“Gift Time”

At Christmas we “exchange” gifts. We feel embarrassed if we receive a gift from someone and we do not have a gift to give in return. We will go to great lengths to find some gift to give in return. This is rather a pity, but there is very little we can do about it, because there is something deeply instinctive in us which demands, that for every gift we receive, we must give something back to ‘correct the imbalance’ .  This instinct is very powerful, and causes us much stress at Christmas time; but it has a much more far-reaching effect than we realise. In fact it is no exaggeration to say that it can affect our eternal destiny.

Multitudes are driven by this instinct to, unconsciously, enter into a religious relationship with God which is based on a ‘trading’ mindset. They seek to be good and to do good in order to please God. Their hope is that, at the end of their lives, when they appear before God, He will ‘reward’ them with entry into heaven on account of the great ‘credit’ of righteousness the have amassed. Sadly for them, their hope is not only vain, but it is insulting to God and to His gift of  His Son Jesus Christ who suffered and died on the cross to save sinners. Both Old and New testaments warn against this ‘trader’ mind-set.

In Isaiah 64:6 God tells us how our personal righteousness appears before God: “All our righteousnesses are as filthy rags”.  Also in Romans 3: 20, we read”By the deeds of the law shall no flesh (i.e. human beings) be justified in His sight”.

That is only half the problem of the ‘spiritual trader’. Much greater is the problem that their spiritual mind-set causes them to resist the gospel. This is because the gospel presents the Lord Jesus Christ to be freely received, by us not for the righteous, but for sinners. It requires us to abandon any hope in our own righteousness, and to simply receive God’s gift of His Son, without any eye to what we can give in return, because we have nothing to give. We are by nature spiritually bankrupt. We call this salvation by “grace”. It is bestowed on us by God on the basis that Christ has, on the cross, paid the full penalty for all our sins, and our responsibility is to believe on Him and receive Him as Lord and Saviour . This brings us into a different world from that of the ‘trader’. We might call it the world of ‘grace’.

By nature then we have a deep-seated resistance to receiving something gladly and joyfully when we have nothing to give in return. This often stands between us and getting RightWithGod. We must abandon this resistance no matter how dear it is to us,  and no matter what loss of face we suffer among friends and family; and we must identify with Jesus Christ as one of His people. A man was once asked to describe how he became a christian. He said, “I gathered up all my bad deeds, and then I gathered up all my good deeds, and I put them on the same heap. I then freely received the salvation which God has provided for sinners in His great gift of salvation through the suffering and death of His Son Jesus Christ.”

The ‘Miracle’ of Christmas

Christmas is almost with us again. The excitement and fever is building up, as the stress levels of adults and children increase by the day, ramped up by the retail trade, who have come to depend on big sales at Christmas to increase their profits. It should be a time when Christ is at the forefront of our minds, but sadly, life becomes so busy around Christmas time that Christ can be pushed out of our thoughts.

Now, if we do manage to give some thought to Christ at Christmas, what do our thoughts centre upon? Is it what we call ‘the miracle of the virgin birth’ or do we dig deeper. The fact of the matter is that there was no miracle in the birth of Jesus. It was a natural process which every mother goes through as part of normal life. The birth itself was not a miracle, even although the mother was a virgin. Yet the virgin birth lays upon us the really big question: if there was no male involved in His conception, how was He conceived? The answer is that His conception was a miracle. In fact the conception of Jesus Christ was the biggest, and the most astounding miracle of all. There is nothing to compare with what took place in the conception of Jesus Christ in the womb of the virgin Mary, that is, the womb of a sinner. This miracle stands alone among all miracles.

There, God the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity, entered and took a created human nature into permanent union with His own eternal divine person! That is the miracle of Christmas, not the birth of Christ, but what we call the incarnation, that is the enfleshment of God the Son. What followed from that miracle was the development of the embryo through the normal and natural process to full term in the normal, natural time; and then the birth; again normal and natural in every way. I have used the description ‘normal and natural’ three times in the last sentence, because it is so important.

