Category Archives: Bible study

One of the greatest motivators of all

Sometimes I find it hard to stay motivated. If my confidence and energy is low, I can look to the author and perfecter of my faith and feel insignificant and feeble, rather than energised and encouraged. I feel small and weak, and in a world that seems full of people doing significant things, I feel profoundly mediocre. I can feel like it’s not worth trying anything because if I do it will go badly, or it just won’t matter in the bigness of this world.

This can be a general feeling, but also in my Christian life. Nobody will care about my testimony, what I have to say doesn’t matter, I can’t even get control of my sinfulness. I’m distracted and moody, emotional and lazy. I catch myself in pridefulness and all manner of other states that Jerry Bridges would call “respectable sins“.

It all makes me feel lost and in a mess. And who do you turn to at those times? I have my Christian community and my trusted friends of course. But there’s a promise in the Bible that, even on the surface, is amazing, but is even more encouraging when you dig deeper.

Hebrews 12:1-2a says “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.”

We often focus on the bit about throwing off the sins because, as humans, we tend to err on the side of the things that clearly tell us what we’re supposed to do. But the bit that I think is equally important is the “cloud of witnesses”.

Hebrews 11 gives a list of these witnesses who lived by faith. At first sight they are intimidating – Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses and Rahab. Then judges, prophets and David himself. Great! A list of witnesses to remind me how horribly under par my life is.

But look again. All of the witnesses were not perfect – far from it in fact. Murderers, prostitutes, drunkards, liars, swindlers. The judges were all comparatively rubbish and David himself did some ghastly things. I haven’t done any of those things but it helps me to remember that these people are not the perfect witnesses that I might first think.

And then there are other witnesses mentioned, the tortured, the flogged, the imprisoned, the persecuted, poor and destitute – all mistreated for the sake of their faith. I have not had this misfortune (praise God) but this is starting to sound more like normal people – people just like me, who rose to the occasion on the strength of God.

But there are two things in particular that are important here. First, there is a cloud of these witnesses. Now for us, we might think “cloud” and envision fluffy bundles in a blue sky. But the Greek nephos is hardly used in the New Testament. Where it was more used was in Greek literature:

In a work by Herodotus who was an ancient Greek historian, he says “We have driven away so mighty a cloud [nephos] of enemies” when describing a battle in the Persian Wars. Homer in the Iliad says that “In front fared the men in chariots and thereafter followed a cloud [nephos] of footmen, a host past counting”.

A cloud of witnesses – and a cloud that has a military inference, and is a host past counting. Think about that:

Ah, burning cities, clashing armies, just another day in Rome: Total War.
Source: https://www.gamespot.com/articles/rome-total-war-exclusive-hands-on/1100-6105481/
Infantry Painting - Medieval Army in Battle - 15 by AM FineArtPrints
Source: https://fineartamerica.com/featured/medieval-army-in-battle-15-andrea-mazzocchetti.html
Source: https://cinefex.com/blog/dracula-untold-hob-army-final/

Imagine all those people who have come before us – as flawed and as broken as they are. Imagine they are shoulder to shoulder fighting for us. They are our army. And what does that tell us? It tells us we are not alone. It tells us that God has not left us unprotected.

The second thing that is significant is that when we look at these witnesses and try to measure up, we are looking at it all wrong. Those witnesses aren’t there because of who they are or what they did. They are there because of what their story tells us about God.

Through the stories of these people, we see God’s faithfulness. We see God’s grace. We see his mercy and love. We see God’s patience and his commitment to his people and his promises. We see God’s continuing work to provide support and protection for his people. For us.

These witnesses are not perfect. Many of them are just like us. They’ve done great things, they’ve done some pretty awful things. They are flawed and imperfect and broken – just like us. I find that fantastically encouraging. A cloud of perfect people might make me feel a bit self-conscious. Or it might be a barrier to me believing that they really are on my side because I am broken and flawed. Or it might make me focus on how perfect they are and how that is such an impossibly high bar.

But a cloud of witnesses who are just like me – well that’s a proper army. That makes me feel like I’m not alone. That sustains me. That motivates me. That makes me feel I can deal with my sinfulness. That helps me to know that I can stand before God, because I have all these people standing with me in whose lives God already worked and through whom his plans were brought into effect.

When everything seemed chaotic and directionless, we see God working in the details

I love the book of Ruth. OK, we have the same name but that’s not the reason. The reason is because most of the Old Testament involves grand sweeping stories of whole nations – and one nation in particular. The scene from the reader’s point of view seems panoramic. Like those opening scenes of a big Hollywood blockbuster – except that’s where it stays. And sometimes the view is just too wide to see everything. It stops us engaging on a personal level with the characters a lot of the time.

