Read Haggai 2:10-23
Over the last few weeks, churches in many countries got together to sing a song of blessing, taking the words of Numbers 6:24-26 and pronouncing it over their respective nations. Undoubtedly, the effort was sincere and many believers found this inspiring. However, the video does raise the question: how do we get blessing? Is a song declaring that it is so, enough? Is it true that God is unreservedly “for you”? We will find some answers to these questions in the last section of Haggai.
So far, we’ve seen that God’s people have been distracted, and they have been disillusioned. They have not made God’s priorities their priorities, and they were wondering if it’s worth all the effort to seek God’s kingdom first. After all, their circumstances were certainly difficult, as they encountered opposition to rebuilding the temple. And each time, God encouraged them to persevere.
However, there is still one more issue Haggai has to deal with. Not only are the people distracted and disillusioned, they are also defiled. It is roughly two months since Haggai’s last recorded message to them. Work has begun on the temple. However, God now summons the priests through Haggai (v.10-11). He wants to ask them a few questions, but not because he wants to get updated information. His intention is actually to teach them a lesson.
The questions all revolve around a concept of transferability. Question 1: If someone were to carry meat which had been sacrificed, most probably through a fellowship/thanksgiving offering, and so it was now “holy meat”, how far would its attribute of holiness “spread”? According to Leviticus 6:27, the garment would also be rendered holy. However, whatever the “holy” garment subsequently touched did not become holy. (v.12) Question 2: What if someone had become unclean due to contact with a dead body? Would anything he touches become unclean? The priests answer: yes! Unlike the first case, it is so (v.13). And they appear to be right – Numbers 19:22 affirms their answer.
What’s the bottom line? Defilement is more contagious than holiness. To use a contemporary analogy, when a Covid-19 carrier comes into close contact with you and physically touches you, your wellness doesn’t transfer to him. However, his disease certainly could very well transmit to you! In the same way, being consecrated (holy, set apart) is not contagious, but defilement (uncleanness) is.
And in verse 14, God now applies this analogy to his people. The offerings and sacrifices they made didn’t make the people holy just like that, as if it was a magical spiritual disinfectant. Instead, if the people themselves were already defiled, that made their sacrifices unacceptable instead. How could they have been defiled? Not because they had close contact with foreign people groups. Verse 17 suggests the real reason is that their repentance was not quite genuine. They might have started turning to the Lord (1:12-14), but there was still something lacking in their response. And if they were defiled, they could very well defile the temple. And if the temple itself is defiled – well, the people are in a hopeless situation! How could true worship and sacrifices take place?
So God is correcting potential misconceptions amongst the people. We could very well make the same mistake. We might make the mistake of thinking if we are in the “house of the Lord”, or if we are fulfilling our duties, like reading the Bible 30 minutes a day (alongside a devotional like this one!), or if we have a pastor or some other “anointed person” pronounce blessing over us, we will be made pure and acceptable. Yet God says this is not the case. He calls the people now to reflect on their immediate past (v.15-17) to see what he says is true. There was no blessing!
However, in verses 18-19, he asks them to consider what makes a difference. The answer lies in verse 18: it was when they laid the foundation of the Lord’s temple. In other words, as they turned back to God and followed his ways (the definition of repentance), they enjoyed his blessing. They were no longer defiled, but divinely favoured.
But how does God undo their defiling? It certainly wasn’t the case that if God’s people completed the temple, only then would God pour out his blessing. The people couldn’t undo it themselves, completed temple or not. This divine favour was unmerited! The answer lies in God’s promises in 2:20-23. God is going to act to overthrow all other kingdoms so that the kingdom of his Son may be established. Zerubabbel was a grandson of Jehoiachin, a descendant of David. In Jeremiah 22:24, God had declared to Jehoiachin that he would tear off the signet ring from him. And yet Haggai ends with this amazing promise: God will make Zerubabbel like his signet ring! God will restore a king from the line of David! And as we read on into the New Testament, we discover this promise is fulfilled, as King Jesus becomes the Lord’s signet ring. All authority and power are given to him.
And Christ becomes the foundation, the cornerstone of the new temple – the church. All who trust in him are cleansed (Eph. 5:25-27), and are blessed (Eph 1:3-11). All who trust in him are by definition repentant ones, who are poor in spirit, mourn over their sin, and now ready to live the life of the kingdom (Matt. 5:3-12).
So we come back to the question at the beginning: how do we get blessed? Are we blessed? Is God unreservedly for us? The answer is yes, you enjoy every blessing, and you can be assured God is 100% for you, if you are resting and building on the foundation of Jesus Christ. However, if you are resting on some other foundation, no matter how many churches join in the song, no matter how loud we sing, no matter how many likes the Youtube video gets, there is no blessing. So today, give careful thought, whose foundation are you building on? If it is Jesus, take comfort. God’s divine favour is on you, and his kingdom will never be shaken.
As we’ve reached the end of Haggai, why not take some time to reflect:
- How has Haggai helped you not to be discouraged or disillusioned, but to persevere in seeking God’s kingdom first and building his church?
- How has Haggai helped you to appreciate God, Jesus and/or the Bible more?
(Feel free to leave an answer on the comments section of our Facebook post of this devotional!)
- Give thanks that in Christ, we know we are no longer defiled but have every spiritual blessing. Pray that we would be truly repentant people, and ask the Holy Spirit to show us where we have not always turned to God fully, or where we are building our lives on shaky foundations.
- Pray for wisdom for our federal and state governments, as well as all the relevant authorities, that they would be able to help navigate our way out of the MCO as best as they can. Pray for farsightedness, good judgment, courage, patience and astuteness in execution of plans.
Read Haggai 2:1-9; Hebrews 12:25-29
It is less than a month since the people began working on the temple. But now, there is another challenge. If previously, the people were distracted, forgetting to make God’s priorities their priorities, now they are beginning to get disillusioned. “Everything seems to be worse off than before!”: they were thinking. “Even the temple seems like nothing!” (v.3). This is made worse when we realise what time it is. Verse 1 tells us it is the 21st day of the 7th month. So it’s festival time! This was the 7th day of the Feast of Booths, an annual festival giving thanks to God for the harvest. But their harvest that year is poor (see 1:6). To add insult to injury, the Feast of Booths was also the anniversary of Solomon’s dedication of the temple (1 Kings 8:1). The depth of their disappointment goes deep indeed.
It’s also festival time for us in Malaysia. We’re meant to be celebrating Hari Raya and Gawai, except, of course, it’s not much of a celebration this year. Our current socio-economic prospects are poor – at least, certainly poorer than last year! And for Christians, when we consider our churches just months ago, and compare them to now – well, how we have fallen!: we might think. Even if we are able to gather in person – there are so many restrictions and uncertainties for the forseeable future – only 30 people of a certain age; possibly no singing; etc. etc. – that church doesn’t seem to be anything like church as we know it. And many of us can feel disillusionment creeping in.
This is certainly not the first time the people of God felt this way. As they contemplated the task of rebuilding the temple, some of them clearly remembered the “house in its former glory” (v.3). Solomon’s temple had been built by foreign, skilled craftsmen, and covered with the finest gold. Now they felt that it was impossible to get back to those times of glory, given the lack of resources and manpower they have. Certainly, for us today, we might feel the same. We might feel that our age, or our energy levels, or our lack of expertise with technology, or our lack of adaptive leadership skills, all means we won’t be able to get anywhere.
But now the LORD speaks. He exhorts and he promises. Be strong! He declares. Be strong, he declares to the leaders. Be strong, he declares to the people. And keep working. Do not fear. (v.4-5). Why? For the Lord says I am with you, and my Spirit dwells amongst you. Although the temple is not yet anywhere near completely rebuilt, that doesn’t mean God can’t or won’t be with them. In the book of Exodus, even before there was a tabernacle, never mind a temple, God had already been in their midst. His presence is not fickle.
For what is God going to do? He is going to shake all creation and all nations! (v.6) What does he mean? At Mount Sinai, when God made his covenant with the people, the whole mountain shook (Exodus 19:18). Indeed, the psalmist characterizes their entire journey from Sinai to the Promised Land as one where the heavens and the earth have been shaken (Ps. 68:7-8). And so God is saying he will once again see through his people all the way to their intended destination, as he did in the Exodus, bringing them through the wilderness to the land of milk and honey. Haggai also echoes the prophet Isaiah as he describes how the treasures of the nations will come streaming in. In Isaiah 60:5 and 11, as God himself comes as the light to shine on his people, the result will be all nations coming to pour all they value into his “house”. They will bring their tributes and worship. They all belong to God anyway.
