‘All the congregation of the people of Israel moved on from the wilderness of Sin by stages, according to the commandment of the LORD, and camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. Therefore the people quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.” And Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the LORD?” But the people thirsted there for water, and the people grumbled against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried to the LORD, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” And the LORD said to Moses, “Pass on before the people, taking with you some of the elders of Israel, and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb, and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, and the people will drink.” And Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. And he called the name of the place Massah and Meribah, because of the quarreling of the people of Israel, and because they tested the LORD by saying, “Is the LORD among us or not?’
In Exodus 17:1-7 the people are faced with the difficulty of not having any water to drink and respond with grumbling and complaining. Since bringing his people out of Egypt, God has been leading them in the wilderness – he has been ever present and has always provided and protected them. Yet when tested the people have failed to trust him and in so doing they have sinned greatly. Surely they should justly face judgment.
In verse 2, the passage records that the people, faced with no water, rather than trusting God to provide for them, quarrelled with Moses.
The word ‘quarrel’ translates the Hebrew word ‘Rib’ which carries with it legal connotations. It is often used with the meaning of ‘to bring suit’ or ‘to plead ones case’. What is being described is a legal dispute. We should be astonished. Despite, over recent weeks, God miraculously providing for them time and again they grumble and complain at Moses out of concern for their physical needs. In v3, they even accuse Moses of bringing them out of Egypt to kill them, their children and livestock through thirst. What they are doing is putting Moses on trial. In verse 4 Moses says to God
‘What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.’
And so it would seem that the people have already found Moses guilty as charged. The sentence of death has been passed and is on the point of being carried out.
Moses, though, has it right when, in v2, he says to the people
‘Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?’
Moses is God’s representative – a quarrel with him is a quarrel with God. The people are not really putting Moses on trial – rather they are putting God on trial. They are accusing him of failing to protect them by claiming that he brought them out of Egypt in order to kill them in the desert. Their demand for water is an accusation that God has failed to provide for them and, what’s more, from verse 7, we see they are even questioning whether God was with them at all.
‘They tested the Lord by saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’
The audacity of the people is breathtaking. They are the guilty ones – ungrateful and untrusting. They are the ones who ought to be called to give an account of themselves, and yet, here they are, calling on God to give account of Himself. They accuse him of deserting them despite the fact that all the while his presence with them was manifested to them by the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night. In truth the people display a hardness of heart similar to that displayed by Pharaoh and the Egyptians – which is exactly how the psalmist describes these events in Psalm 95:7-9 where the idea of God being on trial is confirmed
‘Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah as on the day at Massah in the wilderness when your fathers put me to the test and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work’
So what will be God’s response? Moses must have been wondering just that. He cries out to the Lord: ‘What shall I do with this people?’ Perhaps he expected God to act in judgment on his people – we might expect God to at least show his displeasure – to have a few stern words for them. But instead something quite remarkable occurs. Prepared to be amazed!
Exodus 17:5-6 we read this
‘And the LORD said to Moses, “Pass on before the people, taking with you some of the elders of Israel, and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb, and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, and the people will drink.”’
So what is going on here? Remember God is being accused by the people – he is being put on trial by them. What we are seeing here then is God submitting himself to trial. Rather than putting the people in the dock for their flagrant disobedience, God takes their place and puts himself on trial. Instead of judging his people he allows himself to be judged by his people.
He says nothing in his defence but simply tells Moses to pass before the people and go to the roc’ at Horeb and he is to take with him some of the elders of Israel and the staff with which he struck the Nile.
Horeb was not far from Mount Sinai, and was the place where God first appeared to Moses in the burning bush. The Elders are there to witness the judgment that was to be given – they serve, as it were, as the jury at the trial. The rod is the instrument of judgment – just as it was when it struck the Nile when it turned the water to blood back in Exodus 7. God now stands on the rock before Moses and commands Moses to strike the rock on which he stands.
Do you see what happened?
Moses strikes God!
The significance of this is huge. God is struck by the rod of judgment. Rather than the people being punished, God is punished – in their place, for their good. And the result was that water came out of the rock and the people were able to drink.
So what did all this prove? Well it proved everything about God that the people were calling into question. They were accusing him of being unable to provide for them or protect them and they doubted his presence. But here we see Him providing water for them and all the while protecting them from his own wrath by his submitting himself to judgment rather than them. And his presence could no longer be doubted as there He was – standing on the rock – right in front of them!
God was clearly then innocent of the charges against Him – but still commanded Moses to strike him with the rod of judgment
Now you will remember how, after his resurrection, Jesus, on the road to Emmaus, said to the disciples he met that day how everything written about him in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled. The Old Testament is all about Jesus. It all points towards Jesus and specifically to the cross. Here we have seen an excellent example of this. At the rock of Horeb we have a picture of what would ultimately happen at Calvary where, God, in the person of his son Jesus Christ, would submit himself to judgment for the good of his people. Though innocent, Jesus bore the punishment that his people should rightfully have borne and thereby provide salvation for them. And less you think this is me being fanciful, seeing comparisons that aren’t really there let me take you to 1 Corinthians 10 where the apostle Paul wrote this:
‘…our fathers were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea, and all were baptised into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ’
The rock was Christ because like the rock, Christ was struck with divine judgment. On the cross, Christ bore the curse for our sin – God struck him with the rod of his own justice. Isaiah 53:5 reads
‘But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.’
The punishment that Jesus bore on the cross is the proof of our protection, proving that we will not face eternal punishment for our sins. Because God has taken the judgment for our sins upon himself we are safe – eternally safe.
