War In Heaven

“Then there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon and his angels. And the dragon lost the battle, and he and his angels were forced out of heaven. This great dragon—the ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, the one deceiving the whole world—was thrown down to the earth with all his angels.”
Revelation 12:7-9 NLT

I must say I was perplexed when I read these verses because they don’t seem to fit in with the schedule of events in John’s vision. It is as though John has had a flash back in time. A bit like a film in which historical clips are occasionally shown in order to illustrate the plot, clips perhaps including the leading actor or actress when they were much younger, now being played out years later in front of the audience. The events that led up to the devil being ejected from Heaven are largely unknown though there are hints in Scripture that he was the most senior angel, involved in leading worship in Heaven. John’s vision described in today’s verses gives us some idea of the consequences of the devil’s rebellion. Sin was at the root of the devil’s downfall, as it was when Adam and Eve were ejected from their earthly paradise. We read in Genesis 3:23-24, “So the Lord God banished them from the Garden of Eden, and he sent Adam out to cultivate the ground from which he had been made. After sending them out, the Lord God stationed mighty cherubim to the east of the Garden of Eden. And he placed a flaming sword that flashed back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.” There was, and is, no place for sin and sinful behaviour in Heaven, because our wonderful holy God lives there. The Garden of Eden was an extension of God’s domain here on earth – He frequently came to visit Adam and walked and talked with him – so sin couldn’t be tolerated there either.

The sad thing for mankind is that the devil and his angels are now occupying the same space on Planet Earth that we are. Not a problem for most people, because the devil’s malevolent ways fit in with their sinful and wicked inclinations. But for us pilgrims, trying to live and breathe God’s ways, the devil is a problem. Always trying to trip us up. Always trying to get us to fall into sin so that he can destroy our relationships with our loving Heavenly Father and divert us from polluting his sinful domain, Planet Earth, with purity and holiness. Of course, we have read the end of the Book. We know what will happen to him. But in the meantime we have to be on our guard. Thankfully, we have been warned in God’s Word, our Biblical Handbook. A well known verse is in 1 Peter 5:8, “Stay alert! Watch out for your great enemy, the devil. He prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour.” How does he “devour” pilgrims like us? One way is through temptation to try and get us to sin. He tried that on with Jesus (he failed, of course) but that never stopped him trying with anyone else. He started it in the Garden when he said to Eve, “ …. Did God really say you must not eat the fruit from any of the trees in the garden?” (Genesis 3:1). Putting doubts in our minds about God is one of the devil’s primary strategies. He will find out our weaknesses and will try and exploit them at every opportunity. 

Thankfully, God knows our weaknesses and doesn’t condemn us when we fail. We read in 1 John 1:9, “But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness.” We are living in a season of God’s grace, but as we know from the information contained in  the Book of Revelation, it won’t last for ever.

I am writing this at the start of a glorious day in the West of Scotland. The sea is calm, like glass, and the Isle of Jura is visible through the early morning mist rising off the sea. In such a moment it is easy to forget the devil is still out there. But God has prepared a place of care for us, a place of beauty in the world He created. And we are thankful for His provision, sustaining us in our pilgrimages through life, as, step by step, we trust in His protection.

Dear Father. Once again we thank You for Your love and grace. We reach out to You today secure in the knowledge that You are caring for us. Amen.

The Incense Burner

“Then another angel with a gold incense burner came and stood at the altar. And a great amount of incense was given to him to mix with the prayers of God’s people as an offering on the gold altar before the throne. The smoke of the incense, mixed with the prayers of God’s holy people, ascended up to God from the altar where the angel had poured them out. Then the angel filled the incense burner with fire from the altar and threw it down upon the earth; and thunder crashed, lightning flashed, and there was a terrible earthquake.”
Revelation‬ ‭8:3-5‬ ‭NLT

Something significant happened when the incense burner collided with Planet Earth. We are not told in John’s vision the extent of the devastation but the thunder, lightning and the earthquake would have been yet something else to be endured by the remaining inhabitants, those still alive on earth. But in what way was it significant?

To me, the symbolism was of the holiness of Heaven colliding with the sin and wickedness present on Earth. The incense burner held two things of significance, which were God’s incense, and the prayers of the saints. And they were poured out on the altar as an offering to God. But the angel then took fire from the altar and filled up the incense burner, before hurling it through the spiritual dimension of Heaven to the Earthly dimension below. Did those still alive on earth at that time see something hit their surroundings; perhaps they thought it was a meteorite or asteroid, as some might assume? Or was there just another apparently natural event that once again caused much devastation? Of course, we don’t know, but John’s vision was clear. The Bible does tell us that Heavenly events can have an earthly impact. For example, in Luke 10:18 Jesus said that He saw satan fall from Heaven like lightning.

