Something greater is needed…

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We’ve reached the end of the Nehemiah study with SheReadsTruth and the challenge today is to consider the way that the book of Nehemiah ends. The city of Jerusalem and its walls have been rebuilt, the temple has been rededicated and the people have worshipped God enthusiastically and vowed to keep his law again.

Nehemiah returns to his old job in the service of the king in Babylon. Some time later he discovers that all is not well in Jerusalem. The people have been neglecting their offerings to the Levites, so the priests have been forced to abandon their work and return to their fields; the Sabbath has become just another regular working and trading day; the men of Judah had married foreign wives from the surrounding pagan nations, and their children couldn’t even understand Hebrew (so they would have no chance of being able to understand the word of God). Tobiah (him again!) has been given a room in the temple by one of the priests (a relative) and he’s using it to store his household furniture!

Nehemiah is very angry.

He does some chasing and chastising and cleansing and even some hair pulling!

Even at the end of the book, when he’s reclaimed the temple back for God and reinstated the priests, the reader is left with the feeling that things are unlikely to continue to go well…

So why does the book end in this way?

I’ve considered three possible reasons:

1) God wants to show us that this pattern of enthusiasm followed by complacency and backsliding will always be a risk for his people whilst they live in a fallen world. Whilst we’re sin-prone humans, we will continue to mess up. We easily forget, we look away from God’s face, we get distracted by the shiny things in the world around us.

2) God wants to show us our need for Nehemiah-types. We need people who will stand up against wrongdoing and complacency in the church and get angry and pull some hair! We need to be called back by prophetic voices and shaken up when we’re wandering in the wrong direction.

3) Most of all, I think the message of Nehemiah is like the message of all the other books in the Old Testament. It’s the recurring story of all the heroes of Genesis, Exodus, Judges, Kings. We need something greater. We need a greater Moses, a greater Joshua, a greater Joseph, a greater David, a greater Nehemiah.

We need somebody greater.

When Jesus arrives in Jerusalem before the Passover, he enters the courts of the temple and finds them to be full of people trading, swindling and robbing the poor in the name of religious effort (John 2:13-22).

Jesus is very angry.

He does some chasing and chastising and cleansing and even some whip cracking!

Jesus promised to rebuild the temple of his body in three days when it was destroyed. This claim was misquoted against him in his trial before his crucifixion. When Jesus died, the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. He came to finish the work, to remove the yoke of atonement-by-law-keeping from his people. When he died, it was finished.

The message echoing through the pages of the Old Testament is the need for a permanent solution to the perpetual problem of sin. Jesus comes to provide this permanent solution.

Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it – the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.

Romans 3:19-25a

Nothing Except Jesus Christ

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This week on SheReadsTruth, the passage we’ve been set for the SheSharesTruth Challenge is 1 Corinthians 2:1-5:

And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.

The writer of these words, Paul, was a highly educated, eloquent man. He could hold his own amongst the most intellectual Greek thinkers of his day (such as in Acts 17:22-34). His CV was quite impressive.

But when he comes to the church in Corinth, he comes in fear, trembling and weakness. So what is going on?

The Greek citizens of Corinth valued wisdom and education highly. Corinth was a very prosperous, thriving city with two trading harbours. It had a plethora of temples for worship of Greek gods. It was very civilised on the surface. But it was also a place of such depravity that the term, ‘to Corinthianize’ became shorthand for practicing sexual immorality.

The church in Corinth had a few, um, issues. They were divided, they were spiritually immature and sexually immoral like the culture around them. And it is into this context that Paul writes.

He could have blown them away with his human intelligence or intimidated them with clever reasoning. But Paul knew that the only thing that had the power to transform this church was the unadulterated, unadorned, unabridged, glorious truth of Jesus Christ, and him crucified. Paul had previously laid this message out for them in humility and simplicity, not relying on his own intellect or wisdom, but trusting the Holy Spirit to work through his weakness. His goal was to point away from himself and towards Jesus.

The most powerful intellectual arguments for Christianity are not capable of saving a single person. And, for sure, there are powerful intellectual and historical arguments! But no, a person has to come face-to-face with the reality of Jesus Christ – living and dying, crucified and resurrected. And that is all-sufficient. We need add no more.

Paul only wants to point to that man on the cross. Bleeding and dying there for our sins.

In the words of John the Baptist, another great example of a life lived in humility:

He must increase, but I must decrease. John 3:30

The whole of the Bible is about Jesus. It’s all part of his glorious story. And when we teach, or preach, or tell others about what we believe, he must always be the focus, the crux, of the message. We can be weak, fearful and trembling – in fact, that’s exactly when we’re most useful to God.

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.

