Restoring the Fallen

We all know how it feels when we disappoint someone – particularly someone we are close to.  It might be our spouse.  It might be a close friend.  It might even be our boss.  We’ve let that person down.  When they needed us, we didn’t come through.  And we hate ourselves for it.

That’s how Peter felt after failing Jesus.  He boasted that he would never desert Jesus; he would never let him down, and then he denies him three times.  He’s full of shame and guilt.  He’s no use to God or anyone else now – how could he be?  I can just imagine Peter doing what we all do in those situations.  He’s replaying the tape in his mind, over and over, frame by frame – why did I do it? why did I do it?

That’s where we find Peter when we come to John chapter 21.  He’s with a handful of other disciples by the Lake of Tiberias (also known as the Sea of Galilee).  Peter says, “I’m going fishing.”  The other disciples, say, “We’re coming with you.” 

So, you see what’s going on here.  Peter has failed Jesus – badly.  He’s no use to Jesus anymore.  There is one thing he can do however; he can fish.  But that night they catch nothing.  And the reason is because Jesus doesn’t let him catch anything.  Peter is running away.  He is running away, and Jesus is saying,

“You think you can do something without me Peter, but I want you to see you can do nothing without me.  Not even fish.”

Then at dawn, a shadowy figure is seen on the shore and it calls out, “Friends, you don’t have any fish, do you?”  Then the voice says, “Cast the net on the right side of the boat.”  You can imagine what these experienced fishermen are thinking: “Oh that’s just rich.  I like that.  Like, the fish know the difference between the left side and right side.”  John tells us in verse 6, “So they did, and they were unable to haul it in because of the large number of fish.” 

As they are hauling it in, the disciple whom Jesus loved (that’s code-name for John), puts two and two together and says to Peter, “It is the Lord!”  Peter, without hesitation, dives into the water.  He’s swimming to shore, and he can’t get there fast enough.  He wants to be with Jesus again, in spite of his shame and guilt.  He’s messed up, but he loves Jesus all the same.

When they all get to the shore they find there a charcoal fire, bread and fish.  It’s déjà vu for the disciples.  It’s all happened before.  It’s the same miracle Jesus performed when he first met Peter back in Luke chapter 5.  It’s the same crowd, the same Peter, the same lake, and the same figure on the shore asking how many fish they had caught.  And the same thing happens, except back then, the nets did tear.

What is Jesus doing?  He’s bringing it all back for them.  He’s recalling their memory.  He’s calling them back.  The bread and the fish, recalling the miraculous feeding of the 5000 and later, the 4000.  Jesus is saying, “Do you remember?  Do you remember that we did this together?  Do you recall what I did?”  Jesus has a special way of drawing his straying ones back to himself.  He stirs their memory and touches their conscience.

So there they all are, sitting there by the fire, eating breakfast together.  Then at some point I imagine, Jesus takes Peter on a little walk.  He says to him, “Simon son of John…”  Now you may remember earlier in the book, in chapter 1 verse 42, Jesus said to Peter, “You are Simon, son of John. You will be called Cephas” (which is translated “Peter”). 

Jesus is taking him back. He is taking him back to the beginning – back to the place where they had begun in Galilee, so he uses the name with which they had begun.  You see, Jesus is willing to start over with Peter.

Then Jesus says to him in verse 15, “Do you love Me more than these?”  Now the question here is, what does the “these” refer to?  Is Jesus asking, “Do you love me more than these boats and fish?” or “Do you love me more than these men you are working with?”  I tend to lean toward the latter.  Remember Peter’s earlier boast: he vowed to stay faithful to Jesus even if all the others fell away.  The irony is, it is Peter who denies Jesus, not the others.  I think that Jesus may be asking,

“Do you really love me more than these other men love me?  You made that pledge Peter; did you really mean it?” 

Jesus asks this not just once, not twice, but three times.  On the third time, Peter is grieved (recalling no doubt, his 3-fold denial).

I have a wonderful little book on my shelf called, The Bruised Reed by Richard Sibbes.  In it he unpacks Isaiah 42:3 where it says (in speaking of Christ), “A bruised reed he will not break and a smouldering wick he will not put out.”  You know what a reed is.  A reed is thin and frail and fragile.  If the wind blows too hard on a reed it often breaks.  Sibbes writes,

“God’s children are bruised reeds, before their conversion and many times after. For usually God empties men of themselves and makes them nothing before He will use them in any great service.”

A little further on Sibbes writes,

“As a mother is tenderest to her most diseased child, to her weakest child, so does Christ. Christ most mercifully inclines to the weakest and His way is first to wound and then to heal. And we see that there is more mercy in Christ than there is sin in us.”

Jesus is tending to a bruised reed.  He is restoring a wounded conscience.  But the way you restore a wounded or guilty conscience is not put a band-aid on it.  You have to do heart surgery.  You need to open the wound.  It’s painful.  And that’s exactly what we see happening here.  Jesus is doing surgery on Peter’s conscience.  And it nearly brings him to tears.

Following Jesus’ 3-fold probing of Peter’s love for him is a 3-fold commission to service:

  • “Feed (basko) my lambs” (v.15)
  • “Shepherd (poimaino) my sheep” (v.16)
  • “Feed (basko) my sheep” (v.17)

This was Jesus’ call to Peter from the beginning.  He’s putting him right back into service.  He not only restoring Peter, he is reinstating him.  He’s saying,

“These sheep Peter, they are mine.  I bought them.  I died for them.  Now I want you to look after them.  Feed them.  Lead them.  Protect them.  Care for them.  And the lambs Peter, my little ones; the ones that are weak and vulnerable and prone to wander.  I’m putting them into your hands.  Look after them.”

