Scientists have estimated that the number of stars in the observable universe is 7 x 1022, which is “7” followed by 22 zeros! This is similar to their estimate of the number grains of sand on planet earth of 7 x 1021, which is “7” followed by 21 zeros. These are big numbers!
Many years ago (about 2,100BC), God promised Abraham: “I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore” (Gen. 22:17). He was given this promise (“I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth”) before he had any children (Gen. 13:16; 15:5) and it was repeated (Gen. 28:14). Isaac and Jacob were given similar promises and Moses recorded them (Gen. 26:4; 32:12; Ex. 32:13). And its fulfilment was confirmed by the writer of Hebrews: “And so from this one man, and he as good as dead (he was childless at 99 years of age), came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore” (Heb. 11:12).
The Bible says that the Israelite population grew rapidly in Egypt (Ex. 1:7-12). Moses wrote that the promise was fulfilled when they were about to enter Canaan (Dt. 1:10; 10:22; 28:62). “The Lord your God has increased your numbers so that today you are as numerous as the stars in the sky” (Dt. 1:10). As there were about 600,000 men in the exodus, their population would have been at least 2 million (Ex. 12:37; 38:26). This shows that God keeps His promises.
The statement, “as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore” was probably a metaphor or simile for a very large number. Apparently about 1,000 stars could be seen in the night sky in ancient times. But from the light in the night sky it is clear that there were more stars than this. The Bible says that although we can’t count all the stars, God can (Gen. 15:5; Ps. 147:4). Likewise for the grains of sand on the sea shore and the dust of the earth. In the ancient world these were symbols and illustrations of very big numbers. And modern science has verified that these are indeed very big numbers. In Abraham’s case they were symbols and illustrations of a large number of descendants.
For example the sand on the sea shore is used as a hyperbole for a large number (Gen. 41:49; Josh. 11:4; Jud. 7:12; 1 Sam. 13:5; 2 Sam. 17:11; 1 Ki. 4:20; Ps. 78:27; 139:18; Is. 10:22; 48:19; Jer. 15:8; Hos. 1:10; Hab. 1:9; Rom. 9:27; Rev. 20:8) or for something that is beyond measure (1 Ki. 4:49; Job 6:3).
We have seen that although the promise wasn’t fulfilled in Abraham’s lifetime, it was fulfilled at a later date. Likewise God has given Christians promises that He will fulfill after our lifetime. For example, “Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in His sufferings in order that we may also share in His glory. I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:17-18). Also, “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Cor. 4:17). This means that although we suffer in life, we are promised a glorious inheritance. Something fantastic is coming. There is a contrast between present suffering and future glory. The glory outweighs the suffering and it’s eternal instead of temporary. Like Abraham, we don’t see any evidence of this future glory now, but it’s assured.
Focusing on this promise helps us get through suffering and difficult times without giving up in despair. Then we can live in a way that glorifies God.
We have seen that God keeps His promises. Because He kept His promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, He will also keep this promise to His followers today.
Written, August 2015
Have you noticed how many media commentators ridicule God, Christians and the Bible? Their biased comments stir up controversy and attract attention. They promote atheism and ungodly lifestyles. But we can choose to either accept their views or reject them.
When Jesus was on earth people (the Jews) also had a choice between their religious leaders (who He called thieves) and Jesus. Jesus said, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (Jn. 10:10NIV). But what is life to the full? After looking at what this verse means we will see that following Jesus turns an empty spiritual life into a bountiful one.
The book of John is a selective biography of Jesus Christ. In the previous chapter Jesus heals a man who was born blind. As this miracle was done on the Sabbath day, the Pharisees used it to criticize Jesus saying that He was “not from God” and was a sinner (Jn. 9:16, 31). Jesus replied with a figure of speech saying that they were spiritually blind (Jn. 9:39-41). Chapter 10 is a continuation of this conversation as Jesus says, “Very truly I tell you Pharisees …” (Jn. 10:1).
In John 10:1-18 Jesus uses metaphors (v.6). He is the Good Shepherd and the gate. The Pharisees are thieves, robbers and hired hands. The Jewish people are sheep. In the Old Testament kings and leaders were often called shepherds (Ezek. 34:1-10) and God is said to be like a shepherd (Ps. 23:1; Is. 40:10-11; Ezek. 34:11-16). As shepherds lead sheep, leaders lead people. So this imagery should have been familiar to the Jews.
The main point is the contrast between Jesus and the Pharisees. They are selfish and damaging like thieves and robbers and like hired hands they don’t care about the sheep (people) (v.12-13); whereas He sacrificially lays down His life for people (v.11, 15, 17-18) and saves and sustains them (v.9).
The Jews who heard this conversation were divided (Jn. 10:19-39). Some opposed Jesus saying He was demon-passed, raving mad, guilty of blasphemy and tried to seize Him and to kill Him by stoning (v. 20, 31-33, 39). They didn’t believe His words (v.25-26). Others disagreed (v.21).
John 10:10 is an example of contrastive parallelism where the second line contrasts with the first line:
“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy;
I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”
The contrast is between the purpose of the thief and of the Shepherd. One destroys life and the other gives an abundant life. But what does “life” mean, is it physical or spiritual?
The Greek word “zoe” (Strongs #2222) means life, both physical (present) and spiritual (particularly future). It occurs 36 times in the book of John and each time seems to refer to eternal spiritual life. For example:
• Later in the same chapter, “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand” (Jn. 10:28), where “life” means God’s gift of spiritual life.
• Other examples of spiritual life in John are, “For God so loved the world that He gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16).
• And, “Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’” (Jn. 14:6).
This life is given by God upon trust in Jesus Christ (Jn. 5:39-40; 1 Jn. 5:11-12).
