Monday, 21 June 2010

Chosen - In Him

The Book of Ruth is a wonderful story of redemption. It is set during the period of the Judges in Israel. This was not a good time in Israel's history. Instead of fully possessing their inheritance the third generation following Joshua decided to make compromises. They enslaved those they conquered and made detente with those who were too difficult to defeat.

Throughout that period Israel goes through the cycle of idolatry that leads to some form of domination by their enemies. They then repent and cry to the Lord who raises up a deliverer, a judge. They gain victory and do well for a period, usually the lifetime of the ruling judge and then fall back into idolatry. Then the cycle repeats itself. Within this scenario we have the story of a family who are finding things tough. There is a famine in the land, one of the judgements promised by the Lord in Deuteronomy for disobedience. Elimelech and his wife Naomi move to Moab with their two sons, Mahlon and Chilion.

Now Moab doesn't feature that well in the Bible. The Moabites were descended from Lot's incestuous relationship with his eldest daughter. Deuteronomy says that Moabites, (and Ammonites, descended from Lot's incestuous relationship with his youngest daughter), could not enter the congregation of the Lord for ten generations, Deut 23.3. Neither of them helped Israel during their time in the wilderness, even though they were related. They also hired Balaam to curse Israel - hence this prohibition of them participating in Israel's worship.

Yet Elimelech makes the decision to take his family there. His name means 'My God is King'. There is a certain irony here; for names in the Bible reflect something of the call and destiny God intends on a persons life. Yet this man leaves his native town of Bethlehem because of a famine. He refused to accept God's discipline in his life and pursued a new life in Moab. Clearly he thought things would turn out better for him and his family there. In fact he died and Naomi was left with her two sons.

There names are not so promising. Mahlon means listless, no drive, no passion and Chilion means weak or fragile. These two brothers marry Moabite women and after ten years of living in Moab they both die. The typology is significant. Elimelech chose another King and died. He reproduced sons with no passion and weak and they too died. Better to be in a place where bread is scarce and God is King than to try and make a life for yourself without God reigning.

The whole episode reflects his lack of trust in God to supply for him and his family. He led them into disobedience and everyone suffered. Naomi, whose name means pleasant was left with two dependent daughters-in-law and no husband or sons to provide for her. By the end of the chapter she blames God, "Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara (meaning bitter) for the Almighty has deal very bitterly with me. I went out full and the Lord has brought me home again empty", Ruth 1.20-21.

Naomi's return to Bethlehem, (meaning house of bread), is prompted by a rumour in Moab. She heard that "the Lord had visited His people by giving them bread", Ruth 1.7. This meant there had been a harvest. The famine must be over. Hope rose in her heart. There was no inheritance for her in Moab, only death and disappointment; not even any grandchildren. so she begins her journey by encouraging her daughters-in-law to stay and find new husbands. Orpah and Ruth are the two women in question. Their names too have significance. Orpah means, 'one who turns back' and Ruth means companion or friend.

Their names of course also reflect the choices they make. Orpah kisses Naomi but Ruth clings to her. Ruth's dogged refusal to leave is expressed in her amazing declaration; "Entreat me not to leave you, or to turn back from following after you; for wherever you go I will go; And wherever you lodge I Will lodge; Your people shall be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die and there will I be buried. The Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts you and me", Ruth 1.16-17.

From this statement we can infer a number of things about Ruth:
1. She was devoted to Naomi. This mother-in-law was worth having around. She had made a profound impact on Ruth. Of the whole family who went to Moab she is the survivor, implying that her move to Moab may well have been out of obedience to her husband, rather than a personal preference. Ruth was impressed with the way she had lived and her hope for what was now happening in her home town of Bethlehem.

2. She adopted the Jewish people, (in her heart), before they adopted her; "Your people shall be my people". That is amazing considering that she would have been looked down on by most Jews at that time. But her evaluation of Israel was based on her knowledge of Naomi. What an impact Naomi had on her! It speaks volumes to me of the impact we can have. Many times conversion takes place because someone sees what God is like in us and they find it attractive. That's how it is meant to be.

3. Despite Naomi's warning to Ruth that she might never be able to remarry and pursue a "normal" life, Ruth decided to leave her homeland, her culture, her security and her status to join the Jewish people. On the face of it all she could expect was a life of poverty. Yet she embraced Naomi's faith in God. She chose the Lord as her God and made this vow in His name, "The Lord do so to me....". She chose God and ends up being 'chosen'. What is even more amazing is that she does all this without the promise of any benefit.