And what would be the one thing that would hold Peter to this, that would keep him faithful?  Love for Christ.  You can see it now, can’t you.  You can see how all this fits together.  You can see what makes a good pastor – or any Christian leader for that matter, one who will give the sheep what they need, not what they want, who will faithfully feed them the Word of God and protect them from error and lay down his own life for them if necessary:

It’s not love for the flock.  It’s love for the Shepherd.  It’s love for Jesus.

I’ll leave you with two points of application:

Firstly: no matter what you have done, no matter where you have been, you can start anew; you can start afresh.  What Peter encounters in John 21 is a Saviour who is always eager and always waiting to start over.  There’s new grace.  There’s fresh mercy.

Secondly: What if you are a great failure and you are a great sinner and you can’t say with Peter, “Yes, Lord, I love you,” either because you don’t know Christ or because you do know Him but you feel like such a mixed bag?  Sometimes you love Him; sometimes you don’t love Him.  What do you do with that?  Where do you go?  You can’t cultivate it or create it or manufacture this love on your own.  If you don’t have a love for Jesus, where do you get it?

Here’s the answer.  The answer is very simple.  God gives you that love, when you completely surrender yourself to him.   The good news of the gospel is Christ grants his righteousness to us as a gift.  Salvation is by grace – free, unmerited, undeserved grace.  And God grants that grace to those who fall before him in worship and absolute surrender.  Don’t try to start acting better.  Don’t say to yourself, “I’m going to be a better person.”  Open your heart and allow Jesus to come in and change and transform you.  He will give you what you need.  All he asks is for you to trust him.

Pray, “God, change my heart and make me new,” and then hang on and see how His grace upon grace will burst into your life.

Note: This post was based on a sermon I preached from the Gospel of John.  You can listen to the full audio on our website here.

 

 

 

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Dealing with Doubt

DOUBT.  Every person has struggled with it at some time or another, whether they be an atheist, agnostic or religious.  The atheist questions, “What if I’m wrong and there really is a God?”  The Christian questions, “What if I’m wrong and Christianity is not true?”  The agnostic (who maintains that no one can know whether God exists or not) lives in a perpetual state of doubt.

Now you might be one of those individuals who has never doubted God’s existence or doubted that you are truly saved.  Good for you.  But you may have doubted other things such as election and free will or whether God listens to your prayers.  Or perhaps, during a particularly difficult season in your life you have doubted God’s goodness.

That brings us to one of the most famous doubters in the bible: Thomas.  His story is told in John chapter 20.  Jesus has risen from the dead and appeared to a number of his followers.  The only one not to have seen him is Thomas.  When they tell him about it, he just won’t buy it.  Maybe he thinks they have imagined it or they saw someone who looked just like Jesus.  What ever his reasons, he’s not swallowing any of it.  Finally, in exasperation he says,

“If I don’t see the mark of the nails in his hands, put my finger into the mark of the nails, and put my hand into his side, I will never believe.” (John 20:25)

Now it is very easy from the vantage point we have, to rag on this guy for his scepticism and unbelief.  But we need to be careful that we don’t sell Thomas short.  There are two other places in John’s gospel where Thomas appears.  And what we learn about him may just surprise you.

Scene 1: John 11

Jesus is out beyond the Jordan River with His disciples – preaching and baptizing.  He then gets word that his friend Lazarus is sick – very sick.  After two days Jesus says, “Let’s go to Judea.”  Well the disciples aren’t too keen on this because the last time Jesus was there the Jews had tried to stone Him.  Jesus says, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I’m on my way to wake him up.”  They reply, “That’s great, if he’s asleep, he’s going to get well.”  Jesus replies (in a manner of words), “No you idiots, he’s dead.  He’s meant to die so you can see the power of God at work.  So, let’s go to him.”  Thomas, in response to this says, “Let’s go too so that we may die with Him.” (John 11:16)

Ok, so the disciples really don’t get it.  But what I want you to see here is Thomas’ devotion to Jesus.  He thinks that Jesus is going to join Lazarus in death.  And he is willing to go and risk his life and follow him.  He even challenges the others to come along.  So that’s our first portrait of Thomas: devoted, committed and willing to follow Jesus to death.

Scene 2: John 14

Jesus has just told the disciples that He’s leaving them.  He is returning to his Father.  Jesus says, “You know the way where I’m going” (verse 4).  Thomas asks, “Lord, we don’t know where you’re going, how do we know the way?”  That’s the question everyone else is thinking but don’t want to ask in case they look stupid.  Thomas takes the initiative.  He doesn’t mind asking the hard questions.  He’s not afraid to speak up.  That’s the Thomas we’re looking at here – devoted, committed, and unafraid to speak up and ask the hard questions.

The fact that Thomas has serious doubts that Jesus has come back to life – physically and bodily, doesn’t change any of that.  It doesn’t make him a failure.  It doesn’t mean he is spiritually weak, just like you having doubts about something doesn’t make you spiritually weak.

A week goes by, and the disciples are together again, behind locked doors.  Jesus appears to the disciples the same way he had before, out of nowhere.  This time Thomas is there.  Can you imagine his expression, when he sees Jesus with his own eyes?  Jesus heads straight to Thomas and says to him,

“Put your finger here and look at my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Don’t be faithless, but believe.” (John 20:27)

This is how Jesus often deals with our ignorance and our stubbornness isn’t it?  He’s gentle and accommodating.  He knows our faults; He knows what we are made of; and whatever the doubts, whatever the uncertainty Jesus accepts it, and meets us in the middle of it.  Our Saviour is big-hearted.  He loves Thomas and he wants to see him come to a fullness of faith and belief.  “Thomas, come now; don’t come unbelievingly. Come with faith; come with trust to Me.”

