Something better than Jesus beside You

Have you ever found yourself wishing that Jesus hadn’t gone back to heaven and that he was still here on earth to help you?  Imagine you are experiencing some trial or difficulty and Jesus walked through the door and put his hand on your shoulder and said, “It’s OK, I’ve got this.”  Would that be amazing? 

Well, I have some news for you: it’s actually better that Jesus is not physically with us.  In the privacy of a small room, only hours before he went to the cross, Jesus revealed to his disciples what was going to happen after he left.  What he said was important not just for the disciples, but for every believer in every age. 

“But now I am going away to him who sent me, and not one of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ Yet, because I have spoken these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart. Nevertheless, I am telling you the truth. It is for your benefit that I go away, because if I don’t go away the Counselor will not come to you. If I go, I will send him to you.” (John 16:5–7)

Jesus is referring to the Holy Spirit. The Greek word for “counsellor” is paraclete; it means one who comes alongside to help or assist.  If what Jesus is saying is right (and he’s always right), there is something about the Holy Spirit’s coming or arrival after he leaves that surpasses what Jesus could do for us if he was physically beside us. 

Let’s consider some of the things the Holy Spirit does in and for a believer that wouldn’t happen if Jesus was confined to a physical body here on earth:

1. He teaches us and guides us into all truth

Jesus said in John 16:13, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth. For he will not speak on his own, but he will speak whatever he hears. He will also declare to you what is to come.”

This promise was made first and foremost to the disciples but has application to us.  The Spirit’s role is to teach us the truth of God’s Word.  You say, “Well Jesus could do that if he were here with me.”  Not as effectively as the Holy Spirit.  You remember when Jesus was teaching his disciples a parable and afterwards, they’d look at him and say “huh?”, and then he would have to explain it to them, and they still didn’t get it.  Well, the Holy Spirit helps us “get it.”  2 Corinthians 2:9-10 says:

“What no eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no human heart has conceived— God has prepared these things for those who love him. Now God has revealed these things to us by the Spirit.”  

The Spirit is both the teacher and revealer of truth.  He reveals the meaning of God’s word to us, internally – not just in our heads, but in our hearts.  In Psalm 119:18 the author prays, “Open my eyes so that I may contemplate wondrous things from your instruction.” That’s the work of the Spirit.  He makes the Bible alive to us. 

2. He empowers us to witness

In Acts 1:8 Jesus said to his disciples, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

The Spirit empowers and emboldens us to share Jesus with others.  You want to talk to someone about Jesus, but you are fearful and don’t know how, so you give a quick prayer – “Spirit God, please help me say the right thing” and then you open your mouth and start talking and not even you can believe what you’re saying.  That’s better than meeting up with Jesus beforehand and asking for tips on witnessing.

3. He assures us we are God’s children

Paul says in Galatians 4:6, “Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba, Father!”  The natural attitude of our hearts is not that of sons and daughters.  We don’t really trust him; we don’t love to come into his presence – we rather fear him.  But when the Holy Spirit comes into our hearts, he assures us we are God’s children.  All fear is gone.  In its place is a wonderful sense of love and trust in God.

4. He enables us to overcome sin

In Romans chapter 8, that great chapter on how to have victory over sin, Paul refers to the Spirit 22 times.  The implication is clear: the way to overcome sin in your life is to be empowered by the Spirit.  Having Jesus beside you might encourage you (or maybe frighten you), but it wouldn’t empower you like the Spirit does. 

There’s more: He also imparts to us spiritual gifts, gives us a deep love for fellow Christians, produces in us beautiful Christ-like fruits – love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness and self-control.  He also stirs us to draw near to God in prayer and gives us a deep love for fellow Christians. 

But there is another aspect of the Spirit’s work in us that we can sometimes overlook.  Dane Ortlund brings this out in his book Gentle and Lowly: The Spirit causes us to experience Christ’s heart for us.  Ortlund writes:

“The Spirit makes the heart of Christ real to us: not just heard, but seen; not just seen, but felt; not just felt, but enjoyed.  The Spirit takes what we read in the Bible and believe on paper about Jesus’ heart and moves it from theory to reality, from doctrine to experience.”