‘There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’
The rock was also Christ because it flowed with water – the water of life. On the cross, John records how in order to confirm that Jesus was dead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear and at once there came out blood and water. The blood was the blood that he shed for our sins – without which there is no forgiveness of sins – but the water reminds us that by his death he also gives us life. Jesus himself said in John 4:14
‘Whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.’
And again in John 7:37
‘If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink.’
Jesus then not only protects us – he also provides for us.
And of course, as he assured the disciples in Matthew 28:20 just before his ascension, he is always present with us too.
‘And behold, I am with you always , to the end of the age’
‘For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’
In Christ, God is for us what he was for Israel in the wilderness. Our provider, our protector and our ever present Lord. He is all we need. We may not be on the way to a geographical promised land but we are on the way to heaven. Right now we are as it were in the wilderness but, as we journey on in this life, God has provided for us, in Christ, all we need to guarantee our safe arrival in heaven – in God’s kingdom.
Jesus’ perfect life of righteousness, credited to us, makes us acceptable to God.
Jesus’ perfect death in our place satisfies Gods just anger at our sinfulness.
So let us trust him that his words are true. We will face trials of many kinds in our lives but through it all let us fix our eyes on Jesus – the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame. Let us feed on him, let us come to him for water – and let us find him wholly sufficient for all our needs.
‘Oh come, let us sing to the LORD; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise! For the LORD is a great God, and a great King above all gods. In his hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also. The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands formed the dry land. Oh come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the LORD, our Maker! For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.’
I am indebted to a sermon on Exodus 17:1-7 that I heard preached some years ago by William Taylor which led me to see much of what is written here.
Recently I have been reading the book of Habakkuk.
Like the Old Testament prophet we too live in confusing times. And like Habakkuk we too may be tempted to complain to God.
How long must we endure the current coronavirus pandemic and the restrictions placed upon us? How much longer must we continue to hear daily about death and disease? How many more must lose their jobs and suffer financial hardship?
We do not know the answer to these questions but we do know this.
Because of the utterly amazing salvation that was secured for us at the cross when Jesus bore there the punishment our sins deserved, we can have confidence that there is a day coming when we will all be utterly amazed. again. For there is a day coming when God ‘will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things [will] have passed away.’ [Revelation 21:2-4]
Covid-19 will not last forever. We may never fully understand what God is up to in these days but, just as as in the days of Habakkuk, God is working his purposes out.
As he does so may we continue to trust that the judge of all the earth will do what is just. Because that, as chapter 2 of the book makes plain, is what the righteous do. They live by faith [Habakkuk 2:4] and as they do so they wait [Habakkuk 2:3] hoping in a God who they know, though he may linger, will certainly keep his promises. They are convinced that, despite what they may currently be experiencing, God will come and he will act just as he has promised to. And so even as they wait they rejoice. As Habakkuk goes on to remind in Chapter 3, ‘though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet [we can still] rejoice in the LORD; [we can still] take joy in the God of [our] salvation.’ [Habakkuk 3:17-18].
As these verses make clear though, it won’t be easy for people of faith – they rejoice in the midst of sorrow. But, though they may be weary with their crying out; though their throats may be parched and their eyes may have grown dim with waiting, [Psalm 69:3] even so, still they wait patiently. For they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint. [Isaiah 40:31] For the LORD is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him. It is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD. [Lamentations 3:25-26]
And that salvation will surely come, just when God knows that the time is best. For when we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. [Romans 5:6]. And Jesus is coming again. We do not know when that time will come for concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. [Mark 13:32]
And so we too must wait patiently for the LORD, and in his word we must hope. [Psalm 130:5] If we do we know that he will incline to us and hear our cry. [Psalm 40:1] Our souls then wait for the LORD; for he is our help and our shield. [Psalm 33:20]
Therefore be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the LORD! [Psalm 31:24] None who wait for the LORD shall be put to shame. [Psalm 25:3] and we can be confident that, like Abraham, having patiently waited, we will obtain all the promises God has made to us. [Hebrews 6:15]
Back in the day when, as a lad, I used to queue for school dinners, in order to indicate to the dinner ladies how large was the portion of pudding one hoped to be served, the approved method of my classmates was to express the desired quantity in terms of something of comparable size. The effectiveness of this technique was, however, questionable since, judging by the invariably uniform size of the pieces of Australian Crunch that were actually served, the kitchen staff of Beech Grove School didn’t appreciate the differing body mass of a Tyrannosaurus Rex and a flea!
I was reminded of this recently as I was considering how in the Bible, the psalmists, and others, not infrequently describe the LORD as their ‘portion’ [Psalm 16:5, 73:26, 119:57, 142:5]. ‘Portion’ refers literally to the portion of the territory in the promised land that was allocated to all the individual tribes of the people of Israel except the tribe of Levi. The Levites were not allocated any land but instead, it was said, that the Lord was their portion [Numbers 18:20].
And the same is true for us. Like the psalmists, we are sojourners on the earth [Psalm 119:19]. And just as the Levites were a reminder to the people of God that the promised land was not their final destination [Hebrews 4:1-11], so too we should remember that our eternal home is not in some geographical area of the world as we currently know it. Our God is not some tribal deity, sovereign over just a few square miles of the created order. On the contrary, as the God of the universe, he bigger than that. Far bigger. When we finally enter our eternal rest we will fill the created order, dwelling with God as part of that ‘great multitude that no one [can] number, [drawn] from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages’ [Revelation 7:9].
