he died on the cross and was buried; while his body was in the tomb for three days, his human spirit was in heaven; on the third day, his spirit and body were reunited in resurrection power; a few weeks later, he in his risen humanity ascended to heaven and was glorified and enthroned at God’s right hand. There he is at present, waiting for the next stages of his exaltation: his resurrecting of his people from death and his appearance as the Judge of all creatures. After that, his people will enjoy his endless fellowship as he interacts with them through the body that was prepared for him by his Father.

It is not surprising that the singing Son praised God as he anticipated and experienced the Incarnation. And we can imagine Jesus singing these verses or meditating upon them during the years he was on earth, as he thought about what was going to happen to the body that had been prepared for him by the Father. And now in heaven in his glorified body, he looks forward with joy to what he is yet to experience in the body that was prepared for him so long ago by his Father.

Because he was given a body, we too can look forward to transformation: ‘But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself’ (Phil. 3:20-21). ‘Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we will be like him, because we shall see him as he is’ (1 John 3:2).

Jesus and Psalm 40 (1)

Verses 6-8 of Psalm 40 are quoted in Hebrews 10 as applying to the incarnation of Jesus (when he became a man). The author of Hebrews 10 is clear that it is Jesus who is speaking in the psalm, which means that in these verses of Psalm 40 we are allowed to listen in to a divine conversation between the Father and the Son just as the Son was about to come into our world. Yet it is a conversation given in the form of a song. The Son is singing to the Father a song of gladness and joy.

The first item in the song is that the Father took no pleasure in all the sacrifices that were offered in the Jewish ritual because they could not deal permanently with the problem of sin. Although he had given instructions about them, the Father was looking forward to the time when they would be abolished. And that time had drawn near. So the Son sings to the Father about a development that pleased him.

The second detail is found in the line, ‘My ears you have opened.’ The psalmist may be referring to the practice in Israel when a slave wished to show his total devotion to his master by having him bore through his ear to the doorpost (Exod. 21:6). If this is the meaning, it points to the amazing willingness of Jesus to dedicate himself to fulfil the Father’s will. Taking the practice of performing the boring at the door, we could say that Jesus allowed his ear to be bored through by the Father at the doorstep of heaven as he was about to enter this world.

The author of Hebrews did not quote from the Hebrew Old Testament when translating this phrase. Instead he cited the Septuagint rendering (the Greek Old Testament) which reads, ‘a body you have prepared for me’. The translators of the Septuagint interpreted the Hebrew clause when they translated it. Yet their interpretation was made under the supervision of the Holy Spirit and they provided the full meaning of the Psalmist’s original phrase, and their rendering was used by the author of Hebrews, that the reference was to the incarnation of the Messiah.

The clause in Hebrews 10 indicates that it was the Father who decided what the humanity of Jesus would be like. This statement is not in conflict with what the angel said to Mary in Luke 1:35: ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God.’ Rather it reveals that each person of the Trinity was involved in the Incarnation: the Father planned what the human nature of Jesus would be like, the Son assumed the human nature into permanent union with his divine person, and the Spirit formed the human nature in the womb of Mary. Of course, the Incarnation is a great mystery, but that is inevitable given that it was a divine activity.

Thoughts on Prayer (3) - the Prayer Meeting in Acts 12

C. H. Spurgeon has an interesting sermon on the prayer meeting recorded in Acts 12 when many Christians met together in a house to pray to pray for Peter’s release. Here are three short extracts from the sermon.

The number. ‘The text says, “Many were gathered together praying.” Somebody said the other day of prayer-meetings, that two or three thousand people had no more power in prayer than two or three. I think that is a grave mistake in many ways; but clearly so in reference to each other; for have you never noticed that when many meet together praying, warmth of desire and glow of earnestness are greatly increased. Perhaps two or three might have been all dull, but out of a larger number some one at least is a warm-hearted brother, and sets all the rest on a flame. Have you not observed how the requests of one will lead another on to ask for yet greater things? how one Christian brother suggests to another to increase his petition, and so the petitions grow by the mingling of heart with heart, and the communion of spirit with spirit? Besides, faith is a cumulative force. “According to thy faith so be it done unto thee” is true to one, to two, to twenty, to twenty thousand; and twenty thousand times the force will be the result of twenty thousand times the faith. Rest assured that while two or three have power with God in their measure, two or three hundred have still more.’

The time. ‘But there is another lesson. The dead of the night was chosen because it was the most suitable hour, since they could not safely meet in the day because of the Jews. It becomes those who appoint the times for prayer meetings to select as good an hour as they can, a quiet hour, a leisure hour, an hour suited to the habits of the people. Still let us remember that whatever hour is appointed, if we come together with true hearts, it will be an acceptable hour. Better still, it would be well if there could be meetings for prayer at all hours. Then every hour would be an acceptable hour, and if one happened to be unseasonable, another would be convenient, and all classes of believers could thus meet together at some time or other to pour out their hearts in prayer to God. Oh, brethren, if your business will not let you meet in the middle of the day, meet in the middle of the night; if you cannot come together for prayer at the times that are generally appointed, then have prayer-meetings at such times as will suit yourselves; but do let there be a unanimous resolve throughout the whole church of Christ, that much prayer shall be presented to the Most High.’