There is a strong belief by many that we believe because we are chosen. Augustine said this in the fourth century. In effect God decides who will or won't be saved. If this choice is rooted in God's sovereignty we call this Calvinism. If it is rooted in God's foreknowledge we call it Arminianism. (These two names represent the two reformers, John Calvin and Jacob Arminius, who originated these theological positions, though in fairness to Calvin the five points of Calvinism goes beyond anything he wrote or taught).

The story of Ruth challenges us to think differently. God made a covenant with Abraham and his descendants. The essence of the covenant was that the Lord would be their God, they would be blessed and become a great nation, receive a land and be a blessing to the nations. The normal way to be part of this covenant was to born into it. Ruth was an outsider. Throughout the book she is referred to as 'Ruth the Moabitess'; seven times in fact. She has not been 'chosen'. But Ruth chooses Naomi's God. She made a choice that in itself merited her nothing. Yet in the unfolding story we see God is in the background making it possible for her to be part of the covenant people because of the actions of a 'Kinsman Redeemer', Boaz, whose name means, 'In him is strength'. She becomes chosen because she becomes joined to Boaz, a chosen one.

The marriage of Boaz and Ruth was known as a Levirate marriage. Redemption is a feature of this type of marriage. It was a duty taught in Deuteronomy (25:5–10). The custom required a close relative, (the kinsman), to marry the widow of the deceased in order to continue his family line. Interestingly, Ruth is not Elimelech’s widow and Boaz is not his brother. Therefore, some scholars refer to Boaz’ duty as “Levirate-like” marriage. The implication is that the closest relative to Elimelech should marry Naomi to raise up a son. In this story there is a relative even closer than Boaz who must first renounce his claim. Naomi was past childbearing age and so Ruth is nominated by Naomi as the one to carry on the family line.

Moreover, the Israelites understanding of redemption included both that of people and of land. In Israel land had to stay in the family. The family could mortgage the land to ward off poverty; and the law of Leviticus 25:25 required a kinsman to purchase it back into the family. The kinsman, who has a prior claim than Boaz, meets him at the city gate and at first says he will purchase the land. Upon hearing he must also take Ruth as his wife he withdraws his offer. (His decision was probably a financial one since a child born to Ruth through the union would inherit Elimelech’s land, and he would not be reimbursed for the money he paid Naomi).

This left the way for Boaz to step in and become Ruth and Naomi’s "kinsman-redeemer". The outcome is a marriage that leads to the birth of a son, Obed, which means servant. This man is the father of Jesse, who in turn is the father of David. Thus Ruth is found in the geneology of Jesus, Matt 1.5-6. The outsider has become an insider - by choice. The choice in and of itself did not secure her status but it did express faith and God always responds to faith. That's how we get saved. It's why we can say we are 'elect' or 'chosen'.

I have often asked myself why Boaz was so gracious to Ruth. Perhaps it was because his mother too was an outsider who showed faith, Rahab the harlot. And like Ruth she too appears in the geneology of Jesus, Matt 1.5. Two outsiders who show faith and become insiders. Two women who are not chosen who become chosen by aligning themselves with the those who are chosen. In Rahab's case it is even more astonishing as the Lord had assigned all the Canaanites to utter destruction; yet Rahab and her family are preserved. God always honours faith. Boaz knew this story well. It was part of his story and I suspect made him more disposed to show kindness to Ruth.

This is a wonderful picture of what Jesus has done for us. In Eph 1.4 says; "Just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be Holy and without blame before Him in love, having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will".

Not that the text says we are cosen 'in Him', not chosen to be 'put in Him'. Jesus is God's elect son, 1Pet 2.4. He is chosen and precious. Not chosen to be saved but chosen to be Messiah, God's rightful King. To be joined to Jesus is to be joined to His election, to share His choseness. This is what God has predestined. Faith in itself merited us nothing, but God not only chooses to forgive our sins and credit us with righteousness when He sees faith, He also gives us the status of fully adopted sons; and the down payment of the Spirit is the guarantee that we shall share the inheritance of Jesus, beginning with a resurrection like His. The Spirit is called the Spirit of adoption, Rom 8.15,23 to emphasise this reality.

