How to live God’s way

Living in God’s word like well-watered trees, Psalm 1.

Image credit: Joni Shaffer

Church calendar readings for Sunday, May 13, in Bible order

Prepare for Sunday by reading and reflecting on the word for the week. Formerly this was structured with a passage to read and reflect on for each day, but I felt that was overly prescriptive. Use this as a weekly resource to divide up or come back to, as seems best to you. The principle of ‘having the Scriptures in us’ before hearing the Scriptures preached is well-proven, however. And it is a good stand-alone Bible study! –IanG

Ezekiel 36:24-28 – Living God’s way from within

Psalm 1 – Living like well-watered trees

John 17:6-19 – Living as those united by Jesus

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26 – Living as witnesses that Jesus is alive

1 John 5:9-13 – Living the new life that the Son of God gives

The saying “Whoever has the Son has life” in 1 John 5:12 is like a headline over the theme that emerges from this week’s Sunday readings (you may only hear two or three of them in church). This is about living God’s way – living as those who belong to God through receiving Jesus – and give five complementary pictures of what that means.

= = = = = = =

 

Ezekiel 36:24-28 » Living God’s way from within

• In the regathering, the Holy Spirit is promised to be a personal enabler of righteous living

24  “ ‘For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land.

“Out of the nations” – out of a pagan land.

25  I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols.

“I will cleanse you” – as Jews, they were defiled by ungodly pagan practices all around them, but also by their history that had caused the fall of Jerusalem.

26  I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.

This is a repeated theme in Ezekiel – a revelation the prophet caught and expressed at different times, Ezekiel 11:19, 18:31.

27  And I will put My Spirit in you and move you to follow My decrees and be careful to keep My laws.

The Law instituted by Moses and subsequently turned into a detailed ‘do this, don’t do that’ religious system was near-impossible to keep – as any religious system is for people trying to work it out in their own strength. To be empowered by the Holy Spirit to WANT to live right by God was to be a seismic change in the whole order of things, that would happen at Pentecost.

28  Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be My people, and I will be your God.

“Your God…My people” – the covenant language reminds hearers of God’s kind, not harsh, intentions. The relationship between God and His people would be restored.

In practice

When the relationship breaks down, God is always looking for ways to restore it, on His initiative. That was always part of His covenant promise. The covenant required His people to obey, but promised to treat them better than they deserved – with His unearned, faithful love – when things went wrong.

Life is like that. Relationships do get strained, damaged and broken. But in God’s view, that is not the end, but the beginning of a restoring process. This is God’s intentional work of renewal. He is always about this work of renewing and inviting us to see the need, and join Him.

These verses also set out a huge change: the Law instituted by Moses had not been working. Man has been created with free will, and that means there is an independent and at times wayward tendency in all of us. The promise of His Spirit was to counter that with a desire and therefore tendency to get better and better at both knowing and following God’s ways. We can only do that with His Holy Spirit in us – a heart change that comes as a result of us recognising who our Saviour Jesus really is, and inviting Him to reign in us.

Question

Is God’s gift of new life an opportunity to decide for Him, or the start of a process of renewal that goes on in us and even through us?

 

Psalm 1 » Living like well-watered trees

• The righteous person who loves living in the Word is blessed in the relationship with God that brings

1  Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked

or stand in the way that sinners take, or sit in the company of mockers,

2  but whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night.

“Blessed” – Happy or fortunate

Both Psalm 1 and Psalm 2 use the same word, hāgâ,  to contrast the righteous person who  “meditates” on God’s word, v.2, with Psalm 2:1 where God’s enemies “plot”, or meditate on, rebellion. Another part of the contrast is the determination of the righteous individual to seek God’s way, and not be swayed by the crowd of those who feel they know best, described as wicked mockers.

3  That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,

which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither—

whatever they do prospers.

“That person” – As in “blessed is the one” (v.1), the individual who goes against the more acceptable unbelieving crowd but who has a philosophy of life that is rooted in the Word. This is the way that “prospers”, knowing the constancy of God’s provision and protection rather than a life of blips and dips.

For further study see Jeremiah 17:5-8, Joshua 1:8, Matthew 6:33.

4-5  Not so the wicked! They are like chaff that the wind blows away. Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.

“The wicked” – showing a disregard for God and his Way. Not being anchored in God’s truth leaves us too lightweight and blown around by mere opinion, to be a good influence in the community (or church)

6  For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked leads to destruction.

“Watches over” – an intimate, relational word. “Wicked – our ‘I know best’ independence casts us loose from the security of being held in relationship with God.