Take heart Christian, if this big-hearted Saviour was patient with Thomas, then he’ll be patient with us too.  He says to us,

“Come to Me.  Come with your questions.  Come to Me with your doubts. Come to me with your concerns.  Come to me even with your demands, and I will be able to answer all of them.”

There’s a wonderful verse in a hymn written by William Bright,

How oft, O Lord, Thy face hath shone
On doubting souls whose wills were true!
Thou Christ of Cephas and of John,
Thou art the Christ of Thomas, too.

Thomas’ response is just wonderful.  He says, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28).

Thomas declares that Jesus is the God.  To look into the face of Jesus is to look into the face of God – the Almighty – the one true God.  For Thomas – there’s no doubt.  Only belief.  God has come to Him.  Whatever doubts he may have had Jesus has responded to them.  God’s truth has been revealed.  He sees now with his own eyes: Jesus is the risen Lord – victorious over sin and death.  Jesus responds in verse 29,

“Because you have seen me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” (John 20:29)

What an astounding statement from our Lord here.  He is looking forward, past Thomas, past the disciples to those who will believe Him in the future.  He is saying, “How blessed will be those not because they have seen me, not because they have prodded and touched me, but because they trust in the infallible, inerrant Word of God.  How blessed will be those people!”

Conclusion

And so, bringing all this to a close, it is not wrong or sinful for you to doubt.  The question is, what will you do with your doubt?  Will you push forward to faith or will you slip backwards to unbelief?  Because you can’t stay where you are.  To linger in doubt is dangerous.

Faith is sometimes difficult.  I’m the first to admit it.  It’s not always easy.  And for faith to be genuine, it will always have questions and doubts accompanying it, otherwise it isn’t real faith.

It’s not always an easy road to walk – Jesus never promised us that.  But he does promise to be with us in the middle of it.  He will meet us in our doubts.  And when he comes, he won’t come to scold, he won’t come to rebuke, but to gently and patiently work with us so that we progress through to faith.

Note: This post was based on a sermon I preached from the Gospel of John.  You can listen to the full audio on our website here.

 

 

It is Finished

Last words have always fascinated people, particularly from the lips of famous people.  Consider the last words from these individuals:

  • Frank Sinatra – “I’m losing it.”
  • Henry VIII – “All is lost”
  • Elizabeth I – “All my possessions for a moment of time.”
  • Princess Diana, after her car accident – “My God. What’s happened?”

Now compare these to the last words uttered by Jesus on the cross: “It is finished.”  They are strikingly different aren’t they?  These three words, which summarize the heart of the gospel, have brought hope and comfort to millions throughout the world. “At these words,” says F.W. Krummacher, “you hear fetters burst and prison walls falling down; barriers as high as heaven are overthrown, and gates which had been closed for thousands of years again move on their hinges.”

But what did Jesus mean by these words?  What exactly was finished?  To answer that, we need to revisit the crucifixion.

Revisiting Golgotha

Early Friday morning, a group of soldiers gathered at a place called Golgotha – the place of the skull.  It was on the north side of the city of Jerusalem, just outside the Damascus Gate.  After stripping Jesus naked, the soldiers laid the large upright beam of the cross on the ground and then placed him on it, and then drove large nails through his feet and wrists.  Above Jesus’ head they attached a sign: “JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS.”  This was Pilate’ doing.  It was his way of getting back at the Jewish Religious leaders for the way they manipulated him to hand Jesus over.

The cross, with Jesus on it was then lifted up in the air and dropped into a hole in the ground.  Jesus was now crucified.  For three hours he hung there, in agony; the open wounds on his back rubbing painfully on the rough wood as he moved up and down, gasping for air.  But that wasn’t the worst of it.  For during that time, Jesus was bearing our sin.  He was suffering in our place.  The full fury of a holy and righteous God was being hurled at his Son.  In the words of the Apostle Paul, “He made the one who did not know sin to be sin for us” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

None of us could possibly imagine what Jesus was experiencing during this time.  None of us know what it is like to suffer the penalty of the sins of millions of people – sins of hate and greed, sins of anger and lust, sins of lying and cheating, sins of envy and pride – when you have never once committed any of them.  None of us know what it is like to have enjoyed perfect fellowship with the Father before time began, and then suddenly, in an instant, to have that fellowship broken and the One you love deeply and affectionately, turn his back on you.  This was the hell Jesus endured.

At exactly 12 noon, the sky went black – so black that you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face.  For three hours darkness fell across the land.  Then, just as suddenly as it started, the darkness lifted, disappeared, vanished, and normality returned to the earth.  The soldiers who looked at Jesus on the cross would have noticed that his breathing was slowing and his movements less pronounced.  He was nearing the end.

Then suddenly, without warning, Jesus cried out with a loud voice – “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Someone in the crowed shouted back – “He’s calling for Elijah.”  Moments passed, death drew near, then a hoarse whisper, “I thirst.”  The soldiers put some sour vinegar on a sponge and lifted it to his lips with a stalk of hyssop.  He moistened his lips and took a deep breath.  Then he spoke again.  It was a quick shout.  If you weren’t paying attention, you would have missed it in all the confusion.  It was just one word in Greek. . . Tetelestai . . . “It is finished.”

Note that Jesus did not say, “I am finished.”  This is not the cry of a helpless martyr.  He said, “IT is finished.”  He was making a pronouncement – a declaration.  The work of redemption was complete.  Full atonement for sin had been made.  Our debt was paid and it was PAID IN FULL.  That means every sin a Christian has have ever done, is presently doing and will do in the future is fully covered, fully atoned for, and completely wiped out – on that blood-stained cross.

