Monday, 22 June 2009

God - Our Father in Heaven

Fathers Day is a great tradition. It is a time to show a little appreciation for all the sacrifices that dad’s make; to say thanks for who they are – as people. For all of us, fathers have been the key influencers in shaping our outlook on life – both for good and for bad. When it’s good, we approach life with a sense of adventure and self confidence. We are ready to take on the world. Our confidence knows no limits.

When it’s bad we struggle with such as event. What is there to remember? The only memory some have of their dad is a negative one. Perhaps they were abused, ignored or even abandoned by their father. For those whose mothers have been through multiple relationships, this abandonment may have even been repeated, only adding to their pain. The key thing is that in some way or other they were denied the joy of fatherhood. Life for them is a journey beset with lots of inner fears.

This is why I want to talk about God as our Father. Bad childhood experiences may prejudice us from wanting to get to know God as we project the failings of earthly fathers on to Him, but the truth remains that He chooses to reveal Himself as a Father. It was the word most often used by Jesus to refer to God and He encouraged us to do the same. We are told to pray, “Our Father in Heaven.....” Matt 6.9. And this is the point; He is our Heavenly Father. He is the Father, “...from whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named”, Eph 3.14. Think of that. Every family in heaven and earth derives its ultimate meaning from the Fatherhood of God.

This word Father is the Aramaic word Abba. It is at the same time one of the most reverential terms and one of the most familiar. The closest we get in our translation to capture the sense of intimacy in this word is Daddy. The reverential part is best captured by the word Father. So what is this Father like? How can we as earthly dads try to emulate who He is? Paul tells us to, “Be imitators of God as dear children. And walk in love...” Eph 5.1-2. In other words we are to be like God by walking in Love. In this way we show that we are His children.

Consider 1John 3.8, “He who does not love, does not know God, for God is love”. God is love. This is the most essential trait that shows forth His Fatherhood. Not to love is not to know Him. His Father love has been demonstrated to the world through His supreme act of love – sending Jesus, His beloved Son. The verse translated into the most languages in the Bible is John 3.16, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life”. His love embraces humanity and shrinks at the thought of us perishing.

This idea is captured in Gen 3.22, “....Behold the man has become like one of Us, to know good and evil. And now lest he put out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever –“. The sentence breaks off uncompleted. It is as if God cannot bring himself to even say what the consequences would be. Fallen man eating from the tree of life – beyond redemption, as his character is now fixed forever in a fallen condition – unthinkable, unspeakable. And so He stops talking and takes action. He places an angel with a flaming sword to guard the tree of life. There will be no way back to the tree outside of God’s redemptive plan – this is love.

I believe God’s love is demonstrated in three clear ways:

1. He gives. Love motivates Him to give. He gave His Son for a lost humanity. He gave His best and He continues to do so. Are you a giver? If you are, is love the main motivation in your life? The more we embrace the love of God in our lives the less we hold on to stuff. It’s easy to share and give it away. Like Jesus taught, we realise that our life does not consist in the abundance of our possessions, Luke 12.15. Not only that, He does not have limited resources, so when He gives, nothing diminishes. There is always more to draw from. As fathers we need to live with that same confidence – God, our Father in Heaven will provide.

2. He disciplines. Heb 12.5-7, “...For whom the Lord loves He chastens....” God was not punishing Adam by driving him from the Garden of Eden, He was making redemption possible. This is what loving fathers do. Discipline is not something we do to a child it is something we do for a child. This is how our Father in Heaven works with us. He finds creative ways to make life possible. He says ‘no’ and ‘stop it’ because He wants what is best for us. He is love. Good decisions can make us unpopular as fathers, but we usually are able to have more foresight than our children. We really do know what’s best most of the time.

3. He has compassion. Psalm 103.12 NIV, “As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him”. God feels our pain. This is what it means to be moved with compassion. It means something inside us stirs when we see people in distress. It was evident many times in the life of Jesus because He came to show us what the Father was truly like – a God of great compassion. It is this unique quality that restrains God’s hand of judgment, Lam 3.22.

The Fatherhood of God embraces all those who put faith in Jesus. Not only are we forgiven, we are given the status of sons – adopted into His family. The final adoption will take place at the resurrection but for now we have received a guarantee that that will happen – the Spirit of adoption. It is the Holy Spirit who cries out in our hearts Abba, Father, Gal4.6. 1John 3.1 says, “Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God”.

