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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.

Monday, 30 September 2013

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted (Matthew 5:4)

At first glance, this beatitude seems almost a contradiction (‘happy are they that mourn’). Nevertheless, to have the kind of mourning that is specified here is indeed to be blessed. It is blessed because this is a God-given mourning and because the spiritual mourner receives God-given comfort.

The word for mourn that Jesus uses here is a very strong word; it is the term that was normally associated with grieving for loss of loved ones. So Jesus is not describing a shallow response to the causes of spiritual mourning. Nor is Jesus referring to a short time of mourning, as if it was an attitude that was experienced occasionally; in the beatitudes he is detailing features that are to be continually present in the outlook of his people.

Jesus does not mean that Christians should be morose, always marked by a long face and negative responses to pleasure. Nor is it a kind of self-pity that permanently feels sorry for oneself. Further, this spiritual mourning is to be distinguished from natural regret, which occurs, for example, when a person fails to achieve a particular goal. And it is not the same as remorse, which many a person can have because of wrong actions.

Why do Christians mourn?
Here are a few reasons. One is the presence of personal sin in their hearts. A second is the many problems within Christ’s church. Third, there is the complex nature of the trials God sends their way in providence. Fourth, there is the sinfulness of society, in which God is dishonoured and his requirements ignored. Fifth, there is within Christians a longing for the perfection of heaven and they sigh for that great day.

Perhaps the most profound experience of spiritual mourning occurs when they contrast themselves with God’s perfection. Isaiah experienced this during a time of worship (Isa. 6). Peter also experienced it after he observed one of the miracles of Jesus (Luke 5:8). Both Isaiah and Peter saw the beauty and power of God and realised that they were sinful in comparison.

How are they comforted?
There are several ways by which God brings comfort to his people. One is to remind them of the great and precious promises he has given to them. A second is by giving a sense of his presence at different times. A third way comes through other Christians. And a fourth method is for him to show them their prospects – the day will soon come when God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes and they shall find themselves in the country where  ‘there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away’ (Rev. 21:4).

Sunday, 29 September 2013

Blessed are the poor in spirit (Matthew 5:3)

The first Beatitude is, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’ Why is it mentioned first in the list? Probably because it is both the basic outlook and the goal of Christian living. Poverty of spirit does not refer to poverty in spirituality or poverty in the experience of God’s grace. Rather it refers to humility. Poverty of spirit is total and ongoing dependence on God.

A person becomes humble when he realises that he has an indwelling problem that is beyond his power to overcome, and which is beyond the combined ability of all other humans to solve. Instead only God can deal with the problem, which is a sinful heart. This sense of indwelling sin causes a person to be in a permanent state of repentance.

How do we maintain an outlook that is poor in spirit? Not by comparing ourselves with others but by considering the greatness and perfection of God. Reflecting on his power and holiness causes us to see our inadequacy and our sinfulness. But humility also comes by meditating on the grace of God, for the gospel brings hope into what would otherwise be a situation of despair.

Poverty of spirit also comes by meditating on the person of Christ. He was sinless, and did not have the effects of sin that afflict us. Yet he was humble in his response to his Father’s call to die on the cross on behalf of his people. He is still humble today, although exalted to the highest place in heaven, for there he possesses the fruit of the Spirit to the full. The Saviour’s humanity is proof that humility is not dependent on circumstances, because whether on the cross or in the glory of heaven he is humble.

Jesus encouraged his disciples by reminding them that the humble possess the resources of the kingdom of heaven. If we imagine a poor person in Britain being told that all the wealth of the Bank of England was his to use, that all the strength of the British armed forces was his to protect him, that all the resources of the National Health Service was there to help him, we would have a faint picture of what it means to possess the kingdom of heaven.

All the resources of heaven are the believer’s to use in becoming like Christ: this includes the work of the Holy Spirit, the commands and the promises of the Bible, and fellowship with the Father who has given each of his children the right to all the privileges of his family. The power of heaven is engaged in our defence, which includes the effective intercession of Christ and the ministry of angels sent by him to defend us. The healing of heaven is there for our sin-affected souls.

These blessings, and many more, are the Christian’s help. But they are only given to the humble. This shows not only the sinfulness of pride but also the stupidity of pride. Self-sufficiency is the biggest barrier to a fruitful Christian life whereas humility and poverty of spirit is a self-emptying that leads to fullness from God.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Getting nearer the truth (Genesis 43)

Eventually, Jacob’s family ran out of food and they had to return to Egypt to buy more. They were still afraid of re-meeting Joseph, but desperation forced them to go. Jacob was aware of what they needed and that was divine mercy, which is an important requirement when responding to God’s providence.

Jacob was also determined to act honestly, as seen in his instruction to his sons that they take sufficient money to pay for the previous supply of grain as well as purchasing new supplies. His determination reminds us that honesty must always mark our response to situations and reveals a marvellous change in the character of Jacob himself.

The brothers still found it impossible to understand the kindness of Joseph despite the assurances that they did not need to pay for the previous supply of grain. Nor did they understand the goodness shown to them as a family when they were asked to participate in a meal at Joseph’s house. They still thought he was going to punish them for non-payment. Yesterday we saw that a failure to confess their sin had blinded them spiritually. Since they persisted in hiding their sin, their blindness continued.

