Monday, 6 February 2012

Putting God First Part 3: The Holy Spirit

Putting God first requires faith! Jesus challenged His disciples, “Let not your hearts be troubled. You believe in God. Believe in Me also”, John 14.1. Or to use Tom Wright’s words from his new translation, “Trust God – and trust Me too!” Remember the words ‘believe’ and ‘faith’ have exactly the same root word in the Greek. In scripture the words trust and faith are almost synonymous.

It’s not enough to say we trust God and have faith in Him. Many faiths make this claim. We have to trust the one God puts His confidence in; the one He has sent to reveal His heart – Jesus, John 1.14, 18; 14.9-10. If we fully trust God we will trust Jesus. But Jesus isn’t here with us the way He was with the disciples He spoke these words to. He is now in Heaven at the right hand of God the Father. So how do we put him first?

Jesus made it clear to His disciples, in His final days before the crucifixion, that He was going to leave them, but not abandon them. There is a difference. He promised to send them another helper – the Holy Spirit, John 15.26.

The word for ‘another’ in the Greek is helpful because two words exist. One means another of a different kind; the other means another of the same kind. If you own a Ford and exchange it for a BMW, that is ‘another, of a different kind’. But if you exchange your Ford for another Ford that is ‘another, of the same kind’.

Jesus has promised us another helper – of the same kind. This is powerful because the Holy Spirit has been given to the church to make the Lordship of Jesus real to us. In Rom 8.9 He is called the ‘Spirit of Christ’. Not to have the spirit means we don’t belong to Jesus. The Holy Spirit makes it all real.

Jesus made this clear in His conversation with Nicodemus. He had a natural birth and now he needed a spiritual birth – to be born again by the Spirit. Now the Holy Spirit promotes and speaks of Jesus, just as Jesus always spoke and promoted His Father, John 16.13-14.

"When the spirit of truth comes, though, he will guide you in all the truth. He won’t speak on his own account, you see, but he will speak whatever he hears. He will announce to you what’s to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what belongs to me and will announce it to you.”

The Holy Spirit is here to guide the church and lead the church, by speaking what the head of the church is saying. This is why in two short chapters in Rev 2-3 we have the phrase repeated seven times; “Let him who has an ear hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches”.

Jesus walks in the midst of the seven lampstands and sees the true state of the churches. But then He sends His angel – His messenger, to speak to each of them. And that message is communicated through the Spirit, for the testimony of Jesus is the Spirit of prophecy, Rev 19.10.

Too often we think of guidance in personal terms, of God speaking to us as individuals. This happens. It is appropriate. But the overwhelming push of the New Testament is that God has called out for Himself a people under the New Covenant. They are the people who show forth His praises and who He is leading into His purposes – corporately. So our hearing needs to be a community affair! It’s not so much ‘What is God saying to me?’ as it is, “What is He saying to us – His church in this unique locality?”

So for me to put God first in my life means I listen and honour what the Holy Spirit is saying to me as an individual and to the church I am part of. In the book of revelation the seven messages to the seven churches were different. There were patterns of similarity but also clear distinctions. This is important. Each church must be true to the calling and unique expression that Jesus has called it to.

This is why there is such an emphasis on being ‘led by the Spirit’, Rom 8.14, ‘filled with the Sprit’, Eph 5.18, and ‘walking in the Sprit’, Gal 5.16. We can’t put God first in our lives without His (the Spirit's) help. He makes it real because He empowers to do what God calls us to do.

When the Bible speaks in Phil 2.13 of God working in you to will and do of His good pleasure, whom do you think that is referring to? When Paul speaks in Eph 3.17 of Christ (the anointed one) dwelling in your heart through faith how do you think that happens? The key is in the previous verse!

That He would grant you… to be strengthened with might through His Spirit in the inner man, Eph 3.16.

It is all accomplished through the Holy Spirit! In 2Cor 3 we have Paul highlighting the main difference between the two covenants of law and grace. The contrast is between the law that was written on tablets of stone and how grace now allows God, (the Holy Spirit), to write on the human heart.

The failure of the law did not lie with the law itself. That is described elsewhere in the New Testament as Holy and good. The real failure lay in us. We are not holy, we are not good. We are broken, tainted by sin. We are not able to do what the law demands of us and so it ends up condemning us; for it highlights our failure.