God loves us and has called us. We are called into His family. The Greek word for son, Huios means a full grown son. In Christ we have a totally new status before God. This is why Jesus could say to His disciples, “Fear not little flock, it is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom”, Luke 12.32. If the King is our Father, then we are heirs of his kingdom. There is something natural about our receiving it—it's our inheritance. In Matt 25:34 it says that in the last day Jesus will say, "Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world." (Emphasis mine).

From before the world, God the Father prepared a kingdom for his children. It is theirs by the right of inheritance. And God does not begrudge his children coming into their inheritance. It is his good pleasure to give them the kingdom. Like a Father who delights to give good gifts to His children so the Father delights to give the Kingdom to us. This is so much more than being an acquitted sinner; we are fully adopted sons with all the rights and privileges that such a position affords.

This trait of God’s nature is inspiring. I have known many who demonstrate this aspect of God’s character by adopting or fostering unwanted children. There heart is big enough to embrace those they have not personally fathered. Hosea did this with his promiscuous wife. Her second and third child did not belong to Hosea, which were reflected in their names, ‘not my people’ and ‘no mercy’ (or ‘not loved’), Hosea 1.6-9. But, like God, Hosea’s heart was moved for these children. And just as God took Israel back so did Hosea with his wife and the children were adopted receiving new names, ‘my people’ and ‘mercy’, Hosea 2.19-23.

We live in an age of many fatherless families. The church can be a place where many of these children are adopted, maybe not literally, but in the sense that we reach out to them and become the role models that are missing in their lives. This is God’s love in action. Fatherless children shouldn’t feel out of place in church. Rather they should feel this is the one place where they fit.

The final thing about the Fatherhood of God that strikes me is in Eph 1.3. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who has blessed us with all spiritual blessings in Heavenly places in Christ”. This was one of the most distinguishing features of the Patriarchs – their power to bless. It was something every son looked forward to. At the end of their life these old men would pass something on to their progeny through blessing. It was a pronouncement that carried with it prophetic force, often speaking to their destiny and calling.

Jacob was so ambitious to receive this blessing that he used cunning and deceit, encouraged by his ambitious mother, to gain the blessing. And later in life he blessed his own sons reserving a special blessing for Joseph’s two boys who replaced Joseph among the twelve sons. This was an astonishing blessing. Joseph’s sons were elevated to the same status as their uncles, both of them. It was unthinkable in such a culture at that time; such was the power of the Father to bless.

And this is what God is like. He blesses us, in Christ. Every spiritual blessing that we need for life and happiness is ours in Christ. So now we too can be like Him and bless others. I remember when my children were very young, 3 or 4 yrs of age. After telling them a good night story I waited until they had fallen asleep. Then I crept back into the room and prayed over them, blessing them. While they slept, I spoke over them words of protection, encouragement and prayed into their futures. This is part of the blessing of being a father; we have authority to bless our children.

So as you remember Fathers Day, thank God for the great job your earthly father did and where he failed, thank God that you have a Father in Heaven who loves you, calls you and is determined to bless you. Let's reflect these qualities to a fatehrless generation and win them back to the purpose of God in Christ Jesus.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

The Importance of Baptism

Baptism is one of those tricky subjects that can gender more heat than light. I want to explore the NT teaching on this subject. My conviction is that it has real spiritual benefits for those who embrace this practice.

The Gospel of Matthew begins with John the Baptist announcing the good news of the Kingdom and baptising people in the Jordan River as they confessed their sins, Matt 3.3-6. It ends with Jesus commanding His followers to make disciples of all nations, “baptising them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”, Matt 28.19.

The New Testament translators decided to transliterate this word rather than translate it. (A transliteration is where English letters are substituted for the Greek letters. Thus we are no wiser as to the meaning of the word. It is not translated). Given the practice of the church at the time of the King James translation it is perhaps understandable. For once we see what the word means and how it was used it is hard to escape the conclusion that full immersion was the normal practice of the early church.

