My favourite texts: Clay Jars

In 1947, a young Bedouin shepherd tossed a rock into a cave at Qumram near the Dead Sea. He heard a cracking sound and investigated. To his amazement, he found clay jars filled with papyrus and leather scrolls almost 20 centuries old. Tens of thousands more scroll fragments were discovered in nearby caves. These treasures had been preserved by a Jewish sect called the Essenes, before the Romans destroyed their settlement in 68AD. The Dead Sea scrolls contain most of the Old Testament books, including two full copies of Isaiah. In Biblical times, valuables like sacred parchments, money and jewels were often placed inside cheap, ordinary clay jars to safeguard and pass on to future generations. Unlike their costly contents, there was nothing fancy about these clay jars, which were made from sand and cracked easily. They were humble, transient household vessels to steward an enduring treasure. This is what Paul’s readers in Corinth understood when they read 2 Corinthians 4, especially verse 7:

For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. 11 For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. 12 So death is at work in us, but life in you. (2 Cor 4:5-12).

Treasure in clay jars

From the whole chapter, it is clear that Paul’s “treasure” is the gospel of the suffering, crucified and risen Christ. It is a message to be safeguarded and passed on through ordinary Christians like us, who live and speak for Jesus, as He lives in and through us.

As a Christian, it is easy to think that we will live for Christ in the next phase of life, when troubles ease up, or we are stronger, older, wiser and better trained to be his witness. It’s easy to see ourselves as his vessel in church or on mission trips, but not behind the kitchen sink, our desk, our car’s steering wheel or in a hospital bed.

But jars of clay are by definition unimpressive, ordinary and easily broken. They are common household objects made from dust, as we are. The power is not in the container, but in its life-giving contents. Credit is not due to the storyteller, but to God’s great, eternal story, whose protagonist is Jesus (2 Cor 4:5). According to Paul, God’s glory is most vividly seen when His people showcase the life and death of Jesus. Ironically, Christ is revealed not apart from our ordinary lives, but in and through them.

Paul’s clay jar

I’m skeptical of people who speak of things outside their personal life experience. (Like me telling my kids all about the wonders of Maths when I can barely add two and two!) But today’s text rings true, because of the life of the man who wrote it. Paul knew a thing or two about being a battered, undistinguished clay jar. And he knew firsthand that the costly “treasure” entrusted to him on the Damascus road had power to give life to the dead; sight to the spiritually blind; worth to the worthless, and forgiveness to even the worst sinner— Saul of Tarsus, persecutor of God’s people.

Since the day he saw the ‘face’ of the risen Christ and was blinded by God’s light, all that mattered to Paul was magnifying Jesus, who suffered and died in his place. It was the undeserved grace of God that motivated him through rejection and hardships that we can barely imagine—painful floggings, hard labour, shipwrecks, near-death experiences, sleepless nights, hunger and thirst, robbery, a snake bite, exposure in the seas and wilderness (2 Cor 11:23-30Acts 17:5). Added to this were the plots of the Jews (Acts 20:19) and painful attacks of false apostles who undermined his work in Corinth. They boasted of super-spiritual credentials and mocked Paul’s weakness and afflictions as proof that he was not spiritual enough. Yet, knowing that further suffering and imprisonment awaited him, Paul continued to serve the Lord Jesus with single-minded passion. He knew he was a weak vessel through whom Christ lived:  “However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace” (Acts 20:24 NIV).

Quite literally, Paul’s suffering and death for the gospel brought eternal life to millions of believers like us around the world (2 Cor 4:12).

Clay jars that serve

I can hear you say, “But I am nothing like the legendary Paul! I’m exhausted by the mere sight of a map of his missionary journeys! ” I feel the same way.

But the real Paul did not see himself as a legend at all, just a servant of the Lord (2 Cor 4:5). He served with “weakness, fear and much trembling.” He refused to peddle the gospel for his own fame or money, but just spoke directly and sincerely (2 Cor 2:17). He was not eloquent, wise or persuasive, but relied on the Spirit to bring life, so that the faith of his converts would not rest in man’s wisdom, but in God’s power alone (1 Cor 2:3-5).

Paul did not glory in his weaknesses and inadequacies, his sufferings and persecutions as a victim would do, but he knew that they were no barrier to God’s use. His competence and worth came from Christ alone, not himself. And unlike the super-apostles, he had no aspirations to be more than a clay jar.

Do we have the same attitude as Paul? Revealing the “face” of Christ is not only for apostles, missionaries or pastors. You are a uniquely placed jar, with a brief lifespan and singular opportunities that you alone will experience. When last did you talk to someone about the goodness of God in your life, or invite them to tell you their story (Ps 107:2)? Do people see that you find refuge and satisfaction in Christ, and rely on him to meet your needs? Do they watch you believing God when you are weak? Do they know that you find peace and joy in His presence, even when your circumstances are hard? Do they see you love and serve people without expecting affirmation? Have you ever thought of reading one of the gospels with a friend to re-discover the beauty of Jesus’s “face” together? Do you have hope when those around you have lost theirs?

All these “ordinary” things spotlight God’s glory and magnify the face of His Son. They also encourage other Christians in their faith.

In The Hobbit, Galadriel asks Gandalf why he brought Bilbo Baggins, a small weak hobbit, on a dangerous journey. Gandalf replies,

“Saruman believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keeps the darkness at bay, small acts of love. Why Bilbo Baggins? Perhaps it is because I am afraid, and he gives me courage.”

Clay jars that crack

In verse 7-12, Paul spotlights Christ’s power, which is most evident when we are weakest and unable to help ourselves. After all, Jesus did not come to gather the proud, but rather the poor and the destitute, the sick and the outcasts– those who were willing to repent of self importance. It’s no surprise then that our greatest strength and victory in the Christian life comes through hardship, not apart from it. The treasure of Christ shines brightest through the widest cracks in our clay pots.

That’s why Paul can make these four profound statements about every believer through whom Christ lives—Afflicted… but not crushed. Perplexed… but not in despair. Persecuted… but not forsaken. Struck down… but not destroyed (2 Cor 4:8-9). This is how Paul might answer us in our own afflictions:

Paul, I feel squeezed from every side. I’m oppressed by this darkness and can see no relief on the horizon.

“Yes, you’re hard pressed…and so was your Saviour. He bore your afflictions on the cross and stripped them of their power to crush you (Isa 53:4Matt 8:17). That’s why you’re a conqueror through Him who endured the cross for you (Rom 8:37).

Paul, I’m bewildered and confused, and don’t know what to do next. I can’t even pray.

“Yes, you’re perplexed…but Jesus is never confused. His Spirit will help and counsel you. He will strengthen and intercede in your stumbling prayers, until he has completed the work he began in you (John 14:26Phil 1:6Rom 8:26). Nothing in this world has the power to drive you to despair. Through Christ in you, you will overcome.”

Paul, I can’t take the mocking and criticism anymore. I feel a fool for believing you and the Bible, and I don’t know if I can keep standing for you any longer.

“Yes, you are persecuted for owning Christ’s name…but for His sake, you are blessed by God and never abandoned. “Lo, I will be with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt 5:10-12Matt 28:20). Nothing can separate you from God’s love in Christ” (Rom 8:39).

Paul, what if I’m knocked flat on my face by the unthinkable? What if the worst happens?

“Yes, you may be knocked down…but never knocked out. Jesus endured the unthinkable and rose to conquer it. If you are in Him and He in you, nothing can destroy you (1 Cor 4:10-12). He will fill you with joy in his presence, with eternal pleasures at His right hand” (Ps 16:11).

Broken jars that overcome.

Thank the Lord that our lives are not always dark and difficult! The Maker of all good things showers us with sweet pleasures and simple treasures to enjoy every day (Eccl 11:7-8). But we must never buy the lie that ‘victory’ always means sanctuary or deliverance from the troubles of life. That would have made Paul the most defeated Christian and Jesus the most pathetic failure that ever lived. We don’t have to wait for the “perfect” moment to show Christ’s face. That would be like a clay jar saying, “Wait until I’m painted and glazed, or until I’ve mended my cracks!” If He is our Treasure, out of our broken clay pots will come the radiance of Christ himself. That is victory.

Yet not I, but through Christ in me

Listen and pray the beautiful words of CityLight’s hymn, “Yet Not I, but Through Christ in Me”,

What gift of grace is Jesus my redeemer
There is no more for heaven now to give
He is my joy, my righteousness, and freedom
My steadfast love, my deep and boundless peace

To this I hold, my hope is only Jesus
For my life is wholly bound to His
Oh how strange and divine, I can sing: all is mine!
Yet not I, but through Christ in me

The night is dark but I am not forsaken
For by my side, the Saviour He will stay
I labour on in weakness and rejoicing
For in my need, His power is displayed

To this I hold, my Shepherd will defend me
Through the deepest valley He will lead
Oh the night has been won, and I shall overcome!
Yet not I, but through Christ in me

No fate I dread, I know I am forgiven
The future sure, the price it has been paid
For Jesus bled and suffered for my pardon

And He was raised to overthrow the grave

To this I hold, my sin has been defeated

Jesus now and ever is my plea

Oh the chains are released, I can sing: I am free!

Yet not I, but Christ in me.

With every breath I long to follow Jesus

For he has said that he will take me home

And day by day I know he will renew me

Until I stand with joy before the throne

To this I hold my hope is only Jesus

All the glory evermore to Him

When the race is complete, still my lips will repeat:

Yet not I but through Christ in me!

Amen.

