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

 

 

 

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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.

Peace in life’s storms

Shock news.  We’ve all experienced it haven’t we?  Your boss tells you your job is coming to an end and your position will soon be redundant.  Your doctor rings and tells you that the blood tests have come back from the lab.  It doesn’t look good and you need to come in right away.  Your daughter comes into the room with tears streaming down her face – the family cat has just been run over in the middle of the road.

Shock news.  It causes your brain to freeze so can’t think straight.  You open your mouth to say something, but nothing comes out.

It’s about how the disciples felt when Jesus told them he was about to leave them.  They had been with him, nearly every day for the past three years.  They walked the dusty roads with him, ate with him, and prayed with him.  They had given up their livelihoods to follow him.  Now he says he’s leaving.  They are devastated.  They are in shock.  This can’t be happening.  He can’t mean what he just said.  He can’t leave us.

Jesus loves these men.  He knows that leaving them will be for their own good, because then he can send the Holy Spirit to them.  But they can’t deal with any of that now.  They are too overwhelmed with grief.  Jesus knows this and so he provides them with words of assurance.  John records those words for us in John 16:33

“I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. You will have suffering in this world. Be courageous! I have conquered the world.” (John 16:33)

These are powerful words.  They are words that will strengthen you when you are weak.   They are words that will get you through the most difficult of circumstances and most pressing trials.

Let’s have a closer look at them and see what they have to say to us today.

When Jesus uses the term “the world” (kosmos), he is not referring to the physical planet we stand on but the system of evil that dominates and governs humanity.  And this system is controlled and ordered by Satan.  Where ever there is evil at work, where ever there is human misery, where ever there is violence and abuse you know that Satan and his demons are at work behind the scenes.

That is the world you and I live in.  Jesus says it is going to cause you suffering.  Some translations have the word “tribulation.”  Others have the word “trouble.”  The word means pressure, affliction, distress – caused either by difficult circumstances or difficult people (or both!).  Jesus say you’re literally going to be squeezed, you’re going to be pressured; you’re going to be crushed living in a sinful, fallen, and satanicly controlled world.

We all need to be reminded of this don’t we?  Sometimes we have wrong expectations.  We think that because we belong to Jesus, we should live trouble-free lives.  Everything should go well for us.  That’s just not the case.  Paul had to remind the Thessalonians about this.  He writes to them and says,

“so that no one will be shaken by these afflictions. For you yourselves know that we are appointed to this. In fact, when we were with you, we told you in advance that we were going to experience affliction, and as you know, it happened.” (1 Thess 3:3–4)

But here’s the good news.  Jesus says to the disciples, “Be courageous! I have conquered the world.”  Some bibles have “Take heart! I have overcome the world.”

Well that, all on its own, has the potential to sound a bit hollow, doesn’t it?  It sounds a lot like the words from well-meaning people who want to give us some encouragement when we are in the midst of difficulty:

“Hang in there – it will all come right”
“I know you have what it takes to get through this”
“You’re strong – you’ll make it”  

But will it really come right?  Do I really have what it takes to get through?  Am I really strong enough to make it?  Can you guarantee these things?  No, they can’t because neither you nor I have any control over our circumstances.

However, when Jesus says, “Be courageous”, it’s a whole different issue.

“Be courageous” or “Take heart” is one word in the Greek and it’s in the imperative – it’s a command.  And get this: every time it is used it is spoken by Jesus.  No one else says this anywhere in the New Testament.  Only Jesus.

 “Have courage” Jesus said to the paralyzed man who was lowered through the roof by his friends, “your sins are forgiven” (Matt 9:2).  And then Jesus heals the man on the spot.  He gets up, picks up his mat and walks out.

“Have courage, daughter” Jesus said to the woman who had an issue with blood, “your faith has saved you” (Matt 9:22).  And Matthew tells us that she was made well from that moment.

And then there’s the scene where the disciples are in a boat in the midst of a storm and they are fear for their lives, and Jesus comes to them walking on the water.  The disciples are terrified, thinking it was a ghost and Jesus says to them, “Have courage! It is I.”  And he got into the boat and suddenly the storm ceased (Mark 6:51).

