Forward Thinkers

At the end Luke chapter 9, just after Jesus has suffered rejection from some Samaritans and just prior to Him commissioning 72 disciples to expand His Kingdom, we have some pretty confronting interactions between Jesus and three of His would-be followers. Today I just want to hone in on the third.

Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” – Luke 9:61-62 ESV

To me, this man’s request seems quite reasonable, commendable even. After all, he just wants to go and say goodbye to the members of his household before leaving them behind to follow Jesus. I mean, what could be the harm? Although, I guess his close relatives might try to talk him out of it. “Just how well do you know this Jesus character anyway?” So Jesus’ response can seem complementary or harsh, depending on whether you decide that this man is a shining beacon or a cautionary tale. In any case Jesus’ point is not lost.

We can all imagine a farmer attempting to guide a plow while getting distracted by something behind him. We can also picture the crooked furrow he would leave behind and we can even anticipate the knock on effect of added difficulty for sowing and reaping. Or to modernise the image a bit, looking in the rear view mirror is handy when you are backing up your car but obsessing with it when you are moving forward is bound to end in disaster. Working for God’s kingdom demands we focus our attention on what is ahead, not on what lies behind.

Sadly, for some of us, following Jesus will mean separation or even estrangement from our families, though it is rare in western civilisation. Now that may seem like too steep a cost but we must weigh it against what Jesus says elsewhere, “Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life” (Matthew 19:29). That is an exceptional return on your investment. A hundred times what you’ve given up, and life without end.

The passage in Luke calls to mind someone who infamously turned back in the Old Testament. She is slighted in the history of God’s people where her is name omitted. She is known only as “Lot’s wife” in Genesis 19. After being warned specifically not to look back or even stop (she was meant to be fleeing God’s judgment) she was drawn back to the fleeting pleasures of this life which incur God’s wrath. Her judgment was instantaneous as she was transformed into a pillar of salt. Which, I’m quietly confident, isn’t what Jesus had in mind when he said to be salt and light. All of us, then, are called to leave behind our old sinful way of life, of which we should be ashamed, but how does Jesus wants us to move God’s kingdom forward exactly? I think the answer comes just a couple verses later in Luke:

And he said to [his disciples], “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. – Luke 10:2

Earnest prayer to the Lord of the harvest. Primarily we move God’s kingdom forward on our knees. So, let’s pray.

Father, we eagerly ask You to propel forward-focused workers into Your harvest field. We are ashamed of our sin that provokes Your wrath and we thank You for Jesus who bore Your anger in order to shield us. Help us leave behind everything, including our sin, that prevents us from following Jesus wholeheartedly and may we never look back. When we have Christ we are more than compensated for anything we have to give up. We seek first Your Kingdom, “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, pressing on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14).

Top Ten

It is no coincidence that the greatest countries in the world to live in are those most heavily influenced by Judeo-Christian values. In mercy and judgment, God gifted His people Israel with one commandment for each of the ten plagues He severely chastised Egypt with (Exodus 7-12).

And God spoke all these words, saying,
“I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
“You shall have no other gods before me.
“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.
“You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.
“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labour, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
“Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.
“You shall not murder.
“You shall not commit adultery.
“You shall not steal.
“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.
“You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbour’s.” – Exodus 20:1-17 ESV

These rules for living have never been improved upon, although Jesus distilled them down to just two guidelines, borrowed from the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:18):

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” – Matthew 22:37b-40

Lord, to cherish You above all else is to abide by Your first four commandments, and to love all others as much as we love ourselves will prevent us from transgressing the remaining six. Thank You Jesus that when You walked this earth You upheld the Law and the Prophets in perfection, that when we trust in You You clothe us in Your right standing before God. By Your Spirit, enable us to please You by keeping Your commands, and so stand out as a source of good in this world.

The Significance of Seven

Of all the numbers that are significant in the Bible, ‘seven’ is arguably the most important. As a number symbolising fullness, completion or perfection, many consider ‘seven’ to be God’s number. This goes some way in explaining why the number of the beast (and of a man) is 666, a constant falling short of God and His perfection (Revelation 13:18).

For Jews, the seventh day of the week was to be set aside for contemplating God. They were, as an entire nation, to take a break from the ordinary humdrum routine of the working week to reflect on their history, the fact that God flexed His muscle and released them from slavery in Egypt in spectacular fashion.

“‘Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter or your male servant or your female servant, or your ox or your donkey or any of your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.” – Deuteronomy 5:12-15 ESV

Presumably in order to reinforce this sabbath teaching, the Genesis creation account is fashioned around a seven-day week, with God Himself upholding the pattern of resting on the seventh day after creating everything in six days. This seventh day is notably described without “evening and … morning” which rounds out each of the previous six days. This points us inexorably towards God’s future eternal rest in Heaven.

