This is about God’s challenge to the human ego, and the release that His Spirit brings into being able to live and relate His way
This article is based on the Bible study post for Sunday, August 8, which is based on the following readings, as listed by the Revised Common Lectionary, a common resource used by many churches and chapels, especially in rural areas.
2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33 — Absalom’s pride and betrayal ends in a shameful death in the forest
John 6:35, 41-51 — Inflexible attitudes cause some to grumble at Jesus’ declaration that He is the Bread of Life
Ephesians 4:25-5:2 — Those who belong to the Lord are recognised by living renewed, transformed lives full of Christ’s love
And also read: Psalm 130
A question to start
Who is Lord of your life? Who is on the throne? It’s an old question, but a very fundamental one — and it points to the biggest barrier that gets between us and our Father God.
This week’s three scenes combine to tell the bigger story of who God is — and tease out the story of who we think we are. This is the key to knowing His presence in our lives, or alternatively, being held back by a barrier which we have created. The good news is, Jesus has made it a straightforward choice: to hold on to our independence, our ego, our way of relating and all the pain that goes with it, or to welcome Him as Lord and let Him help us do it His way.
Our ego and God’s gentle rule don’t play well together. If we want to experience more of God, a good general rule is to dial down the strength of ‘self’, in the light of these three key questions:
- Who do you think you are?
- What makes you so sure you’re in the right?
- Why are you mean towards others?
An over-sized ego like Absalom
First lesson in this trio of Scriptures is the ending of probably the most unforgettable ‘Who do you think you are’ example in the Bible. Let’s consider the back story for a moment. Absalom was the third son of David, by a foreign mother, and he was renowned for his good looks and impressive mane of hair which he had cut once a year when it became too heavy. He bore a deep resentment against Amnon, David’s oldest son, who had raped his sister, and Absalom later used subterfuge to lure Amnon to join his men for a sheep-shearing party and then when he was the worse for drink he had them kill him. It was a horrible and cowardly deed, and Absalom had to flee and lived in exile outside Israel for three years. Then he was allowed back with limited freedom, but after a further two years his father relented and gave him the favour of court. Absalom’s way of repaying this gracious, but perhaps ill-judged, decision was by mounting a rebellion. He craved attention, had 50 men run after his chariot as a demonstration of pomp and even built a monument to himself. After raising an army and he set out to humiliate and kill his father and take the throne — but even as a fugitive David urged his commanders not to treat him harshly.
David’s army marched out of the city to fight Israel, and the battle took place in the forest of Ephraim. There Israel’s troops were routed by David’s men, and the casualties that day were great– twenty thousand men. The battle spread out over the whole countryside, and the forest swallowed up more men that day than the sword.
Now Absalom happened to meet David’s men. He was riding his mule, and as the mule went under the thick branches of a large oak, Absalom’s hair got caught in the tree. He was left hanging in mid air, while the mule he was riding kept on going.
2 Samuel 18:6-9
The story that started with Absalom’s good looks and thick hair ends with him caught up by it, hanging in a tree and dying a cursed death.
David’s senior commander Joab and his personal support arrived. Less sentimental than the king and well aware of the threat to the king’s life, they finished him off there and then and his final monument was a pile of rocks, symbolic of the punishment of stoning.
Absalom had gained a following by ingratiating himself with others, but the manner of his death, with his long hair caught in a tree, pointed to the arrogance and overweening ego which had long been his defining characteristic.
Proud, inflexible minds like Jesus’ critics
Now the scene for the second teaching shifts to Capernaum in Galilee and Jesus teaching the disciples and the crowd of hearers what the Feeding of the Five Thousand was all about. On one level of understanding, a very large crowd, far from home, needed sustenance. On another level, it recalled God’s miraculous provision of manna during the desert years, and pointed to God’s gift of eternal life through His Son.
Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to Me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in Me will never be thirsty.John 6:35, 41-43
At this the Jews there began to grumble about Him because He said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They said, “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can He now say, ‘I came down from heaven’?”