Paul alludes to the time Moses went up the mountain and spent time with God. When he came down his face shone. It radiated. This would happen to Jesus on what is called the mount of transfiguration in Matt 17. So Moses took a veil to hide his face so that the people were not so scared. They were afraid to look at him.

They knew that to look at God’s Shekinah glory meant certain death and they were not going to take any chances, even with Moses. But in time this glory faded. Paul uses this to illustrate something about the nature of the two covenants, and specifically to the two ways it is possible to hear the Bible.

For until this day the same veil remains unlifted in the reading of the Old Testament, because the veil is taken away in Christ, but even to this day, when Moses is read, a veil lies on their heart. Nevertheless when one turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away, 2Cor 3.14-16

Notice that Paul is referring to the reading of scripture here. The problem doesn’t lie with the scripture but with the person listening. Unless there has been a surrender of ones life to Jesus, a veil lies over the heart. This stops anyone from truly seeing the goal of scripture. Unregenerate people have a veil over their hearts, but that veil is removed when they turn to the Lord.

It is relationship that opens the door to understanding. The mistake of the Pharisees was in thinking that life was in the scriptures:

You search the scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me. But you are not willing to come to Me that you might have life, John 5.39-40

The scriptures are important. They point to Jesus. But life is not in the Bible – it’s in Christ and He is a person. He is a living person who calls us into relationship with Himself. Once I have found faith in Him, He opens my understanding to see the real focus of scripture. Look at Luke 24.44-45,

Then He said to them, “These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me.” And He opened their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures.

Now back to Paul. “Nevertheless when one turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away”, 2Cor 3.16. Look at the next verse. “Now the Lord is the Spirit…” Paul is explicit. The Holy Spirit is Lord just as Jesus is Lord. This is Trinitarian theology and we can’t escape it. The Holy Spirit has been given to establish the Lordship of Jesus in our personal lives and in the church.

We cannot claim that Jesus is Lord and that God is first in our life if we are living in a way that grieves or quenches the activity of the Spirit. We must welcome the Spirit and be open to the Spirit. Without His leading, guiding and power in our lives, we will accomplish nothing. To quote Jesus; “For without Me you can do nothing” John 15.5b. And Jesus has given us the Spirit so this verse holds true for Him too.

My point is simple. The Holy Spirit is in the business of removing veils, the veil of unbelief, the veil of fear, the veil of shame, the veil of guilt. All these veils can stop us from truly understanding the intent of scripture. We hear in a distorted way through the veil and text looses its transforming power.

But where God’s Spirit is active in our lives, there is freedom. His presence brings liberty! Freedom means no veils. This means we can see the glory of the Lord when we hear scripture read. It is in this place that real transformation takes place - from glory to glory.

The truth is that we become what we behold. The more we have a revelation of Jesus through scripture, the more we become like Him. The Spirit is given to show Him to us. He effects change in us so that we become more like Him. We find ourselves changed into His image, from glory to glory, by the Spirit of the Lord. This is what grace has made possible.

Here are a few questions for you to consider in your journey of transformation.
Is there a veil over your heart that stops you believing God can change an area of your life? Can you give a name to that veil? Ask a close friend where they have seen significant progress and change in your life.

Now dare to ask them if they have noticed any areas where you are defensive and less open to change. Are you prepared to go on a journey and address these issues? Whom will you allow to be part of that journey so that you have real accountability for your progress?

Let me encourage you to invite the Holy Spirit to speak to you through scripture. Tell Him you want Jesus to have the preeminence in every area of your life. Be specific. Invite Him to be Lord in the workplace, in your marriage, in your studies, in your relationships, in your use of time and money. And expect change to happen!

Pray through any prompting you get and share it with those journeying with you so that you are not just acting alone. In the mouth of two or three witnesses let every word be established is the Biblical pattern. Allow others to know what you feel God is challenging you to do or change. Their wisdom and encouragement can make a huge difference in any change process.

Finally remember that the scripture encourages us to look to God not at ourselves, Heb 12.2. Real and lasting change doesn’t happen by you making a list of all the things you think are wrong with you and then working on it. That’s self-effort. It’s works.