Predestination is not about who will get saved, but about what God has planned for those who are saved; a plan that reaches back before the foundation of the world. The word is mentioned four times in the NT, twice in Eph 1 and twice in Rom 8. On both occasions it is the future of the saints that is being discussed. God's good pleasure to see us stand before Him Holy and blameless. Our Kinsman redeemer Jesus has made this possible. He does this despite our lowly origin, our foreigner status. He responds to faith in us, sharing His destiny and inheritance with us; "To him who overcomes I will grant to sit with Me on My throne as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne", Rev 3.21

Many in Israel took for granted that they were descendants of Abraham. John the Baptist saw people display this attitude and he hit it head on; "And do not think to yourselves to say, 'We have Abraham as our father'. For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones", Matt 3.9 They needed more than a blood connection to truly experience the blessing of salvation; they needed faith in God's word. This is what Jesus looked for; and the places He found it present and absent, astonished Him; Mark 6.5-6; Luke 7.9; Matt 8.10. Gentiles showed more faith than most Jews and Jesus marvelled.

This challenges me. Have I resigned myself to the way life is or am I continuing to live in faith and believe God for all the good things He has promised to those who love Him? I have more revelation than Ruth and look at the steps of faith she took. Being chosen does not mean being passive. Rather it is a challenge to rise up in faith and become all that God has ordained for us to be. Being chosen doesn't automatically mean everything is going to turn out well. It means I have been given a role, a responsibility and a unique opportunity by God. My part is to put faith in His evaluation of me and trust Him to lead me into my full inheritance.

One last thing to consider. Our calling is in Christ. Once united to Him we share His destiny. It is a coprporate calling. Some years ago I moved to Denmark. Our children all went to Danish schools and within three months were all fluent in Danish. Our youngest daughter has lived half her life in Denmark and half in the UK. She didn't make those choices. They were made 'in me'. I took the decision. God made a decision to 'elect' His Son and 'in Him' I share His election. Faith in Him positions me to be part of His election. And that is where the blessing is. Further, it empowers me to be a blessing to others.

Take a lesson from Ruth. Join yourself to those, like Naomi, who are journeying in the 'house of bread'. Ruth embraced the choice of another and made it her choice. It led to her becomeing 'chosen' and that brought forth amazing blessing. As we embrace the will of the Father we do so, not through blind obedience, but because, like Ruth, we have been impressed by the character and life of those who follow God. The choices you make today have the power to effect the destinies of others tomorrow. So, like Ruth, make them in faith. Follow those who follow God. The impact will live on after our lifetime and go beyond what we can imagine, Eph 3.20.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Mix Faith with God's Promises

According to Heb 11.6 faith is a prerequisite to doing anything that brings pleasure to God. Last time I focused on the character of God. This verse does the same. We have to believe that He is a 'rewarder of those who diligently seek Him'. The pursuit of God ends in rewards - from Him.

If we are to truly embrace the will of the Father we must begin by having a conviction that He is for us. As Rom 8.32 says; "He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?" Once you've given your best, it's not difficult to let go of anything else. God has given us His best - His only begotten Son; His greatest treasure and now He is ready to give more to those who walk by faith, 2Cor 5.17. And He places no limits on this. He will 'freely give us all things'.

Heb 3.19-4.2 says; "So we see that they could not enter in because of unbelief. Therefore since a promise remains of entering His rest let us fear lest any of you seem to have come short of it. For indeed the Gospel was preached to us as well as to them; but the word which they heard did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in those who heard it".

This is referring to the period when the children of Israel had been delivered from Egypt and had the opportunity to take an eleven day journey into the Promised land. This was the goal of their deliverance; to enter into the promise and blessing of Canaan. However, when the twelve spies returned from viewing the land, ten of them gave the people a bad report.

This report acknowledged all the good things God had said about the land being fruitful, but they chose to emphasise the size of the enemy and the walled cities that protected them from invasion. Despite the protests of Joshua and Caleb, they discouraged the heart of the people who put more faith in this bad report than they did in God's word. As a result they were consigned to the wilderness for the next forty years. And that's where they died.

Let me introduce two military terms they may help us at this point; strategy and tactics. Strategy is the overall plan. It's what generals create. D Day during the second world war would come under that category. It was the allied invasion of Normandy; Operation Neptune as it was called. But tactics involve the decisions that front line soldiers have to make based the on the real situations they encounter. Perhaps a road they planned to take is blocked and another route must be taken. The objective and strategy is kept but captains make tactical changes in order to reach the same objective. Such flexibility is crucial in real warfare.

This is close to how God works. He has a strategy; an overall goal that won't change. From the beginning He has wanted man to rule His creation, (see Psalm 8), and now in Christ He has secured that destiny. There is a man on the Throne who has been crowned King and His name is Jesus. Likewise, with Israel God wanted them to experience the Promised land. That is why He redeemed them. But they, in effect, said no and died in the wilderness. Does this thwart God's plan? Has He failed to do what He promised?