I love how Spurgeon puts it:

“The debt was now, to the last farthing, all discharged. The atonement and propitiation were made once for all, and for ever, by the one offering made in Jesus’ body on the tree. There was the cup, hell was in it, the Saviour drank it — not a sip and then a pause; not a draught and then a ceasing, but he drained it till there is not a dreg left for any of his people. The great ten-thonged whip of the law was worn out upon his back, there is no lash left with which to smite one for whom Jesus died. The great cannonade of God’s justice has exhausted all its ammunition, there is nothing left to be hurled against a child of God. Sheathed is thy sword, O Justice! Silenced is thy thunder, O Law! There remains nothing now of all the griefs, and pains, and agonies which chosen sinners ought to have suffered for their sins, for Christ has endured all for his own beloved, and “it is finished.”

I think of all the sins I have committed over my lifetime.  There are a fair number of them.  Every year, the list just keeps growing longer.  Before I even reached the age of twenty, I could no longer live with them.  God brought conviction to my heart and I was crushed under the weight of them.  Then came the gospel, the wonderful, life-changing, liberating news that I didn’t have suffer for those sins; someone has paid the debt for me.

  • My sins of lust – PAID IN FULL
  • My sins of lying and deceiving – PAID IN FULL
  • My sins of jealousy and envy – PAID IN FULL
  • My sins of selfishness and pride – PAID IN FULL
  • My sins of drunkenness and idolatry – PAID IN FULL
  • My sins of pornography and immorality – PAID IN FULL

Do you have some sins you can add to that list?  I’m sure you do.  God must pronounce judgment of each one of them.  They cannot be excused.  They cannot be simply written off.  Either you pay for them – in hell, or Jesus pays for them on the cross.  But someone must pay.  I gratefully accepted Jesus payment.  So today I can say, “It is finished.  It is done.  My debt has been paid in full.”

If you are a believer in Christ who is troubled with doubt and despair, hear these words of Jesus:  “It is finished.”  Your sin has been paid for.  Your salvation is complete.  There is nothing left to do than receive the benefits of this work; to put your faith in the one who offered his life as a sacrifice for sin.

If you have not yet surrendered your life to Christ; if you don’t know what it is to have your sins forgiven and your conscience cleansed, your burdens lifted and your guilt taken away, why not surrender your life to him today?  He is there waiting for you, with open arms.  Believe in Him; trust in his atoning work on your behalf.

Then you too will be able to confidently say, “It is finished.  My debt is paid in full.”

Note: This post was based on a sermon I preached from the Gospel of John.  You can listen to the full audio on our website here.

 

 

 

Bringing truth to life

Have you ever wondered what it might be like to be transported back in time and see the characters of the bible come to life?  We got about as close as you can get with John Wason’s recent performance of “Loss to Redemption” from the book of Ruth.  We were transfixed.  It seems as if the very characters leapt off the page.

John leads a ministry called ‘Word to Life’, which I would sum up as ‘storytelling like you’ve never seen or heard it.’  John launched Word to Life in Tauranga back in 2004 while he was working here in New Zealand.  Word To Life is a development of John’s previous work, Out of Silence Mime Theatre, which began at Youth With A Mission’s (YWAM) Academy of Performing Arts in Cambridge, Ontario, Canada, in 1994.

Since 2004 John has completely memorized[1] and dramatized entire books of the bible including Philippians, James, Jonah, Ruth, Galatians, Colossians and just recently, 2 Timothy.  He has also performed selected Psalms, “Encounters” – stories of lives impacted by Jesus, and “The Easter Report”, where a reporter interviews a number of people who witnessed the Resurrection of Jesus.

I asked John in an interview on Sunday morning to explain his ministry a little more to us and what drives him to do what he does.  This was his answer (paraphrased):

“I love theatre, I love drama and I love God’s Word.  When you put all that together this is what you get.  It is story telling with three simple components: purpose, passion and presence.  You often hear God’s Word taught with purpose.  If it’s a good sermon, it will also have passion.  But you don’t always get presence.  Presence is ‘being there’ in what you are communicating, making yourself transparent and revealing by way of body language, facial expression and gestures how the truth you are communicating has affected or is affecting you.  It’s making the truth live.”

I was all ears.  As a regular communicator of God’s Word, this was something I needed to hear.  Too often preachers become detached from their message, so the truth is merely abstract.  Abstract truth can’t be easily grasped by the average hearer.  Truth must be internalized – it must be felt.  It can’t simply stimulate the mind; it must reach the heart and warm the affections.

This is where story telling can become so effective.  By “story telling” I don’t mean telling lots of stories that are funny, appealing or emotive.  There’s too much of that going on from lazy preachers who can’t be bothered doing the hard yards to study the bible and dig for the Spirit-intended truth.  I mean teaching the bible in such a way that people see the truth come to life.

Story telling can be just as effective for adults as with children.  My wife Francelle heads up our children’s ministry in our church and has been putting story telling into practice with the kids.  Recently she had to give a talk at a retirement home.  She decided to put it into practice there to see how it went.  She taught from Mark chapter 5 on the healing of the woman who had suffered 12 years of bleeding.  But she told it as a story (because it IS a story), putting herself in the place of the woman, who desperately wants to be healed but is afraid of touching Jesus because he might become like her – unclean.  What she doesn’t realize is that nothing can make Jesus unclean, but everything he touches becomes instantly clean.  The response was immediate.  Instead of dozing, they were attentive, eyes wide open and as John Wason says, “leaning in.”

It should hardly surprise us that people respond well to stories.  This was how God’s truth was passed on from generation to generation with the people of Israel.  This was how Jesus communicated Kingdom truths to the masses.  And this is how many people today are drawn to know more about Christ.  They hear someone’s testimony; they hear a story.

If you want engagement with people when teaching God’s truth, utilize the power of story.

