“Upheld by the Hand of God”

I enjoyed some short recorded clips of the Winter Olympics on the On-line news. I was astonished by the speeds of some of the events, especially the speed skating. Having done little in the way of skating all my life other than trying it a few times, and spending most of my time spreadeagled on the ice trying to get back on my feet, I decided it was for not for me. So the skills of the Olympic skaters was beyond my understanding. They spoke of very hard work and single-minded dedication. This makes the heartbreak of things going wrong in the heat of a race doubly painful. This was the experience of  Briton Elsie Christie in the 500 metre short track speed skating final. She fell as a result of some contact with another skater, The agony of her disappointment was too painful to watch. She seemed to be going so well with her mind set on an Olympic gold medal, and in a few split seconds she lost all control, and was sliding on her back. We all hope that she will recover from her disappointment and regain her confidence; a difficult task.

The christian life has many falls while we are in this world. We have not been promised a smooth journey through this life, but many trials and tests. We are not speaking about physical falls like that of Elsie Christie, but spiritual falls: falls into sin, failures of faith, lapses of our love for one another, failures to love our neighbour as ourselves, and many other things overtake us, and we are filled with disappointment and self-reproach, but our relationship with Christ is not broken, although we may feel that it has. The bible has comforting words for us.

In Psalm 37, verses 23,24, we read, “The steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord: and He (the Lord) delights in his (the christian’s) way. Though he fall, he shall not be utterly cast down: for the Lord upholds him with His hand”. There are a number of encouragements for our christian lives in these verses, but the first thing we learn is that the Lord does not promise us that we will never fall. What He does promise is that He holds our hand when we fall. There are other important things which we learn from these verses, regarding the christian life.

In verse 23, we read that the christian’s very steps are ordered (directed) by the Lord. Yes, and this ‘directing’ includes our falls and stumbles! These falls in the christian’s life are important for his or her sanctification. We all naturally want life to be going smoothly, but smooth times can be dangerous times. We become self-sufficient and independent, which makes us less dependent on the Lord. The Lord loves dependent children, and He will do whatever is necessary to ensure that dependence by allowing His child to have occasional falls. However, the Lord delights in the christian’s ‘way’, that is the whole of his life’s journey including the falls. In verse 24, we are given some insight into what happens when the christian actually falls.

We read that when the christian falls, “he shall not be utterly cast down”. This is speaking  about falling without hope of recovery. This simply will not happen, and there is a very good reason given for this: that in the fall “the Lord upholds him or her with His hand”, He just does not let go! Poor Elsie Christie, when she fell, she was sliding and spinning around on the ice, with no hand to hold her. The christian may have spiritual falls, but in these falls, he or she will never be left for one second without that hand to hold them.

“The Winter and the Springtime of the Soul”

We have had a long, cold winter, and it is showing no sign of abating. For people who enjoy skiing and snow-boarding it has been a good winter; however, for most of us it is a case of longing for the spring, and some warmer weather. The Song of Solomon speaks of this in Chapter 2 and verses 11 and 12: “Lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in the land”. This describes the joy of springtime. We complain about the winter, but the farmers tell us that the winter, especially frost. is good for the soil, and makes it better to work with the next spring. Of course continual winter would not be good, because things would not grow at all. The soil needs the winter and the summer.

When the Song speaks about the “winter”, it is speaking about the spiritual winter, the winter of the soul, experienced only by the person who is RightWithGod through Jesus Christ. It is the Lord who is speaking here, and He is rejoicing with the believer that the winter of her soul is over and spring-time has arrived. But then surely He is the one who brings winter on the soul? Yes indeed He is. Why does He do this? Well, just as the soil needs summer and winter in order to be healthy, so it is with the believer’s soul while in this life. Long ago I listened to a recorded sermon where the preacher said, “We must learn to live  always in the springtime of revival”. I agreed with him at that time, but now, being many more years on in my spiritual journey, I would strongly disagree, because I have since experienced many summers and winters in my own soul. I have been enriched by both, but I would say that my soul has always been enriched more by trials and afflictions than by the good times, that is the winters rather than the summers.