Its success. ‘What wonders we have obtained in the Tabernacle in answer to prayer. We began this work with a little handful of Christian men. I remember the first Monday night after I came to London; there was a slender audience on the Sabbath, but thank God there was almost as many at the prayer-meeting as on the Sunday; and I thought, ‘This is all right; these people can pray.’ They did pray, and as we increased in prayer we increased in numbers. Sometimes, at prayer-meetings, my heart was almost ready to break for joy because of the mighty supplication that was offered. We wanted to build this great house: we were poor enough, but we prayed for it, and prayer built it. Praying gave us everything we have. Praying brings us all manner of supplies, spiritual and temporal. Whatever I am in the church of God this day I owe, under God’s blessing, to your prayers. As long as your prayers sustain me, I shall not flag nor fail, but if your prayers be gone then my power is gone, for the Spirit of God is gone, and what can I do? All through the church of God the true progress is in proportion to the prayer. I do not care about the talent of the speaker; I am glad if he has talent; I do not care about the wealth of the congregation, though I am glad if they have wealth; but I do care beyond everything for the deep, real, earnest prayer, the darting up of the souls of Christians to God, and the bringing down of the blessing upon men from God; and if this were the last word I had to address to this congregation, I would say to you, dear brethren, abound in prayer, multiply the petitions that you put up, and increase the fervour with which you present them to God.’

Thoughts on Prayer (2) - Praying for Pastors

Every congregation wants a biblical pastor. There are many ways at which we can look at having one, and one crucial element is the prayers of the congregation for him. Usually a congregation is exhorted to do so at an induction and no doubt most congregations pray earnestly for their own minister(s). Yet they should also pray that other congregations should have such pastors and we are aware of vacant churches in our denomination (indeed it would not take long to pray for every minister in our denomination – we could pray for one presbytery each day, and then we would be praying for all our ministers weekly). And they should continue to pray for their own and other ministers because it is possible that they may become stale in their spirituality and distracted from the main aspects of their calling

An obvious element of praying for pastors is that the petitions should be biblically informed. Paul frequently mentions features of his pastoral work and often requests specific prayer by churches for particular areas of his activities. One passage that highlights several characteristics of his work is Colossians 1:24–2:5. I will draw attention to four in 1:24-29 here and mention next week those in 2:1-5.

The first characteristic that Paul mentions in 1:24-29 is his joyful spirit despite being in difficult circumstances (he was under arrest in Rome when he wrote this letter). There are many matters that can deflate a pastor (as there are with all Christians) and the devil will aim to do so. Yet it is important that pastors work with a sense of spiritual joy, and we should pray that God would give this blessing to them.

The second feature mentioned by Paul is his ongoing awareness of his divine calling. God had set him apart as a steward, with the role of making the word of God fully known. This does not mean that a pastor has to preach about every word in the Bible, but I think it does mean that he has to explain, as much as possible, everything the Bible says about Jesus (Jesus, after all, is the focus of what Paul calls the ‘mystery’ revealed to God’s people). We should pray that pastors would remember their calling to convey the message of who Jesus is and what he has done, is doing and will yet do.

A third detail of pastoral work is proclamation. Sometimes we imagine that proclamation involves loudness, but I suspect a more important element is clarity. There is no point in a loud message that no-one understands. How did Paul ‘proclaim’ Christ? He did so by warning and teaching. In other words, he warned his listeners about error (in belief and practice) and taught them the truth (about belief and practice), and did both by using words and language his audiences could understand. Of course, such messages require wisdom as to when they are declared and concerning the level of content in them. So we should pray for wise pastors who will preach with clarity as they warn about error and teach the truth.

The fourth aspect of pastoral work that Paul refers to is his realisation that such work was hard (he uses the term ‘toil’). Paul, despite all his years of experience, despite his many natural gifts, found pastoral work a struggle even although he had divine help. It is important to note that Christ’s help did not remove the struggles of Paul, instead these struggles were the channels through which Christ’s power worked effectively. If a pastor loses the sense of struggling, there is something wrong with him. We should pray that pastors will struggle along with God’s help and thus see his blessing.

Thoughts on Prayer (1) - For a Congregation

Several prayers by Paul are included in his letters. They give us insight into the kind of prayers that church leaders should make when interceding for others. Of course, these aspects should be seen in all who pray to God.