Consider again the words of Jesus to the disciples in John 16.  He has just informed him that he’s leaving them.  And he says, “Sorrow has filled your heart” (John 16:6).  They were crushed by this news.  But then further down in verse 20, Jesus says, “Your sorrow will be turned to joy.”  How can this be?  How could they be filled with joy after he was gone?  The answer is the Holy Spirit.  Jesus will be leaving in body but coming right back in the person of the Holy Spirit.  The disciples therefore will continue to enjoy the same fellowship and intimacy they enjoyed with Jesus beside them by way of the Spirit who will come and dwell in them.  In fact, more so.  The same applies to us today.

Let’s say Jesus appeared to you today, in your very room.  He put his hand on you and said, “I love you – I really do.”  How would you feel?  Wonderful, right?  That would be awesome.  Then he walks out the door.  An hour later, you mess up, you sin, you do something dumb and what are you thinking?  I bet he wouldn’t say that to me now.  The Holy Spirit – who indwells you, will comfort you and assure you of Christ’s continual love for you so that you don’t have to wait for another visit from Jesus.  And the more you are in God’s Word, the more he will assure you because that is the primary means by which the Spirit speaks to us. 

Application

So there we have it.  If you are a believer, you have something greater than Jesus besides you; you have God’s Spirit dwelling in you.  He is not some impersonal force or energy; he is a person.  He has been sent by the Father for your benefit.  He makes Jesus real to you.  He brings God’s truth alive to you.  He gifts and empowers you.  And he enables you to experience Christ’s heart for you. 

With all these things in mind, how should we respond?  Let me suggest three ways:

1. Welcome him into your heart and life. 

Some Christians down even acknowledge the Spirit’s presence.  That’s like having a guest in your home and completely ignoring him. If I were that guest, I would consider that very rude, wouldn’t you?  James 4:5 says, “The spirit he made to dwell in us envies intensely.”  The Holy Spirit loves us and yearns over us.  He earnestly desires that we allow him to have free access into our hearts and lives.  So don’t ignore him.  Don’t neglect him.  Welcome him.  Talk to him. 

If you find that difficult, first try using his name interchangeably with the Father and the Son.  Don’t worry if you think you might get it wrong.  You could say something like:

“Father – thank you for this new day.  I want to put you first in my life.  Jesus, thank you for your love for me, even when I mess up and sin.  Spirit of God, please make Christ love for me real to me today.  And empower me to speak to others about Jesus.” 

Do you see how it works?  It might seem awkward at first, but after a while it will come naturally to you.

2. Learn from him.

He is your teacher.  So let him teach you. Open up your bible and ask him to help you understand it.  Say to him, “Spirit of God, teach me today about the Father. Teach me what I need to know.  Show me the path of life.”  If you get stuck in a passage, ask for his help.  He specializes in bible interpretation.  After all – he wrote it!

3. Lean on him. 

You can’t live the Christian life in your own power. You need the Spirit’s help.  So lean on him.  Yield to him.  Surrender yourself to his power.  Do you find witnessing to others difficult for you?  Does the thought fill you with fear?  Lean on the Spirit of God.  Let his words speak through you.  Do you find serving God hard work to you?  Give it over to the Spirit.  Let him do the work for you.  D.L. Moody once said,

“How easy it is to work for God when we are filled with His Spirit!  His service is so sweet, so delightful.  He is not a hard master…. Without this power, our work will be drudgery. With it, it becomes a joyous task, a refreshing service”

If you would like to view the message in full you can watch it here (the message begins 3.20 min in)

Living the Dream

In my role as Police Chaplain, I visit the different stations in our region and get to meet and talk to some pretty amazing people.  There’s one particular individual, who is part of the dog squad (there’s a special breed in themselves) and whenever I see him and ask how he’s doing, he says the same thing: “Living the dream.”  He never explains to me what that means, but I take it that he loves his job and wouldn’t want to be doing anything else. 

What would “living the dream” look like for you?  Sitting under a Palm tree on a tropical beach?  Building your dream house?  Winning the lottery?  The problem with all those things is the experience is short-lived.  Basking on a tropical beach feels great for a week; after that, you’ll want to go home.  You might one day build your dream house, but you can’t keep reliving that for the rest of your life.  And as for winning the lottery, sooner or later the money will run out. 

A few summers ago I read Augustine’s Confessions.  It had been on my wish list for some time, and I finally got around to it.  Augustine is one of the earliest Christian philosophers and his works are now classics.  Confessions reads like a spiritual autobiography or memoir, but really, it’s a prayer.  Augustine is writing to God – about his life and conversion.  In it, there is one famous line that says, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until it comes to rest in you.”  Augustine is making a universal statement here – our hearts ­– he has the entire human race in mind; our hearts are restless – unsettled, unfulfilled, dissatisfied, disappointed – until they find their rest in God. 