So the contrast in John 10:10 is between the presence and absence of spiritual life.
Steal, kill and destroy
John 10:10 says the thief’s purpose is to steal and kill and destroy. These words graphically describe the impact of the lack of spiritual life in the Pharisees. The Greek word “apollumi” (Strongs #622) means permanent destruction or loss. It is translated “perish” in John 10:28 (in the same chapter) and John 3:16. It is eternal death, which is the opposite of eternal life.
If we ignore Jesus, we:
• Are following the thieves, robbers and hired hands of this world that don’t care about people.
• Have an empty spiritual life that leads to eternal punishment.
• Miss out on a bountiful spiritual life that leads to eternal joy.
However, Jesus said with regard to those who follow Him, “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand” (Jn. 10:28). Note the contrast, they get eternal life and miss perishing.
Life to the full
John 10:10 says that Jesus gives life to the full. The Greek word “perissos” (Strongs #4053) is an adjective that means over and above, more than is necessary, abundant, and greater. This is the only instance of this word in John’s writings, but he uses the verb, “perisseuo” (Strongs #4052) to describe leftover food after people had eaten (Jn. 6:12-13).
If we follow Jesus, we:
• Are following the One who sacrificially laid down His life for people and saves and sustains them.
• Have a bountiful spiritual life that leads to eternal joy. As we are spiritual-physical beings, spiritual well-being should promote physical well-being.
• Avoid an empty spiritual life that leads to eternal punishment.
So the contrast between Jesus and the Pharisees in John 10:10 is:
• They are spiritually dead and influence others to remain in this state.
• Jesus offers people spiritual life that is so abundant that it is more than people need.
The people had a choice to follow either Jesus or the Pharisees.
Lessons for us
In view of humanity’s sinfulness, John 10:10 teaches us that God is gracious, loving and merciful. From the context, we see that there is conflict when some people believe this and some don’t. As Jesus was opposed strongly, we shouldn’t be surprised when there is opposition to God, Christians and the Bible.
Some use John 10:10 to teach that Christians will be blessed abundantly in their physical lives. But we know from Scripture that this is not the case. For example, Stephen was a godly man who witnessed faithfully to the Jewish Sanhedrin, but he was martyred (Acts 6:8 – 7:60).
Jesus is not on earth today, but the Bible contains a record of His teachings. The Pharisees are not opposing Christ today, but others are, including atheistic commentators who don’t believe the words of Scripture. As there was a contrast between Jesus and the Pharisees, so there is a contrast between Christ’s teachings and those who reject Christianity. Who will you follow?
Jesus cares for our eternal welfare and has provided an abundant spiritual life for those who follow Him. Following Jesus turns an empty spiritual life into a bountiful one.
Written, May 2014
We live in a world of contracts. They regulate our lives and financial transactions. There are employment contracts and marriage contracts. Contracts for the supply of telephone and internet services. Contracts when you buy a car or a property or build a house. Anti-bullying contracts at schools.
This article looks at some of God’s contracts in the Bible. We will see that because God keeps His contracts, we can rely on them.
Adam and Eve lived in utopia. But after they disobeyed God, they were banished from the Garden of Eden. Sinful behaviour increased until it had to be punished when God destroyed the world in a global flood and started again with Noah’s family. Noah lived about 2,500 years BC. We see two aspects of God’s character in His response to humanity’s sin. First there is judgement and punishment. Second there is grace and mercy. God’s covenants in the Old Testament are contracts with great promises.
The first five books of the Bible were written by Moses at about 1,500 years BC. The most important types of contracts, agreements and treaties at this time involved kings. There were two types:
- Royal land grants – A king’s free gift of land or some other benefit to a loyal servant. The grant was normally perpetual and unconditional, but the servant’s descendants benefited from it only if they continued to be loyal.
- Suzerain–vassal treaties – A treaty between a great king and the lesser kings that he ruled. Here the one with the political control is called the suzerain (a French word) and the other is called the vassal (a Latin word). The suzerain protected the vassal as long as the vassal was loyal to him. It was a conditional treaty.
We will now look at a series of covenants/contracts that God made with humanity. A contract is a legally binding agreement between two parties.
After the flood, God told Noah’s family, “Never again will all life be destroyed by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth” (Gen. 9:11NIV). He called it “a covenant for all generations to come” and an “everlasting covenant” (Gen. 9:12, 16). It was between God and every living creature on earth and was symbolised by the rainbow. It was unconditional, like a royal land grant.
When in Babylon, Ezekiel had the vision of God’s glory, and the radiance was like a rainbow (Ezek. 1:28). When on Patmos, John had the vision of the throne in heaven, which was encircled by a green rainbow (Rev. 4:3). The rainbow symbolises that God keeps His covenants/contracts.
How did people respond to God’s promise never to destroy the world again with a global flood? At this time they were also told to “fill the earth” (Gen. 9:1, 7). But they were disobedient and built the city of Babel instead and resisted being scattered across the earth (Gen. 11:1-4). That’s behaving like a teenager who is given everything by their parents, but rebels and goes their own way.
What about us? The Bible says that Jesus is “sustaining all things by His powerful word” and “in Him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17; Heb. 1:11). Do we live as though God sustains the universe, or do we ignore Him and go our own way?
So the first covenant/contract was a promise of God’s protection and now we will move to the second.
Promised nation and land
When the people proudly built a tower as a monument to celebrate their achievements, God judged their sin by causing the people to start using different languages (Gen. 11:7-9). Because they couldn’t understand each other, they scattered across the earth into different nations that spoke different languages.
Then God responded with grace and mercy and promised to give Abraham’s descendants the land of Canaan from the Wadi of Egypt to the Euphrates River (Gen. 15:18-21). This was unconditional like a royal land grant. By the way, this promise has not yet been fulfilled. Although Solomon ruled over it as over vassal states, his people didn’t occupy all of it themselves (1 Ki. 4:21, 24).
