Praying for One Another

beach-1868772_960_720“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” (James 5:16 ESV)

We have been exhorted to pray for one another. Before Jesus went to the cross, He prayed for His disciples and for all of us who would subsequently come to know and believe in Him, through their message. This sublime prayer recorded in John 17, has come to be known as the ‘High Priestly Prayer of Jesus’. Even before He prayed – His prayer of anguish – for Himself at Gethsemane, we see Christ our great High Priest, standing before the Father’s throne,  to intercede for all those who belong to Him.

Christ continues to perform the role of our Advocate and High Priest before the Father. His intercession is a source of great strength and security for us. “But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate before the Father-Jesus Christ, the Righteous One” (1 John 2:1). “Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them” (Hebrews 7:25 NIV). “Who is there to condemn us? For Christ Jesus, who died, and more than that was raised to life, is at the right hand of God and He is interceding for us” (Romans 8:14 BSB). “Therefore, since we have such a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to what we profess” (Hebrews 4:14).

We, Christ’s own in this world also share in His ministry of intercession. The apostle Peter reminds us that we are a ‘royal priesthood’ (1 Peter 2:9), so like our great High Priest, we ought to stand before the mercy seat of God to plead for our brothers and sisters. What better way to perform this noble task than to imitate Jesus Himself?

In this prayer for His disciples, Jesus first lays down the case for their special claim upon the Father’s care and protection – their deep union and identification with Himself. His words, which He speaks in their defence, are worth noting.  Jesus reminds the Father that ‘they are Yours’; ‘You gave them to Me; they have ‘believed’ Me; they ‘know’ Me; and they ‘know that I came from You’; they ‘accepted Your word’; and they ‘obeyed Your word’. The prayer reveals Christ as our ‘merciful and faithful High Priest’ (Hebrews 2:17), One who is able to ‘sympathise with our weaknesses’ (Hebrews 4:15) and ‘makes peace with God’ for our sins (Hebrews 2:17).

Jesus does not speak a word about the disciples’ past failings or their unchristian behaviour – there is not a single word of criticism or condemnation. How encouraging for us to know that Jesus goes before the Father not to discuss our faults, but to argue our case. To accuse us is the job of our adversary, the ‘accuser of the brethren’; let us be careful never to follow Satan’s example and indulge in fault finding when we pray for our friends; rather let us imitate Christ in pleading for them, and upholding their cause.

Secondly, Jesus reveals how much He has invested in them. Their special role as ones who will represent Him in the world, and their circumstances as people ‘who are in the world, but not of it’ and therefore ‘ hated by the world’ – are laid out as the reasons why they are deserving of the Father’s tender mercy and care. The Father gave them to Him, and He sent them out into the world, where they must remain, separated for a while from their heavenly Bridegroom. On earth, Christ kept His disciples safe, but now in departing, He entrusts them to His Father’s care. The most beautiful words – “For them I sanctify [or consecrate] myself, that they too may be truly sanctified” (John 17:19 NIV) show that no sacrifice was too great for Jesus on behalf of those He loves.

How can the Father turn His face away from a plea so fervent as this? This, indeed, is how Christ continues to plead for us, putting forth such strong arguments in our defence. Finally, He makes specific requests on their behalf, and His priorities are sevenfold; He asks that they might be,

  1. Kept by the power of the Father’s name
  2. United with one another
  3. Filled with the full measure of His joy
  4. Protected from the evil one
  5. Sanctified by His truth
  6. In His presence to see His glory
  7. Continually in the love of God.

These ought to be our priorities too, in praying for the church and for individual believers.

Father, we bring before You, our brothers and sisters,

  1. They were Yours.
  2. You gave them to Jesus,
  3. They have obeyed Your word.
  4. They know that everything that Jesus has comes from You, our Father.
  5. They have accepted the words You gave Jesus.
  6. They know in truth that Jesus came from You, the Father.
  7. They have believed that You sent Jesus.

