Monday, December 20, 2010

Christmas Greetings

Isabel and I are now on the prayer list that is distributed from the church where we currently fellowship.  The first one arrived by email the other day, and I got to thinking .......

There are so many Christians who are regularly praying that God will save all the people in the world, and yet these same people laugh at you (or worse) when you tell them that HE WILL. Isn't that strange?

Thank you for your support and encouragement through the year.  It's been a most interesting one and I've learned a lot.  The first book is well on the way and you have been seeing bits of it coming through the posts on the blogsite.  I am hoping to have it ready to publish by midyear 2011.

I know very few comments have come in re the posts, but ........ if anyone would like to critically review the chapters of the book as each draft is completed, please let me know and I will get them to you. 

There is a preface and an introduction, 6 chapters and 3 appendices - a total of 11 sections.  The drafts should appear about 2 per month starting in January.

But please don't put up your hand to do this if you already have a full plate.  I don't ever want to be a burden or to be putting pressure on you for your comments and review. But if you have the time and the interest to serve me this way, I would be really pleased to hear from you as I would appreciate some peer review by those I know love me.

Trust you have a great Christmas with your families, as we are planning to do here.

Love Barry

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

God's Determination to Save the World

Have you ever thought about how determined God is to save the world?

Jesus made an amazing statement while talking about his upcoming death.
He said, "But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself."
And John, the gospel writer who recorded what Jesus said in John 12 : 32, explained, "He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die."

So Jesus was predicting that he would die on a cross, and in doing so, would draw all people to Himself.

Let's examine the word "draw" in Jesus' statement.
It is translated from the Greek word "helkuo", which appears several times in the original (Greek) New Testament of the Bible.
But just look how it is translated in some of the other verses where it appears.

John 21 : 11 describes the last stage of the miraculous catch of fish after the resurrection of Jesus.
"Simon Peter went aboard and dragged (helkuo) the net ashore full of big fish, a hundred and fifty-three in all; even though there were so many, still the net did not tear."

Acts 16 : 19 describes Paul and Silas being brought before the magistrates in Philippi.
"When her owners realized that their chance of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged (helkuo) them to the authorities in the public square. "

Acts 21 : 30 describes the arrest of Paul in Jerusalem.
"Confusion spread through the whole city, and the people all ran together, grabbed Paul, and dragged (helkuo) him out of the Temple. At once the Temple doors were closed."

I think you will agree that translating "helkuo" as "drawing" would be far too timid in these verses.  The much better translation of "helkuo" is definitely "drag".

So let's put it into our original Jesus verse.
"But I, when I am lifted up from the earth (crucified), will drag (helkuo) all people to myself." 

Jesus sounds pretty determined to me.  I can't imagine He won't succeed with that sort of determination.  How about you?

Justice, Mercy and Grace

There are 3 levels on which judgements can be administered.

Justice - the lowest level
All judgements should be just, at the very least.  Anything less would not be fair, not right.  Justice is achieved when the punishment fits the crime.  This is what our civil laws and their penalties are meant to achieve, which is perfectly understandable since they were originally based on the Ten Commandments a long, long time ago.

For example, suppose I am driving on the highway and, being late for an appointment, exceed the clearly advertised speed limit and am apprehended by a police officer.
"Do you realise you are driving 25 kmh above the speed limit?"
"Sorry, but I'm late for an appointment."
"That may be so, but you are breaking the law nevertheless."
The police officer remains unmoved by my plea and issues me with a penalty notice. 
It is justice that requires me to pay the prescribed penalty.   The relationship between me and the officer is an impersonal, legal one.  I am the guilty offender and he is the judge.

Even the most ungodly of us have an inbuilt sense of justice and are quick to complain if we feel we have not been treated justly.  If we are not exceeding the speed limit, but accused and penalised as if we were, we would be rightly outraged.  "That is unjust, not right, not fair!" we exclaim.  On the other hand, we don't always allow justice to motivate our thoughts and actions, which is why the Bible calls us "sinners".

But God is a just God.  He requires us to live by His laws and has prescribed the death penalty for those who break them.  When we sin and break His laws, He is offended and we deserve to die - to be separated from Him, to be out of fellowship with Him.  That is justice, a just application of God's law.  In these circumstances, the relationship between us and God is an impersonal, legal one.  We are the guilty offenders and He is the just judge.

Mercy - the middle level
When we voluntarily forgo the application of a just punishment, but choose to forgive and not require full restitution or payment of the prescribed penalty, we have moved beyond being just to being merciful.

Using our driving example from above, if on exceeding the speed limit the police officer is moved by my plea and gives me a warning rather than impose the prescribed penalty, then I would have received mercy rather than justice. 