So the people of God can take heart. Christians can take heart! For Jesus, the very “radiance of God’s glory” (Heb. 1:3), has also promised the same thing. “I am with you always, to the end of the age” he says in Matthew 28:20. So, he tells his disciples in 28:16-20 – don’t fear! Keep working, to make disciples of me. That is the way you build the church. And his disciples, who must have felt great disillusionment after Good Friday, responded. They obeyed with faith, and their little band of ragtag disciples began to build God’s multi-national church, from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. They started from completely inglorious beginnings, but God saw them through to ensure his purposes and his glory would not be neglected and obscured.
But that’s not all. The writer to the Hebrews picks up on Haggai 2:6, and understands God’s words here to also apply to the future coming of God’s kingdom. His focus, however, is on impending judgment. All that corrupts and defiles the present creation will one day be removed, so that what is eternal and cannot be shaken, God’s kingdom, will remain. God will not permit what is truly significant to fade away. So we respond with gratitude and awe. We respond by hearing his exhortation.
So let us not be disillusioned and discouraged by all the challenges we see – legal restrictions, tired bodies, weary minds, half-heartedness. God has not given up on his church, for that is where he wants to display his glory. It is where he has bestowed the peace of Christ. So be strong, and work. For I AM with you.
- Pray that if we or any Christian we know is feeling discouraged or disillusioned, that God’s Word would refresh and encourage us, and that we will not give up but keep playing our part to build God’s church and seek his kingdom first, whatever our situation. Pray that we will look forward to the Day where there will be great celebration and feasting, in the new creation.
- Pray for our national and denominational church leaders, that they too will be strengthened in grace, prayerful in orientation, and courageous to face the work ahead, as they provide leadership. Pray for them to help the church keep focused on listening to God’s Word.
Read Haggai 1:12-15
“TIdak apalah.” “Biasalah.” These are phrases we sometimes hear, and which sometimes even pop up in our minds. Whenever a task or a project looks difficult, especially if the circumstances or environment is not conducive to it, we tend to put it off. We might feel it is not worth the effort. “Why bother?” It won’t make much difference, we think. Aiyah, tidak apalah.
Of course, these could have adverse effects. A consumer association in Malaysia once pointed out how this lackadaisical attitude could lead to professional negligence, citing some examples from different industries. These included unnecessary surgery and delayed treatment in the healthcare sector, and misplaced advice being given to clients in the legal sector. As the victims often also took the same attitude and did not seek redress, the cycle continued on.
The people in Haggai’s day have a tidak apa attitude. They had returned to their homeland, but for many decades, having been discouraged by an unfriendly environment, they had left the temple in ruins. Worship of God and seeking his pleasure were not prioritized. Accordingly, they unsurprisingly enjoyed little of the Lord’s blessings. In some ways, the solution was obvious, yet the people didn’t feel bothered, so the cycle of discouragement continued.
It’s quite possible to have a similar issue in our spiritual lives. Our job descriptions as Christians are easy to understand. But building up the church and looking out for our brothers and sisters in Christ is no easy task. Seeking to glorify God in all that we do, so that our whole lives are lived in worship to him, takes intentionality, and in our opinion, sometimes there seems to be little tangible reward. Why bother? Tidak apalah.
Our little paragraph from Haggai today helps us in this regard. In verse 12, we now listen in to the response of the community. Last week, we remembered that Haggai was bringing the word of the Lord (v.1). Now, in verse 12, they obey “the voice of the LORD their God.” Why? Because they “feared the LORD.” This does not mean they were terrified into submission, but that they gave due reverence and honour by acknowledging who God is. They had opened their hearts to his Word, and as a result, they were changed.
The leaders, in particular, are instrumental in leading this response. The “whole remnant of the people” are led by Zerubbabel and Joshua, the Davidic governor and high priest, to respond wholeheartedly. As their hearts are softened and they turn back to the LORD, he immediately comes alongside them with these encouraging words “I am with you.” He wants them to know, even before the work of restarting the building project is done, that they can count on him. God loves to see genuine repentance, however feeble it is, and is ready to take that to begin awakening us to keep living for him.
That’s what happens in verses 14-15. As the hearts of the people are stirred to repentance, and a word of encouragement and hope given, the Lord now stirs them to action. They began to make God’s priorities their priorities. Indeed, God was no longer just some random God, or just a God out there somewhere, but “their God”. By the end of the chapter, there is a reversal. The hearts of the people were hardened, now they have been turned. The temple laid in ruins, now it is being rebuilt.
This can encourage us as Christians today. As Christians, we are led not just by any descendant of David or priest, but we are led by the greatest Son of David, Jesus, who is also our high priest. We are led by the One who models for us a heart given wholly to his heavenly Father. His blood shed for us and his Spirit given to us means we now can have soft hearts, not hardened hearts.
And in an environment that is not always friendly to the priorities and purposes of God, he assures us that if we walk with him, He is walking with us too. What he wants is a willingness to stay poor in spirit, to bring to him our sin, and a heartfelt desire to turn to him regularly in repentance and faith. He has spoken his Word to us to make building for his Kingdom the priority. The question for us, then, is how will we respond. Will we say: Now is not the time? Tidak apalah? Or will we say: “Today is the day!” Open our hearts, and God might just begin a great work of reversal in your life. After all, blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Is there a greater reversal than that?
- Pray that God would soften our hearts today, and stir us on to living for him and seeking to build for his kingdom. If our hearts are feeling hardened today, pray especially that his Spirit would soften your heart to his Word. If we are unsure what it means to build for his Kingdom in our lives, pray that God will show you clearly how you can do that specifically in your own situation.
- Pray on for healthcare workers, to be able to find some time to rest and refresh themselves, especially if they have to face a second wave. Pray for all of us as we have to adjust to new norms in how we interact in public places.
During the period of this CMCO, we will be publishing just one devotional a week. For the next 4 weeks, starting today, we will work through the short book of Haggai in the Old Testament.
Read Haggai 1:1-11
In 538BC, the Israelites returned from exile. They had been conquered and carted off to Babylon, but the Persian king Cyrus decreed that God’s people could return to their homeland and rebuild the temple. Ezra 1:1-5 tells us God moved their hearts to return to rebuild a ruined city. However, as a result of local opposition, they stopped building (Ezra 4:1-5, 24). Almost two decades later, the temple still lies in ruins. This is the situation that God sends his prophet Haggai into, to speak words of challenge and comfort. He speaks 4 messages, each focusing on slightly different concerns. It is a book for discouraged people, who find it hard to order their priorities.
As such, Haggai, like all Scripture, is a book for us. As we begin to emerge from our abrupt descent into a coronavirus-ravaged world, we now begin to see more clearly how the landscape has changed. This is our “new normal”, and it certainly isn’t a more glorious one. It’s very likely we’re in for a more difficult time, and so discouragement easily sets in. Very quickly, our desire to live for the Lord begins to wilt and wane.
And so, 1:1, the “word of the LORD” comes. Again and again, in this short book, Haggai stresses no less than 27 times that his message comes from God. Over the coming month, you will read thousands of words on blogs, books, news-articles and WhatsApp messages. But the word we most need to hear in these discouraging times are those from God. Notice how Haggai dates his message, with reference to a pagan king. To an Israelite, that only serves as a painful reminder as to what is missing – namely, there is no son of David on the throne in Jerusalem. Didn’t God promise that a Davidic king will rule forever? It is as if God has turned his back on them. We can feel the same way, which is precisely why we need to hear the word of the Lord.
But perhaps all is not lost. Haggai addresses his first message to two individuals (although obviously the whole community is meant to listen – see 1:12). One is Zerubabbel, governor of Judah, son of Shealtiel, and therefore grandson of Jehoiachin, the Davidic king at the time of exile (1 Chron. 3:17). Here is someone with Davidic lineage! The second is Joshua, a priest from the line of Levi, and responsible for the temple and sacrificial system. There is no king, no temple – but here are two leaders who are symbols of hope things might be different.