The miracle was in the conception. The practice and doctrines of the early church, which we call the ‘Apostolic Church’ are of crucial importance to the church in all ages. It is the authoritative pattern which we must follow. There we find that little attention was paid to the celebration of the birth of Christ, but much about the miraculous conception. The words of John 3:16 are among the most well known of all scripture verses, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believes on Him should not perish, but have everlasting life. That was the greatest act of ‘giving’ of all time, and it took place at the conception of Jesus ]Christ, not at His birth. To take one other text, in John 1: 14, “The Word, (that is the eternal Son of God) was made flesh and dwelt among us.”

Let us then think a little deeper about Christmas, and let us be amazed at what God has done for sinners. The more we think about it the more our amazement grows. Perhaps we might even feel compelled to fall on our knees and worship Him and receive Him that we might get RightWithGod this christmas,

Invisible and Visible

In Revelation chapter 4 we are given an amazing revelation of the throne of God, and some idea of the glory that surrounds it. In verse 2 we are told that there was One sitting on the throne. In verse 3 we are told that the One sitting on the throne was a He, a male person. There follows a mysterious description of that Person: “Like a jasper and a sardius stone in appearance”. How are we to interpret these words? There is little to be gained by studying these stones. After all our studies we know no more about the appearance of the person than we did before. All we can say is that there was  a person on that throne that could not be described in words, What it does point to is One who is invisible, but yet a real Person. It was the throne of God, and God Himself sat on  the throne, the Invisible God; Invisible because God is a spirit.

Now when we move forward to Chapter 5, we read that there was a book in the right hand of Him that sat on the throne. We shall look at this book later because we want to focus our attention on another Person who appears. This Person is different from the Person in Chapter 4. This person is visible; in fact He is man. He is called by two strange names, “The Lion of the tribe of Judah”, and “the Root of David”. These are two names used elsewhere in the bible for the Lord Jesus Christ. However He was no ordinary man because He alone was able to take the book out of the hand of the One that sat on the throne. This  was because He was God as well as man.

So in Chapter 3 we have on the throne God invisible. In Chapter 4 we have God visible, the Lord Jesus Christ, taking this mysterious book out of the hand of God invisible on the throne.  Clearly this is God the Son taking the book out of the hand of God the Father, Let us now take a look at this book itself.

This was a most unusual book, It would not be a ‘book’ like the books we are used to. It would be a scroll. and we read that it was written on both sides, back and front, suggesting that there was no space for additions. This was God’s plan for the history of the world. In Chapter 5 we have the wonderful picture of God the Son, the Lord Jesus Christ taking the book out of the hand of God the Father, agreeing thereby to carry through the history of the world.  We read in psalm 40, verse 8 of the loving spirit in which this was done: “I delight to do thy will, O my God: yea thy law is within my heart”.

What a comfort it is to the believer, that the Lord Jesus Christ is God visible. It means that when we get to heaven we shall see Him with our very eyes, and be able to enjoy Him forever more.

Black Friday

As I write it is the day after “Black Friday”, the day which has come to mean the “Bargain Day” of the year for consumers. The shopping centres are invaded by massive crowds, armed with their cash and plastic cards, hoping to acquire goods at ‘knock-down’ prices for Christmas presents, or for their own needs. However, it seems that the term “Black Friday” was first used by the retailers rather than the consumers. It was the day that retailers who had had a lean year were able to jump from ‘in the red’ to ‘in the black’ in one day, and end the lean year in profit!

However there was a day in history that, more than any other, could be called “black Friday”, namely the day when the Lord Jesus was crucified. Something happened on that day that has never happened before or since. Darkness covered the earth for three hours ( Matthew 27: 45-46; Mark 15: 33-34;  Luke 22: 44:45)! I believe that these three hours are the most important three hours in the sufferings of the cross, and in the whole history of this world. Yes, we are given much information on what took place during the first three hours that Jesus spent on the cross during which He suffered the physical cruelty and mockery of man, driven forward by the malice of Satan, who wanted to see Him ‘cave in’ under the physical suffering. In this, Satan failed, so that Jesus was able to go forward into the far more important second period of three hours which  He spent on the cross, a period of which we are told little in the Gospel accounts, but of which we can learn much from the rest of the Bible, Old testament, and New Testament.