For the Church is the bride of Christ [Ephesians 5:25-33] and when we see at last the new heaven and the new earth, we will be part of that holy city, the new Jerusalem, that will come down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And then a loud voice will be heard from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.’ [Revelation 21:1-3]
What a day that will be and what a thought it is to comfort us on our current journey, a journey that, as it was for the Israelites in the wilderness, is, for many, very hard. Though frequently graciously bestowed upon us by our lovingly Heavenly Father from whom every good and perfect gift comes [James 1:17], the acquisition of material blessings is not what being a Christian is all about. Indeed, like Jesus himself, there is a sense in which we have nowhere to lay our head [Luke 9:59]. This is not to say we should not be concerned about the homeless and the increasing numbers who, as a result of the pandemic, are facing economic hardship. Far from it. Rather it is a reminder to us both that this world is not our home and that whatever our current circumstances we have much to rejoice over. As the prophet Habakkuk reminds us, ‘though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet [we can still] rejoice in the LORD; [we can still] take joy in the God of [our] salvation.’ [Habakkuk 3:17-18].
For our ‘flesh and [our] heart[s] may fail, but God is the strength of [our] heart[s] and [our] portion forever.’ [Psalm 73:26]
So let us affirm today that the LORD really is our portion. And let us therefore hope in him [Lamentations 3:24] and endeavour therefore to keep his words [Psalm 119:57]. To do so is to affirm that we believe that God’s promises are true, that, in Christ, God will bring us into that eternal sabbath rest spoken of by the writer to the Hebrews, and that God really is enough.
Which, of course, he is.
Because there is no portion bigger than a God sized portion.
And not even the combined efforts of all the pupils in Class 2C could result in that much Australian Crunch ever being eaten!
‘So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.’
I won’t keep you, I know you’re busy, probably increasingly so. But busyness isn’t a new problem. Back in 1660 Blaise Pascal wrote:
‘I have often said that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room’.
Pascal says, we are all too busy to be happy. But interestingly he asked the question as to why we are busy and came up with the answer that we keep ourselves busy to distract ourselves from the fact that we are ultimately going to die. He writes:
‘Despite [his] afflictions man wants to be happy…But how shall he go about it? The best thing would be to make himself immortal, but as he cannot do that, he has decided to stop thinking about it.’
But if some are busy distracting themselves in an attempt to forget that they will someday die, others, just as foolishly, are busy spending their lives trying to avoid death at any cost. I see it in my work as a doctor and currently we are all now seeing it as we continue to try to cope with Covid- 19. And we are getting ourselves into all kinds of trouble as a result.
Because an unhealthy and excessive fear of death enslaves us. Whilst it is perhaps only human to be anxious at the prospect of death, only ever acting is ways that reduce our chance of dying serves only to make us less humane. Furthermore, slavishly submitting to a new set of rules, as well as failing to keep us safe forever, will succeed only in making the lives that we do have less worth living.
So if it is foolish to try to forget that we will die and detrimental to obsess over it constantly in the hope that it can be avoided, what should we do about death?
The answer is to listen to Psalm 90 and in particular hear verse 12 urging us to recognise the shortness of our lives – if we want to have a heart of wisdom that is. For the wise do not pretend that death doesn’t exist or that it can be avoided but look to the one who can save us, not from death, but through it.
Only by taking refuge in the one who has ‘been our dwelling place through all generations’ can we be free from the fear of death. Only by acknowledging the reality of God’s anger towards sinners and our need of the salvation that is found in Christ alone can we be made glad ‘for as many years as we have seen trouble’. Only by finding satisfaction in the ‘unfailing love’ of the one who is ‘from everlasting to everlasting’ may we ‘sing for joy and be glad all our days’.
Praise God that all these things are possible because of Jesus, the one in whom we have a certain hope. Jesus said “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. [John 11:25-26]. Jesus did not come back from the dead after a brief visit there only to have to return at some later date. Rather he defeated death by passing through it and emerging safely on the other side. Our hope then should be that though we die, yet shall we live, that we are, as I say, saved, not from death, but through death, by living and believing in the one who has gone before us.
Therein lies freedom that will last.
Therein lies life in all its fullness.
Therein lies the favour of the Lord our God that rests on us.
Therefore, in the light of these things, if we are busy may it be that we are busy ‘serving God, in the strength that he supplies’. May he thus establish the work of all our hands ‘in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ.’ [1 Peter 4:11]
ON WHY WE SHOULD HAVE CONFIDENCE THA5 GOD WILL KEEP HIS PROMISES
God is working his purposes out as year succeeds to year – including this year despite how abnormal and unexpected 2020 it turning out to be.
God frequently works outside expected norms. What could be more unexpected, what could be more abnormal, than his saving of wretched sinners through the death of his son on a cruel Roman cross.
But Christ crucified, though seemingly foolishness to us is in fact the power of God and the wisdom of God. [1 Corinthians 1:14). We need to remember that we are surprised by God only to the extent that we have a wrong idea of what is normal. The problem lies with us. It is we who are abnormal, we who are, because of our sinfulness, prone to act in ways contrary to how we should be expected to live.
We too easily forget about grace and mercy. God never surprises himself by the way he acts. Thousands of years before it happened the death of the Messiah was prophesied as the means by which he would one day save sinners.
Though it frequently does, that a gracious and merciful God should keep his promises should not be something that surprises us. That he does is something only to be expected. Even so, there are those who will ask, ‘What evidence is there that God will, in the future, deliver on all his promises? How can we be sure?’