Except for the odd short book or story that takes us right into the heart of one family or one person. The book of Ruth is one of those. It hones right into the lives of three principle characters – Naomi, Ruth and Boaz.

It’s a beautiful story of loss and love and faith and hope. It shows us God’s sovereignty. We know this because from these humble beginnings, the very last verses in Ruth 4 tell us:

This, then, is the family line of Perez: Perez was the father of Hezron, Hezron the father of Ram, Ram the father of Amminadab, Amminadab the father of Nahshon, Nahshon the father of Salmon, Salmon the father of Boaz, Boaz the father of Obed, Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of David. (Ruth 4:18-22)

Ruth and Boaz are King David’s great-grandparents.

But there’s another lens we need to see this story through. And this comes from the very first verse of Ruth:

In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land. (Ruth 1:1)

The book of Judges is the backdrop against which the book of Ruth is set. So what is happening in the book of Judges? Judges, on the surface, looks like a simple list of judges who rule the Israelites after Joshua dies. It’s not that simple but now’s not the time to get into that (although perhaps we will sometime soon because it’s one of my favourite books in the whole Bible). Even with a list of some quite good judges, most of them are pretty shoddy. God raises them up, but they end up doing things so wrong, there’s peace for a bit and then things get worse before God raises up another judge.

The whole book is really a litany of disappointments, wars, competing interests, paganism and apostasy. This goes on for about 400 years from Joshua to the last judge before Saul. That’s a looooong time for things to go badly. That’s the difference between now the end of the reign of Elizabeth I, the rise of the Puritans and the landing of the Mayflower at Plymouth Rock.

The book of Judges says twice “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit.” (Judges 17:6 and 21:25). It’s the last verse in the book in fact, just to make the point. Everyone did what was right in their own eyes. The law of Moses was forgotten (or ignored) and everyone just did their own thing. We see this clearly in the actions of the judges. Some good, some bad – but none of them great. And while God is present throughout the book, His people are not obedient and pay more attention to, and take more authority from, the pagan Canaanite peoples around and among them – exactly the opposite of what God had been telling them for hundreds of years.

It’s against this backdrop that we read the book of Ruth – against 400 years of strife and conflict. And that is why it is so startling. While the book of Judges plays out, God is working intricately in the lives of Naomi, Ruth and Boaz to bring about his purposes. He lifts the famine that brings Naomi back, He blesses her with Ruth who’s fierce loyalty makes her leave her own people and country to follow her mother-in-law, He brings Ruth to Boaz’s field, and so on and so on. God’s work saturates the pages of Ruth. And while on a societal level He is ignored, in these pages, God is the focus of all the activity.

His presence is in the fine detail, and yet the purpose is long lasting – eternal even. He works to bring Ruth and Boaz together who will birth the line of David. The first real king of Israel and the one whom is promised to return in some form. David is the seat of prophecy for Jesus. Matthew 1:1 provides “The record of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” But David is also the first “type” of this kingly persona that Jesus will supersede. Just as Jesus fulfills and supersedes Adam as God’s first-fruits (1 Corinthians 15:45), and Moses as prophet, so Jesus is the messianic return of David – the true king.

I think of all those people like us living in the time of the judges – ordinary people trying to live their lives the best they know how. Tilling their fields, tending their herds, arguing with their husbands, counting their money, paying their taxes, shouting at their kids, laughing at silly jokes, fearing the unknown, worrying about the future – just like us. 400 years of people just like us in a time which, when you look back was chaotic and directionless, but at the time must have just been their “normal”. And in that 400 years, God is working things for His purposes – the present purposes of bringing Ruth and Boaz together, the intermediate purposes of bringing the line of David into being and long purposes of laying the foundations for the coming of His one and only Son, Jesus Christ.

That, to me, is stunning. God is so powerful and sovereign over the whole thing, and yet He is so present in the details. In fact, when we recognise His presence in the details, His power over all is amplified.

Just remember the next time you are in the book of Judges. While this is playing out, while the judges are scrapping and fighting and failing, while the people were searching for a leader, God was working in the lives of just three people in a tiny town to bring into effect His ultimate saving plans for Israel and all the nations – for all of us.

It makes me wonder, what is He doing today? He is present in all of our lives and all of our details. We won’t know of course until we walk with Him in paradise and understand the full intricacy of His plans. But it is worth remembering – not only is He there, but he is working. Things may feel chaotic and directionless to us, but God’s plans are happening.

As the rain and the snow
come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.