Seven also features in the New Testament, perhaps nowhere as prominent as in Revelation with seven churches; seven spirits; a scroll with seven seals; seven trumpets; and seven angels with seven plagues in seven bowls. Jesus, when quizzed by Peter, urged us to forgive a brother not seven but seventy-seven times (Matthew 18:21-22). There were seven baskets of leftovers after Jesus fed the 4000 from seven loaves of bread and a few small fish, indicative of a God of abundance (Matthew 15:32-38).

Father, You are perfect and complete, when we have Jesus we lack nothing. Thanks that Jesus has procured for us Your rest without end. Help us offer forgiveness as freely as You’ve offered us in Christ, releasing us from our bondage to sin in spectacular fashion by the cross. Thanks for not being a miser, You did not even withhold from us Your only Son, You treat us with such lavish abundance.

Three Days

Even though Jesus had just openly healed a man with a withered hand, right in their religious gathering place no less (Matthew 12:9-14), the upper echelons of Jewish society demanded Jesus prove His credentials as the Messiah by performing a miracle on cue.

Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered [Jesus], saying, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. (Matthew 12:38-40 ESV)

The only proof anyone needs that Jesus is the long awaited ‘Son of David’ — our rightful King — is that He was resurrected after three days in the grave. It took Jesus three days to change the world. In Jesus we vicariously make the arduous three day trek out of the clutches of the tyranny of slavery.

Then [Moses and Aaron] said [to Pharaoh], “The God of the Hebrews has met with us. Please let us go a three days’ journey into the wilderness that we may sacrifice to the LORD our God, lest he fall upon us with pestilence or with the sword.” (Exodus 5:3)

Father, we are sorry for being evil and adulterous, for wanting You to perform for us. Thank You that in Jesus we encounter You. His sacrifice released us from slavery to sin and brings us to Your holy mountain, into Your presence. In Jesus we escape Your judgment.

One and Three Are One

Faulty math? Despite accusations to the contrary, Christianity is monotheistic. That is, on the point that ‘there is only one God,’ Christianity, Islam and Judaism are all in agreement. This claim accompanies the first and greatest commandment in the Hebrew Scriptures:

Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” — Deuteronomy 6:4-5 (ESV)

The Koran often forbids the joining of gods with God. Yet Christianity maintains that Yahweh the Father, Christ Jesus the Son and the Holy Spirit are all God. Math would dictate that that makes three gods. Enter the profound mystery of the doctrine of the Trinity. Three, yet one. The New Testament, perhaps most clearly, demonstrates this doctrine in Jesus’ instructions to His disciples in Matthew 28:19,

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,”

The keen observer will note the intentionality in Jesus using the singular “name,” as opposed to “names,” for the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, indicating their unity. The inseparable oneness of the Father and the Son can also be observed in John 10.

Father, Son and Spirit, You are our One God. May our love for You be undivided and without peer, may we love You with all our being. Thank You Jesus, for paving the way (via the cross) to bring us into the mysterious bond of unity between You and Your Father. By Your Spirit, help us draw others into this deeply intimate relationship.

Be Ashamed

After punishment at the hands of foreigners, God has repatriated the Jews of the Southern Kingdom (Judah) and they are floored as they rediscover God’s Word, realising they come up short.

Then all who trembled at the words of the God of Israel, because of the faithlessness of the returned exiles, gathered around me while I sat appalled until the evening sacrifice. And at the evening sacrifice I rose from my fasting, with my garment and my cloak torn, and fell upon my knees and spread out my hands to the LORD my God, saying: “O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift my face to you, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens. From the days of our fathers to this day we have been in great guilt. And for our iniquities we, our kings, and our priests have been given into the hand of the kings of the lands, to the sword, to captivity, to plundering, and to utter shame, as it is today. But now for a brief moment favor has been shown by the LORD our God, to leave us a remnant and to give us a secure hold within his holy place, that our God may brighten our eyes and grant us a little reviving in our slavery. For we are slaves. Yet our God has not forsaken us in our slavery, but has extended to us his steadfast love before the kings of Persia, to grant us some reviving to set up the house of our God, to repair its ruins, and to give us protection in Judea and Jerusalem. — Ezra 9:4-9 ESV

We gain nothing but shame and death when we fall short of God’s expectations:

For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. — Romans 6:20-23 ESV

Father, teach us to tremble at Your Word. We gather together as those who recognise that we have acted faithlessly and are ashamed at having missed the mark. Thanks for Jesus, who has set us free from our slavery to sin. Help us, by Your Spirit, to live as Your slaves and so reap life eternal in the Christ.

Get Rid of Distractions

A variety of things can detract from purity of worship, holding us back from seeking Yahweh alone and so experiencing His peace.

