He is able to sympathize

This is the second part of a series on The Heart of Christ.  See part 1 here.

When the question is asked, “How do I become a Christian?” a popular answer is, invite Jesus into your heart.  But what does that really mean?  No one has explained that to me.  When you look to Scripture, you’ll find that rather than inviting Jesus into your heart, Jesus invites you into his heart. 

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matthew 11:28–30)

Salvation involves coming to someone.  It’s coming to Jesus, and, trusting that he will deal kindly and gently with us, we entrust our hearts and lives to him.  It is unlikely, that a person who knows nothing of the heart of God in Christ, is likely to give their lives over to him, in the same way that is unlikely for a parent to entrust their children to someone they do not know. 

Take my own example.  I was not raised in a Christian home.  I had very little understanding of who God was and knew nothing about his heart.  I spent almost a year in the bible reading and learning about the person of Jesus, the way he interacted with people, how he treated people before I was ready to put my life in his hands.  My great concern is I come across a lot of people today who have responded to some gospel invitation, but they have never discovered the heart of Christ.  Not truly.  Not deeply.  They have never tasted of its beauty.

Jonathan Edwards lived and ministered during the time of the Great Awakening in early America.  In the year 1740, he preached a sermon for children in his congregation.  The title simply read, “To the children.  August 1740.”  In his sermon, he lists six reasons children should love Jesus more than anything else in life.  The first is this:

“There is no love so great and so wonderful as that which is in the heart of Christ.  He is one that delights in mercy; he is ready to pity those that are in suffering and sorrowful circumstances; one that delights in the happiness of his creatures.  The love and grace that Christ has manifested does as much exceed all that which is in this world as the sun is brighter than a candle.  Parents are often full of kindness towards their children, but that is no kindness like Jesus Christ’s.”

One place where we see the beauty of Christ’s heart for his own revealed is in his role as our Great High Priest.  And that’s what we are going to take a look at today.

Hebrews 4:14-16

The book of Hebrews is all about the priesthood of Jesus Christ.  It tells us what it means for Jesus to be our priest, the true priest, the one of whom every other priest is a mere shadow and to whom every priest is a pointer.  In Hebrews 4:14-16 we see this:  

“Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens—Jesus the Son of God—let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in every way as we are, yet without sin. Therefore, let us approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in time of need.”

The words “sympathize with” make up one word in Greek: the word sumpatheo.  Sum means “with.”  Pathos means “suffering,” “passion,” or “emotion.”  This high priest is with us in our suffering, with us in our weakness, and with us in our emotion.  In our pain Jesus is pained; in our suffering he feels the suffering as his own. 

You say, “How can he possibly feel that; he’s God.”  Because he is also a man.  He’s not a stranger to the human experience.  He’s been there.  He knows what it is to be tired.  He knows what it’s like to be tempted.  He has experienced anxiety and stress and mental anguish – think about what it felt like for him anticipating the cross.  He sweated blood in the Garden of Gethsemane.  If that’s not the extremity of stress and mental anguish I don’t know what it is. 

This high priest knows.  He understands.

Have you ever tried to tell your troubles to someone who doesn’t understand?  There was a time, some years back, when my wife was going through a really hard time.  She was deeply unhappy.  And it’s difficult when you’re in full-time ministry, talking about these things to people in your church.  So we called a counsellor that we knew.  Francelle was on the phone, talking to him, and then she started crying and I thought, What’s going on?  This doesn’t sound right. After she put down the phone I said, “So, what did he say?”  She replied, “He said, ‘That’s ministry.  You just got to suck it up.’”

We never called that counsellor again.  He showed no understanding, no empathy, and no compassion.

Jesus isn’t like that my friends.  He is a merciful, faithful high priest who right now sits at the Father’s right hand, interceding for me and for you.  He has an unequalled capacity to sympathize with us in every trial, every problem, every difficulty, every hurt, every pain, every grief, every sorrow, every complexity, and every experience you suffer.  Because he’s been through it all. 

Note the second half of verse 15:but one who has been tempted (tested, tried) in every way as we are, yet without sin.”  There’s a saying my wife heard growing up: “Don’t judge an Indian until you’ve walked in his moccasins.”  Jesus has walked in our moccasins.  He knows our world.  He’s been in our skin. 

There’s a wonderful story about a man during the heyday of the Salvation Army many years ago, told by John Wilson.  His name was Booth Tucker.  He was speaking on Christ’s sympathy for sinners and a man came forward afterwards and he said to Tucker, “You can talk like that about how Christ is dear to you and how He helps you and how He’s so sympathetic, but he says if your wife was dead as mine is and your babies were crying for their mother who would never come back, you wouldn’t say what you’re saying.” 

A few days after that Booth Tucker lost his wife in a train crash, and her body was brought to Chicago and carried to the Salvation Army Headquarters for the funeral.  Tucker stood up after the funeral was completed, he looked down into the silent face of his beloved wife, his children’s mother and he spoke these words and I quote, “The other day when I was here a man said I could not say Christ was sufficient if my wife were dead and my children crying for their mother. If that man is here, I tell him that Christ is sufficient, my heart is bleeding, it is crushed, it is broken, but it has a song and Christ put it there. and if that man is here, I tell him that though my wife is gone, and my children are motherless ‘ Jesus Christ speaks comfort to me today.”  The man was there, and he came down the aisle, knelt beside the casket and Booth Tucker led him to faith in Christ.  

Friends, we have a sympathetic high priest who is able to comfort us in any trial, any difficulty, any temptation, in sorrow and any loss.  And therefore, we should heed the words of Hebrews 4:16 and “boldly approach the throne of grace that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in the time of need.” 

What kind of throne is it?  A throne of grace.  It used to be a throne of judgment.  But when Jesus went and sprinkled his blood there it became what?  A throne of grace, just as when the Old Testament high priest went into the holy of holies and sprinkled blood there.  He turned the judgement seat into a mercy seat.  So then when you come to this heavenly high priest, grace is what you receive.

Edwards was right, there is no love so great and so wonderful as that which is in the heart of Christ.  We just need to experience it, by going to him for cleansing, comfort and refreshment each day.   

If you would like to view the message I gave on this post you can view it here (the message begins 7.55 mins in)

The Heart of Christ

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been reading a great little book called Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers by Dane Ortlund  It’s had a profound impact on me (I started a daily reading of each chapter of this book – you can access them from our Church YouTube channel here).  I began thinking, how many of God’s people know how Christ feels toward them, when they are doing poorly? 

It’s one thing to know he died and rose for you.  It’s another to know his heart toward you, in your weakness and sorrows and sufferings.  Charles Spurgeon, the great London preacher said that nothing attracts the heart of men than Jesus himself.  “Preach the loving heart of Jesus,” he said.  “Go to the centre of the subject, and set forth his very soul, his inmost self, and then it may be that the heart of Jesus will draw the hearts of men.” 

That’s exactly what I decided to do.  The result was a series of messages on plumbing the depths of Christ’s love and tenderness toward his own.  This is a summary of the first of those messages. 