(Isaiah 55:10-11)

I wonder how Jesus felt about someone else carrying his cross

The cross is where we see Jesus at his most human and most divine. It is heart breaking to read about his anguish, even though we know the triumph to come. This in itself is something Jesus understood – when his friend Lazarus has died (John 11:38-44), Jesus wept even though he knew that in a moment he would raise him to life again.

I feel this emotional pain when I read the account of Jesus‘ arrest and crucifixion. My heart breaks for him when he struggles with God’s will and yet accepts it. Even when an angel appears and strengthens him, Jesus is still in anguish and “he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.” (Luke 22:42-44).

And this is because of me, I think. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. This is what the cross means. This is what Jesus’ suffering means. His anguish, his pain, his fear, his sorrow – it was mine. It was my fault.

Even though I know what it means. Even though I know what happened next, is still feel the sting of shame that it was my sin that put him there.

And yet even this shame of someone else carrying our punishment is something that Jesus felt. In Luke 23:26 we see that “as they led him away, they seized Simon of Cyrene, who was on his way in from the country, and put the cross on him and made him carry it behind Jesus.

As I was reading in my quiet time, this stood out starkly to me as I contemplated my shame. Jesus, on the road to his own crucifixion, having accepted the will of God, even though bodily broken, was forced to accept the suffering of another on his account.

The crossbar of the cross is estimated to have weighed around 32-42 kilograms (or 70-90 pounds) and the whole cross in the order of 136 kilograms (or 300 pounds). Even carrying the crossbar would have been a struggle for Simon on a long journey through jeering crowds along hot dusty roads to the crucifixion site – the whole cross so much more. And Simon must have tripped and strained and stumbled his way behind Jesus. And Jesus, walking in front, knew he was there. And knew he must have been suffering.

If I was Jesus, I would have felt shame. Shame for the pain of Simon, picked out of the crowd at random and forced to suffer because of me.

But this is where again we remember that Jesus was fully human. He felt what I feel when I contemplate the cross. He knows and understands us and our emotions so well – because he felt them.

And this is where I remember not to stay in my shame. You see, shame is a spur to correct behaviour. It’s a trigger to change the heart. It’s not a place we should stay. Because I am aware of my sin, I feel shame. That shame is a spur for me to breathe life into my faith with deeds – deeds of gratitude and obedience to the one who saved me, the one who gave everything for me.

The shame leads me to a gratitude deeper than an ocean. He did this for me – for all of us – while we were still sinners. While we didn’t know him, while we ignored him, while we held him on the cross with our sins. The expanse of God’s mercy is breathtaking.

And Jesus, our saviour, our shepherd, our treasure. So human. So divine. It’s unfathomable. And yet we can see these little glimpses in the gospels of the state of his heart, which in turn helps us to understand the glory of his divinity.

Read the gospels again. Read the crucifixion accounts. Hear his words. Feel his pain. And remember his glory. Because God’s actions are about the glory, not about the shame. Let your shame take you to gratitude, and as we celebrate this Easter, let us bow down and worship at his feet, because he deserves everything we have.

Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Luke 23:34

Lock-down schooling (and working) and the one thing that was a total surprise

OK we’re not strictly in lock-down yet, but the COVID-19 cases in our area are starting to climb so I decided last week to keep the boys home from school. I’m a pretty organised person – my day job is project managing and directing – and I’m relatively smart so I knew it would be hard but do-able. I saw many pictures of friends’ kids sitting at their new home work stations with big beaming smiles – yeah, this is do-able.

Well, my home schooling began with a trip to the supermarket because, as a staunch anti-panic buyer, I was running low on some basics. For some reason my relatively well behaved kids turn into the spawn of satan at the supermarket, so while taking a conference call, wrangling an uncooperative shopping trolley and trying to wrangle my equally uncooperative children round the shop while trying to sound cool and professional on the conference call, my first home schooling day started with me in hysterics in the car park and my kids staring at me like I’d gone insane.

That was generally the tone for the whole day.

You see I’m a single mum and I work full time. I can’t afford to cut back my hours – I am supremely blessed to be in a job that is secure (at the moment). What that means is that I was trying to mum, to work and to teach all at the same time and I felt like my brain was imploding with the mental and emotional load of it.

On top of that, we’re all going through something completely new. There’s fear and uncertainty and things are changing every day. The mental real estate needed to process all that means there is less left for dealing with other things. Doing this on my own means also there is nobody to turn to to share the mental and emotional load or divide the attention that the kids need while you’re trying to do other things. And when you’re pouring a lot into little people, with diminished mental real estate that don’t leave much for yourself.