It happens by you coming into the presence of God where you are loved and accepted just as you are. And in that place God is able to highlight any area of your life He wants to deal with. This way you are allowing the grace of God to change you and not falling into a self-help program. Listen to James on this:

Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands you sinners and purify your hearts you double minded, James 4.8

Notice that. We take the first move. We draw near to God, and then He draws near. He watches to see if our desire is there. Once we draw near He draws near. In His presence we get convicted. That is the time to then cleanse our hands – the things we have done wrong.

Many people get this wrong. They try and get clean before coming into God’s presence and often end up staying away from fellowship. Yet the Bible says it’s being in His presence that shows us our need for cleansing. That’s grace. That’s what the Holy Spirit does. And in that place of repentance and humility comes cleansing and forgiveness so that we leave changed and free; free to pursue a life of being led and filled with the Spirit.

Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Putting God First Part 2: The Centrality of Jesus

Many religious people claim to put God first in their life. I don’t doubt their sincerity. But scripture is explicit that to put God first means we put Jesus first. Let me explain. Jesus defined eternal life as this:

That they may know You, the only true God and Jesus Christ whom You have sent, John 17.3

Knowing God implies that we receive whom God has sent. In fact how we respond to Jesus becomes the acid test of how well we truly know God. The Pharisees claimed to follow God yet they rejected Jesus. Such actions betrayed the true condition of their hearts. Listen to Jesus on the subject:

And the Father Himself, who sent Me, has testified of Me. You have neither heard His voice at any time, nor seen His form. But you do not have His word abiding in you, because whom He sent, Him you do not believe, John 5.37-38.

This is an amazing indictment. You haven’t heard Him or seen Him, “at any time”. These were the men society looked to as spiritual leaders in Israel. They were the ‘Let’s put God first’ elite – but they missed Jesus. They prided themselves in being above the average Joe when it came to religious commitment. But religious zeal is not the same as putting God first.

Consider Paul before his conversion. He persecuted Christians; all in the name of religious zeal. He thought he was serving God. But then he met Jesus on the Damascus road and it shook him to the core. Later he described himself as a blasphemer and an insolent man! He realized he had suffered from spiritual blindness. God had to open his eyes to the reality of Jesus.

To put God first must mean we begin to align our hearts affections with His. We learn to love what He loves and value what He values. And He loves and values His son, Jesus. In Matt 17 we have the record of the transfiguration on the Mount. The story is well known. When Peter comes up with the great suggestion of building booths for Moses, Elijah and Jesus a bright cloud overshadows them all and God speaks, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased – Hear Him”, Matt 17.5.

The affirmation present at the beginning of Jesus ministry is repeated here with one notable addition – ‘listen to my Son, hear what He has to say’. The Father is pointing people to Jesus! What Peter had to say was not important. It added nothing to the moment. They needed to listen to Jesus. The apostolic writers of the NT understood this.

John is perhaps the clearest of all the gospel writers. He is unequivocal.

In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him and without Him nothing was made that was made, ……and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, John 1.1-3,14.

Wow. Jesus is God. He created everything! Scriptures like this push our understanding of the nature of the Godhead. We are lead to see that God is a community of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And Jesus was aware of this. Listen to His language in John 17.5

“And now O Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was”.

Jesus knew He predated creation, sharing in the glory of the Father and He looked forward to experiencing it again!

In the book of Revelation John has a vision. He sees heaven, a throne, creatures surrounding the throne. But then at the heart of it all he sees the Lamb – the center of heavens worship. It’s Jesus, Rev 5.6-14.

This is why Paul was so adamant that the church recognizes the exaltation and supremacy of Jesus. Look at Col1.12-20.

……… Giving thanks to the Father who has qualified us to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love, in whom we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins.

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist. And He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the pre-eminence.

For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell, and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross.

These are amazing verses. Creation is focused on Jesus. He alone has fulfilled the plan of God and has now been exalted to the highest place of honour. Heaven affords Him that place and God wants earth to do the same. That’s why we are here.

By honouring Jesus as the head of the church we are confessing His supremacy over all things. The church is a model of what it is like to live under the reign of Jesus. This is our witness to the world that will attract many to Him. Not only that; Jesus is ‘the firstborn from the dead’. That means He is the prototype of the New Creation man.

