Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Better Covenant

Hebrews 8:8-12 contrasts the Old Covenant (Old Testament) with the New Covenant.  What was the problem with the old covenant?  We were the problem.  The covenant required that we comply with its requirements, that we follow the revealed laws of God.  In this it required somethat that was impossible.  At the end of the book of Joshua, Joshua challenges the people to "choose this day whom you will serve", and they say, "We will serve The Lord."  To this Joshua replies, "You are unable to serve The Lord."  Just so.  Any covenant that requires us to unswervingly love and serve God will not work, not because it is itself an unfair covenant, but because we will never keep our side of it, unless we are changed from within.  

The New Covenant is better because it does not require the impossible, but rather provides it.  "I will put my Laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts."  The whole rest of the paragraph shows that what is promised here is a change in nature, a change in the heart.  Whereas formerly we hated th law and saw it as foreign, now we shall love the laws of God and be drawn to Him and them by our very hearts.  

This is the only way to God.  He must change us.  He must change me.  I despair of my old selfish nature which repeatedly disappoints me.  If I am ever to have fellowship with God, it will be because he has reached in and actually, actively changed my heart and the kinds of things I love.  I cannot make myself love the things I do not love.  But God can and does.  This is the new birth and the new nature that is spoke of elsewhere in scripture.  

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Today if you hear His voice...

I am using M'Cheyne's schedule for Bible reading, in which one reads four selections from scripture each day, eventually reading through the entire Bible.  One of today's readings is Hebrews chapter 3, in which the author speaks of a day of rest for believers. 

The exhortation is, "Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as they did in the rebellion."    Also, "Exhort one another every day, as long as it is called today".  So when is Today?

This may seem like a silly question, but it is not, especially in light of yesterday's post.  One interpretation is that, when one once hears God's voice, one must respond that day, or be cut off.  One chance, one day.  Because the next day is tomorrow, and today becomes yesterday.  You miss out, it's too bad.  You blew it. 

Alternatively, the author is getting at the point that for us every moment is "today".  Being bound into the flow of time, we can only ever act "today"; there is no real possibility of acting tomorrow, until it becomes today.  I have made many plans for many tomorrows over the years that I failed to carry through when they became "today".  It is what one does now that matters.  The least important time is the past, wherein one can neither act nor plan.  The less important time is the future, of which one knows little and can only plan.  The most important time is the present, which one can know and in which one can act.  

For us, it is always Today.  And, as I suggested yesterday, the future, even the future as pronounced from time to time by God, is changeable, at least in the only way which we can understand.  When we kneel before God and repent, the world changes. When we open our hearts to God today, regardless what we did yesterday, the world changes.  Today is the only day in which we can act. Now is the only moment in which we can act. And as we are born along in time, every moment is new and therefore a new opportunity to enter the rest that God has offered us. 


Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Hezekiah's prayer: Does God change His mind?

I have always been intrigued by the events recorded in 2 Kings 20.  It seems to me to be one of those verses which raises very deep questions about the nature of prayer, time, causality, and God's will. It begins with Isaiah telling King Hezekiah that his illness will certainly lead to death, and that the king should get his affairs in order.  There is no doubt that he is speaking as a prophet, not a physician, in that he uses the formula, "Thus says The Lord."  On the basis of this pronouncement of coming death, the prophet also suggests specific action, the putting of affairs in order.  It seems in every way an announcement of the determined will of God with regard to Hezekiah.  

Isaiah leaves, and Hezekiah turns his face to the wall and asks God to remember his good deeds and his wholehearted walk, then weeps bitterly.  Immediately Isaiah receives another word from The Lord, before he has even left the palace, and must turn around and deliver a new, completely different message to the king.  Now, the King will live another 15 years, and Jerusalem will not fall to Assyria.  Hezekiah is astounded, and asks, like Gideon, for a miraculous sign, and is given one.  

So what just happened here?  We have what appears to be a clear cut, unequivocal announcement of death, through the prophet Isaiah no less, followed by its retraction, in response to prayers and tears.  Did God change his mind? 