He mentions his prayer life in Colossians 2. The first point to note is that Paul had to make a great effort when praying (Col. 2:1). He calls it a struggle. Why is prayer often a struggle? One reason is difficulty in persevering with a request; another difficulty is distractions; a further difficult is spiritual opposition. No doubt there are many more hindrances. Nevertheless, the fact is, it is not easy to engage in meaningful prayer. Anyone who says that it is simple does not know what he is talking about.

Since Paul wanted those he was praying for to know that he was struggling, his words indicate that another aspect of genuine intercession is honesty with people. How often have we said that we would pray for someone, and then have forgotten to do so? Did we admit our failure or give the impression that we had kept our promise? We will not persevere in prayer if we pretend that we are. It is far better to admit our failures and start again.

Paul also extended his intercessions to include those he had never seen. As far as is known, he had never visited the geographical area in which Colosse and Laodicea were located, which means he had not met most of those for whom he was praying in that area. No doubt, it is easier to pray for those we know, and praying for unknown persons can be a struggle. In any case, Paul’s example here shows that it is very appropriate to pray for congregations we don’t know much about. It would be to our spiritual benefit to select a couple of Free Church congregations that we know little of and begin to pray for them. If we do so, it will not be long before God sends information which we can use in prayer.

For what did Paul pray? He prayed that others would have spiritual growth in order to grow in their knowledge of Christ. The signs of congregational growth are shared encouragement and communal unity (Col. 2:2). These two features are the bases on which people can stand in order ‘to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ’ (v. 2). Paul did not want individuals to grow spiritually in isolation from others, and did not pray that they would. Jesus reveals himself to those who join with others to seek him. This is why church attendance is so important.

In Jesus ‘are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge’ (v. 3). Since all are hidden in him, it means that he is sufficient for spiritual provision. Yet since these blessings are hidden, we have to go to where they will be shown, and the most likely place for that to occur is church meetings. Indeed, the role of a teacher is to lead others to understand who Jesus is and what he has to give.

Paul willingly told the Colossians why he prayed for them in this manner (v. 4). He knew that some of them were in spiritual danger from clever speakers. He could have prayed for them without telling them why, but that was not his method. Instead he prayed about the danger and told the Colossians about their peril.

Paul also told them what the answer was that he asked from God. The apostle wanted to rejoice in their church gatherings (this is what he means by ‘good order’) and in ‘the firmness of your faith in Christ’, in other words, a stable, steady delight in and dependence on Jesus. It is appropriate in our prayers to God to state the answer that we would like, as long as we acknowledge his sovereignty.

The Goodness of God (2)

In a previous post, we looked at the ways God’s goodness is revealed in creation and providence. There are other ways by which he reveals his goodness and here are some suggestions.

Jesus came for our deliverance because God is good. He lived his life of perfect obedience and died his atoning death because the good God wanted each of his people to experience the forgiveness of their sins and to have the obedience of Jesus imputed to them as their righteous standing in his presence. Jesus was raised from the dead because the good God wanted him to be the forerunner of a countless number who would experience resurrection glory because of his triumph. Jesus was exalted to heaven and given the Holy Spirit because the good God wanted each of his people to know the benefits of being adopted into his family and to experience the process of sanctification. Jesus will return to the earth because the good God wants his people to be raised from the dead and to enter into the fullness of eternal life. Jesus will yet sit on his judgement throne because the good God wants each of his people to be publicly honoured and acquitted. Jesus will yet bring into existence the new heavens and new earth because the good God wants his children to share the inheritance of their Elder Brother, an inheritance that includes their experience of the fullness of the Holy Spirit. Surely we should respond and praise the Lord for his goodness.

The Holy Spirit sanctifies believers because God is good. The range of activities of the Holy Spirit in God’s people indicates the extent of God’s goodness. He convicts them of their sin, he reveals to them the Saviour, he enables them to believe in Christ, he indwells them despite their sinfulness, he gives to them assurance of salvation, he teaches them to confess their sins, he confers on them spiritual gifts, he provides them with foretastes of heaven, he makes them Christlike through the fruit of the Spirit, he renews continually their inner man, he empowers them for witness, he engages them in God’s service, and much more. Surely we should respond and praise the Lord for his goodness.

God only works good for his people and only allows to happen to them experiences that will result in their eternal good. We are familiar with Romans 8:28, that all things work together for good to them that love God. This does not mean that all experiences are pleasant or beneficial in themselves. The important factor is what God does with them.

The brothers of Joseph were wrong to sell him to foreigners, but the good God overruled it for their future benefit. Joseph was unjustly treated on that occasion, but it was a stage in the path to prominence that the good God had planned for him. Paul’s thorn in the flesh was unpleasant, was administered in spite (it buffeted him), had Satanic origins, yet was the means by which the good God kept him from pride. It’s not only the positive aspects of life that bring good into the present and future experiences of God’s people. There is not a second of time in a Christian’s experience which will not contribute to his final good. He will experience God’s forgiveness for his sins, his guidance out of problems, his presence through storms, his enlightening of the Bible, his answers to prayer, his peace in the heart, and many more blessings. Surely we should respond and praise the Lord for his goodness.