We pray for them because-

  1. Jesus sanctified Himself on their behalf 
  2. He gave them Your glory and He is glorified in them.
  3. While He was on the earth Jesus guarded His own, and none were lost.
  4. Jesus is no longer in the world for He has come to You.
  5. Jesus has sent them out into the world
  6. They are in the world and yet, they are not of this world.
  7. The world hates them, for Jesus gave them Your word.

Father, we ask You 

  1. To keep and protect them by the power of Your name, the name You gave Jesus.
  2. That they may they be perfectly one, as You and Jesus are one, so the world may know that You sent Jesus.
  3. That they may have the joy of Jesus fulfilled in them.
  4. To keep them from the evil one, not that You take them out of the world.
  5. To sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth.
  6. That they may be with Jesus where He is, and see His glory.
  7. That they may continue in Your love.

We humbly ask these things in the name of Jesus Christ, Your Son.

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Only Love

baby-feet-1527456_960_720.jpg“Now eagerly desire the greater gifts. And yet I will show you the most excellent way. If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Corinthians 12:31-13:1 NIV).

Once I knew a man named Philip, who lived the most extraordinary Christian life. He was one of the most Christ-like persons I have ever known. His endeavours for the gospel stretched across continents, but it was his humility and love that set him – and his wife Muriel – apart from others. He preached the gospel with so much power and wisdom that many who were privileged to know him would remark how like the apostle Paul he was. He had endured suffering and rejection, but love lifted him above all those things. I asked him what his secret was, and this is what he had to say: “I asked the Lord to shape my heart according to 1 Corinthians 13”. It is in this chapter that Paul shows us the most excellent way.

The greatest gift of God is His love. Few religious scriptures dwell on the love of God in the way the Christian scriptures, and particularly the books of the NT, do. Here, the all-consuming love of God is revealed to us in great detail from the first to last. Jesus, the divine staircase that links us with heaven, was sent down to our sinful planet to demonstrate the infinite depths of His Father’s love for us.

The whole object of our existence is to know God, worship and serve God; yet until we begin to perceive something of His love, we cannot know or understand Him, and what we worship or serve is a caricature of God, an idol set up in our own minds. For God is love. Just as the nature of God is beyond human comprehension, our finite minds will never fully grasp His love. The old hymn captures perfectly this vast chasm in our understanding of God’s love – “The love of God is greater far, than tongue or pen can ever tell…”

All around us, we see glimpses of God’s love reflected in human relationships – but these only weakly reflect divine love. Even the love of a mother for her baby is feeble compared to God’s love. Since we cannot know the depths of His love, it must seem impossible to obey God’s command to walk in it; yet God intends for us to receive as much as we need of His love on this earth, to enrich and empower every area of our lives. As we receive God’s love by faith, and willingly impart it to others, our understanding as well as our capacity to receive His overflowing love within our hearts, and to move in it, will increase. As we begin to taste God’s love, received by faith, and share it with other souls, we begin to understand Him better.

So faith is the funnel, which delivers love into our souls. We are taught that without faith it is impossible to please God, and also that love surpasses faith. The apostle Paul makes it clear that “the greatest is love”, and without love, even faith that can move mountains is meaningless, for it would have failed in its very purpose. The true work of faith is to reveal and impart love, and all the exploits of faith, if devoid of love, will be empty works. As we live and work for the kingdom of God, if the motive behind everything we do is love, then our works, whether small and seemingly insignificant, or great, will endure for all eternity, for we are building on foundations of gold. Otherwise, our works which may seem great in the eyes of our fellow human beings, will be burned up by fire on that final day.

Trials come to show us the dearth of love in our hearts – how little we have yet known or absorbed of God’s love into our beings. In trials we retrace our steps to God, the fount of all love, and receive fresh supplies of grace for ourselves. Through grace we learn to love those we previously saw as unlovely or unloveable. The way to overcoming trials is to find the key of love, which opens doors, deepens our insight into issues and delivers into our hands, much needed miracles.

