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Monday, 20 November 2017

Get back to the Maker's Manual!

This is the last of my wee series based on the writings of the Old Testament prophet, Malachi. We may consider ourselves to be indebted to him for underlining the importance of living in obedience to the commands, and principles, of Almighty God. There were those among his contemporaries - as, indeed there are many today - who attempted to achieve happiness and success by ignoring the moral laws that God has built into the universe. But such a way - then as now - was a way of failure and discontentment. 

That begs the question: "What is involved in living responsibly in an age in which moral issues are somewhat vague, and blurred? An age is which, to refer to the apostle Paul, the bugle is definitely giving an indistinct sound (see I Cor. 14:8). An age in which sexual deviants are deferred to at every turn - in spite of the statistical fact that they make up less than 5% of the population. An age in which so-called "foreign aid" goes from the UK to countries that have nuclear and space programmes, and a despicable record on even the most basic of human rights."

May I suggest that it means developing a set of values based on the written Word of God - and sticking to them even when it is difficult, and costly, to do so? In our 'modern' society, it is often easier to conform than to resist. But we are enjoined to "... not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect." (Rom.12:2). We live at a time when it is more comfortable to compromise than to disagree - but the duty of those of us who make the claim to be disciples of Jesus, is to obey God, and follow His principles, regardless of the personal consequences. By the way, if that sounds even remotely hard, or legalistic, let it also be said that God not only raises the standard to great heights - He also provides, through the indwelling Holy Spirit, the power by which we may attain it. 

The fourfold standard that Malachi raised, almost 2,500 years ago, surely needs to be raised again today. Until we learn to honour God as God; until we make up our minds to expound, and explain, in our congregations and fellowships the importance of walking in His ways; until we resist the pressures of today's society and view marriage as a solemn and binding relationship between one man and one woman; until we recognise that our material possessions are not ours to own, but ours to use; we will remain, and become increasingly, spiritually impoverished and indolent. The time has come - indeed, it may be said to be long past - for disciples of Jesus to have our vision refocused. This can happen, only when we get back to the Bible - the Maker's Manual.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

It's about the money, of course!

The previous three posts have been about the word off YHWH to His people, the Children of Israel, through His prophet Malachi - and some lessons that we may learn for our own situations today, especially if we claim to be disciples of the Lord Jesus, the Christ.

The last of YHWH's criticisms concerned the failure of the people to give to Him their tithes and offerings. Indeed, He had a name for such people - he called them "robbers"! "Will man rob God? Yet you are robbing Me. But you say, ‘How are we robbing You?’ In your tithes and offerings." (3:8).

As its Creator, everything that exists belongs to God. He is the proprietor; we are the stewards. The giving of the tithe (one-tenth of our income) is an acknowledgement of His ownership over all that we have - including the other nine-tenths of our income! I recall, very clearly, when I was a student at the Bible Training Institute in Glasgow, over fifty years ago, the then Superintendent of the Tent Hall - I think that his name was Stanley Collins - came to speak to the student body. The topic he chose was "Tithing"! It was the day that I determined to adopt this Old Testament practice - even although he pointed out that some of us might think that being Bible College students meant that we were giving greatly to the Lord's work, and that with College fees to pay, most of us had little spare cash with which to play about! "You might be given £1 towards your College fees, and think that that was okay. But 2 shillings of that £1 is the Lord's, and should be given directly to His work outwith your College courses. The other 18 shillings may go towards your fees!"

There are, of course, some disciples of Jesus who claim that tithing, as an Old Testament principle, ought not to be carried over into New Testament teaching on the subject of money. After all, they would claim, we live under grace, not law - and that, of course, is correct. However, tithing is a good place to start with one's giving as it establishes a principle that, when learned, opens up the way to bigger and better things. As a disciple of Jesus who has some awareness of what my salvation cost my Saviour, I do not tithe as a matter of law, but as a response of love!