People told me not to worry about their schooling. But in actual fact my 9 year old gets extremely anxious and needs the security of knowing he is following a structure. My 8 year is a crazy Tigger-like guy and for all our sanity he needs structure as well.

But two things have really helped. First, a lovely couple in my Bible study group sent this:

This helped. It really helped.

Second, and this was the super surprising thing, was our family devotions.

My kids attend a beautiful Christian school and they start every day with devotions. I decided to try and follow so I asked the boys to pick a song and then after that we would do a Bible study together.

My 9 year old picked this, which I thought was a great pick for the reality we’re living at the moment:

Another in the Fire: Hillsong United

Then we did a Bible study together using I Can Learn the Bible. I read the lesson and then they wrote down the memory verse and we talked about what it meant and how they could see it applying in our daily lives. And then we prayed.

It was simple and short. Maybe 20 minutes all up. But I felt a wonderful connection with them as we followed this together.

Me and my household, we serve the Lord. We church. We talk about God and God’s community a lot. We read Bible verses. We talk about Jesus. We pray every day at different times. But we had never before spent time in this organised way and it was a real surprise to me. Stupid really, because I know this. Grounding in God is the first and best thing of parenting. I know that. And I know the positive effects of being in his word. But right now, in this moment, this was a new thing.

In among the chaos and uncertainty, the world stopped for 20 minutes. It was just me and my boys and God.

It re-focused. It anchored. It connected us to each other and it connected us to God. He enfolded us in his peace. And so I am wonderfully grateful to God for bringing us light in the darkness and bonding us together.

Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. (Ps. 127:1)

As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord. (Joshua 24:15)

Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness. (Matthew 6:33)

1 plant, 12 mentions and the astonishing truth it reveals

We read the Bible for study and we read the Bible for familiarity. The former is good and necessary and brings us together with others. The latter is also necessary because it increases our theological muscle memory. And why is that important? Apart from keeping us close to God and anchoring us in His way, it helps us see things we never saw before.

You know how it works. You’re reading the Bible one day and something pulls you up short. I don’t remember reading that before, you think. What is that? What does that mean? Sometimes just reading the Bible for familiarity reveals little things that take us closer to Him. And it drives you deeper.

I was reading Psalm 51. This is David’s psalm confessing his guilt after his association (coughs awkwardly) with Bathsheba and murder of her husband. He begs God for mercy and says “I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.” (v3). Then he says in verse 7:

Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;
    wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.

Cleanse me with what? I must have glossed over that before – there’s a whole bunch of things you read without really thinking about it that are random ancient near east bits and bobs – ephods, seahs, ephahs…..whatever.

Hyssop is a plant that looks a bit like lavender.

Image result for hyssop

(Source: https://www.herbrally.com/monographs/hyssop)

It is mentioned only 12 times in the whole Bible:

  • 5 times in Leviticus and 2 times in Numbers in relation to rites for cleansing
  • 1 time in 1 Kings 4 in a list of things Solomon spoke of in his wisdom
  • 1 time in Hebrews 9:19 in a description of Moses in a rite of cleansing the people
  • 1 time in Psalms 51 as we saw above
  • 1 time in Exodus 12
  • 1 time in John 19.

Its these last two mentions that are absolutely startling.

In Exodus 12:22 God tells Moses to instruct the people to “Take a bunch of hyssop and dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and touch the lintel and the two doorposts with the blood that is in the basin. None of you shall go out of the door of his house until the morning.

This is the first mention of hyssop in the Bible and it is tied to one of the most momentous occasions in the whole narrative. The Passover was the night of the last plague of Egypt. It was the night that God would take the first born from every family, unless the sign of blood was made across the doorposts. In this case, God’s angel would pass over that house and the inhabitants would be safe. As part of this night, each family was to prepare their Passover lamb – slaughtered, cooked and consumed in a manner set out by God in a sign of obedience. And with the sign painted across the door with hyssop, the Israelites would be safe, before God leads them out of Egypt to the promised land.

The only other place that that hyssop is mentioned in the Bible is in John 19:28-30 – “After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the Scripture), “I thirst.” A jar full of sour wine stood there, so they put a sponge full of the sour wine on a hyssop branch and held it to his mouth.  When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

The mention of this little plant at this scene is striking. It’s out of place. It jars. Hyssop of course was used by the Romans as an antiseptic and as a plant it grew all over the place out of walls. It’s not that that makes it’s presence odd. It’s use is odd because it’s quite a stumpy plant without much of a stalk to hold a sponge on, let alone one weighed down with wine. The other reason it’s odd is that in a relatively short narrative of the crucifixion, the details recalled are those that have a real point to make. For example, John recalls the soldiers casting lots for his clothes (which was foretold in Psalm 22) and declaring his thirst (which takes us to Psalm 69) among others. So the mention of hyssop is profound. What is it saying? What is it pointing us to look at?

