First Loves, and Few Regrets – Revelation 2.1-11. RBT Notes, 3rd February

The King now addresses His subjects. Here, Jesus speaks to His church, to seven local churches. John has seen how Jesus walks among them, and holds their servants (2.1, compare 1.12,16). Now as He speaks, He gives both judgement and grace, cutting through sinful behaviour and false belief, and promising grace for those who receive His Word (1.16). When we’re tempted to believe that Jesus isn’t with us, doesn’t care, or doesn’t speak, these words are a great challenge, and a comfort.

Hard work for the Lord might be a cover for hard hearts. Knowing the right truths doesn’t mean having the right love. This is the problem with the church at Ephesus. It is a particularly evangelical church sin. No amount of labour and doctrine can make up for an absence of love for Jesus (vv.1-4). We’re not saved by our soundness, but by the love of Jesus, known and responded to. Do we need to come back to Him (v.5)?

And when the Christian journey is costing us so much, we need the reminder that we’re not losing, but winning. We believe in a Resurrection God (v.8). We need to weigh our problems in the scales of eternity. We are not home, yet, and things might get even worse (v.10). But there is a crown of life to come, and not even death can take it from us (vv.10-11). Hallelujah!

 

A Prayer to Pray

My Saviour, You are all I need. But You know how I get distracted, and discouraged. Fix my heart on You and Your promises, Lord. Grab my heart, strengthen my faith, purify my love. For Your sake. Amen.

 

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The Lord is There – Ezekiel 46-48. RBT Notes, 30th January. Notes by Graham Thomson

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Throughout Ezekiel we’ve seen God at work for one purpose.  It’s the same as His purpose throughout the whole of the Bible, and all of history, in fact.  He will redeem a holy people for Himself, and He will dwell with them forever.  They will be His people and He will be their God.

Ezekiel continues his tour of the temple (ch.46), and is told that the Lord doesn’t change.  He will meet with His people, prince or pauper, in His holy Temple.  And every day, the blood of a perfect Lamb, slain in their place, will remind them of their standing before their God (v.13).

And from the Temple will flow the water of life (47.1-12), a river deep and wide enough for all who will come.  This river that will transform our bitter world, as God makes it new in Jesus.  The river that will bring food and healing for all the nations (v.12, cf. Rev 22.1-2)

Now Ezekiel hears the news he’s perhaps been longing to hear (47.13-48.29).  There will be room for all God’s people (47.13-23).  None will be left out.  All those who are the Lord’s will be given the space marked out for them.

And there’s more.  For they won’t be alone.  The defining characteristic of this place is not its impressive size, or the number of people there.  It will be the presence of the Lord with His people (v.35).  Forever.

Ezekiel probably started his book in sadness and self-pity. He must have felt that his life was a waste, his hopes of serving as priest in the Jerusalem Temple dashed, and the hopes of his people for knowing the mercy of God hanging by a thread. He finishes this chapter, though, literally in Heaven.  Where the Lord is is with His people.  He will never leave them, nor foresake them. As we face the struggles, trials and joys of life, our hope must always be the same as Ezekiel’s.  God is at work in Jesus, so that we might be His people, and He might be our God.  The Lord is there (48.35). Forever.

Treasure this book. Don’t be frightened by its strange visions, nor put off by the details of life lived so long ago. Don’t miss out on the thrilling picture of God’s new Gospel world in the details of the temple’s walls or doors. Ezekiel brings us, above all, a vision of God, majestic, holy, merciful and totally faithful. Ezekiel name, by the way, “may the Lord strengthen”. May the Lord strengthen us as we feed upon this, His Word.

The Glory of the Church – Ezekiel 42-45. RBT Notes, 29th January

You can have all the religion you like, but without God it is only an empty shell. You can have a fine building, all ready for use (40-41), and you can make ample provision for its workers (the priests, 42). If that’s it, though, well, that’s it.

Buildings can’t ultimately achieve anything. It all depends on who is in them. If God is there in His glorious grace, and if people are there, seeking and trusting in that grace, then suddenly the charade of religion is shown for what it is, as people instead come to taste the reality of a God who saves and dwells with His people.