All human relationships move smoothly, when the oil of love is poured between the wheels. Love is, however, not just the key to finding solutions to problematic relationships – rather love is the goal. Our struggle is not to change a difficult person, but to love him or her. By faith, we must choose, indeed firmly resolve, to stand in love towards people who have, by their behaviour, darkened the skies for us. Love sets us free because it releases us from the pressure to judge others, leaving all judgment in the hands of the perfect Judge. Never having to judge is truly a wonderful freedom. As we continue to love, never judging or keeping an account of people’s wrongs, the freedom within our hearts is imparted to those who receive our love, so that they are also set free from the many faults, which might have lowered them in our esteem or caused us to see them as a trial. How beautiful is love!

Love brings sunshine into our days. As the Shepherd, in Hannah Hurnard’s Hinds’ Feet in High Places, said, “It is so happy to love”. When we love, the joy of Jesus is poured into our hearts, making our days, and our time here on earth, richer beyond our wildest imaginations. So, let us pray for more love and seek this beyond all other virtues. Let us ask God to shape our hearts according to 1 Corinthians 13.

Father, fill our hearts with Your love. Grant us the grace too overlook people’s shortcomings and to love them with the love You showed us on Calvary. In Jesus’ name.

Loving Muslims

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“As for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I will bless him, and will make him fruitful and will multiply him exceedingly. He shall become the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation” (Genesis 17:20 NASB).

Islam and the Muslims: This is the season of Ramadan, when Muslims all over the world fast – “not a drop of water to be sipped” – from sunrise to sunset, followed by communal nightly feasts. This month is a good time to pray for and reflect on our relations with the people of Ishmael, Abraham’s son, for whom he prayed this heartfelt prayer: “Oh that Ishmael might live before You!” (Genesis 17:18 NASB). He longed for Ishmael to be reconciled and made ‘acceptable before’ God. The desire to gain divine acceptance is deeply ingrained in the hearts of Muslims.

Islam imitates several aspects of the Old Testament religion, but it does not arise from the same Source, for it ‘denies the Father and the Son’ (1 John 2:22). Christ and the apostles were clear that the purpose of the Old Covenant and the Mosaic Law was fulfilled in the cross of Jesus Christ. Christ set us free of the demands of the Law, so that we may ‘worship the Father in Spirit and truth’. Islam arose 600 years later, with the express intention of subjecting the whole world, to a pseudo-Mosaic legalistic system,the ‘Sharia Law’, which aims to nullify the work of the Cross and deprive us of the freedom we have in Jesus Christ. The fulfilment of the Islamic ‘Great Commission’ – the setting up of a worldwide Caliphate – necessitates the militant Jihad or Holy war, followed by forcible conversions, slaughter or subjugation of those who will not ’embrace’ Islam to a servile ‘dhimmi’ status. In most Islamic countries, Christians practise their faith under severe constraints and evangelisation is a criminal offence. Islam has a long history of war with the ‘People of the Book’, as they term Christians and Jews.

Growing up in the Middle East, my closest friends were Muslims. As shocking as the events of the past 2 decades have been, there is much I love and admire about the Muslims themselves. There is indeed much that non-Muslims can learn from them about friendship, hospitality and loyalty. Since 9/11, however, many of us have been deeply troubled by the terrorism spreading across the globe like wildfires from House of Islam. Many peaceful Muslims are equally dismayed at what is going on, but dare not speak up either from fear of reprisal or a misplaced sense of loyalty. Yet the root cause of the violence, of course, lies in the teachings of the Quran, the Hadith, and the example of Mohammed, their prophet. Thankfully the vast majority of Muslims express their piety by keeping to the Five Pillars of Islam, ignoring the command to wage Jihad. With the recent spread of puritanical teaching by the Saudi Wahabi school of Islam, however, an increasing number of Muslims no longer see Jihad as being optional.