Perhaps the fire confirmed what John the Baptist had prophetically said about Jesus some time before, which we read in Matthew 3:11, “I baptise with water those who repent of their sins and turn to God. But someone is coming soon who is greater than I am—so much greater that I’m not worthy even to be his slave and carry his sandals. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” Fire purifies. Fire cleanses. Perhaps on this occasion fire represents yet another judgement from God in response to the wickedness found on Earth. 

And the message was clear – sin can in no way prevail when it encounters holiness. An electrical storm of celestial proportions was followed by a “terrible earthquake“. Did the remaining inhabitants on earth rationalise the seemingly natural disaster to make it fit their entrenched belief system? Or did they at last realise that they were experiencing the consequences of their sins and wickedness? 

In these verses located between the judgements of the seven seals and the seven trumpets, we pause and consider how devastating sin really is and how it breaks God’s heart to see His creation behave in sinful and wicked ways.

Father God. On our knees before You today we confess our sins and pray for Your forgiveness. Your kindness, love and compassion knows no bounds. We are so grateful. Amen.

Forgiveness

Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander, as well as all types of evil behaviour. Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you.
Ephesians 4:31-32 NLT

That’s a pretty comprehensive list of negatives. Paul listed “bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander” and then almost as an afterthought, and just to make sure he hadn’t missed anything, he added “all types of evil behaviour”. I wonder what prompted his thinking? Perhaps, as he languished in his prison cell, he remembered his friends back in Ephesus and thought about how they lived. Perhaps he was thinking, “I remember that lady with the blue robe – she was a very bitter woman”. Or, “I wish Sparticus (would that be the name of someone in Ephesus?) wouldn’t erupt in an angry rant every time someone disagreed with him”. Perhaps Paul found himself holding his tongue when he heard the way they spoke about each other. But from his prison cell he found the freedom to write about it. Somehow his suffering added weight to his message. His message was relevant in his day and is still relevant today. It is timeless. Human nature hasn’t changed much over the centuries. So often our behaviour is learned from our circumstances. So a child watching an angry father might copy his behaviour. Another child hearing a gossiping relative might think that they can do the same. Others might see the trolling on social media and join in, trying to outdo the vile comments left by someone else. As an aside today, I wonder if Paul would have had a Facebook page or a Twitter account? If he had the posts would have been amazing, I’m sure. Regardless of what behaviour we learn from others, though, sometimes the ways we speak, the emotions we display, the ways we react – they are all driven by the sinful person we are inside. 

Anyway, Paul encouraged his readers to replace all their negatives with the word “instead”. And the second of our verses today sets out the ways in which we should behave. Instead of being bitter and angry we should be kind and compassionate. The word “tender-hearted” is used. There is a man living near me who had a horrendous upbringing, being brought up in acute poverty with a mother and ten siblings. But now in his retirement, he helps out with feeding and caring for a few animals on a small-holding near him. He is a very soft-hearted man, and I pointed that out to him yesterday. His response was that he was soft with animals but not with people. A man tender-hearted by nature but hardened by exposure to a life of contact with people displaying “evil behaviour“.

How are we with our fellow members of society? Are we pilgrims secure within hard walls that we have erected to protect us from the hard knocks in life? To prevent the barbed comment and nasty insinuations from hurting us? Or are we tenderhearted, feeling the pain of others? Allowing, in a spirit of forgiveness, “harsh words and slander” to wash over us? Responding with kindness and love, compassion and mercy? That is the Jesus way. When nails were hammered into His hands He responded with “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34). He loved His enemies even to the end. So what else can we do? We can only echo Jesus’ love for others in the way we face into life. Interface with those around us. Forgiving others as Christ has forgiven us.

Theft

“Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.”
‭Ephesians‬ ‭4:28‬ ‭NIVUK‬‬

I wonder why Paul added this instruction in his letter. Perhaps there was someone in the Ephesian church who was a thief. Perhaps there were even more than one. But he must have had a reason, and you can just imagine the person or persons involved in theft squirming a bit in their seats while the letter was read out, perhaps flushed with embarrassment or feelings of guilt. In the society at that time perhaps being a thief was an easy way to earn a living. But whoever it was, they had a choice and Paul made it clear – get a job, he said. But, as an aside, if the miscreant had been caught thieving I can imagine the penalty would have been rather severe – we remember that two thieves were crucified along with Jesus not that many miles away from Ephesus.