The people, however, can’t see this yet. 1:2 reveals to us the people’s attitude. They said – it’s not yet time to rebuild the temple, but at this stage, they had been without the temple for 66 years! Why didn’t they think so? We’re not told exactly, but verse 6 suggest a clue. The people were not blessed with abundant resources, and so they probably prioritized their own material needs above everything else. However, given that in verse 4 they were living in paneled houses, that meant that while they might not have reached the golden years when the economy was booming, they weren’t exactly starving in the streets. They were simply putting their self-interests above God’s purposes. And now the word of the Lord has exposed their self-centred attitudes.
The beginning of Haggai, therefore, challenges us to examine our own priorities. Christians no longer need a physical building in Jerusalem. But the temple God is building today is the people of God. We build this temple as we bring people into faith, and as we help each other grow in faith. The question, however, is which house we care about more – our own house or the house of God (remember, that’s the people not the actual building!). Are we eager to keep building our retirement funds, our career prospects, our family name, at the expense of neglecting our brothers and sisters in Christ? Do we put off thinking about how we care for others because we say: “I’ve got to look after me first?” That’s the attitude God is questioning. “Give careful thought to your ways” he says in verse 5, something he repeats again in verse 7. Clearly, we should!
Why? Because ironically, prioritizing themselves led not to prosperity but poverty. Verse 6 needs to be read against the backdrop of the covenant curses of Deuteronomy 28. To eat and be full is a sign of covenant blessing (eg. Deut. 6:11, 11:15), but the hand of the Lord was withdrawn from them because God was not first in their lives (v.9-11). This was what had gotten them into trouble and into exile in the first place!
Instead, God says, consider your ways, and give priority to my priorities (v.8). Seek my honour and glory. The temple, after all, was a symbol of God’s dwelling place. It showcased his desire for relationship with them. However, by neglecting the temple for almost two decades, the people showed they were indifferent to having a relationship with God. Perhaps they thought: “I can sort out my relationship with God later, let me put my own house in order first!”
This is the prime temptation we will face during this period. As times are hard, many of us will be tempted to think that there is no time for God. There is no time to seek first his kingdom and righteousness (Matt 6:33). Let me concentrate on myself first, we think. Yet Haggai says it is precisely because we do not seek first his kingdom, that times may continue to be difficult. While it is not always the case, God sometimes does permit frustrations to pile up in our lives to help us understand the futility of life without him.
So a good question to ask is: are we putting off investing in our relationship with God, as well as his people? Are we too “busy with [our] own house” (v9)? The Lord Jesus gives us better investment advice. Store up treasures in heaven, he says, where moths and vermin and thieves can never ever break in (Matt 6:20). Then you will eat and be full.
- Pray that we will consider our ways, and ask God for forgiveness where we have selfishly put our own interests above his. Pray that he will show us how we can concretely participate in seeking his kingdom first and building his church in our own particular situations.
- Pray for workplaces and churches everywhere, and for bosses and Christian leaders, as they work out the best S.O.Ps and guidelines to put in place to minimize risk and ensure a safe working environment for their employees and congregations. Pray that even in times of “social distancing”, people will still find ways to connect with each other.
Read Ephesians 4:1-16
In the Bible, there is no such thing as a churchless Christian. Although we are not saved by going to church, the Bible does presuppose we are saved into a church! That is, we are not lone rangers. We are incorporated into Christ’s body. We become part of a new family. We are the living stones of a new temple.
And even in these strange times, where we cannot gather physically as a church, nonetheless that doesn’t mean the body of Christ has ceased to exist, and we have become individual limbs, severed from one another! God’s intention has always been that through the church, collectively, his manifold wisdom will be displayed (Eph 3:10).
So even though we are currently scattered, what can we do to ensure the church can continue to put on display God’s glory? Ephesians 4:1-16 suggests 3 actions we can take.
Firstly, seek to maintain our Spirit-won unity. Ephesians 4:3 reminds us that our unity is important to God, and that he wants us to put in the effort to ensure we do not break into little, self-centred factions! Why is that? Because the unity Paul is referring to here is no mere, superficial, man-made unity, that is tolerant of a wide range of contradictory and even sub-biblical beliefs. Rather, it is an authentic unity built around a common faith and the one hope of the gospel (v4-6). It is nothing less than a spiritual unity.
How then, should we seek to maintain this unity? Verse 2 shows us the way. We need to be humble, patient and gentle with one another. This will be especially important in the coming days as the MCO is gradually modified and eased. Many of us will have a variety of opinions about how we should navigate the transformed landscape of our lives. Some will feel that some Christians are too reckless, while others will feel other Christians are being too cautious. Some will feel some Christians are being too fearful, while others will feel that another group of Christians are being presumptuous and even selfish.
It is vital, then, that we do not automatically impute bad motives to one another and accuse each other too quickly of dishonouring Christ. Rather, we need to practise verse 2, being quick to listen, giving counsel where it is prudent to do so, and in turn being open and teachable. When we are quick to show grace, we maintain unity and become distinctive in an often graceless society.
Secondly, seek to utilise the gifts Christ has given sovereignly. In verses 7-10, Paul tells us that the ascended Christ, like a triumphant general, has distributed gifts to his people. In verse 11, he particularly gifts some people in the ministry of the Word (all the people mentioned here exercise such a ministry) to equip the church as a whole.
That means we all can still contribute. God has given each Christian particular abilities, talents or skills as a gift! It doesn’t have to be gifts of a dramatic sort. Perhaps you have a natural gift for encouraging conversation! It comes easily to you. So perhaps you could give that elderly person from church who doesn’t really have anyone in her household a telephone call (yes, that’s what phones were originally invented for). Perhaps you can handle and communicate the Scriptures faithfully and with clarity. If so, use it to strengthen the confidence of other Christians to walk with Christ. Whatever the case may be, as Romans 12:7 puts it, just use it! – “if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach.”
For even in the Covid-19 age, the aim of every Christian remains the same, which brings us to our final action. Thirdly, seek to build the body to maturity. Notice in verses 13 and 15 that is the goal. That’s why the church has to be equipped, and why members should not stop speaking the truth in love to one another. And it happens when everybody joins in, moving in the same direction (v16). There is no room for “spectator” Christians.
What does that mean for today? It means though we are physically apart, we should all still be thinking: how can I help my brother or sister in Christ grow spiritually? Perhaps I could arrange to study the Bible together with that person once a week for 45 minutes over Skype. Perhaps I could arrange to be accountable to a prayer triplet. Conversely, it means that we shouldn’t fall prey to the temptation to act like a spiritual consumer during this time, hopping from one livestream to another to see what that church can offer me. That would be directly in contrast to the picture of church Paul has in mind here. Indeed, there is the danger we could remain like the infants of verse 14 when we do so, and worse still, encourage others to also remain as infants.
So regardless of whether Covid-19 exists or not, the aspiration of the church remain the same. We want to put on display God’s glory. Let’s do that in the way Ephesians 4:1-16 prescribes.
- Pray that God will help us not become spiritual consumers or spectator Christians, but to seek to keep building the church towards maturity in Christ by utilising our gifts and remaining godly in our relationships.
- Pray for journalists everywhere to continue to be responsible purveyors of news, for social media not to be a place where fake and even dangerous information could spread, and for people to be discerning in their consumption of news sources.
Read Revelation 4
Today, as you open your newspaper, turn on the television, or click on your news app, what do you see? Coronavirus, coronavirus, coronavirus! Either that, or the images and symbols that have become associated with this pandemic. Hazmat suits worn by doctors. Face-masks worn by the general public. Endless graphs produced by epidemiologists. The Zoom grid-view on screens, now familiar to office workers everywhere.
When the first readers of the book of Revelation looked around, what did they see? Rome, Rome, Rome! Everywhere they look, the images and symbols of Rome’s power were there. The eagle, the symbol of Rome’s strength, was everywhere in public. Look at a lamppost and you could even find an eagle affixed there. Or look at their coins – with the images of Caesar embedded onto it. They were constantly reminded who appeared to be in charge.