Muslim response to the spread of terror: Ordinary peaceful Muslims are undoubtedly horrified by the spread of Islamic extremism, yet, those Muslims calling for actual Islamic reform like Ayaan Hirsi Ali are vilified and often face death threats. Indeed, the responses of mainstream Muslim leaders and organisations to Islamic terror attacks are confusing to a neutral observer. While Muslim leaders in the Middle East will freely admit that killing infidels is permitted by the Quran, and call for further restrictions on Christians and churches; their western counterparts will assert that Islam is the ‘Religion of Peace’, that terrorism is un-Islamic and therefore reform is unnecessary. They pressure western governments to forcefully defend Islam – often by restricting freedom of speech – against its critics. Islamophobia in the West- which has received them hospitably, granting them citizenship, freedom and rights- they maintain is what stokes the fires of terrorism, ignoring the fact that the vast majority of terrorists originate from Islamic countries, where shades of Sharia law already govern aspects of people’s lives. Others will gleefully point to the internal weaknesses of the societies still reeling from shock, with hardly a word of sympathy for the maimed or families of the dead, or a sense of solidarity with the nations that welcomed them.

Their words reveal that the ultimate goal of these Muslim representatives is to advance Islam, and the fate of its victims come low in their list of priorities. What is most worrying is the increasing sense of entitlement, and Muslim exceptionalism, displayed by mostly second generation Muslims, who demand endless privileges in the nations where their fathers sought refuge, as they smugly flout local cultural norms, refuse to integrate and expect host societies to indulge their every whim. There are 4 noticeable trends that we would be foolish to ignore when seeking solutions – 1. The problem of Islamic terror is growing, not lessening; 2. The well meaning and peaceful Muslims are powerless to do anything about it, 3. The mainstream Islamic leadership lack the will or the ability to contain terrorism, and 4. Muslim reformers have no meaningful influence within their communities; rather their outspokenness puts them in great danger.

The Christian response: What are we Christians – called by our Lord to love those who hate us, and to bless those who curse us – to do in these unstable times? How can we remain free of bitterness and frustration towards Muslims, while standing up for the values of peace, freedom and tolerance in our societies. There are 5 things that we should be careful to do in our relations with our Muslim neighbours:

  1. Show great love towards Muslims at a personal level. In all our conversations with them, be considerate and respectful. Never give in to the temptation to mock their prophet for this will only hinder all future communication.
  2. While being respectful, do not hesitate to politely point out aspects of their faith or even their prophet’s teaching, that nurture intolerance or extremism, or are incompatible with our values, in a slavish attempt to be politically correct.
  3. Pray for their salvation.
  4. Pray for an end to Jihadism.
  5. Never compromise when they demand special treatment or privileges.

The role of Christian citizens in the state: The scripture reveals the separate roles of individuals and states in dealing with subjects. In tackling Islamic extremism, the state must employ methods consistent with its role. Whereas individual Christians must reach out to their Muslim neighbours in love, the state has a duty before God to uphold law and order. “For government is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, because it does not carry the sword for no reason. For government is God’s servant, an avenger that brings wrath on the one who does wrong” (Romans 13:4 HCSB). Christ, who taught us to turn the other cheek, also warns us to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves”. There are important lessons to be drawn from the example of Paul who did not hesitate to use his rights as a Roman citizen when confronting his enemies or those in authority. As citizens of democratic societies, Christians ought to hold the state to account, and demand that they actively take steps to limit the damage of violent extremism. As I recently commented on an Anglican blog –

“‘Do to others as you would have them do to you’, is the Christian way, but the state has a duty before God ‘to bear the sword’, not to advance Christ’s kingdom, but to enforce laws which promote social harmony and justice. Rulers are being negligent if they turn a blind eye, when a group of people do harm to their fellow citizens. Muslims are not being forced to give up their faith, but having decided to move to a non-Muslim nation, it is not too much to expect them to practise their religion without inconveniencing their neighbours. If a significant number among them choose to behave badly, and refuse to obey the laws of the land, or heed the counsel of their more moderate co-religionists, the state has the duty to step in and look into this matter for the benefit of all.”

