Who are we?

In this blog, there will be a variety of material: thoughts on Bible books, book reviews, historical characters, aspects of Scottish church history and other things.

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Blessings of the testing (Genesis 22)

As we saw yesterday, God's requirement of Abraham that he offer up his son was a very hard and unusual testing for Abraham. We know the story and are aware that God had an alternative plan all the time. Abraham did not know this until he had reached the climactic moment and God called from heaven instructing him not to slay his son.

One blessing that Abraham received was further confirmation of previous promises. Much of what is said here had already been said before to Abraham, especially about the number of his descendants and the universal blessing that would come. A new detail is that his seed would triumph over all enemies. What occurred with Abraham is a sample of what happens to tried believers after the test has been completed. Jesus draws near and soothes away the pain of the trial by applying his sweet promises with greater clarity and detail. The Saviour who seemed so far away draws near and comforts his servant during a time of precious fellowship.

Further, the test gave to Abraham an insight into the future Father/Son transaction that would take place centuries later at Calvary. I like the suggestion of several commentators that the background to this event was a prayer made by Abraham for information about how his seed would be a source of blessing to the world. If this conjecture is true, and it would be very unlikely for Abraham not to have thought about it, the Lord gave him a personal lesson into the significance of Calvary. In a sense, at Moriah, Abraham saw the purposes of God the Father as far as giving his Son was concerned. He saw the pain of the Father as he gave his Son, and he saw the pleasure of the Father in providing his Son as the substitute for sinners.

Finally, the testing gave to Abraham a message to pass on to others. This message is seen in the name he gave to the location, Jehovah Jireh, which means that the Lord will provide, no doubt linked to his own words in verse 8: God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.Abraham could tell others that his God never brings a test without providing a means of release. In addition he could tell them that the Lord would yet provide his own Son to be the Saviour of sinners, the One who would bring universal blessing to untold number of generations in the future. 

Many did listen to Abraham because we are told in verse 14 that others were repeating his words centuries later: as it is said to this day, On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.Lets listen to him. 

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Abraham tested to the limit (Genesis 22)

The first thought that arises from this incident is that sometimes God asks his people to make great and costly sacrifices. We are familiar with stories of missionaries and others who have left the comfort of their home surroundings to serve God in a harsh and inhospitable terrain, often without receiving much evidence of success. 

Others have been called to a life of pain in which they have to endure prolonged periods of distress, without being able to see the point of it all. Such sacrifices are long-term and perhaps the person eventually gets used to them and may discover some spiritual benefits of them such as intercessory prayer and patient submission to the will of God. 

On the other hand, some people experience sudden tragedy or catastrophe, with no explanation apart from the reality that they are liable to all the miseries of this life. Christians will have lost their employment in the current financial crisis and Christian businessmen will have seen their companies go bankrupt. Other Christians are hurt in a sudden outburst of war or in an earthquake.

Yet I think that there is a difference between them and what was demanded of Abraham here. Why so? Because Abraham was not only asked to perform a difficult task in offering his son as a sacrifice, he was also asked to destroy what seemed to be the future of God’s kingdom. The patriarch had been told many times by God that the line of the future Messiah was through Isaac. Now he was asked to carry out an action that would result in that line being aborted almost at its beginning. Such a command would have seemed worse than unrealistic to most thinking people. Yet Abraham determined to proceed along the path of obedience.

Nevertheless it is worth noting that God’s action here is actually a comforting one because it indicates that he is concerned about the spiritual state of each of his people. We are not to imagine that he only tests us occasionally. Instead he tests us often in order to reveal how we are growing in grace. Sometimes he tests us by allowing the devil to tempt us. At other times, God tests us with prosperity; on occasions, as with Job, he tests us by adversity. The point to note is that divine testing is a sign of his commitment to his people, a reminder that he is watching over us, concerned about our spiritual development and holiness.

It is also worth noting that what God expects of his people is worship. Abraham was commanded to perform this unusual task as an expression of worship. God told him to offer Isaac as a burnt offering, which is a picture of total dedication in that all of the sacrifice was consumed on the altar. It may be the case that Abraham had become too fond of Isaac, as some authors suggest, and his dedication to God was not so apparent. I’m not sure about that suggestion. But it is the case that each action of a disciple of Christ should be an act of worship in which our devotion to him is clearly seen.

Monday, 29 July 2013

God's kingdom grows (Genesis 21:22-34)

Years earlier, God had made a promise to Abraham that his seed would be a blessing to the nations. Readers of Genesis have been waiting for an example of this fulfilled promise, and now Moses points out that shortly after the birth of Isaac a powerful Philistine group voluntarily aligned themselves with Abraham because they had observed that God was with him. The desire for identification with Abraham is all the more surprising because, as we observed in our reading on Genesis 20, Abraham had been deceptive in his earlier contact with this group of Philistines. Yet on that occasion he had discovered that they feared God.