The question is how do we find that rest and what does it look like when we have it?  If Augustine is right (and I believe he is), when we get this sorted, we will be “living the dream” in any and every circumstance, because our hearts will be rightly aligned toward God – rested, happy and fulfilled.  

Jesus’ Promise of Rest

A few posts back we considered that wonderful passage in Matthew 11:28-29. 

“Come to me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take up my yoke and learn from me, because I am lowly and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” 

Look again at Jesus’ words.  He is giving an invitation.  He is offering something.  He is offering rest.  The word “rest” here does not mean ceasing from activity but relief from trouble and anxiety.  He’s speaking of inner rest, a peace within the soul.  Picture the still waters of a pond versus a stormy sea.  And just we miss it, he adds at the end of verse 29, “and you will find rest for your souls.” 

This is a rest not from work but in our work, not from activity but in our activity, not from duty but in our duty, in every area of our lives – relational, spiritual, physical, mental and emotional.  And this rest is closely tied to and dependent on us being “yoked” to Jesus; that is staying in close, personal fellowship with him so that we experience his gentleness and lowliness on a daily basis.  This is exactly what I think Augustine was getting at when he said, “our hearts are restless until it comes to rest in you.” 

Back to the Gospel

The rest Jesus gives is the dream life every human is searching for.  My question for you today is, are you experiencing that rest – truly, consistently, day by day?  I think there are a lot of Christians who struggle in this area.  And here’s the problem: we have a tendency, because of our flesh to un-yoke ourselves from Jesus and revert back to self-effort, self-sufficiency and self-reliance in trying to live the Christian.  And in doing that we put ourselves right back into bondage.  Dane Ortlund puts it this way,

There are two ways to live the Christian life. You can live it either for the heart of Christ or from the heart of Christ. You can live for the smile of God or from it. For a new identity as a son or daughter of God or from it. For your union with Christ or from it.

The battle of the Christian life is to bring your own heart into alignment with Christ’s, that is, getting up each morning and replacing your natural orphan mind-set with a mind-set of full and free adoption into the family of God through the work of Christ your older brother, who loved you and gave himself for you out of the overflowing fullness of his gracious heart.

He then gives the illustration of a young boy growing up in a healthy, loving family.  As he matures, he tries to figure out how he can secure himself a place in the family.  One week he tries to create a new birth certificate for himself.  The next week he determines to spend all his extra time washing floors.  And on and on it goes.  Finally, his parents come to him and say, “what are you doing?”  He says, “I want to ensure I do all I can to secure my place in this family.”  How would you respond as a parent?  You’d say something like, “You don’t have to earn your way into this family!  You’re already part of this family.  You’re our son, no matter what.  So enjoy your sonship.” 

The truth of the matter is, we do exactly the same thing as Christians. God has done everything necessary to secure us a place in his family – at great cost.  He gave his own Son for us.  He forgave us of sin.  “To all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—” (John 1:12).  And what do we do?  We try – through self-effort and rule-keeping, to earn God’s love. 

Most of us are familiar with John Newton, the author of “Amazing Grace.”  In the year 1767, he wrote to a friend and said,

Are not you amazed sometimes that you should have so much as a hope, that, poor and needy as you are, the Lord thinks of you?  But let not all you feel discourage you; for if our Physician is almighty, our disease cannot be desperate; and if he casts none out who come to him, why should you fear?  Our sins are many—but his mercies are more. Our sins are great—but His righteousness is greater. We are weak—but he is power.  Most of our complaints are owing to unbelief, and the remainder of a legal spirit.

The “legal spirit” is Newton’s way of referring to legalism or works righteousness.  That’s when we try to win God’s favour by our good performance.  It never works.  It also directly opposed the gospel and kills our sense of Christ’s love for us.  We will never find rest this way. 

The only way to experience rest, peace, wholeness, flourishing – the equivalent of shalom in the Old Testament, is to remain secure in what Christ has already done for us and experience – on a daily basis, his ongoing love for us.  As Newton goes on to say to his friend,

The more you know him—the better you will trust him. The more you trust him—the better you will love him. The more you love him—the better you will serve him. This is God’s way. You are not called to buy—but to beg; not to be strong in yourself—but in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.

As Paul says the Galatians over in chapter 5, verse 1:

“For freedom, Christ set us free. Stand firm, then, and don’t submit again to a yoke of slavery.” 