(words and music by Jonny Robinson, Rich Thompson and Michael Farren.

Habakkuk’s Hope

Though the fig tree should not blossom,
    nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
    and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
    and there be no herd in the stalls,
18 yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
    I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
19 God, the Lord, is my strength;
    he makes my feet like the deer’s;
    he makes me tread on my high places.

To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments (Habakkuk 3:17-19)

The last three weeks may have convinced you that Habakkuk was a prophet of doom, not hope. After all, his nation is corrupt to the core and God is about to punish them through the Babylonians. Habakkuk’s job is to tell Judah of impending disaster and then wait in faith and faithfulness. But surprisingly, Habakkuk’s oracle ends on a note of confidence, joy and hope. Even triumph. Is Habakkuk’s hope just wishful thinking or naïve optimism? I don’t think so. The prophet’s beautiful closing hymn is realistic about the coming desolation of his homeland. He knows that the land’s barrenness is the outcome of Judah’s sin. But Habakkuk’s hope is based on Yahweh himself. The Lord is his salvation… his strength…his joy. Though crops and everything else may fail, the God of his salvation will never fail.

The source of Habakkuk’s hope

Habakkuk’s hope springs from Yahweh’s character, his acts and promises. He rehearses God’s great acts of salvation in the past (Hab 3:2). He catches a glimpse of the holy Judge and Ruler of the earth, before whom all humanity is accountable (Hab 2:20Hab 3:16). He is convinced that God will show mercy to his believing remnant (Hab 2:4Hab 3:2). And he is assured that the whole earth will one day be filled with the Lord’s glory, as extensively as waters cover the sea (Hab 2:14). Despite desolation, the prophet draws joy and strength from his certain hope in the God of his salvation (Hab 3:18-19).

Judah’s curse is universal

Although Habakkuk’s message is deeply rooted in Judah 600AD, it has timeless value for God’s people in every generation. Like Habakkuk, we too live in a world where things have gone horribly wrong. Pete and I often joke that Habakkuk 3:17-18 should be adapted for marriage vows or business partnerships– a vivid picture of “for better or for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health!” Earthly prosperity and human flourishing is fragile at best.

Habakkuk 3:17 is the antithesis of the blessings Yahweh offered His people if they walked in his ways (Deuteronomy 28:1-12). God’s blessings and curses were demonstrated in the land of Canaan, the homeland of milk and honey promised to Abraham and his descendants (Gen 15:18-21Gen 26:328:13Ex 23:31). It was supposed to be a land of fruitfulness, fertility, freedom and favour.

But Habakkuk pictures a land that is nothing like the bread basket of Judah and Israel under king Solomon (1 Kings 4:20-21). Instead, it is a basket case, in bondage to ruthless enemies, marked by frustration, failure and famine. Despite all this, Habakkuk ends his oracle on a note of confidence and joy—even triumph (Hab 3:18-19). The prophet’s hope in suffering sounds a lot like Paul’s in Romans 8:

“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience….37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:18-2537-39).

Earth’s curse and a hopeful longing

Just as the first human stewards of the earth fell in Genesis 3, all Creation fell with them. Paul isn’t just being dramatic or pessimistic about the earth groaning as if in labour, captured in the continuous cycle of death and decay. He is realistic about his world, just as Habakkuk was about his homeland.

Personally, I love the beauty of this world. I love marriage, family and friendships. I love good food and laughter and my dogs. I have hope for the future. But I know that this world will never meet the infinite longings of my heart. Bodies get sick and die. Good people lose everything. Work is hard, and hard workers lose their jobs. Nature is threatened by man’s poor stewardship, and natural disasters strike back.

Christians who pretend that we will experience only victory and abundance in this life pour salt on the wounds of real people. Augustine reminds us that so much of our restlessness and disappointment is the result of trying to convince ourselves we are already home.

Curse in reverse

But Paul’s conquering spirit arises from his hope of future restoration. He imagines the labour of creation culminating in new birth. The Bible speaks of the dramatic, visible day of the Lord, when every inch of creation, including our bodies, will be fully liberated, resurrected and re-created (1 Cor 15:521 Thess 4:16)! The blessings we enjoy now on earth as children of God are just a foretaste of the abundant harvest that awaits us when the sons of God are revealed (Rom 8:1923). It is good to think about our homeland and to know that the best is yet to come!

Living with hope

Our hope for the future is not built on wishful thinking, but on the blood-bought certainty that God has never abandoned his plans for us and the earth. The God of Habbakuk established His rule among men through His Messiah-King 2000 years ago. Christ defeated Satan and is bringing reconciliation, redemption and restoration to the earth, one heart and one life at a time. He is gathering His redeemed people from the four corners of the earth and transforming them into His image, by his Spirit (2 Cor 3:18). Restoration is taking place under our very noses, though it is often silent and subtle. And God uses his redeemed people as his tools of restoration.

That’s why William Wilberforce made it his life’s work to end slavery and reform healthcare, education and prisons in the 18th century. That’s why Helen Roseveare left England to start mission hospitals and training colleges in the Congo in the 20th century. It’s why Love Trust and Nokuphila schools exist today in Tembisa. It’s why we pray and labour for revival in our time, as Habakkuk did (Hab 3:2).

And it’s why we wait with longing and expectancy for the Lord Jesus to return at the close of history (Rom 8:19). On that triumphant day, Christ will fully and finally destroy his enemies and deliver his people and all creation from evil. He will establish his eternal rule in the new heavens and new earth where only righteousness dwells (2 Peter 3:13). The holy city, the new Jerusalem will come out of heaven and God will dwell with his people on earth. They will be His people and He will be their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes and bring a final end to death and pain (Rev 21:1-6Rev 21:22-29).

As Greg Beale puts it, “New creation is the goal or purpose of God’s redemptive-historical plan. New creation is the logical main point of Scripture.”

I love reading the final hymn of Habakkuk alongside Romans 8, because it unites tragedy with triumph for those who have placed their faith in God’s Messiah–the “adopted heirs” of God (Rom 8:15-17). The heaviness of our worst suffering is outweighed by the infinite mass of eternal glory. Faith in God’s Saviour is the only basis for true hope.

Randy Alcorn’s book, titled Heaven, urges us to think more of our new homeland on earth, where our hearts will be fully and finally satisfied in the God of our salvation. This was Habakkuk’s hope, and it’s ours too.

Worship

Listen to There is a Day by Lou Fellingham, based on 1 Cor 15:52:

“In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.”

Extracts from Heaven, by Randy Alcorn:

“In Genesis, the Redeemer is promised; in Revelation, the Redeemer returns. Genesis tells the story of Paradise lost; Revelation tells the story of Paradise regained. In Genesis, man and woman fail as earth’s rulers; in Revelation righteous humanity rules the new earth, under King Jesus. The river of the water of life, flowing from the throne of God, and the tree of life, now a forest of life, growing on both sides of the river (Revelation 21:1–2). That’s a picture of the New Eden, located in the heart of the New Jerusalem. Satan and sin will not thwart God’s plan!

In Acts 3:21 Peter said that Christ must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets. What does it mean that one day God will restore everything? Read the prophets: you’ll see how God promises to restore earth itself to Eden-like conditions (Isaiah 35:151:355:13Ezekiel 36:35)…

I am convinced that the typical view of heaven — eternity in a disembodied state — is not only completely contrary to the Bible but obscures the far richer truth: that God promises us eternal life as totally healthy, embodied people more capable of worship, friendship, love, discovery, work, and play than we have ever been. Don’t wait until you die to believe that. Believing it now will change how you think, how you view the people around you, and what you do with your time and money, which are really God’s…

The bucket-list mentality reveals an impoverished view of redemption. Even Christians end up thinking, If I can’t live my dreams now, I never will. Or, You only go around once. But if you know Jesus, you go around twice — and the second time lasts forever. It’s called “eternal life,” and it will be lived in a redeemed universe with King Jesus. We do not pass our peaks in this life. The best is yet to come. “

 

Habakkuk: As the waters cover the sea

For the earth will be filled
with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea. (Habakkuk 2:14)

Imagine you take a cruise from Durban harbour and end up in a life raft in the middle of the Indian Ocean! As far as the horizon, all you see is water. Put aside images of sharks, punctures, storms and dehydration for a moment, and imagine yourself floating blissfully around the horn of Africa, into the vast Atlantic Ocean. You are experiencing a tiny sample of the inter-connected system of the Earth’s five Oceans and many smaller seas, which cover 361 132 000 square kilometres, a volume of roughly 1332 million cubic kilometres. At its deepest, the ocean is 10km and 71% of the earth’s surface is water. That’s a lot of water!

Yet the Lord gives Habakkuk this all-encompassing image to describe how the knowledge of His glory will stream and seep, trickle and gush, roll and crash like the ocean–until it fills the whole earth. It is a remarkable declaration by the Lord that His everlasting Kingdom will flood the entire earth.

A remarkable promise

And it is even more remarkable, given what is happening in Habakkuk’s world: Let’s remind ourselves that Habakkuk is a prophet to the small eastern-Mediterranean kingdom of Judah, in around 600AD. He is bravely proclaiming God’s judgment on Judah and her Babylonian captors, on the cusp of the final Babylonian onslaught in 597BC. His oracle from the Lord is a great ‘burden’ to bear. In a short while, Jerusalem would be besieged, its temple pillaged and 10 000 of its strongest and brightest deported to Babylon. None would remain in Judah except the old and destitute. Yet Habakkuk sensed that neither Jehoikim nor Nebuchadnezzar were truly on the throne: “The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him” (Hab 2:20). For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea (Habakkuk 2:14). For Habakkuk there was only one King.