In practice

Those individuals who choose to go against the crowd and maintain a close relationship with God through His Word, are contrasted with the many who are disdainful.

There is no fast track to the prosperity of life that the Bible describes, which is a broad prosperity in which financial sufficiency is just a part. However, there are simple ways we can follow which attract God’s blessing and favour. Because God is essentially relational, these will all be ways for us to stay close to Him. The number one way is to learn to hear His voice, by reflecting on His revelation of Himself in His Word.

If we think we don’t need to read God’s Word and seek His guidance day by day, we are an accident waiting to happen. Independence doesn’t play out well for God who wants us to know His love and respond to Him in a relationship.

Question

What is needed for a tree or shrub to prosper? How well does that picture what we need to grow well and true?

John 17:6-19 » Living as those united by Jesus

• Jesus’ prays for those that are His to be united in knowing God’s love and protected from the tendency to division

6-7  “I have revealed You to those whom You gave me out of the world. They were yours; you gave them to Me and they have obeyed Your word. Now they know that everything You have given Me comes from You.

“I have revealed You…” – there are two particular ways Jesus revealed the Father. Firstly, by being God in human form – God incarnate, the Word became flesh, John 1:14 – and secondly, by being the Way to the Father, John 14:6. See ‘In practice’.

8  For I gave them the words You gave me and they accepted them. They knew with certainty that I came from You, and they believed that You sent Me.

“They knew with certainty” – that what Jesus taught was from the Father and was truth. They would need more time to fit the pieces together to understand Jesus’ death and resurrection, and how the OT Passover lamb, priest, temple and suffering servant was fulfilled in Him.

9-10  I pray for them. I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given Me, for they are Yours. All I have is Yours, and all You have is mine. And glory has come to Me through them.

11  I will remain in the world no longer, but they are still in the world, and I am coming to You. Holy Father, protect them by the power of Your name, the name you gave Me, so that they may be one as We are one.

“That they may be one” – of one mind and heart about God’s purpose and their mission.

12  While I was with them, I protected them and kept them safe by that name You gave Me. None has been lost except the one doomed to destruction so that Scripture would be fulfilled.

13-14  “I am coming to You now, but I say these things while I am still in the world, so that they may have the full measure of My joy within them. I have given them Your Word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world.

“The world has hated them” – which is why we need the joy of belonging to Jesus to be our motivation. His way, as He is teaching here, also John 15:11, releases something deeper and stronger than happiness. When we get religious about what we think is correct or not, or competitive about our way rather than other ways, the joy (and the anointing) quickly fades.

15-16  My prayer is not that You take them out of the world but that You protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it.

Following Jesus brings its own protection, the New Covenant, and it also brings its own attack. Satan does not give up ground easily. We have to learn to live in the world, relating to people and policies that do not reflect our beliefs and values, while drawing our strength from the Father and our guidance from the Holy Spirit as those who are not of the world.

17-19  Sanctify them by the truth; Your Word is truth. As you sent Me into the world, I have sent them into the world. For them I sanctify Myself, that they too may be truly sanctified.

Our coming to know Jesus, who is the truth, and our being empowered by the Spirit of Truth, does change us and set us apart for God – being sanctified, or made holy, in Bible language.

In practice

Jesus revealed the Father by giving us a key whereby we could come first to Him, and then know the Father: “I am the way… no one comes to the Father except through Me. If you really know Me, you will know my Father as well…”, John 14:6-7. Once we take that decision, there dawns an awareness of a wonderful one-ness we share with other believers who have come to the Father through Jesus, whatever stream they may worship with.

The difference between what is sometimes described as ‘churchianity’ and true organic Christianity is right here in this teaching by Jesus, about those who are His maintaining a united heart and witness. He knew that there would be a tendency for control and competition and division to creep in – that is man’s way – and He was teaching that His Way was not like that.

It is increasingly common for Christians to disregard denominational barriers to pray and worship together and especially to engage in outreach. Recently, outreach has been found to be particularly effective in towns where there is genuine friendship between different streams of the church, with Christians of different streams going out on the streets in threes. We are in it together, for our protection but also for His mission.

This passage makes it clear that we are not soldiers of the barracks but sent out. However, like soldiers, as soon as we step out, we start getting rather too well acquainted with the enemy of freedom and life, Satan. Togetherness and one-ness is vitally important. No one in Special Forces would ever need to be reminded of that!