Baptizo means to dip, to immerse, to dunk or to put into. It was used of the tanners who died skins or the merchants, like Lydia in Acts 16, who died cloth. John the Baptist was thus John the Dipper. Like the word Christian in Acts 11.26, it was a name given him by the people, because of what he did. It was not the honoured title we often think of. It was more likely a mocking title, but like the believers in Antioch who were called Christians, John was happy to take this label as a badge of honour.

John called people to repent, to have a change of thinking. As a sign of this new way of living they were baptised or put into water. But John said that this water pointed to a greater reality and a great person. One who, when He came on the scene, would baptise them with the Holy Spirit or literally, put them into the Holy Spirit, Matt 3.5-12. He was of course talking about Jesus.

Even Jesus submitted to water baptism, despite John’s protest, Matt 3.13-17. It was part of His total identification with the human condition – the spotless Lamb who had come to take on Himself the sin of the world, John 1.29-31. It was at His baptism that John had this revelation of Jesus. Paul gives us more insight into the nature of baptism. In Rom 6.1-7 we read that baptism places us into the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. There is a past, present and future component to baptism. To use different language, there is a historic, a contemporary and a prophetic component to the nature of baptism. Let’s look deeper at these.

The Historic reality is that every believer can confidently claim, “I have been crucified with Christ...”, Gal 2.20. God has not just done a patch up job with us. In Christ we are part of the “New Creation”, 2Cor 5.17. How has this come about? Through baptism. To use Paul’s language in Rom 6.3, “Or do you not know that as many of you as were baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into His death?” Water baptism points to this unique historic union. It points back to the day we identified with Jesus as Lord and Saviour. I have known many believers who cannot recall the exact day they came to faith but can always recall the day they were baptised.

The future reality is that just as we have shared in His death, so we shall share in His resurrection. Baptism is therefore prophetic. It points forward to our own bodily resurrection; “For if we have been united together with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection”, Rom 5.5. Notice how carefully Paul phrases this; “we also shall be...” – it is future. It hasn’t happened yet. We live with a tension; the ‘now and not yet’ of the Kingdom. Baptism is a prophetic sign that we believe we will be raised just as He was raised. It is a living hope for us. Death is not the end; for in Christ we have already died.

The contemporary reality is that the resurrection has begun its work in me. To be born again is to have ones spirit renewed. Paul says we can now “walk in newness of life”, Rom 5.4b. The Spirit of God now lives in us, producing the fruit of the Spirit, Gal 5.22-24, the very character of Jesus. Notice that Paul talks of the fruit of the Spirit in the context of crucifixion – the heart of baptism. So the contemporary reality is that baptism is like a bath; a place where our sins are washed away. This is exactly the language of Ananias to Paul as his conversion. “And now, why are you waiting? Arise and be baptised, and wash away your sins, calling on the Name of the Lord”, Acts 22.16.

In summary baptism is a burial – the historic truth. It is the death and burial or putting away of our old life; it’s a bath – the contemporary truth; where our sins are washed away through the work of Jesus on the cross so that we can now be free to live for Him. Finally it points to our resurrection at the return of Jesus – the prophetic truth; the day when we too receive our glorified resurrection bodies, Rom 8.23; 1Cor15.20-23; Phil 3.20-21.

But if we accept that water baptism points to Spirit baptism, as John said, why do we still baptise people now that the Spirit has come? I believe there are two important reasons. The first has to do with the nature of John’s baptism. It was a baptism of repentance, pointing forward to Jesus. People who received this baptism where getting ready to believe on Jesus when He came. Paul had to deal with a group of disciples in Ephesus who only knew this baptism, Acts 19.1-7. They had not heard of the Holy Spirit. They were re-baptised in the name of the Lord Jesus and then received the Spirit. John’s baptism pointed to Jesus, who would baptise with the Spirit.

Secondly when Jesus was about to leave His disciples and ascend into Heaven He gave a specific command for them to continue baptising new believers. But the focus is now different to John’s baptism. The baptism commanded by Jesus and practiced by the apostles was a baptism of forgiveness. It was the guarantee of receiving the Spirit, not just the promise that it would come. As Peter said in Acts 2.38 “....and let every one of you be baptised in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit”. One event naturally follows on from the other.

Jesus’ final command to His disciples was to baptise new believers in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Let me try to paraphrase these words so we catch their impact. “I want you to make disciples of all ethnic groups in all places and as you do, submerge them into the life of the Godhead, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Make sure they are totally immersed in God; then you can teach all that I commanded you. I will be with you in this process, working right alongside you, even to the end”.