Its previous use had been forgiveness (Psalm 51) and cleansing (Psalm 1 as well as Leviticus and Numbers) and salvation (Exodus).

Forgiveness, cleansing from sin and salvation. Three things which are encapsulated in the cross.

Furthermore, it links the cross directly with the Passover. He is our Passover lamb whose blood averts the death that we deserve before God leads us to His promised land.

This is not allegory and its not code. Its a deliberate and specific reference recalled by John to allow us to see the deeper meaning in the surface events occurring at a point in time. But instead of a single occurrence of a man executed on the cross, we see the single point in time where the whole universe is joined together. Everything leads to, and leads from, the cross. That little plant draws us from the cross, to the Passover and the Exodus and back to the cross and to what God’s ultimate plans are.

We have been forgiven. We have been cleansed, and we have been saved.

That little plant reminds us of so much. And it points to so much depth in that terrible torturous but glorious event.

As you read your Bible, look out for these little mentions. Read and read your Bible and read it again. Only proximity to God’s word will highlight these moments – but it’s in these moments that the depth of God’s work is seen in all its intricate, beautiful and wondrous detail.

Comfort in pain and the reality of Joseph’s experience (Genesis 37-50)

Joseph is a cracker of a story isn’t it? He’s young and exciting, he has dreams, he’s God’s chosen – he even has a fancy coat and a musical. So even in popular cultural people know bits and bobs about him.

Image result for joseph and his amazing technicolour dreamcoat

As Christians, we might know a bit more. We might understand the context of his story in the broader arc of the whole Bible. We also tend to zero in on Genesis 50:20: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.

This is the pinnacle of the whole story. Focus too far in and you would miss what God is doing. Joseph had the ability to step back and see the broader picture of what had been happening.

However, keep the focus too far out and we might miss the beauty in the detail. The beauty is in the picture of two men – father and son – and their deeply emotional expressions. In seeing their raw and honest emotions, there is profound teaching for all of us.

So lets trace Joseph’s story very quickly:

  • We meet Joseph aged 17 in Genesis 37:2 and he has 10 older brothers. He’s precocious and kind of a jerk – he brings his father Jacob a bad report about his brothers and when he has dreams suggesting that his brothers will all bow down to him, he tells them (which is the worst thing a younger brother can do!). Jacob doesn’t help and shows his favoritism by getting him a fancy coat.
  • At this age, or some time after, the brothers decide to kill him (37:20) but his brother Reuben intercedes. They are going to throw him in a cistern but decide at the last minute to sell him as a slave.
  • Joseph is sold as a slave to Egyptian official Potipher and the Lord was with him (39:2). But Potipher’s wife fancies him. When he refuses her, she accuses him of attacking her and Joseph is thrown in jail.
  • In jail, God is with him again (39:21). While there, he interprets 2 people’s dreams and his predictions come to pass, but it is another 2 years before he gets out and goes into the service of the Pharoah after correctly interpreting his dreams.
  • Genesis 41:46 says Joseph is 30 years old when he enters Pharoahs service and after this, there are 7 years of abundance. Two years into the 7 years of famine, Joseph’s brothers and Jacob intersect with him again – so as the story comes full circle, Joseph is 39 years old.

So Joseph suffers for 13 years before he is released from prison, and 22 years before he is reconciled with his family. We tend to think abut Joseph’s suffering in terms of the “God was with him” bit. I don’t know about you, but when I have been in a difficult place, it is has been possible to see that God is with me, and it is a comfort, but it doesn’t make the circumstances easier to bear in the immediacy and logistics of the situation. If we have a death in the family, or loss of a job, a serious medical issue or a crumbling relationship, we know that God is there and it comforts us – but we still worry and we still mourn and we still feel the pain or the situation.

So lets re-think this a little because there are several clues in the text as to what Joseph really thought and how he felt.

In his late teens, Joseph is facing his own brothers who are going to kill him, or throw him into a cistern in the middle of the desert. Cisterns were wells for capturing water. They were usually dug out of rock and were about 15-20 feet deep.

Ancient Cistern

Ancient cistern. Source: https://www.bible-history.com/biblestudy/cisterns.html

This prospect alone would be terrifying and in 42:21 we see what happened that night. When Joseph, as Pharoah’s administrator, toys with his brothers (who don’t recognise him), the brothers say to one another “Surely we are being punished because of our brother. We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; that’s why this distress has come on us.”

How distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life. Its a chilling picture. Joseph was terrified. He was just a scared boy.

The same night he is ripped from his family and sold into slavery. We have seen enough photos from around the world of people torn from their homes to begin to understand what he must have been feeling – confusion, fear, panic, loss. Deep down, he may just have wanted his mum.

But he survives. And he loses his young precociousness. In the house of Potipher, it turns out he, with God’s gifts, is a great manager and administrator. But then he is pursued and falsely accused. The injustice must have been a horrific burden. And then again, the fear of not knowing what will happen – rape was punishable by death or castration in ancient Egypt. But he is imprisoned.

Even though God was with him in prison, Joseph was still a prisoner in what must have been dark, crowded and disgusting surroundings. And he was there around 10 years. He endured for 10 years. It’s interesting that when it says “the Lord was with him” it doesn’t say that Joseph bore up well, or that he was content in heart. He was apparently steadfast and trustworthy enough to have been put in charge by the prison warden. But we don’t know how his heart was affected by his experiences there.

Then when Joseph comes face to face with his brothers, his emotions overcome him. He is the most important man in all of Egypt. He is a father and husband. He has saved countless lives through his management of the abundant and famine years. But when he first sees them, he engineers things so that one brother remains and is put in prison (42:19), just as he had been. Then he plants silver in their bags so they must live with the fear of false accusation – just as he had been (42:25-28). They are also to bring the last brother back to him, as what? As a slave? Possibly. But here we see Joseph in a tumble of ragged emotions and knee jerk responses. All the while, dealing with deep and bitter anger and frustration and who knows what else that had been building up in him for over a decade:

  • He (Joseph) turned away from them and began to weep (42:24)
  • Deeply moved at the sight of his brother, Joseph hurried out and looked for a place to weep. He went into his private room and wept there (43:30)
  • Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, “Have everyone leave my presence!” So there was no one with Joseph when he made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard him, and Pharaoh’s household heard about it. (45:1-2)

This is where his life of anguish ends as he is reconciled with his family – but the anguish never leaves. We know this from our own bitter experience unfortunately. We may overcome. We may even triumph. But the experience shapes us. What we can say is that God was and is with us, and when the grief subsides, we can see the broadest arc of what He was doing in our lives.

And how about Jacob? My son will not go down there with you; his brother is dead and he is the only one left.” (42:38) This single line holds such passionate despair and fear. But what is Benjamin the only one of? The only other son of Rachel, Jacob’s beloved wife. Benjamin was the last piece of her that he had.

Both sons had been favoured by Jacob because he loved her so much. Jacob had been tricked by his father in law into marrying Leah and allowed himself to be enslaved and abused for the sake of marrying Rachel, such was his love for her (Genesis 29:18). She died in childbirth with Benjamin and so after the loss Joseph, Benjamin was Jacob’s only link with his departed wife. As hard as that must have been for his other children, we can understand the depth of his longing.

All these years he had grieved and now here Joseph was. Yes, a triumph. Yes, God’s plan. But there is such tragic beauty in the detail. We see strong men expressing their deepest emotions. God did not erase their pain, but He was with them.

The emotions are clear and honest. These emotions are God-given. And this story of Joseph is not the only place that we see God helping and guiding us in them. We see in Psalms, God gives us words to speak to Him in our anguish – we should use them. All of us will face circumstances that we think could break us. It is part of our human experience. But God did not leave us empty handed. We see in Joseph’s story a man remaining steadfast while experiencing all the most natural, honest and raw emotions. And Psalms shows us what we can say when the pain is so deep there are no words. We should not shy away from these.

Women can be good at this but this helps us to have shape to our emotional processing.

Men have not had a history or a culture of being able to do this. So for men, this might be liberating.

Don’t forget, if you find the rawness of these circumstances and emotions scary, let us remember that Jesus showed us the same. He showed us anger (Matthew 16:21-23), he showed us sadness (John 11:32-35), he showed us fear (Mark 14:35-36).

Look to Jesus and the humanity he displayed in all its realness. Take heart from Joseph and Jacob. Read the story. Read them as real people, just like you are. Read Psalm 69 or 86 – see how God helps us to cry out the words to Him when we might not even have them ourselves.

There is beauty in the detail when it is pointed God-ward. We don’t revel in in our negative feelings, but we can embrace the emotions that God gave us to process the pain. Only then can we step backwards and see the greater arc in what God is doing in our lives.

“I believe! Help my unbelief!” The struggle I have between God and me (Mark 9:14-29)

At church yesterday we recited the Apostle’s Creed. It’s a statement of belief and I love hearing the voices of the congregation together as one voice saying this. I believe these things. So why then do I struggle with faith sometimes?