How did they respond? Sarah, unable to have any children, persuaded Abraham to father a child by her servant, Hagar (Gen. 16:2). The child was Ishmael, the ancestor of the Arabic people. Sarah and Abraham lacked faith and took matters into their own hands.
So God repeated the promise to give Abraham’s descendants the land of Canaan and promised to be their God (Gen. 17:1-22). He promised a son who was to be named Isaac who would have many descendants and Ishmael would also have many descendants. It was an everlasting covenant/contract (Gen. 17:7-8). They were to undergo male circumcision because it was the sign of this covenant/contract (Gen. 17:11).
How did they respond? Abraham promptly circumcised the males in his household. When they were told that Sarah would have a son, Abraham worshiped and laughed in amazement, while Sarah laughed in disbelief as she was past the childbearing age (Gen. 17:17-18; 18:9-15). In this case Sarah doubted God’s promise and needed to hear, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” (Gen. 18:14).
Politicians make promises before elections. But people often doubt them because afterwards they can get downgraded into core and non-core promises or scrapped because it is alleged that the circumstances have changed.
What about us? In the New Testament, God promises eternal life, the Holy Spirit, and Christ’s second coming. Do we treat God like we treat politicians? Do we live as though these are doubtful non-core promises? Are we like Abraham who trusted God or like Sarah who didn’t?
So the second covenant/contract was a promise of a nation and land and now we will move to the third.
The promises given to Abraham were repeated to Isaac and Jacob; and Jacob’s family followed Joseph to Egypt. After being in Egypt for many years, Jacob’s family grew to a nation of 2 million people and Moses led them out in the exodus to Canaan. At Mt Sinai, God promised the Israelites they would be His special people – “my treasured possession” (Ex. 19:5) and He would drive out the Canaanites so they could occupy their land (Ex. 19 – 31). As it was conditional on obeying God’s laws, including the 10 commandments, social laws and religious laws, this covenant/contract was like a Suzerain-vassal agreement. There were blessings for obedience and punishment for disobedience (Lev. 26, Dt. 28-29). It was based on works; if people obeyed, God would do His part. The Sabbath day was given to Israel as a sign of this covenant/contract (Ex. 31:13, 17).
How did they respond? The 4th time that Moses went up Mt Sinai to met with God lasted 40 days (Ex. 24:18) and the people got impatient and made a golden idol shaped like a calf (Ex. 32:1-6). It was not a good start! Then after the spies explored Canaan, the people rebelled against God and wanted to go back to Egypt (Num. 14:1-4). Their punishment was to wander in the wilderness for 38 years, while those that rebelled died before they reached Canaan.
After the Israelites occupied Canaan, they were ruled by Judges for about 300 years. Then they became a monarchy. Saul was the first king and David the second. David lived about 1,000 years BC. Later in the monarchy they divided into the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. All of Israel’s kings were ungodly; they followed idols instead of keeping the covenant/contract. They were punished in the Assyrian conquest of 722BC. Many of the kings of Judah also followed idols instead of keeping the covenant/contract. They were punished in the Babylonian conquest of 586BC.
If a tenant fails to pay the rent on time or damages the property, they are warned of the danger of being evicted. If they continue failing to comply with the contract then the lease is terminated and they are evicted.
Fortunately, it wasn’t the end for the Jews as some returned to Judah after the exile in Babylon. But we will see later that this covenant/contract is now called the “old covenant”.
Likewise, sin shouldn’t be the end of our fellowship with the Lord. The Bible says, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn. 1:9). If we confess our sins, then we can experience God’s parental forgiveness.
So the third covenant was a promise of a special relationship with God and now we will move to the fourth.
When king David planned to build a temple for God, God promised him an everlasting dynasty, a great name, and peace for the nation of Israel (2 Sam. 7:5-16, 28; 1 Chron. 17:11-14; 2 Chron. 6:16; Ps. 89:3-4). His son Solomon would build the temple and experience God’s mercy. This covenant/contract was unconditional like a royal land grant. But it was conditional for Solomon’s descendants (Ps. 132:11-12). It was repeated by Jeremiah and Luke (Jer. 33:17-26; Lk. 1:32-33). The prophets also predicted a Messiah who would bring peace and prosperity.
A descendant of David ruled in Judah until the Babylonian conquest in 586BC when the descendants went into exile and there was no kingdom and no king for about 400 years. Then King Herod ruled but he wasn’t Jewish as he had Edomite (Idumean) ancestry. At this time Jesus was rejected as king, but since His ascension, He is on His throne in heaven. Peter and Paul said that Jesus Christ was the fulfilment of God’s promise to David (Acts 2:29-36; 13:20-24). Jesus is a descendant of David (Lk. 3). His kingdom is everlasting.
Unrest has stopped peace talks in the Ukraine and between Pakistan and the Taliban. There is little progress in Syrian and Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Peace is illusive in the world’s hot spots.
The Bible says that this world will not have peace until Jesus returns to set up His kingdom. Just as Solomon had a peaceful kingdom, Jesus will bring peace to the world. Do we believe this?
So the fourth covenant/contract was a promise of a dynasty and now we will move to the final one.
We’ve seen that the Israelites couldn’t keep the old covenant/contract. The prophet Jeremiah said that because they had broken the covenant by disobedience and idolatry, God would bring a disaster (Jer. 11). He predicts a Babylonian conquest and 70 year exile (Jer. 12-13; 25; 27). Then he predicts that Israel would be restored after the captivity (Jer. 30-31).
He also promises the Israelites a new covenant/contract, which becomes effective after the 2nd advent of Christ (Jer. 31:31-34). “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (Jer. 31:33-34).