We all need constant reminders that Christ has set us free so that we do not put ourselves under a yoke of slavery to works, self-righteousness and law-keeping.  Christianity is not a ‘self-help’ religion.  It’s a ‘Jesus has done it for me’ faith. 

If you have put your faith in Christ to save you, you are justified.  You are set free.  You don’t have to remain a slave.  You are a son or daughter of God.  So live like one.  Enjoy your freedom.  Stand firm in God’s grace.  Rest in the assurance of Christ’s love for you.  Live by faith the promises of the gospel. 

Then you can truly say to those around you, “I’m living the dream.” 

God’s glory and God’s heart

This is the fourth part of a series on The Heart of Christ.  See part 1 , part 2 and part 3

We’ve spent the majority of our study in this series looking at the person of Jesus; both his earthly ministry as the gracious teacher and healer and his heavenly ministry as our compassionate High Priest.  But what about the God the Father?  Does he share the same tender and compassionate heart of his Son, or is he somehow different – sterner, unyielding and unforgiving?

Some Christians might hesitate at this point, as their minds drift toward some passages in the Old Testament.  If they were honest, they would have a hard time reconciling the compassionate Jesus of the New Testament with what appears to be an angry, unforgiving God of the Old. 

This problem is nothing new.  It goes a long way back to the second century to an individual called Marcion.  Marcion refused to accept that the God of the Old Testament was the same as the One in the New.  In fact, he believed they were two separate beings – the former an angry tribal deity of the Jews, the latter a benevolent universal god who sent Jesus to offer the world nothing but love and mercy.

To support these beliefs, Marcion rejected all of the Old Testament and much of the New, keeping only a shortened version of the Gospel of Luke and 10 of Paul’s letters.  Everything else was out.  The majority of church fathers opposed him including Tertullian, Justin Martyr and Polycarp (who called him the firstborn of Satan).  He was excommunicated and then travelled the world peddling his own version of Christianity.  And he won a lot of converts.

Unfortunately, the spirit of Marcionism has not left us.  It’s alive and well in many churches today with Christians who would prefer to, in the words of one pastor, “unhitch Christianity from the Old Testament.” But the bible simply will not allow us to do that.

In John 14, Philip asks Jesus to show him and the other disciples the Father.  “Show us the Father,” he says, “and that’s enough for us.”  Jesus responds by saying,

 “Have I been among you all this time and you do not know me, Philip? The one who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?” (John 14:9–10)

The language Jesus uses here is that of mutual indwelling and emphasizes the unity of the first and second persons of the Trinity.  They are separate, yet they are one.  If we have known one, then we have also known the other.  As the Nicene Creed (which rejected the Marcion heresy) puts it, he is the…

“Only begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, light of light, very God of very God, begotten not made, being of one substance with the Father.”

You can’t put a division between God the Father and God the Son.  They are one and the same.  When you see the heart of Jesus, you’re seeing the heart of the Father.  You might say, “Then why do they appear to be so different?”  They only appear to be different because we are wearing the wrong glasses.  Put the right glasses on and everything becomes clear.  The self-revelation of God in the Old Testament naturally and beautifully flows into the New. 

There are many passages of Scripture we could turn to, but perhaps the most significant is found in the book of Exodus, chapter 34. 

Exodus 34

Moses had been called by God to lead his people out of Egypt to the Promised Land.  They had all witnessed – with their own eyes, the powerful hand of God in their midst: the parting of the Red Sea, the destruction of Pharoah’s army, the very presence and voice of God at Mount Sinai and much more.  Yet the people continue in their unbelief.  Moses, in direct contrast, can’t get enough of God.  In the highpoint of the story, he cries out to God, “Please, show me your glory” (Exodus 33:18)

When we speak of God’s glory, we are speaking of who God is, what he is like in his essence, what makes God God.  How does God respond?  “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim the name ‘the Lord’ before you” (verse 19).

Now doesn’t that appear a little strange to you?  We expect God to say, “I will cause all my greatness to pass in front of you.”  Isn’t greatness a far better description of his glory than goodness?  Apparently not.  God then tells Moses he will place him in a crevice of a rock, and he will let his glory pass by. Here’s what happens:

The Lord passed in front of him and proclaimed: The Lord—the Lord is a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in faithful love and truth, maintaining faithful love to a thousand generations, forgiving iniquity, rebellion, and sin. But he will not leave the guilty unpunished, bringing the consequences of the fathers’ iniquity on the children and grandchildren to the third and fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:6–7)

That text repeats itself many times throughout the Old Testament.  It is God’s self-disclosure.  In this disclosure, we see his heart.  And what is the first thing that comes out of God’s mouth?  “The LORD—the LORD is a compassionate (or merciful) and gracious….”  The bent of God’s heart is mercy and compassion.  When Jesus reveals his own heart in Matthew 11:29, what two words does he use?  “I am gentle (or lowly) and humble in heart.”  The phrases are very close in meaning.  

