Peter Holloway

With God it’s Personal

How can I give you up, O Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?

Hosea 11:8

The prophet Hosea is famous for God’s command to marry and pursue a faithless wife. Although it’s doubtful that Gomer was a prostitute, in many ways she was worse – she was faithless for no personal gain, she offered herself to others for personal satisfaction, not financial gain. She pursued her course with such determination that eventually she had no choice but to be redeemed, bought back by Hosea. Her adultery had brought her to slavery.

Why did God choose this devastating path for Hosea? Because it demonstrated more than anything the relationship between God and man, God and the Church. Just consider the implications of the instruction in Ephesians for a man to love his wife as Christ loved the Church – this mystery is profound.

I believe that very often in our well intentioned determination to ascribe to God all that he is we actually take away from him that which makes him personal. I understand that our emotions, our feelings are fallen and are often laden with sin. But joy, hope, love also contain an emotional element. We are made in God’s image, and I believe that our feelings, as a part of our whole being are part of that image. I need to be careful here not to ascribe to God passing whims or mindless anger, but the other error is equally dangerous – God is a God of love, and if that love is impersonal we are tending towards the error of deism – a pervasive but impersonal deity.

Take a look at the language God uses through Hosea. It is the language of the betrayed lover, the one who has loved and received back faithlessness. Just look at how often God says: but I.

11:3,4 Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up by their arms, I led them with arms of kindness.

13:4,5 But I am the Lord your God … It was I who knew you in the wilderness

14:8 It is I who answer and look after you.

There is incredible tenderness in the words of 11:8 – How can I give you up? How can I hand you over? This is the language of a God who loves, who in anger at apostasy will judge, but in true personal love will bring back and restore.

Israel had sinned deeply, repeatedly, determinedly and their judgement was well deserved, and yet God still offered hope based on his love for his people.

God repeatedly uses the picture of marriage throughout the Bible as an illustration of his love for his Church, because that is the best way for us to understand his love. God is the husband who will seek his straying wife, who will redeem her, pay to free her from the slavery into which she has fallen by her own faithlessness. God is the lover who will forgive. Of course, we understand from the rest of Scripture that the basis for that redemption and forgiveness is the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ in our place to redeem us from our deliberate sin and innate waywardness.

Wherever we are today, no matter how far we have fallen, or strayed; no matter that we have actively pursued other lovers, God is pursuing us, God loves us personally and has personally offered a way back to himself. No matter how deep the hole that you have dug for yourself – understand this – that God still loves you and is still willing to take you back.

Come, let us return to the Lord;
for he has torn us that he may heal us.

Hosea 6:1

I will heal their apostasy;
I will love them freely,
for my anger has turned from them.

Hosea 14:4

Can there be anything more reassuring in the depths of our self made pit than to know that the God of the universe loves us in this way? Whatever path you have taken, please know that a loving, personal God says to you today:

Return, O Israel to the Lord your God,
for you have stumbled because of your iniquity.
Take with you (these) words
and return to the Lord.

Hosea 14:1

When I don’t know how to pray

Then I turned my face to the Lord God, seeking him by prayer.

Daniel 9:3

What was Daniel’s life really like? He was abducted from his homeland as a young man, probably in his early teens. He and his friends were put under the Chief of the Eunuchs – the logical deduction is that as part of Daniel’s incorporation into the retinue of the king of Babylon he and his friends were made eunuchs. Daniel was also a slave. No matter what position he was given it didn’t change the fact that he was owned by the king. Reading between the lines of the book of Daniel he was down more than he was up – at times of crisis he was remembered, at other times he could be completely forgotten. With every change of regime, and Daniel suffered quite a few, Daniel would have lost whatever position he had (apart from the Belshazzar/Darius change, where things went the other way).

Why the background? To show that Daniel didn’t ‘have it good’. He wasn’t recognised by all around him as some giant of faith and righteousness. He was often hated, occasionally recognised, but mostly it was just him and his God. But God recognised him as a giant of faith and righteousness (see Ezekiel 14:14,20)! We need to understand how he came to be who he is while under the constraints that he suffered. We need to know that we have the same access to the same God that Daniel did, if only we would avail of that access.

It’s strange, but I struggle to read books on prayer – they just don’t seem to work. In one sense, it’s such a simple act that I wonder how someone can write a book about it, and yet in another it’s one of the most difficult acts for a believer to truly indulge in. I’m not going to write a book on it, but I do think Daniel exemplifies how we should go about it when we don’t know how to pray.

Daniel was at his wit’s end, he couldn’t see a way out of the domination by a succession of superpowers. He himself was powerless and subject to the whims of those superpowers. Where could he turn, where did he turn?