Throughout the book of Acts we see that practice of the early church. It took place with large crowds as in Acts 2 on the day of Pentecost; smaller groups like Cornelius in Acts 10.44-48; but also with individuals like the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8.36-37 or Saul of Tarsus in Acts 22.16. From these accounts we also learn the following:

1. Baptism was for believers. The Ethiopian asked Philip a simple question; “See, here is water. What hinders me from being baptised?” Acts 8.36. Philip’s answer is instructive: “If you believe with all your heart, you may”. The issue was faith in Jesus. When the Spirit fell on the household of Cornelius while Peter was preaching, everyone present was shocked. These Gentiles had now received the same gift of the Holy Spirit as the Jews. They too spoke with other tongues. Peter then declared; “Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptised who have received the gift of the Holy Spirit just as we have”, Acts 10.47.

2. Baptism was by full immersion, in water. This is seen in both the meaning of the word when it is translated, but also in the practice of the apostolic witness. We’ve already explored its meaning so let’s focus on the apostolic practice. Acts 8.38, “And both Philip and the Eunuch went down into the water and he baptised him”. Notice they went down into the water; both men. Together! And they both “came up out of the water”, Acts 8.39. This is a very compelling account of complete immersion. Almost all the accounts of baptism take place near rivers; Matt 3.5-6; John 3.22-23; 4.1-2. Consider this; God does not want us to be sprinkled with a bit of His life, He wants us immersed in it.

3. Baptism involved confession. The Eunuch confessed; “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God”, Acts 8.37. Notice how the Eunuch’s confession of faith was the prerequisite to Philip agreeing to baptise him. Paul was told to, “Call on the name of the Lord” as he was baptised, Acts 22.16. Rom 10.9-10 tells us that salvation is a question of believing with the heart and confessing with the mouth. We need both and baptism is the perfect time to make a public declaration of our faith in Jesus.

4. Baptism was always public. John baptised in the Jordan River. Philip did it along the highway to Ethiopia. Baptism made a public statement about a person’s life and loyalty. It said something to the community that they were part of. Instead of confessing ‘Caesar is Lord’ the new believers confessed ‘Jesus is Lord’. So all could expect them to be different, for baptism aligned them with a new King and a new Kingdom.

5. Water baptism is a picture of Spirit baptism. Jesus has come to baptise His church in the Holy Spirit. This is the source of all life and effectiveness in ministry. He spoke to the disciples, “....for John truly baptised with water, but you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit not many days from now”, Acts 1.5. Further, to be baptised in the Spirit means we are also baptised into the Body of Christ, 1Cor 12.13. Water baptism points to this spiritual reality. My experience leads me to believe this is more than symbolic. For at some baptisms I have seen people spontaneously filled with the Spirit, delivered from demonic power and even healed. Clearly more than symbolism is going on at such an event.

Finally let me list five benefits that come to those who get baptised:

1. It paves the way for a clear conscience from past sins and failures in life. Peter speaks of this in 1Pet 3.21. He calls baptism the ‘answer of a good conscience towards God’. For if baptism is like a bath then we come up clean. The past no longer has a hold on us and the devil cannot use the past to keep accusing us. We are washed and clean, 1Cor 6.11.

2. It creates a landmark moment in life. This is important because under pressure we need a point of reference. Something we can look back to that reminds us why we are doing what we are doing. Paul did this with Timothy. He reminded him of the landmark moment when the elders laid hands on him and he received his gifting for ministry, 1Tim 4.14. He reminded him of his good confession in the presence of many witnesses – which is most likely a reference to his own baptism, 1Tim 6.12.

3. It is the first step of obedience required of a new believer that sets the right pattern for all future obedience. Rom 6.17 says that the Roman believers obeyed from the heart. When we take this simple step, because of a heart conviction, we set in motion a pattern of obedience for our new life in God. I find people who don’t do this always struggle with obeying God. The only way to break this pattern is to takes Paul’s advice. Revenge all disobedience through obedience, 2Cor 10.6

4. It is a testimony to the communities of heaven and earth of your faith. We’ve already spoken of the public nature of our witness to the communities we live in. But Eph 3.10 speaks of the church making know to the heavenly realms the manifold wisdom of God. Part of God’s wisdom is baptism – a prophetic act that points to our union with Christ in His death, burial and resurrection. Demons tremble at this truth.

