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Looking towards the city – Abraham, my Friend – Part 05

Chapter One: Beginnings

Looking forward to The City

“A journey of a thousand miles,” say the Chinese, “begins with the first step.” The beginning of any venture is vital; if there are mistakes in the foundation it will be very costly to rectify. This is especially true of spiritual buildings and journeys. How often God has to bring us back to a place where we ‘began wrong’ before He can take us onwards in His will. But the first step is not the whole journey, and to begin is no guarantee that we will arrive. How can that initial enthusiasm be sustained? Desire is the dynamic of progress. Ultimately desires determine direction and direction determines destiny. In elemental terms, we follow our hungers. We shall not understand Abraham’s perseverance unless, in our more modern phrase, we can discover what ‘made him tick’.

the city

Abraham was torn out of his context with a command to get thee out and a promise that his destination would be the land that I will show thee. What gave him the courage to start and subsequently sustained him? Again we find the answer not in the Genesis narrative but in the Spirit inspired commentary;

he was looking for the city, having foundations, whose architect and builder is God. [Heb 11:10]

This is a fascinating phrase which has deep roots biblically. Even the tense is interesting. He was looking for; this is the imperfect, or continuing past tense. He was continually looking for the city. From the remainder of the verse we see that the statement covers his exodus and his perpetual sojourning; this was the abiding pattern of his life. From the moment of his leaving Ur of the Chaldees he was constantly looking for the city. I’ve restored the definite article too; this was not just any convenient city which he might stumble into, this was The City. The City would be distinguished from all other cities by the fact that its architect and builder was God Himself. What was Abraham looking for?

And where did he expect to find it? The word ‘looking for’ is not the word for ‘search’; Abraham was not ‘searching for The City’. The word is used elsewhere in the New Testament and earlier in the book of Hebrews;

But this man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God; From henceforth expecting till his enemies be made his footstool. [Heb 10:12,13]

Here the same word ‘looking for’ is translated ‘expecting’. It has the sense of expectation, anticipation. It is not ‘looking for’ but ‘looking forward to’. Expectation/anticipation is a vital ingredient of faith. This was not some weary, dogged plod through hundreds of miles of sand. This was a man with an excitement and hunger which drew him on in every step. He was fully expecting to see The City.

a tale of two cities

In some ways the Bible is a tale of two cities. The first city was called Enoch and was built in direct defiance of God’s punishment. [Gen 4:12-17] Its architect and builder was Cain. He had murdered his brother and God’s sentence was that Cain would be a ‘fugitive and a wanderer’. Cain is fearful that man’s vengeance might be more summary than God’s and complains. God marks Cain as a man under God’s sentence not man’s. Cain leaves God’s presence and heads eastwards, but he refuses to remain under God’s sentence and defends himself against those he fears by building the first city. This is man refusing to submit to God and who is determined to ensure his own safety. The human race is obsessed with security. We feel vulnerable and exposed so we build our cities. (We need a 4000 year mind-set transplant here; in the 21st century everyone is heading for the country because of the dangers in the cities. In Abraham’s day people lived in cities to secure themselves against the dangers of the country.)

Biblically, the city becomes a symbol of arrogant security. Man is secure, against God Himself. The cities became vast enterprises fitted for every danger; they could sometimes withstand sieges for years. They come to represent absolute systematised independence. The city comes to symbolise ‘The World’, not ‘evil’ necessarily in its most obscene forms but, the ‘evil’ that is independence from God.

There is a wonderful cameo of the rich man captured in Proverbs 18:11

The rich man’s wealth is his strong city, and as an high wall in his own conceit.

The rich man needs nothing and no-one; his riches are his strong city; it’s a powerful picture. The rich man can buy, for the most part, protection, health, provisions. He is secure in his independence. The World is rich; its technology, strategy, science, education, religion, provide a powerful defence. Some years ago a member of the British Royal family addressed a meeting of farmers. He spoke of their industry, their skills, their machinery, and their miracle crops. He summed up the confidence of the industry with the phrase “we don’t need God now”. That is the spirit of the World, not essentially entertainment, philosophy or anti-religious, but independence from God. The ultimate among cities, in the development of its arrogant independence from God, is Babylon, with its tower;

And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth. [Gen 11:4]

Their project echoes the even older blasphemy of the power behind Babylon’s king; “I will ascend into heaven” [Isaiah 14:13-15]

Lest we are too quick to point the finger we should examine our own resources, our own riches. Many are rich in character, spiritual experience, bible knowledge, communication skills, musical ability, counselling expertise. If God didn’t turn up to the meeting on Sunday, how would we know? How far can we manage without Him? The answer to that question is the measure of our worldliness. Christ’s testimony was, “of myself I can do nothing”.

