You don’t always get… Job 20-21. RBT Notes, 13th January

The middle of the book of Job feels like a tennis match: back and forth, back and forth, heavy bass-line slugging, much grunting, and it’s very, very long. Ok, there are three on one side (soon to be four), and one on the other, but the scoring’s pretty even. Each side knows that God’s honour is at stake, and each knows that the truth will out. We spectators don’t quite know what to make of it.

For Zophar it’s simple: Job is a sinner who, like every other sinner, will get his comeuppance. He is angry that Job is refusing to concede that their assessment of him is true (vv.2-3), and adamant that he is guilty and under God’s judgement. His speech is another word picture of a man who is meeting his Maker and will not escape. Is that you, Job?

No!, insists Job. He is as disturbed as they are about the apparent prosperity of the wicked (21.7-15). They have everything – except problems. Job knows that they will be judged. But his challenge to his friends is this: the wicked are often very comfortable in their lives (vv.29-33). They don’t get what they deserve. Precisely! Why, then, should Job’s friends be so sure that each man gets what he deserves in this life, when all can see that this is patently untrue? And if all can see that this is untrue, why are the friends hammering Job, telling him that his circumstances prove that he is a sinner under God’s wrath? They are wrong (v.34).

Bad theology wounds, and it kills. Simplistic theology discourages true believers. What the world and the church needs is theology straight from God’s Word, which is more than able to deal with mystery, uncertainty and tragedy in this world, ministered with care and respect. If you’re not comfortable with mystery, and if you’re too impatient to share your convictions gently and carefully, then who is it you worship? A God of black and white, easy answers? A God of slot machine cause and effect dealings? Be careful.


A Prayer to Pray  

Father in heaven, give me a faith which is able to cope with what I don’t understand, knowing that You understand it. Give me a faith to trust in You in the sadness of life, sure that You have the answers. Give me the patience to wait for those answers, and, if You don’t give them, to wait for You in heaven. Amen.

Worship – Nehemiah 12. RBT Notes, 14th December

Priests and Levites have a serious job to do. As men called to serve at the temple, that job involved cleaning it, guarding it, receiving and managing the gifts of the worshippers, praying for the people, offering up their sacrifices to God, and teaching the people God’s Word. Why does Nehemiah give us these lists of priests and Levites? Because under God, he was building a new community. And for that community to stand and to thrive, they needed to know and to relate to God according to His Word. So these men are not some luxury – they are an essential part of a community living in fellowship with God.

Today, it’s not that we’ve done away with priests; instead, we have the Great Priest, Jesus Christ. He does for us everything which these ancient priests were called to do, but could never do perfectly, as He did. He teaches us the Word of God by His Spirit, He brings our sacrifices of praise and obedience to God, and makes them acceptable in His sight. And gloriously, His once for all sacrifice on the cross is the sacrifice which washes us clean of all of our sins. As Hebrews says, we have a great High Priest!

What does our High Priest do? Hebrews 2.10–13 says that Jesus brings us into God’s presence, makes us holy through His sacrifice, and leads us in the worship of His Father. As v.11 says, He is not ashamed to call us His brothers. And so, prefiguring that worship, in our chapter we hear of priests leading their people around the city walls in joyful worship together (v.8, 24). The second half of the chapter is a powerful and challenging scene of community praise. And let’s learn from it. God’s people are overwhelmed with God’s grace and goodness. They have to worship, it’s the natural overflowing of grateful hearts. And what a witness it is!

God loves a church worshipping and singing of His glory. The world needs the witness of the church focused in praise and thanksgiving. We may speak many words about God; but if our worship is cold, how is the world to know if we believe our words or not? Public worship declares the power of the Gospel to the world, and shows the integrity of our hearts to God. True worship is the sign that we are being truly transformed by the Gospel, in the power of the Spirit.