God’s goodness will be displayed in the eternal state. In this life we experience much of God’s goodness. Yet in the eternal state we shall experience much more. He will give to his people their inheritance of the new heavens and new earth, he will give to them the fullness of the Holy Spirit so that they will know depths of peace, heights of joy and surges of love that they cannot yet imagine. They will live in an environment of beauty and glory, with no trace of sin or fear. And it will last for ever because the good God will be a fountain ever overflowing with goodness for his people.

There, God will bring to final excellence the good that he has been producing throughout the lives of his people. There, each Christian will enjoy the full results of the weary nights they spent in prayer; there, the martyrs will see that their suffering for Christ was worth it as they wear their crowns of glory; there, the weak in body will see that their afflictions endured by trusting in Christ have contributed to their state of bliss; there, the Christians who were mentally disturbed will see that their inner pain has worked for them an eternal weight of glory; there, the mentally handicapped who were born unable to express themselves will find that they too have a valuable place in proclaiming eternally the praises of God. All this, and much more, will be the experience of God’s people. Surely we should respond and praise the Lord for his goodness.

His goodness is what makes God so attractive. God is beautiful in unbounded measure, eternally revealing every pleasing feature, continually providing every blessing, and is therefore of invaluable worth to his people. Our response must be to praise him with our minds, hearts, wills and lives.

The Goodness of God (1)

We may be aware that the well-known answer in the Shorter Catechism to the question, ‘What is God?’ does not include ‘love’ among the list of divine attributes – love is there, but it is found under the term ‘goodness’. The Catechism’s answer also reminds us that each of God’s attributes, including goodness, are infinite, eternal and unchangeable.

The term ‘goodness’ has more than one meaning. It can mean excellence of character or ability, righteous behaviour (live good lives), and benevolence (kindness to others, especially the needy). These different meanings do not only apply to human goodness, they also are included within the divine attribute of goodness.

It is possible to argue that goodness is the sum of all God’s attributes. When Moses asked the Lord to reveal his glory, he replied in Exodus 33:19: ‘I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name “The LORD.” And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.’ In a further answer to Moses’ prayer, the Lord amplifies the meaning of his goodness in Exodus 34:6-7: ‘The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.’

God’s goodness and love are intimately linked. God loves because he is good, and he does good because he loves. Often the terms can be used interchangeably. One of our difficulties is caused by the reality that we can do good without loving the recipients (e.g., giving to charity), and we can love people without being able to do them good (because of our lack of resources). This cannot be said of God. He only does what is good.

The goodness of God is displayed in his creation and providence. We can see his goodness in Genesis 1 as he prepared an ideal environment for his creatures (animals and humans). Although human sin has resulted in the effects of the curse, it is still the case that the earth is full of the goodness of the Lord (Ps. 24:1), whether in its scenery or in his provision for the needs of his creatures.

As far as humans are concerned, God’s goodness to each of them is revealed primarily in each being created in the image of God. This image includes character (holy) and status (rulers of creation). Although all humans have rebelled against God, none of them has lost his image and each expresses it in a range of ways. Humans can think, investigate, discover, understand, relate, discuss, develop, and do these for the benefit of others (sadly they can also use them for the destruction of others). Similarly, humans have been gifted with many natural talents, such as composing appropriate music; painting or drawing images that help us understand ourselves and our environment; writing absorbing, accurate and enchanting literature; designing useful and convenient technology that betters the human situation; and creating beautiful things in general so that life is pleasant and enjoyable. (Sadly, these talents can also be used to produce what is unhelpful, ugly and pointless.) These talents have come to us, individually and corporately, because of the goodness of God.

Considering this activity of God is good for our souls. This is what the Lord used to give Job a sense of perspective in his troubles that all the advice of his friends could not give. The Lord took his suffering servant on a rapid tour of his creation, pointing out the various ways in which he was involved in the control of the elements, in giving food to animals, as well as in other ways (Job 38–39). In these chapters, the Lord reveals his power, his wisdom and his goodness, and it was part of the process of Job’s restoration.

This activity of God is also an effective aspect of evangelism. In addressing the citizens of Lystra, who wanted to worship Barnabas and him, Paul informed them that the true God had not left himself without a witness and instead ‘he did good and gave you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with good and gladness’ (Acts 14:17). In Romans 2:4, Paul writes that grateful response to the goodness of God should lead to human repentance.

God’s goodness to the human race in making each of them in his image is a reminder that each has to be good to the others. This is why abortion (whether of the healthy or the handicapped) and euthanasia (whether of the handicapped or the aged) is more than disobedience to one of God’s commands. It is a denial of our corporate responsibility to live as God’s image-bearers in a human society that should reflect his values.