Here’s a short clip of John in action when he performed at our church one Sunday morning.  The scene is Boaz waking up to find Ruth lying at his feet.  Enjoy!  (footnote: John played 7 different characters from that one shawl.)

John and his wife Shelly continue as full-time staff with the international organization Youth With A Mission (YWAM) and live in Victoria, BC, Canada with their sons Timothy, Daniel, and Jeffrey.  We met up with them here in Nelson while they were on a recent tour to New Zealand.  John is planning to tour NZ again in 2020.  If you are interested in having him perform you can contact him at wasonworld@wasonworld.com

[1] John chose the NIV for memorization as it is one that is most well-known and also flows well when spoken orally.

Rahab’s Redemption

Once there was a woman named Rahab.  She lived in a city called Jericho.  One day, a couple of Israelites visit her home.  She takes them in and hides them.  When the King’s men came looking for them, she tells them they had already left.  She lies.  Then she lets them down through a window on the outside of the city wall.

That’s how most people remember her.  But that’s not how God wants us to remember her.  He wants us to remember her for something else.

Rahab was a prostitute.  She made a living by selling her body for sex.  We are told that not just once, but five time in the Bible.  In Joshua 2:1 she is introduced as “a prostitute named Rahab.”  In chapter 6:22 Joshua gives orders to the spies to go the prostitute’s house and then in verse 25 she is named, “Rahab the prostitute.”  In James 2:25 we are reminded about “Rahab the prostitutee” and then in Hebrews 11:31 – that great chapter on the heroes of faith it says, “By faith Rahab the prostitute welcomed the spies in peace and didn’t perish with those who disobeyed.”

It seems that God is wanting to make a point.  When we hear the name “Rahab” he wants us to always remember her past.  Why?  Does he have something against prostitutes?  No more than he has things against you are I.  We are sinners just the same.  We’ve all broken God’s law – multiple times.  Then what?  Well, that’s what we are about to find out.

Taking Jericho

Jericho – the “City of Palms”, was a very famous city.  Located five miles west of the Jordan River, it blocked the entrance into the Promised Land.  And it was well fortified.  The city itself covered about 8 acres and it was surrounded by inner and outer walls.  The inner wall was 12 feet thick, the outer wall six feet thick and they both stood about 30 feet high.  The city was impregnable.  It was impossible to breach.  But not for God.  He was going to flatten it.  All the Israelites would do is stand by and watch.

Joshua sends two spies into the city of Jericho on a reconnaissance mission.  Like any good general, he wants to scope the enemy out.  The spies find their way to a prostitute’s house – a place where travellers frequent themselves, a place where they could remain undetected.  Well it doesn’t take long however before their cover is blown.  The King’s men come searching.  Rahab hides the Israelites on her roof and tells the King’s men they’ve already left – through the city gates.  Then she goes up on her roof, pulls away the flax where she hid them, and makes this astounding confession of her faith in Israel’s God,

 “I know that the Lord has given you the land, and that the fear of you has fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt away before you.” (Joshua 2:9)

She tells them how she has heard how God dried up the water of the Red Sea and led his people through and what He did to the King of the Amorites and the nations.

“And as soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no spirit left in any man because of you, for the Lord your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath.” (Joshua 2:11)

This is a most remarkable statement.  Rahab is a foreigner, a Canaanite.  She lives amidst a pagan culture that worships idols.  Yet she declares that Israel’s God – Yahweh (she uses His covenant name), rules over the heavens and the earth and all other gods.  In other words, the gods of her people are not true gods, the Lord is the only true God.

Rahab has put her faith in the One and only true God.  But note that her faith is not perfect.  She was not truthful to the King’s men.  She lied.  The New Testament commends her for what she did, not for what she said.  Her actions were of faith, not her lie.  Then she says to them,

“Now then, please swear to me by the Lord that, as I have dealt kindly with you, you also will deal kindly with my father’s house, and give me a sure sign” (Joshua 2:12)

Do you see that term “deal kindly”?  It is the word chesed.  It means steadfast love.  It is covenant language.  It is used by God to describe His covenant love for His people and it is used by God’s people to describe their covenant love for God.  It is never used by foreigners.

Here Rahab uses it to make a pledge with the spies.  She says, “Covenant with me.  Promise me you will protect me and my family.”   And the men covenant with her.  After letting them down by a rope through her window which was located on the outside of the city wall, they say to her, “Take this cord and hang it outside this window.  Keep all your family in your house.  Don’t go out of doors, and don’t tell a soul about this.  We’ll be back for you.”  And then they were gone.

The two men return and report everything to Joshua, including their encounter with Rahab.  They tell him,

“Truly the Lord has given all the land into our hands. And also, all the inhabitants of the land melt away because of us.” (Joshua 2:24)

The Lord gives very specific instructions on how the city would be taken.  They were to march around it six times and on the seventh time around, the priests were to blow their trumpets, and all the people were to shout with a great shout and God would bring the walls down.  No besieging of the city, no ramparts, no battering rams, not even a single arrow.  This battle would be the Lord’s.

Six times the Israelites would march around the city.  And every time they went around, they would see a bright scarlet cord hanging high up out of a window in the wall.  Joshua would say, “That is the house of Rahab the prostitute, whom the Lord will deliver.”  And on the seventh day the people marched around Jericho one last time, and the trumpets blew and they gave a great shout, and the walls came crashing down.  The Israelite army went in, and we are told in chapter 6 verse 21

“Then they devoted all in the city to destruction, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys, with the edge of the sword.” (Joshua 6:21)

But Rahab and her father and her mother and her brothers and all who belonged to her were saved alive.

Our Jericho

That’s the story of Rahab’s deliverance.  But what does it mean?  And what does it teach us about the deliverance that God offers to us in Christ?

