Outsiders

“Don’t forget that you Gentiles used to be outsiders. You were called “uncircumcised heathens” by the Jews, who were proud of their circumcision, even though it affected only their bodies and not their hearts. In those days you were living apart from Christ. You were excluded from citizenship among the people of Israel, and you did not know the covenant promises God had made to them. You lived in this world without God and without hope.”
‭Ephesians‬ ‭2:11-12‬ ‭NLT‬‬

The Jews considered themselves, and still do, a race set apart. God’s own people. And the Jewish opinion of non-Jews was the derogatory phrase used by Paul, “uncircumcised heathens“. Sadly, the act of circumcision became a symbol of great pride to the Jews. What was originally designed to set them apart as God’s special people became pointless – God desired circumcised hearts, devoted and obedient to Him. But Jesus changed all of that. He set the scene in the famous Scripture, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son…“. This “world” set out an all-encompassing , all-inclusive description of the nations that populated the planet at the time when Jesus was having his chat with Nicodemus. And by further analysis of Scripture, the “world” is inclusive of all people, then and now. But Jesus focused His ministry on His own people, the Jews. And after His death and resurrection His master plan kicked in – where better to start a new God-world order than with God’s chosen people. And His chosen disciples. 

Cornelius, the Centurion, had the distinction of being the first Gentile person converted, though did the Samaritan women in John 4 come into the “Gentile” category? But come what may, Jesus gave us a commission  – Matthew 28:19 and Acts 1:8. The Samaritans and the people called “Gentiles” saw the fruit of it. The Ephesian church was in the main populated by Gentiles and Paul reminded them that they used to be “outsiders“. They were “living apart from Christ” and “excluded from citizenship among the people if Israel“. Not a lot going for them until, that is, they embraced the Gospel in all its fullness. 

The “covenant promises” Paul referred to was the Old Testament covenant, that was exclusively claimed by the Jews. Unless they converted to Judaism, Gentiles, the “outsiders” and “uncircumcised heathens“, had no Old Covenant blessing. But the Jews and Gentiles together, those who believed in Jesus, were the first fruits of the New Covenant of God’s love and grace.

In our pilgrimage through life can you imagine what it must be like “without God and without hope“? What a dark, depressing place that must be. And yet so many people in today’s societies are in that place. Forced to rely on their own resources – pilgrims without God neither know where they are going or what life holds in the future. Living in the “now” is ok as far as it goes, but sooner or later the “now” comes to an abrupt halt and suddenly becomes that place Paul mentioned – a place “without God and without hope“. We must continually look for opportunities where we can open the door wide enough for the “outsiders” to become “insiders”. And never lose sight of the fact that it is through God’s grace we are “citizens” in His kingdom.

Covenants

He always stands by his covenant—
    the commitment he made to a thousand generations.
Psalm 105:8 NLT

This verse describes God’s faithfulness in the covenant He made to His people, the Jews. It’s a covenant He is going to keep. What was it? A covenant is a binding agreement made between two parties. And in Genesis 17 we read, “.. This is the everlasting covenant: I will always be your God and the God of your descendants after you“. He will not try and wriggle His way out of it, when the going gets tough, as humans might do. But the covenantal agreement between God and His people was in two parts. God promised for His part to be always with them. And for their part they had to be obedient to Him and His laws, with a regime of sacrifices to atone for their sins. And as far as God was concerned His promise was eternal. Sadly, we see from the Old Testament the constant struggle the Jewish nation had in keeping their part of the agreement. 

Through Jesus, God brought about a New Covenant. This New Covenant was mentioned by Jeremiah – he could see, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, a time coming when God would initiate a New Covenant. We read in Jeremiah 31:33, “But this is the new covenant I will make with the people of Israel after those days,” says the Lord. “I will put my instructions deep within them, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.” In Hebrews 7:22, we read, “…Jesus is the one who guarantees this better covenant with God“. In the New Covenant, God offered the free gift of forgiveness for our sins through Jesus’ sacrificial death at Calvary, and our responsibility is to have faith in what He did for us, in the process enjoying an eternal relationship with God.

But will God’s commitment come to an end? In today’s verse the Psalmist points out that God has limited His covenant to a thousand generations. It doesn’t seem so much until we realise that the genealogies in the Bible add up to around one hundred generations from Adam until today. So a thousand generations is as good as eternity.
But the important point of the Covenant is that God is a real, loving, Heavenly Father, His Son Jesus died to redeem us from the consequences of our sins, and we have an invitation to spend eternity with Him. Seems a good deal to me.

A Stern Parent

“Moses and Aaron were among His priests; 
Samuel also called on His name. 
They cried to the Lord for help, and He answered them. 
He spoke to Israel from the pillar of cloud, 
and they followed the laws and decrees He gave them. 
O Lord our God, You answered them. 
You were a forgiving God to them, 
but You punished them when they went wrong.”
‭‭Psalms‬ ‭99:6-8‬ ‭NLT‬‬

This is the Old Covenant, the Old Testament. There were priests who called on the name of the Lord, on both their own behalf and on behalf of the people. And God spoke to His chosen people from inside a pillar of cloud, perhaps of smoke. As an aside, I wonder how big it was – its diameter, its height. Was it totally opaque? But come what may, it must have been an amazing sight. The Psalm continues with the statement that God’s laws were being followed, and God answered the people, presumably when they cried for help. Was it an audible voice, like the thunder at Mount Sinai? Or Elijah’s still small voice?  But here’s the thing, when they followed His laws and decrees, God forgave them. But when they didn’t He punished them. 

How do we view our wonderful God? As a stern parent who praises us when we do right in His eyes, but punishes us when we don’t? The society in which we live will leave us largely alone if we abide by what’s written in the statute book, but will apply “the full force of the law” when we don’t. Keeping to a speed limit when driving through a town will invoke no penalties, but exceeding it will result in fines and points on our licence (if we’re caught). And that’s the thing. In our societies, getting caught out if we commit a misdemeanour may or may not happen, but in God’s Kingdom, our actions will always come before His gaze. 

So back to our question, what picture, what impression, do we have of God in our minds? I meet people who never knew their fathers, or who never had a good experience with them. And they have then projected their bad experiences into the image they hold in their minds of God. They are fearful of God’s response to their behaviour, good or bad. 

Thankfully, through Jesus, God’s love and concern for us shines through with the light of the New Covenant. The New Testament bulges with the excitement of the Isalm 99ncarnation, bursting out with the news of our God who came to this earth to save us. No longer do we need to fear a stern and remote parent. Through Jesus we have the very means to enter God’s presence at any time. We can call Him “Abba” or “Daddy”. We can have an intimate personal relationship with Him, enjoying Him as a true Father. Can we feel His love and grace today? He’s ready and waiting to delight in us, His children.