When we are experiencing a winter of the soul, it is a great help to us that the spring will eventually arrive. It will arrive as soon as that phase of God’s sanctifying work in us is over, when we will be able to say with joy, “the winter is past, the rain is over and gone;” the flowers, the blessings appear, and there is a song in our hearts like the joyful singing of birds.

When things are difficult, and we are experiencing pain and heartbreak, we may even be tried to the point where we say, “Lord take me away”. That day will arrive, but not until the Lord’s work in us is finished. Then, and then only will He come for us and we hear the final, ‘come away with me, my loved, and dearly bought one, time to go. I have worked in thee that which was pleasing in my eyes, the work is now complete’.  “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away” to be with me where there is no winter, but perpetual blessedness, eternal rest and pleasures forever more.

 

“The Christian’s Inheritance”

In a world where financial pressures are greater than ever, especially on young couples trying to get a start on what we call the ‘property ladder’, it is a great help to receive an inheritance. However small or great the inheritance, it is something for which they have not laboured nor contributed to. It has to be received humbly and with thanks if possible. The problem with the thanks is that the giver has passed away, and it is not usual or proper to give thanks in advance! So the only person we can thank is God; and it is right to do so, for our lot in this life is set out for us by Him.

The inheritances of this life are soon used up, and sometimes they become more of a hindrance than a help in their long term effects on our lives. But there is one inheritance which has no downside, that is, God’s inheritance. It is described to us in 1 Peter, chapter 1, verse 4 as “an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fades not away, reserved in heaven for you”. But who are the “you” spoken of here? Does it mean all humans without exception? No, only those who are described in verse 3 as having been born of God: “begotten again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead”. This is not as complicated as it may at first sound. When someone becomes a christian through believing on Christ and receiving Him as Lord and Saviour, that person experiences something which is a parallel to the raising of Jesus Christ from the dead, namely a resurrection. He or she is, as we say, and as the bible says, “born again” (John 3: 3,7). That person, in that instant, is made RightWithGod, and becomes one of those who will inherit that inheritance “incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fades not away, reserved in heaven for you”. This inheritance is God’s inheritance reserved for His people: it is heaven with Jesus Christ. Let us consider this wonderful inheritance in a little more detail.

It is incorruptible. Age and decay affect everything in this world, but this inheritance cannot be so affected.  It will never suffer from any kind of decay.

It is undefiled.  Everything in this world is tainted with the defilement of sin one way or another. This inheritance is pure, and will never suffer from the defilements of sin, because there is no sin in heaven. Nothing will ever taint it for all eternity.

It will never fade. It is difficult for us to even imagine this, because we are so used to this world where even the greatest pleasures fade away with the using. This pleasures of this inheritance will be as intense after a million years as at the beginning.

This inheritance is reserved for you if you are RightWithGod through faith in Jesus Christ. It has your name on it already. There will be no mistake.

But what of the time until we enter into this great inheritance? The fear is often expressed, ‘What if I lapse? I cannot keep anything up for very long’. You do not need to worry about that, because the keeping is not up to you. God becomes your keeper the moment you trust in Christ. In verse 5 the position of the christian during this interim time is described for us: “kept by the power of God through faith, unto salvation, ready to be revealed in the last time”.