I believe that God is the creator of heaven and earth, and yet I struggle to have faith in the possible outcomes of his infinite power – for the job I need, for the child to heal, for an authority to act kindly, for the relationship to mend. If I believe in all these things, why don’t I have enough faith in the other?

Image result for apostles creed

Maybe this is you too. And maybe you feel like sometimes its not so much that you don’t have faith in God, so much as not having faith in yourself – “Why would God listen to my prayers?” or “What could my prayers possibly do?”

Perhaps its because we know that God’s plans don’t always reflect what we’ve prayed for. The relationship doesn’t mend. The loved one doesn’t make it. The job disappears. So it makes us reluctant to express faith in God’s outcomes because we don’t necessarily understand them. We pray “if its your will, Lord….” as if to give him (and us) and “out” if it doesn’t pan out the way we hope.

Nothing says this more clearly than the man in Mark 9:14-29. A father has brought his son to see Jesus to be healed. The disciples had been unable to heal the boy. When Jesus arrives, the man says to Jesus “if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” (Mark 9:22).

This to me, feels like the “If it is your will, Lord” prayer. We don’t want to presume (isn’t it arrogance to demand a result?). We’ve been disappointed before.

The man is quite sharply rebuked by Jesus: ‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.” (v23)

This is challenging. Is he saying that if you have enough faith we can do anything? Does that mean if we can’t do it, we don’t have enough faith? If we pray to heal our disease, and I still have it, does that mean I don’t have enough faith? No. That puts too much power on us as the individuals. And it brings in a high level of uncertainty to something that is already certain – that Jesus is enough.

If I start thinking “if I’m not healed is it because I don’t have enough faith”, then I also start thinking, “how do I know if I have enough faith? Does that mean I’m not saved if my faith isn’t strong enough?” This would be a shockingly cruel burden to place on someone.

BUT if we have faith in God, everything is possible. This is what we focus on. We must pray knowing that everything is possible. We must have confidence. We must be expectant. God can. And sometimes he does, and sometimes he doesn’t. Not because he is capricious and random, but because he has a bigger plan. So just as we pray knowing that he can, we must accept the outcome in equal faith because we know there is a bigger plan. If we achieve the former (praying expectantly), we can have a tendency to feel blindsided – but I believed. Yes. But keep believing. Because we can have confidence in the bigger plan. Praying expectantly and then feeling blindsided means our faith was  in our own prayer – and we are disappointed that it didn’t work out. If we truly have faith in God, we will pray knowing he can, and accept whether he does or doesn’t.

The man replies to Jesus “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (v24). I so get this! I believe! But my faith wafts about depending on how confident I feel. I know its not supposed to be about how I feel, but in how sovereign I know God is – but I’m human.

Its also because there is a key difference between faith and belief.

Put it this way, I can believe that I would probably survive a car crash if I got into one – but I wouldn’t have faith in it. I wouldn’t drive having faith in that belief.

We can believe the Apostle’s creed, but often we don’t live as though we have faith in it. Having faith requires a complete trust that if you closed your eyes and fell backwards, that someone will catch you. And that’s not a state we attain and then stay in – that can be affected by how we slept, how our day is going, how our circumstances are. So we need to re-calibrate every day.

We need to pray to God to help our unbelief!

We should read the Apostle’s Creed. And we should believe it. And then we must live as though we have faith in it. How do we live in this faith? Knowing that God can do anything and everything. We can’t. The faith is not in ourselves. Our faith is in God. And if we ask, we should ask confidently, because everything is possible for those that have faith in him. That doesn’t mean everything will happen. It means that if we have faith in him, we have access to all the things that God can do in his infinite power. So everything is possible.

Pray knowing everything is possible. Live knowing we have access to this power.

 

This is a stand alone blog but is also part of a series working through the Gospel of Mark. You can dip into any you have missed here: Studies in the Gospel of Mark

If God is real, why hasn’t he shown himself? (Mark 9:1-13)

This is an enduring question – for both Christians and non-Christians. For Christians, this can be a question spoken in pain and grief as we seek God’s presence among our trauma. For non-Christians this can be a logical question – if he is real, why doesn’t he just show himself and then we can dispense with all the doubt?

The thing is though, he did show himself. I mean, God was actually with his people in the wilderness and they still grumbled and complained. In that sense, how much evidence is enough? I get that non-believers dismiss the evidence of the Bible. It’s not an unbiased view. But it is the view of the people who believe they saw God. So I understand that people wouldn’t believe unless they themselves had been the witness, but we must allow for the validity of other people’s own experience. We believe things people tell us without witnessing it ourselves all the time. A friend of mine told me about a terrible week she’d had. I believe her, even though I wasn’t a fly on the wall.