5. Water baptism prepares the way for Spirit baptism. This was the normal pattern in Acts with the exception of Cornelius and his household; (mainly because of the Jewish prejudice against Gentiles). Once we say yes to water baptism we are saying yes to all it points to – which is to be filled with the Holy Spirit; to be immersed fully into the life and ministry of the Godhead; to be a functioning member within His church.

Let me encourage you to take this step in obedience to the one who has gone before us and given us the pattern of obedience that we are to follow.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

The Gift of Miracles

The gift of miracles is the special ability that the Holy Spirit gives to certain believers to perform powerful acts that alter the ordinary course of nature. Of all the gifts of power this is the one that often commands the most attention when it is displayed. For that is exactly what it does. It displays the power of God in a way that inspires awe and wonder in all who witness the event. Rather than just look at the miracles recorded in the Bible I want to explore the context surrounding how they took place. Some helpful keys emerge that allow us to be better positioned to see miracles happen through us.

The most outstanding miracle in the Old Testament to my way of thinking is recorded in Joshua 10.12-14. Joshua is in the midst of a fight. He is winning, but he needs more time. So he does one of the most audacious things ever recorded in scripture. He commands the sun and moon to stand still. And God responds. Scripture tells us that there has never been a day before or since when God heeded the voice of a man. Astonishing!

But what is truly astounding are the circumstances leading up to this event. The battle was about Israel defending the Gibeonites from the five kings. They too were from the land of Canaan and strictly speaking should have been destroyed with all the other inhabitants of the land. However, they shrewdly dressed in old clothes, took mouldy bread and worn wine skins with them and pretended to the leaders of Israel to come from a distant country. Joshua and the other leaders were taken in. They made a covenant with them. This was a binding agreement that obligated Israel for all future generations. It wasn’t simply a commitment that effected Joshua’s generation. It would affect all future generations.

Later in 2Sam 21.1-14 we read of David inquiring of the Lord as to why there was a famine in the land. For three years it had gone on. God spoke to David. Saul had not honoured this covenant. He had tried to destroy the Gibeonites and so the curse of the covenant had come into play. Retribution was made and the curse was lifted. Such was the power of a binding covenant. All this took place hundreds of years after Joshua. The covenant was still in force and God recognised its binding power.

The scripture tells us that when Joshua made this agreement with the other leaders, ‘they did not ask counsel of the Lord’, Josh 9.14. I consider this to be a momentous failing on the part of these men. They entered into a covenant that would have binding force for all future generations without asking the Lord first. It’s almost unbelievable. What were they thinking? Clearly they were taken in. Perhaps the flattery of knowing that their reputation was known in distant lands seduced them. Perhaps they were glad to find at last one ally; someone who would stand with Israel and fight with them. Whatever the reason it was a colossal failure.

Yet when the Gibeonites are attacked Joshua is true to his word and comes to their defence. How that must have rankled with many of the Israelites. And in those circumstances this leader now stands in front of all Israel and commands the sun and moon to stand still. Now if you were God what would you do? If someone you had commanded to utterly destroy all of the inhabitants of the land had not only disobeyed but done the exact opposite; bound Israel to protect them for all future generations. What would you do?

I think I would be tempted to say to Joshua, ‘Don’t push your luck son, you’re on probation ‘til you can learn how to fully obey’. But God doesn’t do that. He responds. And there hasn’t been a day before or like it ‘til Jesus showed up. Here’s my point. Joshua did not allow the past to rob him of the future. He dealt with his sin and moved on. His boldness indicates to me that his conscience was clear. He wasn’t living with any uncertainty over this issue. It was dealt with. He moved on.

I am certain that many believers do not dare to ask for miracles because they are caught up in the mistakes and sin of the past. 1John 1.9 gives us an amazing promise. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. The word ‘confess’ literally means, ‘to say the same thing as’. We need to agree with God’s verdict about our sin. We say the same thing He does – it is wrong and we agree. We need forgiveness in order to move on with God – we agree. Confession realigns us with God Himself and so realigns us with His purpose. That’s what Joshua did and look at the miracle he walked into.