Some questions, then. Do we turn up to worship casually? Do we allow ourselves to be distracted or to distract others during worship? Do we stay at home, fellowshipping with the TV remote control? All of these temptations should be firmly rejected by the true children of God. God is looking for those who worship Him in spirit and in truth. It appears that He had such worshipers that day on the city walls in Jerusalem. Does he have such a worshiper you?


A prayer to pray

Lord, You have my heart. Please bring forth from it a song of humble, contented, joyful praise. And please give me a love for worshipping You with my brothers and sisters, increasingly aware of and amazed by the fact that I worship in the presence of the One Who is not ashamed to call me His brother, by His love. Amen.

The Real Work – Nehemiah 7. RBT Notes, 7th December

The intimidation is not over (6.19), but at least the wall is done. And what a triumph that is! God had supplied the king’s favour, the resources, the workers, the strength, the protection and the unity to see the job completed. So,  can Nehemiah end his book here? No. He must now set out on the far, far harder project, of seeking to build up a people to live within those walls. And that is going to take all of Nehemiah’s faith, skill, courage and patience. In fact, it almost breaks him.

An important work needs the best people. Hanani is appointed first, to oversee the city, and then Hananiah has the responsibility for security (vv.2-3). Clear commands and clear delegation are a leader’s continual priority, and Nehemiah doesn’t falter here. But who will live in the city? There follows a great list of names, the great and the good, the ordinary and the…suspect (vv.6-65). Some claim to be priests, but the governor makes sure that this city is built on the worship led by true priests, not those who merely say they are (v.65).

So, 50 000 begin life again in Jerusalem. Will they thrive, or will it be a disaster? They are like a church plant. They have the walls, as well as shared beliefs and a shared life. Like a plant, they have an identity and much in common with each other. But these things alone won’t guarantee life, or success. They will need to listen to God’s Word, above all, then put it into practice. For that they need a preacher, and hearts sensitive to God. Let’s wait and see.


A Prayer to Pray

Lord, I know that I need to give my heart to Your church, or I will fail her, and she may fail. Help me not to hold myself back, or hide in the easy work of bricks and mortar. Make me a living stone in the work You are doing, for Your Son’s glory. Amen.

Rights – and Wrongs – Nehemiah 5. RBT Notes, 5th December

Where there’s work there are workers. Where there are workers, there are always people who are trying to exploit them, to make their own profit. Nehemiah has to see the harsh realities of this.

Right in the midst of the communal efforts of sweat and toil, Nehemiah becomes aware that things are desperately unfair. There is a shortage of food, and some are having to scavenge for food, others need to mortgage their property to stay alive, and others are taking out loans and even selling their children into slave labour, in order to have enough to eat (vv.2-5). What should have been an exercise in shared work and mutual support has quickly turned into a familiar story of self-interest from the rich, and a survival struggle for the poor.

Nehemiah is angry (v.6). Calling together the wealthy officials, Nehemiah calls them out over this heartless exploitation. There is an uncomfortable silence – “They could find nothing to say” (vv.7-9). The leader’s courageous stand of blunt honesty and clear command works, and they agree to return what they’ve taken, as well as the interest on payments (v.12), and he secures a promise on future dealings (v.13).

The Jerusalem community knows that Nehemiah is the right man to serve as governor (v.14). Eager though he is to lead them, Nehemiah knows that leaders are servants. he gets on with the work in hand, forgoes his allowance of good, and ensures that all are looked after (vv.15-18). His insistence that he must forgo his rights remind us of the Apostle Paul, serving the Gospel at his own expense and inconvenience. Moreover, we remember the Lord Jesus Christ, who became a servant of all, at the cost of His own life. This is service.

Who do you want to lead you? The Bible says that leadership is never a title, it is always a transparently commendable lifestyle. “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith” (Heb. 13.7). Leaders serve, and those who follow them are to dedicate themselves to serving others, too. This is life in the kingdom.


A Prayer to Pray

Lord, in a world of self-interest, teach me by Your Spirit to become last, and the servant of all. I confess that I enjoy people’s approval, and having things go my way. Give me integrity, Lord, that I may wish to serve my Saviour and those He died for, fired by His love, and eager to do good for the household of faith. Amen.