“An Enforced Rest”

My wife and I enjoy family holidays, which can sometimes be very busy. We also enjoy short simple holidays together on our own, now that our family have long ago ‘fled the nest’.   We have just returned from such a holiday, which turned out to be very different from what we expected.  Usually we love to get into the car every morning after worship and a leisurely breakfast each weekday, not knowing where we are going to go, but stopping at any small village or town that we come across  and parking the car. We get out and have an easy browse round the place enjoying whatever we see, but always noting the various coffee shops.  We also seek to engage the locals in conversation, bringing the conversation round, when we can, to ask what is the best local coffee shop! When we eventually settle this big question, we make our slow leisurely way to the chosen shop and enjoy a coffee, and a  scone and jam shared between us, sitting sometimes rather long discussing, preferably, some biblical topic. Eventually, we get back into the car, and off to the next place. The day always seems to pass very quickly

This last such short holiday did not turn out the way we expected. We were ‘snowed in’ for the duration. The snow was so deep that the car remained parked at the hotel until the day we left! We managed two outings each day, walking upstreet through deep, and often falling, snow to buy a newspaper, then stopping on the way back to our hotel to visit,  you’ve guessed it, the local coffee shop. We then spent our day reading and enjoying watching the snow falling until evening when we again made our way back to the coffee shop where they served excellent evening meals.

Were we bored? Not at all, because we soon realised that the Lord was treating us to what we needed most of all: an enforced rest! We could not say that we had an exciting holiday, yet we had a wonderful rest; a great renewal, and refreshing of body, mind and soul. How important is rest to the christian? It is extremely important. The Lord does not put us on a treadmill so that we keep going without rest. There is too much about stopping and resting in the bible for that to be the case

Jesus said to His disciples, “Come ye yourselves apart into a desert place, and rest a while” (Mark 6:31). The Sabbath rest was instituted before the fall of man (Genesis 2: 2,3), and our weekly Sabbath is a foretaste of heaven: “There remains therefore a rest to the people of God” (Hebrews 4: 9). The christian is not required by God to be so busy as to deny his humanity. He needs to stop and have rest and quietness in order to truly know and enjoy God, “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46: 10).  Probably Psalm 23 is the best known Psalm in the Book of psalms There David says, “He makes me to lie down in green pastures: He leads me beside still waters” (Verse 2).

It should not be necessary for believers to be forced into rest, but, if an enforced rest is necessary as it was with us, God will ensure it.

“The Song of Songs”

The book in the bible which we call “The Song of Solomon” opens with the words, “The Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s”.  when we consider the huge number of songs that have been written since the beginning of the world, surely the title, “The Song of Songs” is rather ‘over the top’. I do not agree. For me, there is nothing like this song among all songs ever written. It is not an easy song to ‘get into’, but perseverance will be rewarded. What is it all about?

It is about the relationship between Christ and the believer, who, in the Song, is a lowly woman from Shunem. It is particularly about Christ’s love for the believer, his intense interest in her, and the various ways that he uses to intensify the love of the believer for Himself. He does this with great success. This is shown by the strange words in 2:5 and 5:8, “I am sick of love”, meaning, of course, ‘I have a sickness, and the cause is love’. I consider that this small statement is very important in understanding the Song. It tells us so much about the christian life: it is an intense longing for Christ’s company. Not that that longing is ever enough, it is not, but it is a longing which yearns for more longing. Hence the christian life is a sickness: the sickness of love. Yet it is not a sickness without hope of satisfaction. We read about  that in the New Testament: 1 John 3:2, “Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it does not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that when He shall appear, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is”. Christ is represented in the Song by King Solomon. There is also a third party, the “daughters of Jerusalem” who, by their questions represent interested outsiders, so bewildered by the intensity of the love of this woman for a Christ she had never seen; they just cannot understand it.  Yet their questions bring out the intensity of the believer’s love.

I would recommend to anyone who seeks some entry into the Song of Solomon,  that they take a good straightforward conservative commentary, such as that by Burrowes, and go through it, making light pencil notes in the margin of bible such as ‘She’, ‘He’ or ‘Doj’,  to indicate who is speaking at any point. These notes will become invaluable for many years to come whenever one is reading through the Song.

It helps, when we are reading the Song, to keep before us that there are differences between eastern logic and sensitivities, and those of the western  world. An example of  this is the mutual descriptions of their respective appearances.  These differences are very difficult for us to understand. Personally I think it may have something to do with what we end up with when we try to describe the indescribable.