Not at all. Remember He is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He is the God of the generations and He acts generationally. The generation who responded with unbelief died in the wilderness, but a new generation arose. They inherited the promise. They responded in faith. Tactically God took a new course; strategically He stayed on target. This is because human choices really do count. Not only that, He preserved the two men who were faithful to God, Joshua and Caleb. Later in life both of them claimed the strength of men of forty while they were in their eighties.

The promise of God contains within it the power to produce all that it offers. Like the apple seed; hidden deep within is the promise of fruit. From planting to harvest, which usually takes three years, farmers know that the seed contains everything they expect from and apple tree. The seed just needs the right environment. God's word is like that. And just as the seed must be planted in good soil - the right environment; so God's word must be mixed with faith. Faith creates the environment that releases all that is in the Promise and we then experience the fulfilment, over time.

Consider David in 2Sam 7. The chapter begins with David's desire to build a house for God; a place for Him to dwell fitting for His greatness. But God reveals to David that in fact it is His desire to build a house for David - an abiding dynasty. His descendants would rule the nation. In this prophetic revelation we see two dimensions to its prophetic fulfilment. In the first place it is fulfilled by Solomon who does in fact go on to build the temple that David dreamed of. In the longer term it refers to Jesus, a descendant of David, whose Kingdom is established forever.

The rest of the chapter is a record of David's prayer of thanksgiving to God for His amazing kindness and blessing. But this offer of an abiding Kingdom is not the first time God has it on His heart to give to a King, nor would it be the last. Consider Saul, the first King of Israel. He was chosen by God to reign over Israel, 1Sam 10.24. They had asked for a King and God gave them a King. It wasn't His plan but He allowed a tactical change based on the desire of the people. It wasn't His will, it wasn't His idea. In fact it was a rejection of His Kingship. Yet He did not wash His hands of them either, but rather encouraged them through Samuel the prophet that they could still find a way forward if they served Him with all their heart, 1Sam 12.20-25.

Later in 1Sam 13 we have the record of Saul's unlawful sacrifice. He is ready to go to war but is waiting for Samuel to show in order to make sacrifice to the Lord before the battle. Samuel is late and Saul feels the pressure; so he makes the sacrifice himself; something only a priest is allowed to do, 1Sam 13.9-12. Samuel's response is a sharp rebuke, but we also see the loss of an amazing opportunity.

And Samuel said to Saul, "You have done foolishly. You have not kept the commandment of the Lord your God, which He commanded you. For now the Lord would have established your Kingdom over Israel forever. But now your Kingdom will not continue."

Either this is the truth or Samuel is lying. Either this is a genuine revelation of what was in God's heart for Saul or we are being conned. If you live with a theology that tells you Saul was the people's choice and David was God's choice then this is a difficult scripture to deal with. There can be no real integrity in this statement. But if, like me, you believe that Saul was also God's choice and that through his disobedience he forfeited an enduring kingdom then it becomes a salutary warning to us not to make the same mistake.

Like Israel in the wilderness, where God's promise passed to another generation that believed and experienced its fulfillment, Saul's unbelief cost him an enduring Kingdom. The first thing that was removed from him was an abiding dynasty. This would be given to David, a man who lived by faith. Saul's second major failure is recorded in 1Sam 15 where he spares Agag, King of the Amalekites and the best of the sheep and oxen; things commanded by God to be utterly destroyed. In this instance it is not just that Saul looses an enduring Kingdom, he now looses the Kingship itself, 1Sam 15.26. and so in the next chapter the Spirit of God departs from Saul and comes on David, newly anointed by Samuel, 1Sam 16.14.

What I find astonishing is the amazing opportunity he missed. Jonathan could have been the future King of Israel had Saul obeyed, had he put faith in God and not relied on himself. He stepped into a role he was not anointed to do and ultimately lost the anointing for his true calling. It is a testament to Jonathan's character that he didn't become angry or bitter against his father or David. Rather he became David's greatest friend and ally. His unselfish attitude is outstanding.

Now let's fast forward to Solomon. He too fails to stay faithful to God, 1Kings 11.1-13. As a result he experiences the same judgment as Saul in 1Sam 11; the Kingdom is torn away from him and given to another, but with a difference. God must be true to His word and promise to David. So only part of the Kingdom is left for the tribe of Judah to reign over. God is at the same time disciplining Solomon for his disobedience and lack of faith and being true to His promise to David; a tactical change that preserves His strategic objectives.