The nation is revived and indwelt by the Holy Spirit (Ezek. 36:25, 27); they willingly obey the Word of God; they have a unique relationship with God; everyone will know the Lord; their sins are forgiven and forgotten; and the nation continues forever (Jer. 31:35-37). In fact Paul says that Jews will begin to turn to God after the rapture (Rom. 11:25-26). This was a mystery to people in the first century and many are ignorant of it today.
This is called the “New covenant” (Heb. 8). It’s a promise for the Jews, involving Christ’s millennial reign on earth which will merge into the eternal kingdom. This covenant/contract was instituted at the first Lord’s Supper when Jesus said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you” (Lk. 22:20). It began at His death when the curtain inside the temple was torn in two. His death makes the new covenant/contract possible. It’s the foundation.
Ancient covenants were validated by the sacrificial death of an animal (Gen. 15:9-21; Heb. 9:19). Christ had to die before the new covenant/contract commenced. He is the mediator of the new covenant/contract (Heb. 12:22).
The blessings of the new covenant/contract for the Jews are both physical and spiritual. Believers enter into it spiritually; they enjoy its spiritual blessings. Our sins are forgiven and we have peace with God if we accept the gospel by believing that Christ paid the penalty for our sin. Gentiles like us have been grafted into the tree of the faithful, but in future believing Jews will be grafted back into the tree (Rom.11:17, 23-24).
The new covenant/contract is different to the one given at Mt Sinai. It is unconditional like a royal land grant. It depends on God alone. The old covenant/contract of the Jewish law is now obsolete (Heb. 8:13). We shouldn’t live by those rules and practices. The old covenant/contract was a shadow of what was to come. Its purpose was to bring a knowledge and conviction of sin (Rom. 3:20; Gal. 3:10). It was temporary, until the time of Christ. God confirmed this by destroying the temple in AD 70 (1 Cor. 3:7, 11). The new covenant/contract is eternal (Heb. 13:20). Since Christ’s death, the Jewish law has been replaced with the Christian faith and the Jews have been replaced by the church as God’s people on earth (Gal. 3:23-25).
With the advent of computers, typewriters are now obsolete. Photocopiers have made carbon paper obsolete. Other things like floppy disks and video tapes are also obsolete. So let’s not be tempted to try to please God by following the Old Testament laws, because they are now obsolete.
The gospel is called the “new covenant” (2 Cor. 3:6). Because it depends on God and not humanity, it brings forgiveness of sins, something the old covenant/contract couldn’t do. It’s a “better covenant” with “better promises” (Heb. 7:22; 9:6) as explained in Hebrews chapters 8-10. The law promised blessing for obedience but threatened death for disobedience. It required righteousness but didn’t give the ability to produce it. The gospel imputes righteousness where there is none and empowers believers to live righteously. It’s better, because it relies on God alone. The Old Testament offerings were ceremonial and ritual, they didn’t deal with the guilt of sin (Heb. 9:9-10). Christ’s sacrifice was superior, it was once for all.
The Lord’s Supper is our symbol of the new covenant/contract (Lk. 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25). Do we celebrate it regularly and recall our spiritual blessings?
So the final covenant/contract was a promise of Jewish revival and spiritual blessings for believers.
Lessons for us
What can we learn from these five covenants/contracts that God made with humanity?
We have seen that God’s covenants in the Old Testament are contracts with great promises. They illustrate God’s grace and mercy.
The covenant/contract often had a sign or symbol to remind people of it:
- Rainbow – given to Noah to remind of God’s protection for all
- Male circumcision – given to Abraham to remind of Jewish nation and land
- Sabbath day – given to Moses to remind of the Jewish relationship with God (They were His special people)
The other two covenants didn’t include a sign, although the Lord’s supper reminds Christians of the spiritual blessings of the new covenant/contract (Lk. 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25) and receiving the Holy Spirit could also be viewed as a sign (Eph. 1:13).
They show us that God keeps His covenants/contracts. He is faithful. In particular the rainbow symbolises that God keeps His covenants/contracts. Many of the promises he made in the Old Testament have already been fulfilled. But not all of them.
We have seen that people don’t always accept what God offers to them. Some trust in them like Abraham, while others rebel against them like the Israelites. Do we live as though God is our master, our Suzerain, and we are His servant, His vassal?
Some may say the revival in the new covenant/contract only applies to Christians and that God is finished with the Jews. They are extinct as a separate entity in God’s plans for the future. But when he wrote Romans in AD 57, Paul predicted a Jewish revival and it hasn’t happened yet (Romans 11). Also in AD 55 he divided people into three categories, “Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God” (1 Cor. 10:32). The Greeks are unconverted Gentiles and the church includes believing Jews and Gentiles. Also Jews appear in John’s visions of the future in the book of Revelation (Rev. 7:4-8; 11:1-2; 14:1-5; 15:5-8). It includes 144,000 Jewish believers who are sealed for their protection. Although this was written in AD95, 25 years after the temple was destroyed, it hasn’t happened yet. So according to the Bible, God isn’t finished with the Jews. If He was, why has the Jewish nation returned to Israel of recent times after a gap of about 1,900 years?
We have seen how God’s grace and mercy flows through the Old Testament covenants/contracts into the New Testament and to us another 2,000 years later. In a world that has no time for God, and in the struggles of life, it’s good to know that He controls the big picture.
So let’s be like Abraham trusting that God keeps His covenants/contracts.
Because God keeps His contracts, we can rely on them.
Written, February 2014
Jesus Christ talked about moving mountains on two occasions.
Mountain moving from here to there
When the disciples asked why they couldn’t drive a demon out of a boy who had seizures, Jesus replied, “Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you” (Mt. 17:20NIV). The reason was also given as “This kind can come out only by prayer” (Mk. 9:29).
