The story this week is all about how God — who is love — seeks our hearts of love for Him, not our ritual routine obedience. God hates ritual religiosity! Why? Because it stands as a substitute and obstacle to what God really seeks — our hearts, as a response to His love.
And that’s the starting point of Psalm 139:
You have searched me, Lord, and You know me…You perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; You are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue, You, Lord, know it completely… and You lay Your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain…
How precious to me are Your thoughts, God! How vast is the sum of them! Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand — when I awake, I am still with You.
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18 excerpted
• See The Living Word Bible study for Sept 4 on these Bible readings with verse by verse commentary on the readings that follow, on which this article is based
• Watch this week’s video Does God Really Have My Heart (to follow)
God knows us and, importantly, knows our motives and loyalties. This leads us into the OT story about the prophet Jeremiah who was watching a potter at work. He saw how a vessel that the potter was working up, had become marred on the wheel, and the potter discards it, kneads it and starts again. For Jeremiah this becomes a picture through which God’s word comes to him. Let’s hear this in the words of Jeremiah 18:
This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Go down to the potter’s house, and there I will give you My message.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and I saw him working at the wheel. But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him.
Then the word of the Lord came to me. He said, “Can I not do with you, Israel, as this potter does?” declares the Lord. “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in My hand, Israel.
If… I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation… repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned. And if I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, and… it does evil… and does not obey Me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended… for it.
“Now therefore, say to the people of Judah and… Jerusalem, ‘This is what the Lord says: Look! I am preparing a disaster for you… So turn from your evil ways, each one of you, and reform your ways and your actions.'”
Jeremiah 18:1-11 excerpted
God gives Jeremiah a message about Judah and Jerusalem, although lovingly shaped by the Lord, marred by a fatal flaw opening up in their relationship with the Lord. Following the fate of the northern kingdom, exiled more than a century previously, now this southern kingdom of Judah was about to fall as a consequence of the same failure of faith and relationship.
As usual, the story evolves from an old covenant perspective, through teaching by Jesus who stands at a transition time between old and new, and then moving a new covenant perspective from a letter written to teach and encourage an early Holy Spirit-inspired church community.
And following Jeremiah’s potter, we come next to Jesus’ words recorded by Luke at a time of great popularity, when crowds were travelling with Jesus. But this story is about what it really means to be His disciple. It involves more than simply following, Jesus warns them — it requires them to count the cost of their dedication.
Large crowds were travelling with Jesus, and turning to them He said: “If anyone comes to Me and does not ‘hate’ father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters — yes, even their own life — such a person cannot be My disciple. And whoever does not carry their cross and follow Me cannot be My disciple.
“Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first…estimate the cost? For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone… will ridicule you, saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’
“Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Won’t he first…consider whether…with ten thousand men [he can] oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? If…not… he will send a delegation… and… ask for terms of peace. In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have, cannot be My disciples.”
Luke 14:25-33 excerpted
Jeremiah’s word in the previous reading had exposed how the nation of Israel’s heart did not belong to the Lord. And Jesus is saying that those who follow Him, are not His disciples unless their hearts really belong to Him. They needed to be people whose hearts were surrendered to Him, and indeed, that resolve would be tested by trials. Two stories from the contemporary Palestine political context are about counting the cost and working out when surrender was the wise option.
Surrender of our way of life and accepted values is exactly what Jesus is asking of us, if we are to accept His way and His values. Onesimus, an errant slave belonging to Philemon, a wealthy Greek householder and church host, had been a real help and friend to Paul, who appeals on his behalf, as we read in the letter Paul addresses to Philemon personally, but for the hearing of all who are part of His gathering:
Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus… to Philemon… and to the church that meets in your home: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I always thank…God as I remember you in my prayers, because [of] your love for all [God’s] people and your faith in the Lord Jesus. I pray that your partnership… in the faith may… deepen… your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ.
Your love has given me…joy and encouragement, brother. Therefore… I appeal to you on the basis of love… for… Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful… ‘onesimus’… both to you and to me.
I am sending him — who is my very heart — back to you. I would have liked to keep him… so that he could take your place in helping me…But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favour you do would… be voluntary.
Perhaps the reason he was separated from you… was that you might have him back forever — no longer as a slave, but… as a… brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you… as a brother in the Lord. So…[as] a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he… owes you anything, charge it to me. I will pay it back — not to mention that you owe me your very self. Refresh my heart in Christ… I write to you, knowing that you will do… more than I ask.
Philemon 1:1-21 excerpted
Paul is making this appeal on the basis of his friendship with Philemon, but especially their shared experience of knowing Christ as Lord. He is asking Philemon to forgive Onesimus — who in the mean time had opened his heart to Jesus as His Saviour and Lord — and receive him back on a different basis, possibly as a free man. In the culture of the time this was a very big ask. Paul’s heart-felt appeal to him on is on the basis of their shared identity as brothers in Christ — including Onesimus — and partnership in the Gospel.
What God required under the covenant Moses established with Him at Sinai, was absolute loyalty — meaning their worship was to be reserved for Him and Him alone. The priests were to instruct them about the law, and the sacrifices were to be made regularly to pay for their independent acts of sin, and keep the relationship with God right.
But all this had slipped, and as it slipped so the protection that the Lord afforded them was gradually withdrawn. And as we know, Judah’s conquest amd deportation happened just a few years later.
By Jesus’ time the emphasis had shifted, from a legal precept kind of obedience, to a relationship of the heart obedience that comes from believing in Him and trusting Him, as the One who is the unique path to salvation.
Jesus was not interested in having a big following. He wanted people to be with Him, but with Him for the right reasons — because they wanted to live more godly lives, and because they perceived that they could do that through Him.
By the time the first churches were growing, particularly in Greek Gentile areas, the earlier commanded obedience to the law had changed to living in relationship with the Lord, living for Him and with Him as they were enabled by the Holy Spirit. Jeremiah had prophesied many years previously that the law would become internalised — as it were, written on believers’ hearts. Now they would know on the inside what was right, and what was wrong, because they had the leading of the Holy Spirit, who also enabled them to love with God’s love, and live compassionately towards others.
This love and compassion was put to the test for Philemon, who was asked to overturn the long-established custom and practice of masters and slaves, and to receive back an escaped slave not just without punishment, but now as a brother and fellow believer.
This is the kind of commitment that Jesus seeks from us. It’s radical, and it’s all about relationship — a living, active, growing relationship which is dynamic and real although unseen. That is what we call faith, and it results in a spiritual transformation in us — a spiritual re-birth — which is how we move from not-very-successful old covenant kind of believing in God and trying to keep His commandments, to being enabled and empowered by His Holy Spirit who prompts us and guides us to live the Jesus way, and share His loving attitudes.
Father God, thank You so much that we can know You through Jesus. We hear Your challenge to us today about whether You really have our hearts. And our attitudes and ambitions, our finances, friendships and feelings!
Thank You, Jesus, that You gave up Your life for us, becoming shame so that we could be free from shame, and becoming the punished One, so we could be let off punishment due to us as sinners. How can we not give You our lives, in the sense of asking You to be Lord of them, as well as our Saviour?
Like Philemon, we pledge to forgive and accept again those who have let us down, and to love others as a partner in Your Good News and mission to share it. Empower us, we ask, to BE good news to others around us, to show ourselves genuine in sharing it. Amen.