This is a valid question and one that is important for us to be able to answer since it asks why we should have faith in God. Christian faith is all about believing that what God says is true, trusting that, however improbable it may sometimes seem, God is in control and what he says will happen will one day come to pass. If we cannot answer how we can be sure that he will keep his promises, ours is a blind faith, one that is not based on solid foundations. Peter urges us to be ‘prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks [us] for a reason for the hope that is in [us]’ [1 Peter 3:15]. Since ‘faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen’ [Hebrews 11:1], if we are to have any assurance at all, it is all the more important that we have solid reasons for our faith when what we do see seems only to be that things are going badly wrong.
So, in no particular order, here are some of my reasons why we can trust God.
Past record. When God has made promises in the past he has kept them. He promised as far back as the garden of Eden that one day a Messiah would come who would bruise Satan’s head even as his own heel was bruised [Genesis 3:15]. This promise was kept in the coming of Jesus Christ. And throughout the Old Testament there are countless other promises made in the form of prophecies about Jesus. These include that he would be born of a virgin in the town of Bethlehem, that he would be betrayed by a friend and sold for thirty pieces of silver, that he would be struck and spat upon, pierced through the hands, feet and side, that not one of his bones would be broken, that lots would be cast for his clothing and that he would be resurrected on the third day. The fact that all these promises were kept assures us that we can trust what God will keep all that he promises.
God’s nature. Because God is by nature good and true, it is impossible to think of anything more certain than his word. It is not possible for the God who defines what is true to lie, or the God who defines what is good to break a promise. ‘For when God made a promise to Abraham, since he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself, saying, “Surely I will bless you and multiply you.” And thus Abraham, having patiently waited, obtained the promise. For people swear by something greater than themselves, and in all their disputes an oath is final for confirmation. So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us. We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.’ [Hebrews 6:13-20]
God is omnipotent, all powerful, and as such, unlike us he never makes a promise he is unable to fulfil because of any limitation in himself. The answer to the rhetorical question of Genesis 18:14, ‘Is anything too hard for the LORD?’ is a categorical No!’ Likewise God is omniscient, all knowing and so, unlike us, he never makes a promise without fully appreciating all that there is to know and thus is never surprised by circumstances which might prevent him acting in the way he has said he will.
God is God and there is no other, He is God and there is is none like him. He declares ‘the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose,’ [Isaiah 46:10]. There is therefore a sense in which, when he makes a promise he is declaring what will be, and he says these things from the position of someone who already knows what will be. As such his promises are declaring what he knows will be and are thus utterly dependable.
God’s word creates what it commands. His word is powerful. When God said ‘Let there be light’ there was light. He spoke and what he spoke came into existence. When Jesus said to the storm ‘Be still’ the storm was stilled, when he said to Lazarus, ‘Come out’ the dead man came out. Creation has no option to obey what God demands. If God speaks it happens, therefore if God speaks his words are bound to come true.
Ultimately we can trust God’s promises because of the resurrection of Jesus, the evidence for which is undeniable. The God who can raise from the dead the one whom he sent to die for us is revealed to be a powerful God of love, one who can be trusted to fulfil all the wonderful promises he has made to us because he is good enough and strong enough to do so. All God’s promises ‘find their “Yes” in Jesus Christ’ [1 Corinthians 1:20]. His promises are therefore sure for ‘the word of God is not bound’ [2 Timothy 2:8], not even by any limitations in us for even ‘if we are faithless, he remains faithful – for he cannot deny himself.’ [2 Timothy 2:13].
There are no doubt many other evidences that our God will deliver on all his promises but these are at least a few that can give us great confidence, even in the midst of a global pandemic, will not fail to bring about what he says he will.
We can indeed look forward with eager expectation to the time when the great promise of the gospel will be fulfilled. As the old hymn puts it well, ‘God is working his purposes out as year succeeds to year’, and were we to sing it now we could do so confidently for, since it is based on another of God’s promises [Habakkuk 2:14], it is undoubtedly true that ‘nearer and nearer draws the time, the time that shall surely be, when the earth shall be filled with the glory of God, as the waters cover the sea.’
Personally I can’t wait.
ON BATTLING SIN
And so the battle against Covid-19 goes on. But there is a still more important war that we must fight.
Recently I have been reading the book of Joshua and I have been challenged as to how we can understand the narrative as a picture of our own spiritual growth and fight against sin.
John Owen wrote:
‘Do you mortify; do you make it your daily work; be always at it whilst you live; cease not a day from this work; be killing sin or it will be killing you.’
We must take our battle with sin seriously. As we read in Joshua 11 it will not be easy. For us it will be a lifelong battle but, since ‘he who began a good work in [us] will bring it to completion on the day of Jesus Christ’ [Philippians 1:6], it is a battle that we know will surely be won.
So in one sense the battle goes on but in another it is already over because it was won for us at the cross. Just as the Israelites had to fight for the land that God said he had already given them, so too we fight for a righteousness that has already been provided for us is Christ.
‘And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.’ [Colossians 2:13-15]
I couldn’t help think of these verses when I read of how Joshua made a public spectacle of the kings he had triumphed over. After killing them he put them to open shame by putting their bodies on poles for all to see.
Paradoxically the death of Christ, the true King, secures the victory over all that opposes God. This king, however, does not stay dead. Three days later he rises again and then goes on to ascend, not just to heaven, but to a throne, one from which he still reigns today.
At the cross sin was utterly defeated and our forgiveness was secured – a forgiveness that brings us peace. That peace is not just a peaceful easy feeling that we experience in our spirits as a result of knowing that we are safe in our Saviour’s care – it is more than that. It is peace with God that means our warfare is over. As Isaiah prophesied,
‘Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins’ [Isaiah 40:1-2]
After Joshua took the whole land, according to all that the LORD had spoken to Moses, we read that ‘the land had rest from war’. – Joshua 11:23.