How then could Habakkuk suppose that Yahweh’s fame would ripple to the ends of the earth, as he watched the last of God’s people caught like fish in King Nebuchadnezzar’s dragnet (Hab 1:14-17)? How could the righteous continue to live by faith– in exile (Hab 2:4)? The answer can be found in God’s promise to restore His people and all of creation.

Habakkuk 2:14 is an echo of a promise of restoration that reverberates through the corridors of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation. They are the hopeful words of the prophet Isaiah a hundred years before, despite the annihilation of the northern kingdom of Israel by Assyria in 722BC.

Isaiah 11:1-10:

There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.
And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him,
the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and might,
the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide disputes by what his ears hear,
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist,
and faithfulness the belt of his loins.

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together;
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze;
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra,
and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den.
They shall not hurt or destroy
in all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord
    as the waters cover the sea.

10 In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious.

Thy Kingdom come

In Isaiah 11, the prophet sees a vision of God’s anointed Messiah-King. He is not just ruling over heaven, but over a restored earth, where the effects of sin’s curse have been reversed. There is no predator and prey. No death and oppression. No injustice and wickedness. This wise and good King is a descendant of King David (Jesse’s son), like a fallen ‘stump’ of a kingdom that grows into a fruitful tree. The King is also the righteous and powerful Judge, who bores into the human heart and rules with perfect equity. God’s Kingdom of justice and peace is not just for Israel, but extends to the whole world, for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

The scope of the remainder of Isaiah’s vision is just as breathtaking– God’s new King will gather up his scattered, redeemed people from all over the world in a new exodus, like a path through the Red Sea (Isa 11:11-1415-16).

A signal for the peoples

The New Testament leaves no doubt that Jesus Christ is God’s promised King (Luke 4:18-1921Luke 1:31-33Rom 1:1-4).

The prophets did not have a clear picture of what the “signal (or “banner”) for the peoples” would look like, nor how the nations would rally to him (Isa 11:10). Or when “that day” would be.

They did not live to see the good news of the kingdom proclaimed to Jews and Gentiles around the world. They did not hear the Lord Jesus teach that his Kingdom was like a tiny mustard seed that would grow into a big tree, a home to many birds perching in its branches (Luke 13:19). They did not see Jesus seeking out a Samaritan woman or the Gentiles “forcing their way into the kingdom” (Luke 16:16Matt 11:12). Like us, the prophets were not amongst Christ’s first-century followers commissioned to go forth and multiply– to make disciples of all nations to the ends of the earth (Matt 26:16-20).

But Old Testament believers saw glimpses of God’s epic Kingdom, like the shaft of light in Habakkuk 2:14. They knew that one day all the nations would worship before the Lord. Every knee would bow, and every tongue would swear allegiance to Him (Isa 45:23). God’s glory would be declared among all the peoples of the world (Ps 86:9Ps 96:37-8). The peaceful reign of God’s King would extend past humanity, to all of creation (Hosea 2:18). Isaiah 60, 65, 66; Ezekiel 48 and Daniel 7 give Old Testament snapshots of God’s immense glory as King of the universe.

Living in the “now,” but “not yet”

As New Testament believers, we look back to the gospel ‘banner’, but we’re still looking forward to the fullness of the promise to Habakkuk —“the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” Christ is reigning in heaven right now (Heb 1:3Acts 7:56). But the Apostle Peter reminds us that Jesus must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything, as He promised long ago through his prophets (Acts 3:21). That restoration will be visible, spectacular and indisputable, when the King of Kings returns to earth in glory, and every knee in heaven and on earth bows before Him (Phil 2:10-11). Before then, all creation groans under the curse of sin, and there is no utopia on earth.

But we see the kingdom coming each time a sinner comes to a saving knowledge of God, through faith in Christ. We see the earth being filled with God’s glory when a missionary goes out to the far corners of the world, or when a life-giving sermon is preached at home. We see God’s kingdom coming to earth each time you share Jesus by word and deed, in the messy streets of life. Each time you bring the King’s kindness, justice, wisdom and harmony to a world that groans from the fall (1 Peter 2:12). Each time you create or appreciate beauty. Each time you restore something broken. Each time you take captive a thought that opposes Christ’s reign in your life (2 Cor 10:3-5).

How big is your God, and where do you see yourself in relation to His Kingdom? Do you consider faith to be just a private matter, or do you see yourself as part of the diverse throng of worshippers John describes in Revelation? Do you see yourself as an active citizen in His Majesty’s service?– “A kingdom and priests to serve our God, and reign on the earth.”

And they sang a new song, saying:

“You are worthy to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
and with your blood you purchased for God
persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.

You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
and they will reign on the earth.”

In a loud voice they were saying:

“Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength
and honor and glory and praise!” (Rev 5:9-10;12)

Join us next week as we look at the last few verses of Habakkuk and turn our hearts to the final renewal of all creation. The best is yet to come!

Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen. (1 Tim 1:17)

Worship as you listen to All Glory Be to Christ. It is sung to the tune of Auld Lang Syne!

JC Ryle:

“The second coming of Christ shall be utterly unlike the first. He came the first time in weakness, a tender infant, born of a poor woman in the manger at Bethlehem, unnoticed, unhonored, and scarcely known. He shall come the second time in royal dignity, with the armies of heaven around Him, to be known, recognized and feared, by all the tribes of the earth.

“He came the first time to suffer – to bear our sins, to be reckoned a curse, to be despised, rejected, unjustly condemned and slain. He shall come the second time to reign – to put down every enemy beneath His feet, to take the kingdom of this world for His inheritance, to rule them with righteousness, to judge all men and to live forevermore.”

Habakkuk– The righteous shall live by faith

Paul tells us that the gospel of Jesus Christ was promised beforehand through prophets (Romans 1:2). Their revelations were deeper and wider and richer than they could have ever imagined at the time. Last week we met the prophet Habakkuk, who lived in Judah at the end of the sixth century, when injustice and violence were rife among God’s people. Judah’s King, Jehoikim, was a despot who abused his own people and murdered the prophets who dared to tell him the truth (Jer 22:13-14 and Jer 26:20-24). Habakkuk’s message of judgment stands against the backdrop of the Mosaic covenant between Yahweh and the people He redeemed from slavery in Egypt: God’s people would enjoy blessings of fruitfulness, freedom and fellowship if they followed God’s ways, but if they rejected his laws, God would set his face against them and allow their enemies to rule over them (Lev 26; Deut 28). When we zoom in on the three poetic chapters of Habakkuk, it is by no means a good-news story, but a message of impending doom and disaster for Judah, and many more woes for their Babylonian captors. But Habakkuk’s story is set within the Bible’s great story from Genesis to Revelation –the story of Creation, Fall, Redemption and Re-creation. If we look closely, the prophet’s ‘burden’ opens small apertures of light, which point to a vista far more amazing than its original context in 600BC– The gospel of God’s kingdom and His final restoration of all creation.

Look at the nations and be utterly amazed!

In chapter 1, this is how God begins to answer Habakkuk’s question, “How long will injustice prevail?”

“Look among the nations, and see;
    wonder and be astounded.
For I am doing a work in your days
    that you would not believe if told.
For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans,
    that bitter and hasty nation,
who march through the breadth of the earth,
    to seize dwellings not their own…

 They gather captives like sand.
10 At kings they scoff,
    and at rulers they laugh.
They laugh at every fortress,
    for they pile up earth and take it.
11 Then they sweep by like the wind and go on,
    guilty men, whose own might is their god!”

(Hab 1:5-610-11)

In chapter 2, God replies to Habakkuk’s second question, “Why do you tolerate evil?”

And the Lord answered me:

“Write the vision;
    make it plain on tablets,
    so he may run who reads it.
For still the vision awaits its appointed time;
    it hastens to the end—it will not lie.
If it seems slow, wait for it;
    it will surely come; it will not delay.

“Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him,
    but the righteous shall live by his faith.

Habakkuk 1:5 is often quoted by Christians to talk about wonderful feats that God is performing in our day. This is true, but first we must grasp that the ‘astounding things’ God announced in this prophecy meant imminent disaster for God’s people in Habakkuk’s day. God was true to his word: Babylon conquered Egypt and Assyria to become the world power. Jerusalem fell to King Nebuchadnezzar in 586BC. God did not ignore King Jehoikim’s arrogance. As Jeremiah had foretold, there was no funeral or mourning for Judah’s despot when he died. Instead, the proud leader ended his days a captive, leaving behind a shameful legacy of dishonest gain, oppression, extortion and violence (Jer 22:17-19). God judged the ruthless Babylonians, when Cyrus the Great of Persia, captured Babylon in 538BC, and ended the exile. As the Lord had promised Habakkuk, his revelation was fulfilled at His appointed time. Though it lingered, it came with irresistible power (Hab 2:3). God’s eyes were not closed to evil after all.

What about the faithful?

But what about faithful people like Daniel and his friends who were carried off into captivity in Babylon? What about the people of God who prayed, but were still swallowed up like little fish in a fisherman’s net? (Hab 1:17) Did God forget them?

Habakkuk 2:4 reassures us that this is not the case:

Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him,
    but the righteous shall live by his faith.