Do you see the pattern here?  In every account whenever Jesus uttered the words “Have courage”, it was followed by divine action.  He did something.  When Jesus utters the words “Take courage” to you, he’s not giving you a pep talk.  He’s not just being nice.  He says it because he has power to change things for you.  He has authority over whatever it is that is causing trouble or distress in your life.

So, what is it that you are going through right now, that you need to hear these words?

  • Are you experiencing distress because of the direction one of your children is taking?  Are you worried about that?  Is that keeping you awake at night?   Jesus says, “Take courage – I have authority over that.  I have that in control.”
  • Is there trouble at work?  Are you under pressure there?  Are the expectations placed on you too much for you to bear?  Jesus says, “Take courage – I have authority over that as well.”
  • Do you have concerns for your health?  Are you waiting on results of a scan?  You are wondering what the future holds.  Jesus says, “Take courage – I have authority over that.  I have authority over life and I have authority over death.  This situation you are concerned about – it’s in my hands.”

A few weeks ago, I shared a story about a friend of mine called Carl (you can read the full story here).  Carl contracted melanoma which spread into other parts of his body.  By the time the doctors found it, it was too late.  It has gone into his kidneys and his spleen.  Carl was told he had only three weeks to live.  That’s when he called me.

Carl had no fear of dying.  He knew where he was going.  He knew he was in the hands of Jesus and the Lord in his timing, had chosen to take him own.  That wasn’t his concern.  His concern was for his friends and family members who weren’t Christians.  So, while his head was still clear and he could think straight he was calling them one by one and pleading with them to believe the gospel and put their trust in Jesus.

Tell me, where does a person get strength like that – to face death with such courage and hope?   I’ll tell you where: from the One who promises to be with us in every trial and every difficulty and even in the valley of the shadow of death.

“Take Courage”, he says, “I have overcome the world.  I have overcome sin and death.  And I have overcome Satan.  I have authority over all things – even your life.  So, don’t fear.  Don’t be anxious.  There is someone who loves you.  There is someone who has come down from heaven in order to redeem you.  And there is some who has conquered sin and death and has your future securely in his hand.”

Knowing these things, believing these things, is what gives the disciple true and lasting peace.

PostScript: On August 30th, Carl went peacefully to his eternal home, surrounded by his family in Auckland, NZ.

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

 

The Mission

When your life has no purpose, everything becomes rather routine and dull.  You get up, go to work, come home, eat dinner, go to sleep, wake up and do the same thing over again – day after day, week after week, month after month.  It’s life on the treadmill.  Everything stays the same.  The only thing that changes is the pace.  Then at around 45 years of age something happens.  They call it the mid-life crises.  That’s when people start doing odd things like changing careers, buying expensive sports cars or taking up an extreme sport and nearly killing themselves.

Then after mid-like crises (if you’re still alive) you enter those golden years of the 60’s.  The kids are well off your hands and you can sit back and enjoy life.  You have the house, the boat, the bikes, and the caravan all to yourself.  You spend those years going on as many adventures that your health will allow you because now the clock is ticking.  You know there isn’t much time left.

Then you hit your 70s and you’re faced with a new problem: downsizing.  All that stuff you’ve worked hard for all those years – well, the granny flat won’t hold it.  It’s got to go.  Who’s it going to?  Your kids, or grandkids – most likely, if they want it.  Sometimes they don’t want it and you have to sell it, for a tenth of the price you paid for it.  And as you watch it being towed away from your driveway you feel this huge sense of loss and you are reminded that everything you own – all that you worked for, will one day go the same way.  You go out of this world the same way you came in – with nothing.

No one sets out in life wanting to end up like this.  No one starts out in life thinking, “I’m going to waste my life by working as hard as I can and amass tons of stuff I don’t really need only to give it all away and then die unfulfilled.”  And yet most of us do exactly that.

So, what if I told you that there was another way?  What if I told you there is something you can live for that will give you more satisfaction and joy than you could ever imagine?  What if I told you it could mean the difference between eternal happiness and eternal suffering for countless other souls?  Would you be interested?  Perhaps?  Then you need to have another look at the Great Commission.  It’s the final instruction Jesus gives to his followers.  He intended it for all believers for all time.  Here it is:

“Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20).