Leaders like this – 2 Corinthians 10. RBT Notes, 14th November

You can serve people, but you don’t need to be smiling. You can speak truth to people, and you don’t need to tiptoe around their feelings. You can love them deeply, and you can be totally justified in showing that you feel exasperated, even irritated and at your wits’ end. In this explosive chapter, Paul shows the Corinthians just how frustrated he is with this worldly church. And this is just the beginning.

But Paul refuses to resort to the world’s weapons in his ministry. No rhetorical razzmatazz or mind-games in his ministry. He has the Gospel, the Word of God and the Holy Spirit, and they are more than enough for achieving God’s work (vv.4-5). And for a worldly church, fixated with the impressive, and dismissing the authentic, Paul warns that he means to come to punish disobedience (v.6).

Paul gets little pleasure from talking about himself, but he needs to underline that he has been given authority by Christ (v.8). Then, with more than a tone of gentle mockery, he doesn’t “dare” to rank himself with the so-called leaders the Corinthians make so much of (v.12).

Although Paul is speaking into the tensions of his relationship with the Corinthians, the parallels are obvious wherever there are churches and leaders. Leaders are tempted to appear impressive. They long to seem omni-competent, omniscient, and omni- everything else. And church people are tempted to demand an excellence from leaders which is totally unrealistic, and unhelpful. The Corinthian mistake was to believe that their so-called “super apostles” really were dazzling stars which they pretended to be. No wonder, then, that when the real leader Paul did show up, complete with his failures and shortcomings, and excelling only in mere love, they failed to recognise his credentials. God give us grace to accept those who minister the Word of God to us, and serve us in Christ’s love. We might just need them.


A Prayer to Pray

Lord, our world demands show and spectacle, but teach me to be a sceptic. Teach me to look beyond appearances, and to know when I’m putting on masks to impress, or maybe to mislead. Form me to be a man of humble love, striving to serve others, but not faking it when I get it wrong. Give me grace to point to the Perfect man, Jesus, and to be content to be a servant in His Name. Amen.


Seeing Salvation – 2 Corinthians 2. RBT Notes, 2nd November

Paul loves the whole church. His heart is heavy with their needs, and with the needs of individual members. In vv.1-11 he is all too aware of the heartache about one brother who’s been disciplined for his sin. He has written to them about this situation already (v.3), and he knows that the church’s pain has not gone away, nor this man’s. Sin in the church is real, and must be dealt with. Equally, the grace of forgiveness must be shared with all who truly repent. Now Paul wants to see this penitent brother restored.

The Gospel which saves is also the Gospel which divides. Paul is called to a ministry which will not make him popular with many. That is a part of cross-bearing, for Paul and for every true believer. Discipleship means belonging to Christ. Paul compares it to being a captive slave, brought in procession behind the conqueror for all to see (v.14). So now he follows the real Conqueror, Jesus. The purpose of following is fruitfulness: as the Gospel is seen and heard, people discover “the fragrance of life” (v.16). They find Jesus Christ for themselves.  No wonder Paul perseveres with his suffering life and ministry! No wonder he longs that the Corinthians know that this work is not all pretence, not all front, but true Christianity lived out of a full and sincere heart (vv.16-17).

And still some hate us. Jesus promised it (Jn. 15.18). Faithfulness does sometimes invite hatred. Who wants to be “the smell of death” (v.15), rejected and despised, written off as an enemy of society? Jesus didn’t, nor should we. It might well happen, though, even from our nearest and dearest. Maybe Jesus is calling us to a deeper, truer discipleship – whatever the cost.


A Prayer to Pray

Lord, I am naturally a comfort-seeking coward. Prize my selfish hands off all I hold dear which gets in the way of Your service. Thrill me with Your grace, and change me by it. I give myself again to You, the Lord of the only triumph that ever matters. Amen.