God describes two kinds of people here. One is proud and confident in himself, and the other humbly trusts in God’s provision. Is this an insignificant insight? Paul didn’t think so, as he quotes Habakkuk 2:4twice as the heartbeat of the gospel. The writer of Hebrews also cites it to motivate God’s people to keep trusting the Lord even in suffering and persecution. If Habakkuk 2:4 is a segment of God’s whole story, we need to turn to the New Testament to connect faith and righteousness.

The righteous shall live by their faith.

16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.” (Rom 1:16-17)

 10 For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” 11 Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” 12 But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” 13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— 14 so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith. (Gal 3:10-14)

36 For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised. 37 For,

“Yet a little while,
    and the coming one will come and will not delay;
38 but my righteous one shall live by faith,” (Heb 10:36-38a)

The prophet Habakkuk stood six hundred years before the birth of Jesus, but through his porthole of history, he knew that God is holy and just, and cannot ignore evil (Hab 1:13). He knew that no one obeys God’s law perfectly, and all are all under God’s curse (Deut 27:26). But he also knew that when judgment comes, “the righteous shall live by faith” (Hab 2:4). And somehow Yahweh would remember mercy in his wrath (Hab 3:1). Habakkuk believed God’s promises of a righteous Saviour who would bear our sins and make many righteous (Isa 53:11). Like Abraham, Habakkuk believed the Lord; and God reckoned it to him as righteousness. But Habakkuk could never have guessed the full import of God’s revelation to him! He had no idea how these words would unfold in the greatest gospel truth—justification by faith!

As we read through Habakkuk, we must not hold his sober fear of God’s judgment at arm’s length. If God is both good and powerful, He cannot ignore evil forever. At an appointed time, God’s righteous judgment will be revealed and Jesus Christ will judge the living and the dead (Rom 2:5Acts 17:31Heb 9:27). The only question is whether we are trusting in our own righteousness, or Christ’s. The righteous shall live by their faith. There is no other way.

Wrath and mercy collide

Imagine if Habakkuk had been in Jerusalem four centuries later to witness the ultimate injustice in history? Imagine if he had been at the cross, like the Roman soldier or the thief, and seen God’s wrathraining down on His innocent Son, while mercy flowed over guilty men and women like you and me? (Luke 23:4147Hab 3:1). Imagine if Habakkuk had seen beyond king Jehoikim and Nebuchadnezzar, to the child born in Bethlehem as God’s Messiah, the Prince of Peace (Isa 9:6Eph 2:14-18), the King who reigns with justice and righteousness now and for all eternity (Isa 11:45Rev 11:15)! Imagine if Habakkuk had seen us– Jews and Gentiles from every nation– receive the blessing of Abraham through faith in Christ, pressing on in faith until Christ’s return! (Gal 3:14)

“Look among the nations, and see;
    wonder and be astounded.
For I am doing a work in your days
    that you would not believe if told” (Hab 1:5).

Join us next week to look through the amazing little window of Habakkuk 2:1414 For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

Listen to Lux, by Antoine Bradford.

Habakkuk– the prophet who prayed with his eyes wide open

After experiencing the holocaust and the rise and fall of the Nazi empire, Corrie Ten Boom said,

“Never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God.. In darkness God’s truth shines most clear.”

Her words are an apt reminder for God’s people in South Africa. This week has seen anger and anarchy bubble over. The rape and murder of Uyinene Mretyana unleashed the nation’s fury at a society which allows a woman to be murdered every three hours. Xenophobic violence, looting and arson have caused untold personal tragedies. People are tired of politicians tweeting “deepest condolences” and platitudes, but providing no genuine protection. Tired of pampered MP’S flying past with their blue light brigades, but failing to provide rape kits at police stations for the violated. Leaders seem indifferent to the struggles of ordinary people– deaf, blind and inactive. With a murder rate equal to war-torn regions like Afghanistan, Somalia and Iraq, South Africans feel leaderless and vulnerable for the future. As Christians, we may wonder if God is like our politicians, standing in heaven with his hands in his pockets. Like Emperor Nero, who fiddled while Rome burned. We may even wonder if God sees the flames licking the tip of Africa.

The book of Habakkuk is only three chapters long, but it is like a prayer journal that speaks powerfully to God’s people living in perplexing times like ours. See if his complaint resonates with you.

Habakkuk’s Complaint

The oracle that Habakkuk the prophet saw.

O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
    and you will not hear?
Or cry to you “Violence!”
    and you will not save?
Why do you make me see iniquity,
    and why do you idly look at wrong?
Destruction and violence are before me;
    strife and contention arise.
So the law is paralyzed,
    and justice never goes forth.
For the wicked surround the righteous;
    so justice goes forth perverted… (Habakkuk 1:1-4)

Lord, are you not from everlasting?
    My God, my Holy One, you will never die.
You, Lord, have appointed them to execute judgment;
    you, my Rock, have ordained them to punish.
13 Your eyes are too pure to look on evil;
    you cannot tolerate wrongdoing.
Why then do you tolerate the treacherous?
    Why are you silent while the wicked
    swallow up those more righteous than themselves?
14 You have made people like the fish in the sea,
    like the sea creatures that have no ruler.
15 The wicked foe pulls all of them up with hooks,
    he catches them in his net,
he gathers them up in his dragnet;
    and so he rejoices and is glad.
(Hab 1:12-15).

Honest

“How long, Lord? Why do you idly look at wrong?”

The prophet Habakkuk lived in Judah in the reign of King Jehoikim. It was shortly before the Babylonians besieged Jerusalem and took godly Jews like Daniel and his friends into exile in 586BC. Habakkuk witnessed a time of economic collapse, extreme social injustice and violence in Judah (Hab 1:1-4). It was about to get worse for the nation, as the ruthless Babylonians would soon swallow Judah like fish in a dragnet (Hab 1: 5-17). Habakkuk’s crisis in 600BC was not too different from our news in 2019AD.

Many of us are unconscious of how we process our national and personal crises. One person may choose to ignore the news and focus on feel-good stories. Another may rage, get depressed, or send funny cartoons on social media to soften the blow. Others with options make plans to emigrate.

But Habakkuk processed his honest questions with the Sovereign Lord. As he prayed with eyes wide open to his realities, God shone His truth into Habakkuk’s darkness.

Like most of our complaints, Habakkuk’s questions involved God’s timing, his apparent inaction and tolerance of evil. He voiced the big ambiguities honest Christians feel: How can a powerful and good God stand idle while wickedness flourishes and people suffer (Hab 1:13)? Why is God taking so long to answer my prayers?

David raised the same questions in Psalm 37 and 73, Psalm 13:1-2 and Ps 74:10-11. Please God, take your hand from the folds of your garment and crush the wicked! How long? It is the refrain of Christian martyrs as they wait for God to vindicate their deaths (Rev 6:10). These questions are not displaying a lack of faith when they are directed at the Sovereign Lord of history.

God is attentive to Habakkuk’s questions, but his answers are not simplistic, nor optimistic in the short term. The oracle is not good news, but a weighty ‘burden’ that God’s spokesman must bear (Hab 1:1 KJV): The sovereign Lord of history will do what is right and just in his appointed time. God will raise up a ruthless pagan nation, Babylon to punish his people.

This was hardly the ‘amazing’ intervention Habakkuk expected!

“Look at the nations and watch—
    and be utterly amazed.
For I am going to do something in your days
    that you would not believe,
    even if you were told (Hab 1:5).”

Real

Habakkuk calls a spade a spade. There are only two kinds of people—The proud, whose hearts are crooked. And the righteous, who live by faith. (Hab 2:4). There are no euphemisms in his detailed list of evils. No silver linings to the final end of God’s enemies (Hab 2:2-20). It is a terrifying picture of humanity… and our hearts, if we lift the veil of self-righteousness. The arrogant and greedy. The man who piles up stolen goods and extorts from the poor. The man who builds his house by unjust gain and establishes a city with bloodshed and injustice. The porn user and sex abuser. The destroyer of God’s creation. The one who trusts in useless idols. It’s all there.

Habakkuk didn’t live in splendid isolation, disengaged or ignorant of the suffering and evil around him. Nor did he minimize it, like some did when Robert Mugabe died, calling him a colossus, a martyr and a giant of the African Revolution. God does not close his eyes when leaders commit genocide or rain terror on millions of people for decades. No, Habakkuk was burdened by the sight of suffering (Hab 1:3). As Jesus was (Mark 1:41). And as we should be, when we read of the rape of a 6-year old girl in a restaurant bathroom, just one of 60 children raped every day in our country. God’s eyes are wide open when the wicked hem in the righteous (Hab 1:4).

True

But Habakkuk’s journal does not end with his complaint. As his conversation with God unfolds, his perspective changes. His unknownsare slowly processed through the filter of God’s known character, what He has done in the past and what He has said He will do in the future. God’s truth penetrates Habakkuk’s confusion:

For the revelation awaits an appointed time;
    it speaks of the end
    and will not prove false.
Though it linger, wait for it;
    it will certainly come
    and will not delay (Hab 2:3).

Habakkuk is finally able to trust in God’s sovereign purposes and sure revelation.

As Christians, we know the fulfilment of God’s greatest revelation in history– the appearance of Jesus as Saviour, his death and resurrection. We know the certainty of God’s written revelation–the Bible.

Now, we too must wait in hope for God’s “appointed time”–when Jesus returns to judge the earth and make all things new. In the meantime, we live by faith in what we know to be true.

Light

Despite the political darkness, God directs Habakkuk’s eyes to the light: The righteous are saved and kept by faith (Hab 2:4). God’s kingdom willprevail, no matter what Satan and his forces throw at it. “The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Hab 2:14). Six centuries before Christ the King appeared on earth, Habakkuk sees that God’s kingdom is not in retreat, despite the carnage on the battlefield.