In Revelation 4:1, John invites us now to look with him. “After this I looked, and there before me was a door standing open in heaven.” A voice has invited him, which from 1:10 we know is the voice of Christ. Vern Poythress, the New Testament scholar, describes this invitation as a little like a visit to an airport control tower. At a busy airport, everything looks like a blur of messy activity, with planes coming and going, luggage loaded and unloaded, a whole range of airport vehicles rushing about in different directions. But come to the control tower, and suddenly the goings-on down below make more sense. And as we follow John, we are now entering the control tower of the universe. In doing so, we see the airport of the world in a new light.
What do we see? There are many details which we could concentrate on, but central to this vision of John is the throne of God. In eleven verses, it is mentioned 11 times. It’s as if we’re given a panoramic view, with verse 4 bringing us to encircle the throne, verse 5 showing us what comes “from” or “before the throne”, and verse 6 taking us to the front and around the throne. And the one who sits on the throne has precious stones and flashes of lightning associated with him (4:2-3, 5). In Ezekiel 1:26-28 and Exodus 19:16, Moses and the prophet Ezekiel witnessed these very things as they encountered God. It is the LORD God, the Creator of the Universe, who is seated there.
So what is being communicated is clear: God alone is at the centre of the universe. He sits in the command chair of the control tower. There are 24 elders right there with him with their thrones (4:4), representing either the universal church or the order of angels, but whoever they represent, they give glory and worship to the Enthroned One (v. 10). John is proclaiming to us: see what stands at the centre of the universe! The glory of God. The majesty of God. The universal kingship of God.
This is brought out further by the description of the throne’s guardians in verses 6b-8. Once again, these are pictures drawn from the Old Testament, especially Ezekiel 1 and 10 and Isaiah 6. They reflect something of his attributes – for instance, the many eyes of these strange creatures point to God’s all-seeing eyes. We’re not meant to worry so much about what these creatures actually are, but to appreciate them as signs that point away from themselves. They all point one way – in the direction of the one true, living, sovereign God. “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come”: they cry (v.8). That is what even the eagle-like creature of verse 7 does. The very image of Rome’s power also has to bow before the throne.
Just imagine what kind of impact that had on the first Christian readers of Revelation, living under the oppressive rule of Rome. God is saying – he still reigns, even when all appearances point otherwise. He has his plans, he has his agenda. His power is infinite, his wisdom is unfathomable. And this is still true today. God is still on the throne. That truth alone should give us great comfort and humility. We are comforted, knowing that though it is difficult to make sense of the statistics of the day, with its mounting number of actives cases and death tolls, God knows what it all means. But it humbles us as well, because it reminds us we don’t direct the flow of history. We’re not even in control of our own destiny. God isn’t here to serve us. We’re here to serve him. So it is his agenda we follow.
But there is great freedom in that, for as the subsequent chapter, Revelation 5, reminds us, the One who actually sits on the Throne is none other than the slain Lamb and the Lion of Judah, Jesus Christ. The King on the Throne is the King who left his home in heaven to do his priestly work of atonement for you. As a result, the One who died for You is now enthroned. And all who are presently distressed or discouraged, can seek sanctuary by putting their faith in him and casting their cares upon him.
So read the newspaper. Be confronted by the images. But after that, lift up your eyes, and ask God to help you see with his eyes, the throne-room of God, the control tower of the universe. Then give him all the praise and honour and glory.
- Pray that God will help us see the world through his eyes. Pray that even in the midst of all the uncertainty, we will know in our very being that God remains on the throne, and that we can trust him in all things.
- Pray for the Rohingya refugees. Pray that all their basic needs will be met, for them not to be exploited, and that a viable solution which will protect their human dignity and help their community in the longer term would be found. Pray that the Christian community will not participate in any xenophobic attitudes towards them, but desire for these refugees to discover the mercy of God.
Read Colossians 3:15-17
We are relational beings. That’s how God has made us to be – to be people who connect with one another. Even those of us who are introverts still enjoy deep, meaningful one-to-one conversations. That’s what makes these times of physical separation difficult, as they make connecting with one another trickier.
Nonetheless, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. It just means we have to get more creative. Even in times of physical separation, we know God continues to call us to engage with one another. In today’s passage, right in the middle of verse 15, God describes us as “members of one body”, intending this identity marker to be the basis of his counsel to us. Although the Christian faith is personal – each of us have to individually choose to put our faith in God – nevertheless it is also inescapably communal. The New Testament regularly reminds us that we have been saved not merely into a “personal relationship”, but into a family, a household, a body. And as members of one body, we therefore belong to one another, and look after each other.
So what can we do, even in these days of spatial distancing, to look out for each other? Here are 3 suggestions from Colossians 3:15-17:
1. Teach one another. In verse 16, we are urged to let God’s Word dwell richly in our lives. Perhaps that’s why you’re reading this devotional right now, because you wish to let the Scriptures continue to mould your heart and your mind so that it will settle on Christ himself, and saturate our souls with knowledge of his love, grace, kindness and wisdom. That’s fantastic. But notice where the emphasis of verse 16 lies. The word of Christ is not simply to dwell in us as individuals, but amongst us as a community, as we seek to teach and admonish one another. In other words, share the treasure!
So how can you intentionally do that in these times? There are many ways. In verse 16, it comes as we sing together. That’s not quite possible at the moment, but one possibility is simply for us to look at the songs of Scripture together, the psalms, and intentionally discuss them with others in your family, or on your small group WhatsApp.
To extend the application, perhaps you could share these or other helpful devotionals with others. Perhaps you could send a little message to another Christian friend, reflecting and summarising what God has been teaching you today (but don’t be long-winded about it! 😊) Perhaps take advantage of video conferencing tools to make sure you’re still meeting as a small group to study the Scriptures today even as you continue to share both your light-hearted moments and your burdens with one another. And don’t forget, Paul mentions that we should “admonish” one another as well. That doesn’t mean we deliberately seek out the faults of others, but it does mean we should continue to hold each other accountable.
2. Be at peace with one another. In verse 15, we’re to “let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts”. This could so easily be misunderstood as simply a call to seek inner peace. However, that is not the sense Paul is intending here. The word translated “rule” in this verse is literally a Greek word that means something like “umpiring”. Peace is like the official in a sports game who decides on matters of dispute. That makes sense in context, where Paul has been focusing on how God’s people should interact with one another. So basically, Paul is saying – let the peace of Christ be the referee in your relationships! It’s not that you can’t have convictions, but you shouldn’t be intentionally quarrelsome.
What does that look like? It means in your household, we need to continue clothing ourselves with compassion, bearing with and forgiving one another (see v.12). As we stay cooped up together, it’s harder work as our flaws become more apparent! In online conversation, misunderstandings are easier without the benefit of verbal cues and body language. As we remain isolated, negative thoughts and grudges fester more easily.
So we need to constantly guard against that. That’s where verse 16 comes in again, for it is the message of Christ that frees us from bitterness and allows us to pursue truth and reconciliation.
3. Be thankful for one another. Did you notice gratitude is something that comes up in each of these verses, right at the end? In verses 16 and 17, it is thankfulness to God. In verse 15, it is more general, but given what he’s just said, surely it must include gratitude for one another as well. Perhaps take the time today to think of those in your current household, and what you could be thankful for. Think of other Christians, and take a minute or two to consider what you appreciate about them. Think about your small group leader, and perhaps don’t just think, but even take the time to drop a note of encouragement to him. That makes a world of difference, and will motivate him to care for you even more!
So let’s make sure during this time, we don’t stop looking out for one another. Rather, see it as an opportunity for growth, not just in yourselves, but an opportunity to encourage growth in others as well, whether in word or deed. All this for His glory. Amen.
- Pray that we would not easily retreat into ourselves, but continue to seek opportunities to teach one another, remain at peace with one another, and be thankful for one another. Pray especially for your small group or other Christians, that they might be places or relationships of love, support, kindness and patience.
- Pray for the church to remain united as one body even in these times when they can’t physically gather. Pray that they will continue to be one in purpose, mindset and mission, to be a people purified for Jesus and eager to do what is good (Titus 2:14).
Read Matthew 11:25-30
The streets are quiet. The city centres are empty. But the chaos of the world has not subsided. Think of the frontliners, dealing with the stress of coming into contact with potentially infected people everyday. Think of the parents, trying to juggle work alongside taking care of young children. Think of the students, trying to work out if they have the bandwidth and navigate remote learning. Think of the self-employed, who have turned into insomniacs overnight as they look at the bills. And of course, think of the sick themselves. Say no more.