Furthermore, he is “slow to anger” – literally, “long of nostrils.”  Dane Ortlund, in his book Gentle and Lowly, describes an angry bull, pawing the ground, with nostrils flared.  That, he says, would be “short-nosed.”  God isn’t like that.  The OT speaks often of God being “provoked to anger,” but not once are we told that God is “provoked to love” or “provoked to mercy.”  “His anger requires provocation,” writes Ortlund, “his mercy is pent up, ready to gush forth.”  We are the opposite.  Anger comes naturally to us, but we need to be provoked to love and good deeds (Hebrews 10:24). 

“Abounding in faithful love.”  That’s the Hebrew word chesed, it speaks of loyal love, a love that will not let us go.  God doesn’t have this in small quantities; he abounds in it.

“Maintaining faithful love to a thousand generations.”  This doesn’t mean if you’re part of generation 1001, that’s it – you’re out of luck.  That’s God’s way of saying, “There’s no end date to my commitment to you.  You can’t outrun my mercy.”

And “bringing the consequences of the fathers’ iniquity on the children and grandchildren to the third and fourth generation” or, as some translations have, “visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children to the third and fourth generation.”  That’s a reminder that God is not a big softie.  There are consequences for our sinful choices and actions, and sometimes our families pay for it. 

But notice what God says. His covenant love flows down to a thousand generations, but he limits the consequences of sin to only to the 3rd or 4th generation.  Our sins get passed down to our children and grandchildren, but God’s faithful love flows on down forever.

Do you get a picture of who God is here?  Do you see his heart?  Mercy and love loom large.  Judgement is something that is necessary but limited.  That’s how he reveals his glory to Moses.  And when that glory is unveiled, what do we see?  We don’t have to guess.  John tells us in his gospel:

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. We observed his glory, the glory as the one and only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)

Conclusion

“Show us the Father,” Philip said to Jesus, “and that will be enough for us.”  Jesus tells Philip that God the Father has revealed himself – most notably in him. But Philip has failed to see it because he has made a division between Jesus and the Father.

What is Jesus like?  He is the perfect servant-king.  He uses his power not to exploit his people, but for their good.  He uses his strength to heal people, to defeat their sin, and their enemies, and even death itself on their behalf.  He is willing even to die so that they might be made whole.

That is what Jesus is like.  That is how Jesus uses his power.  And that is therefore also what God the Father is like as well.  He is the God who is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in faithful love.  His ways are not our ways, and his thoughts (toward us) are not like our thoughts (toward ourselves and others).  Even when we are at times – like the people of Israel, bent on turning from him, he will not turn from us. 

He will not give us up.  Ever. 

If you would like to view the message I gave on this post you can view it here (the message begins 2.50 mins in)

He Pleads for Us

This is the third part of a series on The Heart of Christ.  See part 1 and part 2.

I’m always encouraged when someone tells me they are praying for me. I’m an individual who is always in need of prayer!  But there is something even more encouraging, and that is knowing that Jesus is praying for me, as he is with all believers.  I’m not speculating here.  The bible clearly tells us this is part of his role as our heavenly high priest.     

The book of Hebrews is all about the Priesthood of Christ.  A priest is someone who mediates between man and God.  Human beings are prevented from direct access to God because of sin.  A priest’s job is to deal with the sin (by way of a sacrifice) and remove the guilt so that man can approach God and have fellowship with him.  That’s what the priests in the Old Testament did.  But they were imperfect.  They had their own sin to deal with.  And the sacrifices they offered couldn’t completely remove sin.

Jesus brought an end to all that.  He is the perfect priest who offered the perfect sacrifice (himself) to remove sin completely, and that never has to be repeated.  But that doesn’t mean his priestly work comes to an end.  His ministry continues.  And that is the point the author of Hebrews is making in these verses we are going to look at in Hebrews 7.  Let’s start at verse 23:

“Now many have become Levitical priests, since they are prevented by death from remaining in office. But because he remains forever, he holds his priesthood permanently. Therefore, he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, since he always lives to intercede for them.” (Hebrews 7:23–25, CSB)

The ESV translates verse 25 this way:

“Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.”