According to the most basic and straightforward sense of that question, the answer is clearly, "Yes, He did."  As a human being, interacting with another person, this is in every way meaningful to me a case of God's changing His mind.  At 1:00PM (let's say), God tells Hezekiah that he will die from this illness, and at 1:30 He tells him that he will live.  God pronounces the future, a human weeps and prays, and God pronounces a different future.  From Hezekiah's perspective, from Isaiah's who had to go back, from any human's perspective in that palace, God had changed his mind.  

(Let me insert here the practical encouragement this affords.  Even when it appears that God has pronounced doom upon us, even via a prophet, yet that doom may be changed by our prayers and tears.  Not only the things we don't know may change, but even the things that we believe we have heard "straight from a prophet" may change with prayer.  Mercy may be found even after pronouncement of the sentence.)  This is mind-boggling. 

Now for the boggle....

Perhaps it is presuming too much to say that God had changed his mind.  However, He certainly changed his message to Isaiah and Hezekiah.  Did He not speak His mind the first time?  If not, then in what sense are we to interpret His messages to us, even his explicit prophecies?  Notice that this is not the only time such a thing happens.  Remember Jonah, who carried God's message all over Ninevah, that it would be destroyed in 40 days, only to find that after they repented the message was changed to one of mercy.  Jonah actually expected Him to change his message (or mind): that's why He didn't want to carry the message in the first place!  What does God mean when he speaks to us of the future? 

Without time there can be no change.  Without change, perhaps, there can be no meaning to time.  God is always the same, which fits with his being eternal, ie, not affected by, perhaps not even in, Time.  We, however, live in time so fundamentally that we cannot imagine the world apart from time.  Do you think of movement?  That implies time.  Of growth? That implies time.  Of speech?  Music?  Rhythm?  Sound?  Stories?  All these require time to make any sense at all to us.  We are swept along always by time, and cannot comprehend being otherwise.  

So what is God doing when He speaks to us of the future?  He is representing something to us that He knows but that we can never see "from here".  The future is an idea in our minds that is always changeable, always speculative, never fixed until it ceases to be tomorrow and becomes today.  He sees the end from the beginning, but we can never see in that way, being by nature creatures in time even before our fall.  Perhaps when God speaks to us of the future, he is communicating to us specific ideas that are as real as such ideas can be to temporal beings.  We consider and respond to those ideas, and in so doing, we change.  As we change, our relationship to the unchanging God and to the world He has made also changes.  The change comes from us, not from God.

Face it, we do not understand time.  When we think of the future, we perhaps think of it as something that is fixed by a chain of causality that we just can't see but which is there nonetheless, and quite impersonal.  But perhaps that is wrong, or at least incomplete.  Perhaps personal beings are the most fundamental things, and time is a created dimension or context for such  beings as we are, a medium so to speak, which both we and God use to express our mutual relationships.  In that case, change is fundamental to our very existence and to our relationship with God, and the future, from our perspective, is always being changed. When God re-pronounces the future, perhaps He is simply re-announcing the future that has changed as a result of our changing.  



Note: On-the-fly blogs coming

For the one or two of you who "follow" this blog (in the sense of reading it twice a year or so, when I manage to write something...), I want to note that in an effort to write more often, I may write less well. In considering the reasons why I write so infrequently, it occurs to me that I conceive of each entry as requiring a lot of time that I don't have.  Perhaps a simple "thought dump" is something that I can achieve with less effort, lowering that particular barrier to writing.  So, here goes. 

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

By the will of God...

In the west, especially in America, we like to think of ourselves as "self-made", as having become who we are through our own individual efforts and choices.  Even a little thought demonstrates the fallacy of that conceit.  Why are you the race you are?  Why are you a citizen of your country?  How did you come by your physical and mental capabilities?  Look around; are there others around you that are markedly different in their opportunities and capabilities?  Could you as easily have been born and raised in their circumstances?    Even when in comes to our "raisin's and bringin's up" as my Irish grandmother used to say, we are formed largely by our parents, for good or ill, whom we did not choose.  The most fundamental "material" underlying who we are was not our choice.

OK, granted, you may say. But what I do with that material is my own choice.  And indeed it is, from one perspective.  From the human, in-the-flow-of-time perspective, whatever you do that was not forced upon you was done freely, by your own choice.  The Bible recognizes and assumes the reality of this choice.  Joshua told the Israelites, "Choose this day whom you will serve...as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord."  God definitely calls us to choose, and respects those choices.  