And then Jesus says: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” We have no words left to say. But he does.
In this little portion of Scripture today, I want us to notice three little things. The first two are to do with the who, and the third has to do with the what. In verse 28, Jesus is not issuing a command. Neither is he issuing a warning. Rather, he is issuing an invitation. And notice, first of all, to whom the invitation is given. He’s not inviting those who have it all together, breezing through life’s challenges. He’s not inviting those who are well-adjusted, with little anxiety and worry. Rather, Jesus extends his invitation to those on the brink of burnout, with spiking stress levels and yes, who therefore find themselves often angry, sometimes doubtful, sporadically unkind, and irrepressibly self-focused. As J.C Ryle, in his classic devotional on Matthew, puts it: “He imposes no hard conditions; he does not say anything about work to be done first, or establish[es] whether we deserve his gifts”.
So today, are you feeling frazzled and fatigued? Are you dejected that once again, you know you’ve not been a “good” Christian and lived up to God’s standards? Do you feel unworthy, especially since you know the image you have of yourself as someone who is capable and adept is being shattered, piece by piece? Jesus says: this invitation is for you. In this time, don’t run away from me. Come to me.
And that brings us to our second who. Second of all, notice who Jesus is inviting them to meet. Himself. In verse 28, he says: “Come to me.” In verses 29-30, his statements are full of references to himself. “Take my yoke.” “Learn from me”. “For my yoke…and my burden…” This invitation is all about him. Now Matthew 11:28 is a verse many Christians have some familiarity with. But fewer Christians have familiarity with its immediate context. This section begins with a description of God himself. If verses 28-30 are full of references to Jesus, then verses 25-27 are full of references to God the Father. And Jesus reminds us of God’s majesty and sovereignty. He is the Lord of heaven and earth. He knows more than even the wise and learned of this earth.
But to know this God, verse 27, there is only one path. Jesus makes that clear. It is only through knowing Jesus. For Jesus alone can reveal the Father – no one else. And that is why Jesus is inviting us to come to him. Do you want to know God, the Lord of heaven and earth, as your heavenly Father? Then come to Jesus. For when Jesus invites the weary and heavy-burdened, he is inviting us to come like little children. And that is exactly the kind of people whom God also wishes to invite into relationship with him (v.25-26): those like children, not those who know it all. He wants to care for us as a good Father.
And that brings us to the what. Third of all, notice what Jesus is inviting us into. Rest. Now that usually conjures up for us images of comfortable couches, sandy beaches, and long lunches. But Jesus turns our expectations upside down in verse 29. Take my yoke, he says. What?!? A yoke is a wooden beam normally used between a pair of oxen to enable them to pull together on a load when working in pairs, as oxen usually do, although they can be fitted to individual animals as well. That sure doesn’t sound relaxing or restful!
But that’s what Jesus promises his rest would be like. A yoke. But here’s the difference – verse 30 – his yoke is easy and his burden is light. So what is Jesus actually promising? Notice in verse 29 he talks about learning from him. And so his yoke is related to his teaching. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is often found teaching. In Matthew 5-7 he gives his famous Sermon on the Mount, and in Matthew 13, he will teach parable after parable about the kingdom. And Jesus is saying: when we receive the yoke of his kingdom teaching, we find rest.
So his promise is not that life would necessarily get easier. His promise is not that the chaos will disappear immediately. Rather, his promise is this: ‘Come to me, and receive my yoke. And I know it sounds paradoxical, but as you walk my way – you will find rest. You will find rest from knowing you are doing my will. You will find rest from knowing you are living for what’s meaningful. You will find rest from knowing I deal with you gently, as I did when on the cross, I cried to my Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.’
For we were always designed to know him. So why not take Jesus up on his offer today? Perhaps you’ve been seeking rest in other things. The buzz of constantly working. The status conferred by doing something noble. The good name that comes from looking good to others. But Jesus alone offers true rest for our souls. As Ryle once again puts it: “he only asks us to come to him just as we are, with all our sins, and to submit ourselves like little children to his teaching.” Shall we seek rest in him today?
- Run to Jesus today, tell him about your tiredness, your problems and your sin, and then ask him to help you be humble, and to give it all to him. Thank him for his love demonstrated on the cross, and then ask him to help you submit to him and to seek his kingdom first, even in this stressful time.
- Pray for those especially who are in nursing homes, rehabilitation centres, prisons, and in other places where mobility is especially limited. Pray for God’s presence to be with the lonely, and to bring understanding to those who do not know why their family members are not visiting them. Pray for the staff members to not grow weary but to do their best to provide care.
Read Isaiah 43:1-5
Extension, again?!? On one level, we know why it’s necessary. We know why it’s vital. But we’re beginning to feel exhausted.
That comes as no surprise, because some of the most basic elements of our lives are now being tested. According to some psychologists, there are three elements that contribute to our sense of well-being and meaning. Firstly, we have a stable and positive view of ourselves – we have inherent worth, and we are competent. We can generally handle life and take care of ourselves. Secondly, we see the world as generally benevolent. In other words, it is mainly populated by people we can count on. When I go to the supermarket, for instance, unless given clear evidence to the contrary, I do not normally think the cashier is plotting to cheat me of my money. Thirdly, we believe the world to be mostly predictable. We like a sense of order in our lives – knowing that the sun will rise and set every day, that Sunday morning means going to church, and so on. When these are upset, we feel especially vulnerable, as they make life difficult to comprehend.
That’s what Covid-19 does. When the virus picks off people seemingly at random, and when brilliant scientists still struggle to know how the virus works exactly – it upsets our view of ourselves as worthy and competent. Furthermore, the virus causes us to be suspicious of each other, especially when we see someone leaving their homes – “does he have a valid reason for going out?” We immediately think. We are less likely to see our neighbours through benevolent eyes. And the virus has overturned our lives – our futures are no longer predictable, and even on the level of geo-politics, the old order of things seems to be gone. It is no wonder our sense of well-being is at risk.
Israel’s sense of well-being is at risk. These words are heard in the midst of their exile, and it is in exile where Israel’s identity feels as if it’s being dissolved. I thought we were God’s treasured possession? I thought we were called to be blessed and be a blessing? But now their future prospects look dim. The most basic elements of their identity are being stripped. Their very existence is at stake. And so they feel vulnerable. Life is difficult to comprehend, and perhaps hardly even worth living for.
And it is to this deep sense of vulnerability that God speaks. He says twice: “Do not fear” (v.1, 5). Why? In verse 1, the LORD tells us. He holds us in his hands. Just as the LORD shaped the physical universe, so he has reshaped these group of ragtag people into his holy nation. And what he did with Israel, he does with the church. Just as a potter carefully shapes everything in his hands, so the Lord carefully ensures he is making something that matches his specifications. And God doesn’t just form and shape us, he’s called us by name. He has summoned us and reminded us: we belong to him.
Furthermore, in verse 2, God assures us he will cover us. Back in verse 1, the Hebrew word translated “redeemed” here is slightly different from the word normally translated as such. Here it indicates the kinsman-redeemer, one who ensures that a helpless relative is cared and provided for. That’s what God does. The fire and water denote the threats and tribulations God’s people are facing. Yet God declares he will walk with us through the waters and the fire. The waters will soak us, but it will not drown us. The fire will cause us to sweat, and there are times it will cause us to stagger, but it will not consume us.
And notice why he does this. In verse 4, he says it simply. “I love you!” That’s it! For “you are precious and honoured in my sight”. And he does this also because, verse 3, that’s the kind of God he is! He’s always been Holy. He’s always been the Saviour. He delivered them out of Egypt, and he made an exchange by sending a Substitute. Wasn’t there deliverance and substitution with Abraham and Isaac? Wasn’t there deliverance and substitution in the Exodus with the Passover? What God is saying is that in one sense, he is utterly predictable. He always acts like a Holy, Saving God. For where else do we see deliverance and substitution? In Jesus Christ himself, our very Ransom.
And so this is what Isaiah 43:1-5 tells us. We don’t have to create our own self-worth. God has given us our self-worth. And we can see him not just as generally benevolent, but always so. He is someone we can always trust. And he is predictable. There can be a sense of order to our world, because of the reality of who God is. His character never, ever changes. It is utterly predictable.
