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Reflection on Significant Personal Shifts 2019/2020

In January I decided to start a long slow journey to meditatively read the Bible cover to cover. This morning, 30 December 2019, I finished Deuteronomy. The end of Torah/Pentateuch, the five Books of Moses. It’s been rich! I enter 2020 reading the next book in the Bible, Joshua, going into ‘The Promised Land’. How significant is that? Unplanned on my part. End of an era, beginning of a new year, a new decade, a new season to ‘inherit God’s promises’.

What makes this shift more symbolic is that Gill and I came to Johannesburg – independently of one another – in January 1980 (we met in 1984, got married in 1987). And we relocate to Salt Rock on the South African north coast, to a brand new house, on my birthday 14 January 2020! We both, in other words, have lived in Johannesburg exactly 40 years, planting and pastoring churches. Not that they have been a ‘wandering in the wilderness’ like Israel – at least not all of the time! But I do see God’s sovereignty in the timing of things. Has it been ‘training for reigning’, as in Israel’s formation and preparation in the wilderness, to rule with God in the new land?

Briefly, three years ago we started a succession process to hand over our local church. Two years later, on 13 January 2019, we laid hands on a younger couple to lead the church (when I began reading Genesis, ‘new beginnings’). We took the big step of faith to trust God month by month for ministry and finances, making ourselves available to the broader church to travel, consult with leaders, teach conferences, lead spiritual retreats, and write more books. Not that the last one has happened yet! And we decided, with a sense of leading from God, to relocate to the coast – north of Durban, where I was born in 1955. God has encouraged us with prophetic words that speak of a whole new season in our lives. We’ve been stretched in our faith like never before. Without going into detail, here’s one example: due to SA’s economic recession we’ve not yet sold our Johannesburg house, which we really need to sell (if there’s anyone out there who wants to buy it, let me know!)

I have learnt that the longer we faithfully journey with God in life, leadership and ministry, things do not get easier. Faith is further tested and seriously stretched for the finishing work of God in us, and through us, in his preordained plan for us. Jesus’ biggest test was toward the end of his life – Gethsemane – ‘Father, if it’s possible, take this cup from me! Yet not what I will, but what you will’. Greater faith is need for the greater and final things God wants to do in our lives. It’s ultimately training for reigning with Jesus in our resurrected bodies on the new earth, in the coming age(s). God has personally come through for us, reassuring us, providing, making a way, working miracles, keeping promises, being our light in darkness – ‘My God, that’s who you are!’

I conclude by grounding this brief 2019/2020 reflection in my year’s scripture reading. What amazed me is that the five books of Moses are named, in the Hebrew Bible, by the opening phrase of each book. They constitute an overview of headline lessons, a story told backwards from Deuteronomy to Genesis:

  • From ‘the words’
  • That ‘the Lord speaks’
  • Based on ‘the Lord’s calling’ on our lives
  • Calling us ‘by name’ to ‘exodus’ out of slavery to sin into God’s Promised Kingdom
  • Which is ‘the beginning’ of (a new) creation.

Deuteronomy is essentially the repetition of ‘These are the words’ (1:1, the Hebrew name for Deuteronomy) of God’s covenant, to prepare Israel to enter The Promised Land. They are literally “the words” (debarim) from God that give us faith and life (Romans 10:8-17), that equip us to inherit God’s promises, to enter the rule and reign of God’s Kingdom come.

These ‘words’ (Deuteronomy) follow on, and come from ‘The Lord spoke’ – Hebrew name for the book of Numbers (1:1; the Hebrew Bible also uses “in the desert/wilderness”, 1:1). Did you know that ‘the Lord spoke/said’, and its related phrases, occur 150 times in Numbers? Astonishing! In other words, the message of Numbers is that life’s wilderness is all about learning to hear God’s voice again and again in each and every situation – to receive God’s words, to be guided and trained by them for life. For 40 years in the desert, whenever Israel was tested, facing trials and temptations, Moses prayed and listened, heard and obeyed God. Israel, in contrast, moaned and groaned, reacted and rebelled. To the degree we learn to live and lead by listening and obeying, we exercise God’s authority to rule and reign, demonstrating the signs and wonders of the Kingdom, as Moses did.