Bearing in mind that granting Islam unrestricted freedom to flourish in the West and elsewhere has produced such damaging consequences, including violence and terrorism, the governments must consider specific measures to curtail the influence of Islamists. Restrictions on Islamic preaching (and preachers); limits on the number, size and funding of mosques; censorship of literature promoting Jihad, and controlling immigration from Muslim terror zones are steps that need to be considered by individual governments. It is wrong to label all such sensible precautions – as the media often does –  as ‘undemocratic’. Indeed such measures facilitate the greater common good, so all civilised countries – and none more so than Islamic nations – have, in the past, applied (and still apply) similar restrictions to new arrivals from other cultures. Nor are these violations of human rights, for many lives are saved. Many right-thinking Muslims have been quietly supportive of such measures in the past, for they hardly wish to see their children fall prey to extremism.

The following youtube videos show an Australian Muslim imam discussing Islam and terrorism with such refreshing candour and rare insight, that we would be foolish to ignore his pleas.

The Real Solution: Finally, coming to a significantly more important point. As Christians, we ought to set our own house in order. ‘Islam has always been Islam’ but our generation is more vulnerable to its dangers than our ancestors were. As an Islamic Caliphate, and all that it entails for the ‘Kaffir’, suddenly looms on the horizon, we ought to ask ourselves – “Is this not divine judgment, being poured upon the household of God, for our unfaithfulness?”

Indeed the root problem is not Islam. The spread of violent Jihad, while symptomatic of Islam, is also evidence that God’s hand of protection is being withdrawn from so-called Christian nations that have turned away from Him. Widespread legalised abortion, gay marriage, family breakdown, and the moral corruption promoted by the media and celebrities, show the extent to which the nations despise God. In the midst of such corruption, the church refuses to speak the truth in love to the lost, out of a desire to be politically correct. So He set up leaders who, lacking in discernment, foolishly open the doors to people from cultures that have no intention ‘of seeking the prosperity of the land where they dwell’.

Unless there is true repentance, the Islamists will take over. If we fail to fulfil our divine mandate to be ‘salt and light on this earth’, then the sword of Islam will ensure that our light is hidden, as it is in Muslim lands where evangelism is forbidden; that we are trodden underfoot, cast into a state of dhimmitude, deprived of the freedom, progress and prosperity that followed the Reformation 500 years ago. Therefore, let us pray for ourselves as well as for our Muslim neighbours in these perilous times.

Father, forgive us our unfaithfulness to You. The world no longer respects us because we have forgotten to honour You. Grant us the grace to repent and turn from our sinful ways. Forgive us for being stumbling blocks before an unbelieving world; many have turned away from the waters of eternal life, because of our sins. Help us to live righteous lives, and bear true witness to our Muslim neighbours. Open their eyes to the truth of Jesus and His cross; may they find peace in Him. In Jesus’ name.

The Difference

daily-prayers-1461030_960_720So Jesus asked the Twelve, “Do you want to leave too?” Simon Peter replied, “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that You are the Holy One of God” (John 6:67-69 BSB).

Unlike some well-meaning preachers today, Jesus never minimised the cost of following Him. It was never, “Join us, and we’ll have lots of fun” or “Come along, and you will be given an easy passage through life”; rather his disciples were informed in no uncertain terms that each of them was being called to “deny himself, take up his cross and follow me”. The hardships they would face were laid out in quite stark language-

“And you shall be hated of all men for my name’s sake: but he that shall endure to the end, the same shall be saved” (Mark 13:13 AKJV).

“Look, I am sending you out like sheep among wolves; therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. But beware of men; for they will hand you over to their councils and flog you in their synagogues. On My account, you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles” (Matthew 10:16-18 BSB).

“For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:14 ESV).

“Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Luke 9:58 ESV).

Still, is it not true that in the initial euphoria of being born again, we as new Christians often expect an easy ride ‘from now on’? One believer, who thought that he was getting on a life long merry-go-round, was shocked to discover that the Christian life is more like being enlisted on an army draft. The scripture seems to suggest that the disciples never fully understood – and were never quite prepared for – what following the Messiah entailed. Meeting Jesus for the first time is to encounter One who is so full of light, with whom nothing is impossible, and who loves us infinitely –  this combination can lead us to hope rather naively, for only good things in life and never bad.