There He suffered the wrath of God being poured out on Him until there was no wrath left, and he was able to utter the triumphant words, “It is finished”. It is vitally important for us the realise that Jesus did not die a victim, but a victor, His was the greatest victory ever in the whole history of the world. Because He suffered the Father’s wrath till it was finished, the prospect for man, as a sinner, who has sinned against God, is completely and irreversibly changed. We can now be gloriously RightWithGod in this life, and know that after death we will most surely go to heaven, and be with Christ for all eternity. All that is required of us is to come to Christ as sinners and trust Him to take away our sins, and we will most surely and certainly be saved.

But why the darkness? Why was the out-pouring of the Father’s wrath hidden from man? Firstly, it was probably something which would be too much for weak human nature to survive. But also, strangely, it was a ‘private’ time between God the Father and God the Son. There the  Father poured out His wrath on His beloved Son for the sins of human beings until it was quite spent, and so salvation for sinners was purchased in complete and utter righteousness.The Father did not spare the Son because He was His Son ( Romans 8:32).

So this ‘black Friday’ did not come and go as the commercial ‘Black Friday’ did,  but ended in glorious triumph and light, because Jesus was raised from the dead. Since then the glory of gospel light has bathed this world. The call to sinners is, ‘all things are now ready. Come and receive Christ, and be saved’.

God Upholds Marriages

One of the privileges of my position is that I get the opportunity to conduct marriages. Yesterday, once again, I enjoyed that privilege. Two lovely young people, male and female,  made the most amazing promises regarding their future together. These promises were made in the context of a service of worship because they wanted to affirm what they were doing before God, and before many witnesses. The fact that these promises were made in such a context makes them more than promises. They are vows, and they are binding for life. It is particularly wonderful that these vows are still taken at marriages in an age when, generally, mutual trust among human beings is at a low ebb; and even more wonderful that some trust one another to the extent that they are willing to articulate such vows before God and before many witnesses.

Some will say, ‘what is the point? marriages no longer last’. It has to be admitted that sadly today many marriages fail. That is a fact. However, that is only one side of the story. The far more amazing fact is that so many marriages succeed, and survive, against all expectations. Why is this the case, and why can we have confidence that this will continue? Because marriage is not a human ‘invention’, but an institution ordained and put in place by God. Why should that make a difference? Because God upholds marriages. He upholds, not only the marriages of those who are believers and RightWithGod, but of those who have not made any commitment to  trust God for their salvation, but who acknowledge His existence, and His rule over all things. I believe that He even upholds the marriages of confessed unbelievers, as long as they remain faithful to one another. Why is marriage and its upholding by God, so universal in its availability? It is because marriage was instituted before the fall of man. We read of the institution of marriage in Genesis chapter 2, but the fall does not occur till chapter 3. Marriage is a privilege available to all mankind.

Let us take a look at Genesis 2: 24 which reads: “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh”. These words teach us three important things concerning marriage as laid down by God which are crucial to its success.

1. There must be a leaving of father and mother. This does not mean any fall-out, nor does it exclude mutual help and cooperation; but it does mean a definite and accepted separation, as far as that is possible.

2. Husband and wife must cleave to one another. This means an absolutely exclusive relationship, which excludes all others. For any third party to invade that relationship is a most serious disregard for what God has laid down in His Word.

3. Husband and wife must have no inhibitions about being joined together in the physical relationship of marriage, to the extent that they become “one flesh”.

I have no doubt whatsoever that God upholds faithful marriages. The emphasis must be on faithfulness. Once the sin of marital unfaithfulness comes into a marriage, my own observation, and experience in dealing with marriage problems, is that reconciliation is then extremely difficult. My question in such a situation is, ‘has God withdrawn His upholding hand?’