Abraham had seen cities. If he left Haran at 75 years of age that would put his birth pretty much in the middle of the dynasty of Ur-Nammu. Ur-Nammu himself reigned from BC 2112-2095 and his family reigned until the fall of Ur in BC 2004. Ur-Nammu was one of the great builders of the ancient world; the Great Ziggurat of Ur being his greatest remaining work. Abraham’s growing years were spent among the evidences of empire, as they came under attack. He saw Ur in its finest hour and watched as it began to be destroyed. The builders of the day built on solid foundations and tried to include spiritual foundations too. The British Museum has an Ur-Nammu Foundation Peg; a small bronze peg, perhaps pushed into the ground by Ur-Nammu himself, depicting him as a priest providing a foundation for the city. Abraham had seen its glory, and was watching its fall. He had seen, with the unerring sight of revelation, that on earth we have no continuing city.

God’s city

In its place had grown a hunger for spiritual reality, not another city, but The City. A city which would be all that Ur could never be. A city with solid foundations like no other, a city that had God as its architect and builder. To Abraham this city was more ‘real’ than any earthly city. He hungered for a security which could be found in God alone. Henceforth he would put his confidence not in the works of the earth but in heavenly things. There is a worldly-wise saying that suggests that a man or woman can become so heavenly minded that they are no earthly use; the opposite is the more pressing danger. If we would become Friends of God we will need to become those who have discovered that heaven is more ‘real’ than earth, and live our lives on earth with the hourly expectation that heaven will break through.

The sacred record comes to its end with the book of Revelation and human destiny finds its consummation in a breathtaking vision. The translations hardly do full justice to John’s words;

and I John saw The City, the Holy One, New Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. [Rev 21:2]

A city, not prepared to withstand attack, but prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; she will find her consummation not in the defiant arrogance of self-sufficiency but in the submission of love.

image002I once heard it testified of a man that of all men he would find transition to heaven the least difficult. Surely, these are the men (and women) of whom God will say, “Welcome, My Friend”. Abraham looked forward to The City, for the whole of his pilgrimage. The hope and expectation sustained him, and the day came when a single next-step carried him through its open gates. As the New Year opens* may we walk its days with such consciousness of heaven’s nearness that we feel the very next step may see us home. Have a blessed 2004.

* originally written in January 2004

when he was called – Abraham, my Friend – Part 04

Chapter One: Beginnings

When he was called

The story of the steps of the faith of our father Abraham is not only to be found in the book of Genesis. Again and again the scriptures return to this man, often adding unique information to the original story. So the story continually builds of the man who, a thousand years after his death, God still called, “Abraham, My Friend.” [Isaiah 41:8]

Abraham and his clan

I’m wondering how many people actually left Ur at this time. At the head of the group was Terah, whose name links him with the worship of the moon-god. He was head of the clan and the scripture says he took Abram his son, and Lot the son of Haran his son’s son, and Sarai his daughter-in-law. [Gen 11:31] He set out with the intention of travelling to the land of Canaan, although he never arrived. From later evidence we deduce that Nahor and his family were also part of the caravan. I wonder too how many servants and members of the household were part of this migration. It seems from the evidence that the ‘clan’ prospered in Haran and on the second leg of the journey to Canaan they took with them all their substance that they had gathered, and the souls that they had gotten in Haran. [Gen 12] By the time we get to Genesis 14 Abraham is a minor chieftain with a personal army of over 300 men. If we give each of those men a wife and 2 children, we can estimate that by this time Abraham’s own ‘clan’ was more than 1200 souls. As an answer to our original question, my personal estimate of the size of that original group which migrated from Ur is more than 2000 souls. Time to revise those Sunday School pictures of Abraham in his solitary tent in an empty desert?

Motivation

We cannot be sure of the motivations for their journey. Perhaps they were migrants or refugees from troubled areas. Perhaps Lot just followed his grandfather. Perhaps the servants had no choice. But for one man out of the thousands his motivation is clear; Abraham had seen God.