He gazes at the Lord in his holy temple, before whom all the earth is silent (Hab 2:20). Habakkuk’s questions end, as he rests his case. Just awe and worship before the just Judge. His heart pounds, his lips quiver and his legs tremble before the Sovereign Lord. He glimpses the end of the proud, feeble kingdoms of the world and finds new strength and joy in his Saviour (Hab 3:18).

Habakkuk’s longings for safety and certainty are ours. God welcomes our honest questions too. But however dark and unstable our reality, our only safe haven is in our Sovereign Lord and Saviour, Jesus. He called himself the Light of the world. And if we are His, “in darkness God’s truth shines most clear…Never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God.”

Please join us next week on The God Walk as we flesh out the spiritual journal of Habakkuk through the lens of the New Testament.

Worship

Oh My Soul, by Casting Crowns.

Prayer

Lord, I have heard of your fame;
I stand in awe of your deeds, Lord.
Repeat them in our day,
in our time make them known;
in wrath remember mercy…

Though the fig tree does not bud
and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will be joyful in God my Saviour.

The Sovereign Lord is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
he enables me to tread on the heights. (Habakkuk 3:217-19)

Homework!

Why not take this week to read the book of Habakkuk for yourself? Download the free Explore Bible Devotion App on your phone and buy Andrew Reid’s devotion on Habakkuk for R14. It will only take you six days to read it from beginning to end and will greatly enrich your understanding.

Click here for Apple users.

Click here for Google Play.

Rest for the Weary

New series: Texts that changed my life.

If I were to make a mini-series of our society, I would call it “The Weary and the Restless.” Many of us  are staggering under demanding burdens that are far too heavy to bear. Exhausted, stressed, overworked, or worried about not having work, South Africans live with nagging fears about the future, crime and the shaky economy. Many are frantically eyeing secure havens for their families while others feverishly tick off their bucket lists of exotic destinations and physical challenges. Perhaps it’s because I’m turning fifty this week and my generation is clawing at the last vestiges of youth! But even if you haven’t succumbed to the crazy restlessness of mid-life crisis, it is rare to find a soul that isn’t burdened by the ever-increasing pace of the year, runaway technology, and relentless expenses. Added to this basic burden of weariness, is the weight of economic and political upheaval which presses down on the world like a giant blanket, squeezing more from us than we are able to give. The truth is that humanity has been profoundly weary since sin came into the world and paradise was lost in Genesis 3. Jesus Christ makes a simple offer of HIMSELF– the eternal God made flesh. He invites us to give up our burdens and willingly take on his yoke of life and freedom. In a world that is staggering under heavy burdens of sin, fear and brokenness, Jesus alone has the power to give us soul rest.

Matthew 11:28-30:

28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Our work, and Christ’s

In the context of Matthew’s gospel, Christ makes it plain that true soul rest can only be achieved through his death on the cross. He is not offering us a day at the spa!

On the cross, Jesus finished the “work” needed to bring us peace with God and end our restless wandering. Only the perfect God-man could bear our burden of sin. The empty tomb and his risen body proved that Christ’s “work” was acceptable and perfect. Nothing more could be added to it. That’s why Jesus “rested” when He ascended into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God (Heb 10:12). In return for his work on the cross, Jesus offers us rest from our own efforts to be acceptable to God. He invites us to stop and listen, to cease our restless striving, and to find our rest in His perfect work. We bear the easy yoke of believing and obeying Him.

The easy yoke of work and rest

It’s easy to divide our lives into work and rest as if they are a divorced couple that cannot live in the same house. But Jesus sees no incompatibility or contradiction between them. Instead, he lays yoke and rest side by side as a paradox.  A “yoke” is a board that is placed over two cattle pulling a plough. The image implies labour, as the oxen pull together to plough row after row of hard soil. At the same time that the oxen are working, the yoke eases the weight of the load. The yoke makes the burden lighter. Jesus offers his disciples rest and an easy yoke in the same breath.

Yoked oxen resized

Obeying the gospel of Christ is not a heavy burden but a blessed yoke, because when we attach ourselves to Jesus, we are free to live and work and flourish as human beings were designed to.  When the crowds asked Jesus, “What must we do to do the works God requires?” Jesus replied that our work is believing in Him whom God has sent (John 6:29). Later Jesus gave his disciples a strange job description: Their work was simply to remain attached to Jesus (the true vine) and allow God (the vinedresser) to do his work of pruning to make them fruitful (John 15:1-4).

 

Our work is simply to believe, abide and obey Christ! He has done the rest on our behalf. That is why Christ’s yoke is easy and his burden light.

Soul rest

For those who accept his invitation to come, the Lord Jesus replaces our burden of guilt and restlessness with deep soul rest. It is the true rest to which the Sabbath points: “There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God. For anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works, just as God did from his” (Heb 4:9-10).

Entering into God’s rest is not a once-off event that happens the day we place our trust in Jesus. It is a moment-by-moment faith journey in which we must stop our striving and rest in God’s promises fulfilled by Jesus. We look forward to our ultimate rest in God’s eternal kingdom when we will rest from the hard labours of service in this age. “Yes”, says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labour, for their deeds will follow them” (Rev 14:13). In contrast, those who do not accept Christ’s invitation to come to Him will have no rest, day or night (Rev 14:11).

If the stakes of Christ’s invitation are this high, we must ask ourselves some honest questions–

Have we accepted Christ’s offer of rest and submitted to his yoke by believing, obeying and abiding in Him?

Are we living our lives as restful disciples of Christ? Or are we as weary and restless as the world around us?

Rest is…

Rest is not about working less, doing more, or existing in a peace bubble. Rest is about the posture of our hearts as we go about the labours of life.

REST IS… believing that Jesus is who He claims to be—our Messiah who has freed us from sin’s tyranny and bought us peace with God. Rest is dropping our burden of sin, shame and striving at the foot of his cross and living as his disciple.

REST IS… trusting that Jesus will do what He says He will do. Rest is casting all our anxiety on Him because He cares for us (1 Peter 5:7). Rest is depending on Jesus to supply every need (Phil 4:19), to give us peace in tribulation and life in death (John 16:33John 11:25).

REST IS…coming to Jesus with every question, feeling and fear that burdens us, allowing Him to quench our soul thirst for approval, belonging, fulfilment, purpose and identity.

REST IS…abiding in Jesus as the vine, offering ourselves to be useful in His kingdom work and drawing from his grace to become fruitful branches.

REST IS…being contented and thankful, resting in God’s perfect purposes for our lives.

REST IS…yoking ourselves to Jesus as we move in the same direction and at the right speed in our work. It is labouring alongside the author and perfecter of our faith (Heb 12:2).

In moments when I find myself becoming restless and weary in my soul, I love to read this quote on my fridge. It was written by Elizabeth Elliot, whose missionary husband was killed by the people he came to serve:

“Restlessness and impatience change nothing except our peace and joy. Peace does not dwell in outward things, but in the heart prepared to wait trustfully and quietly on Him who has all things safely in His hands.”

A poem about Rest

Soul rest lies at the heart of the gospel. My son, Stuart, gave me permission to end with a heartfelt poem he wrote in response to Matthew 11:28-30.  My prayer is that every person who reads it will experience the deep rest that only Jesus has the power to give:

I live in a bubble
Of logic
Desperately clawing
At matter
That doesn’t
Reasoning how I
A Good Man
Can work
Myself so hard
That my muscles become scars
That my bones become dead branches
So He cannot
Say no

But I am always
Clawing
Never attaining
A handhold
That I can cling to
And I don’t know why

I make sense
If I receive
I must give
And I have received
A gift so precious
That no man could comprehend
The magnitude of its value
But out of habit
I work
To repay the incalculable debt

I am in the trenches
Shovel in hand
Sweat soaked brow
Dust plated lungs
Milky white eyes
Peeking through
A cesspool of muck
I look around
Others like me
As far as my tired eyes can see
Furiously chiseling
With blunt tools
At stubborn ground
Dust is the only reward

My muscles are like
My gran’s mushy peas
But I keep digging
Deeper and deeper
Further coating my face
With grit
Which clings
Like iron shavings to a magnet

A man
In dazzling white
Strides through
The dismal mire
Not a speck of grit
Dares get close to him
I look up to him
He has figured out
How not to work
How?
A voice
As harsh as thunder
On the Highveld
But soft
As a well groomed Labrador’s fur
Emanates across the trenches

I lift my broken face
To look at the dazzling face
From where the voice came
I see a few forlorn faces lift
But almost everyone continues
As if they had simply heard
An ibis’s morning cry

There is no sign of strain in the voice
It is as clear
As a fresh sea breeze
On a crisp autumn morning
“Come to me, all you who are weary
And burdened,
And I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you
And learn from me,
For I am gentle and humble in heart,
And you will find rest for your souls.”

I fall to my knees
With hands raised
In awe of his presence
I see His hand
Dark and calloused
From years of manual labour
Extended to my forlorn state
Tears run down my face
Like a stream running down the contour
Of a sparse mountain
I dare not touch this spotless hand
With my foul excuse for an appendage

He steps in to my trench
With grace abounding
And picks up the scarred mess
That is my body
And carries me out
In able arms
I am home
For years I have toiled
To earn the right
To be free
But here I am
In my Abba’s arms
Dirty
But covered by his perfection

I look out to the other trenches
I call out to them
With tear-stained cheeks
That we don’t have to break ourselves
Any longer
We have been made enough
Not by our labours
But by His
No eyes move away from the ground
Not so much as an eyebrow is raised
I scream more earnestly
But nothing changes

I am free
All I want to do is to show others
The joy I have found
He looks at me
With a kind expression
As if having gone through this
A thousand times or more
“For the message of the cross
Is foolishness to the perishing,
But to us who are being saved
It is the power of God.”