We begin with what I call the flagship passage on the subject: Matthew 11:28-30:

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28–30)

Jesus is addressing people who were in a religious system of works.  The religious leaders of the day – the Pharisees and Scribes, had placed people under a burden of regulations and duties which were impossible to fulfil.  This locked them in an endless cycle of guilt and shame of performance-based religion. It left them tired, anxious, burdened and weighed down. It was a yoke[1] they could not bear. 

Jesus is offering a better, easier yoke than the religious system they were under.  He is saying in effect, “My yoke is not like their yoke.  My yoke is easy.  It does not rub your neck and shoulders.  It does not weigh you down.”  And then, by way of an incentive, he says, “for I am gentle and lowly in heart.”  The Greek word translated “gentle” can also be translated as humble, considerate, meek, and kind. 

Those are the words that describe the heart of Jesus toward sinners and sufferers.  Not a heart that is harsh, demeaning and easily provoked.  Not a heart that is belittling, patronising, or condescending.  We all know people like that.  You might have to work for a person like that.  They are not the type we are likely to open up to or be vulnerable with.  We are not likely to share our concerns or burdens with them.  We tend to stay very guarded with such people.

 Jesus is not like that.  He is gentle and lowly in heart. 

Tender 

Open

Welcoming 

Accommodating

Accepting 

Understanding 

Considerate 

Supportive 

Empathetic

And this isn’t the way he occasionally acts towards us when he feels like it or when he’s in the right mood.  These terms describe who he is.  It is his heart. 

Let’s have a look at that heart in action.  In Matthew chapter 8 Jesus has just finished with the Sermon on the Mount; he’s walking down the mountain and there’s a huge crowd following him and a man with leprosy approached him. Leprosy is a horrid disease of which there was no cure.  It sentenced people to a living death; your skin literally rots away.  It was highly contagious (a little like the covid delta variant today) and ostracised you from society, rendering you ritually unclean. What’s more, anyone who touches a leper becomes unclean also.  Michael Green, in his commentary on Matthew, writes,

Never has there been a condition that so illustrated the spiritual condition of humankind. For sin is a terrible disease that separates us from our fellows and from God; it spreads, and it is fatal.[2]

This poor leper comes and kneels before Jesus and says, “Lord if you are willing, you can make me clean.”  Note there is no question in the man’s mind as to the ability of Jesus to heal, only his willingness.  So it is with us.  We are certain Jesus is able to help us in our sin and weakness.  But we often doubt his willingness.  We read in verse 3:

“Reaching out his hand, Jesus touched him, saying, “I am willing; be made clean.” Immediately his leprosy was cleansed.” (Matthew 8:3)

Now – there are two things going on here.  First, Jesus makes clear he is willing.  Second, he demonstrates that willingness with human touch.  Jesus didn’t have to touch him to heal him.  We see in many places elsewhere that Jesus heals simply with a word.  In fact, the law prohibited him to touch him (Leviticus 5:3).  Why?  One would contract leprosy and likewise become unclean.   

But here’s the difference between Jesus and any other man: the moment Jesus touches someone, instead of Jesus becoming unclean the person becomes clean.  Instantly.  Immediately.  Do you see what this means? Jesus has no problem drawing near to you in your sinfulness and your sickness.  You may feel dirty.  You may feel unclean.  You might think, “There’s no way Jesus would want to come near me – he might become contaminated.”  That’s not possible.  You can’t make Jesus unclean.  He makes you clean.  And so he has no hesitation in drawing near you to help and heal you.  He is willing. 

The truth is my friends: Jesus is more willing to draw to us than we are willing to draw near to him.  Dane Ortlund writes in his book, Gentle and Lowly,

“The cumulative testimony of the four Gospels is that when Jesus Christ sees the fallenness of the world all about him, his deepest impulse, his most natural instinct, is to move toward that sin and suffering, not away from it.”

Jesus was drawn to sinners.  His compassion for them is what motivated and drove him. Further in Matthew’s gospel, we read:

When he saw the crowds, he felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dejected, like sheep without a shepherd.” (Matthew 9:36)

And so what does he do?  He teaches them and heals their diseases.  This is not some momentary emotional twinge in his heart, the likes of what we get when we see an emancipated child in Sudan or Somalia on our TV screens before we sip our cup of tea and chew on another biscuit.  His compassion was deep and real and it moved him to act. 

The word “compassion” we see here in this verse is the Greek word splanchnon which is the medical term for our intestines or guts.  You know when you feel very deeply about something, there is a physical sensation deep in your body?  That’s how Jesus feels toward humanity.  And this compassion comes in waves over and over again in Christ’s ministry on earth. 

There are many people here in our own context in New Zealand, who have been struggling with our last lockdown.  Perhaps you’re one of them.

  • You might be waiting on important medical treatment.  You are anxious about that being put off.  You fear the unknown.  Jesus feels that with youAnd he has compassion on you.
  • Perhaps you have mental health issues.  It’s hard enough coping with normal life – lockdown makes it even worse.  You can’t work, you can’t get out, you’re trapped in the four walls of your home, and it does your head in.  Jesus understands.  He feels with you and for you. 
  • Some of you have family members and relatives who just aren’t coping well with this, and you are concerned and worried about them.  Jesus feels that concern.  He is with you. 
  • There are others whose loved ones have gone to be with Jesus, and they been living alone.  That loneliness is intensified during lockdown.  Jesus feels that loneliness.  His heart is moved toward them.

Do you see how powerfully the truth of knowing the heart of Christ can minister to us? 

How is it, when it seems so obvious from the Scriptures that Jesus has a heart of compassion for sinners, that we don’t personally experience that ourselves? 

Here’s our problem: we have the exalted Jesus – all-powerful, all-wise, all-knowing Jesus who sits at the Father’s right hand.  He is the one whose name is above every name and before whom everyone will bow the knee and declare as Lord.  He is the one as described in the book of Revelation, whose eyes are a flame of fire and whose voice is like the roar of many waters and whose face is like the sun shining in full strength.  That is the Jesus we hold in fear and awe. 

Then we have the human Jesus, who we read in the gospels was a friend of sinners, who healed the sick and encouraged the weak.  But we don’t know how to merge the two.  We think to ourselves, “Well, the human Jesus obviously isn’t here anymore; he’s gone.  So we are left with the divine Jesus – the almighty King and Judge whose eyes are like a flame of fire.”  And we figure that Jesus doesn’t have a lot of patience with weak and weary Christians – especially the repeat offenders.

That’s where we are wrong.  Hebrews 13:8 says that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.”  The same Christ who reached out to touch the leper reaches out to touch us today.  The same Christ who wept at the tomb of Lazarus weeps with us in our lonely despair today.  The Jesus who reached out and cleansed messy sinners reaches into our souls and helps us in our confusion today.

Conclusion

As we go into this next week, I would encourage you to do this: let the heart of Jesus draw you to him.  Delve into the Scriptures and see his love for sinners and sufferers.  Say to yourself, “he has the same heart toward me.”  Allow yourself to be allured, entranced, and enthralled by this reality.  And you will find it will have the effect of not only consoling you but transforming you.

If you would like to view the message I gave on this post you can view it here (message begins 6 mins in)


[1] A yoke was a wooden collar that ran across the shoulders of a pair of oxen and enabled them jointly to pull enormous weights. 