But stealing is not a victimless crime. It impacts other people’s lives; honest people who would have wondered who the culprit was. Suspicion builds up and when the Ephesian church met together you can just imagine the thoughts that would have been flying around. Knowing that one of their number was a thief, they would have been looking around at their fellow Christians wondering, “is it him”, or “perhaps she did it”. And the bonds of unity and love that Paul was writing about in his letter to his friends at Ephesus would have been broken. 

In a church near where I live, and a few years ago now, money seemed to be disappearing on a regular basis. Sadly, the leadership had to make a determined effort to find the culprit, and eventually found that a church administrator was responsible. But the grace and love that was poured out in that church was absolutely amazing. Without involving the police, they arranged for the return of what had been stolen and forgave the person concerned, who repented and asked for forgiveness. A person restored and forgiven. Church unity unbroken. Dealing with theft the Jesus way.

A pilgrim today will have many opportunities to take a short cut, tempted to steal rather than earn. Perhaps forced to think that way through personal hardship or family pressures. But there is no other way than the way of complete and total honesty. The Jesus way.

Breakthrough

Lord, if you measured us and marked us with our sins,
    who would ever have their prayers answered?
But your forgiving love is what makes you so wonderful.
    No wonder you are loved and worshiped!
This is why I wait upon you, expecting your breakthrough,
    for your Word brings me hope.”
Psalm 130:3-5 TPT

There will be many people hoping for a breakthrough in this New Year. People who feel as they have been ground down by an incessant tsunami of bad news from the media, who are traumatised from the rigors of the pandemic, successive lockdowns and societal restrictions. And in the UK, rising taxes and energy prices are threatening to increase the cost of living, bringing more worries and concerns, and adding to the misery mix. But it doesn’t matter which era we find ourselves in. Each generation has to face into its own set of problems.

However, there is one thing that never changes, regardless of the era in which we live, or have lived. And that is the goodness and grace of God. In the current age of Black Friday, Boxing Day Sales and other good deals, there is one deal that is unbeatable. Trust me – it really is! Can you believe it? God sent His Son, Jesus, to this world, to be born and live as a human being. To teach wonderful truths about His Kingdom, to heal the sick, to raise the dead, and in the process challenging the religious stereotypes of His day to the extent that the authorities crucified Him as a terrorist and thief. Sinless, He died a common criminal’s death, but in the process He took upon Himself all the sins of the world. And if we believe in Him and repent of our sins then – now here’s the deal – He will take on board all our sins and instead give to us His sinless righteousness. It won’t cost us a cent, or a penny, even. What a deal! What a breakthrough! And the only thing in the way of claiming our breakthrough this New Year is our unconfessed sins. Wearing Jesus’ cloak of righteousness we can stand before God as though we had never sinned. The breakthrough we experience will last for both this life, and our lives in eternity.

Looking at our verses today, the Psalmist spells it out. God forgives us our sins and answers our prayers. He dispenses His forgiving love to all who come to Him in repentance. And if we spend time in His presence, soaking in His Word, we will be infused with hope and can expect a breakthrough. Folks, it doesn’t get better than that. We have no need to spend time in misery because we are loved and forgiven by our wonderful Heavenly Father. Let’s make a commitment this New Year to move from misery to a new life in God, the breakthrough we have yearned for. Hang on a minute, I hear you say, “What about the misery mix I’m experiencing?” Don’t forget, as the Psalmist says, God answers our prayers.

Eternal and Infinite

For His unfailing love toward those who fear Him
    is as great as the height of the heavens above the earth.
He has removed our sins as far from us
    as the east is from the west.
The Lord is like a father to His children,
    tender and compassionate to those who fear Him.
For He knows how weak we are;
    He remembers we are only dust.
Psalm 103:11-14 NLT

David is back writing at the Psalmist’s desk. Scratching away with his God-thoughts, recording eternal words through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. And once again his thoughts turn to how much God loves His children. In describing the relationship we have with God, he uses the word “fear” but that can have negative connotations. In our world and culture, perhaps a better word would be “respect”, though with a depth far beyond a man-limited meaning. In the Lord’s Prayer, we “hallow” His name. Another good word. And David points out that God’s love for His hallowers is so great that it is unmeasurable. The heavens extend a distance above us, a distance measured in eternal units, with a hint of infinity creeping in. In other words, God’s love is so great that it is unlimited and eternal, unmeasurable and unquantifiable. We must never think that there is insufficient to go around. 