 The emphasis in this text is not “Go” but “make disciples.”  That’s the main verb in the Greek.  All the other verbs – going, baptizing and teaching are contingent upon this.  So literally you could translate this, “as you are going (to work, to school, to the gym, to the grocery store), make disciples.”

A disciple is a learner, a follower – of someone or something.  Jesus said, “A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like his teacher.” (Luke 6:40) So in our case, making disciples involves helping and teaching people to follow Jesus, obey Jesus and become more like Jesus.  That’s discipleship.  It’s not just getting people to pray some prayer and then saying, “You’ll all good now.  See you next Sunday.”  There’s more work to do.  Jesus said we need to teach them to observe everything he commanded.  That means getting into Scripture and helping the person to read and study the Bible.  It means coming alongside that person and saying, “Here, let me help you.  Walk with me and I’ll show you how to do this.”  That’s discipleship – helping people follow Jesus.

Every Christian is capable of doing this.  Every one of us has the ability to come alongside a new Christian and help them understand the Christian life.  Every one of us should be able to say to a younger brother or sister, “Here, let me help you read this.  This is the Old Testament and this is the New Testament.  The gospels are about the life and ministry of Jesus.  Then there are these letters to churches – they are directly for us.  Let’s have a read together.”  Every one of us can teach a new Christian how to pray and confess sin.  We can all do this.

OK, so you see what our mission is.  It’s not hard.  It’s not impossible.  Now for the next question: Why should I enlist in this mission?  Let me give you three reasons:

a) Because Jesus commands it.

One day we will all stand before our Lord and give an account for our days – what we invested our lives in, what we gave our time to.  We are not going to able to say, “Well I just didn’t really understand what you meant,” or “Nobody taught me Greek,” or “I couldn’t find anyone to disciple.”  None of those excuses are going to cut it.  Jesus commands it.  Therefore, we are to obey it.

b) Because you were made for it.

When God saved you, he put the Holy Spirit in you to motivate and empower you to be on mission.  In Ephesians 2:10 Paul says, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time so that we should walk in them.”  Now that you belong to Jesus, God has lined up for you good works for you to do.  And some of those good works involve making disciples.  Jesus said in John 15:16, “You did not choose me but I chose you and appointed you that you should go out and produce fruit…” What kind of fruit?  The answer I often hear is ‘the fruit of the Spirit’ – love, joy, peace, patience kindness etc.  I don’t think that’s what Jesus is referring to.  He’s talking about new believers.  God wants you to be fruitful.  He wants to produce new Christians through you.  That may mean leading them to Christ or it may mean being a link in the chain.  Jesus wants to use you to help someone move one step closer to becoming a Christian.

c) Because lives depend on it.

Do you ever think about this?  Do you ever think about those who are around you – your friends, neighbours, work colleagues, where they might be going?  If they don’t come to know Jesus, the Bible says they are going to a lost eternity.  Your unsaved family member or friend – if he doesn’t believe the gospel, he will one day stand before God and be judged and then cast into the lake of fire.  Does that do anything to you?

Too many of us treat the church like a cruise ship.  We buy our ticket, get on board and then sit on the deck enjoying the view.  We have all the food we could ever eat, spread out in front us, every day.  If we get bored looking at the ocean, there are various forms of entertainment to keep us amused.  The church is not a cruise ship; it’s a rescue boat.  Ships are sinking and there are people in the water.  If we don’t go after them, they will perish.  So we power up the searchlight and we head into those waves looking to pluck every soul from those waters that we can.  And we need all the help we can get for this.  We need people in the engine room keeping that diesel firing, we need people on the sides calling out when they see a bobbing head, we need people into the galley heating up food for those we rescue, and we need people on Comms letting home base know where we are.  We don’t need people complaining that the chairs are too hard and the music is too loud.

You say, “OK, I understand our mission and I see why I need to enlist and be a part of it, but what exactly am I to do?  Where do I start?”  Here are three simple steps you can take to get started.

1. Be available.
This is where it starts.  It starts by surrendering ourselves to God and saying, “Lord, I don’t know what I can do.  But I’m here.  I’m willing.  I’m in your hands.”  God can do great things with people with this kind of heart.