So this is what Ezekiel starts to see: the glory returns. God, who left His temple to its Babylonian judgment, is coming back to this new temple-community (43). With roaring voice, and a glory which shines out across the land, He comes, and all Ezekiel can do is worship (vv.1-3). The voice speaks, and it is the voice of Ezekiel’s companion, the shining one who has been showing him the temple, surely the Second Person of the Trinity Himself. Here, He declares, He will live forever (v.7). But who can endure the Day of His Coming? Only those made pure. The prophet is promised that He will dwell among a purified people, and so Ezekiel is told to take the message to his countrymen, that they are to be pure for their Lord (vv.9-12).

Purity comes from where, though? It comes from sacrifice, sacrifice to cover the guilt of all our sins and to bring cleansing. For that you need an altar (vv.13-18), an offering (v.19-25), and someone to offer sacrifice on our behalf (v.27, 44.1-31). In fact much of ch.44 reads like a repeat of the instructions to the priests in Leviticus. Afterall, God’s purposes have never changed, because God never changes.

How God achieves His plans can change, though. We look back on these chapters, and we know now that the altar is the Cross, the sacrifice is a man, and the offerer, the One who offered Himself. Jesus came to purify a people for His very own, eager to do what is good (Titus 2.14). That is where glory shines. And glory still shines, and indeed, shines ever more brightly, amongst a people who have been gathered around that cross, to bask in its forgiveness and to live its life together. Afterall, that message of grace will one day conquer the world. And heaven? Heaven is a celebration of grace, forever, and in Christ for all (ch.45). This is our glory.

 

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Ezekiel 17 – He Speaks, He Acts. RBT Notes, 12th January

It’s story time. Except this a horror story. Ezekiel will not drop God’s charges against His people, but will continue to speak them against a godless nation. Though the story is a new one to them,  its meaning is all too clear, and Ezekiel spells it out straightaway.

The eagle is in fact the King of Babylon (vv.1-4, 12-13). He has already overrun Jerusalem and taken off many of its officials – these are the exiles Ezekiel is ministering to. The people are likened to a cedar of Lebanon because it was a symbol of strength, beauty and value. In one swoop, though, its crown is snatched away.

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The seed of v.5 refers to the king Nebuchadnezzar installed in Jerusalem, Zedekiah. Instead of being loyal to the Babylonians, the seed, now likened to a vine, literally “crept” its way towards Egypt and an allegiance with her (vv.7-8). The Lord says that that is a disaster in the making (vv.9-10). Powerful as Egypt might look (v.7), she will herself be destroyed. Rebellion might look and feel brave and proud, but all of Jerusalem’s playing power-games with Egypt will end in her being smashed by an altogether greater power, Babylon (vv.16-20). And when all of these words come true – as God’s Word always does – “then you will know that I the Lord have spoken” (v.21).

Why grace, though? Why grace for a people committed to stupid, wicked living? Because that it just what God is promising. Grace will work again, a remnant, just a tender spring (v.22), will be planted, and will grow. This foolish and judged people will one day flourish again. God’s patience, spurned and tried, will triumph in a staggering display of grace.

Jesus promises it. Using this very image, of a towering tree inviting the nations to find shelter in it, He speaks of the Kingdom (Mark 4.30-32). A different seed and tree are in this parable, of course, but the parallels are clear and deliberate. Jesus is saying that the day has come, that the Kingdom of God has now arrived, and that its growth is unstoppable. Who would even want to stop it, for the end of Jesus’ Kingdom would be the end of grace. But grace reigns forever.

There is a hymn which is hardly sung any more these days, “The day Thou gavest, Lord, is ended.” It’s a celebration of God’s Lordship and generous provision. The last verse of it speaks to Ezekiel 17, and speaks to us today:

So be it, Lord; Thy throne shall never,

Like earth’s proud empires, pass away:

Thy kingdom stands, and grows forever,

Till all Thy creatures own Thy sway.