The tithe, of course, is only the starting point! After that comes the freewill offering! Anyone knows that my tithe (in practice, "our" tithe, as my wife and I tithe together!) is 10% of my income. However, the freewill offering is between me and the Lord! One Christian businessman reportedly commented that "God has prospered me so much - now I want to know how much of God's money I may legitimately keep for myself and my family." That is the New Testament order - "How much of God's money may I legitimately keep for myself?" There are those who give their 10%, and think that the remaining 90% belongs to them. It doesn't! Everything that we have, and are, belongs to Him - and if we are to grow and develop spiritual values, then this is something that we must recognise. 

When, especially in the materialist society in which most of us live, you can let go of all of your possessions and let God have them, life takes on a sense of stewardship. Suddenly, you realise that you are handling something on behalf of Another! That does something to the whole of life - it puts sacredness into the secular. Money becomes a message! Jesus said: "You cannot serve God and mammon." (Matt.6:24); but you may certainly serve God with mammon!

YHWH throws out a challenge to the Children of Israel: "Bring the full tithes into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house; and thereby put Me to the test, says YHWH Sabaoth, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing." (Mal.3:20). This, I suspect, has been interpreted by some disciples of Jesus as a form of financial investment! However, treating it as such is, I believe, a certain way for the principle to fail - and fail utterly! As mentioned above, we must give because of our love for Him Who has given - and continues to give - so much to us.

Have you been robbing God? Perhaps it's time to take a careful look at your finances - and even realise why they may not be as healthy as they might be!

Saturday, 11 November 2017

"I hate divorce!"

The title to this post is in quotation marks because it is a quotation! It is, in fact, the word of YHWH, through His servant and prophet, Malachi, and is the third criticism of the Children of Israel of the time - their failure to uphold the sanctity of their marriage vows. And there are those, even within the church, who think that the Old Testament scriptures are irrelevant!! 

The people, it seems, were no better than the priests at whom we looked in the previous post. They, too, had rejected a solemn agreement given to them by YHWH and, as a result, He had withheld His blessing from them. His message, through Malachi, to those who had broken their marriage vows, was simple, straightforward, and incapable of misunderstanding: "... I hate divorce, says YHWH the God of Israel, and covering one’s garment with violence, says YHWH Sabaoth. So take heed to yourselves and do not be faithless." It is interesting, is it not, that God even equates divorce with violence?!

What, we may wonder, would Malachi say if he were alive today? Statistics for the UK are not up-to-date, but the ONS (Office of National Statistics) estimate that some 40% of UK marriages end in divorce. There was a slight drop a couple of years ago, but I would suggest that that was because of the lower number actually entering into a marriage covenant, choosing instead to cohabit, as cohabitation separation is not included in the statistics.

Now I am aware that the issues relating to divorce are often very complex. However, it must be stated that the God-given pattern is one husband with one wife, for life. This is confirmed by the Lord Jesus, Himself: "And Pharisees came up to Him and tested Him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that He who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.” They said to Him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?” He said to them, “For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery." (Matt.19:3-9).

So, divorce, while hated by Almighty God, is permitted because of the hardness of the hearts of men and women. However, as is so often the case, Jesus takes the matter further by stating that a divorcee who remarries is committing adultery. Not only that, but it is, effectively, perpetual adultery! If I have a "one-night-stand", or even an affair that lasts for many months I am, as a married man, committing adultery. However, like the prodigal son, I may "come to my senses" and if I confess my sin to Father God, and am truly repentant, then I may receive His forgiveness. However, if I divorce my wife, and enter into a second marriage relationship, only a life of celibacy could stop me committing adultery on a regular basis!