‘The Lord said’ (Numbers) is based on ‘The Lord called’ (Leviticus 1:1) – the Hebrew name for the book of Leviticus. The Greek Septuagint name, Leviticus, means ‘relating to the Levites’. The Hebrew message of Leviticus is: because God has called us, therefore we hear God’s Word. It’s all about our calling and identity as God’s redeemed and holy people. The Lord’s Word – recorded in scripture, incarnated in Jesus, revealed by the indwelling Holy Spirit in each life situation – equips us to rule and reign with Christ on the basis of God calling and identifying us as his own. God calls us by name, sets us apart, makes us holy by the blood of the Lamb for his Kingdom purposes.

Our calling (Leviticus), in turn, comes from our Exodus – miraculous deliverance, departure, exit – from our life of slavery to sin, sickness, demons and death. The Hebrew name for the book of Exodus is ‘These are the names of” (1:1). God personally calls each of us out from under Satan’s rule by name, as members of his great diverse family, into a (new) covenant of love, in training for reigning to inherit the Kingdom. Exodus is all about God’s personalised love, fighting for us, freeing us from evil.

Lastly, this exodus – in fact, all four above – is based on, and constitutes, ‘the beginning’ (Genesis) of God’s creation. ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’ (1:1). The book of Genesis is about God bringing order out of chaos, making all things new in a Garden of Delight (the meaning of Eden). God mandated his human image-bearers to take that Garden, that glory and abundance of God’s Shalom-Kingdom, to the ends of the earth.

Therefore, to move from Deuteronomy to Joshua – which I do on 1 January 2020 in my Bible reading; and, symbolically, we will do when we move to Salt Rock after 40 years in Johannesburg – is to come full circle back to the beginning: a new Genesis, a new birth. To move from Deuteronomy to Joshua is to move from Moses to Jesus (Hebrew Yeshuah, Yahweh Saves). Jesus leads us into the Promised Kingdom, to live in and advance God’s new creation – the new heavens and new earth – to the ends of this old, broken, chaotic creation, for the redemption and renewal of all things.

It’s a new year, a new season, a new start.
In Christ, you are a new creation, the old has gone, the new has come. Take heart! Turn to God, listen for his voice, receive his word, hear his call. God calls you by name!
Follow Jesus and he will lead you into the Promised Land.

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Living the Life God Intended – Talk 6 – Fulfilling God’s Law

To hear the audio teaching on these notes click on:

Jesus’ mission: “Fulfilling The Law & The Prophets”, Matt 5:17-20

In teaching The Life God Intended for us to live, Jesus describes those who enter the Kingdom of Heaven (KOH, the “blessed be’s” of Matt 5:1-12), and their prophetic witness as “salt & light” in society (Matt 5:13-16). Then he clearly states his mission: to fulfill The Law & The Prophets (vv.17-20). And then he follows on with what that means, what that looks like, from Matt 5:21-48 and on through to Matt 7:12, which “sums up” and echoes Matt 5:17.

Jesus says that he did NOT come to abolish Moses’ covenant, The Law, but to fulfill it in his KOH mission. The Law (Torah) is God’s prescribed will for human flourishing – the life God always intended human beings to live. We flourish as human beings – God’s image-bearers – if we obey God’s law and live it. Thus Jesus upholds it’s value: nothing will disappear from The Law “until everything is accomplished” (v.18), i.e. fulfilled. In fact, he intensified its ethical demands, seen in Matt 5:21-48, while other teachers of The Law in effect relaxed them (v.19), as we will see in subsequent posts.