Worship and pray

Thank Jesus for his finished work on the cross, and ask him to fill you afresh with deep soul rest, as you listen to this song by Andrew Peterson, “God Rested”.

The Hidden Sin of Self-righteousness

Today is our final devotion in Psalm 19. To read part 1- Seeing God’s glory in the Skiesclick here. For Part 2- Honey for the Heartclick here.

Psalm 19 is a reminder of God’s glory and greatness which are showcased through the skies and Scripture. No matter who we are, creation provides our bodies and souls with wonder and refreshment. Likewise, God’s laws in Scripture are true and beneficial for human flourishing, “making wise the simple”. But the Bible tells us that it is impossible to know God personally by loving nature or having an intellectual knowledge of Scripture, because sin separates us from Him. Sin is the fatal disease infecting every son and daughter of Adam, and its only antidote is the Saviour God provided. Our healing is free and total if we trust in Jesus, the perfect Lamb of God who died in our place (Isa 53:5). But Christ’s healing does not immunise Christians against sin, especially the hidden sin of self-righteousness. This sin is a devious charlatan that lulls us into thinking we are quite good after all and blinds us to the truth about ourselves. Unless we see our hearts clearly and know our desperate need of Christ’s grace every day, we will be easy prey for Satan and sin that entangles us. J.C Ryle gives us a realistic diagnosis of the human heart:

“We are all naturally self-righteous. It is the family disease of all the children of Adam.”       

Today we look at the last four verses of Psalm 19. It is a heartfelt prayer that is as vital for Christians today as it was for King David in 1000BC.

Who can discern his errors?

“Who can discern his errors?
Declare me innocent from hidden faults.
13 Keep back your servant also from presumptuous sins;
let them not have dominion over me!
Then I shall be blameless,
and innocent of great transgression.

14 Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable in your sight,
O Lord, my rock and my redeemer (Psalm 19:12-14)

The anatomy of sin

John Piper probes beneath the skin and scans the anatomy of sin:

“What is sin?
It is the glory of God not honoured.
The holiness of God not reverenced.
The greatness of God not admired.
The power of God not praised.
The truth of God not sought.
The wisdom of God not esteemed.
The beauty of God not treasured.
The goodness of God not savoured.
The faithfulness of God not trusted.
The commandments of God not obeyed.
The justice of God not respected.
The wrath of God not feared.
The grace of God not cherished.
The presence of God not prized.
The person of God not loved.
That is sin.”
― John Piper

Piper scan reveals that sin is subtle and deeply embedded in the human heart. Likewise, the prophet Jeremiah warns us not to be fooled by the false pretences of our hearts (Jer 17:9). James describes the journey of sin from its conception as temptation, to its birth as sin, and to its end as death. The shocking image of sin as a stillborn baby is a sober reminder of sin’s critical consequences (James 1:15). For a Christian, sin kills our love for God and intimacy with him, and quickly leads to slavery (1 John 1:6Rom 6:16). For someone who has never received the forgiveness God provides through Christ, sin ultimately leads to eternal death in hell (Rom 6:235:12). The stakes are high.

It is easy to slide on the slippery slope of what is socially acceptable and what is not, but sin is not just the shocking exposé we see on the news or the public scandal. Long before an action is performed or a word is on our lips, distorted desires have already infected our choices.

When we look at sin in this way, who can claim to be healthy?

Faith in the Physician

That’s exactly the point of the gospel! The gospel announces the arrival of the Great Physician who heals the sick from the deadly disease of sin. There is no sin hidden from Him, even if it is invisible to us. Jesus knows everything about us– every thoughtless word, shameful thought, envious glance and malicious motive. He sees how we seek justice, vindication, belonging, identity, peace and fulfilment apart from Himself. He knows every way in which we’ve been infected and affected by sin, and even our blind spots are perfectly clear to Him. “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight; everything is laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Heb 4:13).

But despite everything He knows about us, Jesus died to heal sick people like us. He did not come as a celebrity or king, but as a doctor without borders. He came to the people who knew they were sick, not those who thought they were healthy. Jesus made the meaning of his metaphor explicit, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners(Mark 2:17Matt 9:12).

We are in danger the moment we feel smug and think we have moved beyond the need for Christ’s healing every day of our lives!

The gospel is not a once-off door we walk through, but a path of healing and restoration for our entire lives.

Humility means inviting Jesus to remove the giant cataract of self-righteousness, so that our eyes can see our hidden faults. Instead of fleeing the Doctor or feigning perfect health, let us come to the Lord Jesus Christ and hand over the scalpel. Has He not come to proclaim good news to the poor, liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind (Luke 4:18)?

Minding our own planks!

The starting point is to know that we are those poor, blind captives who cannot help ourselves. But self-righteousness is the ‘plank’ in our eyes that prevents us from recognising Jesus as Saviour and trusting Him as Lord. It remains the greatest blind spot for every follower of Jesus and has the potential to turn us into hypocrites:

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye (Matt 7:3-5).

Only Jesus can remove the “planks” from our eyes and give us insight into ourselves. In David’s case, God used Nathan the prophet to show him his planks. At first David was full of self-righteousness and could only blame a fictitious man, but then Nathan held up a mirror to David’s own heart and exploded the fiction, “You are the man!” Little by little, the scales fell off David’s eyes and his fortress of self-righteousness crumbled. His heart was laid bare and it was not a pretty sight. King David may have been able to justify and hide his secret sins for over a year, but they were not hidden from God and their outcomes were severe and public: “You did it in secret, but I will do this thing in broad daylight before all Israel.”  Finally the cataracts were removed and David admitted to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.” (2 Samuel 12:11-13). Only when David perceived the true state of his heart, could confession, repentance and healing begin. He was finally able to write Psalm 51 which is a template of confession for every believer. God delights in truth in our inward being and will not despise a broken and contrite heart (Ps 51:17).

Like David, don’t you long for a clean heart, the joy of salvation and a renewed, willing spirit to do what is right? (Ps 51:101217). The problem is that although we are naturally self-righteous, we cannot find righteousness in ourselves. But a thousand years after David, his promised heir came to earth and lived a perfectly righteous life. Jesus Christ was the only man who could justifiably be self-righteous. He heralded a gospel that makes morally flawed people like us new from the inside out through faith in Him. For those who believe day by day, the gospel has the power to transform and empower us to be more like Jesus (2 Cor 3:18Phil 2:13). 

Today is the day

Psalm 19 reminds us that we hear the voice of God every day through the skies, the Bible and our consciences. The Bible warns us: “Today if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts” (Heb 3:15). We can never be sure about tomorrow, but today is the day to soften our hearts before the Lord.  If you are not sure that you are saved, today is the day to speak to a trusted Christian about what it means to get right with God. If you know you are born again, today is always the day to invite Jesus to expose your “hidden faults” and “presumptuous sins” before they rule you (Ps 19:13). Let us never be “hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” or gently nurse a sinful habit (Heb 3:13-15). We dare not live a single day without ordering our hearts to follow Jesus and fighting to the death against our sinful selves (2 Cor 5:17Eph 4:2224). “Today is the favourable time; behold, now is the day of salvation!”(2 Cor 6:2).

Handing over the scalpel

Are we ready to trust the Great Physician to heal us, even if that means painful surgery or amputation of deeply rooted sin? Unless we believe that His skills are superior to ours and that only He can heal us, we will not be willing to hand over the scalpel.

Pray

Lord, it is humbling to think that you created the universe and everything in it, and yet you care so deeply for each person you have made. You cared enough to leave your glory and the holiness of heaven to die for people like us, who do not seek, honour, obey, thank, praise, revere or love you by nature. Thank you for your forgiveness and your gift of a new heart that longs to please you. Today we lay our hearts bare before you and ask you to remove the cataract of self-righteousness from our eyes. Save us from our own hypocrisy! Use your scalpel to remove every offensive way in us set us free from our blindness, sickness and captivity to sin. Purify our hearts and lead us into the light and freedom of your presence today.

In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Worship as you listen to “Purify my heart”. 

Snapshots of women adorning the gospel (part 2)

For Part 1 of Snapshots of Women Adorning The Gospel, Click here.