Since Abraham was at the centre of God’s plan of salvation, readers of Genesis would assume that others with an interest in his mercy would desire to join his servant in a public manner. It is evident that Abimelech realised that Abraham was going to be present in the land for a long time, which is why he asked that future generations of his people would receive blessings through Abraham. 

Abimelech and Phicol were willing to confess that the land belonged to a man who at that time seemed to have very little in comparison to what they had. But they did not judge things by the sight of their eyes; instead they looked ahead with the eyes of faith and recognised that God would certainly bless Abraham. This is how we are to respond to the gospel. On a human level, the church of Christ seems insignificant. Yet the fact is that the future belongs to it and not to those who seem currently to have a place of prominence. Heavenly wisdom states that we should by faith identify ourselves with the despised people of God.

We may wonder why Abraham made such a fuss about a well in Beersheba when he brought up the matter with Abimelech. It is likely that Abraham had dug this well (although some scholars think it is the well that Hagar used). I suspect that the reason why he complained was due to the fact that his ownership was disputed by the servants of Abimelech, and he points out to the Philistine ruler that such conduct is not allowed among those who identify with Abraham. They have to confess that the land belongs to him, not them.

Abraham’s response to the treaty with Abimelech is worship. He planted a grove as a place where he would engage in worship and call upon the name of God. Candlish suggests that the grove was designed for use by both Abraham and Abimelech. ‘And there, from time to time, the two friends might meet, as members of the same communion, having now a common faith, a common hope, a common love, to call in common “on the name of the Lord, the everlasting God”.’

Genesis 21 reveals that Abraham had many reasons for giving thanks. His God had kept his promises concerning Isaac, had provided for Hagar and Ishmael, and had created permanent peace between Abraham and Abimelech. And what he did for the father of the faithful, he does for those who follow in his steps. 

Sunday, 28 July 2013

God speaks to Hagar again (Genesis 21)

We are not told if Hagar was praying on this occasion. It would be very surprising if she did not, given the circumstances she was in. Perhaps she did not even use words; perhaps only groans came from her devastated spirit. What is clear is that her state of soul caused heaven to respond to her circumstances.

This was the second time that Hagar found herself in this kind of situation. On the previous occasion, when she had fled from Sarah, she had received divine instructions to return to Abrahams household. Now, because of divine instructions given to Abraham she had been put out of his camp. I suspect she would have been confused, and her confusion led her to forget that there was a God whose eyes were on her.

In addition to her possible confusion arising from Gods different instructions, her circumstances had become very bad. Her son, about whom God had given her great promises on that previous occasion (Gen. 16:10-12), was about to die. It looked as if Gods pledge to her would not happen; in fact things looked as if God was against her. What could she say to him? All she could do was weep. But although she found the heavens as brass, there was One who collected her tears in his bottle and had not forgotten her (Ps. 56:8).

On this occasion Hagar receives heavenly guidance about Ishmael (just as Abraham had done about him). The passage stated that the person who spoke to her from heaven was the angel of God. On the previous occasion, when she had also received heavenly guidance, the One who spoke to her was the angel of the LORD, which was a common Old Testament designation of the Son of God. In this instance, the name of the heavenly being retains the definite article, which indicates that he is special, and he also says that he will make Ishmael into a great nation, which is beyond the ability of a created angel. So it is the same divine Person who is addressing Hagar for the second time and comes to her aid.

The Son of God speaks compassionately and tenderly to her before repeating his previous promise to her about her son. Here is a wonderful reminder that the Lord Jesus cares for those to whom he has given promises. He is aware of their fears and comes to comfort and console them. Having repeated to her his promise about the future, he also provides for her needs in the present by showing her that a well is close at hand. He knew all along that the well was there, and in his providence he had taken distressed Hagar to a location where he could meet her need, a reminder to her that he could provide for them in the future. This is an important perspective to retain: in our troubles the Lord leads the blind by a way they know not and often brings them, in their distress and concern, to the very place which they think is the worst but is actually the place where he will give great blessings.

I suspect that Hagar did not again need another special word from heaven. She could live out her days aware that One in heaven was taking care of her, that despite their unusual providences God was with her son as they adjusted to life away from Abraham. In due course, she found him a wife, probably from her relations in Egypt. But in her experience, she had discovered that God used prayer – that of her son and herself – to fulfil his promises. Therefore, this incident of a thirsty teenager and a distressed mother teaches us that God answers prayer and thereby keeps his promises.