As far as our view of marriage in general is concerned, let us be optimistic, and have confidence that marriages will continue to be entered into and many of these marriages will endure; because God instituted marriage in the first place, and since then He upholds what He has instituted.

Reconciliation

It still amazes me how easily children fall out with one another. One  does one little thing to offend the other, then there is retaliation on the part of the other. Then there follows an escalating process of ‘tit for tat’ until  one ends up in tears. But I am also amazed how little time it takes for children to forget the whole thing and get back to playing together as if nothing had happened.  Not only has the offence been put aside, but it has been truly forgotten. Reconciliation seems to have come about so easily

When we become adults, we are not so good at reconciliation. We may manage to put the offence aside, in some measure, but it is much more difficult for us to forget that it ever happened. We may wish that we could blot it out from our memories, but, we soon realise that we cannot exercise such control over our memories.

But when God says, “I will forgive their iniquity, and will remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31: 34).  He actually means it, and He is able to do it! Yet  God does not forget anything as we often forget things. So how is He able to say, ‘I will remember their sin no more’? Because He is able to do something which is to our minds amazing and even incomprehensible, that is, He can choose not to remember! And that is the end of the matter.

Does this mean that He passes over sin and forgets it and so reconciles us to Himself. No, He cannot do that. Why not? Because He is a righteous God. What does that mean? It means that it would be utterly against His nature to pass over sin without the full punishment being paid. Does that mean we can never be friends with God? No, because God in His love has done a wonderful thing. We read in Romans 5: “When we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son”, a reference to the death of Christ, the Son of God, on the cross of Calvary. Christ there suffered the full penalty for all the sins, past, present and future,  of all who receive Him as Lord and Saviour. They are “reconciled to God by the death of His Son”. They are irreversibly RightWithGod and the friends of God forever.

This is the gospel, and here the beauty of Christ’s reconciling work shines forth. The christian has a banner over him: “reconciled to God”. He loves God and all things to do with him. His heart leaps at the word, ‘reconciliation’. Especially when he thinks that his reconciliation to God is rooted in righteousness, and therefore, unassailable.

Of course this relationship to God will produce a sensitivity to the things that offend God. It is not that this is going to add to our salvation. Nothing can be added to it; it is forever complete and perfect. It is rather that this new relationship is a relationship of mutual love, and the christian is always grieved at his own sin, and wants to go to God confessing his sin, and seeking repentance (turning determinedly away from all sin) and forgiveness, so that he can enjoy God with a clear conscience. This does not mean having a perfectly spotless conscience. No sinner in this world can have that. What it does mean is what Paul strives for in Acts 24:16: “This [being] so, I myself always strive to have a conscience without offence toward God and men.” (Acts 24:16). The believer should have no difficulty in knowing that there is some offence on his conscience, which he needs to confess and seek forgiveness and cleansing for.

 

God’s Alarm

I like to be up really early in the morning, but I do not like the act of getting out of bed. As a heavy sleeper, I am very dependent on my alarm clock to wake me up. Many years ago, I discovered that, if the alarm clock was within reach, I would just put it off and go back to sleep. The snooze button just gave permission to lie a  little bit longer, and a little bit longer, and so it went on. I am not going to tell how many times I  sometimes pressed it, but it was not so many times as a friend who told me he once repeatedly pressed the snooze button for five hours! However, I had to find a foolproof way to actually get me out of bed, and many years ago I began to use a simple method that I have used very effectively ever since. A loud alarm was the first essential. Then, when I set the alarm in the evening, I placed it on the floor well away from the bed.  This ensured that I actually got out of bed as soon as the alarm went off. Pride ensured that I did  not get back into bed! Recovery was very quick when I realised that I was out of bed at an early hour and had gained some of that precious commodity:- time.

Is there such a thing as God’s alarm? Yes. It does not just waken us from sleep, but in a sense it wakens us from the dead! God’s alarm  sometimes works dramatically quickly. This may happen under the preaching of the gospel, or a simple few words from a faithful witness, or from reading the bible, or one of many other means that God uses as His alarm. The person is dramatically awakened from his or her spiritual death.