2. Be prayerful.
Start praying for the people God has put in your life.  What about your boss? Start praying for him.  Your work colleagues – even the ones that get up your nose (especially those), pray for them – by name.  Pray for their salvation.  Pray for God to open up doors to speak to them.  Pray for your unsaved friends.  There’s a house on our street that’s been empty for a few weeks.  So every time I run past it I pray for the new people who are going to move in.  I say, “Lord I pray for this family, I ask you begin to work in their hearts.  I pray you will open up an opportunity for me to meet them and talk to them about you.  Thank you, Lord Jesus.”  Look around you.  See a world without Jesus.  Pray for people and then watch with expectation for God to answer.  You’re praying for the things that are at centre of God’s heart.  He’ll be listening.  And he’ll be working.

3. Be intentional.
No gospel conversation happens automatically.  They happen because someone started them.  Start talking more with the people God brings across your path.  Take an interest in them.  Ask them how their weekend went.  Ask them how their family is doing.  Take an interest in what interests them.  Sooner or later they’ll start asking you things.  Be ready for that.  And then bring the conversation around to spiritual matters.

Don’t be unbelieving.  Don’t be fearful.  Greater is he that is in you than he that is in the world.  He’s put you on this earth for a purpose, and he’s given you a mission.  And there’s nothing and no one you will encounter that Jesus can’t handle.  So roll up your sleeves, set your eyes on heaven and go forth in faith.

Note: this post is based on a message I preached called “The Gospel to the World.”  It the fourth part of a series which unveils our new mission and vision at Grace Church.  You can listen to it on our website here.

 

Living Stones

When Christ saves us, he doesn’t save us and then leave us alone.  He brings us into his family.  He makes us part of his church.  This new community has a unique identity, function and purpose all of its own.

Spurgeon once called the church, “The dearest place on earth.”  You might be thinking, “I wonder what church was he talking about?”  Your experience of the local church has been anything but dear or sweet.  You’ve been burned.  You’ve been hurt.

I get that.  I understand that.  That’s because the church is made up of sinners.  And sinners sin – they hurt other people.  But if we only view the church its faults, we’re going to give it up and not want to come back.  We need to see it the way God sees it.

The Apostle Peter gives us a beautiful picture of the church in 1 Peter, chapter 2:

“And coming to Him as to a living stone which has been rejected by men, but is choice and precious in the sight of God, you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (verses 4–5)

Picture a building – a house.  But it’s not a physical house; it’s a spiritual house.  There are stones that make up the building, and one of those stones is very important; it’s foundational.  And in this house are a whole lot of priests offering up sacrifices.  So where did Peter get this imagery from?  Answer: The Old Testament priesthood.

But it’s all been changed.  It’s become obsolete.  It was only a shadow of what was to come.  God has replaced it with something entirely new.  And what was the first thing he did?  He put down the cornerstone.  That controls everything.  It sets the building square.  If the cornerstone is off, so is the whole building.  What was the cornerstone God put down?  Jesus Christ.

Jesus is God’s chosen cornerstone for the new temple – the people of God.  He was rejected by men – specifically the builders (verse 7).  Who are they?  The spiritual leaders of Israel.  They looked Jesus over; they did their examination, but he didn’t measure up.  So they cast him aside as useless.  They crucified him.  They put him to death.  And what does God do in response?  He raised Jesus back up.  And He placed him down as the cornerstone upon which he will build his new community – men and women from every tribe, nation and language who have been brought from death to life.

Now stay with me here – Peter says in verse 4, “and coming to Him, a living stone…” Who’s the living stone?  Jesus.  He is the resurrection and the life.  He has the power to impart life.  Then Peter says, “you yourselves as living stones…”  This is precious.  A stone, sitting alone is lifeless.  But when it’s put in proximity to THE living stone, it comes to life.  And when all these living stones are put together, they become the living temple of God.

Do you see the implications of this?  If you are a Christian, you belong to a spiritual building, and that building is the church.  You are one of those living stones.  God has cut and shaped you for a specific purpose.  There is a place for you that no other “stone” can take.  And what is that special purpose?  Peter tells us there in verse 5:

“…you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”

Now, according to the book of Hebrews, we don’t need a priesthood; Jesus has fulfilled that role.  We don’t make sacrifice for our sin anymore.  The sacrifice once and for all was paid for on the cross of Christ.  We don’t need anyone mediating between us and God.  Jesus is our mediator.