[2] Green, M. (2001). The message of Matthew: the kingdom of heaven (p. 114). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Gentle and Lowly

“If you don’t know Jesus primarily and supremely as gentle and lowly, then you don’t really know him at all.”  Those were the words of Dane Ortlund in a message he gave at the TGC’s 2021 National Conference.  He addressed a common insufficiency many believers—and church leaders specifically—possess when it comes to really knowing Christ.  It’s a pretty strong statement to make.  But after reading his book, I believe he’s right. 

Dane Ortlund’s Gentle and Lowly – The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers is one of the most powerful, gospel-soaked books I have ever read.  I received a tip-off about this some time ago from a colleague in ministry and I put it on my wish list.  Then my daughter Emma started reading it along with a group of young adults in her church.  She couldn’t stop talking about it.  My wife beat me to its purchase, so I snuck it from the bookstand beside her bed (that happens often in our household). 

I wasn’t disappointed.  The book is largely (but not entirely) based on those delightful verses in Matthew 11:28-30 where Jesus says,

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28–30)

Ortlund writes,

“In the one place in the Bible where the Son of God pulls back the veil and lets us peer way down into the core of who he is, we are not told that he is “austere and demanding in heart.” We are not told that he is “exalted and dignified in heart.” We are not even told that he is “joyful and generous in heart.” Letting Jesus set the terms, his surprising claim is that he is “gentle and lowly in heart.”

That’s just the tip of the iceberg.  Throughout the rest of the book, those truths get unpacked, chapter by chapter in depth.  I loved the chapters on Hebrews 4:15 (how Jesus is able to sympathize with our weaknesses) and Hebrews 5:2 (he is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward).  There’s a wonderful chapter on “The Beauty of the Heart of Christ” (Ch. 10) and “Jesus the Tender Friend” (Ch. 12).  And lest one gets the impression that the Jesus of the New Testament is a much more likeable character than the remote and asture God of the Old Testament, he puts that to rest as well in “The Father of Mercies” in chapter 14 and “the Lord, the Lord” in chapter 16. 

Here are a few gems from his book:

“Jesus Christ is closer to you today than he was to the sinners and sufferers he spoke with and touched in his earthly ministry.”

“As long as you fix your attention on your sin, you will fail to see how you can be safe. But as long as you look to this high priest, you will fail to see how you can be in danger.”

“It is not only that Jesus can relieve us from our troubles, like a doctor prescribing medicine; it is also that, before any relief comes, he is with us in our troubles, like a doctor who has endured the same disease.”

“Christ does not intercede because the Father’s heart is tepid toward us but because the Son’s heart is so full toward us. But the Father’s own deepest delight is to say yes to the Son’s pleading on our behalf.”

“That God is rich in mercy means that your regions of deepest shame and regret are not hotels through which divine mercy passes but homes in which divine mercy abides.”

Having been so deeply affected by this book and knowing how many in our church (and the world) are presently being affected by Covid and lockdowns, I decided to do a daily reading of the book each morning.  Here’s the promo:

A number of people at Grace are starting to watch these and are benefitting from them. If you are interested, you’ll find the playlist here.

Trusting God (with Covid and all else)

Each new day we embark on a journey of the unknown. We make our plans, arrange our schedules and mark things in our diaries.  But rarely do things go exactly the way we would like.  Plans go askew, schedules get messed up, and events change in ways we least expected.  If you live in New Zealand, that’s what you faced at 4pm last Tuesday when our Prime Minister announced the whole country was going into lockdown.  There was one last dash to the store to get what you needed before midnight.  Whatever plans any of us had for the next few days, they went out the window.

But even in normal circumstances, life has a way of throwing us a curveball. The routine trip to the dentist shows up a problem with a molar.  Your car fails the WOF because they found rust in the door.  Your doctor tells you the scan results reveal you have a growth in your lung.  A million questions start going through your mind – can it be treated?  What if it’s cancerous?  What do I tell my wife and kids? 

It’s in these very times we need to be reminded that God calls us to trust him and trust him wholeheartedly.  There are so many places we could look to in the Bible for help in this, but perhaps the most obvious is Proverbs chapter 3 verses 5-6:

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.”

These would have to be two of the most well-known and deeply loved verses in the Bible.  They provide for us in summary form the sum and substance of the Christian life.  The Christian life primarily is not about knowing certain doctrines (though there are important doctrines every Christian must know) or performing certain duties.  It’s about trusting, relying on, and hoping in God. 

I.  The Command

The command, in one sense, couldn’t be much simpler: trust in the Lord.  Following this through however is anything but simple.  You know it isn’t.  You’re standing there on the other side of the counter at the dentist and the receptionist informs you to repair that tooth is going to set you back $1000.  What’s your gut response?

“Well here’s another wonderful opportunity for me to put my trust in God.  I have no idea how I’m going to pay for this or where the money is going to come from, but God does.  He says if I acknowledge him in all my ways, he will make my paths straight. So I can be confident that God has an answer for this and therefore I’ll leave it in his good hands.”

We don’t respond that way, do we?  No, we hear the words ‘one thousand’ and we start experiencing blurred vision.  The blood pressure goes up, the stomach churns and we start developing nervous twitches.  Up until this point all things were nicely in your control, you were calling the shots and now suddenly your head is in a spin, and you are brought face to face with the harsh reality that you have no control over the events in your life at all.   

How then are we to trust in God?  

First, we are to trust him entirely – with all of our heart.  “Heart” in the Hebrew language refers to our inner person – our intellect, our emotion, and our will.  It’s our mission control centre, where all of our thoughts and desires and plans and hopes and dreams and beliefs and convictions originate.  It is here, the very core of our being, that God wants the surrendering and yielding to take place. 

Second, we are to trust him exclusively.  It’s not like, “I’ll trust God and my own wisdom.”  That’s going to be your natural tendency.  By nature, we are inclined to look within for the answers, not up.  It only seems to make sense to take such-and-such a path, so I’ll take it.  It seems sensible to follow this person’s advice, so I’ll follow it.  I sense that within me this is the right thing to do so I’ll do it – without even stopping to pray, without ever consulting the Lord, and without waiting on the Lord for an answer.  Proverbs 14:12 warns us, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.”

A man may feel that he would be happier if he left his wife.  A mother may feel that grounding her daughter for lying is too harsh.  An employee may feel that it’s OK to call in sick to work, even though there’s nothing wrong with him.  How easy it is to rationalize our disobedience when our hearts are saying one thing and God’s Word is saying another.

We are to trust God entirely; we are to trust him exclusively, and thirdly we are to trust him in every area of life – “in all your ways acknowledge him.” 

In all our planning. 

In all of our thinking. 

In all of our spending. 

In all of our decisions. 

The small as well as the great.  

Abraham Kyper once said, “In the total expanse of human life there is not a single square inch of which the Christ, who alone is sovereign, does not declare, “That is mine!”.

