I remember, years ago, a football match that had been arranged involving twenty-two young boys (including one of my sons, aged eight at the time). A friend of mine, Andy, was going to referee. Unfortunately, by 2.30 pm he had not turned up. The boys could wait no longer.
I was press-ganged into being the substitute referee. But, I had no whistle, there were no markings for the boundaries of the pitch and I did not know the rules nearly as well as some of the boys.
The game soon descended into complete chaos. Some shouted that the ball was in. Others said that it was out. I wasn’t at all sure, so I let things run. Then the fouls started. Some cried, ‘Foul.’ Others said, ‘No foul.’ I didn’t know who was right. So I let them play on. Then people began to get hurt. By the time Andy arrived, there were three boys lying ‘injured’ on the ground and all the rest were shouting, mainly at me!
But the moment Andy arrived, he blew his whistle, arranged the teams, told them where the boundaries were and had them under complete control. The boys then enjoyed a great game of football.
Were the boys freer without the rules, or were they in fact less free? Without any effective authority, they could do exactly what they wanted. But people were confused and hurt. They much preferred it when the game was played according to the rules. Then they were free to enjoy the game. The rules of football are not designed to take away the fun of the game. They are designed to enable the game to be enjoyed to the full.
God’s ‘rules’ are his boundaries for life, given out of his love for us. His boundaries are not designed to restrict our freedom but rather to give us freedom. Like the rules of football, they do not stop the enjoyment of the game. Rather, they enable the game of life to be enjoyed to the full.
2 Keep my commands and you will live;
guard my teachings as the apple of your eye.
3 Bind them on your fingers;
write them on the tablet of your heart.
4 Say to wisdom, ‘You are my sister,’
and to insight, ‘You are my relative.’
God’s loving boundaries
God does not invite us to follow his laws; he commands. But these are not the commandments of a dictator, they are the commands of a loving Father, designed to ensure justice, peace and fullness of life.
The writer of Proverbs is like a parent encouraging their children and passing on God’s commands to them. He urges his children: ‘Store up my commands within you’ (v.1); ‘Keep my commands and you will live’ (v.2a); ‘Keep my law... as the apple (the pupil) of your eye’ (v.2b, AMP); ‘Write them on the tablet of your heart’ (v.3b). This is what the Holy Spirit does. He writes God’s laws on your heart and gives you the ability to keep them (Jeremiah 31:33–34).
God’s commands bring ‘wisdom’ – and wisdom should be our ‘intimate friend’ (Proverbs 7:4, AMP). They bring ‘insight’ (v.4), and they keep us out of trouble (v.5).
5 In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. 6 Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. 7 But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.
8 Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, 9 he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense.
11 Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. 13 But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. 14 He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord.
17 And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
The example of others
One of the things that has helped me most in my life is the inspiring example of others. Sometimes it has been older people who, like Zechariah and Elizabeth, have lived their life ‘walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord’ (v.6, AMP). Other times it has been young people who, like John the Baptist, had been filled with the Holy Spirit and power. Anyone, at any age, can be an inspiring example.
Luke was an educated man, a historian and traditionally thought to have been a doctor. He was the only Gentile in an all-Jewish cast of New Testament writers. This is the first volume of his two-volume work, ‘Luke-Acts’.
Luke made a careful investigation of the events surrounding Jesus (v.3). He wrote ‘an account’ based on ‘eye witnesses’ (vv.1,2) so that you ‘may know the certainty of the things you have been taught’ (v.4). You can have a certain confidence about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
He starts his account with the birth of John the Baptist. In particular, he begins with John’s parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth: ‘Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly’ (v.6). (It is worth noting in passing that there is absolutely no suggestion that Elizabeth was barren because of some sin in their lives – quite the contrary.)
Finally, their prayer was heard (v.13). When we pray, God hears more than we say, answers more than we ask, gives more than we imagine – in his own time and in his own way. They waited a long time for their prayer to be answered. If God makes you wait you are in good company.