So, when Peter uses the term “priesthood”, he cannot be talking about the unique role given to Jesus.  He’s talking about our ministry to God and to one another.  He’s talking about our service.  Each and every one of us has received a spiritual gift and that gift is to be used in some way to build up other believers.  That’s your priestly ministry.  That’s your sacrifice.  But we have another function as well – look at verse 9:

“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His possession, so that you may proclaim the praises of the One who called you out of darkness into His marvellous light.” (1 Peter 2:9)

You’re a priest in the temple in the sense that you offer up yourself for ministry in the body of Christ.  Your sacrificial service builds up others and honours God.  But you also have a priestly role outside the temple.  You are to proclaim the praises of the One who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.  You are to tell people about God.  You are to tell them how wonderful and loving and kind and generous and gracious and awesome he is.  You are to tell them the great things he done for you – he has redeemed you, forgiven you, and raised you to new life.  You are to tell them that they can know this God too.

Conclusion

This new community we are part of – this spiritual house, is no ordinary community.  It is a picture of gospel-transformation.  When the world sees us relating to each other; when they see how we treat one another, serve one another and care for one another, they see gospel transformation in action.  And yes, sometimes it’s going to get messy.  Because real life is messy – right?  And we don’t like our failures and weaknesses being exposed.

I had some of my failures and weaknesses exposed in an elders meeting a few weeks back.  It was getting near the end of the meeting; we’d covered some tough issues.  And then, completely out of the blue, one of the elders questions the validity of something I was doing.  I thought to myself, he’s questioning what I’m doing. Who does he think he is?  He must be an idiot.  And then the guy next to him actually agrees with this and then adds his two cents in.  Oh, how about that – we actually have two idiots in our midst.  And then someone from across the table says, “Well in the bible, we see they didn’t do that.”  Now someone is quoting Scripture at me.  That’s three.  The conversation goes on and I get so frustrated I can’t even pray.  I mean, I’m in a real bad way.  Community gets messy.  Community is confronting.

I woke up the next morning and I know I have to do business with God.  And the Lord says to me, “Who’s in charge here?  Whose church is this?  Do you think it’s your church?  Do you think it’s all about you?  Who raised you up?  Who put you where you are?”  I melted.  I said, “Lord, forgive me. My heart is so full of pride.”  I wrote to the elders that day and confessed my pride.  I said God called me to serve you and I acted like a tyrant.  I asked them to forgive me.

Now if that hadn’t happened; if we had an eldership where no one questioned anything and everyone just kept the peace, that would never get addressed.  My sin would never have been exposed.  But it did get exposed.  And it was for my good, and for the good of our church.  God is in the process of reshaping me.  If you are a living stone, he’s reshaping you. But he can’t reshape us while we are in self-protective mode.  He needs us rubbing up against other stones.

The good news of the gospel is God fully knows us – even in our darkest moments; yet he loves us more than we can ever imagine.  So that means we don’t have to put on a façade; we can be our real selves.  If am truly accepted by Jesus, I don’t have to put on a show for others approval.

Community can be tough and it can get pretty messy.  But with God in control, and his grace always active, we can’t really lose – can we?

Note: this post is based on a message I preached called “The Gospel in Community.”  It the third part of a series which unveils our new mission and vision at Grace Church.  You can listen to it on our website here.

 

Grace that calls the dead to life

What is grace?  Christians talk about it, sing about it – we even name our church after it.  But what does it mean?  Grace is unmerited favour.  Grace is undeserved kindness.  When you receive something you don’t deserve – whether from God or someone else, it’s called grace.  God demonstrates his grace to the world in a 1000 different ways.  Every time the sun shines or the rain falls causing the grass to grow, that’s grace.  When you take a bite of that new season apple and taste its sweetness, you’re experiencing God’s grace.  When you’re in the company of friends and their laughter and friendship warms your heart, that’s God’s grace at work.