Question

What more could we do that would emphasise – and bring – the oneness we have as those who belong to Jesus?

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26 » Living as witnesses that Jesus is alive

• The Twelve are made complete again to be solid witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection to new life.

15-17  In those days Peter stood up among the believers (a group numbering about 120) and said, “Brothers and sisters,  the Scripture had to be fulfilled in which the Holy Spirit spoke long ago through David concerning Judas, who served as guide for those who arrested Jesus.  He was one of our number and shared in our ministry.”

Peter was looked up to as a leader of the apostles in the gospel accounts and especially in the early times of the church described in the first few chapters of Acts. He had (v.20) spoken two well-known sayings from Psalm 69:25 and Psalm 109:8 “May his place be deserted… May another take his place of leadership” which seem rather like a prophetic word to them to make the Twelve complete in number.

21-22  Therefore it is necessary to choose one of the men who has been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus was living among us, beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection.”

“Witness with us” – The two particular requirements were that the person was a witness to Jesus’ resurrection – many people encountered Him at this time, so that was not too difficult. But the other requirement was for their experience of Jesus to be similar to the remaining eleven, knowing Him for the three years of His ministry. The first apostles needed to be authoritative eyewitnesses of how Jesus showed Himself to be Messiah, against the denial and threats of the Jewish rulers.

23  So they nominated two men: Joseph called Barsabbas (also known as Justus) and Matthias.

24-26   Then they prayed, “Lord, You know everyone’s heart. Show us which of these two You have chosen to take over this apostolic ministry, which Judas left to go where he belongs.” Then they cast lots, and the lot fell to Matthias; so he was added to the eleven apostles.

“Casting lots” – possibly shaking marked stones in a jar until one fell out, a bit like our ‘heads or tails’ – is never mentioned again. It became obsolete at the coming of the Holy Spirit who Himself guides and leads God’s people.

In practice

Here we see God restoring the Twelve who keenly felt the loss and shame of one of their number who was the one who betrayed Jesus, and then died an unpleasant death in the field he bought with the bounty. It was a messy situation – but we see God’s hand in bringing restoration of the first team of eye-witness apostles.

God’s guidance is something we all seek, but we know it is an imperfect art, even with the help and guidance of prayer and the Holy Spirit. This snapshot taken just before the coming of the Holy Spirit shows them casting lots, and no doubt this was done prayerfully. A short time later, they were all much more confident about what they were hearing and seeing – not to mention much more bold in the face of people who wanted to flog them, or worse.

We find guidance today a challenge, but the lesson from this passage is that God uses many ways to guide, and if we give Him time and listen – they were doing plenty of that in the Upper Room – He does speak to us.

Question

What ways do you know that churches use to choose leaders? Does it matter what way is used if it is done prayerfully?

1 John 5:9-13 (verses 6-8 added) » Living the new life that the Son of God gives

• The testimony about Jesus is incontrovertible

6-8   This is the one who came by water and blood – Jesus Christ. He did not come by water only, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. For there are three that testify: the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement.

9  We accept human testimony, but God’s testimony is greater because it is the testimony of God, which He has given about his Son.

“Human testimony” – Verse 9 needs the context of 6-8 to be understood. When Jesus encountered people who would not accept His testimony about Himself,  He pointed them to His works, John 10:25. The Holy Spirit (Spirit of Truth) gives witness to who Jesus is, and John’s readers would mostly have experience of this, John 15:26. John calls two widely known works of God, Jesus’ baptism and crucifixion. Generally two or three witnesses were needed for human testimony. John calls three ultra-reliable witnesses of God Himself.

10  Whoever believes in the Son of God accepts this testimony. Whoever does not believe God has made Him out to be a liar, because they have not believed the testimony God has given about His Son.

“Whoever believes in…” – There’s a difference between believing that Jesus was a historical figure who did good and set an example to follow, and believing in Jesus, Son of God and crucified Saviour who I call my Saviour and Lord.

11  And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son.

12  Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.

To have the Son comes simply through turning to and believing in the Son. It is through faith in Christ, not any observances, that we have life, which is experienced as a new dimension of life now, as well as assurance of eternal life (v.13), John 14:6, Acts 4:12.