They lacked faith and prayer. Because of unbelief, they didn’t pray about it. The “mountain” is a figure of speech for the obstacles and difficulties being faced (see Appendix below). They should have exercised their faith in God by praying about the problem. The prayer would be answered if it was in accordance with the conditions for prayer and the commands and promises given in the Bible. Miracles can happen when we pray under these circumstances.
Mountain thrown into the sea
On the Monday before His crucifixion, Jesus cursed a fig tree because it was unfruitful. He then taught his disciples how to deal with the problems of fruitlessness and obstacles and difficulties. Once again the mountain illustrates the obstacles and difficulties. This is described in two gospels:
Mark 11:22-24 “Have faith in God,” Jesus answered. “Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”
Mt 21:21-22 Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”
They were to exercise their faith in God by praying about the problem. God promised to answer if they believe and don’t doubt. This is a necessary but not sufficient condition for answered prayer. Such confidence needs to rely on a promise from God or an assurance that the request is according to God’s will. The ultimate source of such confidence is the words of Scripture or the witness of the Holy Spirit. So the prayer needs to be in accordance with the conditions given in the Bible.
We can approach God confidently in prayer because He promises to answer prayers that are “according to His will”. “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of Him” (1 Jn. 5:14-15). That’s how Jesus prayed at Gethsemane (Mt. 26:39, 42) and how He told His disciples to pray (Jn. 14:13-14). And of course, God’s will is given most clearly in the Bible.
Other conditions for answered prayer include: forgiving others (Mk. 11:25), confessing and repenting of sin (Ps. 66:18), obeying God’s commands (1 Jn. 3:22), right motives (Jas. 4:3), and persevering in prayer (Lk. 18:1-8). They also apply to other passages which may seem to imply that we can get whatever we ask for (Mt. 7:7-8; Lk. 11:9-10; Jn. 14:13-14; 15:7, 16; 16:23-24; 1 Jn. 3:22).
God’s promises to give believers whatever they ask and move mountains for them are not unconditional. They also rely on the Bible’s conditions for answered prayer being satisfied. So, how are you praying?
Some other biblical examples of the figurative use of “mountains” to mean obstacles and difficulties are given below.
“What are you, mighty mountain? Before Zerubbabel you will become level ground. Then he will bring out the capstone to shouts of ‘God bless it! God bless it!’” (Zech. 4:7). The context of this verse is that the Israelites faced opposition to rebuilding their temple in Jerusalem after they returned from exile (Ezra 4:1-5, 24). Zerubbabel was their governor (civil leader) at that time. The verse is part of a prediction that the temple would be rebuilt after the “mighty mountain” (a symbol of the opposition to the rebuilding) became “level ground” (a symbol of the opposition being removed). The “capstone” is the final stone to be put in place.
“If I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing” (1 Cor. 13:2). This verse is in a chapter which teaches that the use of spiritual gifts must be motivated by love. In this instance, the spiritual gift is being able to trust God to overcome or remove difficulties or obstacles. If such a gift was only used for one’s own benefit and not for helping other believers, it is of no value.
Written, September 2013
When you pay at a store or gas (petrol) station, have you been asked if you would like to buy something else with that? Then you see loads of snacks, fast food and sugary drinks. It’s a food temptation called ambush marketing. We also have temptations in supermarkets, in shopping centres, in advertising, in marketing, in our entertainment, in technological hardware and software and even on our Facebook pages! We live in a sea of temptation.
Temptation entices us to do something that is sinful. Fortunately God has provided three ways to resist the temptations we face in life: “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, He will also provide a way out so that you can endure it” (1 Cor. 10:13NIV). The Greek word translated “temptation” and “tempted” in this verse can mean either outer trials that test our faith or inner temptations to sin. Here we will apply it to the inner temptations to sin.
Corinth was a wealthy pagan Greek city. Paul wrote this letter to their church to instruct them about problems that they faced. There were divisions in the church, they accepted sexual immorality, they were taking their disputes to pagan courts, they were abusing the Lord’s supper, and there was false teaching about the resurrection of the dead. There were questions about married life, about eating food that had been sacrificed to idols, about church meetings, and about the use of spiritual gifts.
This verse comes from a passage on eating food that had been sacrificed to idols (1 Cor. 8:1-11:1). Paul begins by stating the principle that we shouldn’t stumble a believer with a weak conscience by causing them to act against their conscience with regard to a debatable matter (1 Cor. 8). So Paul would not exercise his right to eat food that had been offered to an idol if there was a Christian present who thought this was sinful. Then he illustrates this principle (1 Cor. 10). First, although as an apostle Paul had the right to be supported financially by the church, he didn’t claim this so that people couldn’t say that he was preaching for money. Second, he followed the customs of those he was preaching to, so they would be more likely to accept the gospel message. Third, like an athlete he exercised self-control and discipline when serving the Lord so as not to miss his reward. Fourth, the Israelites lacked self-control. In the exodus God rescued them from slavery, but they were punished for idolatry, sexual immorality and grumbling to God (1 Cor. 10:1-10).
So this verse was written to a church that was out of control. They lacked self-control. It is Christian teaching on self-control. They needed to learn how to recognise the temptations they faced and how to resist these temptations.
Then the Bible applies what happed to the Israelites to us today (v.11). They are examples for us. They are warnings for us. The Bible was written for our benefit (Rom. 15:4). It has many lessons for us. The warning of this passage is spelled out “if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” (v. 12). To think we are “standing firm” against temptation means being confident or complacent about temptation. The warning is to be careful we don’t yield to temptation. We all face temptation on a daily basis. We are all prone to giving in to temptation and sinning against God. We can all lack self-control.
Then three ways are given to resist temptation.