But there’s a special way in which God displays his grace that is nothing less than extraordinary.  It’s way off the charts.  It causes the angels to gasp.  It’s found in Ephesians chapter 2.  Paul starts out with this:

“And you were dead in your trespasses and sins…” (Ephesians 2:1)

Paul is talking about our spiritual condition before we knew Jesus.  It wasn’t like we were sick and needed some medicine.  He’s not saying we took a wrong turn and you needed some guidance to get on the right path.  We were dead – completely unresponsive.  Dead people can’t see.  They can’t hear.  And they can’t move.

It’s a habit of mine, when I’ve finished my morning run, to walk through Richmond cemetery.  It has of lifting my spirits.  Because it doesn’t matter how bad my week has been, I can see it’s worse for others.  And every day I walk past the same people.  They haven’t moved.  They are still lying in the same place they were the day before.  Nobody has jumped ship.  And I think, “Maybe if I shout real loud, they might hear.  Six feet under isn’t that far away.”  But they’re not going to hear.  They’re not going to respond because they are incapable of responding.

That’s the point Paul is making.  Without God’s intervention, we were utterly dead – spiritually unresponsive.  We might have gone to church.  We might have done a lot of good things.  We might have been kind and helpful. We might have been a hardworking, law-abiding citizen who did not cheat on his taxes and regularly gave to charity.  But when it all comes down to it – in our heart of hearts, we did not want God in our life.  We certainly didn’t want him ruling our affairs.

Then, comes verse 4.

“But God…”

Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones says the two opening words of verse 4, in a sense, contain the whole gospel.  It’s like a light getting switched on in a darkened room.  We are dead and He then God turns up.  God breaks in.  Grace intervenes and explodes into our darkness and brings us life.

“But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love that He had for us, made us alive with the Messiah even though we were dead in trespasses. You are saved by grace!” (Ephesians 2:4–5)

We have been saved by grace!  There was nothing good in us that deemed us worthy of saving.  It’s not like God said, “See, that guy down there.  He’d be great PR for me.  He’s got a lot of influence.  I’ll save him.”  No, the bible says he’s chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise.

Take my own case – a farm-boy, a Fitter-Turner from Dannevirke (I mean, can anything good come out of Dannevirke?), raised in a dysfunctional family with a controlling mother and emotionally detached father.  By age 16 I was almost an alcoholic and by age 18 I was considering suicide.  I can just imagine the conversation in heaven: God looks down says, “How about him?”  The angels shake their heads in disbelief – “You’ve got to be kidding…”  Then God reaches down into my deadness, grace intrudes into my darkness and my dead, unresponsive heart comes alive.  I hear Jesus calling, “Come to Me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”  I hear the gospel warning, “While you have the light, believe in the light so that you may become sons of light.”  I am faced at that moment with a choice – to believe or not to believe.  I am surrounded by darkness and before me is a light I cannot see.  I make my choice.  I believe.  The chains of sin are broken.  My heart is free.  I am alive to God for the first time in my life.  I sense his presence.  I hear his voice.  And I know – no matter what happens from here on – no matter how much I mess up or how often I fail or disappoint him, I am his child of God, forever.

Why did God do all this?  Why did he save me?  Why did he save any of us?  Paul tells us why:

“so that in the coming ages He might display the immeasurable riches of His grace through His kindness to us in Christ Jesus.” (Ephesians 2:7)

God reaches down into our darkness, He raises us from the dead and lavishes us with his love so that His glory might be displayed; so in 10,000 years from now angels and saints who are in heaven, might see you and declare:

“Look what God has done.  See what his love has done.  See what his mercy has done.  See what his grace has accomplished in raising this dead person to life. hallelujah. Jesus – words cannot describe how awesome, how breathtaking, and how beautiful you are.” 

Now that doesn’t mean life suddenly becomes perfect.  We live in a broken world. Bad things happen.  Some of us are sick.  Some of us have cancer.  Sometimes God heals the cancer; sometimes he doesn’t.  Ultimately it won’t matter because we all get a refit one day, right?  We also struggle with sin.  We do things we know we shouldn’t.  That’s the old sin nature at work.  The tree is cut down but the roots go down deep – roots of guilt and shame and selfishness and greed and pride.  And every now and then they show up.  I have that problem.  God has done a work in me, he’s made me new, but sometimes the old Peter shows up unexpectedly and gives the people in my household a terrible fright.  But God gives grace even for that.  His Spirit lives in me and teaches me how to deal with that.