And he (Stephen) said, Men, brethren, and fathers, hearken; The God of glory appeared unto our father Abraham, when he was in Mesopotamia, before he dwelt in Charran, Acts 7:2

We can see again the insistence on God’s initiation. Abraham did not find God, God appeared to Abraham. In the midst of his muddled theology Zophar the Naamathite asked Job a very pertinent question; Canst thou by searching find out God? [Job 11:7] The answer, by implication, is ‘No’. It is not possible for the finite to discover the infinite. We could know nothing at all about God if God had not chosen to reveal Himself, but we are not left in the dark; the God of glory has appeared. The God of glory, The King of Glory, the Lord of Glory seem to be titles of the Son. Is this partly what the Lord was referring to when He said Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it, and was glad [John 8:56]? We shall look at some other possibilities later. According to the scripture, God’s appearances to Abraham were very few but Abraham’s response to those revelations changed the history of the world.

the biblebase logoThere is something very wonderful about this first event. It did not happen in a lonely desert or at a ‘convention’. It happened “when he was in Mesopotamia, before he dwelt in Charran”. In the city dedicated to the moon-god, in a family which served the moon-god, “the God of glory appeared unto our father Abraham”. In the ordinary course of his everyday life God broke in and the God of glory appeared. God still breaks in to the everyday patterns of our lives. Later we look back at His providential preparations and see His hand in a thousand touches upon our lives, but for the man or woman who will be God’s Friend there must be a conscious encounter. We may not see a form or hear a voice but we will have absolutely no doubt that we have met Him. It may be that He will appear in the Scripture as we read, but if so it will not be logical deductions drawn from proof texts, as Tozer described it, but a vital encounter with God Himself. It is this encounter with God that begins the process of separation from the herd. Many may appear to be heading in the same general direction, thousands even, and for a while their paths may be side by side, but ultimately Abraham’s footsteps of faith will lead him in unique ways. Abraham’s real journey begins with a personal revelation of the God of Glory. So does ours.

I-Thou encounters

We are not told if He fell at His feet as dead, as did John in the Revelation, but like John he heard a voice;

Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will shew thee: And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing: And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.

We shall need to return to this word to Abraham, but for the time being please take careful note of the personal pronouns, I and thee; ‘thou’ is singular. This is an ‘I-Thee’ encounter initiated by God. In the midst of his family, and in the midst of a city wholly given to idolatry, the voice of God singled out Abraham; “Get thee out of thy country…and I will make of thee a great nation”.

There is promise of great personal blessing here and the promise of being a channel for even greater blessing but its implied condition is obedience. God says ‘Abraham, you do this, and I will do this’. The moment is captured wonderfully in a single verse;

by faith, Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing whither he went. [Hebrews 11:8]

If we compress the verse we may see its impact more clearly; “Abraham, when he was called… obeyed”. It is a simple life if we would but live it simply. Faith is response to revelation; faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God. We cannot kick-start faith, God must speak. We must not berate ourselves that others have achieved more and gone further; we cannot ‘obey’ until He ‘calls’. To go earlier would be presumption, to delay would be disobedience. But when God speaks, His word has creative power in the lives of those who receive it, and we must never say “I can’t”. For, as Gabriel said to Mary, “no word from God is powerless”. When God speaks you can walk on water and you can stretch out withered hands. But not until He speaks.

the pilgrim

This word to Abraham is a little short on explanation. It is simply a command; “Get thee out”. It was addressed to Abraham and no other. It was the beginning of a pilgrimage in which God would strip Abraham of all dependence upon any other resource than God Himself. He would not be able, as a contingency, to ‘fall back’ on his family or culture; this is all the eggs in one basket. And the simple wonder of it all is that “when he was called.. he obeyed”, and he went out, “not knowing whither he went”. Many would obey God if He would only explain to them why or where He was leading them, but Abraham’s greatness lies in that “not knowing whither”. He can have had no idea where his simple obedience would lead him… nor can we.

Here then are our final questions; when He calls ‘will I obey or will I demand an explanation?’ ‘will I demand a vision for the future or will my vision of God Himself suffice?’ ‘will I demand a route map with all the answers written in or am I ready to move out now not knowing?’ The God of glory stands ready to be ‘all in all’ to the man or woman who, when He calls, by faith, will obey.

Known unto God – Abraham, my Friend – Part 03

Chapter One: Beginnings

Known unto God

In British War Cemeteries throughout the world you often come across the words ‘Known unto God’ engraved on tombstones. The words were authored by the writer Rudyard Kipling whose own son was killed in World War I.

AA_unkown_headstone-L

It signifies that the person whose remains lie in this spot cannot be identified. At one and the same time, it is a bleak comment on the lonely anonymous sacrifice of so many and a reminder that, in truth, we are never alone.

Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. [Matthew 10:29]

Modern translators feel an urge to complete this sentence and add words such as ‘without your Father’s will’ or ‘without your Father’s knowledge’ or ‘without your Father’s permission’. It is better to leave it just as it is, ‘nothing happens without your Father’ and then think about the implications; God cannot be excluded. (more…)

If we say we have no sin… Part 3

Getting Real

There is one more element we need to add to complete the ‘context’ of 1 John. Four hundred years before Christ a Greek philosopher had taught ideas of form and reality. Plato used a famous illustration to make his point. I’ll leave you follow the link if you want to see it through but it left a residue in thinking that has its part to play in the context of 1 John. For a large part of the Greek thinking and speaking population the word Truth meant not only accurate data but Reality as distinct from Shadow and Appearance. Bible scholars have discussed this for centuries and I’m not going to add to the number other than to say try an experiment. Take some of the sayings of Christ;

God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth. John 4:24 NKJV.