No matter is too small for God’s attention.  To paraphrase one commentator, it is self-idolatry to think we can carry on even the most ordinary matters without his counsel.  In all your ways acknowledge Him

Scripture is not short of examples of what this looks like.  Noah building a great big boat in the middle of dry land when there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, despite all the ridicule of his neighbours, just because God said so.  Abraham packing up everything and leaving his homeland when he was 80 years old, leaving behind his homeland and all his friends – because God told him to.  Peter stepping out of the boat to walk towards Jesus who was walking on the water, because Jesus told him to.  Ordinary Christians declaring “Jesus is Lord” in a Roman Empire which only recognized one Lord his name was Caesar.  They all did it.  They all chose to go against the tide of human wisdom and put their trust in God. 

I think of Asa, king of Judah.  Asa had just under 600,000 fighting men at his disposal. A formidable force unless your opponent happens to be the King of Ethiopia, who has an army of one million as well as 300 chariots. b1 million v. 600,000.  Do the math.  What was the King to do?  In Second Chronicles chapter 14 we read,

And Asa cried to the Lord his God, “O Lord, there is none like you to help, between the mighty and the weak. Help us, O Lord our God, for we rely on you, and in your name we have come against this multitude. O Lord, you are our God; let not man prevail against you.” (2 Chron 14:11)

At a time when most military generals would be drawing up their battle plans, we find Asa doing what? Falling on his face before the Lord in prayer. “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.” (Psalm 20:7) What a courageous thing it was for Asa, as the leader of an entire nation, to put his head on the block (so to speak) throw himself at the mercy of God.

II. The Promise

Trust God in everything, submit to his leading, yield to his will in your life and what is the promise?  He will make your paths.  The Hebrew word here has the meaning of removing obstacles so that a path becomes clear.  It’s also found in Isaiah 45:2 where the Lord says to Israel,

“I will go before you and level the exalted places, I will break in pieces the doors of bronze and cut through the bars of iron,” (Isaiah 45:2)

What a marvellous promise.  Note the promise is not that the path will appear smooth and straight to us.  Often if feels very bumpy.  God never promises a smooth ride, but he does guarantee, if we faithfully follow him, a straight path.  He promises that every bump in the road, every turn, and every difficulty is there for our good and is part of the process of completing his work in us.  From God’s perspective, the path to Christlikeness is perfectly straight.  But from our perspective, it seems anything but.  As one Portuguese proverb says, “God writes straight with crooked lines.”

As I look back on the past 35 years as a Christian, there are a lot of paths the Lord took me down that look anything but straight.  There were hills and valleys to climb, rivers to cross, and dangerous cliffs to scale.  Sometimes it looked as though I was going backwards before I went forwards.  I’m sure many of you have felt the same way.  But this is the path he calls us to tread.  We are pilgrims journeying in a foreign land.  We experience many difficulties and hardships.  But we know, that if we keep on eyes on our celestial city and trust in Jesus to guide us, he will bring us safely home. 

Conclusion

William Carey, the father of modern missions, faced a ministry disappointment of overwhelming proportions.  Carey began his missionary career in India in 1793.  He laboured in that country for 40 years, never once returning to his native home.

Carey was a brilliant linguist, translating portions of Scripture into over a dozen Indian languages.  One afternoon after twenty years of plodding labour in that country, all his work went up in smoke.  A fire raged through his printing plant and warehouse.  All his printing equipment was destroyed, but most tragically, many of his precious manuscripts were completely consumed by the fire.  Of course, Carey had no computer backup files. Twenty years of non-stop labour were gone within a few hours.

How would he respond to this crushing devastation? How would you respond in similar circumstances? Listen to the words which Carey wrote to his pastor-friend, Andrew Fuller, in England:

“The ground must be laboured over again, but we are not discouraged…We have all been supported under the affliction and preserved from discouragement.  o me the consideration of the divine sovereignty and wisdom has been very supporting…I endeavored to improve this our affliction last Lord’s Day, from Psalm 46:10, “Be still and know that I am God.” I principally dwelt upon two ideas, that is: 1. God has a sovereign right to dispose of us as he pleases, and 2. We ought to acquiesce in all that God does with us and to us.”

Trusting God requires a surrendering of our own plans and agenda, a relinquishing of our deep and determined desire to be in control and casting ourselves before an all-wise and all-knowing God to do things as He sees fit.  When we do this, we are assured of this promise: God will make straight our paths.  He will clear the obstacles.  There will be – if not in the short term certainly in the long, ultimate success.

The Thriving Church

Two Sunday’s ago we celebrated the last 5 years of growth in our church, both numerically and spiritually. We also commissioned Sean Young as our new Associate Pastor. I ended with a message on what it looks like to be a healthy, thriving church from Acts 9:31. Here’s the content of that message:

If you were on the search for a new church, what would you go looking for?  My guess is it wouldn’t be a church that is struggling, where people are discouraged and it’s in decline.  No one wants to go to a church like that.  You would look for a place where there is vitality and health; where people are being built up in their faith and the gospel is advancing.

In the book of Acts, we get a snapshot of such a church.  From time to time Luke, the author of Acts, gives us a “progress report” of how the church is doing in terms of accomplishing its mission.  In chapter 9 verse 31, we are given one of those reports and this is what it says:

“So the church throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and was strengthened. Living in the fear of the Lord and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.” (Acts 9:31)

Isn’t that a great description for a church?  We see here five evidences of a thriving, healthy church in which God is at work.  The first one is:

1. Unity

It’s a wonderful thing when God’s people are at peace with each other.  That is truly a blessed thing.  Nothing is worse than a church where people are tearing each other apart.  That’s a terrible witness to the world.  Why?  Because God has called us to peace.  It’s at the very heart of the gospel.  We were once hostile to God.  We were at enmity with God.  But God in his mercy sent his Son to come and die for sin and provide a way for us to be reconciled to him.  Jesus, by way of his death and resurrection, put an end to the hostility and provided direct access to God.  There is now PEACE.   

“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Romans 5:1)

If we have peace with God, believers should be at peace with each other.  As Paul says in Colossians chapter 1 verse 15,

“And let the peace of Christ, to which you were also called in one body, rule your hearts. And be thankful.” (Colossians 3:15)

Christian, God has called you to peace, so pray for it and pursue it in the church you are attending.  Put your personal preferences and differences aside.  Demonstrate to the world, along with your fellow brothers and sister in Christ, what Jesus can do when we allow him to rule and reign. 

That’s one evidence of a healthy, thriving church.  The second is:

2. Spiritual Maturity

“So the church… had peace and was strengthened”

The word “strengthened” comes from two Greek words – oikos, a house and domeo, to build.  So literally it means, “to build a house.”  So what is the “house” that God is building?  It’s the people of God.  And how is God building up his people?  The Word of God.  God gifted to the church apostles and prophets and evangelists and pastors and teachers whose job it is to:

“Equip the saints for the work of ministry, to build up the body of Christ, until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of God’s Son, growing into maturity with a stature measured by Christ’s fullness.” (Ephesians 4:12)

And what’s the result of this building up process?  Paul continues:

“Then we will no longer be little children, tossed by the waves and blown around by every wind of teaching, by human cunning with cleverness in the techniques of deceit. But speaking the truth in love, let us grow in every way into him who is the head—Christ.” (verses 12–15)

There it is.  Wherever you see a church where people are being strengthened and being built up; wherever you see people becoming strong in their faith and confident what they believe and able to recognize false doctrine, wherever you see them becoming more Christlike, the Word of God will be central. 