Of course, I’m not saying that we should believe everything blindly. That would be unwise. If a biased media tells us something, we should question. If a corrupt authority tells us something, we should fact check. But in checking these things out for ourselves, we must allow for the possibility that its true. We are a very cynical generation. We tend to jump to a conclusion of falsehood almost as a faith position. If we hear something from [insert political leader’s name of your choice here] we may believe or disbelieve them on principle – because we have faith in our position. Its something we believe without any particular evidence either way.

In the same way, some people believe what is in the Bible because it is the eye witness testimony of people who were there. Others won’t believe even if God was travelling with them in the wilderness. That’s to be expected – it’s been the case for thousands of years.

What we see in Mark’s gospel in Chapter 9 is a famous episode called “The Transfiguration”. It’s where Jesus is transformed:

There he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus. (Mark 9:2-4). In Luke, this is expanded to “as he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning.” (Luke 9:29) and in Matthew’s gospel he says “There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.” (Matthew 17:2).

On first reading this episode sounds like Jesus and Elijah and Moses are having a bit of a group meeting before the move towards Jerusalem and the cross. Perhaps they’re chatting about how things are going or if everything is going according to plan.

Don’t believe it. Nothing here is by accident. The transformation is deliberate. It is a deeply profound episode because people needed to understand three things:

  1. Jesus was not just a man but something else as well. The transformation to this shining being shows the supernatural nature of his humanity.
  2. People needed to see more clearly who he was and who he wasn’t. If he is in the presence of Elijah and Moses here, then he is neither of those people. We have seen in previous passages that there was much conjecture over Jesus’s identity. This shows us clearly that he is someone and something else.
  3. Jesus is in the presence of God. The references to Jesus’ face shining is a reference to Moses’ radiance after his meetings with God (cf. Exodus 34:29-35). Jesus is speaking to God, in person.

Just after this short episode, “Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” (Mark 9:7). God himself! And this takes us back to Mark 1:11 where God, during Jesus’ baptism had said “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

Why repeat this? Because something new is happening. He spoke these words at the baptism as Jesus’ ministry began. He speaks the words here as we begin the journey to Jerusalem. And the witness is to Peter, James and John who are with Jesus at this episode. Something special is being disclosed to these three.

But Jesus tells them not to say anything until after he has died and risen again. They don’t really understand so instead ask Why do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?” (Mark 9:11). This might seem random but Elijah had been mentioned in Malachi’s prophecies. Malachi had said that God “will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes.” (Malachi 4:5). And if they had just seen Elijah…..what did that mean…..?

Jesus replied, “To be sure, Elijah does come first, and restores all things. Why then is it written that the Son of Man must suffer much and be rejected? But I tell you, Elijah has come, and they have done to him everything they wished, just as it is written about him.” (Mark 9:12-13)

This passage is difficult, but can be simply put as the restoration predicted as coming from Elijah’s return will be achieved via the suffering of the Son of Man. The reason it is difficult it because Peter and the rest of the Jews were expecting “restoration” to mean something awesome and celebratory and politically liberating. The truth is much harder to swallow.

So not only did God the Father show himself in this passage, we see God the Son here too. God, with Peter – poor dim-witted Peter and the disciples who could not possibly understand what everything meant until they had seen the cross and the resurrection. But blessed Peter who tried and failed and tried again and followed faithfully. God in person with Peter – and Mark writing Peter’s eye witness account.

God was there. He did show himself.

Do we believe blindly? Partially I suppose. I wasn’t there. But there is enough evidence within the gospel as a historical document to show that it is an eye witness account and not a fable or a story. And there is enough evidence of the resurrection to make me stop and look at what happened in the lead up to it. You see, after the resurrection, hundreds of believers were persecuted, exiled, tortured and executed in the most horrific ways – and not a single one said that their accounts weren’t true. If this wasn’t true, I just don’t believe that so many would suffer for the sake of a lie. And these were eye witnesses – not later converts who died for faith. These were followers of Jesus dying over their very memories.

So I believe that God showed himself to Peter and the others. I believe that God walked the earth with his disciples. I believe that he went to the cross for me. I believe that he rose again and now reigns in heaven and walks with me every day.

And while non-believers are still looking for proof, I am content that there is enough evidence to base my faith on. On days when I am seeking his face in my circumstances, I don’t have to go far to remember that God is with us.

This is a stand alone blog but is also part of a series working through the Gospel of Mark. You can dip into any you have missed here: Studies in the Gospel of Mark