And David then moves his thoughts away from God’s love to our sins. The reality is that once we have confessed and repented of our sins, God removes them. In fact, He puts them a place that is as far away from us as the East is from the West. A wonderful analogy, because we don’t know the start and finish of either place. No sooner then we define a place as being “East” then we know there is another place further “East”. The circular nature of our world, rather than the flat representation on a school room wall, drives the compass points. But what is the implication of all that? God forgets our confessed and repented of sins. They don’t exist anymore. That have been erased from the Heavenly record books. Have we ever been in a situation where we have repented of a past sin again, perhaps from many years ago, just in case we forgot? Well, God takes out His record books and can’t find any mention of it. So He comes back to us and tells us so. He is the perfect Father, divinely tender and compassionate. 

In all the world religions there is only one, Christianity, in which the worshipped god came down to earth as a human being. Jesus, God’s Son, therefore knows what it is like to be human, and he shared our weaknesses when He walked around the Palestinian countryside. He got tired and hungry as we do. He was tempted as we are. And when He returned to Heaven, we read in Romans 8 that He is sitting at God’s right hand, interceding for us. Our loving Lord is the only “god” who knows “how weak we are”.

Today, we have been granted another opportunity from our allotted time span on earth to come before our tender and compassionate Heavenly Father, resting in His presence, feeling His heartbeat of forgiveness, and assured of His love. Let’s not waste the moment.

Write it Down

“Let this be recorded for future generations,
    so that a people not yet born will praise the Lord.
Tell them the Lord looked down
    from his heavenly sanctuary.
He looked down to earth from heaven
   to hear the groans of the prisoners,
   to release those condemned to die.
And so the Lord’s fame will be celebrated in Zion,
    his praises in Jerusalem,
when multitudes gather together
    and kingdoms come to worship the Lord.”
Psalm 102:18-22 NLT

Psalm 102 details the troubles the poor Psalmist is enduring. But through it all he never lost his faith in God. And he appeals to his readers to make sure they record the Lord’s goodness for future generations. He highlights information about where God lives, and how He interacts with human beings, looking down, hearing and releasing. He looks down to see what is going on and straight away the injustice of those being imprisoned gets His attention. He hears their “groans” and he “releases those condemned to die“. And as a consequence the Psalmist points out that one day, at the end of the age, Jerusalem will see the congregation of all the world’s nations coming “to worship the Lord“.

But who are these prisoners? Those condemned to die? In the UK we have prisons bursting at the seams, full of people incarcerated for doing wrong. And I know in some countries, there are people languishing in death rows. Waiting for their end. But why would God single these people out for “hearing” and “releasing”? God is interested in all people. He loves them all. No, more likely, the Psalmist is referring to people who are prisoners because of their sins, and who are condemned to die as a consequence. God looks down from Heaven with a breaking heart, yearning for His people to understand that the prison doors are open. That their choices are keeping them there and, worse, keeping them on death row as well. The Apostle Paul wrote in his epistle to the Galatians that, “But the Scriptures declare that we are all prisoners of sin, so we receive God’s promise of freedom only by believing in Jesus Christ.” That’s the open door, folks. 

Those of us who have embraced God’s gift of freedom, who are no longer locked in a prison of sin, need to write down our stories. Write down our testimonies of how God’s grace and mercy opened our prison doors. Because the generations coming behind us need to know too about our wonderful Creator God. About His love and compassion. About what He has done for us. 

If there is anyone reading this blog today, and feel as though they are locked in a prison cell, unable to escape. Oppressed by the enemy. Blighted by negative thoughts of how bad they are. Their self image plumbing depths of despair. Then reach out to the only One who can set us free. The only key to our prison cells is soaked in the blood of Jesus, our wonderful Saviour, our wonderful Releaser, our wonderful Lord.

The Son of Man

“Your vine is cut down, it is burned with fire; 
at Your rebuke your people perish. 
Let Your hand rest on the man at Your right hand, 
the son of man You have raised up for Yourself. 
Then we will not turn away from You; revive us, 
and we will call on Your name.”
Psalms‬ ‭80:16-18‬ ‭NIVUK‬‬