Today we live in a culture of violence, idolatry, materialism and sexual degradation.  We protect whales while we kill babies.  We ignore the starving while we install flat screen TV’s.  We worship sport and sex and materialism and violence.  We even watch movies that glorify the idols we worship.  This is the world we live in.  This is our Jericho.  God has declared war on it, and everyone who lives within its walls.  And a day is coming when it will be completely destroyed.  God will send His Joshua.  The skies will split apart and He will descend from heaven, riding on white horse and He comes to judge and make war (Revelation 19).  On his robe and on his thigh the name is written: King of kings and Lord of lords.  And we are told that the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, will hide themselves among the rocks of the mountains and they will call to the mountains,

 “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?” (Revelation 6:15–17)

Their hearts will melt with fear, just like the citizens of Jericho.  Better to be crushed by a mountain that to face God’s great King.

Rahab was a prisoner, just like us.  A prisoner of her culture, her idols and her lifestyle.  She longed to be free.  She began to hear of a great nation that was heading her way.  This nation had been delivered from bondage by a powerful God.  This God parted the Red Sea and buried armies.  Could this God also deliver her and her family?  Then she met the two Israelite spies.  She received them into her house.  She hid them.  She knew this may cost her life.  That no longer mattered.  Such was her longing to be free.  This was the moment Rahab’s chains came off.  When she took in the spies, her identity changed.  She was no longer a harlot of Jericho, she was Rahab of Israel.  By faith, she had joined her heart to them.  And in joined her heart to Israel, she was joining her heart to the Lord.

Do you see it?  Do you see the picture of the salvation we can find in Christ?  We are all Rehab’s.  We are spiritual idolaters.  We are prisoners of a city doomed for destruction.  And news has come of a great deliverer who can save us from destruction.  His name is Jesus.  His first mission on this earth was not to judge, but to save.  He lived a perfect life, He died in our place.  And on the third day He rose from the dead, proving that He had conquered sin and death and Satan.  If we are to be rescued, we must through in our lot with him.  We must join with Him.  And we must turn our backs on the world.  As Rahab was delivered from that kingdom of darkness in Jericho, and brought into the kingdom of Israel, so too we can be delivered from this kingdom of darkness and transferred into the kingdom of God’s beloved Son (Col. 1:13).

Epilogue

When the trumpets sounded for the final time and the Israelites gave forth a great shout, the walls of Jericho fell.  Joshua’s army went in, and mercy was shown to no one.  No one that is, except for Rahab and her household.  There, in the crumbled ruins of Jericho, one section of wall remained – Rahab’s house.  God brought down every section of wall, except this one.  God enabled it to stand.  It stood because it was joined to an eternal habitation that could not be shaken.  The house of Rahab had become a house of God.

Imagine what it must felt like that day for Rahab and her household.  Here she comes, stepping out of the front door of her house, with her family following her, with smoke and ruins and the smell of death all around.  She makes her way through the rubble, past the broken walls to the outside of the city.  And there, standing before her is the commander of the Lord’s army, with sword in hand.  He holds out his hand and says, “Welcome Rahab, to your new home.”

Rahab’s story doesn’t end in Joshua 2.  Rahab and her entire family became citizens of Israel.  She married a man from the tribe of Judah by the same of Salmon.  Salmon and Rahab had a child by the name of Boaz, who married another Gentile called Ruth.  Ruth became the mother of Obed, who become the father of Jesse, the father of David, the ancestor of Jesus, of the kingly line.  God saved Rahab, so that Jesus could come and save you.

I find that quite extraordinary, don’t you?  He chooses to work through the most ordinary and unlikely people – people like you and me.  He chooses what is weak in the world to shame the strong.  He chooses what is low and despised in the world to bring to nothing things that are, so no human might boast in the presence of God (1 Cor. 1:27-29).  God loves to turn things upside-down, and he turns impossible situations into great victories.

The truth is my friends; we are all Rahab’s.  But God so loves Rahab’s that he sent His Son to die in their place, that whosoever believes on Him should not perish but have everlasting life.  Then He raises them up with Christ and seats them in the heavenly realms.

God transforms prostitutes into princes and princesses.  He makes them part of His own family.  Then he loves them as His very own.

Note: This post was based on a sermon I preached  in a series called “Ordinary Heroes”.  You can listen to the full audio on our website here.

 

That they may be one

John 17 is one of the greatest chapters of the Bible, and certainly one of the most treasured.  It is often referred as “The High Priestly Prayer.”  The picture is that of the High Priest entering the innermost sanctuary of the temple, with the names of the 12 tribes of Israel on a breast-piece covering his heart.  Here Jesus enters the very presence of the Father, with our names inscribed on his heart, to intercede for us.  This is Holy ground.  This is sacred terrain.  Here is the Son of God bearing his soul before his Heavenly Father.  And we get to eavesdrop on what he is saying.

He begins by praying for himself in verses 1-5, that he would be glorified in his cross-bearing work.  Then, in verses 6-19 he prays for his disciples.  He prays for two things: (1) their spiritual protection and, (2) their sanctification – that they would be set apart for God, put to proper use, by the truth.  And then, in verses 20-26, he prays for his church – all who will believe in His Name.   The main focus in this part of the prayer is UNITY, but not just any kind of unity.  It is unity with a very clear and vital purpose.

If you ask any military specialist, he will tell you there are three essentials for all military endeavours: an objective, a strategy and tactics.  The objective is the goal, the hilltop you want to take or the city that needs to be captured.  The strategy is the procedure or plan you will follow in order to reach your objective.  The tactics are the specific manoeuvres by which the strategy will be carried out.