Luke is my favourite book of the Bible, because the ink on every page drips proof that women are not invisible to God. Romans 16 is my favourite chapter for the same reason. That might sound odd since this chapter is a message of final greetings. If you are tempted to skip over the long list of names like credits after a movie, I hope I can persuade you to see the beauty in these greetings. Paul’s very personal, affectionate greetings capture the soul of women’s ministry in early Christianity. They give us a picture of redeemed men and women working as partners alongside each other in Rome’s first church, and this is the prototype for our local church. Women found the church a liberating place to be. It was a beacon of light in their Greco-Roman culture where husbands could abandon them on a whim, baby girls were considered worthless and left outside by their fathers to die in the cold, and child brides were married off at 11 or 12 years old. In contrast, the church was a place where husbands were taught to be faithful and to love their wives like Christ loved the church. This was a far cry from husbands in Rome who expected their wives to be chaste while they engaged in any kind of sexual behaviour themselves, including having mistresses, temple prostitutes and homosexual encounters. For centuries, Christianity was mocked for being pro-women as women made up two thirds of the church, while the ratio in Greco-Roman society was two thirds men. Christianity was a safe haven for women because the wisdom of the gospel gave them life and dignity. Their voices were heard and their contribution valued in the local church. It was a place where they were free to be all that God created them to be, instead of chattels or sex objects. Romans 16:1-16 gives us a glimpse into these things:

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae,2 that you may welcome her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints, and help her in whatever she may need from you, for she has been a patron of many and of myself as well.
3 Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, 4 who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks but all the churches of the Gentiles give thanks as well. 5 Greet also the church in their house. Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who was the first convert to Christ in Asia. 6 Greet Mary, who has worked hard for you. 7 Greet Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners. They are well known to the apostles, and they were in Christ before me. 8 Greet Ampliatus, my beloved in the Lord. 9 Greet Urbanus, our fellow worker in Christ, and my beloved Stachys. 10 Greet Apelles, who is approved in Christ. Greet those who belong to the family of Aristobulus. 11 Greet my kinsman Herodion. Greet those in the Lord who belong to the family of Narcissus. 12 Greet those workers in the Lord, Tryphaena and Tryphosa. Greet the beloved Persis, who has worked hard in the Lord. 13 Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord; also his mother, who has been a mother to me as well. 14 Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas, and the brothers who are with them. 15 Greet Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas, and all the saints who are with them.16 Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ greet you.

Snapshots from Rome

The nine women’s names in Romans 16 may seem irrelevant, but consider for a moment that these were real women with families and dangers that we cannot even imagine. They were a mix of rich and poor, slaves and aristocrats, married and single, young and old, Jews and Gentiles, bound together as sisters by their common commitment to Christ. They offered whatever resources they had to make a difference for the Lord in all kinds of ways and passed the gospel baton on to their children. They developed ministries to help widows, orphans and believers in prison, and gave their finances and homes too. Paul expresses obvious affection for these women and mentions some of them by name: Phoebe a deacon and patron of the church; Priscilla who (together with her husband Aquila) hosted the church in her house and risked her life for the Christians, Mary, Junia, Tryphena and Tryphosa (sisters), Persis, Julia, and Rufus’s mother, who was like a mother to Paul. These women did not just warm the pews but were active “workers in the Lord.” There is great affection and intimacy in Paul’s tone, but not a hint of impropriety or paternalism.

Costly but liberating faith

Women continued to flock to Christianity in the second and third centuries. Justin Martyr (150AD) noted that Christianity was spreading to wealthy women in aristocratic classes, many of whom were married to non-Christian husbands. Life was not easy for these women, as bearing the name of Christ carried a high price. Many women were single or widowed, and thus were very dependent and vulnerable. The husband of one wealthy woman despised her conversion to Christianity so much that he reported her to the authorities to be imprisoned. Marcia was the mistress of the tyrannical Emperor Commodis (of Gladiatorfame). This brave Christian woman shared the gospel with the Emperor and influenced him to show mercy to Christians in prison, even freeing some of them. Today contemporary culture mocks Christianity for being oppressive and misogynist, but the record of history tells us a different story. The truth is that women have taken refuge in Christianity for centuries, because the gospel accords them value and dignity as image bearers of God. It also provides forgiveness and restoration from the shame many women experience as a result of what they have done and what has been done to them.

Trailblazers

Romans 16 introduces us to some of the sisters who blazed the trail for us and we will meet each one of them in heaven one day! Their names and lives matter profoundly to God. Even today, the Lord values the sacrifices women make and takes delight in their joyful efforts to show the world the most beautiful story that has ever been told. History bears witness to the many women who served at the forefront of Christ’s army, which grew from twenty disciples in the 30’s (AD), to thirty million by the end of the 4th century!

What a beautiful picture of a redeemed family of servants on mission!

Why should we care about women who are long dead and part of ancient history? I believe the rich tapestry of women in the Bible and historical sources weaves a picture of who we are as Christian women today, and shows us how we should follow Jesus, through the lens of who God is. The rich heritage behind us can give Christian women perspective to see our worth and to grasp the unique God-given opportunities to make the gospel beautiful to the world around us. That is our ‘Great Commission’ at home, in church and in the city (Matt 28:18-20).

Prayer for daughters of God

Lord, give us the faith of Sarah who left her family, culture and home in Ur to follow her husband Abraham into a strange and dangerous land. Help us to hold loosely to the things of this world so that we are willing to pitch our tent anywhere you lead, like she did.

Father, give us the conviction of Rahab, who took a stand on Jehovah’s side and was resourceful and brave when she hid the spies (Josh 2:11).

If we are entrusted with leadership, help us to lead without losing our God-given distinctness, like Deborah, “who arose as a mother of Israel” (Judges 5:7).

Jesus, give us the loyalty and love of Ruth, who left everything in Moab to care for her mother-in-law and identify herself with your people. Help us to see you alone as our Kinsman-Redeemer who brings abundance from emptiness and joy from mourning.

Give us the serenity of Hannah, who released her beloved son Samuel to fulfill your purposes. Let us always know that our children are on loan from you and help us to raise them to love and serve you all their lives. We declare with Hannah, “It is not by strength that one prevails” (1 Sam 2:9).

Give us the strength and boldness of Queen Esther who was ready and willing to step up to the plate “for such a time as this.” Help us to see the opportunities you have placed in our lives right now and to act upon them in faith (Esther 4:15).

Holy Spirit, give us a humble, willing spirit like Mary’s so that even if we are afraid, we may say, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be to me according to your will” (Luke 1:38).

Jesus, give us a teachable spirit like Mary of Bethany who sat at your feet and listened to you, knowing that you would give her something that could never be taken away from her. Let busyness never be our master (Luke 10:38).

And Lord, when life’s storms come and you seem far away, make us as bold and sure as Martha, who, even at her brother’s funeral, declared without wavering, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God” (John 11:27).

Saviour, show us your vast forgiveness so that we may be like the woman who let down her hair and anointed your feet with perfume. Make us worshippers first so that we may give extravagantly out of the overflow of your grace. Help us to see you as our advocate, our refuge and the one to whom we can bring everything, even our greatest shame and sin (Luke 7:44-46).

Lord of the harvest, give us a big vision to see the many practical ways in which we can sow into your kingdom wherever we are. Make us brave and industrious like those women in Rome.

And finally, Lord, if you give us grace to live until we are old and grey, help us to be like those two old women in Luke. Like Anna, may we always long for your presence, remain steadfast in prayer and be quick to bless others. And if we are left with just a widow’s mite, give us hearts that want to drop it all into your treasure store. Help us to live each day eager and ready for your return as King (Luke 2:36-38Luke 21:123).

Benediction

Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith— to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ! (Romans 16:16-17).
Amen.

Useful resources:

The Dynamic Ministry of Women in Early Christianity (Michael Kruger– a podcast).

Men and Women (Roydon Frost- a sermon)

Snapshots of Women Adorning the gospel (part 1)

Some women always have the perfect accessory to complement an outfit. They know exactly how to adorn themselves to enhance their natural beauty. Unfortunately I’m not one of these talented women! Five minutes before I go out, I’m scratching around for a lost earring, untangling a nest of jewellery and accusing my daughters of stealing my clothes! I like to think it’s because my mind is on more noble things, but the truth is that I just don’t pay attention to that part of life. But as Christian women, we don’t get to divide up our lives into the bits that matter to God and those that don’t. We are called to adorn the gospel in everything (Titus 2:10), to synchronise our lives with its truth in the everyday unseen details—at home, in church, at work and everywhere else. If the people of God are “the light of the world, a city on a hill that cannot be hidden”, each of our lives matter for the gospel. There is no divide between the spiritual and the physical, between church and home, or between our identity as women and our work for God’s kingdom. Our whole life is an act of worship. It sounds good in theory, but what does it look like in practice for a Christian woman in our generation?

A woman’s gospel hub

Paul gives a down-to-earth memo to all women who claim to follow Jesus. It seems that ‘adorning the gospel’ is not just something we make up for ourselves as though we are choosing an accessory for an outfit.

“Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. 4 Then they can urge the younger women to love their husbands and children, 5 to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God.” (Titus 2:3-5)

This text has real life implications for women who claim to be Christians:

No woman is exempt from ministry, regardless of age, gifting or experience. There is always a woman you can learn from and one coming up behind you, even if it is your grandchild. It doesn’t matter what season of life you are in, adorning the gospel is not an optional extra.

Home is a hub where the gospel is lived out in real relationships. Contrary to popular belief, home is not a prison to keep women subservient, but the center of gospel health and mission. Our children and the world will see Jesus through a warm and life-giving home, no matter how big or small. This surely impacts how we see our kitchen, laundry, dining room, our language and meals? Of course there are priorities attached to seasons of life, but a home is not limited to biological family. Nympha opened hers to the family of God (Col 4:15). Hospitality is a wonderful way of adorning the gospel (Rom 12:13).

Ministry loses credibility if our personal relationships are not aligned with ‘what is good’. This is where the rubber really hits the road! Of course a conflict-free home is impossible, but every time you resolve an argument with a balance of love and truth; forgive without holding a grudge; have the courage to make the first move to reconcile; resist the urge to be demanding, defensive or distant; ask God for wisdom instead of flying off the handle; say the magic words “I’m sorry, I was only thinking of myself”; allow God’s perfect love to cast out your fear; or submit joyfully to your husband, you are building a space where the gospel is a beautiful thriving reality. A woman cannot adorn the gospel in the public arena if she is turning away from her husband at home or avoiding the hard labour of building relationships. A marriage in harmony is a thing of beauty and a rare witness in our times. If yours is limping along, it’s time for change!