The phrase “to the uttermost” is the Greek word pantales.  It means completely, fully, wholly, entirely, comprehensively, to the full extent.  What point is the author trying to make here?  Why does he need to tell us Christ saves us completely, utterly, “all the way”?  Because he knows what half-hearted creatures we are.  We have trouble believing everything has been accomplished for our sin by Jesus.  We tell ourselves, “He saves for the most part those who draw near to God through him.”  There’s still a little more work to do – by us.               

But the text says Christ saves us completely.  His atoning work fully satisfies God.  God’s forgiving, redeeming touch reaches down into the darkest crevices of our souls – the most shameful places.  It is in these very places Jesus meets us, my friends.  You have to believe this.  He knows us fully and completely and saves us fully and completely because he loves us fully and completely.  As Dane Ortlund says, “we cannot sin our way out of his tender care.”

You say, “But how can we be sure of this? How can I know that Christ loves me completely and will save me completely?  The text tells us:

Therefore, he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, since he always lives to intercede for them.” (Hebrews 7:25)

The reason you can know this is because of his continuing work of intercession on your behalf.  So what does that mean?  An intercessor is someone who comes between two people as a third party and makes a case to one on behalf of the other.  Think of a negotiator in a business deal or a parent interceding to a teacher on behalf of a child.  In our case, Christ intercedes on our behalf to the Father.  You say, “But why does he need to do that?  Hasn’t he done all that is needed for our sin by his atoning work on the cross?  Weren’t his last words of the cross, ‘It is finished?’  Does this mean the Father wasn’t fully satisfied by his cross-bearing work?” 

Not at all.  The fact that Jesus prays for us does not in any way lessen his cross-bearing work, rather it reflects the completeness of his cross-bearing work.  Christ’s one-for-all sacrifice accomplished our salvation; intercession is the moment-by-moment application of that sacrifice.  This is reiterated by Paul in Romans 8:33-34:

“Who can bring an accusation against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies. Who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is the one who died, but even more, has been raised; he also is at the right hand of God and intercedes for us.” (Romans 8:33–34)

If you are in Christ, if you have trusted in his cross-bearing work for yourself, you are fully justified before God.  Nothing can change that.  His intercession reflects his heart toward us – his ongoing love toward us, by way of constantly pleading and reminding and prevailing upon his Father to always welcome us.  He is saying,

“Father, this child of yours sitting there, he needs a sense of your presence right now.  Will you make yourself known to him?  Father, this child over here, she is fearful about tomorrow, will you reveal yourself to her?  Father, this child is weighed down with guilt.  He needs to know your mercy.” 

You might say, “That almost sounds like Jesus is placating his Father and trying to warm his heart toward us.”  But that is not the case at all.  Dane Ortlund writes in his book Gentle and Lowly,

Each day, Jesus, your faithful High Priest, is obtaining supplies of fresh mercy and grace for your daily sins and your daily needs.  Isn’t that a comforting thought?

Jesus understands our weakness.  He knows our frailty.  He knows we continue to sin.  So, whenever I say a careless or thoughtless word to my wife, Jesus is right there, interceding to the Father on my behalf and says, “Father, don’t pay attention to that, it’s covered by my blood.”  When I become impatient with the driver in front of me or grieve the heart of God by loving things more than him, Jesus prays, “Father, don’t hold that against his account. He is mine.  I bought him.”   And the Father delights to hear him pray these things. 

Do you see how powerful this is?  Knowing that Jesus is constantly interceding for you?  “It is a consoling thought,” wrote theologian Louis Berkhof, “that Christ is praying for us, even we are negligent in our prayer life.” 

So, next time you are feeling weak and discouraged or you are lacking in faith, just picture in your mind Jesus praying for you in the next room.  It may very well change your day.

Note: Much of the content of this post was a result of reading and meditating on Dane Ortlund’s book Gentle and Lowly, a book I would highly recommend.

