With the previous thought of ‘new wineskins’ still an echo in our minds, the first real test of this comes in the form of ‘The Sabbath’. What happens when the ‘wave’ of new life rolls onto the ‘rock’ of Jewish tradition? Surprisingly, the rock is shattered! Jesus ‘harvested’ grain on the Sabbath and then healed a man in a dramatic way. The ‘old wineskin’ did not permit either practice – it was rigid, inflexible, and only suitable to contain something that was already dead.
But notice that this ‘wineskin’ was created by Pharisees’ tradition and not by the Old Testament scriptures. That is the problem with tradition – it retains the shape of what was once alive, and then stays in that shape for a million years! So many Christian denominations and movements that were once at the cutting edge of the Holy Spirit’s life and power are today embarrassing, museum-like graveyards of a faith; by standing still they have been left behind. Revival is like a grand parade marching inexorably onwards; if you do not keep up, you are left behind to pick up the litter and reminisce about the marchers. So sad!
Jesus knew that a key part of his role on earth involved sticking close to his Father. He would often spend a considerable time seeking his Father’s presence, listening to his voice, and enjoying closeness and intimacy. I think that we underplay this aspect of life at our peril! Ephesians 1:17 says: “I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better”. If the Master needs to devote himself in this way, then so do his disciples – both then and now!
I am personally always challenged to walk more closely with the Lord and to practise listening more acutely to his voice. Fellowship with God is both the purpose and the powerhouse of mission, without which, mission is little more than a pyramid-selling scheme! It doesn’t mean that you put mission on hold, but it does mean that you take hold of God firmly on your intentional missional journey.
The immediate result of Jesus’ night of prayer appeared to be the wisdom to choose his apostles and a huge outpouring of healing power. The so-called ‘Sermon On The Mount’ was another overflow from Heaven that has been described as the most sublime and radical teaching in the history of mankind. The crowd was permitted to listen in, but it was directed at his disciples and described the facets of true discipleship:
- We will be hated, excluded, insulted, and rejected by an unbelieving world
- But our reward for faithfulness is in heaven, not here and now – so don’t be upset
- Love the unlovely and undeserving (‘cos God does this to us)
- Speak words of blessing on those who curse us, and pray for those who hurt us
- Don’t do to others as they have done to us, but do to them as you we would want them to do to us
- Unbelievers care for their friends and families; we need to go beyond that and care for the uncaring – because God in Heaven does exactly that with us!
- Forgiving and Giving – these are the marks of Christ – and the more we do these ourselves, the more they will be done to us.
- Hypocrisy magnifies others’ faults and diminishes our own – beware, it blinds us in the process!
- The ultimate aim is to be exactly like Jesus, our teacher.
- A true disciple is one who says ‘Yes, Lord’ and then does it. Just saying the words only works whilst the going is good!
When you have been soundly beaten by a stronger opposing army – and when God apparently did nothing to help you – then you think twice about having another go at them! Forty years before, Israel, having refused to enter the Promised Land had then recklessly attacked the Canaanites and the Amalekites against God’s will and suffered the inevitable consequences. This time, they had no choice since the Canaanites attacked them. The difference was only that the Lord was fighting for them this time; they had called on him and promised him the spoils of war. Result = victory! A little later, travelling on land to the East of the Jordan, they had similar victories over the Amorites and over a king in the region of Bashan, whose name was an anagram of ‘Go’. (One more letter would have made all the difference!) With God on their side, Israel triumphed again and again.
In between these battles, a very unsavoury incident occurred that is symbolic in Israel’s history and was used later by Jesus to illustrate the means by which salvation would come through him. Israel grew impatient and grumbled at God for the lack of bread and water and at the monotony of the manna, calling it a ‘miserable food’. This was tantamount to rejecting God’s grace, and he punished them by sending venomous snakes into their, causing many people to die. When the people began to repent, God instructed Moses to fashion a bronze snake speared on a pole, and to encourage the people to look at it; those who looked – in faith – lived. There were two follow-ups to this curious incident: firstly, in 2 Kings 18:4 it says that the same object had been later worshiped as an idol by the Israelites. Then, even later, Jesus used the redemptive power of that original event to point to his greater redemptive power on the cross: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him” (John 3:14-15). Snakes in the Bible represented sin and evil. The connection with Christ is that, as the scripture says, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Jesus became our substitute and representative and scapegoat.
Just as Israel completely lost the point and took their eyes off God to eventually make the bronze snake an object of veneration, it is distressing that many who call themselves Christians start to venerate physical objects such as crucifixes, rather than the Risen One who was once crucified in our place. There is a subtlety here that does not go unnoticed in the Enemy’s camp, and he will take every opportunity to deflect us from true spiritual worship of the Son himself (John 4:23-24).
The account of the sorcerer, Balaam is amusing and instructive in equal measures. Israel were forming up in the vicinity of the Jordon valley across from Jericho, ready to make the big push into the Promised Land; Moab, the nearby nation to the East did not know this and imagined that they themselves were about to be attacked. Having seen Israel’s recent victories, a more subtle method of undermining them had to be devised, and so Balaam was summoned to perform some pagan divination – for a very large fee, naturally! To understand Balaam’s true character, it is useful to read the New Testament’s comments about him (see 2 Peter 2:15; Jude 1:11; Revelation 2:14). He is described as a mercenary, a deceiver and one who later caused Israel to fall into sins of idolatry and sexual immorality. Initially, the aim was to curse Israel, but the Lord appeared to him and commanded him not to do anything, since God had already decided to bless them. So far, so good.
But then Balaam is offered much more money and decided to seek the Lord again to see if he just might have changed his mind – well for long enough for Balaam to pocket a sizeable deposit from the messengers of Balak. God played along with this insubordination and then played a trick on Balaam to stick a pin in the sorcerer’s pride. Usually, the organs and offal of dead animals would be examined to see what their condition predicted about the future (see Numbers 22:40); God decided that a living creature would be the one to teach Balaam wisdom! For a while, the donkey could see what Balaam was blind to. This is the trouble with putting your trust in created things rather than God; it often makes you look rather foolish! More about this later.