However, God’s alarm very often works very slowly: sometimes so slowly and imperceptibly as to be at first unrecognised. Yet it is the same work as in the more sudden awakenings. Every person who is spiritually awakened is raised from the dead by God’s alarm, that is, God’s omnipotent and irresistible power being applied to them. Often it is simply a case of the person becoming increasingly disappointed with the enjoyments of the world as he realises that the world never delivers on what it promises. He may for a time make greater and greater efforts to gain the satisfaction he used to get from the world, but it no longer works for him. He loses his peace, and perhaps even feels that he is heading for a mental breakdown.

But God will always provide the necessary understanding of His own great purpose to relieve their stress. Again, God uses different means. Some remember what they were taught in childhood, some may be led to seek peace in a gospel church, or perhaps they may listen to a recorded sermon. Whatever means is used they will learn with new understanding, that God loved human beings in such a way that He gave His Son, Jesus Christ, to die on the cross of Calvary as a substitute in the place of sinners. God will enable them to repent of their sins and to believe and trust in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour. They will have the unspeakable joy of being RightWithGod now and forever.

“Soul Searching”

The true believer is not afraid of being searched by the scriptures; indeed he or she wants this searching, and wants confirmation from the bible that they are true believers, RightWithGod. This desire itself is a confirmation, or token that they are indeed true children of God. The unbeliever does not want to be searched in this way.

One of the subjects described in various parts of the bible is the subject of heaven. What the bible tells us about heaven is not just information, but it is a rich testing ground for us to test ourselves. What we must ask ourselves is,  ‘Does the heaven described in the bible appeal to us, or does it not?’ Very few people would say they do not want to go to heaven, but when heaven is described to them, the reaction of many is, ‘I do not want to go there’.  The reason often given is,’It sounds a very boring place. Some would say, ‘I would not like to spend eternity in the company of Christians’. To the unbeliever very often the christian life seems very boring, when nothing could be further from the truth.

Many years ago a boat was just casting off from the quay-side in Glasgow, when this man came running along the quay, and with one desperate jump, he just managed to jump the widening gap. He landed a heap on the deck so puffed that it took him some time to be able to speak. People gathered round him, wondering if he needed help. Eventually he sat up and said, “Where’s the bar?”.  He was then told, “Sir, you must be on the wrong boat. There is no bar on this boat. This is a party of christians out for a day-trip. We will be away for most of the day”.  His full answer was unprintable, but it was clear that being ‘imprisoned’ for a whole day with only christians for company, was to him like a hell on earth.

One of the wonderful things about the prospect of heaven for the true christian is in the words, “They shall see His face”(Revelation 22:4).  This means that we will actually see Jesus with our physical eyes because, when he took human nature into union with Himself, the union was, and ever will be, permanent and indestructible. As the angel said to the disciples, as he was being taken up into heaven, “This same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as you have seen Him go into heaven” Acts 1: 11). The question for you and me is, “Is this something that really excites us, and makes us long for heaven; or is it something that leaves our hearts cold?” If the latter, then it is an indication that we have never received Christ as our Saviour from our sins, and as the Lord of our lives, and are not RightWithGod.

It is not possible in this small space to apply the rest of this great passage, But there are plenty other things here by which we can test ourselves. The great question is, ‘Is the heaven that is described to us in the bible the kind of heaven we want?’ Search and see.

A Lost Diamond

My dear wife of 53 years still wears her engagement ring continually, night and day. It was not an expensive ring, but the years had made it very precious to us both. A few days ago she got out of bed in the morning and realised that her engagement ring felt rough. On closer examination we discovered that a tiny diamond was missing from the ring, and we were stunned. We did not know when or where it had fallen, and we knew that the chances of finding such a tiny thing were slim. A thorough search yielded nothing. Then we remembered that my wife had vacuumed the floors the previous day. There was nothing for it but to search the bag of the vacuum cleaner. I scissored the edges of the bag all round, opened it out on the floor, and began teasing out the fluff and dust, not expecting much. Suddenly, in the midst of all the dust, I saw this tiny, but unmistakeable, sparkle. With a merry heart, I took it to my wife, and we rejoiced and thanked God together. It was the lost diamond.