This is a rest we too can know in Christ. Because Jesus said:
‘Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. – Matthew 11:28
In Joshua 23:14, as Joshua nears the end of his life he makes this wonderful statement to the people of Israel.
‘Not one word has failed of all the good things that the LORD your God promised concerning you. All have come to pass for you; not one of them has failed (v14)’
It is a statement that will hold true for all God’s people forever.
It Joshua 23, the people are urged by their departing leader to behave well. This is ‘after the LORD had given rest to Israel from all their surrounding enemies’ (v1). The people have been given rest but there is much they must still do.
They must, Joshua tells them, be ‘very strong to keep and to do all that is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, turning aside from it neither to the right hand nor to the left’ (v8). They must be ‘very careful, therefore, to love the LORD [their) God’
So must we.
In Christ we have an assurance of salvation, at the cross the war has been won. But there are still battles to be fought and we have to fight them. Even so, as for the people of Israel, it is the LORD who fights for us.
‘You have seen all that the LORD your God has done to all these nations for your sake, for it is the LORD your God who has fought for you.’ (v3)
‘The LORD your God will push them back before you and drive them out of your sight. And you shall possess their land, just as the LORD your God promised you.’ (v5)
‘For the LORD has driven out before you great and strong nations. And as for you, no man has been able to stand before you to this day. One man of you puts to flight a thousand, since it is the LORD your God who fights for you, just as he promised you.’ (v9-10)
What an encouragement to keep on keeping on knowing that God is fighting for us and that ‘if God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?’ [Romans 8:31-32]. But far from generating in us an attitude of ‘let go and let God’, such confidence should stimulate us to renewed Holy Spirit inspired action and ever greater efforts at being ever more obedient to our loving Heavenly Father.
Confident that he will keep all of his promises, including the one that assures us that he will complete the good work he has begun in us [Philippians 1:16] we should ‘work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in [us], both to will and to work for his good pleasure.’ [Philippians 2:12-13]
As one who, though safe in Christ, still has a long way to God before I am transformed into the image of Jesus, it is my prayer that this will be true of me.
Recently I have been reading Psalm 84 and have been reminded how the psalmist longs, yes faints, for the courts of the LORD. Better, he says, is one day there than a thousand elsewhere.
As anybody who knows me will tell you, I am something of a cricket fan, one who is fortunate enough to live just a few short miles away from the county ground in Taunton where Somerset, the team I have supported since I was a boy, play their home games.
So, at the risk of boring the uninitiated, I’d like to tell you about a match I went to see there a few years ago. It was, quite simply, a fantastic game, played between Somerset and Surrey. The visitors batted first and scored 291 in their 50 overs. Somerset then started their innings but before very long they were in all kinds of trouble as a result of a batting collapse which left them 5 wickets down for just 22 runs. Now I don’t doubt that the eyes of those with no interest in cricket are already beginning to glaze over but, bear with me, all you really need to know is that Somerset looked to be down and out. But then Roelof van der Merwe joined Dean Elgar in the middle and the pair put on 213 for the 6th wicket leaving just 56 more runs to secure the win, a task that van der Merwe and Lewis Gregory managed with several overs to spare.
You can imagine the tension as that great stand progressed – one more wicket and surely any chance of an unlikely win would have gone. But gradually the crowd became more hopeful and the excitement built such that, when eventually the winning runs were scored, I was out of my seat, as were most of the crowd, celebrating in a way that could possibly have embarrassed my son had he been with me – which he was! It was a genuinely memorable victory. I was as high as a kite with excitement – the crowd cheered and applauded the players as they left the field. It was a great, great day!
The match left me thinking about how my emotions in church on a Sunday morning should be more like those I experienced that day in the early summer of 2017. On that occasions I was an unimportant member of a large crowd, one who, rather than thinking about myself or how significant I was, was instead content to rejoice in the greatness of the players and what they had done in bringing about the victory over the old enemy, Surrey. I had contributed nothing to Somerset’s victory. My faith in their ability to win varied during the course of the match but weather I believed in them had no effect on the outcome of the game. Nonetheless, they did win, and I rejoiced in praising Somerset CCC that evening. And I did so joyfully – not reluctantly. Nobody at the ground that evening was there out of duty. Every Somerset fan would have felt ‘better is one day at the county ground Taunton, than a thousand elsewhere’. There was a real sense of fellowship as we left the ground – everyone smiling and chatting about what they had just witnessed. I came home and just had to talk about it – I even posted a photo of the scoreboard on social media. I had seen the glory of Somerset Cricket – I was satisfied by it and just had to talk about it.
Of course not all of us are into cricket but I hope that we all have had experiences that have genuinely thrilled us, occasions that have taken us out of ourselves, times when we have been made to feel really alive. For some of us it may be music – perhaps we can remember a concert we once went to that wowed us. I don’t go to many but thoroughly enjoyed seeing Bob Dylan three years back and I recall a B.B.King concert I went to many years ago which was simply amazing. For you though it may be Adele or Albinoni, the Beatles or Acker Bilk. For others it may be a film or a trip to the theatre that took you out of yourself, ‘The Lord of the Rings’ maybe, or ‘The Phantom of the Opera’. For still others it may have been an experience of nature such as standing on the top of a mountain or on the edge of the Grand Canyon.