Temptation is normal
The Bible says, “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind”. So, “The temptations in your life are no different from what others experience” (NLT). Sometimes we think why am I so weak? Why do I always yield to this sinful desire, and give in to that addiction? Why am I always being tempted?
But our temptations are not unique. Every temptation we face is “common to mankind”. We all face temptation. Everyone is tempted. Temptation is normal for humanity. It’s usual. It’s common. So, don’t be surprised when you are tempted. It happens all the time. Expect to be tempted. For example, Paul warns us to beware when helping someone who has been sinful, because we may also be tempted to sin (Gal. 6:1).
Because temptation is normal, it’s not new. It’s been around since the days of Adam and Eve. Temptation is not a modern invention. For this reason, we can learn from the temptations faced in Biblical times and the ways they were resisted.
The normal process of temptation
The normal process of temptation is described by James: “When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death” (Jas. 1:13-15).
Temptation begins as an “evil desire” in our mind. Jesus said that “evil thoughts” lead to sin (Mt. 15:18-20; Mk. 7:20-23). Since the fall of humanity into sin we have a tendency towards evil desires. We are now self-centred. Given time, the temptation from an evil desire leads to sin and then to spiritual death and other consequences. Even if the spirit is willing, the flesh is weak (Mt. 26:41). The evil desire is influenced by Satan and our sinful nature. The process stops if we resist the temptation and there is victory over the temptation. So there is a choice to yield to or resist the temptation as shown in the diagram.
Satan is called the tempter (Mt. 4:3; 1 Th. 3:5). He tempts us in order to make us fail (1 Cor. 7:5). He entices us like a fisherman entices fish with bait or a lure. Satan is deceitful and seductive. He is our enemy (1 Ti. 5:14; 1 Pt. 5:8).
Temptation is not sinful. We know that Jesus was tempted by Satan, but didn’t sin (2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Pt. 2:22; 1 Jn. 3:5). But yielding to temptation is sinful.
So temptation is like when fish see a fisherman’s bait or lure. If they eat it they are hooked. Otherwise, they can swim on their way. Likewise, if we take the bait when tempted then we are hooked and dragged away into sinful behavior and its consequences. That’s the normal process of temptation. But if we don’t take the bait and resist the temptation, we can continue serving the Lord.
The normal tools of temptation
The normal tools of temptation are described in this warning, “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world” (1 Jn. 2:15-16).
This describes Satan’s tools, the aspects of the sinful world that he uses as bait to lure us into sin. They are evil desires arising from:
- The lust of the flesh. This is our sinful human nature. Our sinful appetites.
- The lust of the eyes. This is what we see. It can also symbolise our minds. What we think about.
- The pride of life. This is boasting about what we have and what we do. Selfish ambition. Seeking to create a sense of envy, rivalry, and jealousy in others.
For example, the Israelites were tempted to eat, drink, indulge in revelry, indulge in sexual immorality, worship idols and grumble to God (1 Cor. 10:7-10). These are still normal temptations today. Have we ever been tempted to: eat too much, drink too much, party too much, commit sexual sins, let someone or something take the place of God in our lives, or complain to God?
So, temptation is a common experience of all human beings. But temptation is not only normal, it is also bearable.
Temptation is bearable
The Bible says, “And God is faithful; He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear”. So, “He will not allow the temptation to be more than you can stand” (NLT) and “He’ll never let you be pushed past your limit” (Message). God doesn’t promise that we won’t be tempted, but He does promise to limit its intensity. Life is tough. Temptation is common. But there is no such thing as an unbearable temptation.
God knows our strength greater than we do. He knows how much we can handle, and how much we cannot. One of the basic principles of sports and athletic training is to strengthen us to do things we don’t think we can do right now, to put more pressure on us than we think we can handle. And we discover we can handle it. This is what God does with us. He allows temptations when the pressure on, but it is controlled pressure. It will never be more than we can handle. Let’s look at some examples of this.
Bearable temptations in the Old Testament
The heroes of faith in Old Testament times are listed in Hebrews 11. They endured much shame and suffering rather that give up on God. They could have avoided this by renouncing God. That would have been a great temptation to them. Instead they resisted this temptation and continued to trust God’s promises.
Here’s what they went through (Heb. 11:33-39). They faced the dangers of lions, fire and swords. They were tortured, flogged, imprisoned, jeered, murdered, homeless, persecuted and mistreated. Because they remained faithful, we know that their temptations were bearable. Also, Job remained faithful after he lost his family, his wealth and his health. His temptations were bearable.
Bearable temptations in the New Testament
Paul is one of the heroes of faith in New Testament. Here’s what he went through.
2 Cor. 11:23-27: “I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews 39 lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.”
Paul would have been tempted to avoid all this by stopping serving the Lord. Because he remained faithful, we know that his temptations were bearable.
So, the temptations faced by God’s people are bearable. But temptation is not only normal and bearable, it is also escapable.
Temptation is escapable
The Bible says, “But when you are tempted, He will also provide a way out so that you can endure it”. So, “He will also provide a way of escape” (HCSB). Not only does God promise to limit the intensity of our temptations, He promises a way to resist them. God enables us to resist the temptation to sin. He will provide a way out for us.
The Bible says, “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble” (Ps. 46:1). When those heroes of faith faced their troubles, all human support was usually stripped away. They learnt that God alone strengthens us at these times. He gets us through life’s temptations. In this sense, He is the way out. The way of escape. The Message says, “He’ll always be there to help you come through it”.
Joshua was told that God “will never leave you nor forsake you” (Dt. 31:8). David faced trouble without fear because God was with him (Ps. 23:5). God was close beside him. Likewise, God is with us in our temptations. He will not leave us or forsake us. He will provide a way of escape.
So, how did Joseph and Jesus escape temptations?