Yet Christ never promised us an easy road, that we should expect to be insulated from the hardships common to humanity. Indeed, by belonging to Him, we are often at odds with the world; the things we say or do, may be treated with suspicion or even outright hostility by those who do not understand us. The world is too full of the enemies of the cross; and among them we are commanded to resist every temptation to compromise. This is never easy even for the best among us. “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33 NIV). It is the fact that we share in the overcoming life of our Saviour that should fill us with hope and confidence for the future. What does this mean in practical terms?

Christian life is really about overcoming temptations, weaknesses, struggles and stressful relationships. To be an overcomer means to triumph over the circumstances of our lives using the tools of the Kingdom. We align our priorities with Christ’s, and willingly choose to do what pleases Him. We are enabled to imitate Him, not by our own will power, strength or personal qualities, but by Christ’s resurrection power, and the daily portion of light and grace, available to us from the One who loves us. This light and grace has definitely been promised to us- we only have to ask and receive it by faith. So, it is this sharing in the life of the Risen Christ that sets us apart from the rest of humanity, not freedom from struggle or sorrow.

We live and walk in the Spirit, who comes to indwell our hearts when we yield our lives to Christ, and the way is illuminated before us. There may be occasions when we called to walk on paths less trodden, unknown and seemingly dangerous; and even the promised light may temporarily be hidden from us. Still, we have God’s guidance as to how we ought to cross these dark passages in our journey  – “Who among you fears the LORD and obeys the voice of his servant? Let him who walks in darkness and has no light trust in the name of the LORD and rely on his God” (Isaiah 50:10 ESV). The promise is not that we will always have absolute clarity or full understanding of the road we are called to take, but that God, our perfect Guide will never leave us. He sees everything, and knows the way ahead.

We draw from God’s infinite stores  of love, guidance, comfort and protection at every stage of our lives. Even when we stumble, He is by our side to pick us up and set us on the right path. His word will sustain and strengthen us. The longest psalm (Psalm 119) dwells on the effect of God’s word on the believer’s life, and its sufficiency to meet every contingency that we might face.  Everything necessary for life and salvation is ours through Christ Jesus, and so our lives are enriched in every way. The beautiful things that we receive in this new life amply make up for the things we are called to give up; and everything we lay down for His sake is restored to us either in this world or in eternity. Yet even these manifold blessings fade in the light of the great hope that we have of spending eternity in the presence of the Altogether Lovely One, Jesus Christ, our Redeemer.

A whole new dimension is added to our lives, and anyone who has tasted life at this level cannot easily deny Him, or go back to their old ways. Peter and the disciples, as they grew in understanding of the enormity of the task before them, the rejection and the dangers that they would inevitably face as they merged their lives and destinies with Christ’s, were then offered an opportunity to return to their old lives, as some others had done. Yet having seen the light they would not – and could not – choose to walk again in darkness.

“So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (John 16:22 ESV).

As difficult as it is to explain to those who do not know Christ, it is this hope that makes all the difference. Those who share in the abundant life may see an uphill path ahead, but we have tasted the choicest wine and nothing else will now satisfy.

Father, thank You for the wonderful privilege of belonging to You through Jesus Christ, and for the abundant life we now share in Him. Keep us in Your love all the days of our lives. In Jesus’ name.

A Stint in the Wilderness

forest-1225983_960_720.jpg“Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years… to humble and test you so that in the end it might go well with you” (Deuteronomy 8:2, 16 NIV)

After Joshua and the Israelites had spent 40 years in the wilderness, God commanded them to cross the Jordan to enter the Promised Land. Now the generation of Israelites who came out of the wilderness were very different to their fathers, who had left Egypt under the leadership of Moses. A wayward and ungodly generation had given way to a uniquely godly one. How did this happen? In this post, we will briefly examine how a ‘wilderness experience’ impacts the character and lives of God’s people.