It’s not wrong to enjoy these things since they, along with all other good things, come from God. We are meant to enjoy them conscious of the fact that God is the author of all genuine pleasures. I thank God for the game of cricket and the pleasure it gives me.
But then I must remember this. Whilst I not infrequently get very excited by a game of cricket, the truth is, of course, that cricket isn’t ultimately as great as all that. Though it is still there in part, the joy I experienced that day at Taunton gradually faded, it is less than it once was. And, furthermore, Somerset’s heroics on that occasion was followed by some disappointing performances. Cricket, when all is said and done, is just a bunch of men or women hitting a ball about a field with a wooden stick.
But God – is better than cricket. Much better! After crossing the Red Sea the people of Israel celebrated their rescue from Egypt. We have an even greater rescue to celebrate. When Jesus was crucified on a Roman cross some two thousand or so years ago he received from God the punishment that was rightfully ours. Because of our sinfulness, we deserved the suffering that he endured at Calvary. God saved us that day from his wrath and, not only that, he also reconciled us to himself such that we might spend all eternity glorifying God and enjoying Him. We contributed nothing to that salvation other than our need to be saved. When it comes to our salvation we are not part of God’s team, but rather a part of the crowd of spectators. We are those who,look on, amazed by the victory he has secured for us and who, as a result, are filled with praise and left eager to tell others of what he has done.
Or at least we should be. My emotions in church each week should far surpass the excitement I felt at the cricket. I should leave church on a Sunday morning overflowing with excitement at what I’ve heard about God. I should leave with an overwhelming desire to tell others of what he has done. But the truth is that often I don’t – and I suspect I’m not the only one who sometimes feels that way.
The reason for this, or at least one of them is that I am still a sinner and, consequently, I continue to struggle with my sinful nature which means that I remain only partially sighted in regard to how great God really is. In short, sometimes I find other things preferable to Him.
But the good news is that Jesus also died for our sin of not enjoying him as we should. He died for those of us who are half-hearted Christians. One day we will see him as he really is – and we will praise him as we really should – and we’ll enjoy doing so too.
Just like I enjoyed praising Somerset that day in Taunton
Although, of course, it won’t be like that at all – it’ll be ten million times more enjoyable than that feeble pleasure. And what is more, unlike Somerset, who one week are amazing and the next are disappointing, God will always be great.
So it’s right that we enjoy sport and music and nature, and whatever else it is that gives us pleasure, but as we do so we should remember that, not only is God the source of all these pleasure, but he himself is, or at least should be, what we delight in most, our greatest pleasure of all.
Another way to think of this is to ask, ‘Where are our hearts?’ It is sometimes said, ‘Home is where the heart is’ and so we must ask ourselves whether we are content to make our home in the world, enjoying there its pleasures, or whether we long, as with the psalmist, to make our home with God, in ‘the courts of the LORD’ [Psalm 84:2]. The answer to that question reveals not what we may intellectually assent to but rather what we really desire. And our answer is important since our love for God should be a matter of the heart and not merely an intellectual acceptance of his beauty.
At the start of the book ‘God is the Gospel’, John Piper asks:
‘If you could have heaven, with no sickness, and with all the friends you ever had on earth, and all the food you ever liked, and all the leisure activities you ever enjoyed, and all the natural beauties you ever saw, all the physical pleasures you ever tasted and no human conflict or any natural disasters, could you be satisfied with heaven, if Christ was not there?’
It’s a searching question, one that, in my case at least, reveals that my heart is frequently all too comfortable here in this world. And even when I do find myself longing for heaven, it is too often out of a feeling of wanting to escape the trouble that this world brings rather than out of a desire to be closer to God.
We find then that our hearts are desperately sick and deceitful above all things . Though we may long to love God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind, we find ourselves unable to do so the way we should. Like Paul we ‘have the desire to do what is right but not the ability to carry it out’ and are left asking ‘Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?’ [Romans 7:18,24]. Like Paul though we know the answer to our question is Jesus, who died for sinners such as ourselves. How blessed we are if we know of such a great salvation.
We all long to be blessed but it isn’t only in receiving God’s good gifts that we are blessed. I, at least, am one who needs to be reminded what it really means to be blessed. I far too easily forget what Psalm 84 teaches us, that the blessedness that is known by those who dwell in the house of the LORD is for those who praise God, and not for those who merely seek to enjoy his good gifts without any regard for the one from whom all good things come. [Psalm 84:4]
Blessedness isn’t, however, something we must wait until we are in heaven to enjoy. On the contrary it is something we can experience today. And, since it isn’t measured in terms of worldly pleasures, we can enjoy it regardless of our current circumstances. That means, and sometimes I need to remind myself of this, I don’t need to be watching cricket to be happy.
The writer of Psalm 84 says that the blessed are those in whose hearts are the highways to Zion. The blessed are, therefore, those who know that they are on their way to their eternal, heavenly home. They are the ones whose strength is in the LORD, the ones who go from strength to strength, the ones who rejoice, even as they travel through the ‘vale of tears’, because they know that they will one day, unquestionably appear before God. [Psalm 84:5-7]
And blessing comes to those who, as they travel, walk in the way of the Lord. Psalm 119 begins like this
‘Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the LORD! Blessed are those who keep his testimonies, who seek him with their whole heart, who also do no wrong, but walk in his ways!’
Here then is another challenge for me, one that is born out of a realisation that my salvation doesn’t stop with my justification, one that is born out of an appreciation that I need to be sanctified too. Whilst it is wonderfully true that I am blessed in knowing that I am now justified, counted righteous in Christ, there is also blessing in obedience. As I am sanctified there is blessing to be known in the keeping of God’s law, in the living of a holy life and in walking blamelessly on the journey home.