We should have no problem with the fact that there is a sickness involved in being a christian. This is because  the sickness of the christian is no ordinary sickness. In normal life sickness is not something that one desires; but this sickness is not like any other sickness. This sickness is a delight to have, and the more intense the sickness, the more the delight;  and the  more Christ delights in us. Why does the believer say during her frantic search for her Beloved in chapter 5, verse 8, “I charge you, O daughters of Jerusalem, if ye find my beloved, that  ye tell Him, that I am sick with love”? Because she knew that that was what He wanted to hear.

 

 

“A Good New Year”

Two days ago I was purchasing a newspaper, and as I took my change from the shop assistant, I said, “Thank you, and have a good new year”. His response was, “Well, I hope it is better than the last one”. Then I remembered, from a previous conversation, that he had had some considerable sadness in his personal life during the past year. Rebuking myself for being so clumsy, I said, “I understand what you are saying, and I hope and pray that this year will be a better one for you”. He said,  “Thanks”, and we parted. I would like to have said more, but the shop was very busy.

However, our short conversation set me thinking: ‘What would I consider a ‘good’ new year? For anyone who does not know Christ as Lord and Saviour, the answer is easy. They must, above all things, strive with all energy and single-minded determination to get RightWithGod in 2018. This quest must stand on the fundamental truths revealed to us in the bible. We must confess that we are sinners, that our sins separate us from God and that our salvation is in His hands to give or to withhold. The bible is absolutely clear about this: “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3 : 23). The wonderful thing about lour present this life is that God has made an amazing provision, not for the righteous, but specifically for sinners. In the words of John 3:16, the best-known verse in the bible, we read, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten, Son that whosever believes in Him will not perish, but have everlasting life”. Two things are clear from this verse. Firstly, that all human beings in their natural state, are doomed to perish, as those who are under the judgement of God. Secondly, that God has made an amazing provision for all who will trust in Christ as Lord and Saviour. They will instantly be made Right with God and will not perish. God is a God of great mercy to all who earnestly seek Him: “For as the heaven is high above the earth, so great is His mercy toward them that fear Him” (Psalm 103: 11).

Now, what about a good new year for the believer who has already been made RightWithGod through Jesus Christ? This is much  more complex; but permit me to make a few simple suggestions:

1.  Avoid all occasions of sin. This means avoiding company, entertainment, books magazines, programmes etc that pollute your mind and imagination. These things come between you and God.

2. Seek and cultivate the company of God. When alone try to meditate upon the glory of the Trinity: the love of the Father, the suffering of the Son and the help of the Holy Spirit. For this purpose seek times when you are alone, rather than avoid them. Matthew Henry said, “The christian is never less alone than when he is alone”. There is no enjoyment possible to man in this life like the enjoyment of  God.

3. Do not look for an easy life. As a christian trials and afflictions are not empty and meaningless. God puts them there for a purpose. Try and interpret the trial when it comes, and see the hand of God there, and ask God for a submissive, accepting frame of mind. Have confidence that God has a clear purpose in view, of which we, for now, can only understand a little.

The list could go on. I felt sorry for my shop assistant friend, and I felt helpless. My hope would be that he would humble himself and receive Christ, and find  meaning in all his trials

The Salt of the Earth

About four winters ago I was in a well-stocked ironmonger’s shop looking around, mainly looking at tools, which always draw me like a magnet. Unexpectedly, my eye caught sight of  a large bag of white salt. The price was reasonable, so I paid my money and walked out out of the shop carrying my bag of salt. When I got it home, I scattered some of the salt on the path in front of the house as a hard frost was forecast. I was amazed the next morning how well it had worked.

It does not require much thought to work our where my thoughts are going: Matthew 5: 13,14: “Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men”.  This verse is found in what we call, the ‘sermon on the mount’, which is Jesus’ most well-known sermon. It is addressed to believers. The first 12 verses of the sermon are taken up with what what we call “The Beatitudes” and a few connected verses. Then we have in verse 13. the very words that we are considering concerning the obligation placed on believers by  Christ, to be effective as the salt of the earth. It would be a mistake to disregard the prominent place given by Jesus to this verse in this most well-known sermon: it is the 13th verse in a total of 101 verses. Let us see what it has to say to us.