If you would like to view the message I gave on this post you can view it here (the message begins 5.12 mins in)

He is able to sympathize

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hebrews 4:14-16

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

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

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

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

This high priest knows.  He understands.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Heart of Christ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tender 

Open

Welcoming 

Accommodating

Accepting 

Understanding 

Considerate 

Supportive 

Empathetic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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


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

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

The Thriving Church

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

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

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

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

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

1. Unity

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Spiritual Maturity

“So the church… had peace and was strengthened”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Godly fear

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

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

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

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

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

4. Encouragement

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

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

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

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

5. Numerical Growth

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

Besetting Sins

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

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

Setting the Scene

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

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

I. Abraham’s deception (1-2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II. God’s intervention (3-7)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

III. Abimelech’s confrontation (8-17)

We pick up the story again in verse 8:

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

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

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

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

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

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

IV. Abraham’s intercession (18-20)

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

That’s God’s amazing grace!

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

Remember Lot’s Wife

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

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

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

1. Consider her privileges

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

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

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

2. Consider her error

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

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

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

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

3. Consider her end

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lessons from Lot

Genesis 19 is often used to address one of the hot-button issues of today: homosexuality.  But that is not the main focus of the passage, nor is it the main reason that God destroyed the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (see Ezekiel 16:48-50 for a full inventory of Sodom’s sins).  The central focus of this chapter is Abraham’s nephew Lot – his choices and compromises, the corrupting influence of the culture he lived in and the adverse effect this had on his moral judgment.

As W. H. Griffith Thomas once observed, “A ship in the water is perfectly right, but water in the ship would be perfectly wrong. The Christian in the world is right and necessary, but the world in the Christian is wrong and disastrous.”

How very true.  Lot is not the first individual in this world who paid the price for compromise, nor will he be the last.  When it comes down to it our culture is more like Sodom than we imagine, its influence over us is greater than we realize, and if God was to call us out of it (and he is), we would be just as reluctant to leave as Lot was.  To steal a popular phrase from our Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern: this is us. 

The ambiguous Lot

The New Testament gives us deeper insight into Lot.  The Apostle Peter says that he was “distressed by the depraved behaviour of the immoral,” and “his righteous soul was tormented by the lawless deeds he saw and heard” day by day (2 Peter 2:7-8).  

Lot was a believer.  He is referred to by the Apostle Peter as “righteous Lot” three times.  But Lot was a soul in torment. He lived in constant conflict.  He was both drawn and repulsed by Sodom.  He liked the prosperity and the comforts the culture provided, but he hated the evil things that people did.  He was desperate to protect his guests, but he was also desperate to keep the peace with the men of the city.  So desperate, that he was willing to give his daughters over to them to do with them whatever they pleased. 

Lot’s problems began some years ago with the choices that he made.  Over the past 4 chapters we see a gradual progression:

  1. First, Lot looks toward Sodom (13:10).  That’s when he parted ways with Abraham and took the best-looking land.
  2. Second, we read that he pitched his tent near Sodom (13:12).  He wants to be close to the action.  Lot loves the city lights and opportunities the city offers.
  3. Then third, we find him living in Sodom itself (14:12).  He’s made it his home.
  4. And now, here, we find him in a leading role in Sodom (19:1)

Those who “sat at the gate” of a city had an influential role in the governance of that city.  Now, let me point out there’s nothing wrong with having an influential role in Sodom or any other town or city in our world.  Christians need to live in a place like Sodom so they can share the gospel and be a godly influence there.  But God doesn’t want us making it our home.  And that was Lot’s mistake.   

Lot’s lingering

It is interesting, when reading the account, to see Lot’s reluctance to leave Sodom.  The angels are urging him to flee the city lest he too be swept away in God’s judgment.  “Get up!,” they cry, “Take your wife and your two daughters who are here, or you will be swept away in the punishment of the city” (Genesis 19:15). Then we read in verse 16, “But he hesitated.”  I like how the ESV puts it, “But he lingered.”  Why such hesitation?  Why did he linger?  He knew of the terrible state of the city in which he lived.  He knew God’s judgment was about to come upon it.  And yet he lingered.  The angels had just spoken to him, warning and urging him to leave.  And yet he lingered. 

It almost seems incredible.  We want to shake him – “Lot – wake up man, what are you doing?”  And yet, as incredible as it seems, there are many of God’s people today who are very much like Lot.  J.C. Ryle in his book The Holiness of God provides a powerful application of this in our own lives:

Mark this well! There are many real children of God who know far more than they live up to and see far more than they practice — and yet continue in this state for many years. Incredibly, they go as far as they do and yet go no further!

They believe in Heaven — and yet seem faintly to long for it. They believe in Hell — and yet seem little to fear it. They love the Lord Jesus — but the work they do for Him is small. They hate the devil — but they often appear to tempt him to come to them. They know the time is short — but they live as if it were long.