Nor were they able to respond appropriately to his knowledge of them when he sat them in order of age at the table. And they could not see why he arranged for Benjamin, his full brother, to receive much more than the others. Even common sense should have told them that only Joseph would know these details and treat Benjamin so differently. If they had taken the opportunity to confess their sin to Joseph, then they would have been able to make sense of his knowledge and understand his actions.

Their failure illustrates what happens to us when we don’t confess our sins to God. We become frightened of his knowledge of us and perplexed by what he arranges for us out of his knowledge. If we confess our sins, we will rejoice in knowing that he forgives us and works for our good.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Lying in the Day of Trouble (Genesis 42)

Sometimes we meet a person we have not seen for a long time. Usually the meeting is pleasant, but sometimes it can trigger unpleasant memories of situations we had forgotten about. We may think that is the type of situation that is described in Genesis 42. Yet as we read it we see one major difference. The brothers of Joseph had been unable to forget that they had sold him into slavery.

We can see this was the case by their response to Joseph’s decision to arrest them for spying. ‘Then they said to one another, “In truth we are guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the distress of his soul, when he begged us and we did not listen. That is why this distress has come upon us.” And Reuben answered them, “Did I not tell you not to sin against the boy? But you did not listen. So now there comes a reckoning for his blood.”’

Of course, we are not surprised that they were unable to forget what they had done – after all, their decision to sell Joseph was a most callous one. Their conscience would have reminded them continually of their cruel behaviour. Perhaps they imagined that there was no way by which they could be forgiven.

Yet they were ignorant of the fact that the one who could forgive them was with them and was fully aware of their dilemma. Joseph could have forgiven them at that moment, but he was also aware of the falsehood they were claiming when they claimed to be honest men. They found themselves claiming something that he, of all people, knew was totally false. Sometimes we do this and forget that God knows we are not telling the whole truth, and a failure to do so deprives us of forgiveness.

Joseph, despite their false claims, still does them good when he gives them back the money they had used to buy grain. But they could not see that he was being good to them. Instead everything seemed to be getting more and more confusing. Yet if they had told the truth to Joseph, they would have received his forgiveness and would then understand why he had given them their grain without price. This situation can be like what happens to us when we fail to confess the truth about ourselves – life becomes confusing and we cannot recognise God’s grace.

Their failure to confess also meant that what should have been a joyful arrival home became instead a difficulty for the future. If they had confessed their fault, then they would be able to tell their father about Joseph and what he could do for them. But because they continued to hide their sin, they concluded that the future was threatening, and caused their father to maintain a pessimistic outlook. Failure to confess our sins also blinds us to what God can do for us in the future.

Monday, 2 September 2013

Joseph enacts God's will (Genesis 41:37-57)

A change of circumstances can sometimes cause Christians to reduce their commitment to obeying God's will. They put the demands of their new situations before the requirements that Jesus clearly makes of them. This happens occasionally in circumstances in which they are given more responsibilities in their careers as they climb the ladder of promotion and success. Of course, many Christians retain their devotion to Jesus no matter how high they go.

If there ever was a believer whom one might suspect would find new responsibilities very demanding on his time it was Joseph. Overnight he had been moved from prison to the position of second in command in the country. He now had great political and military power. So what did he do with it? He used this power to respond exactly to what God had revealed about the years of plenty and the years of harvest. His heart and mind remained submissive to the revealed will of God.

Joseph also found himself in an arranged marriage imposed by Pharaoh and the religious hierarchy. There must have been pressures there for him to adjust his commitment to God (such as in him receiving a new name from Pharaoh and from his wife's religious connections). Yet we can see from the names that Joseph gave his children that he remained conscious of God's providential control of his life. The names that he gave them indicate that his faith ruled in his home. 

Joseph did not let his past experiences hinder him in the present (as can be deduced from the meaning of the name Manasseh). Instead he saw them as part of God's preparation of him for his role. Nor did he assume that his living in a pagan environment would prevent him experiencing God's ongoing blessing (as can be deduced from the meaning of the name Ephraim).

How was Joseph able to do this? The answer is very simple - he consistently put God first in his life.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

The Tide Turns for Joseph (Genesis 41)

Eventually, the time came for Joseph to begin to ascend. Not only was the actual timing in the Lord's hand, so was the individual he would use to bring it about. It was no more difficult for the Lord to use Pharaoh than it is for him to use anyone. Pharaoh was the most powerful human in the world at that time, but he was still under the control of God. This is a reminder that the most unlikely ruler can be used by God to further his kingdom.

Not only was the Lord able to use Pharaoh when restoring Joseph, he was also able to silence all his potential rivals at one go. The dreams that troubled Pharaoh silenced his advisers to such an extent that they would not even venture a guess. From one point of view, this response was strange because, since Pharaoh did not know the meaning of his dreams, they could have suggested anything to him. But God's Word has the power to silence people.

Moreover, the Lord can stimulate people's memories and do it in such a way that they confess their faults. The cupbearer did not have to reveal his sin in forgetting Joseph. All he had to say was that Joseph had helped him in the prison. Yet he publicly confessed the wrong he had done to Joseph. The power of God's message spoke to the heart of the cupbearer.

Pharaoh was very impressed by Joseph's dignified explanation and application of God's message. Joseph stressed clearly the sovereignty of God and therefore did not draw attention to himself. The striking fact about Joseph is that despite his years in obscurity he was ready to speak to the sovereign. I suspect he could speak so appropriately to the earthly ruler because he was accustomed to speaking to the heavenly Sovereign.