How Joseph escaped temptations
Joseph was a slave of Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh’s guard in Egypt. Potiphar put him in charge of his household. Here’s how Joseph responded to temptation.
Gen. 39:6-12 “Now Joseph was well-built and handsome, and after a while his master’s wife took notice of Joseph and said, “Come to bed with me!” But he refused. “With me in charge,” he told her, “my master does not concern himself with anything in the house; everything he owns he has entrusted to my care … My master has withheld nothing from me except you, because you are his wife. How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?” And though she spoke to Joseph day after day, he refused to go to bed with her or even be with her. One day he went into the house to attend to his duties, and none of the household servants was inside. She caught him by his cloak and said, “Come to bed with me!” But he left his cloak in her hand and ran out of the house.”
When Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce him, Joseph “refused to be with her”. He avoided the temptation as much as possible. Unlike Sampson, he didn’t give in to the pressure that went on “day after day” (Jud. 14:17; 16:16-17). So let’s avoid situations where we are likely to be tempted.
When Joseph was confronted again he “ran out of the house”. He had an escape plan. We have fire escape plans, but do we have plans to escape temptations?
How Jesus escaped temptations
At the beginning of His ministry, Jesus was tempted by Satan (Mt. 4:1-11):
- To use His supernatural powers to satisfy his hunger by turning stones into bread.
- To jump from the highest point of the temple to test God’s promise of protection and attract public attention.
- To avoid the suffering of the cross and take an easy shortcut to world domination.
In each case Jesus responded to temptation by quoting from the Bible. He answered, “It is written …”. So Satan can tempt those controlled by the Holy Spirit, but they can resist him with the truths of Scripture. The Israelites knew, “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you” (Ps. 119:11). The truths of Scripture in our mind can protect us from yielding to temptation. Bible knowledge can help us to resist temptation.
Our mind is important. Let’s think about “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Phil. 4:8). Are the truths of Scripture planted in our mind?
Lessons for us
So let’s be warned by the history of the Israelites of the danger of yielding to temptation. Don’t be hooked and dragged away by Satan. Resisting temptation requires self-control, which is part of the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23). So the Holy Spirit helps us to resist temptation.
Remember the promise: “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, He will also provide a way out so that you can endure it” (1 Cor. 10:13).
Because temptation is normal, we can resist it.
Because temptation is bearable, we can resist it.
Because temptation is escapable, we can resist it.
Because temptation is normal and bearable and escapable, we can resist it.
God has given us these reasons to exercise self-control when we face temptations. Let’s remember and use these ways to resist the temptations we face.
Written September 2013
There are many choices in life and difficult decisions to make. The Bible tells us how to experience God’s guidance at these times. Proverbs 3:5-6NIV was written by King Solomon to the Israelites about 3,000 years ago and is still true for us today. It says:
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways submit to Him, and He will make your paths straight.”
This passage on God’s guidance mentions our part, which is to trust and submit to God; and God’s part, which is to guide us through life.
First it says, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart”. Who do we trust in? It’s dangerous to trust in someone who is unreliable and foolish. Here the Israelites were told to trust in their God who made the universe and who had led them from slavery in Egypt to Solomon’s mighty kingdom. Solomon’s father, King David, said “In You our ancestors put their trust; they trusted and You delivered them” (Ps. 22:3). So they knew that God had answered their prayers for help and had kept His promise to make them into a great nation. We now know that God also provided a Savior for us in Jesus Christ, so today we can trust the Lord for both our eternal destiny and our daily lives.
How should we trust God? It says with all our heart or wholeheartedly like Caleb – five verses of the Old Testament say he followed the Lord wholeheartedly (Num. 14:24; Dt. 1:36; Josh. 14:6-14).
Second it says, “lean not on your own understanding”. It’s also dangerous to trust in no one except ourselves and act alone when making important decisions. Instead it’s better to consult with others. This applies even more with God because we don’t know what is best for us and others don’t have God’s insight and wisdom. If we make decisions without consulting the Lord, then we don’t allow Him to guide us.
Third it says, “in all your ways submit to Him”. We should not leave God out of our lives, but remember Him, acknowledge Him, seek His will and do it, and serve Him faithfully. This applies “in all your ways”, which is every area of our lives. Every day of the week, not just Sunday!
Summarising, our part is to trust and submit to God and not rely on ourselves. It’s to be a commitment like marriage.
God’s part is a conditional promise; if the Israelites did their part, God promised to do His part. Likewise; if we do our part, God will do His part.
The promise is given as a metaphor: “He will make your paths straight”. As paths lead to a destination, it means we will have direction and a sense of purpose as we progress towards His goals for us. There’s no doubt about it, “He will make your paths straight”. This promise is repeated in, “Commit to the Lord whatever you do, and He will establish your plans” (Prov. 16:3).
There are many options and paths in life. Have you ever followed a GPS that guided you along a long route rather than the most direct one? This is a promise that God will guide us past the detours, the side tracks and the obstacles on the pathway of life and bring us to our goal and destination. If we don’t trust Him, we add obstacles and side tracks to our daily path, which hinder us from achieving God’s will.
How does God guide us through life? He can use principles in the Bible (Acts 17:11), answered prayer (Jas. 1:5), advice from godly Christians, circumstances coming together, and an inward peace (Phil. 4:6-7, Col. 3:15) along the pathway.
Let’s do our part by trusting and submitting to God, so He can do His by guiding us through life. Let’s realise that we can’t live for the Lord in our own strength.
Written, May 2013
Based on a message given at my mother’s funeral on 3 April 2013
A funeral usually involves memories and reflections of the life of the person who has died. But the funeral of a Christian can also look ahead in anticipation of what lies ahead.
Help from God the Creator
The source of a Christian’s help and protection throughout life is described in Psalm 121NIV.