The Faithfulness of God (2)

In a previous post some comments were made about the faithfulness of God and what it means. But what does this attribute say about his relationship with us? Here are some aspects:

God is faithful when we are tempted. One verse that teaches this is 1 Corinthians 10:13: ‘No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.’ This verse indicates that God knows how much a person can take and will always provide the grace to escape. Sometimes the way of escape is literal, as it was in Corinth because Paul says in the next verse that the Corinthians should flee from idolatry. That was their way of escape. At other times the way of escape is by not remaining in isolation but going and spending time with others, asking them for help in prayer or in other ways. The point is that no one has an excuse when he or she falls because God always provides a way of escape. It is good to know that ‘the Lord is faithful’ and ‘will establish you and guard you against the evil one’ (2 Thess. 3:3).

Yet even when we sin, God is faithful and provides for our cleansing. In 1 John 1:9, we are informed that if ‘we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.’ The reason why he is faithful is because ‘the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin’ (v.7). Jesus has already paid the penalty for our sins, the Father has already promised to forgive us our sins, and the Spirit comes to lead us to confess our sins in order to receive forgiveness and restoration.

In his faithfulness, God will chastise backsliders, but their security depends on his faithfulness. ‘Chastening is not only reconcilable with God’s loving-kindness, but it is the effect and expression of it. It would much quieten the minds of God’s people if they would remember that His covenant love binds Him to lay on them seasonable correction’ (Arthur W. Pink). ‘I know, O LORD, that your rules are righteous, and that in faithfulness you have afflicted me’ (Ps. 119:75).

God is faithful when circumstances are difficult. There are times in the lives of all when it is not easy to believe that God is faithful. Heaven seems to be silent to our prayers, and to our tears. The devil whispers or shouts that God, if he is there, does not care. Often, these times come in situations when we have been faithful to God.

One book that is concerned with the difficulties that God’s people faced is Lamentations, written at a time when Jerusalem was in ruins, when it seemed as if God had failed to keep his promises to protect his people. In the midst of such tragedy, the writer affirms in Lamentations 3:22-26: ‘The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. “The LORD is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.” The LORD is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD.’ The destruction of Jerusalem and the captivity of its people were signs of God’s faithfulness, of the fulfilment of the judgment he had warned them about on many occasions. And he had preserved a small remnant who had remained loyal to him. Even in times of great trouble, believers can see the faithfulness of God and gain spiritual strength. In this situation, the fact that he was faithful in judgment means that he will also be faithful in mercy. He is faithful in all he does. In such situations, ‘those who suffer according to God’s will should entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good’ (1 Pet. 4:19). God has promised, that ‘as your days, so shall your strength be’ (Deut. 33:25).

God is faithful regarding the spiritual prosperity of his church. God will ensure that believers will come from every nation. He has promised to bless the gospel, and he always keeps his promises, because his ‘faithfulness endures to all generations’ (Ps. 119:90). Because he is faithful, the race of Israel will yet be converted. ‘As regards the gospel, they are enemies of God for your sake. But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable’ (Rom. 11:28-29).

God is faithful in regard to all aspects of his people’s life. For example, it is an argument to use in prayer as David did in Psalm 143:1 (he begins in verse 1, ‘Hear my prayer, O LORD; give ear to my pleas for mercy! In your faithfulness answer me, in your righteousness!’ The psalmist knew that God was faithful to his character, to his covenant, to his promises, and used this knowledge as a strength when he prayed.

Needless to say, God’s faithfulness should be a feature of our thankfulness. Psalm 92 is a guide as to how to spend the Lord’s Day, and in it the writer affirms in verses 1 and 2: ‘It is good to give thanks to the LORD, to sing praises to your name, O Most High; to declare your steadfast love in the morning, and your faithfulness by night.’

Because of who the Lord is and what he has done, the appropriate advice we can give to one another is, in the words of Hebrews 10:23, ‘Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.’

The Faithfulness of God (1)

The attribute of faithfulness is one by which God describes himself. Just as some Bible verses say that God is love or God is light (holy), so other verses say that God is faithful. They include 1 Corinthians 1:9: ‘God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord,’ and 1 Corinthians 10:13: ‘No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.’ In order to understand his faithfulness, we should consider it in connection to who he is (his character) and what he does (his covenant).

As far as his character is concerned, we have to relate his faithfulness to his other attributes. For example, there is a close connection between God’s truth and his faithfulness. Both mean that God cannot lie. Because he must always be truthful, it means that God is always consistent. Since he was faithful to his people in the past, he will be faithful to them in the present and the future because he is constant. This means that God is reliable.

Further, this attribute of faithfulness points to his uniqueness because there is no other person of whom this unchanging outlook can be said. Even the best of believers can fail, yet as Paul comments in 2 Timothy 2:13: ‘If we are faithless, he remains faithful; for he cannot deny himself.’