Although the older generation had received the laws and ordinances of God from Moses, their character had been moulded by their experience as slaves in Egypt. Their souls were not receptive to God’s word, which fell like seed on rocky ground. They were outwardly circumcised, but their hearts were full of bitterness, tied to the patterns of this world, stubbornly resistant to God’s instruction and His promises.

In the wilderness, the Israelites were often deprived of basic necessities – food, water, clothing as well as direction – and they were forced to rely on supernatural provision and God’s continual guidance. The conditions were harsh, their resources were scarce, and while God supplied all their needs in a timely manner, He did not always do it in the way that they might have liked. Unbelief marked the response of the Israelites from Egypt to nearly every situation they encountered; they responded to danger with fear, and to scarcity with anger and grumbling. They would not stop complaining even after God sent the heavenly manna, but longed for the ‘fleshpots of Egypt’, forgetting the heavy price they had paid for every crumb from Pharaoh – the backbreaking toil, the lash and abuse. Egypt had totally possessed their minds and hearts, and they were not ready to submit to a new Master, let alone follow Him, even though He had promised to lead them to a beautiful land flowing with milk and honey.

Finally, God sentenced them to a period – forty years – of wandering in the wilderness, until that entire generation had passed away. Now those Israelites were not, by any means, all bad. This was the generation that had left Egypt at God’s command to go to a strange land. Among them was Bezalel, the master craftsman, who built the tabernacle of the Lord according to the pattern He showed Moses, while the rest of the Israelites gave generously from their treasure, and laboured diligently to complete its work. At Rephidim, they bravely resisted the terrible Amalekites who had come to attack them.

God never forgets the past faithfulness of His own people, and hundreds of years later, when He was about to discipline their descendants for backsliding, He mentioned the wilderness experience of their fathers – “I remember the devotion of your youth, how as a bride you loved me and followed Me through the desert, through a land not sown” (Jeremiah 2:2 NIV). Yet, even His love couldn’t carry them because they refused to follow Him all the way in simple trust. Having taken their first steps along new and unknown paths, they then faltered – being pulled back by their bitter Egyptian experience and crippled by unbelief – and sadly, failed to take hold of their rightful inheritance.

The unbelief, therefore, had to be eradicated from them. The wilderness experience was designed specifically for this purpose – it was God’s operating room, where He performed the divine surgery upon their hearts to heal them, and make them ready to become inheritors of His covenant and promises. What is the evidence that God had successfully effected the desired transformation in the Israelites?