“I lift up my eyes to the mountains—where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot slip—He who watches over you will not slumber;
indeed, He who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.
The Lord watches over you—the Lord is your shade at your right hand;
the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night.
The Lord will keep you from all harm— He will watch over your life;
the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.”
When this song was written about 3,000 years ago, God’s people knew that the only reliable help and protection comes from the God who made the universe – “the Maker of heaven and earth”. In this context the Hebrew word for “heaven” means the atmosphere and the stars and galaxies. A God with the intelligence and power to create the universe and populate it with living plants, animals and people was surely able to help them! The Bible says He was the source of life on earth whereas all other gods and philosophies are the product of the human imagination.
Unfortunately in our modern world we have largely lost this knowledge and this confidence. We have forgotten about God the Creator. Even though we have wonderful technology, science can’t explain how matter was created from nothing or how life originated, and we often replace God the Creator with the idea that things created themselves.
So when we struggle in life where does our help come from? Some people go to counsellors for help who encourage them to get help from outside themselves. Because people usually can’t solve their own problems, they need to get help from someone else. In a similar way, we all need “outside help” to sustain us and God the Creator is the ultimate outside help!
Psalm 121 ends with, “The Lord will watch your coming and going both now and forevermore”. Here those who trusted God the Creator were promised that God would protect them throughout life and into the future. They could live with assurance and confidence that God would continue to help them. Likewise Christians can have the assurance that God will sustain them during their life and afterwards.
A different world
You may ask if God created everything in the beginning, why is there so much suffering in the world? The world today is very different from the one God made originally. We live in a different world. In the beginning it was a perfect world with harmony between God, people and the natural environment. But when people turned against their Maker, it changed and sin, evil, suffering and death came into the world. This change was caused by people like us. We live in a world with consequences – an act has a consequence and an effect has a cause. Because people turned against God our relationships have been ruined. We ignore God and are separated from Him, we can’t get along with other people, and we exploit the natural environment. Another consequence is that the Bible says we are destined to eternal punishment. Because we are the cause of this problem, we need outside help. Because each of us is guilty, we can’t help each other. The only reliable help available outside humanity is God the Creator.
Help from God the Lifesaver
Fortunately, God didn’t only create the universe and the laws of nature in the beginning, but He also continues to sustain it. He is not only incredibly powerful, but He is also incredibly loving. We remember His special act of love at Christmas and Easter when we celebrate the unique birth and death of Jesus Christ. God knew that mankind was doomed to eternal punishment unless He provided them with outside help. He did this about 2,000 years ago when Jesus Christ lived on earth and died and came alive again. Jesus was unique; He was God living as a human being. He showed His power over our world by the miracles He did. When He died by crucifixion, He took the eternal punishment that we deserve. If we turn towards God by being sorry for our behaviour and accepting the fact that Jesus has taken the penalty for our sin, then He promises eternal joy instead of eternal punishment. This is called eternal life. So Jesus is like a lifesaver – He can rescue us from the eternal consequence of our selfish behaviour. In this way God is making a new creation and He gives us the choice of being a part of it. Although we spoilt God’s original creation, and there is now sin, evil, pain, suffering and death, these will be absent in God’s new creation. Instead we can be reconciled with God, we can love one another and we can look forward to the restoration of creation like it was in the beginning.
Because a Christian has accepted Jesus as their Savior they can have an inner assurance, joy and peace.
What happens when a person dies? Not only do the lungs stop breathing and the heart stops pumping. The Bible says that at death a person’s invisible soul and spirit is separated from their body. If they trusted in Jesus the Savior, their soul and spirit goes immediately to be with God in heaven. After death they are enjoying a perfect place. That is why Paul could say, “To die is gain” (Phil. 1:21) and that he preferred to be “away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8). So they are in a better place. Their death is a loss for us, but a gain for them.
But there is more! On Easter Sunday we recall that the body of Jesus was raised back to life after being buried in a grave. The Bible describes a coming day when the bodies of believers, who trusted in Christ the Savior will also be raised back to life:
“What I am saying, dear brothers and sisters, is that our physical bodies cannot inherit the kingdom of God. These dying bodies cannot inherit what will last forever. But let me reveal to you a wonderful secret. We will not all die, but we will all be transformed! It will happen in a moment, in the blink of an eye, when the last trumpet is blown. For when the trumpet sounds, those who have died will be raised to live forever. And we who are living will also be transformed. For our dying bodies must be transformed into bodies that will never die; our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies. Then, when our dying bodies have been transformed into bodies that will never die, this Scripture will be fulfilled, ‘Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’ For sin is the sting that results in death, and the law gives sin its power. But thank God! He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:50-57NLT).
This is also described in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18. As part of God’s new creation they will have new bodies which won’t wear out and die (1 Cor. 15:42-49; Phil. 3:21; 1 Jn. 3:2) and they will be transported to be with God in heaven – spirit, soul and new body. This will be a great victory over the sin, suffering and death of our world. That’s why Christians can look forward confidently to the coming resurrection. There’s victory ahead!
The hymn, “How great Thou art”, summarises the greatness of God and the reasons for our Christian faith.
The first verse is about God the great Creator and source of life on earth. It says “Your power throughout the universe displayed”. Do we see God’s power in His creation?
The third verse is about Jesus Christ the great Lifesaver and source of eternal life. It says “On the cross, my burden gladly bearing, He bled and died to take away my sin”. When we stand before God, will He be like a lifesaver or like a judge? If we turn towards God by confessing our sins we can be ready to meet Him.
The last verse is about the great resurrection when the bodies of those who have trusted in Christ will be raised and changed to be with Him forever. It says “When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation and take me home – what joy shall fill my heart”. Are you ready to experience this joy?
Written, April 2013