In Jesus, the future has invaded the present. The new creation has broken in even as the old creation is passing away. And like the creation recorded in Genesis there is an order; the main difference being that in the new creation this order is reversed.

So just as Adam was made on the last day and is the crown of the old creation; Jesus has become the ‘firstborn’. The new creation begins with Him and it is the universe itself that is last to be renewed. In fact Paul says the old creation is groaning in birth pangs waiting for the new creation to finally come in fullness, Rom 8.19-22.

So Jesus is at the heart of everything. Not only that, He is at the heart of scripture.

You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me. But you are not willing to come to Me that you may have life. I do not receive honour from men. But I know you, that you do not have the love of God in you. I have come in My Father’s name, and you do not receive Me; if another comes in his own name, him you will receive. How can you believe, who receive honour from one another, and do not seek the honour that comes from the only God? Do not think that I shall accuse you to the Father; there is one who accuses you—Moses, in whom you trust. For if you believed Moses, you would believe Me; for he wrote about Me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe My words? John 5.39-47.

This is Jesus speaking. Notice what He is claiming. The scriptures ‘testify of Me’; Moses ‘wrote about Me’. Not only that, He places His words on a par with Moses writings. This is audacious language; language that continues even after the resurrection, as Jesus opens up the scriptures to His disciples.

And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself, Luke 24.27.

This is why the Bible is so important. Yes you can read it and miss Jesus. But once you know Him, it becomes a treasure chest showing us more of Him.

Jesus gives us a clue as to why His detractors in John 5 would not hear Him. They wanted the honour of men, not the honour that comes from God. This speaks to their basic motivation. They were out to impress men, not God. This is pride, pure and simple. It blinds us to truth. It blinds us to Jesus. It deafens us so that we don’t hear Him.

So whilst it is true that we can read the Bible and hear it preached and miss Jesus, it’s equally true that we can’t know the fullness of who He is and all that He has planned for us as His people without it! So we have got to learn to handle it in the right way.

Thus, putting Jesus first means we have to approach life and truth with a desire to please God; to have His approval. This is how we enter the Kingdom, through humble repentance. It becomes the pattern for how we are to engage with Biblical truth. We must be more concerned with doing it than just knowing it! James 1.22. We must allow it to shape us and change us.

Now there is a danger here. Over the years I have met countless numbers of believers (and heretics) who claim to be Biblical in their beliefs and practice. Mormons claim to be Biblical by having more than one wife citing, Abraham, Jacob, Moses and David as their examples – all great men, godly men.

I know believers who justify lying if it is to protect people, quoting the story of Rahab who lied to protect the Israelite spies from the Jericho soldiers. After all she is called a woman of faith!! But is that really Biblical?

I know leaders who teach that believers should never question or challenge leaders. They use the passage from Numbers 12 where Miriam spoke out against Moses for marrying an Ethiopian. God struck her with leprosy and only through Moses intercession was this commuted to a weeklong condition. The passage is used to put fear into people - and I don’t mean the fear of the Lord. Is that really Biblical?

I grew up in a time when saying you were a Christian became inadequate because Britain had become culturally Christian. So we added the phrase, a ‘born again’ Christian, (which if you think about it is funny. Is there any other kind?). It was our attempt to deal with a nation of people that thought being British made you a Christian.

Later we added, ‘Spirit filled’, ‘born again’ Christian to distinguish those who believed in the Baptism of the Spirit from evangelicals who thought that anything vaguely Pentecostal was, at best whacky and at worst demonic.

I remember people asking me; ‘Are you a Christian?’ Yes! But are you a born-again Christian? Yes! ‘But are you a Spirit-filled, born-again Christian? At which point I wanted to reply, ‘Listen, I’m a Spirit-filled, born-again, washed in the blood with my name written in Heaven, waiting for the return of Jesus, Christian! Is that good enough?’ (I never did have the courage to say it, but I did think it!)

So often our attempts at being Biblical are secretly a way of testing who’s up to speed with our understanding of truth. We use this approach to create insiders and outsiders. We use it push our agenda and get things done. It’s often a subtle form of manipulation.