Nevertheless, there is an out-of-the-flow-of-time, eternal perspective that belongs only to God and is the realm of His own will.  We cannot comprehend this, as we cannot move our own minds out of temporal ways of thoughts.  We live in time as fish live in water, or, more precisely, as we live in the three dimensions of space.  Though we can mathematically describe additional dimensions, we cannot perceive them, we cannot hold them in our mind's eye in the way that we can recall or imagine a smell, a landscape, or a conversation. We live in time and space, and probably always will (presuming that our resurrected existence will be like it was before the Fall, wherein Adam lived in time and space.)  So we can recognize and talk about the eternal will of God, and say true things about it, but we cannot fully comprehend it, and in fact all we can know about it is what is revealed to us by one who lives in it, namely God.  

Paul opens the letter to the Ephesians by noting that he is an apostle "by the will of God."  The full story is told in Acts.  Paul, being born into a prominent Jewish family and into Roman citizenship with all its privileges, received an education from Gamaliel, a rabbi who is still famous and whose writings are still studied today.  Paul was a persecutor of the followers of Jesus.  In fact, Jesus himself states that Paul was a persecutor of Jesus!  Keep in mind that, from our Western perspective, this was all Paul's own choice.  Paul became an apostle of Jesus because Jesus forcibly knocked him from his horse and blinded him while he was on his way to arrest Christians in Damascus.  Paul was told to go into Damascus, blind, and wait for further instructions.  So when Paul states that he is an apostle "by the will of God", he knows that quite literally, and forcibly, and through no choice of his own, his course in life was redirected 180 degrees, and from being a persecutor of Jesus and Christians he would become himself a persecuted Christian and "doulos" (bondservant/slave) of Christ.  This was not because Paul chose this way after much consideration and reflection, but because God chose him and forcibly intervened in his life, against Paul's will.  

This perspective of Paul, that what he is, he is by the will of God, is key to understanding much of the rest that he will write to the Ephesians.  

But consider: what are you "by the will of God"?  Are you a wife, a mother, a husband, a father?  Do you really see these as being "by the will of God"?  If so, then you will see that you are called to those roles, that they were assigned to you by your maker.  Were you given a strong body? a capable mind?  If so, you were assigned those resources by your Father.  Were you given a broken body or mind?  If so, then no less than the able-bodied, you have been given these limitations for a purpose, and you are who you are "by the will of God".  Let us think first about what we have been given, and only then about what we "will" do. 

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Thoughts on Ephesians

One might call the letter to the Ephesians the "Deep Gospel" or the "Full Gospel".  It moves beyond the core teaching of the substitutionary death of Christ and of salvation by grace through faith to consider "the mystery of (God's) will" regarding His plan for the whole sweep of history and for all the nations of the world.  The core teaching of the gospel is restated and affirmed, of course, but its underpinnings in God's intentions and choices before the foundation of the world, and its goal for the fullness of time, these are the ideas which excite Paul's exuberant praises, thanksgivings, and encouragements to his brethren in Asia Minor.  God has had an incredible plan all along, since before the creation, key parts of which had remained hidden from the understanding of mankind but which are now revealed to His people in the current, last days of the world:  all things created, whether in Heaven or Earth, are to be united in Christ, and all his people, from all the nations (not just or even primarily Jews) are to be united into one body, which will manifest this fullness of all-in-all.  And we are and will be part of that body.

This letter answers the question, what are we saved for?  To what end our salvation?  Why all these ages before and after the coming of Jesus?  I am a Christian, I have left the bondage of sin and the world, but into what have I entered?  What is the point?  What is God's purpose in history, whether the history of the whole world down through the ages, or the history of my own relatively brief life?

An understanding of these mysteries is the great news that Paul is sharing with the Ephesians, and it is in light of this understanding that we are to live as befits a people with such a glorious past and future.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

I am currently teaching Ephesians to an adult Sunday school class.  As a reference for those students, and an exercise for myself, I will in the coming days attempt to place in this blog space some thoughts on that text.  