But the point I want you to see here is that salvation – in all it’s past, present and future aspects, is all of grace. Look at verses 8 and 9 –

“For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift— not from works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8–9)

Salvation is a gift of God’s glorious grace.  You can’t earn it.  You can’t buy it.  You can’t make yourself worthy to receive it.  You must just believe it.  And then finally in verse 10 –

“For we are His creation, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time so that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:10)

So far we’ve learned we can’t do anything to save ourselves – right?  It’s all of God.  You can do nothing.  God must do everything.  But now that God has intervened, now that you’re a new creature in Christ you’re moving along a different highway.  God has saved you for a purpose.  It’s not to sit back and enjoy the ride.  You have work to do.  But they are not your works, just like it’s not your salvation.  They are works that God has prepared beforehand that you should walk in them.

God has shown you mercy; you in turn are to show it to others.  God has lavished his grace on you, now you are to be an instrument of grace to the world.

Note: this post is based on a message I preached called “The Gospel of Grace.”  It the second part of a new series which unveils our new mission and vision at Grace Church.  You can listen to it on our website here.

Dear God, please knock the teeth out of their mouths

d5e332f12bf6e1e7ca65a4bb6db48b94_punch20clipart-hitting-someone-clipart_1254-800The Psalms are a treasure chest of spiritual enrichment for the soul.  Whatever you are experiencing in life – joy and gladness or grief and pain; victory and success or failure and disappointment, thankfulness for God’s care or sorrow over sin, there will be a Psalm for you.  I like what John Calvin wrote:

“the Psalms are an anatomy of all parts of the soul; for there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror.”

That includes exasperation, anger and indignation toward mean and horrible people.

Sooner or later, someone is going to pull a dirty on you and leave you fuming.  You’ll be watching the aftermath of yet another terrorist attack – children’s shoes and body parts scattered in a market place and you’ll want someone to hang.  A convicted child molester will be released from custody because of a technicality in the law and you’ll shake your fist saying, “where is the justice in this land?”

That’s where the imprecatory Psalms come in.  The word “imprecate” means to pray evil against, to invoke curses upon.  There are 17 of these Psalms all told – Psalm 5, 6, 11, 12, 35, 37, 40, 52, 54, 56, 58, 69, 79, 83, 137, 139 and 143.  Most Christians have a hard time with them (myself included).  That’s because the psalmists pull no punches in expressing their agitation.  It bursts out like hot lava from a volcano.   Take Psalm 137 for example; it starts off with those beautiful words,

“By the rivers of Babylon— there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion. There we hung up our lyres on the poplar trees, for our captors there asked us for songs, and our tormentors, for rejoicing: “Sing us one of the songs of Zion.” (Psalm 137:1–3)

The 70’s pop band BoneyM put music to those words and it became an instant hit around the world.  But they got the tune horribly wrong. It’s not a happy song.  It’s a lament by God’s people who were taken into exile by their enemies.  And here’s how it ends:

“Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is the one who pays you back what you have done to us. Happy is he who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rocks.” (Psalm 137:8–9)

From memory, I’m pretty sure BoneyM left that line out!  Or how about these verses from Psalm 56:

“God, knock the teeth out of their mouths; Lord, tear out the young lions’ fangs. They will vanish like water that flows by; they will aim their useless arrows. Like a slug that moves along in slime, like a woman’s miscarried child, they will not see the sun.” (Psalm 58:6–8)

Imagine putting that on a magnet on your fridge door.  “Hey kids, we have a new memory verse for the week.”  There’s something about these passages just doesn’t quite resonate with us.  They just don’t sit right.  Didn’t Jesus say we are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us?  And doesn’t it say in 1 Peter 3 that we are to be,

 “compassionate and humble, not paying back evil for evil or insult for insult but, on the contrary, giving a blessing, since you were called for this, so that you can inherit a blessing.” (1 Peter 3:8–9)

What Jesus and the NT writers command seems to directly contradict what we read in the Old Testament Psalms.  So how are we to make sense of this?  What are we to do with Psalms that call for the destruction of the ungodly?