But it’s not just about teaching the Word.  It’s not filling up our minds with lots of knowledge. It’s about living the Word.  It’s about putting it into practice.  It’s about repenting of sin and loving our neighbour and serving our fellow believers and forgiving people who’ve hurt us and caring enough about the lost to share the gospel with them and a myriad of other things.  This is how a church becomes strong.  This is how Christians become mature.  When the Word of God is taught, and God’s people put it into practice. 

If you are part of a local church, encourage others to be people of the Word.  Love the Word, meditate on the Word, grow in the Word, share the Word, pray the Word, obey the Word and you will become strong and influential and an encouragement to all who are around you. 

We find a third evidence of a thriving, flourishing church in this verse:

3. Godly fear

The believers, we are told were, “living (or walking) in the fear of the Lord.”   That’s something that is sorely missing in the church today.  There is so much joviality and light-heartedness and humour.  It’s as if every effort is being made to make people feel as comfortable and relaxed as possible. 

Now, I realise there’s a sense in which we want to put people at ease – especially those who are new to the faith.  We don’t want to make them feel awkward and uneasy.  But I think in our efforts to do this we have lost our sense of reverence and awe for the power and presence of God.  He’s become all too familiar – Jesus is our best friend, the Holy Spirit is our buddy, and God is a nice old man.

Growing up, I learned about all kinds of animals – including bears.  I saw bears in picture books and in movies.  I read stories about how dangerous bears can be.  But it wasn’t until I encountered a real bear out in the open that I realized how frightening it can be.  I was exposed and there wasn’t anywhere to go.

We need to retain a holy fear of God.  We want to cultivate in our places of worship a godly reverence for the things of God.  He is not to be trifled with.  His Word is not to be made fun of.  Yes, he loves us, and we love him.  He invites us to come boldly into his presence.  But the only reason we can do that is because we are covered with the blood of Christ.  Without that we are toast.  And we need to keep reminding ourselves and our children of this fact. 

So, the early church was living in the fear of God.  But that’s not all, look at the next phrase: “And encouraged by the Holy Spirt.”  Here we find a fourth evidence of a thriving church:

4. Encouragement

Some translations have “walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit.”  It comes from the word paraclete which means to call alongside to comfort, to encourage and exhort, to entreat and to help.  This is the work the Holy Spirit does in a believer’s life.   He comforts us in our affliction, he encourages us when we are weak, and he confronts and challenges us when we disobey.  He helps us in all kinds of ways.  And whenever the Holy Spirit is doing this work, we are assured of God’s presence with us.

And this brings balance to walking in the fear of the Lord, doesn’t it?  We live in the fear of the Lord and the comfort and encouragement of the Holy Spirit.  It’s not either/or.  It’s both/and.  The two go hand in hand.  When we are brought face to face with the Almighty, when we tremble before his holiness, the Holy Spirit is right there with us, assuring us, comforting us with his love, and he whispers: “Come and draw near, you are his child, bring your concerns to him. Open your heart to him.”

That’s true spirituality.  It’s not some emotional high that someone else has worked up by means of music or media or some other human means.  This is the presence of God.  And it’s wonderful. 

There’s one last evidence that God is at work in a church:

5. Numerical Growth

“Living in the fear of the Lord and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.” (Acts 9:31)

There is a reason this is placed at the end and not in the beginning.  This is the outcome of the previous four.  When a church is at peace and its people are being edified by God’s Word, when they are walking in the fear of the Lord and the comfort and assurance of the Holy Spirit, it will grow.  It will multiply.  It will act as a magnet to those who come into contact with it.  Why?  Because they see something supernatural is occurring; something other-worldly, something human beings cannot manufacture. 

Conclusion

So let’s pray this for our churches.  Let’s pray that God would give us continued peace.  Let’s pray God would give us also a deep love for his Word and a desire to obey his Word.  Let’s pray that God would give us such a sense of his presence that we live in the fear of the Lord and the comfort and assurance of the Holy Spirit.  And let’s pray that God would cause our churches to grow – because that’s what thriving churches do: they grow.  They multiply. 

That’s what the Lord Jesus wants for your church and my church.  So let’s pray and strive to that end. 

Lockdown

Last night the residents of New Zealand received the message from our Prime Minister that we were going into lockdown due to a probable Covid delta variant in a community in Auckland.  Her hunch was right.  The latest report is there are now 7 covid cases in the community.  And the number is likely to rise.

So here we are again, being confined to our homes and our movements greatly restricted.  It is at these times we need to have the right perspective – a reality check, as to what is really happening in our world.  The good news is there is one who is greater than our government, greater than any Covid variant, and greater than any vaccine. And he cannot be locked down. 

Let me break this down for you:

God never goes into Lockdown. 

He is sovereign and he is free. He is also omnipresent, which means he is present everywhere.  There is no corner of this earth that God cannot access – no country, no hospital, no prison, and no home.  Psalm 115 verse 3 says, “Our God is in heaven and does whatever he pleases.”  God cannot be contained or restricted.  Period.

God’s Son cannot be locked down. 

When the Jews and the Romans crucified Jesus, Satan thought he had him beat.  He had him not only locked down but locked away for good – in a tomb.  But death could not hold Jesus.  Three days later he rose again from the dead.  He defeated death, not only for himself but for all those who believe in him. 

Now he is seated at God’s right hand, where he rules and reigns forever.  He is building his church, distributing gifts to his body, advancing the gospel, saving sinners, and growing God’s Kingdom (Matt 18:16; Eph 4:7-8; Col 1:6; Matt 13:31-33). 

You and I might be locked down.  We can only operate under certain constraints and restrictions.  But Jesus is not restricted from doing anything. 

God’s Word cannot be locked down. 

Throughout history, Satan has done his best to restrict, impede or completely irradicate the Word of God.  He knows its power.  But he cannot do it.  The Word of God cannot be contained or shut away.  It runs free. 

God created the world by his word (Gen 1).  He sustains all things by his powerful word (Heb 1:3).  His word is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of our hearts (Heb 4:12).  By his word, God rescues the lost, strengthens the weak, humbles the strong, comforts the downcast, corrects the wayward and builds up his church.

We may be in lockdown, but God’s Word runs free – in our lives, in the church and in the world. 

So, when you are watching the news tonight and hearing all the bad news and everything that humans in their weakness are trying to do to fix it, remember we have someone who is above all this.  And his interests are to do with far bigger and better things than a Covid variant.  He is building a kingdom and filling it with eternal souls.

That’s good news for all of us.  

We are His

Last week I posted a warning on the dangers of elevating Olympic athletes to a god-like status (you can read that article here). A few days later I read the tragic news of a young New Zealand cyclist who took her life, a day after the closing ceremony in Tokyo. This very capable individual had competed in Rio but for some reason wasn’t picked for the team. She had recently posted on social media about the pressures of elite-level sports. It doesn’t take much to put two and two together. It appears that it was all too much to bear.

Now the nation mourns for her. And so do I. When the pressure to perform (or the desire to achieve) becomes so great that life is not worth living, then something is terribly wrong.  Just as life does not consist of the things we possess, nor does it consist of the people we please, the achievements we make, or the medals we attain.