It was an open secret that, though Torah embodied God’s will, it lacked the power to make people obey and live it. Why? Not because the first covenant of Moses was faulty per se, but because of the sinfulness (“the hardness”) of the human heart, which God’s Law repeatedly exposed. And therefore God provided the Temple sacrificial system for the forgiveness of sins – when Jews repeatedly broke God’s commands. God also promised a new covenant-relationship that will transform the heart by the Spirit, enabling God’s people to do his will (Jer 31:31-36, 32:38-40, Ezek 36:26-27).

Jesus was God’s Anointed King (Messiah), giving the promised “baptism with the Holy Spirit” (Matt 3:13) in the coming of the KOH new covenant (Matt 4:17). All who enter ‘it’ – this new relationship with God through faith in Jesus – receive a “righteousness that surpasses the Pharisees” (v.20). This is the righteousness that Jesus lived and modeled, enabled by God’s indwelling Spirit – and given to those who enter the KOH that Jesus proclaimed.

Righteousness is (God’s) ‘covenant faithfulness’ that gives us ‘right-standing-before-God’ and ‘right-way-of-relating/living’ in society. It is NOT attained or merited by outward behavioral performance, conforming to the rules, as the Pharisees taught. Jesus said they taught one thing and lived another reality, i.e. hypocrites (Matt 23:1-4). Righteousness is given through relational faith in Jesus, by trusting HIM for right-standing-before-God and right-way-of-living – rather than earning the reward of righteousness by our efforts at obedience. Followers of Jesus live by relationship and not by rules. We live by relying on Jesus and his enabling Spirit, not by trying to keep God’s requirements in our own strength.

Behavior changes when the heart and mind is changed. We don’t try to obey the letter of The Law of Moses written in stone – we will fail, because our hearts are “hard” (sinful). Rather, we depend on the Spirit of The Law writing God’s will in our hearts and minds. That is the Hebraic way of saying the Holy Spirit enables us to do God’s will “as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:10) from “a heart of flesh” (Ezek 36:26-27). I.e. as our hearts and minds are changed – progressively transformed from the inside out by living in God’s Rule and Reign of Love – we live the life God intended. The “heart” is the core and whole of the human being, the spirit-fountain out of which all of life flows and is lived (Prov 4:23).

In summary: the Pharisees focused on outward behavioral conformity, trying to obey God in the moment when needed. Jesus focused on inward transformation of the governing intentions of the heart, training for obedience by relational trust in God’s enabling Spirit in every moment. Jesus repeatedly taught this ‘heart-change-behavior’ principle in various ways:
The behavioral-fruit comes from the heart-root (Matt 7:16-20, 12:33-35);
What’s in the heart comes out – or is seen outwardly – in our thoughts, words and deeds (Matt 15:16-20);
First clean the inside of the cup and the outside will be clean (Matt 23:25-26).

To illustrate what he meant by “fulfilling the Law & the Prophets”, Jesus gave six ethical redefinitions in Matt 5:21-48. Each one shows how God’s intended purpose of The Law & Prophets is fulfilled in all who enter the KOH (Matt 4:17) and receive his Spirit-baptism (Matt 3:11). What Moses prescribes under the (old) covenant, Jesus describes in his new covenant relationship with Spirit-enabled behavior. By beginning each of the six with “you have heard it said… but I say…”, he teaches like the other rabbis, quoting a text and then giving his interpretation. He also ‘builds a hedge’ around the commandment; i.e. long before you get to actually break the commandment, you ‘run into’ and discipline the inner governing tendencies that cause you to disobey it.

However, there are four basic differences in Jesus when compared to the other teachers of his day:
1) He assumed the coming of the KOH in his ministry with Spirit-enabled new covenant behavior;
2) Thus he claimed and spoke with an authority from God that was not acknowledged, and even rejected, by most Rabbis – but recognized and respected by the common people (Matt 7:28-29);
3) Showing the Jews of his day that his movement really was the fulfillment of all that Israel believed and longed for – to be God’s kingdom of priests and prophets among all the nations – and…
4) That Jesus and his followers were to live by, and even die for, this revolutionary new way of being human, being God’s image-bearers.