Make no mistake, Covid-19 has laid a heavy burden on our mental health, and indeed our very souls. We’ve been left vulnerable as our very sense of well-being is being stretched like never before. But praise God, in Christ, there is redemption. There is an anchor for our souls. There is a place where our very being can be restored to wholeness. There is a future to look forward to. Praise Him, and do not be afraid.
- As we begin to feel exhausted and hopeless, that we would lean on the God who formed us, loves us, and will walk with us through fire and water.
- For all those who are facing mental health issues, that they would be adequately cared for, and during this time, the Lord will protect them and give them what they need.
Read Ezra 3
One of the phrases we’ve been hearing over the last few weeks is the “new normal”. We know that the MCO cannot last indefinitely, and so we’re preparing ourselves for that time when we will eventually emerge. The question, however, is this: what sort of “new normal” will we emerge into? What sort of expectations should we have as God’s people?
The book of Ezra is set during the return from exile. In the book of Chronicles, the book ends with God’s people in exile. But it also ends with a word from King Cyrus, their Persian overlord, that suggests God’s people can return home. That’s where Ezra picks up the story, who reveals Cyrus indeed did allow all exiles to return home and rebuild the destroyed temple.
In today’s passage, we could look at Ezra 3 through one spotlight, and focus on the work of rebuilding the temple. However, I want to us to look at this passage through another spotlight, one that might not be immediately obvious but is also present. This spotlight focuses not so much on the work, but on the people themselves. For many of them, they were entering a “new normal”. The returnees were a mixed group – some older folk who still remembered the past from long ago, and others who had grown up in exile and never even lived in Jerusalem before. So as we follow this spotlight, what can we learn about God’s people, not just then, but now?
Notice 3 things about ourselves:
1. The condition we’ll be in. As the people settle into their new surroundings, notice one emotion that emerges, verse 3. There was fear. More specifically, it was “the fear of the peoples around them.” These would have referred to the peoples of Samaria, Moab, Edom and so on who had since settled down in Judah and beyond. Perhaps they looked around and saw worship being offered to foreign gods around them, which made them feel threatened. In any case, their surroundings filled them with anxiety. Certainly, as we emerge into new surroundings, fear of the unknown, fear of a world that is different from before could fill us. It’s almost to be expected.
However, fear need not necessarily be a bad thing. For these returnees, it pushed them to be more careful in the rebuilding of the altar. In verse 2, it is built “in accordance with what is written in the Law of Moses”, a fact stressed again in verse 4 – “in accordance with what is written.” In verse 3, it is built “on its foundation”, or perhaps another way of putting it is “in its place”. And so while fear is present, so is faith. They remembered that the altar was first built by Abraham as a sign that he was putting his faith in God, that he believed he was connected to God. In verse 4, they celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles, which would have been celebrated by camping out in makeshift tents, as they remembered their wilderness wanderings of the past, and the fact they depended wholly on God.
So as we enter the “new normal”, what should we expect as God’s people? We should expect a condition where we’ll be fearful. Indeed, there’ll be a certain frailty to us – not a flattering word! Will we as a church be able to navigate the future? Will we survive? That’s to be expected. But we can also exercise faith too. Fear can push us to faith, which in turn pushes us to fealty (loyalty).
2. The confidence we can have. Indeed, that faithful fealty eventually leads to bolder action in verses 7 onwards. God’s people begin rebuilding the temple. In verses 8-9, we notice that there is careful supervision, and that all the people were involved, not just a few! And so they were beginning to exhibit a quiet confidence that they could still carry on the work of God. In verse 11, as they sing with praise and thanksgiving, there is an echo that the promises of Jeremiah 33:10-11 is being fulfilled, where God has promised to restore them. As God’s people saw the temple being rebuilt, they became confident that God was indeed good.
So it is with us. The pandemic has brought an unexpected gloom unto us. But as we keep walking with God, as we seek to do his will, as we choose to worship him with all our lives, in big ways and small, we can have confidence God will be good to us. His love will be shown to us. That is true, whether in the old or new normal.
3. The caution we must heed. However, that is not the end of Ezra 3. In verse 12, some of the older folk began to weep. They remembered the glory of the older temple, which had been destroyed, and they began to be filled with nostalgia. They compared the new temple to Solomon’s temple, and found it lacking. Verse 13 brings matters to an anti-climax. The note of joy and worshipful attitude was now being muted. The prophet Haggai might have been present, and he certainly did warn against such an attitude later on in Haggai 2:3-5, reminding the people that God was present with them even when it didn’t seem glorious.
That is the caution we must heed. As we enter the new normal, it’s all too possible to look back and keep comparing the present with the past. It’s possible to keep saying how everything was great before, and terrible now. At its worst, such an attitude disrespects what God is doing today. It might not look glorious, but then the cross didn’t look glorious. It also tears down rather than builds up the New Testament temple of God – the church.
So what sort of new normal would we emerge into? I didn’t answer that question, because I don’t know. But what sort of expectations should we have as God’s people? Ah! Ezra 3 has helped us here. This is the word of the Lord, thanks be to God. Let’s make it our foundation as we face our future.
- Pray that as we face our “new normal”, that we will do so by turning any fear we have into faith, being confident that God remains good, and so showing our fealty to him by living according to his Word.
- Pray for all students everywhere, as they have to face the big disruptions to their education and academic years. Pray for them, along with the teachers, to be able to adjust, and to still be able to learn from this time in a way that would ground them well for the future.
Read Isaiah 57:14-21
Waiting. That seems to be all we’re doing these days! Waiting for the MCO to lift. Waiting for a vaccine to be developed. Waiting for our lives to be “normal” again. Waiting.
At this point in the history of the people of God, they are waiting. It is a momentous period. Assyria has conquered the Northern Kingdom, Israel, and Judah is now under pressure to form alliances with ungodly neighbours. And Isaiah appears to remind them to trust God instead, and look to no other for deliverance. But Judah lacked that faith, despite the efforts of one of their kings, Hezekiah. They ignored and rejected God. In the words of Isaiah 57:17, in our passage today: “they kept on in their wilful ways”. Or as the ESV starkly puts it, the people went on “backsliding” in their own hearts. So they became a nation in captivity in Babylon.
But Isaiah looks into the future, and says: there is hope, for one day a remnant will return. God will stay his hand of judgement. To use the words of verse 16, God is adamant: “I will not accuse them forever, nor will I always be angry, for then they would faint because of me – the very people I have created.” The beginning of the final section of the book of Isaiah, which starts in chapter 56:1, makes that clear – “my salvation is close at hand, and my righteousness will soon be revealed.” And certainly in 56:8, we begin to see God gathering his people again, though it is far from complete.
So for Isaiah’s hearers, especially during and just after the exile, they wait. They wait to hear how God would fulfil his promises, where a glorious kingdom is ushered in, and their enemies are finally and decisively defeated. Just as today, we wait. We are waiting for God to gather his people again – as God’s gospel continues to bring many more into his kingdom. We are waiting for a time when the enemies of sin, death and Satan are finally and decisively defeated, and coronaviruses will be no more.
But this is not a moment for passivity. The waiting time is the testing time. For the question that lies at the heart of Isaiah remains: in this time of waiting, will we keep turning to God in repentance and faith, or will we turn away from him, especially amidst much pressure and tension? That is the question for Isaiah’s hearers, whether centuries ago or today. As we wait, God sifts.
For in this time of waiting, we find a distinction made between two different groups of people. There are those who completely ignore God. 57:3-13 catalogues a long list of terrible behaviour, including adultery, child sacrifice, idolatry and alliances with the ungodly. And God exposes what lies at the heart of such behaviour – verse 11: “you have not been true to me…you do not fear me.”
But there are those who faithfully seek God. And in today’s passage, it is to such people Isaiah now speaks a word of hope. To faithfully seek him is not so much about having faith that moves mountains or becoming a meditative monk out in the desert. It is about being “contrite and lowly in spirit” (v.15). And the good news is that these are the ones God himself seeks out. He seeks those who are humble, those whom life has crushed, those who know they are totally dependent on the Lord’s mercies. And his purpose is nothing less than to “revive” (v.15) and to “restore” (v.18)
How will he do it? By no longer playing the role of Prosecutor (v.16) but the role of Healer (v.18). He will find a way to acquit them, and to do that, he will do nothing less that a work of re-creation, turning them from self-centred behaviour (v.17) to people who praise God (v.19a). As he brings healing, there will be peace to those far and near; in other words, this is a global work! In Ephesians 2:17, Paul quotes this verse as he shows how the work of Christ has included not just Jews but Gentiles as well. But there is the flipside as well. For those who stubbornly refuse God, there will be no peace (v.20-21).