They know they have a battle to fight — yet one might think they were at peace. They know they have a race to run — yet they often look like people sitting still. They know the Judge is at the door, and there is wrath to come — and yet they appear half asleep!

These are those who get into their heads false ideas of charity, as they call it. They are morbidly afraid of being illiberal and narrow-minded. They would gladly please everybody, and suit everybody, and be agreeable to everybody. But they forget that they ought first to be sure that they please God.

These are those who cannot find it in their hearts to quarrel with their besetting sin, whether it be sloth, indolence, ill-temper, pride, selfishness, impatience or whatever it may be. They allow it to remain a tolerably quiet and undisturbed tenant of their hearts. They say it is their health, or their constitutions, or their temperaments, or their trials or their way. Their father or mother or grandmother was so before themselves, and they are sure they cannot help it. And when you meet after the absence of a year or so — you hear the same thing!

But all, all, all may be summed up in one single sentence. They are [brothers] and sisters of Lot! They linger!

Lot’s losses

There might be some who would say, “We shouldn’t look at this so negatively.  After all, Lot was saved, he got to go to heaven.  Isn’t that what we should be concerned about?  Shouldn’t every Christian say, ‘as long as I get to heaven, I will be content.’”  Yes, it is a wonderful thing to be assured of heaven.  But if that is your only goal, that is a sad thing.  It is unlikely you will live a life that is honouring to God and at the end of your life there will be things you regret. 

Let us consider some of Lot’s losses and see if we can gain some wisdom from it.  What exactly did Lot lose?

1. He lost his influence. Lot lived in Sodom for many years.  No doubt he had many opportunities to speak about God and try to turn people to God.  But what evidence do we have that anything came of it?  No one cared for his opinion or his judgment.  He had no credibility even with his own sons-in-law to be.  When he tried to convince them about the coming judgment, they thought he was joking (verse 14).  His life carried no weight; his words were ignored and his testimony powerless.

2. He lost his moral judgement.  As the pressure of his surroundings strengthened, his resolve weakened.  One compromise led to another and then another and another. When nothing is white or black and everything is grey, it’s hard to know right from wrong.  He was prepared to give away his daughters in order to save face with his contemporaries.  Clearly, he had lost all moral judgment. 

3. He lost his family.  He lost his daughters and their husbands in Sodom. He lost his wife as she looked back at the city when it was destroyed.  

4. He lost his home.  Sodom went up in smoke. All the material goods that Lot had acquired were now gone.  Everything he lived for and worked for – his investments, his treasured possessions – all gone. 

5. He lost any lasting legacy.  Little is said about Lot after this chapter.  We don’t know where he died, or when he died, whether he saw Abraham again, what was the manner of his death, what he said or what he thought.  We are told of the last days of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, David — but not one word about Lot.  He left no mark, no godly influence and nothing worthy to be remembered. 

Later in the passage, we have the sordid account of Lot’s daughters getting him drunk in a cave and having sex with him (Genesis 19:30-38).  The descendants of those incestuous relationships would become the tribes – the Moabites and Ammonites, that would be at war with the Israelites for centuries.  Lot’s life didn’t just affect him, because our choices don’t just affect us.  They got his wife and future sons-in-law killed and ruined the lives of his daughters and future grandchildren for generations. 

Conclusion

Sometimes Scripture is given to comfort us.  Sometimes it is there to encourage us.  And other times it is for warning us.  This is one of those times.  It doesn’t do us much good to moan and complain about the spiritual and moral degeneracy of our culture.  What we need to be doing is examining our own lives.  Where are we compromising with the world?  What are some areas where we are starting to drift?  What behaviours that are not pleasing to God are we are ignoring or rationalizing away? 

These things must not discourage us. The Lord Jesus is the Good Shepherd; he knows how to deal with his sheep.  He knows how to cure them of disease and heal them of their wounds.  Look what he did with the backslidden Peter.  He restored him and put him back into service.  Do not doubt but believe in his grace and his mercy.  He has the power to revive the sorriest soul. 

If you are not a Christian, you do need to take this passage seriously.  The destruction of Sodom is a picture of what God will do to the whole world at the end of the age.  God’s judgment is coming.  The ship is going to sink, the buildings are going to burn, and everything you see is going down.  But here’s the good news: there is a way of escape.  Jesus Christ has taken our place in judgment and if you will repent of your sins and put your trust in Christ; if you will look to him and flee to him, he will save you.  He will rescue you. 

So flee to him today. 

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