Saturday, 27 July 2013

Keeping a promise through answered prayer (Genesis 21:9-21)

About three years after the birth of Isaac, the day came when Isaac was weaned, and it was a notable social occasion. Abraham would have planned the event carefully, but he had no idea what was going to happen. Ishmael, by now a teenager (he was fourteen years older than Isaac), was caught mocking Isaac by Sarah, and it was so bad that she insisted Abraham had to remove Hagar and Ishmael from their community. Paul tells us that Ishmael’s attitude was a form of persecution of Isaac (Gal. 4:). Ishmael’s words and taunts almost certainly were connected to this public display that Isaac was the heir, and Sarah resented Ishmael’s sinful comments. 

Sarah’s demand seems very cruel to us, but it was accepted practice at that time for a person to ensure that rivals to an heir were moved away from the scene. Abraham himself did this later regarding the sons he had by Keturah (Gen. 25:1-6), so Sarah’s request was not unusual and would not have caused any public disrepute to Abraham.

Abraham initially did not sense that the Lord would use this incident to ensure that his purpose regarding Isaac would come to pass. To begin with, Abraham was very displeased with Sarah’s ultimatum. Yet I suspect that he prayed to God about the matter, which explains why God spoke to him about it and confirmed that her words were correct. This is the best way to respond to surprises. We should not trust our initial reaction, even if it seems appropriate. Instead we should always seek God’s counsel on the issue.

We have in this story a mention of prayer that may seem a bit surprising. Perhaps we would anticipate being told that Abraham was praying for Hagar and Ishmael, or that Hagar was praying for her son in his physical distress through lack of water. Instead the text says that Ishmael was praying: ‘God heard the voice of the boy’ (v. 17). 

We don’t know what Ishmael was saying in his prayer, although he would have observed his father praying and would therefore know how to address God. Whatever Ishmael said, he was heard by God. Sometimes it takes a crisis to bring a person to his senses. Perhaps Ishmael realised that his wrong behaviour had caused their expulsion from the household of his father. The incident is a marvellous example of the grace of God because in it the one who mocked the heir received kindness from the God who had given that position to the heir. Although he could not have Isaac’s place, Ishmael would receive his own place from God several years later, and in order to receive it his prayer here was heard. So God kept a promise by listening to the prayers of a sinful individual in need.

Ishmael was denied the place that God had sovereignly chosen to give to Isaac. Yet this did not mean that he was abandoned by God. Moses informs us that God was with Ishmael as he grew up (v. 20). I suppose it is possible to interpret that summary statement as meaning that God took care of Ishmael without providing him with saving grace. Matthew Henry’s comment regarding Ishmael’s rejection is wise: ‘we are not sure that it was his eternal ruin.’ What we do know is that Ishmael prayed in his distress, was heard by God on that occasion, and God was with him to ensure that he received what was promised to him by God. Ishmael’s experience displayed the meaning of his name, which is ‘God hears’.

Friday, 26 July 2013

Keeping a promise through a miracle (Genesis 21:1-8)

In what ways does God fulfil his promises? The answers to that question are many, and the author of Genesis details three divine methods in Genesis 21. The first is that the Lord sometimes fulfils his promises by a miraculous action, as he did in the case of the birth of Isaac.

Readers of Genesis have read about many events that occurred between the first promise given to Abraham concerning the birth of a son and the divine fulfilment of that promise. Of course, they do not have to wait as long as Abraham and Sarah did – thirty years. Yet eventually God did keep this particular promise and he gave a son to them. 

The obvious lesson from the prolonged period of three decades is that God’s people usually have to exercise patience. There are several reasons why God sometimes works in this way: one is to remind us that he is sovereign, another is to teach us that he knows the best time to work; a further reason is that often he delays his action until circumstances make it very clear that the action is a divine activity which could not be brought about by our own resources.

So how should we respond when we are the beneficiaries of a divine action? The response of Abraham and Sarah to the birth of Isaac shows us what we should do. 

First, the reception of such a blessing stimulated their obedience, and this obedience is seen in two ways – the name that Abraham gave to his son and the act of circumcision that he performed on his son. God had previously instructed Abraham that he should call his son Isaac (Gen. 17:19), which means laughter. No doubt Abraham rejoiced when he gave this name to his son. God had also instructed him regarding the necessity of his male descendants being circumcised (Gen. 17:12). The obvious deduction from the obedience of Abraham is that the reception of a divine miracle does not allow us to ignore or disobey God’s commandments.

A church gathering is full of miracles because they are the individuals who have undergone a greater miraculous birth than the birth of Isaac. Regeneration, or the giving of spiritual life, is superior to the experience of childbirth that Sarah went through. Our response to the wonderful miracle of regeneration should be similar to the two features displayed by the parents of Isaac – grateful rejoicing and eager obedience of God’s commandments.

Second, the reception of a divine action increased their sense of wonder. Their amazement is clearly expressed in the words of Sarah in verses 6 and 7: ‘ God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh over me…. Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.’ 