We need to understand them in their context.  We also need to see how they fit in the wider framework of God’s revelation.  And we need to look at them through the lens of the cross.

Here are 5 things that you need to understand when reading the imprecatory Psalms:

  1. They are part of God’s Word

There are some who think the imprecatory Psalms are unchristian and express the ungodly anger of men.  They would like to have them taken out of the bible altogether. But we can’t do that.  We can’t carve the bible up into what we do like and what we don’t like.  2 Timothy 3:16 says,

All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” [emphasis added]

Besides that, both Jesus and the New Testament writers quote from the imprecatory Psalms several times, so they obviously recognized them as part of the inspired Word of God.

  1. They are about God’s honour

They are not about personal revenge.  They are not about seeking a personal vendetta.  David knows any enemy of his is an enemy of God’s people and any enemy of God’s people is an enemy of God.  It is God’s Name, God’s fame and God’s reputation that is at stake, not his own.

When you have a car behind you tailgating so close you can see the insects on his grill; when you hear the howl of tires from a boy-racer doing doughnuts at the end of your cul-de-sac, or you see your neighbor throwing grass clipping over the fence into your backyard, that’s not the time to pull out the imprecatory Psalms!  I know it’s tempting sometimes.  Last month I flew over to Wellington for a seminar.  I grabbed a bed in a hotel in the city. In the early hours of the morning I was woken up by some hooligan, stumbling around in the alley, yelling at the top of his voice and uttering a great variety of obsentities.  Now it was very tempting, I tell you, to pray a few curses on that guy! But you see, that’s not what it’s about.  It’s not about my sleep (or lack of), my comfort or my needs.  It’s about what dishonours God and eclipses his glory.

  1. They are driven by a desire for Gods’ justice

It is not wrong for a Christian to be passionate about administering justice.  We should be outraged when Christians are beaten or beheaded.  We ought to be incensed by the murder of millions of unborn children every year.  We should be outraged by the deplorable act of sex trafficking of millions of young girls, for the mere gratification of uncontrolled lust.  We ought to be angered by the soul-destroying effects of the pornography industry, which is the ruin of untold marriages and homes today.  If we are not outraged over those things, something is wrong.

  1. They find their ultimate fulfillment in Jesus

Search a little closer and you will find time and time again, portions of the imprecatory Psalms are cited in the Gospels and Acts, particularly around the crucifixion.  What does that tell us?  The curses on God’s enemies in the Old Testament – particularly David, find their fulfillment in THE enemy of God’s Son at the cross.  For example, the lines in Psalm 69:25 “Let his dwelling become desolate; let no one live in it” and Psalm 109:8 “Let someone else take his position” are cited in Acts 1:20 in reference to Judas, who betrayed Jesus.

  1. They are resolved at the cross

The bible tells us that at the cross – every act of injustice, every wrong done to another human being, and every offense committed against a holy God was put on Jesus and then God the Father poured out his righteous anger on him.  The bible tells us that Jesus became a curse for us (Gal. 3:13).  All those curses in the Old Testament that were heaped on God’s enemies – Jesus bore them all.

And so, when we read the imprecatory Psalms, and we see these curses heaped on the enemies of God, we realize we ourselves were once God’s enemy.  We deserve those curses.  But Jesus became a curse for us and now we are free.  And so, while we long to see justice reign, we also want to see other sinners saved.  We always must balance, “Lord, stop this evil person” with “Father, save this lost person!”  Because of the cross, every enemy of God is a potential child of God.

Conclusion

The imprecatory Psalms are often difficult for us.  They disturb us.  But we can’t ignore them or pretend they are not there.  Instead we must read them through a redemptive lens.  When you hear the Psalmist calling down curses on God’s enemies you should say to yourself,

“I was once an enemy of God.  Those curses were intended for me. But Jesus took my place of judgement on that cross. He became a curse for me, so that now I am free.  Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me!”

Note: this post is based on a message I preached from Psalm 109 called “Please God, take him out!”  You can listen to the sermon here.