I would suggest that if we saw divorce as God sees it, then we would approach marriage problems with a good deal more determination to resolve them than many appear to do at present. Human nature is such that when the initial romance - the "being in love" - begins to fade in a marriage, it is all too easy to develop a roving eye, and a flirtatious attitude, and so slip into an adulterous relationship. May I emphasise that I am not judging anyone! Jesus also made it clear "... that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart." (Matt.5:28) and, by that standard I, like any red-blooded, heterosexual male, am a serial adulterer! However, the thought is not, in fact, as bad as the deed in God's eyes! Jesus made that point, and others, to show some Pharisees that, just because they did not physically commit certain sins, did not mean that they were sinless!

Divorce and "remarriage" also have a strong bearing on those who would be in leadership within the church - read I Timothy 3: 1-13; Titus 1:5-9. However, if we choose God's ways of faithfulness, and loyalty, then we shall experience His blessing on our marriages. In an age in which there is such an acceptance of divorce as the only viable solution to marital problems (and I reiterate, that I am aware that the issues relating to divorce are often very complex) let those of us who claim to be the adopted children of the heavenly Father, resist such a pressure with all of the energy available to us; and seek to resolve any marital problems by the Word of God, and in the power of God the Holy Spirit. Let us also encourage others to be faithful to their marriage vows, and to seek His help in any difficulty.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Doing it His way; and a massacre!

In the previous post, I mentioned that the Old Testament prophet, Malachi, had four main criticisms of the Children of Israel. The second of these was that they had failed to keep the covenant into which Almighty God had entered with them. 

"For the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and men should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of YHWH SabaothBut you have turned aside from the way; you have caused many to stumble by your instruction; you have corrupted the covenant of Levi, says YHWH Sabaoth, ..." (2:7-8).

The covenant to which he refers was a covenant that YHWH had made, with the priests, through Levi (see Numbers 25. Phineas was a descendant of Levi. This is "another example of the Heb. concept of 'corporate personality'; Levi represents the 'tribe of Levi' of the Levites . . ." (New International Bible Commentary. Zondervan), that they would teach the people, accurately and faithfully, all aspects of the divine law. This they had patently failed to do, and so Malachi faces them with this challenging and strong indictment.

However, I would contend that we are experiencing a similar situation in the church in the 21st century (and before!). In an article that I had published, recently, I stated: "Surely the church is intended to be a prophetic voice to the nation – not a subservient reflection of the social norms that, sadly, are so much at odds with the Gospel of our Lord Jesus, the Christ! Is it not the case that the established churches that are seeking to emulate society ... .... are slowly dying as they forsake the Word on which they should be founding their message to mankind?" One friend, here in France, often makes the point that the problem in the church is one of ignorance (in the correct definition of the word!) of the Word of God, and I believe that he is absolutely correct. But who is to blame? Surely it is those who have been charged with delivering, and explaining, that Word of God. Is it really being expounded in  the way in which it ought to be?

Now, of course, there are notable exceptions, and I could rhyme off a list of congregations/ fellowships in Scotland in which the Word is faithfully preached, without the addition of 'gimmicks'! However, there are far too many places in which the Word of God is so diluted, diminished, denigrated, denied, and even destroyed, that people leave having heard no divine challenge; no word from God; no revelation from heaven. We may have a semi-professional worship team (or a fine choir and an expensive organ); we may have hearty congregational singing; we may have our programmes to help the poor and downtrodden; we may have regular visiting of the sick; we may have a hundred-and-one wonderful programmes; but if we have no sound Biblical exposition and teaching, then our 'worship services' are a hollow mockery, and an empty pantomime!

I am convinced that, if Malachi were alive today, he would be thundering into the ears of the 'spiritual leadership' of our nations: "... you have turned aside from the way; you have caused many to stumble by your instruction; ..." (v.8). In that article already mentioned, I also wrote that when I consider "... the church adapting its beliefs and practices to conform with the current social zeitgeist, I wonder what Paul would think! That is the Paul who, under the inspiration of God the Holy Spirit, enjoined that we “be not conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Rom.12:2; emphasis added)."