In this prayer of Jesus, we find all three.  This is not a feel-good prayer about Christians holding hands with each other and being friends.  This is a highly strategic prayer.  He is leaving behind a small band of followers on whom his entire campaign rests.  The stakes are astronomically high: the eternal destiny of millions hangs in the balance.

The Objective

Twice in six verses, Jesus states the great objective.  We find it in the two “so that” clauses – in verse 21:

“May they all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us, so that the world may believe you sent me.” (17:21)

And then in verse 23:

“I am in them and you are in me, so that they may be made completely one, that the world may know you have sent me….” (17:23)

Here we see the great objective.  God’s whole redemptive plan is aimed at one target: the world.  That’s the ultimate focus of this prayer.

“For God so loved the world,” John 3:16 tell us, “that he gave his one and only Son.”  For what great purpose?  The next part of the verse tells us – “that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.”  That is God’s plan.  That is what he is after.  He’s after the world.  It is easy for Christians to forget this isn’t it?  We think it’s all about us.  Jesus loves US, Jesus died for US, Jesus prays for US.  Yes, and Amen to all of that.  But it doesn’t end there.  We are not the end of God’s plans.

The Strategy

Let’s look at those two important verses again, and placing the emphasis somewhere else:

May they all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us, so that the world may believe you sent me.” (John 17:21)

And verse 23:

“I am in them and you are in me, so that they may be made completely one, that the world may know you have sent me….” (John 17:23)

There it is.  “That they may be made completely one.”  That is the strategy by which God intends to accomplish his great objective.  You say, “Well that’s interesting.  If God’s great objective is the salvation of the world, how is Christians being one is going to accomplish that?”  Because the greatest tool of evangelism is true, authentic, unity.  When people see Christians, out of genuine love for each other, putting aside partiality, personal preferences, race, ethnicity and skin colour, status and social standing, and intellectual elitism – they’ll take notice.

And do you know why?  Because they don’t experience that in the world.  They don’t see that happening in their community or workplace.  What they see is racism, elitism, sexism, snobbery, conflict and strife.  There’s strife in families, strife in communities, and there’s strife in the workplace.  What people need – in order to believe the gospel, to believe supernatural transformation is possible, is to see people – very different people, not just tolerating each other, but genuinely caring for one another.

That’s what Jesus intends for his church.  But how will that happen?

The Tactics

His tactics are revealed to us in verses 24 of John 17:

“Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, so that they will see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the world’s foundation.” (17:24)

And now look at verse 26:

“I made your name known to them and will continue to make it known, so that the love you have loved me with may be in them and I may be in them.” (17:26)

Jesus says in verse 24 – “I want those you have given me to be with me where I am so that they will see my glory which you have given me” and he says in verse 26 – “the love you have loved me with may be in them and I may be in them”.   Obviously, there is a special connection between God’s glory and love.  So, what is it?  I believe it is this:

The “glory” Jesus speaks of here is the glorious, harmonious union between the Father and the Son – a relationship of love, mutual respect and self-sacrifice.  That love was supremely demonstrated when the Son, in full submission to the Father, went obediently to cross in order to atone for our sin.  That very love of the Father and the Son is now experienced in the hearts of believers all over the world – through the indwelling Spirit, and results in a profound, supernatural unity.

God’s tactics then – the method he will use for his strategy (making his people one) to fulfil his great objective (bringing the world to himself) is divine, supernatural love operating in the hearts of believers. 

Remember Jesus’ words in John 13:34?

“I give you a new command: Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you are also to love one another.” (John 13:34)

Conclusion

You see now what is at stake.  Church unity is no small issue.  It is a major issue.  It affects everything.  The eternal destiny of people’s souls in our communities – on your street and my street, depend on it.

We must pursue it.  We must, like our Saviour, pray for it.  We must be on guard against selfish attitudes and petty arguments.  We must put aside personal desires and preferences.  We must work through problems, humbly confessing sin to one another and asking for forgiveness.  We must, as leaders, deal swiftly and firmly with all dissention and power-positioning or sexism or any kind of elitism in our midst, knowing that such activity is the work of the enemy, who seeks to destroy the beauty that God is creating amidst his people.  And we must all resolve, without hesitation, to love every single person – especially fellow Christians, unconditionally.

“How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in harmony! It is like fine oil on the head, running down on the beard, running down Aaron’s beard onto his robes. It is like the dew of Hermon falling on the mountains of Zion. For there the Lord has appointed the blessing— life forevermore.” (Psalm 133)

Note: this post is based on a message I preached at our Church called “Jesus prays for his church.”  You can listen to it on our website here

 

 

 

The Reformation: why it still matters

I want to take you back in time.  The year is 1517.  The place is Wittenberg, a small, sleepy town in East Germany.  A young Augustinian monk by the name of Martin Luther makes his from his monastery and walks across town to the Castle Church.  Under his arm is a wad of papers.  He walks up to the front of the church, takes out a hammer and nails his papers to the door.

Luther’s intention was not to start a Reformation.  He had no intention of breaking with the Catholic Church.  His thesis was simply an invitation to a public debate.  It was a 16th century version of a blog post inviting online discussion.  However, before the Bishops had time to respond Luther’s students swiped it and had it printed on the newly invented Gutenberg printing press.  It soon made its way through Germany and the rest of Europe.  What began as a small protest erupted into a firestorm that swept the world.