History repeats… and this negative response mirrors the attitude of their ancestors in the desert, a whole generation of whom occupy pages of Scripture in their grumbling about God’s provision of manna and refusal to exercise faith to imagine the better life He had planned for them.
Jesus goes on the explain that the manna that came down for their ancestors sustained them for that day, and did not give them immortality. But believing in Him would be to receive the Living Bread, in other words Himself, and His self-sacrifice that would come. He explains further how believing in Him for eternal life comes about:
“No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day. It is written in the Prophets: ‘They will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard the Father and learned from Him comes to Me… Very truly I tell you, the one who believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life.John 6:44-45, 48
Those who are saved are changed, spiritually and evidentially, through having an encounter with Jesus, a real and conscious life-changing decision which cannot be reduced to a ritual. Jesus teaches that there are two things working together here — being drawn to the Father by His unearned favour, and also being enabled to respond to Him, believing and receiving in faith. This brings the spiritual transformation which leads to eternal life, and is experienced as a new spiritual dimension of life, a closeness to Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and awa reness of the kingdom of God here and now.
Some people who encountered Jesus in the flesh and saw the signs that He did, and were able to reflect on the teaching He gave about the signs, could not believe and could not receive. Their minds were too inflexible. Whatever Jesus did, He was just an artisan to them. Whatever Jesus said, they knew better. This is a picture of how we can be the biggest obstacle to God being able to call us to know Him personally.
Unredeemed attitudes that grieve God’s Spirit
The third lesson in this teaching comes out of Paul’s teaching to the church, originally those that were growing in and around Ephesus, about the battle between human pride and the new life of the Holy Spirit.
The new life is new. It is different. The way we relate to others is not the blame-game of the world, but is Jesus-like.
This is a work that the Holy Spirit does in us and it comes out of the new birth, receiving Jesus as Saviour and also Lord, and being filled with His spirit. So it not something we work towards or attain, but something recreated in us which we guard, not slipping back into the old ways. It is not so much about “doing”, as growing in a new way of “being”.
Paul explains that anger, a normal emotional response, if carried over, becomes an unforgiving resentment — and the devil, who is watching out for an opportunity to accuse us and oppress us, quickly recognises this for the sin it is.
Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbour, for we are all members of one body. “In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry and do not give the devil a foothold…Ephesians 4:25-27
Jesus was uncompromising in teaching that in life, people will cut across us, but our response is always to forgive:
Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us. And lead us not into temptation.Luke 11:4
The specific temptation right here is to take offence, and especially to hold on to it. In coming to God through Jesus, we have been forgiven of countless sins, and unconditionally. That’s God’s grace and although the devil doesn’t understand grace, he knows that our holding unforgiveness is dishonest and a denial of what we ourselves have received. It is a sin, and sin in our lives gives him a place, or foothold, to get access to oppress our thoughts and emotions.
That’s why people in churches who profess to be born-again Christians with new lives, are sometimes found behaving in ways that are not at all Christlike… falsehood and critical gossip, bitterness, outbursts of anger and malice.
Doing what Jesus said to do, forgiving unconditionally those that have hurt us, is emotionally quite a difficult call, but spiritually it is powerful. It removes the grounds that the devil has to oppress. We are no longer professing one thing but doing another. And we have ceased to cause the Holy Spirit to be grieved and back off from us, but are now open to His help and guidance.
Paul teaches that we counter the hurts and injustices of others, not in that same harsh spirit, but by cancelling them out in the opposite spirit:
Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.Ephesians 4: 29-32
The Holy Spirit in us enables us to respond differently. If we let Him!
These are the ways from the Bible we can be the barrier to the life of God’s Spirit in us that He wants us to enjoy. And attention to these three questions…
- Who do you think you are?
- What makes you so sure you’re in the right?
- Why are you mean towards others?
…will help us to recognise a wrong path and wrong attitude, turn from it and allow God’s grace to flow in our lives again, and our witness to Jesus to shine out once more.