Yesterday, in Texas, a young man deliberately murdered 26 people, and left another 27 seriously wounded in First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs. This was no Muslim jihadist. This was no "gun-toting redneck". This was, it would appear, a young man who once taught briefly on a Christian vacation camp, but who had become a militant atheist. It begs the question - that doesn't apply only to the USoA - "What is happening to the teaching ministry in today's church?" Do our young people grasp the full meaning and implication of the Christian faith? Are they being shown how to live in accordance with the values revealed in the written Word of God? Do we provide them with clear Biblical instruction on how to cope with sexual permissiveness, and deviance; problems of authority; matters of morality?

Surely it is time that many in the church - and particularly in its leadership - became less concerned about changing the Gospel to suit society, and started to preach the Gospel that society might be changed! Paul's Holy Spirit inspired words are as relevant today, as ever they have been! It's time that we did it His way!

Friday, 3 November 2017

Only the best is good enough!

Throughout my increasingly long life, I have often been informed - in a negatively critical manner - that I am a "perfectionist"! I was reminded of that when I read these words, in a blog from David Robertson: "... please send us your best – no other sacrifice is good enough for the Lord."

The reason why those words resonated with me is that it is in that area that I willingly plead "Guilty", as charged. The Old Testament prophet, Malachi (he whose book is the final one in translations from the Hebrew), had something to say about the subject. The literal translation of his name is "my messenger", and his ministry consisted of calling God's people - the Children of Israel - back to their spiritual responsibilities, and to a fresh commitment.

Malachi wrote his prophetic message about 450 B.C., at the time when the Children of Israel had returned to the land of Judah, in Canaan, and had succeeded in rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem. However, once this had been achieved the people, as had happened so often before in their long history, had become backslidden and idolatrous. Malachi is the prophet, chosen and called by YHWH (the LORD) to reawaken them, and to challenge them to live up to their God-given responsibilities as the Chosen People.

The prophet criticises the people in four main areas, the first of which was their failure to put God first in their list of priorities. They had begun to take Him for granted, and had lost their sense of spiritual need. Worst of all, it was the priests - those who should have been teaching the people and ensuring that they kept the Torah (which is much more than "Law" in our modern, Western, sense) - who were most guilty! Malachi's accusation is specific: "A son honours his father, and a servant his master. If then I am a Father, where is My honour? And if I am a Master, where is My fear? says YHWH Sabaoth (the Lord of hosts) to you, O priests, who despise My Name." (1:6). He goes on to make the accusation even more specific by pointing out that the priests, instead of offering unblemished animals for sacrifice, were palming off, on the Almighty, cheap and worthless beasts. "You say, ‘How have we despised Thy Name?’  By offering polluted food upon My altar. And you say, ‘How have we polluted it?’ By thinking that YHWH's table may be despised.  When you offer blind animals in sacrifice, is that no evil? And when you offer those that are lame or sick, is that no evil? Present that to your governor; will he be pleased with you or show you favour? says YHWH Sabaoth." (1:6-8).

Today, of course, animal sacrifices are unnecessary - certainly for disciples of Jesus whose voluntary death has fully paid the penalty for our sin. We are still obliged, however, to honour Almighty God as Father and Master. If we fail to do so, and neglect to give Him His due - in time, money, energy, talents, concerns - then we are no different from those priests from 2,500 years ago. If we are, indeed, disciples of Jesus, this may be the very moment in which we should re-establish our priorities! 

At the end of this section - what we know as the first chapter of the prophecy - are these words of YHWH: "Cursed be the cheat who has a male in his flock, and vows it, and yet sacrifices to YHWH what is blemished; ..." (v.14; emphasis added). A man who offered an unfit sacrifice in Old Testament times was referred to, by Almighty God, as a 'cheat'! We, too, fall into this category when we refuse, or fail, to give Him our best. As David Robertson said: "- no other sacrifice is good enough for the Lord."