James 5.16-18 says Elijah was a man just like us. That’s hard to believe, but it’s true. 1Kings records great victories he accomplished in the name of the Lord but it also records his weakness. Intimidated by the threats of Jezebel he ran away until he eventually found himself at the Mount of God, Horeb. There he asked to die! All this took place after his outstanding defeat of the prophets of Baal. Now he struggles with loneliness, self pity and doubt. No wonder James says he really is just like us.

Human weakness is a fact of life. What is important to understand is that God is not limited by our weakness. Rather He works through it, 2Cor 12.9-10. Elijah prayed it would not rain and the heavens were shut up for three and a half years. He prayed again and it rained. James says he ‘prayed earnestly’. This is an interesting phrase. It can be translated, ‘in praying he prayed’. Many times we don’t know how to pray. Paul speaks of this in Rom 8.26 That is why the Holy Spirit has been given to us to help us. He is as Jesus said ‘the Helper’John 14.16. He helps us pray when we don’t know how to. But we have to get started!

I’ve discovered that many times I am circumstances where I have no idea how to pray. Someone has a need; a situation develops; crises occur and I feel at a loss to know how to pray. The temptation is of course to pray a nice, religious, safe prayer. Yet if I just begin to pray, revelation comes. I usually start with praise focusing on the greatness of God and speaking out His attributes. I declare His goodness and begin to address the problem. Before long I find myself saying things I had never planned to say; things that take me way beyond the level of faith I had at the beginning of the prayer. In praying, I pray. Despite Elijah’s weakness He saw God do amazing miracles. He went on to other things too. His task was not finished and God relaunched him into useful service. Don't let weakness rob you of beleiveing for a miracle. Elijah got past his weakness – so can you.

Elisha followed on from Elijah. He was mentored by him for about sixteen years before he replaced him. When that happened it was a traumatic period in his life. In 2 Kings 1-2 we read about all the sons of the prophets who reminded Elisha what was about to take place. His grief was so deep he told them to be quite. Every time Elijah told him to stay behind he refused until they finally crossed the Jordan together and the moment of truth arrived. Elijah then asked Elisha ‘what may I do for you before I am taken away from you’, 2Kings 2.9. Without any hesitation Elisha asked for a double portion of his spirit – and he got it!

Elisha had to overcome his sense of personal grief and loss in order to embrace something bigger. His desire for a double portion was bigger than his personal sense of loss and grief at Elijah leaving. How easy it would have been for him to look at Elijah and say, 'don’t go, don’t leave me.’ Some times in life, in order for us to be positioned for a miracle we need to get over our own grief and sense of loss and reach out for something bigger. That’s what Elisha did. And as he returned to the Jordan he struck the water with Elijah’s cloak. His next words are almost like a challenge, ‘Where is the God of Elijah?’ 2Kings 2.14. This was the first of fourteen miracles, exactly double that of Elijah. But this one was for him – for Elisha. No-one else was there to see it. Heaven answered his challenge. We too need to let our longing for God’s power be greater than our personal seasons of grief and loss.

Another incident in the life of Elisha is instructive. 2Kings 4.27-37 records the incident of the widow whose son became ill and died. She came to Elisha, fell at his feet and held on to him. Gehazi tried to push her away. This was no way to treat a man of God. Elisha’s response is telling, ‘Let her alone for her soul is in deep distress and the Lord has hidden it from me and has not told me’, 2Kings 4.27. Elisha was a prophet. He was used to moving in revelation. But on this occasion he was in the dark. He did what he thought would work. He sent Gehazi on ahead with his rod – the symbol of his authority. Specific instructions were given. It reads like he knows what he is doing but it doesn’t work. It failed. Eventually Elisha arrives.

Elisha entered the room where the dead body lay, closed the door and prayed. He then climbed on the child, eye to eye, mouth to mouth, hand to hand until his body became warm, but still no life. He came down, paced back and forth and then went and repeated the process. This time the child sneezed and opened his eyes. Imagine that. Elisha knew how to persevere in order to see a miracle. The first two things he tried just didn’t work. I wonder what went through his head as he paced back and forth in that room. We don’t know. What we do know is that he didn’t give up.