Thursday, 25 July 2013

Same Old Sins (Genesis 20)

Abraham moved from Mamre (18:1) and headed south, eventually reaching the Philistine territory of Gerar. From one perspective, he seemed to be following God’s command to walk through the land that was promised to him (Gen. 13:7). Yet we know that appearances can be deceptive.

The occasion when Abraham made this move to forbidden territory is surprising. We have seen that he had recently enjoyed a profound experience of fellowship with God, one that many would regard as a mountain-top encounter. Since he had been the recipient of such communion and had received such promises, we would expect him to continue in a state of spiritual devotion until Isaac was born. Yet Abraham did not do so.

Further, Abraham had just witnessed what had happened to Lot because of his venture into an unapproved location. Lot had moved to Sodom and, while he himself had escaped, he had lost everything in the divine judgement that fell on the city. Surely Abraham would have said to himself, ‘I must be careful about where I go in case something similar happens to me.’ Yet he did not do so.

The narrator also describes a vision of warning that Abimelech, the king of Gerar, received from God. Later details in the chapter reveal that Abimelech was a godly ruler, which in a sense is not surprising because there was an awareness of the true God in that geographical area, as can be seen in the case of Melchizedek.

Abraham’s response to Abimelech’s confession contains two aspects of repentance, one recent and the other distant. The recent sin was a wrong assessment he had made of the community, an assessment that was based on fear. He had assumed wrongly that no-one in Gerar at that time feared God and therefore would be killed by them (v. 11). 

The distant confession concerned a decision he had made before he left Ur decades ago, when he asked his wife to pretend to be his sister when necessary. Some commentators regard Abraham’s explanation as rather lame, but I don’t see why his words cannot be taken as expressing repentance for two wrong outlooks that he had. If his words were not true expressions of repentance, it is very surprising that the Lord then listened to his subsequent prayer.

Having repented, Abraham resumed his role as a prophet of God. His voice had been silent all the time he had been living in deception. But the moment he repented, his lips were opened and, even more amazing, his intercession on behalf of Abimelech and his household was heard.

The incident closes with the beautiful spectacle of the Philistine king of Gerar and the father of the faithful acting appropriately in the presence of God. The obvious lesson from this passage is that repentance restores us in God’s sight and when it takes place it shows itself on the path of grace on which hostilities are removed, previous mistakes are forgiven, expressions of kindness are displayed, divinely-given roles are acknowledged, and the future once again is bright. Their friendship would continue to develop as later chapters in Genesis will show.

And we should note the time when all this took place. In verse 8, Moses stresses that Abimelech rose early in the morning and revealed the problem to his people. When is the best time to repent? As soon as possible.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Lot Loses the Lot (Genesis 19)

The story of Lot is a story of personal tragedy. Peter makes clear that Lot was a pious man (2 Peter 2:7-8). And we have to keep that fact in mind as we read Genesis 19.

Lot had become a prominent citizen in Sodom. We are not told in what way he attained this position. No doubt his wealth marked him out as an important man, suitable for such a role. Perhaps he took the position in order to try and change the awful behaviour of the citizens.

The angels inform Lot of their mission and urge him to bring his relatives out of the town. Lot realises that things are serious and does so, but his words fall on deaf ears. While we cannot say if Lot had failed to warn them previously, we can say that if he had not done so regularly, he could not expect to be taken seriously when he began suddenly to do so. People have to see how the knowledge affects us before they will take our words seriously. It is hard to tell people about the destruction of a place if all they can see normally is how eager we are to live in it with them.

The angels instruct Lot to go as far away as possible from the place of judgement (v. 17). Lot did not think he could reach the hills without being affected by it, so he asked if they could go to another city instead, which was granted to him.

The moment that Lot reached Zoar the judgement fell. What were the men of Sodom doing at that moment? Jesus says that they were engaged in ordinary activities: ‘Likewise, just as it was in the days of Lot – they were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, but on the day when Lot went out from Sodom, fire and sulphur rained from heaven and destroyed them all – so will it be on the day when the Son of Man is revealed’ (Luke 17:28-30).

Moses gives further details about what happened to Lot. Tricked by his daughters, he becomes the ancestors of two tribes – Moab and Ammon – that were to be hostile enemies of Israel for centuries. What a legacy for a believer to leave! And it had all began when he looked covetously on the plain of Sodom and decided to go and live there.

I suppose the question should be asked, ‘Why did he not go and live with Abraham’ If he had done so, this terrible pair of incidents and their consequences would not have occurred. Perhaps it was embarrassment that he had made mistakes. Or maybe he found it hard to look in the face a relative who had put God first.

Fortunately, Lot is in heaven and if we go there at the end of our days we will see him made perfect in holiness, enjoying the glory of God, and sharing the resurrection victory of Christ. He is an example of the wonder of the mercy of God. It is not for us to throw stones at Lot; instead we should ask God to keep us from making similar spiritual mistakes and making a mess of our lives.