13  I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.

In practice

The Jewish religious leaders didn’t want to believe who Jesus was, let alone that Jesus is resurrected and alive. The followers of Gnosticism were a discordant strain in the early church who didn’t believe that Jesus was fully God and fully man, and John was writing partly to counter their unbelieving influence.

We get that today. There’s a lot of Christian religion that has been constructed around a set of beliefs and observances but with no recognition that the Lordship of Jesus and personal submission to  Him comes first and holds central place.

John would say to us today, the baptism and transfiguration of Jesus both happened and the audible voice of God was heard to affirm His Son. No one seriously challenges that the crucifixion of Jesus happened – secular historians of the time noted it as an important event. But those who have turned to Jesus and believed in Him have their own inward witness, the witness of the Holy Spirit of God who brings a revelation and understanding that goes beyond what can be understood intellectually. They know. They have a new dimension of life which is close to a definition of Christian joy. And they are secure in themselves, held by the love of God and with the assurance of being in the early stages of eternal life with Him.

Question

Have you been invited to pray this prayer? It’s always good to pray it again:

Lord Jesus, I turn to You now, believing that You are the only Son of God, who was born as man, lived a perfect life of obedience to Your heavenly Father, and then went willingly to a shameful execution to pay the price of my sins.
I ask that all my independence from God, my rebellion against God, my selfishness in wanting to be the master of my own destiny – all my sin, past present and future – be put under the cleansing of Your blood shed in your death on that Cross.
And I ask, Jesus, that You fill me with Your Holy Spirit now, to give me revelation of what I do not understand, that I might know the fullness of new life with Your peace, and be empowered to learn to walk with You in life, join You on Your mission and then dwell with You always. Thank You, Jesus. Amen.

This is a big decision that will bring release and joy, but a decision that will be tested as well. Talk it over with your parish priest, pastor, or trusted Christian friend so that you have some prayer and practical companionship on this exciting leg of your journey with God!

The emerging message – empowered to live out the Way

The early disciples of Jesus were known as followers of the Way before they were known as Christians, Acts 11:25-26. They were followers of the Way of God, not the rigid and religious way the Pharisees would have people do it, but the new Way and new life demonstrated by Jesus.

This Way was foretold by Ezekiel who saw in the Spirit a picture of the old, hard, stone-like ‘heart’ which is our inner being – the heart of our desires and motivations – being replaced with a new feeling, sensitive, spiritual heart, alive to God. With this new heart, the Way of God would no longer be a drudge but a joy, not hard-won by effort but experienced through exploration.

The ‘exploration’ is allowing God to speak to us through His word. Psalm 1 puts this rather formally as “the law of the Lord” but says this is something we can delight in. Exploration is fun. When we sense God speaking to us personally through words and phrases that are eternal, it is exciting. The “wicked”, who think they know best, miss out on all of this, but being rooted in God’s word is how we live fruitful lives, following God’s Way.

Everyone who belongs to Jesus has a special affinity with everyone else who belongs to Jesus, although the churches or buildings we gather in to worship may have very different names and represent different styles. That one-ness is spiritually powerful, not just in terms of mutual encouragement, but because the humble prayer “when two of you… agree” Matthew 18:19 is the prayer with God’s power behind it. Jesus, knowing the heavenly principle of one-ness, prayed that believers would be protected in it, knowing full well that the enemy of souls who comes to kill, steal and destroy the new life John 10:10 would be active in sowing distrust, competition and division. The world sees churches in competition, and sometimes they are. The Way of Jesus has nothing to do with this form of pride and everything to do with collaboration.

The Way of the Lord leads us to the Cross, a place where we can be real about those things in our life and attitudes which grieve God but also the place where we can lay them down and receive the forgiveness that cancels the record of sin. The Way of Jesus doesn’t leave us there, but propels us into new life beyond the Cross, the life that is lived in the presence of Jesus who is alive. The first apostles needed to be a full number, strong in their resolve to face persecution in proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus. The Way of Jesus for us, is to know and to tell others that He is alive, a very real and also approachable Saviour and Lord.

Those who know Him – “whoever has the Son” – have a dimension of life and joy that is infectious. We are the testimony to who Jesus is, the Son of God, because the Holy Spirit in us testifies, not just to us but through us to others.

As present-day Followers of the Way, we have a new heart and reborn spirit, we have the delight of the Scriptures speaking to us, we have the unity with other believers, the excitement about the resurrection and a desire to be a testimony and witness to others. The Way of God is to walk with Jesus who told people “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life” John 14:6. Whether by actions, or attitudes, or perhaps by words of explanation, we have both the responsibility and also the privileged and empowered commission, to show the One who is the Way of God to a world that needs Him.