Having made those comments we also need to recognise that God’s faithfulness is one of his communicable attributes. He has some attributes that only he can possess, such as omnipresence and omniscience. But his faithfulness can be duplicated in our Christian lives and he requires us to live in a faithful manner.

If we were asked to describe faithfulness, we would use words such as steadfastness, loyalty, permanent commitment, trustworthy. All these features are true of God. We can see them in the various ways that God has revealed himself. He reveals his faithfulness in creation, in the regularity of the seasons and in the provision of food. He reveals his faithfulness in his covenant, made in eternity in which he promised to bless a vast number of Christians and bring them to heaven. He reveals his faithfulness in the church, in maintaining its existence and providing its sustenance. He reveals his faithfulness to every Christian in giving salvation, in the senses of salvation from the penalty of sin, from the power of sin and from the presence of sin.

So we can sum up God’s faithfulness as his commitment to his own person, his people, his purpose and his promises. Arthur Pink wrote regarding the faithfulness of God: ‘Far above all finite comprehension is the unchanging faithfulness of God. Everything about God is great, vast, incomparable. He never forgets, never fails, never falters, never forfeits His word. To every declaration of promise or prophecy the Lord has exactly adhered, every engagement of covenant or threatening He will make good, for “God is not a man, that He should lie; neither the son of man, that He should repent: hath He said, and shall He not do it? or hath He spoken, and shall He not make it good?” (Num. 23:19). Therefore does the believer exclaim, “His compassions fail not, they are new every morning: great is Thy faithfulness” (Lam. 3:22, 23).’

Some of the images used of God in the Bible highlight his faithfulness. For example, he is likened to a shepherd who is committed to finding, guarding and providing for each of his sheep until he brings them all to heaven. He is the gardener who continually works in the soil of his people’s hearts, producing fruit and getting rid of the weeds. He is the metalworker who continues to purify each believer of dross, and keeps at it until he accomplishes his purpose. As Paul says in Philippians 1:6: ‘I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.’

The Presence of God (2)

Since we know that God is everywhere, we should always consider how to react to him at all times. Here are some suggestions.

His presence should lead us to always be in a worshipful frame of heart. We are always in his presence, whether we are in bed, at our daily work, involved in recreation, taking part in a public event or engaged in a personal interest. God is not present to spy on us but to bless us. He enables us to do all these things, and we should do them with a conscious awareness that we are to please him in all that we do. There is a story of a man who sat down to his meal after a day of happy activities. As he prepared to give thanks and as he thought of the day’s events, he said, ‘What all this, and my God present with me.’

His presence should be a source of comfort to us. At times, we face opposition from the world and endure the temptations of Satan. Where is God at those times? He is with us, indeed he never leaves us. We do not cry to a distant God, although at times we may think he is far away from us, as happened to Job; in such times we are to commit ourselves to God. There is the promise of Psalm 23:4: ‘Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.’

His presence is a refuge for us in times of distress. Said David in Psalm 31:20: ‘In the cover of your presence you hide them from the plots of men; you store them in your shelter from the strife of tongues.’

His presence should cause us to be confident in our choices. A biblical example is Moses, who made his choice between a comfortable life in Pharaoh’s place and a difficult life with God’s people because he continually saw ‘him who is invisible’ (Heb. 11:27).

His presence should be a challenge to us in our priorities. Sometimes, we face a choice between what is right and wrong, and the reality of God’s presence should make the choice easy. At other times, we have to choose between two rights, and the knowledge that God is there should govern our motives and desires when we make that choice.

Connected to wrong choices is the possibility of losing a sense of the comfortable presence of God. Our sins grieve the Spirit and cause him to withdraw himself in the sense of providing peace and joy. But he remains in the sense that he will begin to convince us of our sins, for his commitment to his people includes the promise to restore them when they fall.

Thoughts on God's Presence (1)

In previous messages, we have considered God’s wisdom and God’s power. Now I want to think about God’s presence. The technical term for it is ‘omnipresence’, which means ‘present everywhere’. It is not possible for us to understand fully what it means for God to be omnipresent. We are creatures, who can only be in one place at any given time. Nevertheless, we should try to understand something of what God’s omnipresence means.

To begin with, we should note what this attribute does not mean. First, it does not mean that one part of God is in one place and other parts in other places. All of God is everywhere. Second, God is not part of his creation. Although he is present everywhere, he is distinct or separate from his creation.

Having made these qualifications, it can be said that there is nowhere where God is not. Wherever he is, he is always present with full knowledge (he not only knows all things, but he always knows what to do) and with full power (he always has the ability to do what he wishes in every situation).

But someone may ask, if God is present everywhere, what does in mean when the Bible refers to God as going to a place or being far away from another place? The answer is that the biblical writers use metaphorical language to describe a particular action of God. This tells us that although God is present everywhere, he is not present in each place in the same manner or way. The most important question to ask is, In what way is God present? Here are some ways revealed in the Bible.