I find it helpful to step back a little and try to understand what kind of lens are we using when we come to the Bible. I focus on two things; the person and work of Jesus. In other words I try and view scripture through the new covenant. This changes the question from, ‘Is it Biblical?’ to ‘Is it Biblical in the light of the New Covenant?’ a covenant that was established through the person and work of Jesus.

Much theology doesn’t stand up under that kind of approach. The saints in the past may have had more than one wife but in the light of the new covenant they fell short of God’s ideal. People may have been stoned to death for adultery in the past, but again in the light of the new covenant we rebuke and forgive. Miriam may have been made leprous in the wilderness story, but perhaps the issue was that she didn’t challenge Moses personally, but complained to Aaron, violating the Matt 18 principle of dealing with issues privately and personally.

Remember James and John when the Samaritan village rejected Jesus in Luke 9.51-56. They recommended genocide and quoted Elijah, who called down fire from heaven. They wanted to be Biblical! They thought they were being Biblical! But Jesus rebuked them and said they had the wrong spirit. It wasn’t new covenant. It did not represent God’s heart.

So being Biblical is more than just knowing that something was taught or practiced in the Bible. It’s seeing that it fits with who Jesus is and what He has done. It’s more than having a verse or example to quote to justify an attitude, practice or belief; it is daring to ask if the attitude, practice or belief truly fits in with the new covenant of grace.

Let me encourage you to put Jesus first. To place Him where scripture does, as head of all things. Then come with an attitude of humility to scripture, being willing to do what it says. Finally seek to understand the Bible in the light of who Jesus is and what He has done. Next time I’ll show you the vital importance of the Holy Spirit in helping us to do this.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Putting God First Part 1: Establishing an Altar

Gen 13.1-4
Then Abram went up from Egypt, he and his wife and all that he had, and Lot with him, to the South. Abram was very rich in livestock, in silver, and in gold. And he went on his journey from the South as far as Bethel, to the place where his tent had been at the beginning, between Bethel and Ai, to the place of the altar, which he had made there at first. And there Abram called on the name of the LORD.

This text is very suggestive. It comes on the back of Abram’s journey into Egypt. He went there because he was scared. There was a famine in Canaan. God had called him to inherit this land but now things were difficult, so he left for Egypt. Here he lied about Sarai, calling her his sister, instead of his wife (a half truth). Finally he returned to Canaan. But the text seems to suggest that his return was not just geographic, it was spiritual.

He came back to the altar he had made at first; to the place where his tent had been at the beginning. Finally, in that place, ‘Abram called on the name of the LORD. We know from Rom 10.13 that all those who call on the name of the Lord will be saved, (delivered, healed, kept safe). We also know that it was during the time of Seth’s son, Enosh in Gen 4.26, that men ‘began to call on the name of the Lord’.

In other words there was an entire generation where God was left out of the frame. People lived life without God as their reference point. But then Seth had a son and it all changed. One man can make a huge difference! Men began to call upon the Name of the Lord. They wanted His involvement in their lives. They wanted, healing, deliverance, salvation.

A generation passed were people forgot to involve God but then Enosh and his generation changed all that. Perhaps they saw the consequences of a generation that forgot about God. Perhaps they were inspired by stories from Adam about what it was like to walk with God, (Adam would have been alive at that time). Whatever the reason they called on the name of the Lord.

And that’s what Abram did. He called on God again as he had done in the beginning. He re-established fellowship with God. He drew near to God and God drew near to him. And in that place of fellowship God revealed more of His plan to Abram.

The reality is that we are wired for fellowship. In Gen 3.8 the Lord walked in the garden in the cool of the day. He and Adam had fellowship. They talked. They engaged together in the naming of the animals. Yet that partnership was incomplete. Adam was alone. So God made Eve, taking part of Adam to create a complementary partner. He extended Adam’s capacity for fellowship.

1John 1.3 says: that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ.

Notice that. We are wired for fellowship with each other, God’s people and with God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ. Yet life shows us how difficult it is to get on with other people. It is a testament to the reality of the fall. Sin has left its mark in us and in creation. It’s all out of whack!