We need to heed this carefully. The danger is we begin to take God and His promises for granted. God had committed Himself to David to have an enduring Kingdom. His future generations would reign over the nation. But Solomon's disobedience meant this would no longer be a united nation. Whilst our unbelief does not make the faithfulness of God of no effect it can rob us of our personal participation in the fulfilment of the promise, as it did with Israel in the wilderness, Rom 3.3. For all promises require a response of faith.

The writer to Hebrews says we need to mix faith with the word. Whenever we have moved into a new house my first job is often to put up a rotary clothes line. It requires a good cement base. Fortunately they come ready mixed, you just have to add water and mix it all together. Then it becomes solid. This is what faith does when mixed with the promise. It makes the promise solid - for us.

In 1Kings 11.26-40 records how Jeroboam was chosen by God to rule over the ten tribes of Israel. He was met by Ahijah the prophet. What is again astonishing to me is what God put on the table for this young man, not only to be King, but like David to receive an enduring Kingdom, if he will follow God. Listen to the words;

So I will take you and you shall reign over all that your heart desires and you shall be king over Israel. Then it shall be, if you heed all that I command you, walk in My ways and do what is right in My sight, to keep My statutes and commandments, as My servant David did, then I will be with you and build for you an enduring house, as I built for David and I will give Israel to you, 1Kings 11.37-38.

There is a conditional part to this promise requiring faith and obedience. What an amazing offer! I believe it was genuine. God is not playing with words here. Solomon is so threatened by this young man that he tries to have him killed, 1Kings 11.40. Jeroboam lives out his days in Egypt until Solomon dies. Within a short while he becomes King. The tragedy comes in 1Kings 12.26.

"And Jeroboam said in his heart, "Now the Kingdom may return to the house of David: If these people go up to offer sacrifices in the house of the Lord at Jerusalem, then the heart of this people will turn back to their lord, Rehoboam King of Judah and they will kill me and go back to Rehoboam King of Judah."

Jeroboam went on to set up the Golden Calves and become the most wicked king in the history of Israel's kings. Every sin of the future kings of Israel is compared to his. This is tragic when you consider what God offered Him. It shows the power of fear and unbelief to rob us of God given opportunities. Consider this:

1. Like Saul, Jeroboam was God's choice. It was not a self appointment or a democratic appointment of the people. God chose him and placed him in this position of authority. No-one had the power to remove him, except God. This is why David would not kill Saul. He would not remove Saul, even though David was the anointed King. He waited for God to do that. It was a test of his faith and patience in God. You don't have to fight to keep your role or responsibility if God put you there. Relax. Don't get fearful and insecure like Saul and Jeroboam did. The God who put you there can keep you there.

2. We must be careful what we speak in our heart. Jeroboam tried to work things out logically and rationally. He left God out of the frame and it lead him into idolatry. What we say in our heart determines the course of our choices in life. This is why we are meant to fill our hearts with the word of Christ, Col 3.16. It is why Joshua was told to meditate on the word, day and night. Lies have a way of taking root through our insecurities. God's truth has a way of delivering us from all our fears, Psalm 34.4, when we give it place in our hearts. What are you saying in your heart today?

3. Jeroboam focused on the people instead of on the promise. People are fickle. They are unpredictable. But that is why we need to focus on God and His word. If only Jeroboam had remembered what God was offering him and focused on the statutes and commands of the Lord. Like Joshua he would have had good success. Where is your focus? Who are you listening to? Does it resonate with God's truth or are you busy trying to preserve your own kingdom instead of seeking His? Where is your focus?

4. Jeroboam thought that the worst thing that could happen would be the people returning to Rehoboam; him loosing power. In fact the worst thing was what actually happened. He abandoned following God and lost everything. His reign lasted twenty two years, barely half a lifetime. It could have been for many generations. What do you currently think is the worst thing that could happen to you? Is God in that reckoning? If you follow Him and put faith in His promises, you will endure.

God's strategy is secure. He will reach His goals. The real issue is, where will we position ourselves in relationship to what He desires. If we choose a faith response we can be assured that promises will be fulfilled - for us. If not, God may make a tactical change that leaves us in the shadows while someone else steps in to fill our shoes. Don't reject what God has placed on the table for you by chasing shadows. Grab it by faith. Like Paul said to Timothy; "Lay hold on eternal life", 1Tim 6.12. Take hold of what has taken hold of you - by faith. Then you are sure to walk into your destiny and take your inheritance.