The song that pilgrims in festal procession sang came to life in a new way at Jesus’ entry into the city

WEDNESDAY, MARCH 21
Psalm 118:1-2 and 19-29

The person whose name had the meaning “You have become my salvation” was to become the “stone that the builders rejected”  in the words of this processional.

This is a song of national deliverance i.e. victory over the Canaanites or victory over enemies following the exile, at the dedication of the second temple or the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem, Ezra 6:16, Nehemiah 12:37-43. Psalms 113 to 118 became a set of songs used at annual festivals to celebrate national deliverance after the exile, and as this was the last song of the set, it may have been what Jesus and the disciples sang after the Last Supper, Matt 26:30.

1  Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; His love endures forever.

2  Let Israel say: “His love endures forever.”

The Lord is good, and His mercy endures – the covenant affirmation and the conventional call to worship.

19  Open for me the gates of the righteous; I will enter and give thanks to the Lord.

20  This is the gate of the Lord through which the righteous may enter.

The “gates of the righteous… through which the righteous may enter” could be the way in for the festal procession of the righteous, with the gates of the temple inner court symbolically guarding the presence of the Lord from any who are unrighteous. See Psalm 24.

21  I will give You thanks, for You answered me; You have become my salvation.

“Salvation” – the procession entering Jerusalem and the Temple, seen as the dwelling place of God, to celebrate the deliverance of God’s people, time after time, by God’s gracious action. We would say this verse with joy and sincerity in the different understanding of finding salvation with God through receiving the Son of God as a personal Saviour and Lord.

22  The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone…

The chief stone in the whole building, by which the several parts of the building are upheld and firmly united together; thus Christ united Jews and Gentiles together (John Wesley). Isaiah says elsewhere that the Israelites had forsaken the God’s cornerstone for their own refuge in a lie, Isaiah 28:15. The NT leaves us in no doubt that the cornerstone of v.22 foreshadows Jesus, Matt. 21:42, Acts 4:11, Rom. 9:32, Eph. 2:20, 1 Pet. 2:6ff.

23  …the Lord has done this, and it is marvellous in our eyes.

24  The Lord has done it this very day; let us rejoice today and be glad.

The crucifixion of Jesus was like throwing out the main building block; the resurrection of Jesus was his vindication, a focus of “marvellous” rejoicing for the Early Church and Christians subsequently for whom these words have been prophetic and a source of worship.

25  Lord, save us! Lord, grant us success!

26  Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord. From the house of the Lord, we bless you.

What Jesus had earlier implied by quoting these words, Matt. 21:42, the crowd at the Entry to Jerusalem saw for themselves. The crowd’s  ‘Hosanna’ (hôšîʿ ânnāʾ, ‘Save, pray!’) of v.25 is related to “my salvation of v.21) and followed by their shout “Blessed is He who comes …” which continues the quotation from this psalm.

27  The Lord is God, and He has made His light shine on us. With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession up to the horns of the altar.

This verse tells us that the psalm is written for a festal procession, most likely more than a Sabbath. The three big annual pilgrim feasts were Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles. There is the sense from these verses of call and answer: one procession, already inside the gates, was greeting another that was arriving.

28  You are my God, and I will praise you; you are my God, and I will exalt you.

The processional ends with declarations that “The Lord is God” – the only God – and “You are my God” and the affirmation that the Lord is good and enduringly merciful.

29  Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; His love endures forever.

The crowd who took part in these processions year after year could not have imagined that there would be a time when the symbolism would break out into reality, Hebrews 10:1, the horns of the altar would become the arms of the Cross, and the festival would become the full and final sacrifice of “Christ our Passover” 1 Cor 5:7.

Application

This processional song was often sung at the major festivals when people would come into the city from the area around with a common desire to honour God for His goodness – and in remembering the past times of deliverance for the nation.

How good are we at recounting what God has done for us? The situations that turned around, the answered prayers, the unexpected signs of God’s favour?

We may call them coincidences but in the heavenly order, nothing is a coincidence. In the spiritul battles of life, praise is our most powerful weapon, and praise with testimony puts a sharp edge on that weapon.

For reflection, or as a discussion starter

What recent instance of God’s goodness in answered prayer in His provision or in another aspect of salvation, could you speak out to give brief testimony to His goodness?