Here is the lesson for us. Often in life things don’t work the first or second time. I remember listening to John Wimber who said that the first one hundred people he prayed for to receive healing didn’t get healed. In fact some got worse! Yet he persevered and went on to have an amazing healing ministry that equipped thousands of believers all over the world. He persevered. Whatever failures we may have behind us, God is still God and He wants us to press in. We are in a spiritual battle. Who knows what unseen forces are at play? Who knows if it will only take one more try? Don’t give up, despite failure. Try again. Like Elisha, you just might see a miracle.

In Acts 8.4-6 we have story of Philip doing many miracles among the Samaritans. What positioned him to move in the same authority as the apostles? In chapter 6 of Acts we read that he, along with Stephen and five others, was appointed by the twelve to serve tables. They were to take care of the widows and apportion food and provision for them, daily. By serving he developed his gifting. That’s how it works. If you want to be used to work miracles then begin by serving. It cultivates character and positions us to see more of the gifts of the Spirit released. Philip went from serving tables to being an awesome Evangelist. His friend Stephen also did great signs and wonders among the people, Acts 6.8. Like Philip he began by serving and it released him into his gifting. Miracles followed.

Finally in Acts 19.11-12 we have the record of the unusual miracles that God worked through the hands of Paul. Aprons and handkerchiefs belonging to him healed people and even delivered them from demons. These appear to me to be sovereign acts of power. Paul is doing God’s work. He is a pioneer in a City that is deeply held by occult power. God does unusual things to break that power. It is more rooted in His goodness than anything else. Like Peter whose shadow healed people, Acts 5.15, there are times when God releases the miraculous and it has very little to do with us. It has more to do with the expectation of the people.

I experienced this on a trip to Pakistan eighteen months ago. About two thousand people attended the meeting. Some three hundred responded to the gospel. But then I gave an invitation to receive prayer for healing. Hundreds more came forward. I felt completely out of my depth. People pushed to the front so I could touch them. My prayer was simple, ‘be healed’. And many touched my feet as I stood on the stage. Later the pastor told me that over one hundred and eighty people were healed. All kinds of diseases were cured. It was God’s goodness being extended to these needy people. Sometimes miracles happen not because we ask for then, but because He responds to the faith of the people.

Let’s continue to align ourselves in the way these men did. God can work miracles through us. Each one of them had to deal with something that potentially could rob them of a miracle. They overcame and miracles followed. Paul says in 1Cor 1.24 that Christ is the power of God. As we remind ourselves of who we are in Christ and walk in that reality, we will see more of God’s miraculous power released in the world, through us. Expect a miracle. It’s part of God’s gift to the world, through the church.

Saturday, 6 June 2009

Gifts of Healings

I want to set the notion of healing within a bigger framework than most of us are used to thinking about it, especially considering the books I have read about healing. When we discuss healing we often think in terms of personal wellbeing. If we are well and feel well, all is well. I want to suggest that healing can be seen operating in three dimensions; personally, relationally and communally. I believe all three can be found in scripture. To focus on a person’s health without taking into consideration their context of relationships is to miss the full picture of factors that can affect health and wellbeing.

The nation of Israel was made up of Tribes, clans, families and individuals, within each family. We see this clearly in Josh 7.16-19 with the sin of Achan. The process of identifying who had sinned began with all Israel and was narrowed down by tribes to Judah, then by clans to the Zerathites, then by the families of that clan to the family of Zimri, and then from that family to Achan. Again in Numbers 1.1-4 the Lord told Moses to number the tribes of Israel according to their clans and families, man by man.

Here is my point. We are so used in the West of thinking in terms of personal wellbeing that we seldom think about how whole we are relationally and communally. Personal wholeness is important. Paul writes about this in 1Thess 5.23, May God Himself, the God of peace sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. There are many gifts of healing that enable us to gain or regain this sense of wellbeing. Sometimes it is about emotional healing. Other times it’s about physical or spiritual healing. There are times when we can have deliverance from demonization that can impact almost any area of our life. But all these gifts of healing help to restore the individual. I believe there are other gifts of healing that we seldom place in this category because we are not used to recognising them. They help us get well relationally and communally.