It was in the course of mulling over these things that I came across Psalm 100:

Let the whole earth shout triumphantly to the Lord!

Serve the Lord with gladness;

come before him with joyful songs.

Acknowledge that the Lord is God.

He made us, and we are his,

his people, the sheep of his pasture.   (Psalm 100:1–3)

One line came into sharp focus that I had not noticed before:

He made us, and we are his.

We are creatures; we are not gods.  

We were made by God; we did not make ourselves.    

We are finite; we are not infinite.

We are mortal; we are not immortal. 

We are temporal; we are not eternal.

We are not God; we belong to God. 

We are HIS.

The only way to understand a tragedy like this is to understand it theologically. That is, through the lens of divine revelation. Human studies – anthropology and psychology and psychotherapy provide no answers.

Sin caused us to seek god-like status independent of God.  Instead of ruling and reigning over creation under his guidance, provision and care, we sought to rule and reign without him.  The result in our world is evident – conflict, chaos, and confusion; disharmony and disorder in human relationships and disorientation in ourselves. 

Jesus came to restore us to our God-given identity and purpose.  By way of his death and resurrection, we regain what was lost at the fall.  The broken pieces of the Imago Dei are put back together.  Jesus invites us to abandon our little kingdoms to be part of his eternal kingdom.  There we will rule and reign and priests and kings the way God intended it (Revelation 5:10; 22:1-5).  And we will understand ourselves as we truly are.

I wonder how different things might have been for that athlete who came to the end of herself if she would have known this.  I know that there are many people who struggle with mental health.  We live in a broken world and Christians are not immune to this.  But knowing who we really are, why we are here, and where it’s all heading does make a difference.  It gives us life and hope. 

Kevin Black posted a great little article on this very Psalm.  His words ministered to me personally.  I think they serve as a fitting end to what I’m trying to say:

Today, we still try to play the role of God. And this is a tiresome, possibly deadly pursuit.

But here’s where Psalm 100:3 points us: God is God … He made us We are His …and we are under His care. I forget this. I neglect this. I rebel against this. In a thousand ways, I tend to Lord over my own little universe, and my reward is fear, apathy, anxiety, discontentment, and the deadly pride to think I’m better off self-dependent.

But God—in His tender care— graciously reminds me here that it’s best for me to be subject to Him, to operate under His care, to look to Him alone for all my needs, to acknowledge HIS Lordship and embrace my position as God-dependent. We know that fruitful life and ministry come only through Christ-dependency (John 15:5).

So today, let’s take some soul-level rest knowing that the Lord, He is God. Let’s look to our shepherd, Jesus Christ, for all our needs like a sheep would because we belong to Him.

Olympian gods

I’ve been captivated by the Olympic Games over the past couple of weeks.  It makes for inspiring viewing.  Watching athletes push themselves to the limit – knuckles clenched, faces grimacing, and muscles flexing, as they launch themselves over bars, into water, around cycle tracks and a whole lot more.  The competition is fierce, and there’s often only a split-second difference between them.  Unfortunately, however, someone has to win and someone has to lose.  That’s the nature of sports.  

You don’t get to compete at that level without many years of hard training, pain and personal sacrifice.  To prepare for an event like this, athletes spend the better part of their lives enduring gruelling daily workouts and strict diets.  I’m sure there are many days when they don’t feel like training, but they do it anyway. 

But what happens after it’s over?  They all go home.  The rollercoaster ride of Olympic hysteria and hero-making comes to a screeching halt.  For some, the transition is just too much.  They suffer what is known as post-Olympic blues.  After winning eight golds in Beijing, Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps took an emotional dive.  He later confessed, “I took some wrong turns and found myself in the darkest place you could ever imagine.”  All their training life they are taught they can push through anything, but this is something they can’t simply “push through.”  They need help.

When we watch athletes performing extraordinary feats (that we mere mortals could never achieve), they take on a super-human status.  We view them as demi-gods, capable of doing anything.  But they are not capable of anything.  They are frail, imperfect beings who become weary and tired and are subject to sickness, fatigue, and discouragement – just like us. 

Why is that human beings keep striving for god-like status?  There is only one true God; the One who created all things.  He is, as the Scottish hymn writer put it, the “Immortal, Invisible, God-only Wise.”  We are simply his creatures – frail, weak, and temporal.  We were created to glorify him, not compete with him. 

“God knows if you eat from the tree your eyes will be opened and you will be like God,” Genesis 3:5 tells us.  That was Satan’s lie to the first man, Adam.  The truth is God did intend us to become like him – just not that way.  The result was disastrous, as we all know.  So God sent a second Adam to rescue us.  Jesus is our true super-hero who by his death and resurrection, made a new way.  When we put our trust in him, he comes and lives in us and imparts to us the very life of God.  He promises to grant to us a new body one day – one that will never wear out and decay. 

That has to be better than any Olympian could dream of.  And more.

Besetting Sins

Of all the things that I find difficult about the Christian life, at the top of the list would have to be my battle with sin – especially repeating sins.  There are particular sins that I struggled with as a new Christian that I thought I would eventually overcome once I attained more maturity.  But as the years went by, I found myself continually dogged by those same sins.  Even today they still hound me.  They harass, stalk and pursue me. 

I’m sure you have your own besetting sins that you have to deal with.  Perhaps it’s an inordinate desire for something – a craving you just can’t beat.  Perhaps you have a tendency to hold grudges against people or you have an anger issue or a sharp tongue that often gets the best of you.  Whatever it is, you know it is a weak spot in your defence against the enemy and you find yourself repeating it again and again. 

Setting the Scene

Here in Genesis chapter 20, we have Abraham falling into a besetting sin.  He’s doing the same foolish thing he did in chapter 12: he passes his wife Sarah off as his sister in order to save his own skin, putting not only his wife’s purity at risk but also God’s plan at risk as well.  And just like with Pharaoh in Egypt, it’s only because of God’s swift intervention that Abraham’s ruse is discovered, preventing Sarah from ending up in Abimelech’s bed and becoming pregnant by another man.  

The similarity of this event with that in chapter 12 is uncanny.  In fact, some liberal scholars say these accounts are actually the same story and some not-too-smart editor didn’t pick that up.  Well, liberal scholars aren’t always as clever as they think they are.  You see, the author is showing us what the life of the real Abraham is like.  He’s not perfect.  He’s flawed – just like us.  And God continually steps in to prevent him from making a mess of things and then blesses him when he doesn’t deserve it.  And that gives us all hope does it not? 

I. Abraham’s deception (1-2)

For reasons that are not explained, Abraham heads south through the Negev, the region one would travel to go to Egypt.  He stops at Gerar which is a Philistine city located between Beersheba and Gaza (Gen 21:32, 34).  And it’s here that Abraham follows the same ruse he used in chapter 12:

“Abraham said about his wife Sarah, “She is my sister.” So King Abimelech of Gerar had Sarah brought to him.”

Why does he do this?  For the same reason that he did it back in chapter 12: FEAR.  Fear is the opposite of faith.  And when Abimelech confronts him about his deception, he says “I did this because I thought there is no fear of God in this place” (verse 11).  He doesn’t know that; he just imagines that.  That’s how fear gets the best of us; we imagine things that aren’t true.  We tell ourselves lies.  Then he tries to rationalize his sin. 