After the frenetic and dark days of Psalm 79, Asaph, the Psalmist, seems to be calming down and looking at his predicament with a more contrite and objective heart. Three times in the Psalm he appeals to God to ”make your face shine on us”. And he ends the Psalm with the reason for his request – “that we may be saved.” But, in a prophetic glimpse in verse 17, he introduces “the son of man”. This was the phrase that Jesus used to describe Himself when He walked in the highways and byways of Palestine. A phrase used many times in the Old Testament and the Gospels. But in his prophetic glimpse, perhaps Asaph saw that the solution to the national distress of the Jewish nation was a Messianic figure who would lead the people and keep them close to God. He wasn’t to know that a few hundred years later such a person would emerge, the Son of God, but also the Son of Man. Jesus, the divine and human Messiah. Amazingly, and sadly, the Jewish people failed to recognise Him, because by then they had lost sight of the reason for the Messiah’s coming, which was, according to verse 17, to bring God’s people back into His presence. Instead their expectation was for a Leader who would free the Jewish nation from the tyranny of the Roman occupation. And then there came the dark day when they crucified the very Man who was their salvation.

But Jesus died once, not just for His people, but for all mankind. His mission was accomplished. And by believing in Him, that His death brought forgiveness for our sins, we can fulfil the prophetic insight from this Psalm, turning back to God. And then we will find that His face will truly shine on us.

Being an Example

My life is an example to many,
because you have been my strength and protection.
That is why I can never stop praising you;
I declare your glory all day long.
Psalm 71:7-8

Who can say, as David did in this Psalm, “My life is an example to many”. But how can he have the utter cheek to make such a claim after his very public and disgraceful affair with Bathsheba? Is he saying that anyone can behave in that way and it’s no big deal? Before we answer that question, it might be worth considering another similar occasion. When Peter was caught out by Jesus after denying Him, in His time of need, not just once, but three times. We can read the passage in Matthew 26. This wasn’t just a private occurrence – Peter made his denials publicly in front of a group of people. And we can read in John 21 how the risen Jesus took Peter through repentance to becoming a rock, on which Jesus said He would build His church.

So back to David. He also repented of his terrible sins and received God’s forgiveness. There are no sins that God will not cleanse us from. We have not done anything so bad that Jesus will refuse to pardon us. And like David, we too can be an example to many. In our communities we can be an example to our friends and neighbours, and by our lives we may the only glimpse of Jesus that many people will ever see. 

Those of us who have repented of our sins can stand before God wearing the righteousness of Jesus. How do I know? The Bible says so in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God“. So if God declares me righteous, as He did with David and Peter and countless others, I too can be an example to many. I have blogged before about the Pastor of a church in Glasgow, who was a drug dealer, imprisoned for his crime, saved through the ministry of Teen Challenge, and who returned to the very community in which he dealt drugs as their Minister and Pastor. I’m sure, at least initially, the community scoffed at him, as they did with Jesus when He preached in His home town of Nazareth. But the reformed drug dealer is now an amazing testimony to the grace of God. Like David, he too can say his life is an example to many. 

And so the challenge to us is this – as reformed sinners can we too be examples to those around us, telling about God’s strength and protection, and declaring His glory all day long? A thought for today?

Answered Prayer

You who answer prayer,
to you all people will come.
When we were overwhelmed by sins,
you forgave our transgressions.
Psalm 65:2-3 NIV

Another Davidic Psalm. He was certainly a prolific Psalmist, but so much of his writings bubble up out of a heart firmly fixed and grounded in his Father God. In verse 2 of this Psalm, David drops in the unequivocal statement that God answers prayer. In Matthew 21:22, Jesus said, “If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer“. There’s the story of a woman living in the coal belt in Wales, who got so fed up with a slag heap located behind her house that she took the words of Jesus at face value and prayed one night for God to remove the mountain. The next morning it was still there. Her response was, “I didn’t think prayer would work anyway”. An example of unbelieving prayer? When Jesus spoke about asking for something in prayer, there is implied within the request the assurance that what is being asked for is in accordance with God’s will. There is also the implied requirement for having faith that God is who He says He is, and that He will grant the request. Sometimes we try and pray beyond our faith. For example if I pray for revival to break out in my nation, is that within the faith that I have? Perhaps I need to start with praying for my next door neighbour, developing my faith muscles in the process. Both belief and faith required a living, breathing relationship with our Heavenly Father. In Matthew 7:7, Jesus said, “Ask and it will be given to you…”. The word ask in this context means to keep on asking, being persistent in prayer. 

But after all this, we have to accept that our believing, faith-filled, persistent prayer requests may not be answered in the way, or with the result, we hoped for. These are the times when we need to trust God, because only He knows what is best for us. However, there is one prayer that God always answers with a resounding “Yes”. That is the prayer for forgiveness for all our sins. In 1 John 1:9, the Apostle John wrote, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” We need never be overwhelmed by our sins again. We can live a life free of guilt and sin. Thank You Lord!