Notice that the contrast here is not between the good and the bad, but the wicked and the contrite. Peace is not God’s reward for good people. Peace is God’s gift to those who depend on his grace. It is his endowment on those who wait on him by faith. It is given to those who trust in the suffering Servant of Isaiah, Jesus Christ.
So today, as we wait – let’s wait as those lowly in spirit and contrite in heart. As we navigate the situation we find ourselves in, let’s ask God to revive and to restore. Let’s not allow this period of waiting to descend to a period of passivity and apathy. Allow the One who is high and lifted up to come and bring healing and peace to you.
- Reflect on where you currently are in your relationship with God. Pray for a humble spirit and contrite heart, and pray for personal, continual revival and zeal for him.
- Pray that God will act against the wicked during this time – those who abuse their spouses and children, those who swindle the gullible, those who persecute Christians while the world is distracted. Pray for God to protect the defenceless, and bring their oppressors to repentance.
Read Hebrews 4:12-16
Whenever a disaster or tragedy of truly epic proportions occurs, it’s natural for many to wonder if this really is the End. Perhaps this is the apocalypse foretold in the book of Revelation, and many scramble around to try to read the times and try to find its corresponding signs within the pages of Scripture, particularly those known as apocalyptic literature (eg. Revelation, parts of Daniel).
This is to misunderstand the nature of the apocalyptic. Such writings are not there to be read primarily like a codebook for the purposes of foretelling the future. Like all Scripture, it is there for the purposes of teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness. An “apocalypse” is literally an “unveiling”, or a revealing, as Revelation 1:1 itself makes clear – it is the revelation “from” or “of” Jesus Christ. It is the revealing of the divine reality that Jesus is Lord, and that the Lamb wins! It is the revealing of the divine perspective on a historical situation: in the case of the book of Revelation, the situation of Christians being persecuted under Rome in the late 1st century/early 2nd century.
So is Covid-19 literally the end of the world? We don’t know, for God has not told us. But whether or not it is apocalyptic in that sense, it is certainly apocalyptic in another sense – it unveils the true nature of our hearts. For what this pandemic does is to bring us face-to-face with reality, namely our state as creatures and our status before the Creator. For instance, we discover how little we truly know. After several months of concerted human effort around the world, we still do not know that much about the nature of the virus, how it transmits, or why certain people get sicker than others. Our statistical models sometimes add more confusion than clarity. Our limitations as creatures are laid bare. Or we discover how little we really wish to know. Trapped in our homes, we seek out any form of distraction or busyness to avoid looking for God, looking to God, or seeking his will.
And this state of affairs will reveal where our hearts are bent towards. Does it bend towards fear? Does it bend towards outrage? Does it bend towards indifference? Does it bend towards a prideful resolve? Or does it bend towards trust? Are we people who reach out towards God, or run away from him?
In Hebrews 4:13, we are told that God is all-seeing and all-knowing, not just about Covid-19, but about our inner being. All things are laid bare before him. There is no realm of creation that is unknown or incomprehensible to him. When we open the Scriptures to search for secrets that unlock the mystery of Covid-19, we discover instead that the Scriptures are more interested to expose the secrets of our hearts, penetrating to its depths (v.12). God knows where our hearts are bent towards, perhaps more than we ourselves do. And often, despite the masks we put on (and this isn’t just facemasks we’re talking about!), God sees us as we really are, and it usually isn’t pretty. We are bent in towards ourselves and our self-interests more than we care to admit.
But if we are Christians, Hebrews tells us this not to put a chill in our spines. It’s easy to take these verses and be tempted to run even further from Him because he sounds so severe. We treat God as a bit of an obsessive boss, intent on total surveillance so that he can pounce on us for every mistake we make. To address this all-too-possible misapplication, the writer to the Hebrews now gives us the gift of verses 14-16. God, he tells us, is not a distant figure who shows up once in a while to shame you. Instead, he is One who sits in heaven, totally in control, but is in total sympathy with us, having sent his Son, the Great High Priest, to cleanse our hearts. He unveils himself in the person of Jesus Christ, whom we discover deals gently with us. After all, the God on the throne became an infant in the cradle, a friend to lepers and ‘sinners’, a healer of the desperately sick, and a man of sorrows who walked to the cross.
Therefore, the commentator Philip Hughes is absolutely right on the money when he explains: “Sinners are no longer commanded to keep their distance in fear and trembling, but on the contrary are now invited to draw near, and to do so with confidence.”
So let this pandemic indeed be apocalyptic, in the sense that it unveils. May it unveil to us our hearts, which the Lord already knows about anyway. May it unveil to us the word of God, which is always living and active. And may it most of all unveil to us Jesus Christ, who asks us not to keep our distance but to trust him, for our cleansing as our polluted selves enter into the presence of God, for our justification as we stand before the Judge of the Universe, and for our salvation as we soldier on in this fallen age. Let this virus make obvious to us what has always been the case: we are creatures, He is the Creator; but in Christ, we are joyful, dependent children, for He is the trustworthy Saviour.
- Pray that we will be honest about the state of our hearts before God, letting him expose the darkest areas. Then pray that we will joyfully by faith lay hold of our salvation in Jesus Christ, to draw near to God with confidence and dependence.
- Pray for Christians everywhere not to be deeply fearful of what may come, or to indulge in frenzied unhelpful speculations that distract from Jesus Christ, but to exhibit a joyful confidence in God, to be eager to do good works, and therefore be a faithful witness to him.
READ Philippians 1:21-23; John 14:15-21
Tomorrow is Good Friday. And tomorrow, in our livestreamed service, we will consider the mystery of the forsaken King, the mystery that God appears to be absent. But perhaps you already know the ending. You say: praise God! There is the cross, and there is also the empty tomb! You say: we know God is for us, and with us! And indeed, praise God for that indeed!
But I wonder if you’ve ever considered another mystery: that Christ is presently absent. Huh? What do you mean? You might ask. Well, here is one interesting question to ask: where is Christ right now? Now you might answer: God is everywhere, Christ is God, so Jesus is everywhere! Yet when we look at the Bible, that is not quite how the New Testament puts it. In quite a number of places, such as Hebrews 1:3 and 8:1 for instance, we find that Jesus is at the “right hand of God”. Dig a little deeper, and consider words like Paul’s words in Philippians 1:23, and we find something interesting. As he ponders whether staying alive or dying is better, he states that he desires to die to be with Christ! This implies that Christ is on one level, absent from him. Moreover, in 2 Corinthians 5:6, Paul states that to be at home in the body is to be away from the Lord. And so clearly, in the New Testament, there is a sense in which Christ is absent from us. This make sense, given that we do not see Jesus face to face presently, and indeed, we are awaiting his return.
But wait a minute, you might ask. How does this harmonise with other verses like Matthew 28:20, where Christ says he is with us always? What about the beautiful words of Galatians 2:20 which says: “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me?” And you’re right to draw attention to these verses. They are also wonderfully true! Christ is absent, and yet he’s present! So how do we make sense of all this?
The answer, in sum, seems to be this. Christ is present with us through the Holy Spirit, though he is presently absent in his body. In Romans 8:9-11, the Spirit of God is described as living in every Christian. And Paul has no qualms about calling God’s Spirit the Spirit of Christ. In other words, he seems to be saying, if the Holy Spirit lives in you, Christ lives in you. They are distinct persons, yet inseparable. We enjoy the non-bodily presence of the Holy Spirit, but we are still awaiting the time when we can see Jesus face to face, when he will come from heaven to “transform our lowly bodies to be like his glorious body” (Phil. 3:21).
So what practical implications flow from this theological knot that we’ve just untangled? I think it means this. It means that we should not be surprised that there are times when we feel the absence of Jesus. We study the Bible, the words of Jesus, but we don’t literally hear the audible voice of Jesus, and so sometimes we feel like something is still missing. It’s like Skype, or Zoom – we can truly communicate and have fellowship with someone over such online platforms, yet we are missing something by not being physically present in the same room. And that sense should make us long for the day when we will see Jesus face to face.