And Asa did what was good and right in the eyes of the LORD his God. He took away the foreign altars and the high places and broke down the pillars and cut down the Asherim and commanded Judah to seek the LORD, the God of their fathers, and to keep the law and the commandment. He also took out of all the cities of Judah the high places and the incense altars. And the kingdom had rest under him. — 2 Chronicles 14:2-5 (ESV)

Asa was, rightfully, ruthless in rooting out idols and purging them from the consciousness of Judah. Foreign religions had exerted their influence on the kingdom which retained God’s temple. Asa sought to put things back on track. I am sorry to say that many Christians these days dabble in the occult, consulting with clairvoyants or star signs and the like. Others give priority to God’s good gifts, elevating them above Christ. Even family, which is now so highly prized, must not complete with Christ for our affections. Jesus said:

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. — Matthew 10:37 ESV

Father, please help us put away all the distractions that prevent us from seeking You wholeheartedly and loving Christ, our Saviour and Lord, more than all else. May we know your rest.

God Sees Our Tears

Hezekiah was looking down the barrel of terminal illness. His future sealed, or so it seemed. . .

In those days Hezekiah became sick and was at the point of death. And Isaiah the prophet the son of Amoz came to him and said to him, “Thus says the LORD, ‘Set your house in order, for you shall die; you shall not recover.'” Then Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed to the LORD, saying, “Now, O LORD, please remember how I have walked before you in faithfulness and with a whole heart, and have done what is good in your sight.” And Hezekiah wept bitterly. And before Isaiah had gone out of the middle court, the word of the LORD came to him: “Turn back, and say to Hezekiah the leader of my people, Thus says the LORD, the God of David your father: I have heard your prayer; I have seen your tears. Behold, I will heal you. On the third day you shall go up to the house of the LORD, and I will add fifteen years to your life. I will deliver you and this city out of the hand of the king of Assyria, and I will defend this city for my own sake and for my servant David’s sake.” — 2 Kings 20:1-6 (ESV)

Unlike Hezekiah, I wouldn’t like to appeal to God on the basis of my performance, but there you have it. While Hezekiah was in distress on his deathbed he poured out his heart to Yahweh and, amazingly, God changed His mind and miraculously intervened. God is not distant and disinterested, rather God is intimately involved, hanging on our every word. God is concerned about our wellbeing. Our tears do not fall to the ground unnoticed. God hears. God sees. God cares. God acts.

“Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.” (1 Peter 5:6-7 ESV)

Father, You oppose the proud but give grace to the humble, therefore we weep bitterly before You at our unworthiness. By Your Spirit help us to walk with You, trusting wholeheartedly in Your servant Jesus, through whom we obtain Your deliverance. Will You heal us now? or must we wait till we go up to Your eternal abode for Your healing hand?

Assurance In Prayer

Be assured: God hears us. Anytime. Anywhere. Whatever the content. Provided we trust in Jesus (meaning ‘God saves’), the name that is above all names. God hears us as if Jesus—His very own Son—were talking to Him. In Jesus we also have access to life eternal.

I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life. And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him. If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life—to those who commit sins that do not lead to death. There is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that. — 1 John 5:13-16 (ESV)

Our requests to God should not be completely self-absorbed but should exhibit our concern for our faith family, especially for those who are struggling. We should intercede on their behalf, that God should restore them to life.

Father, You have blessed us with faith in Your Son who saves us. Thank You that in Jesus we can be sure You hear us and have granted us life forever. Align our prayers with Your will as we assume prayerful responsibility for our faith family, so You can breathe life back into us when we go astray.


Effective Prayer

It is difficult not to drift into a fatalistic view of prayer, where we no longer bother to pray since God has already determined everything that is going to happen. However, the following passage indicates that God acts upon the requests of his children, especially for those whose hands are clean and who are open and honest about their struggles.

Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit. – James 5:13-18

Hezekiah (one of Judah’s good kings) had an extra fifteen years added to his life as a result of prayer. How we live can help influence God’s answer to prayer. None of us are perfect though. Thankfully, we don’t need to rely on our own ability to live right to gain an audience with God. God attributes us with Jesus’ spotless righteousness when we put our trust in Christ, otherwise God would be deaf to our pleas because of our sins. The prayers of the saints will even somehow contribute to initiating God’s judgment on the great and final day.

Father, without Christ You would not hear us. Thanks that, in Jesus, we can approach You. Sorry for our rebellion against You. Give us the humility to make ourselves accountable to one another so You can return us to health. Even though You may not always heal us the way we want You have saved us, and we trust that You will raise us up as You did Christ. As we make efforts to reduce the impurity of our hearts, increase Your responsiveness to our requests.