Then Jesus said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, Moses did not give you the bread from heaven, but My Father gives you the true bread from heaven. John 6:32 NKJV.

And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. John 8:32 NKJV.

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me. John 14:6 NKJV.

“I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. John 15:1 NKJV.

“But when the Helper comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify of Me. John 15:26 NKJV.

And we can continue the theme into John’s epistles…

If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. 1 John 1:6 NKJV.

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 1 John 1:8 NKJV.

He who says, “I know Him,” and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. 1 John 2:4 NKJV.

Again, a new commandment I write to you, which thing is true in Him and in you, because the darkness is passing away, and the true light is already shining. 1 John 2:8 NKJV.

In fact, in John’s epistles he uses the words true and truth no less than 26 times; 1 John 1:6, 8; 2:4, 8, 21, 27; 3:18–19; 4:6; 5:6, 20; 2 John 1:1, 3–4; 3 John 1:1, 3–4, 8, 12. Now the experiment. Try replacing the word true or truth with the words real or reality. I John is a ‘reality check’. John will not suffer the profession of a man or woman whose life does not substantiate that profession. There are technical words for this. Right thinking/teaching is orthodoxy; straight praise, straight thinking. Right action is orthopraxy; straight doing/practice/action. Our word practise comes from the Greek work praxos; acts, doings, practice.

in the cross-hairs

So who are the ‘antichrists’ in John’s cross-hairs? They are manipulators of reality. They are those who deny the historical reality of Christ’s physical incarnation and they deny the moral reality of orthopraxy in harmony with orthodoxy.

50 years or so ago A.W. Tozer had a similar group in his cross-hairs. He attacked what he called ‘textualism’; the notion that because we have the word we have the thing. We are not justified by correct theology but by faith. Or as some of the old puritans used to say ‘we are justified by faith, but faith is justified by practice’. ‘We are’ they liked to say ‘saved by faith alone’ but would often add ‘but real faith is never alone’. The pattern of our life reveals the reality of our faith… or otherwise. To say one thing and live another demonstrates that the faith is not the genuine article.

When writing to Timothy Paul refers to, in the older versions, ‘faith unfeigned’.

Now the purpose of the commandment is love from a pure heart, from a good conscience, and from sincere faith, 1 Tim 1:5 NKJV.

The word translated ‘sincere’ here is literally ‘without hypocrisy‘. Why would Paul need to specify that faith must be ‘without hypocrisy’? Simply because there is another kind of faith that is not the genuine article. There is the continuing danger of fake-faith, pseudo-faith. The Greek word ‘hypocrite’ is the word for someone who is acting, someone who is not being real; we are back to John’s demand for reality. So John will now target those who ‘say’ but do not ‘do’. Those who have all the right words and know them by heart but whose lives do not match their profession.

If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. 1 John 1:6 NKJV.

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 1 John 1:8 NKJV.

If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us. 1 John 1:10 NKJV.

He who says, “I know Him,” and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. 1 John 2:4 NKJV.

He who says he abides in Him ought himself also to walk just as He walked. 1 John 2:6 NKJV.

He who says he is in the light, and hates his brother, is in darkness until now. 1 John 2:9 NKJV.

If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen? 1 John 4:20 KJV.

Now we are clear as to just who John has in mind, we are ready to expound this passage of scripture.

 

Beginnings – Abraham, My Friend – 02

Chapter One: Beginnings

In the beginning…

Every Christian biography should begin with the words “In the beginning God..” Our Bible begins with these words and, on reflection, it could begin with no others. How else would anything ‘begin’? The gospel according to John mirrors Genesis and expands it;

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. [John 1:1-3] …

It is the only explanation for everything; without Him there is nothing. It is the only explanation for anything; without him was not anything. That’s a question that atheistic cosmologists refuse to ask; ‘why is there anything?’ It was said of such cosmologists, by a fellow cosmologist, that they are “often in error but never in doubt”. Ask them ‘how?’ and you will hear the most extraordinary explanations of quantum theory and oscillating super-strings expressed with absolute certainty. Ask them ‘why?’ and there is no answer. Their calculations take us to the first micro-seconds of the cosmos but only revelation can take us back to the beginning where God already was.
(more…)

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