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Jeremiah 29: The comfort of the Lord's discipline

This is a wonderful chapter. God's people have abandoned Him and served other gods, over and over again, and as a result they are about to be taken into exile to Babylon. There is no doubt in the text that this is punishment for their unfaithfulness, and a fulfillment of the Curse which Moses warned them of, should they abandon their Lord and Saviour.

Yet, love and gentleness are evident here. In Jeremiah 27, God has told His people that if they submit to this inevitable exile graciously and humbly, and do not resist the Babylonians, that they will be spared the murderous destruction that was typical of conquest at that time, and their lives will be spared. But the false prophets argue and subvert Jeremiah's admonition by telling the people that Babylon will fall in two years (it does not.) The people do resist, and we know that their city fell in fire, rape, pillage, and the dashing of infants' heads against the rocks. This was not what God wanted.

In this chapter, Jeremiah addresses the exiles who were taken in the first wave, before the total destruction. Daniel was among these. They are told to embrace life there in exile, not to pine and despair, but to live, to marry, to have babies, to grow food, and to increase in number (very similar to the command to Adam and Eve to "be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.") Most surprisingly, rather than try to undermine or sabotage the Babylonian culture, they are to pray for it, to seek its good, to seek the good of any Babylonian city to which they are taken, for "in its prosperity shall be your prosperity." Why? "Because I know my plans for you, plans not for calamity but for a future and a hope." (My wife's favorite verse.) This whole terrible experience is part of God's plan for their good, for their cleansing, even as a loving father sadly chastises his son or daughter so that they will grow up straight and good and have a good life.

We know that God did ultimately judge Babylon for its great pride and brutality, but that was not to be the goal of his people. They were to seek the real good of these pagan cities, and in so doing, could still have a good life even in the midst of their punishment. Many, even most of the exiles would never see Jerusalem again...seventy years was longer than the normal life span. Yet their children would, and these exiles were to make sure that there would be children to return, and that those children understood why they had been exiled, that they would never fall into idolatry again.

As we find ourselves disciplined by the Lord, we should remember Babylon. Though He chastise us, it is because He loves us and seeks our real prosperity. Furthermore, as we live in these pagan cities of the West, knowing that they are not our homes, we should nevertheless live fully in them, seek their prosperity, for in their prosperity will be our prosperity.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Acts 19: Magic and the name of Jesus

In Ephesus, Paul finds a small group of disciples who apparently heard the gospel in a very indirect and incomplete way, yet believed what they had heard. Paul finds that they have only heard and entered into John the Baptist's baptism of repentance. After explaining the full gospel, they are baptized "in the name of Jesus", and immediately begin speaking in tongues as a manifestation of their receipt of the Holy Spirit. This, I think everyone will agree, is rather miraculous.

Later we see Paul teaching for an extended period in Ephesus, and teaching carefully and accurately about Jesus, as we noted yesterday. In this context of careful teaching and preaching of Jesus, Paul also performs many miracles. This catches the attention of "spiritual practitioners' (exorcists) who try to cast out demons in Jesus' name, but cannot. In another place, a magician named Simon is impressed with Paul's apparent ability to "cause" the Holy Spirit to fall upon his hearers, and offers to buy this power, earning a strong rebuke from Paul.

These incidents seem to offer some insight into the meaning of doing anything "in the name of Jesus." Jesus taught that if we ask anything "in his name", the Father will grant it. This sounds almost like magic. However the episodes in Acts show that it is not merely a matter of saying, "In Jesus' name", but rather of being in a real, actual and personal relationship with Jesus. The miracles performed by Paul were incidental, not central, to his ministry of serving others by bringing them into a relationship with Jesus. The miracles occurred because he had a relationship with Jesus, knew Jesus, and shared His heart and desires. Simon and the exorcists had no such relationship, and their attempt to use Jesus' name in a formulaic way, like an incantation, was abortive.

We are asking "in the name of Jesus" only when we have a relationship with him and are in a position in which we represent His desires when we pray. If we are simply stating our own desires, without reference to that relationship, and add the words, "In Jesus name", we are using His name in a magical way, and can expect no particular answer, except possibly discipline.