A little salt added to food has an amazing effect. It brings out the different flavours, as nothing else can. Food without salt can be quite tasteless. However the salt must be mixed in with the food in order to be effective. This teaches us the importance of christians living among non-christians, engaging with them, assisting them where they can, and explaining to them our different way of life and our hope of salvation, whenever the opportunity arrives. These opportunities are rare in the world we live in but we must be continually praying that these will eventually come our way.

Verse 13 also teaches us that we, as the salt of the earth must retain our ‘savour’. This means that we must always keep our souls fresh and lively, and always ready to “give an answer to every man that asks you,  a reason for the hope that is in you with meekness and fear ” (1 Peter 3:15).  Please notice that phrase. ‘with meekness and fear’. This is the frame of mind that must underlie all our witnessing. There is no place here for a pompous, or superior attitude.

I am glad to tell you that the large bag of salt is now almost empty, but still in use for clearing the path. Its ‘savour’ is not as strong as it was four years ago. It will not do another year, because it will have lost its saltiness.

How important is the exhortation given to us in this verse? We know it so well, that we are in danger of becoming over-familiar with it. Perhaps if we continually remind ourselves of the prominent place given to it, near the beginning of the ‘sermon on the mount’, then we might be helped to apply the exhortation in our own lives and witness continually, and not lose our ‘savour’.

 

 

“Spiritual Fitness”

One of the privileges of living where we do is that we are very near the beach. I am not a fitness fanatic, but I do believe in keeping a reasonable level of physical fitness, especially as I get older. One of the main planks of my fitness ‘regime’ has for many years has been a fairly ‘stiff’ walk on the beach in the early morning before breakfast. Recently, due to a heavy cold, I had to omit this walk for a short period of time. Unfortunately, this was followed by a period of severe weather which I used as an excuse for delaying my return to my regular morning walks. The truth of the matter is that I had become lazy, and I was just making excuses.

A few days ago, after many battles with myself, I steeled myself and went for my morning walk, thinking that I would be able to take up my walks with just a little bodily discomfort. I was mistaken. As the walk went on. Every step got harder and when I reached my usual turning point, I wondered how I as going to make it back. Pride can be a very powerful thing, and it kept me going non-stop to the end. When I got back to the house, the only thing I could say to my wife was, “I’m wasted!” I was unfit and I did not realise it.

This all set me thinking, Is there such a thing as spiritual ‘fitness’? The answer is undoubtedly, Yes; and it is far more important than physical fitness; but first of all, what can we say about spiritual unfitness. One thing sure: like physical unfitness it happens very slowly; so slowly that we are not aware that it is happening. The soul slowly leaves its resting place. This is why the Psalmist prays, “Return unto thy rest, O my soul” (Psalm 116:7). He had faced up to the fact that his soul was wandering away from God, and he yearned for it to return to its rest in God. That yearning was itself an indication that his soul was on the way back to its rest.

Another symptom is a slide in our desire for Christ. Paul writes, “If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sits on the right hand of God” (Colossians 3:1). Every one who is RightWithGod is risen with Christ, meaning that he or she is born again”, and is trusting in Christ for salvation. When that desire slides, we become preoccupied with the things of this world. When we are made aware of this preoccupation, it is time to call our soul back to its rest in God.

We may, all this time, be following our normal spiritual disciplines: Bible study, prayer and attending the ‘means of grace’ ( Lord’s Day services, prayer meetings, sacraments). But our soul is wandering, and our desire for Christ has been subdued by worldly preoccupations. Like physical unfitness, spiritual unfitness creeps up on us slowly. We do not realise there is anything wrong, until we get some kind of shock, as I got regarding the state of my body, a few days ago.

“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,