God granted their request for a child – who brought them joy and delight. God gave Zechariah ‘a vision’ (v.22) of what would happen. John the Baptist was ‘filled with the Holy Spirit even before he \[was\] born’ (v.15). He was ‘to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous’ (v.17).
God’s desire is to set the world back to the wise ways of living and away from the chaos that comes from disobeying his commands. Jesus is the one who makes this possible. John the Baptist came to prepare the way for Jesus.
34 These are the commands the Lord gave Moses at Mount Sinai for the Israelites.
The blessing of boundaries
God loves you. He does not want you to get hurt and mess up your life and the lives of other people. That is why he gives you his instruction manual and warns of the dangers of living outside of his loving boundaries.
The last verse of Leviticus summarises what the whole book is about: ‘These are the commandments that God gave to Moses on Mount Sinai for the People of Israel’ (27:34, MSG). His boundaries were intended to bring blessing.
Today’s passage describes the disastrous results when God’s people ‘will not listen to \[him\] and carry out all these commands’ (26:14): ‘If you reject my decrees and abhor my laws and fail to carry out all my commands and so violate my covenant, then I will do this to you…’ (v.15).
We see the chaotic world that results from ‘stubborn pride’ (v.19). The relationship with God is broken. Prayers do not get through. God says, ‘I will… make the sky above you like iron’ (v.19). Disobedience is draining, ‘Your strength will be spent in vain’ (v.20). However successful you are materially, it does not satisfy: ‘You will eat, but you will not be satisfied’ (v.26b). These are described literally as ‘the curses of disobedience’.
God gives every possible opportunity to repent. He puts all kind of obstacles in our way to persuade us to turn back to him (vv.18,21,23,27). In his faithfulness, and in spite of continual rejection, God is always ready to receive us back if we confess and humble ourselves (vv.40–42).
This all points forward to Jesus. The sad thing about all these commands is that no one is able to keep them. It is clear in these verses that God knows that the people will break them and bring all these curses upon themselves. Yet that is not the end of the story, God promises that even then he will act to save and redeem his people (vv.42–45). Ultimately God did this by taking the curses of the law upon himself.
It is only as we see the background to all this that we understand quite how amazing the cross is and how much Jesus took upon himself by becoming a curse for us, and the extraordinary blessing of being justified by faith and receiving the promise of the Spirit (Galatians 3:10–14).
God’s Holy Spirit changes us as he writes his boundaries on the tablets of our hearts. As Paul says, ‘Live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh’ (5:16). God’s Spirit produces within you the fruit of ‘love, joy, peace’ and much more besides (v.22).
The boundaries were given out of love. Jesus summarises the commandments, ‘Love the Lord your God... and... love your neighbour as yourself’ (Matthew 22:37–40). ‘We love because he first loved us’ (1 John 4:19). In love, he died for you and now he gives you his Holy Spirit to enable you to follow his commandments by living a life of love.
In Luke 1:13 it says:
‘The angel said to him… “your prayer has been heard”.’
Zechariah must have been praying to have a child for decades and had probably long since given up praying that particular prayer. It’s encouraging that God does hear even if he doesn’t seem to answer. God’s timing was perfect for John’s arrival in the world. We don’t always see the bigger picture.
Verse of the Day
‘… your prayer has been heard’
Thought for the Day
When we pray, God hears more than we say, answers more than we ask, gives more than we imagine – in his own time and in his own way.
Action for the Day
Pray against temptation today.
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Unless otherwise stated, Scripture quotations taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version Anglicised, Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 Biblica, formerly International Bible Society. Used by permission of Hodder & Stoughton Publishers, an Hachette UK company. All rights reserved. ‘NIV’ is a registered trademark of Biblica. UK trademark number 1448790.
Scripture quotations marked (AMP) taken from the Amplified® Bible, Copyright © 1954, 1958, 1962, 1964, 1965, 1987 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission. (www.Lockman.org)
Scripture marked (MSG) taken from The Message. Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.