Just like Adam who disobeyed God by eating the forbidden fruit, so we too are left wanting to hide, self-conscious, guilty, afraid and wanting to blame others. No wonder we talk about dysfunctional relationships, dysfunctional families and dysfunctional organisations.

Yet there is good news. Jesus died to restore our fellowship to God and each other that was broken by sin. Eph 2.19-20 says:

Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone.

The human spirit is made alive through the new birth. We can be reconnected to God and that ensures we can connect to each other. The lines are open! But we are talking about a relationship. It’s not automatic. All relationships need to be cultivated, nurtured, time taken to invest in them. And none is more important than our relationship with God.

Let’s go back to Abram. He came back to the altar he had made at the beginning; the place where he met with God. He was in fact restoring spiritual priorities. He was putting God first. He was seeking fellowship again. The beauty of fellowship with God is that when we give Him devotion He often gives us direction!

God doesn’t want our lives to be directed by fear (of a famine), or guilt, failure, shame or insecurity. He wants to speak words of promise that inspire us to live by faith, trusting in Him. That’s what He did for Abram.

Every believer needs an altar; a place where they meet with God; a place where they invite His intervention in their life; a place where they can worship and pray. This is what the new birth does. It establishes an altar; a place where we can commune with God.

As I was growing up this was called a ‘Quiet Time’. Today it’s often called having a ‘Devotional’. The label is not important, but establishing a regular time with God is. Jesus did this. The gospel of Mark tells us that a great while before dawn Jesus withdrew to a deserted place and there He prayed, Mark 1.35.

In the midst of a busy ministry schedule Jesus took time to talk and listen to His Father. It kept Him focused on God’s priorities rather than the demands of ministry. Notice from Mark 1.38 that Jesus knew He needed to move on to other cities. The demands of ministry remained. Everyone was looking for Him, but He moved on to other cities in obedience to the Father.

This became His pattern right up until His final anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane, Luke 5.16; 22.39-44. But even here scripture tells us that the garden was a regular place for Him to visit when in Jerusalem. Like all the other places He withdrew to, it was a place where He had established an altar.

There He found strength - Luke 22.43, direction – Mark 1.35, insight – Luke 22.31 and there He prayed for those He loved – John 17. We are naive to think we can do well as believers and not take time to establish an altar. Jesus did it. He withdrew. And He taught us to do the same.

And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly, Matt 6.5-6.

Notice that. We have to shut the door on the world if we are to spend time with the Father. We must withdraw in order to be refreshed. In the OT it took time to build an altar. The rocks could not be shaped with a human instrument. They had to be found and put together.

I have a Jewish friend. He told me that the Rabbi’s believe that this prescription was given for two reasons. The first was that no human effort could be used for shaping the altar where we meet with God. The temptation to take pride in what we have built is ever present.

But secondly the fact that the stones had to fit together to some degree meant that the builder was very purposeful in choosing rocks that had a good fit. It therefore took time and they couldn’t rush the process. I like that. Experience tells me it takes time to find a place where there are no distractions.

John Wesley had a special room in his house. I’ve seen it. The room has a window that overlooks a beautiful garden. In the room is a chair, one that Wesley designed himself. It had a small shelf on the back. There he sat in reverse so he could rest his Bible on the small shelf and read it. Nothing else was in the room; just an empty room with a chair and a Bible. He called it the powerhouse.

All the great men of the Bible and history spent time with God. They knew that this was the true source of their success in ministry. They valued it. They cultivated it. They modelled it to their disciples.

Where are you able to pray and read God’s word without distractions? Jesus spent most of His time outside in places where it was hard to find people and hard for people to find Him. He removed Himself from the demands of ministry and ministered to God instead.

When you find that place, establish a regular time for going there. People are different. Some do it very early while others do it very late. Daniel did it three times a day! What works for you?

This is not to take away from the spontaneous nature of prayer that can happen anywhere, at any time. Rather it is to have a daily point of reference for meeting with God where you take time to listen to Him. Without this altar, putting God first remains little more than rhetoric.

And the beauty of Abraham’s story is that you can always return to an altar. It remains. Starting over again is always a genuine possibility. In fact Abraham’s life is characterised by the fact that every time he moved to a new place he built an altar. He wanted to put God first in every step of his journey. Let me encourage you to do the same!