  1. Joshua’s generation responded differently to their Egyptian experience – their faith being enhanced and not shaken by it. Whenever they recalled their past as slaves, it was no longer with fear and foreboding, or even a longing to return, but Egypt had become for them, a place where they had triumphed over great adversity. They viewed it as a place of former sorrows, and did not wish to return; but equally it was for them the land where God had come to their aid, and performed miracles on their behalf. So their sorrow was swallowed up in joy, and the victories of Egypt had become the wind in their sails to propel them through future storms. In later generations, when enemies came against them, they would pray, “Our God, did you not deliver our fathers? Do it again in our time – renew Your miracles and save us from this danger.”
  2. Faith had replaced unbelief. “The just shall live by faith”, and the wilderness is the place where we learn to exercise faith. The Israelites found that they could not survive, or even take a step forward, let alone come out of the wilderness except through faith. No other currency is valid here. The props we have ‘in civilisation’ are not to be found in the wilderness. Receiving daily rations of manna begins to seem normal, as also having to break camp to set forth at God’s command. The Israelites needed faith from the first to the last, and by faith they possessed the Promised Land.
  3. A sanctified self-image had replaced the old damaged one. They saw themselves as conquerors, not grasshoppers. Their vision was transformed, and they began to see events and people through spiritual lenses. The giants of Egypt no longer frightened them. Compare the report their fathers had brought to Moses – “We can’t attack those people; they are stronger than we are… we seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them” (Numbers 13:31-33 NIV); with the report of Joshua’s spies – “The Lord has surely given the whole land into our hands; all the people are melting in fear because of us” (Joshua 2:24 NIV). 
  4. Obedience replaced a rebellious attitude. The Israelites that came out with Moses were a quarrelsome lot, who thought nothing of resisting the authority of Moses, or rejecting God’s specific commandments. In contrast, their children found it easy and natural to obey God’s laws, and submitted to Joshua’s leadership unquestioningly, for in the wilderness they had learnt that “man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8:3). So they were spared the endless struggle and the discipline that their ancestors had to undergo. Whatever God commanded them – whether to cross the flooding waters of the Jordan on foot, or to undergo circumcision at Gilgal, or to circle Jericho for seven days – the Israelites eagerly obeyed. Obedience had become a habit, and they enjoyed its fruits in their generation.
  5. A willingness to serve replaced selfish ambition. Some of the older generation under the leadership of Korah, a Levite and some Reubenites coveted the position of priesthood given to the descendants of Aaron. When they aggressively challenged Moses, God vindicated him, allowing the earth to split open and swallow the rebels. Their descendants, however,  understood the benefits of  carrying one another’s burdens. For example, the Reubenites who received their allotted inheritance before the other tribes, could have spared themselves the dangers of crossing Jordan and conquering Canaan. Yet they fulfilled their promise to Moses, going into battle ahead of their brothers until they too had taken possession of their inheritance.
  6. True worship replaced idolatry. In the wilderness, their eyes were opened to the danger of serving false gods. Their bond with God was strengthened through their trials, for they learned to discern His loving hand in every circumstance, whether good or bad. They recognised the idolatrous practices of their ancestors as acts of unfaithfulness against a loving God, and a snare to their souls. When Joshua demanded that they choose their loyalties – “Choose today whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the river, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord”, they unhesitatingly replied, “Far be it from us to forsake the Lord… We too will serve the Lord, because He is our God” (Joshua 23:15-18 NIV).
  7. Defeat gave way to victory. The Bible gives no indication that Joshua’s men were better soldiers than their fathers, or more skilled in military tactics. The difference was that, like Moses before them, they had undergone the purifying experience of the wilderness. As they trudged the endless miles in that barren wasteland, they saw that ‘their sandals did not wear out and their clothes did not tear’. They discovered that in every situation, God alone is sufficient. Their renewed attitude ultimately determined their altitude. In the end, the conquest of Canaan and the great giants proved a small thing for them, for they trusted their God to go ahead of them like a ‘devouring fire’. By faith, their “weakness was turned to strength”, and they became powerful in battle, routing armies greater than theirs (Hebrews 11:34).

The wilderness experience – and most Christians will experience periods of suffering, emptiness and barrenness in our lives – is never intended by God as a form of punishment, but is designed for purifying, equipping and transforming us for life on a higher spiritual plane. The unseemly aspects of our character often come to the fore in the initial stages, but as we reach the end of the wilderness, these things are replaced by the ‘better things pertaining to eternal life.’

Father, please help us to trust You in the dry and barren periods of our lives, for we know these things are meant for our glory. In Jesus’ name.

A Grain of Wheat

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In His Steps

On account of His name;
Here we stand:
Before an unjust judge;
Who rules this land

Make up your minds,
Not to worry beforehand
How you will defend yourselves,
Or explain your stand.

Whenever you are arrested
And brought to trial,
Do not worry,
About what you will say.

Jesus said, “I will give you
Words and wisdom
That no adversary,
Can resist or contradict.”

“Say whatever is given you,
At the time
For it will not be you speaking,
But the Holy Spirit.”

Now all men hate us
Because we belong to Him,
Even our friends and brothers,
Call for our death.

Now our hearts are troubled
But let’s not pray
“Father, save us from
This hour.”

Let our prayer rather be
“Father, glorify Your name.”
For this reason
Jesus came.

Unless this little kernel
Of wheat falls,
To the ground and dies,
It remains single.

But, if it dies
It produces many seeds
Let us lay down our lives
That souls may live.

In this hour we know
The prince of this world
Stands condemned
He has no hold on us.

But Jesus lifted up
Now draws men to Himself
And standing firm
We gain eternal life.