He turned to God’s word! “I, Daniel, perceived in the books” Daniel 9:2. We’re often told that we should listen before we speak. This is all the more vital with prayer. How can we worship aright if we don’t first remind ourselves of who God is. How can we ask aright if we don’t read of God’s sovereignty and grace. How can we seek God’s plans if we have not first imbibed them into our own souls?

Before we turn to prayer we must turn to the word.

Then, like Daniel, we can turn our faces to the Lord God, seeking him by prayer. Daniel used what he learned in God’s word to direct his prayers. He confessed not only his sin, but that of the nation. Remember that God chose a people, not just persons; we should pray for God’s people as a people. Daniel reminded God of the promises made in his word and asked God to fulfil them. We need to be seekers after God’s plans and purposes so that we can pray that God would fulfil them, we need to understand the times in order to see God’s providence in them and seek the progression of his kingdom.

Most of all, we need to seek God’s glory in our prayers, because in that is everything else made right. Our peace, our prosperity, our salvation and redemption, our future hope are all bound up in the God of this universe bringing about his plans and purposes. As we see the reality of this we will see the part that our lives play in the greatest story of all: God and his people. As we look at the world around us, and the church, which is God’s dwelling place on earth, till he comes, we can honestly pray with Daniel:

Now therefore, O our God, listen to the prayer of your servant and to his pleas for mercy, and for your sake O Lord, make your face to shine upon your sanctuary, which is desolate. Daniel 9:17

The Question is…

The golden image had been raised, the command had gone out, the music played. A sea of humanity as one has rushed to comply, to bow down, to worship this idol, this golden image of a non-god as commanded by their megalomaniac king. Still standing among this wave of bent backs are three young foreigners: exiles, slaves, God fearers. The Bible tells us that these three were right, and the rest, the majority & the leadership were wrong.

The Babylon of Daniel’s day presented the same choice that Christians face in the world today. For many today that choice, to follow Christ, is also, similarly a matter of life and death. For those in more moderate regimes the choice is still one of whether to conform to, to bow down to this world order or to stand.

When all those around us are bowing down to the world, to tradition, to the lie of self importance to anything and anyone but God, the simple, solitary question sticks out just as clearly as did Hannaniah, Mishael and Azariah on that provocative day: will you stand?

These three godly men had no guarantee of God’s deliverance from the fiery furnace. All they had was a clear understanding of right and wrong, of who was God and who was not. They stood because God is God and the golden image was not, and Nebuchadnezzar was not. They stood on principle and in faith that obedience to God and service to God was of more value than their lives. A careful reading of the text would point to Nebuchadnezzar’s arrogant challenge to God as the provocation to God’s miraculous intervention. Many believers before and after have lost their lives in similar situations. This isn’t about miraculous intervention, it’s about standing, regardless of the outcome. The question remains: will you stand?

And yet, if they hadn’t stood they never would have experienced God’s intervention in their lives and in history in such a wonderful way. Not only to be cast into the fiery furnace and survive without even a whiff of smoke, but to be joined in their ‘demise’ by one ‘like a son of the gods’ is more than they could have imagined. The truth of the matter is that many of us will miss out on the extraordinary experience of God because they failed to take a simple stand.

In a godless world with godless leaders and a culture that would drive you to bend the knee to that which is not God the question still remains:

Will you stand?

When I fall, I shall rise

We’re told that there are two certainties in this world: death & taxes. I’d like to add another one to that short list: failure! The person who hasn’t failed has done nothing, which, in a sense is in itself a failure. Failure, in reality has its roots in our own origins. We all come from Adam & Eve who first failed by trusting in their own wisdom and disobeying God.

Since then we have seen a series of spectacular failures by the most godly of men: Noah’s drunkenness, Abram’s passing his wife off as his sister, Moses’ murder, Samuel’s failure to discipline his children, Gideon’s idolatry, Samson, David, Solomon and more – all failed. If even the godliest have failed, then what hope have we?

The thing is, it’s when we rely on our own resources instead of God’s that we find those resources to be completely incapable of doing the job.

  • Adam thought he knew best
  • Noah lived through the most evil of days and then let his guard down when there was no-one but him
  • Abram lacked faith
  • Moses wouldn’t wait for God
  • Samuel failed to learn the obvious lesson from Eli and his sons
  • Gideon let fame go to his head
  • David stopped fighting and started sinning
  • Solomon, for all his wisdom couldn’t keep his mind off the women

At least we know that we’re in good company, but that in itself doesn’t help! It’s not really encouraging to know that we can’t avoid failure, but it’s a starting point.

Henry Ford said “Failure is the opportunity to start again more intelligently”

Churchill saw failure as “Another opportunity to get it right”

The prophet Micah (amongst many others) looked at the failure of his people, Israel, and struggled. Looking around him he saw a hopeless situation. The enemy was much greater than little Israel or Judah could hope to defend against. But, it was more than that.