The good news is that Jesus never leaves us to get our house in order alone! Any woman with life experience is told to put up her hand and pass it along– to support her sisters and not envy or compete with them. If every woman is commissioned to be a disciple and disciple-maker, learning, teaching and training is a ministry we will never grow out of. In my experience, it is easier to teach than to make disciples, because discipleship means inviting people into our lives and risk exposing our blind spots and the idols we cling to, especially pride. Discipleship is personal, regular, hands-on and intimate. It requires an emotional investment and integrity, but it yields deep friendship and blessing that far outweighs the effort. In my experience, women’s Bible studies are the perfect setting for this kind of discipleship, as God’s Word re-aligns our thinking, exposes our hearts, while prayer builds an intimacy that is unique to a gospel community. I am officially the leader of three women’s Bible studies, but not a week has gone by when I have not learned from other women in the group.

But what about the wisdom to be gained from the rich heritage of those who have gone before us?

A rich heritage

Real women of history have woven for us a big and beautiful tapestry to show what it means to embrace our God-given womanhood, while partnering fully in the gospel alongside our Christian brothers. To borrow words from Hebrews 11, women are surrounded by “a great cloud of witnesses” who spur us on and assure us that our lives matter for God’s kingdom purposes– even if we sometimes feel invisible.

Snapshots from Luke

Luke is my favourite gospel because the ink on every page drips proof that women are not invisible to God. I am stunned every time I am reminded that a humble unmarried teenage girl called Mary was central to the gospel story. Her response to the angel’s frightening call leaves me breathless:

“I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).

This was not the life Mary had planned for herself and she knew it would bring shame and pain (Luke 2:35). Her surrender of her body and soul to motherhood was not weakness, but the epitome of strength and resolve. “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour…From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me—Holy is his name.” (Luke 1: 46-55). Imagine Mary standing in the shadow of her beloved son’s cross thirty-three years later, watching him die a criminal’s death. To think that the means by which God saved the world was a devout, responsive girl and the baby she raised in her humble home in Nazareth. Mary’s home was the original gospel hub where the Messiah “grew in stature and wisdom and in favour with God and man.”

Luke provides many snapshots of the assortment of women who travelled with Jesus and the twelve disciples (Luke 8:2-3). Jesus addressed them by name and welcomed them as valuable members of the team, not just cooks and cleaners for men doing important ministry. They were flesh-and-blood women like ourselves, assigned dignity that was unheard of at a time when Rabbis taught that men should not even talk to women who were not their relatives, much less touch them. Jesus defied cultural rules and stereotypes of ‘acceptable’ women. He was radically counter- cultural.

Another snapshot shows Joanna, wife of a prominent government official who “ministered from her belongings” and watched Jesus being crucified. She was among the first witnesses of the resurrection, all of whom were women (Luke 23:55– Luke 24:10).

Then there are the close-ups of Jesus in a Pharisee’s house restoring the dignity of a prostitute (Luke 7:38-50); touching an unclean outcast after twelve years of bleeding (Luke 8:43-48) and praising Mary of Bethany for her teachable heart and extravagant love for Jesus (Luke 10:3842John 12:3;7). One of my favourite cameos is tucked into chapter 21 where Jesus watches a widow giving two very small copper coins into the temple treasury:

“Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all the others.4 All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on” (Luke 21:3-4).

There are many more encounters with women which show how the Lord Jesus reads our hearts and is delighted to find a spark of faith that leads us to give in ministry. But what’s also clear is that we are nothing without His grace. May our response to Christ’s forgiveness be as heartfelt as the woman who let down her hair, poured out an alabaster jar of perfume, kissed his feet and wept (Luke 7:45-47). We must first know our great need and be worshippers of Jesus before we are his workers.

Honey for the heart

It’s amazing how much my family loves honey! I buy a big jar of pure raw honey every week and it gets flattened within a few days because we drizzle it over everything– from rooibos tea and sticky chicken, to French toast with bacon! Honey is a sweet treat that makes everything taste better. But there’s no reward in just buying a jar of pure honey and staring at it on the shelf. We need to break the seal and get sticky! That’s how David saw God’s word—sweeter than honey and more valuable than anything money can buy. For those who take it to heart there are great rewards. As we saw last week, we can know many things about God when we look at his spectacular skies, but we can only know God personally when we respond to the truth of the gospel told in the Bible. If God himself is the author of every page of Scripture, His clear and convicting voice is not a nasty medicine to swallow, but a sweet treat to savour and digest. His word is the source of pure, undiluted truth spoken in love. It is soothing honey that brings  healing and life to people who are broken and dead. David reminds us of this today as we continue in Psalm 19:

Psalm 19:7-11

The law of the Lord is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the testimony of the Lord is sure,
making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is pure,
enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the Lord is clean,
enduring forever;
the rules of the Lord are true,
and righteous altogether.
10 More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey
and drippings of the honeycomb.
11 Moreover, by them is your servant warned;
in keeping them there is great reward!

Sweet drippings of the soul!

The reward of reading God’s word with a responsive heart is deep soul satisfaction, like sweet honey that never stops dripping. Paradoxically, we can only experience this satisfaction when we fear the Lord as David did– when we tremble at his word (Ps 19:9Isa 66:5).

The Apostle Peter reminds Christians that every person who lives will also die. Our achievements are no more permanent than wild flowers and our opinions and words will be buried with us too. In contrast, God’s imperishable ‘word’ is immortal. It remains relevant and true in every generation. It tells the story of God’s unlikely rescue mission to do away with sin and give us eternal life. That’s why Peter calls God’s word the ‘seed’ of our rebirth. The ‘living and enduring word of God’ is fundamental to our birth and growth as God’s children. We neglect it at our peril! (1 Peter 1:232425).

The Bible is not just a fad to froth over, or a book of sage suggestions. It is as vital to the Christian life as milk is to a newborn baby and bread to a hungry soul (Matt 4:1-41 Peter 2:2). We cannot expect to grow up in our salvation without it, just as malnourished babies don’t thrive…and sometimes don’t survive.  A taste of God’s goodness is not enough to sustain us for the long haul of life (1 Peter 2:3).

The Reward is in the keeping!

In Psalm 19:11, David says:

“By them your servant is warned;

In keeping them there is great reward.”

The reward is not linked to knowing or owning a Bible, but to keeping its commands and holding the word close to our chest. Nor is the reward only found in the encouraging promises, but also in the warnings we get when our hearts are cut by God’s double edged-sword. It is good to search the Scriptures and allow the Holy Spirit to undress our thoughts and attitudes before the eyes of God who searches our hearts (Heb 4:12-13).

Divine exposure is good news for those who want to change!

There is an implicit warning in Psalm 19 not to revise, edit, or cut-and-paste the Bible to suit ourselves. It is tempting to tailor the truth to dodge offense, but the Lord’s precepts are forever perfect, right, firm, wise and trustworthy (Ps 19:8-9). Instead of being ashamed, we are to ‘guard the good deposit,’ rightly handle the word of truth  (2 Tim 2:1415), beware of those who distort it (2 Peter 3:16) and examine the Scriptures every day to check man’s word against God’s (Acts 17:111 Thess 2:13). This is not only the job of the pastor, but all God’s workers!

Are you ‘keeping’ the clear teaching of God’s word, or do you find yourself bowing to man’s opinions? Jesus is our perfect example of how to keep and speak the truth in love.

The reward is in the eating!

The real reward of honeycomb is the energy it gives. This reward comes from ingestion and digestion, not just the sweet taste on our lips! Here are some of the lifelong rewards David links to reading the Bible with a responsive heart—

Life and refreshment for the soul (Ps 19:7), wisdom, clarity and guidance from God (Ps 19: 7-8) and deep joy and delight (Ps 19:810). Compare these rewards to the shortlived gains of media and entertainment.

If we constantly listen to human voices rather than God’s, our souls will ultimately be drained, confused and unsatisfied. But the voice of God has the power to renew, refresh and guide us uniquely each time we open our heart to the Bible. Each of its 66 books is relevant and true, with fresh application to our lives every day.

God’s laws are never burdensome but are the perfect framework to enable men, women and children to thrive and become everything we were designed to be (1 John 5:3). His commands are like a river bank that prevents its waters from flooding. Or like a fireplace in which a fire can safely burn without burning the house to ashes. Jesus himself reminded us to follow Him “for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt 11:30). God’s commands are not a long list of taboos to make life miserable.

For those who trust the Bible as their final authority, it has the power to set us free and satisfy our deepest longings—for belonging, purpose, identity and fulfillment (John 10:10). That is why it is honey for the heart.

Let’s believe David and drip sweet satisfying honey into our hearts every day!

Pray

Father, I praise you for the privilege and joy of your life-giving word to renew, refresh and guide me every day of my life. It is honey for my heart and I want it to stick. Thank you that the Bible holds up a timeless mirror to my soul, answers life’s big questions and offers hope against despair. Lord, thank you that you have not left us to wander in the dark, confused and far from you. I am still stunned by the way you stooped down into this world to make yourself known to us through your creation, your written word and the Living Word, your Son Jesus. Holy Spirit, give me eager ears to hear your voice in the Bible and engrave your word in my heart as I read it. Give me the grace to live it out honestly until you take me home.

In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Worship

Listen to this classic song by Amy Grant.