2 Cor 12:9

 

Healing the broken cisterns

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This week’s passage for the SheReadsTruth Lent challenge is Joshua 1:8-9:

“This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”

At the start of the book of Joshua, God commissions Joshua to take over the leadership of the Israelites after the death of Moses. Of primary importance for Joshua is the need to know and keep God’s law. He is going to need to lead by example.
God had provided the law, via Moses, for the benefit of the people. It was intended to set them apart, to protect them and to provide a way for them to make atonement for their sins and maintain their relationship with God.
God had set before them blessings (for keeping the law) and curses (for breaking the law) and given them the free will to make the choice.

See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules,then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. You shall not live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.”  Deut 30:15-20

God knew that the hearts of the Israelites, even the most devout ones, would not incline naturally towards his law. Hence the need to meditate on it continually!

Human hearts so quickly forget the truth.

How quickly Adam and Eve forgot what God had said to them…

How quickly the people grumbled in the desert and doubted God after he delivered them out of Egypt…

How quickly the people turned to idolatry when Moses went up the mountain to meet with God…

If those people who witnessed God’s mighty hand at work in such a dramatic fashion could forget God’s promises and his law so quickly, where does that leave us?

Without Jesus, we would be bound by the requirements of the law – we would have to keep all the commandments perfectly to stand any chance of being right with God. Nobody is capable of doing that.

Jesus came to fulfill the law (not to abolish it). He fulfilled the requirements of the Jewish civil law by living perfectly in accordance with the commandments of it; he fulfilled the moral law in the same way; and he fulfilled the sacrificial law by becoming the one, all-sufficient sacrifice himself.

Jesus still calls us to the higher standard of moral law that he outlined in his sermon on the mount. He commands us to

“Be perfect, therefore, as my heavenly Father is perfect.”  Matt 5:48

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This week as I’ve looked at this text, and other passages, I’ve been impacted by the way that God repeatedly sets before us the thing that we need most deeply. He stands and holds out the words of life. He doesn’t force us to do anything, but like a loving father, he implores us to accept the amazing thing he offers us. God’s heart breaks for the times we reject his offer or look for satisfaction, meaning and value in other things.

But my people have changed their glory for that which does not profit.
Be appalled, O heavens, at this; be shocked, be utterly desolate, declares the Lord,
for my people have committed two evils:
they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters,
and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.

Jeremiah 2:11-13

How easily we settle for our own useless, dry, broken cisterns!

Look at Jesus. He is the Word of God. He is perfect, sure, right, pure, clean, true (Psalm 19:7-9).

Why would we go anywhere else to seek truth and value and meaning?

After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. So Jesus said to the Twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”  John 6:68

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Jonah 3 – Once I was a Ninevite…

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This week the SheReadsTruth challenge was to write about Jonah 3-4.
I was particularly struck by Jonah 3, so I’m going to focus on that chapter today.

So, when the word of the Lord comes to Jonah for the second time (when he’s looking a bit soggy and smelling of fish), Jonah goes to the giant metropolis of Nineveh to tell them what God plans to do to them because of their wickedness.

Rebecca’s devotional on Wednesday gave some graphic examples of the wickedness of the Ninevites. These were really bad people.
And yet, they hear God’s message through Jonah and they repent so comprehensively that even the cows are included!

This got me thinking… If these super-wicked people could respond so dramatically and be saved, what about the ordinary people of Bournemouth, or Brighton, or High Wycombe, or London?

I don’t like to admit it, but my reflex thought is, “Yeah, but that wouldn’t happen today! You’d never see that many people believe at once!”

Shame on me! WHY EVER NOT?

It’s not down to the power or ability of human beings. It’s not the eloquence of the speaker that counts (Jonah’s preach was only 8 words long!).
It’s all about God. He does it! The Holy Spirit moved so powerfully in Nineveh that no one could remain stone-hearted.

After all, once I was a Ninevite. OK, maybe I didn’t gouge out eyes or sacrifice children, but I was just as lost and doomed as they were.

There are plenty of modern-day Ninevehs. At the moment I’m using a Lent resource from Open Doors called “Live Like A North Korean”. It makes me realise just how free we are, and how much we take for granted our freedom to worship, or do anything for that matter!

If God can change the heart of the King of Nineveh, then God can do the same for Kim Jong-Un and the leaders of North Korea. O Lord, let it be so!
Please bring freedom to that place and build your church in that nation!

Heaven fall down!

Jonah 1 & 2

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This week the SheReadsTruth writers issued a bigger challenge! To write about the first two chapters of Jonah.

I’ve recently written an overview of the whole book of Jonah, which will be published on the Partakers website in mid April – I will be contributing a weekly podcast (with transcript), summarising each the 12 books of the minor prophets. The series begins on Thurs 3rd April with an introduction, followed by Jonah on week 2!

For this week’s challenge I thought I’d look afresh at these first two chapters of Jonah and reflect on the things that stand out to me.

Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.”

But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD. He went down to Joppa…away from the presence of the LORD.