Woe is me! For I have become
as when the summer fruit has been gathered,
as when the grapes have been gleaned:
there is no cluster to eat,
no first-ripe fig that my soul desires.
The godly has perished from the earth,
and there is no one upright among mankind;
they all lie in wait for blood,
and each hunts the other with a net.

Micah 7:1-2 ESV

From Micah’s perspective it’s over, he’s powerless to help himself, never mind the rest of the nation. He’s run out of energy, power, even the ability to see a way forward. The godly have perished – there’s nothing left in life of any value, there’s no hope!

As Micah looks around him this is all he can see. “Woe is me!” Sound familiar? And yet, as he begins to look beyond himself the tide turns:

But as for me, I will look to the LORD;
I will wait for the God of my salvation;
my God will hear me.

Micah 7:7 ESV

This is what turns the tide, looking to the Lord and not to ourselves. It’s where Adam and Eve first went wrong, it’s where we go wrong – when we fail to look to the Lord.

Here’s the fundamental shift in perspective that we need to make: as for me, I will look to the Lord. Never mind what the world tells you about getting on, realising your dreams, fulfilling your potential – our potential is only ever fully realised as we depend and trust fully in the Lord. Remember that it’s the meek who will inherit the earth.

And so Micah is able to say with conviction:

Rejoice not over me, O my enemy;
when I fall, I shall rise;
when I sit in darkness,
the LORD will be a light to me.

Micah 7:8 ESV

No matter how bleak things look, Micah is sure that when he falls – and he will – he will rise. When he sits in darkness, the Lord will be his light. Whenever we fail, the enemy would convince us that that is the end, that failure is a one way ticket. When you fall, trusting in God, you will rise! God is your light – he has promised that!

Remember when failure comes, and come it will, that it’s not the end, it’s an opportunity, not to dig deeper into our own resources and pull ourselves up by our bootlaces, but it’s a gracious opportunity given by God for us to turn to him in trust as our light, our hope, the ‘lifter of our heads’. He is the one who can and will lift us out of the miry clay and place our feet on the rock.

When I fall, I shall rise – by God’s grace, by trusting him, by wating for the God of our salvation!

It’s not the Close, it’s the Consummation!

“…teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Matthew 28:20 ESV

Five times in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus uses a particular word. In every case Jesus and his disciples are looking forwards to the end. Four times the word is translated as ‘the close of the age’, in the last instance it is translated as ‘the end of the age’.

In English we tend to think of the word ‘end’ in terms of something coming to a close, a finishing of something – it is a negative concept along the lines of ‘the movie has ended’ or ‘my job has ended’. It’s got a sense of finality and lacks hope. It looks back, not forwards.

The word Jesus uses is quite the opposite. It comes from the the Greek word ‘telios’ which is the normal word for end, but this word has more the sense of a goal achieved than the close of something. It is this word that Jesus uses on the cross in the perfect tense when he says ‘it is finished’. Again, we often think of this as an exclamation that it’s over when in fact a better translation would be a single word: ‘Accomplished!’. Jesus wasn’t indicating that his life was over, but rather that he had accomplished his goal: redemption!

So, when we consider the word for the end of the age it has this positive connotation, but it has more. The word for end, ‘telios’ is prefixed with ‘syn’ – this is in common use in English, indicating a bringing together, for example in synthesis, or synagogue (the Jews coming together). So, the word for the close or end of the age is talking about a bringing together of all things to a final accomplishment: a consummation!

If you think of the picture of Christ and the Church as a marriage, then the consummation day is the day of the wedding. It’s a bringing together of all the plans and hopes of the two parties towards that one day when hopes and plans are fully realised! It’s a day when love is fulfilled and a new, complete relationship dawns. It’s what the Groom has been working towards since he promised to prepare a place, it’s what the Bride has been living in expectation of since the promise was made.

The story is told of an evangelist who was being interviewed on radio – the interviewer thought he had the killer question for the evangelist: “Surely, he asked, once you’ve got them to become Christians that’s the end of it?” The evangelist thought for a moment and then replied: “Your right, it is the end: it’s the front end!” The end of the age is the front end of a hope that goes on for all eternity! The end of the age is the consummation of our hopes and of God’s plans for his Bride: the Church.

As you read Jesus’ last words to his disciples on that mountain in Galilee, be comforted; not that he’s here until it’s all over, but that he’s with us until that final consummation, the wedding supper of the Lamb, when all things will be brought together for God’s glory and our full marriage to Christ. It is a full and final and complete consummation of all things: this is why Jesus encourages his disciples with these words.

As Christians we’re not just fighting it out until it’s all over, we’re pursuing God, seeking Christ, living in him here and now, hoping in the Consummation: that great and glorious Day when God in Christ brings all the strands of history, both seen and unseen together in his new creation. Our hope is that, as his Church, his people, on that day we will fully and completely know him as our God, forever!

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