Reality Check – Ezekiel 15-16. RBT Notes, 11th January

“This is a hard teaching, who can bear it?”, was the question rumbling around Jesus’ hearers when they listened to His uncompromising ministry (John 6.60). Maybe we have the same heart-reaction as we make our way through Ezekiel’s ministry, with its judgement and bleak pictures of the future? Do we long for a short, comforting Psalm or an encouraging passage from the History Books, instead of chapters like these? Ezekiel must have longed for the same, too. But this was the Word given to him, as he was called to minister at a critical, and terrible, time in Israel’s spiritual history. Things, though, will get worse before they get better, and this will call for perseverance from the Prophet as well as from us, his hearers.

Two sermons, one very short, one longer, spell out the predicament of God’s covenant people. In ch.15 Ezekiel likens them to a vine, the valuable tree but now made as worthless as any other in the forest, and fit for burning with the rest of them. That is how cheapened they have become, in God’s eyes. And if this image will have shocked and enraged the people, then far worse is to come.

Slowly, and image by image, Ezekiel creates a picture of an abandoned child being found and cared for. Unwanted babies would have been numerous in Ezekiel’s world, with parents too poor or too busy to care for some newborns, leaving their children in the fields, maybe hoping someone would be able to take them in. Disturbing, yes, but a fact of life. Except this child, a baby girl, is Israel (16.3). Left in a hurry at birth, with still her umbilical cord uncut, she was not only abandoned, but despised (vv.4-5).

As Ezekiel develops the story in front of his shocked listeners, he likens God to the rescuer. God’s tender care is detailed. The years quickly pass by, God providing lavishly for this now beautiful adolescent. This is not now the care of an adoptive parent, but the attentions of a would-be husband of a young bride-to-be (vv.6-14). The fame of her beauty spreads. But with fame comes shame. The girl takes every one of God’s gifts, and turns them to prostitution (vv.15-19).

There are some things you have to say in the pulpit where it’s hard to keep eye-contact. You can feel the atmosphere change, and sense the hostility to what you’re saying. Try to imagine here the rising shock, fury and hostility, as Ezekiel presses on with his message. How dare he speak like this! How dare he liken God’s people to a prostitute! But he’s not backing down. Israel has had nothing but costly love from her Master; but she has abused it, and become a prostitute, then a murderer, and then a shine prostitute, publicly selling her favours in the city (vv.20-25).

an-oriental-beautyHer disgrace is as great as her coming downfall. As God’s people get more devoted to shunning God and giving themselves to foreign help and religion to get themselves out of the mess of their situation, so they will be more and more given over to their shame and dishonour (vv.26-42). She will be stripped naked, stoned and degraded by even her former lovers. At this point the woman is expressly compared to Jerusalem and God’s point is all too clear, now: Jerusalem will fall, and God will be satisfied with nothing less than judgment (vv.41-42).

If the charges against the people escalate in the remainder of ch.16, then there are also extraordinary glimpses of favour after judgment, too. God’s people are likened to Sodom and Samaria. Sodom was, and is, proverbial for its sexual sin; Samaria was the capital of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, judged already by God through the hand of the Assyrians. And yet, as God says, “Samaria did not commit half the sins you did” (v.51). So how can there be any hope for this nation?

Her hope must be in the Lord. God has hinted that one day He would “be calm and no longer angry” (v.42). Now He says “I will remember the covenant I made with you in the days of your youth, and I will establish an everlasting covenant with you” (v.60). How, and why? Why should God deal mercifully with people who have forsaken his love for wealth, murder, sex and false religion, and how can He do that?

Come to a man who forsook the privilege of sexual intimacy in a married life. Come to a man who lived without any personal wealth, who never swore by an idol, who never even used his words for murderous purposes. See a man who always treasured every gift of God, and who delighted in his Father’s love. And then see that man mocked and degraded in the city of Jerusalem, being thrown out like so much rubbish by those who once loved his words. And then see in Jesus’ death the opening up of this everlasting covenant. Look at your sins, your ruthless godlessness, sexual compromise, greed and selfishness. Then know, really know, that there may you, though vile as she, wash all your sins away. This is grace.