The book of Jonah is a literary masterpiece. It’s full of irony, satire, contrasts and drama. In the opening of the first chapter the reader is presented with Jonah’s stark disobedience:

  • God says “Arise”, “get up”, but Jonah went down.
  • God says “Go to..”, but Jonah flees away.

Jonah’s attempt to run away from God’s presence is so futile, it’s oddly amusing.

The contrasts continue as Jonah boards the ship to Tarshish.

  • The sailors pray to their gods, whilst Jonah sleeps, oblivious to the trouble.
  • The sailors fear Jonah’s God, whilst Jonah underestimates God’s power and intent.
  • The pagan sailors show remarkable restraint and mercy when dealing with Jonah, trying everything they can before finally throwing him overboard. Jonah shows no hint of such mercy towards the people of Nineveh.

And Jonah continues to go down, down, down to the depths of the sea. But God brings him up again. The giant fish swallows him and then unceremoniously vomits him up on the beach.

The little sentence about Jonah going down to sleep in the inner part of the ship during the storm makes me think of the time Jesus slept in the stern of the boat whilst his disciples struggled in a storm. But whilst it took the sacrifice of Jonah into the sea to calm one storm, Jesus (the Greater Jonah) spoke the other storm into submission. The Greater Jonah would also sacrifice himself for the lives of others, but on a barren hill, not a stormy sea.

Jonah cried to God from inside the fish, and God answered him in his time of distress. The Greater Jonah cried out on the cross, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And for the only time in all eternity, the Father did not respond.

Jonah, truly humbled, was raised from the deep after 3 days, by the sheer mercy and grace of God.

Jesus, truly glorious, was raised from the dead after 3 days, because death could not hold him!

As Jesus himself said:

“For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.” Matthew 12:40-41

Psalm 38

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This week, as part of the SheReadsTruth Lent challenge, we’ve been reflecting on Psalm 38.

There is an awful moment when the reality of our sin hits our consciousness. The Holy Spirit snaps the word, or deed or thought into sharp focus. At times like this I sometimes feel a deep physical ache in the centre of my chest. Heat rises in the back of my neck and my cheeks. I want to stare at the ground. Shame. Guilt.

In fact, it’s not just the ‘bad stuff’ we do.

Tim Keller puts it this way in The Prodigal God:

What must we do, then, to be saved? To find God we must repent of the things we have done wrong, but if that is all you do, you may remain just an elder brother. To truly become a Christian we must also repent of the reasons we ever did anything right. Pharisees only repent of their sins, but Christians repent for the very roots of their righteousness, too. We must learn how to repent of the sin under all our other sins and under all our righteousness – the sin of seeking to be our own Savior and Lord. We must admit that we’ve put our ultimate hope in both our wrongdoing and right doing we have been seeking to get around God or get control of God in order to get hold of those things.

The load of our sin is far too heavy for us to bear. It runs so much deeper than we even realise.

Those who meet God face-to-face simply fall at his feet. Isaiah cries, “I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips” (Isa 6:5); Peter yells, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8). John just collapses as if dead (Rev 1:17). The collision of His holiness with our sinfulness causes a gut-wrenching, physical reaction.

David groans in pain, his vision dim and his hearing dull. His sin and his pain is constantly before him. Can it possibly get any worse than this?

But David is able to draw breath again as he remembers the source of his hope – God will listen and God himself is his salvation! Confession and true repentance result in true forgiveness and true freedom.

David anticipated the beautiful, life-restoring forgiveness that Jesus brings.

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 1 John 1:9

And the result:

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Romans 8:1

I think this verse of the famous hymn by Horatio Spafford sums it up perfectly:

My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!

It is well, with my soul,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

Psalm 130

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If you, O Lord, should mark our iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared. Psalm 130:3-4

If God were to judge us, entirely justly, on the basis of our sins, not one of us could stand before him. Without a truly radical solution, we are all eternally separated from him. There’s no mention of good deeds – it’s no good trying to balance out our bad with some good. One single sinful thought, word or deed is enough to permanently disqualify us from being in a relationship with God. That’s how holy he is. No amount of trying to be good, or do good stuff can fix it.

BUT

There is forgiveness, mercy, steadfast love! God himself has provided the means for sin to be forgiven. The psalmist longs for God’s forgiveness, perhaps longing to hear the words of forgiveness proclaimed over the animal sacrifices, which provided a temporary (and ultimately inadequate) means of atonement. Perhaps the psalmist also sees the possibility of permanent redemption and forgiveness from afar. He waits…he hopes…he clings to the promises in God’s word.

We live in the times he was waiting for! Jesus has come, our Saviour and our Redeemer; the one who has borne our iniquities.

The way of forgiveness is open. And yet, we too wait for that final consummation and restoration of all things. We live in the ‘already, but not yet’.

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope… Psalm 130:5

This post was inspired by the SheReadsTruth, Lent challenge 2014! Check it out here.