Even though I didn't deserve it, the officer would have been merciful toward me.  And the relationship between me and the officer would have become a bit more personal.  I would be having good, kind thoughts about him and even consider him a friend, and he might also be feeling good about helping someone under pressure, rather than making their situation worse.  If we met again, casually, not because I broke the law again, the meeting would be quite friendly and the way might even be open for a friendship to develop, if that was desired.

Not many of us operate at this level.  We hold grudges, demand payment and restitution, want justice at all costs.  Although refusing to be merciful is not breaking the law, it is certainly not following the way of Christ, who showed mercy at every turn.

God is indeed a merciful God.  He does not require us to pay the penalty for our sin.  He paid the penalty for us by coming to earth as a man to die for our sins in our place.  Although we don't deserve it, the sins of everyone have been paid for - no-one has to pay for them any longer.  God, in Jesus Christ, is the Saviour of the world.  We have all been shown mercy.

Grace - the highest level
When justice is forgone and mercy is extended all obstacles to a relationship between the offender and the offended have been removed.  The doorway for relationship has been opened.

But there is more!!!  What if the offended person takes the first step towards creating that friendship!  That'd be something really special and unexpected!  That would be grace in operation.

Again using our driving example, what if the officer instead of imposing a penalty (justice) and instead of issuing a warning (mercy), offered to provide a high-speed escort to our destination so that we could arrive at our appointment on time?  That would be grace in operation - overlooking the offence and giving an undeserved, unexpected favour in its place.

The offended one freely offers something above and beyond anything that can be deserved or earned or even hoped for.  Grace is undeserved favour or blessing, and, when offered to those who offend, is extremely God-like.

Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables" is a well-known novel that has been performed on stage and in movies many times.  The story centres around Jean Valjean, a destitute ex-prisoner who is taken in by a kind bishop, from whom Valjean steals expensive silverware.  When apprehended, the bishop does not press charges saying that he gave the silverware to Valjean (shows mercy) and then gives him his silver candlesticks as well (extends grace).  These acts of mercy and grace change Valjean's life forever.

The following story is told about New York City mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia.  
In the middle of the Great Depression, LaGuardia went out of his way to identify with his people. It was not unusual for him to ride with the firefighters, go on raids with the police, or take orphans for outings.

On a bitterly cold night in January of 1935, the mayor turned up at a night court that served the poorest ward of the city. LaGuardia dismissed the judge for the evening and took over the bench himself. A tattered old woman was brought before him and charged with stealing a loaf of bread. She told the mayor that her daughter's husband had left home, her daughter was sick, and her two grandchildren were starving.

However, the shopkeeper, from whom the bread was stolen, refused to drop the charges. "It's a real bad neighborhood, your Honour," the man told the mayor. "She's got to be punished to teach other people around here a lesson."

LaGuardia sighed. He turned to the woman and said, "I've got to punish you. The law makes no exceptions. Ten dollars or ten days in jail."
But even as he pronounced sentence, the mayor was already reaching into his pocket. He took out a $10 note and tossed it into his famous hat, saying, "Here is the ten dollar fine which has now been paid; and furthermore I am going to fine everyone in this courtroom fifty cents for living in a town where a person has to steal bread so that her grandchildren can eat. Mr. Bailiff, take my hat and collect the fines and give them to the defendant."

The following day, New York City newspapers reported that $47.50 was given to a bewildered woman who had stolen a loaf of bread to feed her starving grandchildren. Fifty cents of that amount was contributed by the grocery store owner himself, while some seventy petty criminals, people with traffic violations, and New York City policemen, each of whom had just paid fifty cents for the privilege of doing so, gave the mayor a standing ovation.

Here LaGuardia showed justice (required the penalty to be paid) and mercy (paid the penalty on the woman's behalf). He then used his authority to enable grace to be shown to this poor woman.  She was guilty and therefore required to pay the fine.  She left the court without paying the fine and with more money in her pocket than she had probably ever seen.

If God's creatures can operate in this way, even occasionally, surely it is not too difficult to believe that the Creator, in whose image we are made, operates this way consistently.

God is a God of grace. 
God is not only just (requires a penalty for breaking His laws), and merciful (pays the penalty for us), but is gracious (invites us into a relationship with Him).  And this relationship is undeserved and free, and will include all of God's creation eventually.  
How gracious is that!

So here's the difference.
Justice occurs when offenders get what they deserve. 
Mercy occurs when offenders don't get what they deserve.
Grace occurs when offenders get what they don't deserve.