But there was another thought on my mind, namely the words of Jesus concerning Himself in Luke 19:10, “For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost”.  Yes in many ways that was my own experience. In my teens and early twenties,  I was steeped in a worldly life. Like that diamond I was lost, and wallowing in the dirt of a life of sin. But there was a major difference. Whereas the diamond was a thing of beauty,  there was nothing beautiful in me. I thought I was happy, but I was a wretch. My heart was ugly, my mind was putrid, and, though I did not realise it at the time, I was ruining my body.

The searching in the case of the diamond was motivated by the beauty of the diamond itself, but the Lord’s seeking of me had no such motive. The motive was love, not a love for the lovely, but a love for the unlovely. What kind of love is this? It cannot be explained, except to say that He loved because He loved. We call it sovereign love. A love which is from within God Himself, and not motivated by anything outside of Himself. It is a love which seeks and saves that which is lost.

This seeking is itself wonderful, and works in a wonderful way. He seeks us by causing us to seek Him. As John writes in His first Epistle, Chapter 3, verse 19: “We love Him, because He first loved  us”. But how can Christ change the inclination of our hearts? How can He exercise such power?Only because He is God as well as man. The question for any who have not yet found Him is, ‘Is Christ seeking me by making this world to disappoint, and to fail to satisify ?’ Rejoice, my dear friend; the Lord may be seeking you, and, as Paul says in Romans 6:13, “yield yourselves unto God”.

When my wife and I found the diamond, there was rejoicing in our home. In a similar way, The Lord Himself says in Luke 15:7, “Likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repents”.  Yes we must repent of our sins and find forgiveness in Christ.

Tomorrow does not Always Come

Thank you all for your patience with me over the unexpectedly long period of short posts due to injury and holiday.

I am writing this just after hearing about the terrible shooting in Las Vegas. Words fail in trying to describe the cruelty, and the hardness of heart that was behind this evil. We just cannot enter into it. It is extreme evil. We can, and we must, pray for the bereaved and the wounded, and extend our sympathy to them. We must also do what we can in a practical sense, but we just cannot understand how anyone could do such a terrible thing. Yet there is one thing which it all points to: that man is a fallen creature, and is capable of all kinds of evil. The heart of man in its natural state is described to us in Jeremiah 17: 9, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?”. The first two chapters in the Book of Job make it clear to us that God restrains evil. If that were not the case the world we live in would be ruled by Satan, and would be an infinitely more evil place than it is. When we open our newspapers, or read the news on the internet, we might sometimes marvel at all the evil that is in the world. However, the overall picture that is before us is not one of total evil, but one of controlled evil, and we should be able to see that. The truth of the matter is that it is God who rules the world, although He, in His perfect wisdom, gives Satan limited freedom. We have never seen total evil.

But let us turn our thoughts to those involved in this tragedy. Jesus makes it clear in Luke 13: 1-5, that those who have suffered in such tragedies do not suffer because they were more evil than the rest of us, and we must never harbour such thoughts. Yes, God is speaking, but that is not the message. What then is the message? He is saying  to every single individual in this world, that we do not know what is, as we say, ’round the corner’. This has been brought home to myself even since I began to write this very post. The unexpected has hit me in my personal circumstances. It is astonishing how a simple phone call can bring the unexpected, and the painful, into one’s life. How we urgently need to get RightWithGod while we have the opportunity.

In 2 Corinthians 5:20 we have Paul’s exhortation to come and get RightWithGod: “We pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God”. There is an urgency in these words, because we do not know that there will be a tomorrow for us. James in chapter 4, verse of his epistle warns, “You know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appears for a little time, and then vanishes away”

Let us take the bereaved and injured in Las Vegas into our prayers, and into our hearts, and do what we can to help, but let us not disregard the voice of God as He speaks to us all.