“Besides, she really is my sister, the daughter of my father though not the daughter of my mother, and she became my wife.” (Gen 20:12)

This was a terrible thing for Abraham to do, to put Sarah in jeopardy at such a time, a year before the promised child was to arrive.  He fears his own life is in danger, but he has no problem endangering his wife.  Furthermore, he uses emotional blackmail on her.  He says to Abimelech:

“So when God had me wander from my father’s house, I said to her: Show your loyalty to me wherever we go and say about me, ‘He’s my brother.’” (Gen 20:13)

In other words, “If you really love me, Sarah, you will tell everyone you are not my wife but my sister.” 

We are shocked by the selfishness, shallowness and faithlessness of Abraham.  But when it comes down to it, we can be just as selfish, just as shallow and just as faithless.   No doubt you’ve heard of John Newton – the one who wrote “Amazing Grace.”  Newton was formerly a slave trader who did many terrible things.  He experienced the love of God in Christ to forgive him of his past.  If anyone understood the grace of God, he did.   In a letter he wrote to a friend, he shares his ongoing struggle with sin:

“Alas, my dear friend, you know not what a poor, unprofitable, unfaithful creature I am! If you knew the evils which I feel within and the snares and difficulties which beset me from without, you would pity me indeed. Indwelling sin presses me downwards. When I would do good, evil is present with me. There is much darkness in my understanding, much perverseness in my will, much disorder in my affections, much folly and madness in my imagination. In short, I am a riddle to myself, a heap of inconsistency.”

Do you ever feel that?  I know I do.  Sometimes, after speaking harshly to my wife or dredging up some sordid memory of the past, I feel a deep loathing of myself.  It can send me to despair.  That’s when I need to preach the gospel to myself.  I need to say with Paul, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24–25) I need to take heart that God’s grace is greater than my sin and Christ’s blood is powerful enough to wash me from every stain. 

II. God’s intervention (3-7)

Abimelech is taken by Sarah’s extraordinary beauty and takes her into his harem.  What he doesn’t know is that he has just put himself in the crosshairs of Abraham’s God.  God confronts Abimelech in a dream:

“You are about to die because of the woman you have taken, for she is a married woman.” (Gen 20:3)

Now that’s the kind of dream that will wake you up real fast!  God suddenly has the king’s undivided attention.  He says to God,

 “Lord, would you destroy a nation even though it is innocent? Didn’t he himself say to me, ‘She is my sister’? And she herself said, ‘He is my brother.’ I did this with a clear conscience and clean hands.” (Gen 20:4–5)

Abimelech hadn’t yet touched Sarah.  And even if he had, it was with a clear conscience because he didn’t know any better.  Now watch how God responds:

“Then God said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know that you did this with a clear conscience. I have also kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I have not let you touch her.” (Gen 20:6)

This is a striking example of human responsibility and divine sovereignty working concurrently.  Abimelech is fully responsible for his actions.  God will hold him to account for everything he does.  Yet God is fully in control.  He won’t allow Abimelech to do anything that might thwart his divine plan.  And his plan is Sarah will give birth to the promised son through Abraham.

God sometimes keeps us from sinning.  Did you know that?  He doesn’t always do this.  Sometimes God just abandons someone and says, “Listen, if you’re going to go down that path, go down that path. I’ll let you.”  But he does not tend to do that with believers; he preserves them, and he prevents them from falling into further sin.  God grace is at work in you my friend, preventing you from doing many foolish things, even when you don’t even see it. 

Well, after all of this Abimelech – like Pharoah in chapter 12, is feeling a bit miffed.  He’s about to take Abraham to task and confront him. 

III. Abimelech’s confrontation (8-17)

We pick up the story again in verse 8:

“Early in the morning Abimelech got up, called all his servants together, and personally told them all these things, and the men were terrified.” (Genesis 20:8)

OK remember now – Abraham had this thing in his head that there was no fear of God in this place.  But Abimelech has shown he fears God and so do his servants when he tells them about the dream.  Do you see the irony in all this?  If anyone in this story is said not to fear God, it’s Abraham himself. 

“Then Abimelech called Abraham in and said to him, “What have you done to us? How did I sin against you that you have brought such enormous guilt on me and on my kingdom? You have done things to me that should never be done.” (Gen 20:9)

Abraham is getting a right spanking – by a Philistine King who is proving to be more righteous than Abraham himself.  Abraham goes on the defensive and tries to rationalize his sin, but it all sounds so weak.  He failed to trust God, he imagined all kinds of things that weren’t true, he saw threats where there weren’t any, and he puts his wife as well as God’s plan at great risk.  And to cap it all off, he says in verse 13 this was his go-to strategy wherever he went!

Abraham sometimes acts with great faith and courage, trusting in God and turning away from the world.  But at other times he reacts in fear, sin and self-protection and he manipulates others to get what he wants.  He really is just like us. 

That brings us now to the final act of this drama:

IV. Abraham’s intercession (18-20)

God’s instruction to Abimelech was that he must return Sarah to her husband and ask Abraham if he will pray for him so that he does not die.  “For he is a prophet,” the Lord says (verse 7). Don’t you find that remarkable?  Abraham is still God’s chosen means to be a blessing to the nations.  He is still God’s man for the hour – even though he sinned and deceived and acted cowardly. 

Abimelech, recognizing this, showers him with gifts – flocks and herds and animals and 1000 shekels (or pieces) of silver.  That is a considerable amount of money.  Abraham prays for Abimelech and his family and God responds to the prayer by restoring the Philistine women’s ability to have children.

Conclusion

Do you know what really gets me in this passage?  It’s not Abraham’s failure.  I experience that all too frequently.  Nor is it Abimelech’s godly response.  We all know that people outside the church can often act better than those inside.  It’s the mind-blowing grace of God.  God shows grace to Abimelech by warning him in a dream and keeping him from sinning.  He shows grace to Sarah by protecting her from being violated.  And he shows grace to Abraham by confronting him with his sin and restoring his position of patriarch.

God preserves his people, in spite of their sins, in spite of their failures, and in spite of the many setbacks.   In spite of it all, God preserves us and restores us.  He continues the work of grace in our hearts so that we continue to believe.

That’s God’s amazing grace!

This post is based on a message from a series on the life of Abraham. You can listen to that message here.

Remember Lot’s Wife

One of the defining characteristics of any true follower of Jesus is that of a person who is always looking ahead and moving forward.  They are always pressing on to new things, new opportunities, and new depths in their relationship with God.  It does them no good to look backwards for a person who looks backwards is likely to go backwards.

So it was for Lot’s wife.  Here was a woman who was almost saved.  God had rescued her and her husband from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.  She was in the process of flight and almost safe, snatched from the flames.  But there was something in her heart that pulled her back to Sodom.  God showed her the way of deliverance and life, but she wasn’t willing to leave her old life behind.  And God turned her into a pillar of salt.  Today there is even a pillar of salt named “Lot’s Wife” near the Dead Sea, the place where Sodom once lay. 

