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!