(1) The Lord was present in Eden before Adam and Eve fell and they enjoyed fellowship with one another.

(2) Throughout history, in every age, God has made his presence known to individual believers, as can be seen in the common biblical phrase that someone ‘walked with God’.

(3) God is also present in his providence, upholding all things in existence, including the wicked. He is present with them at all times, observing all their doings and aware of all their thoughts, words and actions.

(4) In Israel, God dwelled in a special manner in the Holy of holies within the tabernacle and the temple.

(5) Today he indwells his church in a corporate sense, which is what Paul means in Ephesians 4:6: ‘One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.’

(6) This is true of the church as a whole and of the church in a local sense. Jesus promised his church that he would be present where two or three are met in his name. When we gather together on Sundays and during the week, we are there before God to worship him. Therefore, we should ‘come before his presence with thanksgiving, and make a joyful noise unto him with psalms’ (Ps. 95:2) .

(7) The redeemed are with God in heaven, beholding his glory, enjoying his company.

(8) After the resurrection, the redeemed will know God’s presence in blessing as they and the angels experience glory in the new heavens and earth. God will be with them (Rev. 21:3). The presence of God with them, in all its power and knowledge, will be marked by love, peace and joy for ever.

(9) Even those in hell will experience the presence of God. He will be present there, according to his power and knowledge, in anger and judgment (Rev. 14:10).

So we can see that the reality of God’s presence reveals itself in different ways. We will look at other aspects of his presence in subsequent blogs.

Thoughts on God's Power (3) - In Salvation

In a sense, this is part of the work of God's providence, because salvation also occurs under God’s control. There are many aspects in which God’s power is seen in salvation, but I will only mention a few of them. 

Firstly, his power was displayed in the person and work of Christ. The formation of Christ’s human nature was an act of divine power (Luke 1:35: ‘And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy – the Son of God’). We also see divine power at work in Christ’s resurrection from the dead when he overcame death. Only God’s power could achieve a virgin birth and a resurrection from the dead.

God’s power is also revealed in Christian experience, which begins at regeneration when the Holy Spirit makes a spiritually dead sinner alive. Paul in 2 Corinthians 4:6 likens the new birth to the original physical creation: ‘For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.’ Throughout his spiritual journey, each believer is kept by the power of God (1 Pet. 1:5), otherwise spiritual enemies would overcome him. Paul discovered that he could do all things through Christ’s strength (Phil. 4:13). In fighting the devil, each believer has to ‘be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might’ (Eph. 6:10). Concerning the progress in sanctification, Peter writes that God’s ‘divine power has granted us all things that pertain to life and godliness’ (2 Pet. 1:3).

And his power will be revealed in the consummation when Jesus returns. By God’s power, all humans will be raised from the dead. By his power, the lost will be judged and kept in the place of condemnation. Through his power, God will renew the universe and bring into existence the new heavens and new earth, and by his power he will maintain it in existence throughout the endless ages.

The knowledge that we have a powerful God should lead us to worship him. Israel was told: ‘But you shall fear the LORD, who brought you out of the land of Egypt with great power and with an outstretched arm. You shall bow yourselves to him, and to him you shall sacrifice’ (2 Kings 17:36). His power is a theme of the heavenly song: ‘Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honour and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created’ (Rev. 4:11). A similar song of praise is given to Jesus in the following chapter in Revelation.

God’s power should give us confidence for the growth of the church, for answered prayer, for expectancy of blessing. The apostles were told to wait for power which Jesus would send to them from heaven (Acts 1:8). That same power is still available. Similarly, God is able to answer our prayers because he ‘is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us’ (Eph. 3:20).

The power of God is a comfort for his people in connection to their sense of indwelling sin, answers to prayer and victory over Satan. Arthur W. Pink wrote: ‘Well may the saint trust such a God! He is worthy of implicit confidence. Nothing is too hard for Him. If God were stinted in might and had a limit to His strength we might well despair. But seeing that He is clothed with omnipotence, no prayer is too hard for Him to answer, no need too great for Him to supply, no passion too strong for Him to subdue, no temptation too powerful for Him to deliver from, no misery too deep for Him to relieve.’ Stephen Charnock commented: ‘As omnipotence is an ocean that cannot be fathomed, so the comforts from it are streams that cannot be exhausted.’