Let's learn to be people of grace.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Joseph Story

The story of Joseph, like that of Jonah, shows how uninformed we are about God's workings on this planet, how little we understand how resolutely He works at fulfilling His plans.  We think we make all the decisions in our lives by our "free" will, but really we have no idea that God is orchestrating the whole symphony from behind the scenes.

Joseph's brothers hated him because he was their father's favourite.  They hated him all the more when he told them of his dreams which predicted that one day they would be his servants.

Because of their hatred and jealousy, the brothers threw Joseph into a pit intending to kill him, but sold him to passing traders instead.  These traders were on their way to Egypt and, on their arrival there, sold Joseph to Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh's guard.

Through extraordinary circumstances, Joseph became Prime Minister of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh.  In this position he saved Egypt from ruin during the seven year famine that Joseph himself had previously predicted.

Because the famine also affected Canaan, where Joseph's family lived, his brothers came to Egypt to buy food from the stockpiles Joseph had created during the good years before the famine hit.  After several dealings with Joseph, who they did not recognise, the brothers finally discovered they were doing business with Joseph, their youngest brother, when he revealed his identity to them.

"I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt!  And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you."  [Genesis 45 : 4 - 5  NIV]

Later, all the rest of Joseph's family moved to Egypt where Jacob, their father, subsequently died.  Fearing revenge from Joseph after their father's death, Joseph reassured them that their mischief-making and evil intentions were used by God to execute His plans to save Jacob (Israel) and his family.

"You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives."  [Genesis 50 : 20  NIV]

Sounds a bit like what Jesus might have said to those who put him on the cross, doesn't it?

Jonah, Joseph, Jesus ...... God is really running the show, even when we don't recognise it.  However, the wise King Solomon did.

"People may plan all kinds of things, but the LORD's will is going to be done."  [Proverbs 19 : 21  GNB]  and "You may make your plans, but God directs your actions. "  [Proverbs 16 : 9  GNB] were two of his thoughts on the subject.


Friday, December 3, 2010

The Jonah Story

The story of Jonah contains lots of illustrations of the way God acts towards us in general, not just to Jonah and the city of Nineveh.

Have you noticed how much God is in control and is orchestrating the events in this story? 
The word of the Lord came to Jonah .... 
Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea ....
But the Lord provided a great fish to swallow Jonah ....
And the Lord commanded the fish ....
Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time ....
God had compassion and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened .....
Then the Lord God provided a vine and made it grow ....
God provided a worm ....
God provided a scorching east wind ....

This definitely sounds like the God who Isaiah quotes in Isaiah 45 : 5 - 7
"I am the Lord, and there is no other;
apart from me there is no God.
I will strengthen you, though you have not acknowledged me,
so that from the rising of the sun to the place of its setting
men may know there is no other.
I form the light and create darkness,
I bring prosperity and create disaster;
I, the Lord, do all these things."

God's sovereignty is clear, but what about man's free will, which is proudly proclaimed in the world, indeed in most mainstream churches?

The Jonah story is a great example that shows the difference between God's sovereignty and man's so-called "free" will, which I prefer to call man's will. 

God had a plan for Jonah's life which involved him going to the people of Nineveh and warning them of God's displeasure with their behaviour and His coming judgement on them unless they repented. 

Jonah chose to disobey and run from God's presence.  (Fancy thinking he could do that?  He obviously had lost his copy of  Psalm 139.)  Well that was his choice and he exercised his will in catching a ship to Tarshish and heading in the opposite direction.

But God sent a great wind that threatened the safety of all on board and Jonah was thrown overboard to reduce the risk.  God then sent a great fish to swallow Jonah.  

The storm, the potential shipwreck and the fish attack eventually got Jonah's attention and he quickly learnt to pray.   When God asked him to go to Nineveh again, he readily agreed to go.

Jonah certainly had the ability to make choices and exercise his will, but in the end, God had His way.

God has a plan for all of us.  To live in fellowship and harmony with Him forever.  We have the authority to exercise our wills and make all the choices we want, but these will only determine the quality of the journey - make the journey wonderful or dangerous. 

God has no hesitation in providing trouble, persecutions, even disasters, to get our attention and get us back on track.  Even Jonah in the middle of his troubles and deep sea crisis recognised this fact. 

In his prayer he revealed his understanding of God's grace and the futility of relegating God and His plans to last place in his life.  He said, "Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs." 

Paul says we can experience God's kindness/grace or His sternness/correction on the journey, the choice is ours.  But the final destination has already been chosen for us by the Sovereign God, who loves us and wants the best for us.

Indeed, in one way or another, in this age or another, through the lake of fire if need be, God will get us to where He wants us to go.  Just ask Jonah.