But it also means we should not be surprised that there are times when we feel Jesus is really close to us. For he has not left us as orphans (John 14:15-21). Indeed, while the first disciples had Jesus with them, we have Jesus in us. And that should give us great encouragement, that even in the times when we long for the day of the LORD, where the world will be all fixed, we are not alone and isolated. In these days of spatial distancing, Christ through the Holy Spirit doesn’t have to keep his distance from you. Nor will he. We still long for a better day, but praise him, He is with us today.
- Pray that we will be comforted and encouraged by the fact that Christ has not left us as orphans, but sends the Holy Spirit. Pray that we will know in our hearts God is still present with us in these days, and for anybody especially who is feeling God’s absence at this time. Pray that we will long for the day when Christ comes back.
- Pray for those who do not yet know the Lord in these days to know Jesus in a real and personal way, and know his peace.
Read Genesis 1:26-28; Colossians 1:15, 3:5-11
Human beings are amazing creatures, aren’t they? Scientists have identified some unique traits that humans alone have. We alone have a kind of “higher” consciousness that no other species on Earth seems to have – the very fact that you can read and ponder on this devotional, and you can wonder at the meaning of life during this very time is unique to humans. We alone seem to be capable of producing art and culture, and to assign symbolic value to it. Human beings are unique.
And during this time when we are all battling Covid-19, we certainly do see the best of humanity, don’t we? Consider, for instance, the following:
- Our doctors, nurses and other frontliners working long and exhausting hours everyday, to devote themselves selflessly to the patients under their care.
- Citizens collaborating together, coming up with novel ways to stitch together PPEs and innovate contactless Covid-19 booths to keep frontliners safe.
- People generously buying groceries for the elderly, saying encouraging words to lonely people, turning the spotlight to ensure refugees and the abused are not forgotten, offering hospitality to complete strangers with nowhere to stay.
- Creatives using virtual platforms to make music and bring a shaft of joy to the current gloomy atmosphere.
However, at the same time, we also have to consider that the worst of humanity is also on display:
- Panic buying, and fighting over empty shelves to see who can get that last roll of toilet paper.
- Lies and abusive language directed at doctors and other frontliners.
- Scammers taking advantage of this time to swindle the gullible.
- The elderly abandoned in nursing homes and left for dead.
What accounts for the best and worst of humanity? How do we make sense of this paradox?
The Scriptures tell us. When we turn to God’s Word, we are told that one of the most significant things about human beings is that we are made in the image of God. In other words, we are royalty. We are to rule, on behalf of God, over the created realm, as his representatives. What that means is that we treat every single person as deserving of dignity. We reflect God as we show love, as we showcase our creative skills, as we sacrifice for the sake of others.
However, the Bible also tells us that we now have a perverted image. We are ruined. That happened when we decided not trust God and his Word, but believed the lies of the serpent instead. And so we began to resemble the serpent more. Like him, we deceive others. Like him, we love to dispute with others. Like him, we delight only in our own glory. Left to ourselves, we still dimly carry the image of God, but it is like a shattered mirror.
Praise God, however, that there is One who is the perfect image of God. Jesus came. He was indeed royalty – he was the Messiah, the Chosen King. But he came to embrace ruin. He himself was ruined on the cross for the sake of our restoration. And he restores us by recreating us in the image of our Creator.
So now, as restored images, we are free to rid ourselves of lies and malice. We are free to practise compassion and humility. We are free once again to reflect the love of our Creator. As Christians, let’s celebrate that truth. Let us, even amidst a pandemic, bear a striking resemblance to the Saviour, who was the best human being ever, and who redeemed us, so that God may be glorified.
- Pray that we will take off the old self with its practices, and put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.
- Pray for governments across the world to exercise calm and wise leadership, and to make the best decisions they can as they face a changed world.
Read 1 Peter 3:14-15
Has anybody asked you about your hope recently? In 1 Peter 3:15, Peter assumes that there will be someone who will be asking you about your hope. Now that’s interesting, because the word hope itself is an abstract word, isn’t it? Hope itself is immaterial. It’s invisible. And yet Peter assumes that our hope will be visible to those around us. So the question is: how are they actually seeing your hope?
The answer seems to lie in the immediate context, in verses 14-15a. Peter is speaking to Christians who are suffering. They are undergoing trials. They have become the target of slander and unfair treatment (eg. 1:6, 2:15, 20; 4:3). And how indeed should they be reacting? “Do not fear.” “Do not be frightened.” Hope in itself is invisible, but the actions of hope are very visible indeed!
But why do they not fear? What sort of hope is this that would lend itself to such actions? Verse 15 gives us another clue. The Christians revere Christ as Lord. They have set him apart as the One they most fear. So they do not fear the one who can cause them harm. Christ has always been Lord, but the Christians acknowledge him from their deepest being, hence the expression “in your hearts”. This here does not mean they have acknowledged him as Lord only privately, as if Peter is speaking about the inability of outsiders to look into our hearts. Rather, Peter is speaking about how Christians worship Christ as Lord even from the very core of their souls. After all, if that is true, then that belief would translate into visible action, and that in turn will spark questions from outsiders for the hope they have.
In today’s context, we are not talking about persecution from human enemies per se, but an oppression from an invisible enemy, a coronavirus. The question for us, then, is this. Are we displaying gospel hope even in the face of Covid-19? Is that hope visible to those around us, on our WhatsApp channels, on our Facebook and Instagram pages, in our Skype and Zoom meetings? And are we prepared to explain why we do not fear Covid-19, but revere Christ instead? Let’s be ready to give testimony to our Lord, who has beaten death and given us an inheritance that cannot be taken away by stock market crashes or job losses. Let’s speak of the day of salvation, and offer it to all those who have yet to taste it.
- Pray that we will be ready, and to have an opportunity (perhaps even to try to create one ourselves), to share the reason for the hope that we have.
- Pray for all those suffering job losses, loss of income, and uncertain futures as a result of the economic fallout from Covid-19.
Read Philippians 2:25-30
One thing we know about the Apostle Paul is that he spent a lot of time in prison! And we can imagine that often, he would have been alone, apart maybe from having a Roman guard or two for company. Certainly, at the end of his life, when he’s in prison yet again, he has an intense longing to see Timothy and Mark again (2 Tim. 4:9, 11), even though Luke is current with him (2 Tim. 4:10).
But that makes this little section we read here even more affecting. Paul and the Philippians shared a joyous partnership in the gospel (see 1:3-6 for instance). And as an act of love, they sent Epaphroditus to him, to help him take care of his needs – this was likely monetary and material goods. Here was Paul – isolated, restricted, unable to come out – and they sent him the gift of a human messenger.
But now Epaphroditus has fallen ill, and seriously so. He almost died, Paul says. And it is now Paul’s turn to perform an act of love. He gave it some thought, and obviously concluded that the best thing to do was to send Epaphroditus back for the sake of his recovery, and for the sake of reducing the Philippians’ anxiety about him. This came at a cost to himself – he was losing companionship, and stepping back into isolation. And yet gospel partnership drove him to send back the person he calls his brother, co-worker and fellow soldier.
Both Paul and Epaphroditus provide us with 2 model examples of how to be gospel-centred in these strange days. For Epaphroditus, the gospel drove him to risk his life so that he could provide the right kind of help for his brother in Christ. For Paul, the gospel drove him to embrace being alone, so that he could ensure his brother in Christ’s life was preserved. One decided to venture out, the other decided to “self-isolate”, to use the lingo of today. Both acts were different, perhaps even opposites of each other at first glance, but there were both acts of love, acts of trust, and indeed, both acts that flowed out of the gospel they believed in.
What does this tell us? It is strange days we live in, and to self-isolate, for instance, is counter-intuitive to our notions of what it means to love and honour Jesus. But this helps us to see that there is no one size fits all when it comes to being gospel-centred. The key thing is: are we truly loving and modelling Jesus in the decisions we make? We are all currently facing different circumstances, with different factors, but let’s strive to be thoughtfully gospel-centred the way Paul and Epaphroditus was.
- Whatever circumstance we’re currently in, pray that we will keep making decisions and taking actions that flow from the gospel.
- Pray especially for our Health Director-General, as he continues to provide leadership and direction to our health department and systems during this stressful time.