Thoughts on God's Power (2) - His Providence

J. I. Packer helpfully defines providence as ‘the unceasing activity of the Creator whereby, in overflowing bounty and goodwill, he upholds his creatures in ordered existence, guides and governs all events, circumstances, and free acts of angels and men, and directs everything to its appointed goal, for his own glory.’ A shorter definition has been given by Jerry Bridges: ‘God’s providence is his constant care for and his absolute rule over all his creation for his own glory and the good of his people.’ Note the words ‘unceasing’, ‘all’, ‘constant’ and ‘absolute’.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus referred to God’s power in connection to what we may regard as mundane things. For example, he refers to God’s feeding the birds (Matt. 6:26) and growing of grass (Matt. 6:30). He refers to God’s control of the weather (Matt. 5:45). Elsewhere, Jesus mentions God’s control of the demise of every sparrow (Matt. 10:29). The truth is that we call ‘acts of nature’ are actually ‘acts of God’ in his providence.

With regard to his intelligent or rational creatures, God’s power governs every isolated action and also the way all these actions affect each other. Every action that a person does is an effect of a previous one and a cause of a subsequent one; not only do they affect the person himself, they affect others in various ways.

We can take a example. Later this year there is going to be an election in Scotland in which thousands of people will vote freely [or not bother] for their preferred choice. Yet each person will come to that decision through a wide range of influences (opinions of the media, personal benefits or losses, etc.). Each of these influences was sent or allowed by God, and each person will vote exactly as to how God decreed he or she should vote.

From a spiritual point of view, there are other aspects in providence. Some actions will be good, others will be neutral, and others will be evil, yet they are all under the control of God. When Jesus was due to be born in Bethlehem, God ensured that a political decree would cause Joseph and Mary to be there at exactly the right time. When Saul of Tarsus was about to be converted, the Lord allowed him to resolve to go to Damascus with the intention of harassing Christians.

The prayers of God’s people are also connected to providence. We ask God to bring individuals to conversion. Yet we don’t know in what way God will bring about that conversion. But if God has decided to say yes to our prayer, then every thing that happens to such persons, every thought that he or she may have, every influence that comes along, is part of the process of answering that prayer.

God’s power in providence is seen in the way he controls evil, be it the actions of the devil or the activities and intentions of humans. One of the obvious ways to see this is the opposition that is raised against the church. Yet despite all the malice of the devil, he is over-ruled by God every time.

When we think of God’s power in providence, we should recall three aspects. First, we are to remind ourselves that he is invincible, that he cannot be defeated. If there were a single event in the entire universe that could occur outside of God’s control, it would mean that we could not trust him fully. Second, we are to remind ourselves that his ways are often inscrutable, that we usually cannot see what he is doing and often we do not understand what he is doing. Third, he is neverindifferent to our situations.

Thoughts on God's Power (1)

The term that theologians employ to describe this attribute of God is ‘omnipotence’, which means ‘all powerful’; it means the same as ‘almighty’. It is commonly mentioned along with two other ‘omnis’, that is, his omniscience (all knowledge) and his omnipresence (present everywhere). Usually, omnipresence is included among God’s incommunicable attributes (those that we cannot have because we are creatures – attributes such as eternity) rather than his communicable attributes (those that we can have in a measure, such as his love or holiness).

There are two problems with this manner of classification. First, it suggests that some attributes of God are greater than others whereas in reality each of them is infinite, eternal and unchangeable. Second, it is not clear what is meant by incommunicable and communicable: on the one hand, God’s love is regarded as communicable, but no human can comprehend the fullness of that love, which means that its entirety is incommunicable; on the other hand, God’s power is regarded as incommunicable, yet we can experience some of his power, which means that aspects of it are communicable. Personally, I would suggest that we do not attempt to classify God’s attributes in this way. Because we are made in the image of God, we have access to all God’s attributes and reflect them according to our individual abilities and interests and needs. We can experience his love and his power, his holiness and his presence, his compassion and his knowledge.

When we speak of God’s omnipotence, we mean that God is capable of doing all that he wishes. Of course, there are some things that God cannot do. For example, God’s omnipotence cannot make two and two become three or five. Further, God cannot do anything against his own nature; none of his attributes act independently of the others.

God’s power is linked closely to his wisdom, which means that God always does what is best; it is also linked to his holiness, which means that he always does what is pure; it is connected to his justice, which means that he always does what is right; and it is connected to his love, which means he always does what his for the good of his people. We could detail all of God’s attributes and mention how they direct the exercising of his power.

A. W. Tozer summarised God’s omnipotence as follows: ‘Since he has at his command all the power in the universe, the Lord God omnipotent can do anything as easily as anything else. All his acts are done without effort. He expands no energy that must be replenished. His self-sufficiency makes it unnecessary for him to look outside of himself for a renewal of strength. All the power required to do all that he wills to do lies in undiminished fullness in his own infinite being.’

Everything that happens is evidence of God’s power, of his sovereign control of all things. The power of God is revealed in the creation and maintaining of the universe, in his supreme control of human history, and in the working out of his plan of salvation.

As we think of all that God has done, we must remember that he has never yet used all his power. We will consider next time various features of his acts of power, yet we should remember he could have done a lot more had he chosen to do so, especially in the work of creation.