Inevitably I will, at best, be only partially successful, there will always remain a need, on my part, for an ongoing repentance and, on God’s part, his gracious forgiveness. But even so there is blessing in the struggle.
Psalm 84 closes by saying that the one who trusts in the LORD is blessed. [Psalm 84:12] As well as trusting him for our salvation, trusting God includes trusting that his commands are good. My life needs to hold these twin truths simultaneously such that, whilst I must never imagine that my works will save me, neither must I think that my good works don’t matter. After all ‘faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead’. [James 2:17].
Therefore, as well as enjoying the blessing of being his people, may we all also know the blessing of walking in his ways – may we know the blessing of the journey every bit as much as we will one day enjoy the blessing of dwelling in his house, ever singing there his praise!
May our home be where our hearts are – and may our hearts be first and foremost with God. May we long for the courts of the Lord even as we seek to enjoy leading lives that are good, not only in terms of the gifts we receive from the giver of every good thing, but also in the way we try to be obedient to him.
May we then, long for the pavilion whilst endeavouring to enjoy a good innings.
Recently, as I was listening to a song by James Blunt, I found myself crying. This will come as no surprise to those who are less than appreciative of the creative efforts of the one time captain in the British Army and who will, therefore, see my distress as nothing more than the inevitable consequence of exposing oneself to the work of the aforementioned musician. Even so, the reason I was reduced to tears had nothing to do with the artistic merit, or lack thereof, of what it was that I was hearing.
The particular song in question was ‘Monsters’. In it Blunt sings of how his father had once chased away the monsters that had existed in his son’s life, and of how he needn’t be afraid now that he is seemingly drawing near to the end of his life. The reason given for this is that Blunt junior has now taken on the responsibility of chasing away the monsters that appear to still prowl the environs of Blunt senior’s remaining years.
So why the moist eyes?
I think, in part, they began to spill over on account of the fact that my own dear father is now 89 years old and, though he is still pretty fit and well, is, inevitably, drawing ever closer to his own death. For him the time has indeed gone or, at least, it largely has. But more specifically, my sadness reflected a realisation that, despite being a genuinely great Dad who, over the years, has lessened a great many of the fears I have myself experienced, he has, of course, been no more successful in completely chasing away all the monsters in my life as I myself have been successful in completely chasing away all of those that have inhabited the lives of my own children and those of others whom I have loved or cared for both inside and outside of work.
Life is at times a scary business and, as doctor I see perhaps more of those things that lurk in the shadows than some others. The world is full of protracted dementia and premature death, it’s full of cancer and coronavirus, pain and paralysis, sickness and sorrow. It is, on occasions, a confusing and confounding place, both wild and unpredictable. Whilst, for a time, we may be able to cage some of the monsters we encounter, as with those great creatures of old, the Behemoth and Leviathan, we can never tame them fully. That is as true today and it will still be true tomorrow.
Perhaps, in part, that’s the point of monsters. Perhaps we are meant to be terrified by these fearful creatures, at least for as long as it takes us to appreciate that it will always be beyond our ability to domesticate them and thus, render as harmless, that which threatens us most. (See Job Chapters 40 and 41). Only then, perhaps, will we come to realise that our only hope lies, not in ourselves, but in the one who created what terrifies us, in the one who, as their creator, stands high above each of those dreadful dangers and who, more terrifying perhaps than they are themselves, sovereignly controls and constrains them such that their sphere of influence extends only as far as he decrees.
Constrained by our limited minds, there is, of course, an unfathomable mystery to God that we will never completely understand, an infinite depth to his being that we will never fully plumb. But by faith we know that this fear inducing deity, is also a God of love. As C.S. Lewis helpfully reminds us, God is not safe, but he is good. In the book that bears his name, Job, in his anguish at the devastating loss he has experienced, pours out his complaint to God. When it is eventually answered, it is out of the whirlwind that God graciously speaks. [Job 38.1].
Whatever our current circumstances, however incomprehensible we may be finding what is happening to us today, God has promised that he will ultimately restore the fortunes of his children just as he restored Job’s. And when he does, it will be as a result of his loving kindness and his infinite goodness. Though he may, in his mercy, first have cause to humble us, an experience which we may find to be deeply painful, having done so he will vindicate us, accepting us as righteous on account of the perfect life lived by Jesus. And in the end, he will richly bless us, a consequence of who he is by nature, a compassionate God who invites us to take refuge in him. Then, just as those who, sheltering in a crevice of a rock can marvel at the frightening force of the storm, so we, safe in Christ, will be able to marvel at the fearful awesomeness of who God really is.
So who will protect you from the hooded claw, who will keep the vampires from your door? Surely only the one who is sovereign over all that is evil – surely only the one who, though God, paradoxically ‘emptied himself by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men and, being found in human form, humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.’ [Philippians 2:7-8]
This is the power of love, the power of that perfect love shown by the perfect God who is love. His is a love that chooses to suffer, a love that chooses to lay down it’s life, and a love that, in so doing, subverts evil, disarms it of its power, and defeats death itself.
My father may not have been able to chase away all the monsters in my life but he has pointed me to the one who can, a father who is greater than either of us could ever be. God is the only perfect father, one whose son I am glad to be. And he is the one to whom I seek to point others, including my own children, because, since his is the only perfect love, and since ‘perfect love casts out fear’ [1 John 4:18], he alone is the one who can deal with all that frightens them, all that frightens me and all that frightens all those I love and care for.