Gen 2 gives the first mention in the creation account when God says, ‘it’s not good’. I am of course referring to His comment about Adam, ‘It’s not good for man to be alone’. We are, like God Himself, relational beings. We need others. Any sense of wholeness that we seek must include these dimensions and gifts of healings exist for us to do this. Think of all the families, clans and tribes that exist in the world and how many of them are either at war or in conflict of some kind. Healing is needed. In Matt 18.15 Jesus outlines the way to restore broken relationships where an offense has separated two believers. Key elements are present, loving confrontation, an opportunity to repent and receive forgiveness. And this process is to be repeated, increasing the circle of witnesses so that others in the community can help bring healing to the rift through their impartial judgment.

Only two ultimate outcomes are envisaged by Jesus; reconciliation that leads to restored fellowship or excommunication. If restoration takes place the relationship is healed. Great. Life can go on. If it doesn't, the unrepentant brother is to be treated as a ‘tax collector or sinner’, an outsider who needs to be won all over again. It isn't just about two people now; it's a community affair. Everyone feels the pain of seperation. Imagine how much unnecessary church hopping could be stopped if we took this passage seriously. The body of Christ would be a lot healthier. Relationships would be more solid, more grounded, dare I say it, more real!

But Jesus doesn’t leave this teaching there. In answer to Peter’s question about forgiveness He tells the parable of the two debtors. This is of course the foundation to all healing, repentance, forgiving and being forgiven. What is instructive is how God the Father deals with those who refuse to extend to others the forgiveness they have received from Him. They are said to be handed over to the torturers, until they can pay the debt, Matt 18.34-35. The picture is graphic. God allows us to be tormented until we choose to forgive. This is not a picture of wholeness. Notice that unforgiveness is always relational. To withhold forgiveness from those who ask for it is a supreme act of pride. We, in effect, place ourselves higher than God in our judgement of others. This is why it leads to torment.

James has some sound advice for us, depending on what season of life we are experiencing, James 5.14-16. The man who is happy should sing Psalms. The person who is suffering should pray. The one who is sick should call for the elders who will lay hands on them, anoint them and pray for their recovery. James sees this as an opportunity to get real with each other over sin too, by confessing our faults to each other. Notice that in order to receive forgiveness we confess our sin to God but in order to receive healing we confess to one another; confess your faults to one another and pray for one another that you may be healed. Like Jesus in Matt 18, James sets healing of sickness in the context of healthy relationships that have open accountability, humility and the giving and receiving of forgiveness.

Imagine if whole communities dared to function at this level. And this is the challenge to the church. We are a micro-cosm of the communities we live in. So we are to model to them what this should look like. The most powerful testimony for reconciliation in the Middle East are congregations made up of Jews and Arabs who both love Jesus and have found forgiveness in Him. Remaining ethnically separated is not a mature expression of the church, though it may be politically expedient. In such a context to come together is to invite criticism from both camps that look on. I know congregations that do this. They risk a lot. They are persecuted. But they also model the healing power of the gospel. It speaks volumes.

Long before Wilberforce changed the legal and political landscape of Britain over the issue of slavery, he was part of a community that accepted and valued slaves and did all they could to secure their freedom, educate them and give them dignity as people. He lived it in community first and battled it through in parliament later. Changing legislation is ineffective unless someone models the value of the change.

I was involved with David Alton in the late 80’s in trying to change legislation in the UK over the issue of abortion. He brought a private members bill seeking to reduce the number of weeks terminations could legally take place. It failed. Instead of giving up I know many who got involved in counselling pregnant women, pre and post abortion. In an atmosphere of non-judgmental acceptance, many made a different choice as they were informed of alternatives to abortion. And those who did go ahead often felt deep regret and pain and sought forgiveness and healing. So despite the failure in legislation the church is still seeing many healed. It is making a difference.

All of this is to say that ‘gifts of healings’ are broader and more numerous than we often imagine. To reconcile two people is to be a peacemaker and requires a gift of healing. To reconcile communities torn apart through war requires great wisdom and a gift of healing. To heal a broken heart requires the flow of the gift of healing. To see bodies healed of such destructive diseases like cancer and AIDS requires the gift of healing.

Sickness is all around us. It has pervaded our fallen world. Let’s determine that we will be agents of healing, health and wholeness, co-operating with the Holy Spirit to bring about restoration of spirit, soul and body and reconciliation of families, clans and tribes.