If the Genesis account is all we had, we might raise an eyebrow at this or add it to our weird things in the bible list, but that’s about the extent of it – if it weren’t for Jesus’ words in Luke 17.  That changes everything.  Jesus is speaking about his second coming and the judgment that is to come upon the world.  He is describing the state of things when that happens – people eating and drinking and going about their business and being totally unprepared.  And so when he says, “Remember Lot’s wife” he suddenly has our attention.   There is something about this woman that Jesus wants us to learn from. 

1. Consider her privileges

During the days that Lot’s wife lived there were no bibles, no churches, no preachers, no tracts, and no missionaries.  Knowledge of the true God was confined to a few favoured families.  Lot’s wife belonged to one of those families.  When Abraham came with his little army back in chapter 14 and achieved a mighty victory and delivered her family from captivity, she was there.  When the angels came to Sodom and warned her husband to flee, she saw them. When they urged them to flee the judgment to come, she heard them.  She even became one of the few people in the world who has ever held an angel’s hand.

Yet what good effect had all these privileges on the heart of Lot’s wife?  It appears, none at all.  The eyes of her understanding were never opened, her conscience was never quickened, her will was never really brought into a state of obedience to God, and her affections were never really set on things above.  The world was in her heart and her heart was with the world.  “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” Jesus said (Matt 6:21).  This is the state she lived in and in this state she died.

Let this lesson sink into you today:  the mere possession of privileges will never save a person’s soul.  You may have an abundance of spiritual advantages.  You might have grown up in a Christian home where the bible is taught and people pray; you may enjoy great preaching and soul-moving worship.  You can even have an active role serving in the church.  Yet you yourself can remain unregenerate; your heart unchanged and be lost forever.  Take note: it is possible to be surrounded by the most wonderful Christians in the world and still remain unrepentant and spiritually lost. Heed the words of Jesus.  Remember Lot’s wife. 

2. Consider her error

Earlier that day, Abraham had pleaded with God to spare the cities if just ten righteous people could be found there (Genesis 18).  When two angelic messengers arrive in Sodom at nightfall, it seems only one man is worth saving: Abraham’s nephew Lot.  The men of the city surround Lot’s house and demand the angels come out so that they can abuse them.  The angels urge Lot and his family to run – to flee, lest they be swept away in God’s judgment upon the city. We are told one of the angels grabs his wife’s hand.  Come on Mrs Lot, it’s time to go.  You need to get moving.  But Sodom’s hold on her was great.  The angels kept urging and pulling on her hand.  Come on Mrs Lot. You need to flee.  But why?  “Because of the Lord’s compassion,” we are told in verse 16.  Because of the Lord’s mercy. Because God cares for people like Lot’s wife.

The angels cry out, “Don’t look back and don’t stop anywhere on the plain!” (Gen 19:17) You might say to yourself, “Well that seems a bit severe.  Like, one backwards glance back and ‘poof’ – you’re gone?  That hardly seems reasonable.”  I don’t believe it was like that.  John Walton, in the NIV commentary, points out that Lot’s wife’s “looking back” was more than a backward glance.  She had turned back to the city.  That becomes even clearer when we consider Jesus’ words in Luke 17:

“But on the day Lot left Sodom, fire and sulfur rained from heaven and destroyed them all. It will be like that on the day the Son of Man is revealed. On that day, a man on the housetop, whose belongings are in the house, must not come down to get them. Likewise the man who is in the field must not turn back. Remember Lot’s wife!” (Luke 17:29–32)

This wasn’t a curious backward glance over the shoulder.  She turned back.  The voice of the angel was urging her onwards, yet she turns back.  And what was it that her heart longed for?  Was it some treasure she had left under the bed?  Was it the glitter and city lights of Sodom – the markets, the street food, the music, the atmosphere?  Whatever it was, she turned back.  She ignored the angels warning.  She disobeyed God’s Word.  And she became a pillar of salt.  God wanted to deliver her from that wicked city and give her a new life.  But she wasn’t willing to pay the price. 

3. Consider her end

Picture the scene from a movie camera.  Dark clouds swilling in the sky above.  Anxious faces in Sodom glance upward.   Lot and his daughters have almost reached the gates of Zoar.  And there, in between, a lone figure on her way back to Sodom is Lot’s wife.  The earth begins to shake, sulphur and molten rock begin to rain down.  The last thing she sees is a swirling inferno of ash and sand and then the hot gasses envelop her.  The smoke lifts and there she is – incrusted, hard, immovable – frozen in time; her gaze in the direction of Sodom, for all to see.   Whether that was the way it happened or not; whether it was volcanic eruption or some other way, be sure of this: it was the judgement of God.              

Listen to these sobering words from J.C. Ryle in A Woman to be Remembered:

To die at any time is a solemn thing. To die amid kind friends and relations, to die calmly and quietly in one’s bed, to die with the prayers of godly men still sounding in your ears, to die with a good hope through grace in the full assurance of salvation, leaning on the Lord Jesus, buoyed up by gospel promises — to die even so, I say, is a serious business. But to die suddenly and in a moment, in the very act of sin, to die in full health and strength, to die by the direct interposition of an angry God — this is fearful indeed. Yet this was the end of Lot’s wife.

To come so close to salvation, and yet be so far away.  To be on the way to the gates of Zoar, and only to turn back.  To have your husband and daughters reach safety while you come under the judgement of God – that is a tragic, tragic end.  The worst thing about the perishing of Lot’s wife lay in this: that she perished in the very act of sin, and no time or space for repentance was given to her.  

Think of the parable Jesus told of the rich man whose goods had amassed so much he had no room to put them.  He said to himself, “I will do this – I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones… and then I will say to myself, ‘You have many goods stored up for many years.  Take it easy, eat, drink and enjoy yourself.’  But God said, “You fool!  This very night your life is demanded of you” (Luke 12:16-20).  God was not part of his life.  He gave no thought to eternity or where he was going.  He died, unprepared. 

It is this state of unreadiness – of being unsuspecting and unprepared that Jesus gives the warning he does in Luke chapter 17: “Remember Lot’s wife! Whoever tries to make his life secure will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it.”

He relates this to two time periods: the days of Noah and the days of Lot.  In both examples, people were completely unprepared for the disaster that was coming upon them.  They were busy with their lives – eating and drinking, planning weddings and buying and selling. Then suddenly and unexpectantly, the water came.   Suddenly and unexpectantly, fire and molten rock began to fall from the sky.  Up until that point, their lives had one single purpose: just living. All their actions, all their days, each little moment of their existence was spent on themselves.  They lived as though God never existed.  All that mattered was their next meal, their next purchase, or their next little project.

And so it is with deep love and urgency that Jesus gives us this warning: Remember Lot’s wife. 

Perhaps you are one here who does not know what it means to be saved, to be forgiven and to be assured of eternal life.   And you are thinking, “What must I do?”  The answer is very simple.  It is not complicated.  You must take God at his Word.  You must believe in the gospel.   You must turn from the world and become a follower of Christ.  Turn from the way you are living and begin a journey of living the truth.

If you are following Christ, this warning is for you also.  Beware of the pull of the world.  Be careful what your heart becomes attached to.  When judgement comes, you don’t want to be found on the plain. 

This post is based on a message from a series on the life of Abraham. You can listen to that message here.