Contrary to that which is suggested by the lyrics of James Blunt’s song, there is, though, a need for forgiveness. But the good news is that, on account of Christ’s death in our place, our faultless Heavenly Father, who does indeed know all our mistakes, lovingly offers that forgiveness to all who will receive it. If then, when our time is gone, we know his forgiveness, and if, as we close our eyes in sleep for that final time, we hear someone gently whisper ‘Don’t be afraid’ we will know, even then, that there really is nothing that we need fear.
For then all the monsters will have been chased away forever.
For those who may not be familiar with the song ‘Monsters’ you can hear it here. You can say what you like, I think it’s all right!
Recently I read the book of Philippians. I was particularly struck by Chapter 3 v 10 where Paul writes of how his desire is
‘that [he] may know [Christ] and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death’
It was challenging for me to read of how Paul wants to become like Jesus in his death. I don’t know about you but I have, over the years, found it easy to say how I want to be like Jesus. But when I have, I have always meant it in the sense of wanting to be like him in his moral perfection. I have never thought of it in terms of wanting to be like him in his death. Even so, that is what I am called to be.
As a result of reading Christopher Ash’s superb commentary on Job, I have been pondering of late the issue of suffering. God is sovereign over all things, but if God is sovereign, the question that is often asked is why does he allow bad things to happen to good people? Given that the Bible tells us that there is no one who is truly good [Romans 3:10-12], a better question might be, ‘Why does God allow bad things to happen to his people, to those whose sin is forgiven and are counted righteous and who, in that sense at least, suffer undeservedly?
God’s ways are frequently shrouded in mystery and so we may never fully know the reasons behind his actions. Nonetheless, without simplistically suggesting that it is the whole answer to the question, one reason why bad things sometimes happen to good people might be so that good things can happen to bad people.
We live in a world where grace and redemptive suffering go hand in hand. The very bad thing that happened to Jesus on the cross opened the door to a very good thing happening to us – the forgiveness of our sins, our adoption into God’s family and the assurance of eternal life with God. Without Christ’s redemptive suffering on our behalf, there would be no grace.
When as Christians we continue to suffer it is never as a punishment for our sins. Since all our sin was dealt with on the cross when Jesus bore there the punishment we deserved, there is now no punishment left for us to endure. The price has been fully paid, there is therefore, now no condemnation for those who are in Christ. [Romans 8:1]
Even so there is much that we need to learn if we are to be transformed into the likeness of Jesus. And so the Lord lovingly disciplines those he loves just as a Father disciplines his children. Sometimes the lessons will be painful, sometimes they will involve suffering. ‘For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.’ [Hebrews 12:11]. If, as the writer of the letter to the Hebrews tells us, Jesus was made perfect through suffering [Hebrews 2:10], we should not be too surprised when God sends it our way to make us more like Christ. Sometimes, rather than being silent in our suffering, it is through our suffering that God speaks. ‘He delivers the afflicted by their affliction and opens their ear by adversity’ [Job 36:15].
But there is another reason why we sometimes suffer. Sometimes it is for the sake of the gospel. Such suffering, as Paul tells us in Colossians 1:24, is ‘filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church’. Paul is not suggesting here that Jesus’ death wasn’t fully sufficient for salvation but rather that more suffering will be required to bring the news of that salvation to those who do not yet know of it. Sometimes, therefore, our suffering is for the sake of others, the means by which grace comes to those who do not yet know the good news.
Paul doesn’t want to suffer for his sin, to do so would be to reject all that Jesus did for him at Calvary, but he does, I think, want to share in the sufferings of Christ and to be like him in his death, so that not only may he become more like Jesus, but also so that he might be used by God to bring the gospel to others.
The question I must ask myself is do I really want to know such suffering too?
If we do suffer for the sake of the gospel, whether as a direct result of our witness or by testifying to the beauty of the gospel as we continue to hope in it as we suffer, we can draw comfort from knowing that such suffering isn’t meaningless, that it has purpose, that it is for the sake of others. Furthermore, knowing that we have been considered worthy to suffer dishonour for the sake of the name of Jesus, we may even, like the disciples in Acts 5, find ourselves able to rejoice in our suffering even though that same suffering will bring with it great sorrow.
This isn’t to suggest that we should masochistically go in pursuit of suffering. Rather it is, perhaps, to suggest that there should sometimes be an acceptance that, when God lovingly sends suffering our way, that which we lose and which we are prone to value so highly is, in reality, often so much ‘garbage’. [Philippians 3:8]. Furthermore, we can take comfort that the suffering we do experience now is not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us [Romans 8:18], and that, however painful it genuinely is today, this light, momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison [2 Corinthians 4:17]. If we understand this we will, perhaps, be a little more like Jesus in his death, in the way we accept the suffering that God allows us to experience – not that we will ever suffer to the degree that Christ did.
Sometimes bad things happen to good people, so that good things can happen to bad people. We rejoice that the worst possible thing happened to Jesus, the best of all persons, so that good things might happen to sinners like us. Let us pray, therefore, that like Paul we too might be prepared to share in the sufferings of Christ so that we might be used by God as a means of his grace by which his good news is brought to those who still need to hear it so badly.
And that wouldn’t be a bad thing, in fact it would be a very good thing indeed.
Because to suffer in such a way, seemingly undeservedly, far from being evidence of injustice on God’s part would, in fact, be evidence of his grace, both to those he reaches as a result of our suffering, and to we ourselves who, as well as being made more Christlike by it, can also what it is to experience the joy of being counted worthy to be used by Him in such a way.
For some further thoughts on suffering, click here