So what was it exactly that got Luther so worked up?   Luther was frustrated.  He had tolerated a number of things up to this point.  He had tolerated the religious hierarchy in the church – a system of Popes and Bishops and Priests that ruled over the people with an iron fist.  He had tolerated the services and the sacraments which every good Catholic was obliged to participate in.  But what he could not tolerate was the actions of a certain Dominican Friar by the name of John Tetzel a few days beforehand.  That was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Tetzel was going from town to town selling indulgences.  An indulgence was a payment one could make to the Catholic Church that purchased an exemption from punishment (penance) for certain sins.  People feared that if one of their sins went unnoticed or unconfessed, they would spend extra time in purgatory before reaching heaven.  Or worse, they wind up in hell for failing to repent.  The purchase of an indulgence would fix that.   Well Pope Leo saw this as a great way of making revenue so he opened it up for those who were living and dead.  Now you could buy an indulgence for Uncle Semas who hadn’t been a very good Catholic and you could get him out of purgatory.

Just when you thought it couldn’t get worse – it did.  The Pope wanted to finish building St. Peter’s cathedral.  To do this, he authorized a special indulgence that would provide forgiveness for all sin.  This could be bought for your dead relatives in purgatory.  This was what Tetzel was selling.

Tetzel would come rolling into town in a grand wagon.  Trumpets would blow and banners would unfurl.  A table would be set up in the town square.  On one side there was a pile of parchments and on the other a large chest.  Then Tetzel would cry out:

Johann Tetzel selling indulgences

Listen now, God and Peter call you. Consider the salvation of your souls and your departed loved ones departed… Visit the most holy cross erected before you and ever imploring you… Listen to the voices of your dear dead relatives and friends beseeching you and saying, “Pity us, pity us. We are in dire torment from which you can redeem us for a pittance.” Do you not wish to? Open your ears. Hear the father saying to his son, the mother to her daughter, “We bore you, nourished you, brought you up, left you our fortunes, and you are so cruel and hard that now you are not willing for so little to set us free. Will you let us lie here in the flames? Will you delay the promised glory? [1]

Then he added with a rhythm in his voice,

“Every time a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs”

This was religious exploitation to the extreme.  But the people didn’t know any better.  They were completely in the dark.  They had no bibles, no theological instruction, nor did they have theological books.  They were utterly dependent on the priests.  But the priests were just as ignorant.  When John Hooper was first appointed bishop of Gloucester in England in 1551, he reported out of 311 of the clergy, 168 were unable to repeat the 10 commandments, 31 couldn’t even state in what part of Scripture they came from, 40 could not tell where the Lord’s Prayer was written and 40 couldn’t even say who authored it!

This was the state of things prior to the Reformation.  J.C. Ryle gives an avid description of the time.  He says the Roman Catholic Church was…

“an organized system of Virgin Mary worship, pilgrimages, almsgiving, formalism, ceremonialism, processions, prostrations, bowings, crossings, fastings, confessions, absolutions, Masses, penances, and blind obedience to the priests.  It was a grand higgledy-piggledy of ignorance and idolatry, and service done to an unknown God by deputy.  The only practical result was that the priests took the people’s money and undertook to unsure their salvation, and the people flattered themselves that the more they gave to the priests, the more sure they were going to heaven.”

When Luther nailed his 95 Thesis on the Wittenberg door, he was challenging the power base of a very powerful religious system.  And they did not like it.  Luther was quickly denounced as a man preaching “dangerous doctrines.”  In the year 1521 he was called to the Diet (or assembly) of Worms (pronounced Verms) – a small town on the Rhine river in Germany, where he was called upon to recant his heresies.  Luther responded with this, now famous declaration:

Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of popes and councils for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen. Here I stand, I can do no other.”

Luther at the Diet of Worms 1521

With those words, Luther set his course.  What followed is what we know as the Great Reformation.  A number of strong and very courageous men followed Luther – William Tyndale in England, Ulrich Zwingli in Switzerland, John Calvin in France, and John Knox in Scotland.  They were not perfect men by any stretch of the imagination.  They made their mistakes.  But they were God’s men for the day, to lead the church back to the simplicity and purity of the gospel.

But does it really matter today?

There are some who say the Reformation has been and gone – it doesn’t matter anymore.  It’s something that happened in the past so let’s leave it in the past.  Well, this part of the past matters.  Here’s three reasons why:

1. The Reformation matters because it had world-changing effects
The Reformation gave us the Bible – now freely available in our own language.  The reformation also gave us religious freedom, liberty of conscience, and separation of church and state.  As a result of the Reformation Christians have made more positive changes on earth than any other force or movement in history.  More schools and universities have been started by Christians than any other religion, nation or group.  It was Christian Reformers that succeeded in bringing about the abolition of slavery, cannibalism, child sacrifice, as well as the degrading treatment of women.  None of these things would have occurred, if it were not for the Reformation.

 2. The Reformation matters because it brought about the recovery of the gospel
The glorious gospel, which teaches that sinners can be made righteous – not by works but by God’s grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone was rediscovered.  And the result was new life.  The result was true regeneration of men and women, who were brought from darkness to light, from the kingdom of Satan to the kingdom of God’s beloved Son.

3. The Reformation matters because it serves as a warning to the church today
It serves as a warning of what can happen when authority is abused and truth is ignored.  It serves as a warning of when God’s grace is peddled for profit, power and personal gain.  And it serves as a warning when the gospel becomes eclipsed and overshadowed by the methods, programs, and teachings of men.

If the gospel matters to you, if the glory of God and purity of the church matters to you, if religious freedom and liberty of conscience matters to you, if women’s rights and the abolition of slavery and education for all people – regardless of age or gender or race matters to you, then you cannot and should not remain ignorant of the Reformation.

Because these are the very things that the Reformers fought and in some cases, died for.

Addendum: just for the sheer pleasure of it, check out this video (a trailer for Ligonier Ministries 2017 National Conference).  It’s a powerful visual of the world-changing impact of Luther’s actions that day October 31, 1517.

[1] Roland Bainton, Here I stand, p.59

Note: this post is based on a message I preached at our Church called “The 5 Solas.”  You can listen to it on our website here.