A Precious Gospel

flower growing in rock

The small community of gospel believers in the first century was like a fragile flower stubbornly pushing its way through a rock face. An odd medley of race, status and gender, they germinated in a hostile environment and refused to stop sharing the potent message that would change the world. The ‘weak’ community grew from around 20 followers of Jesus in 30AD, to 30 million believers by the 4th century AD. The fragile flower of the gospel could not be thwarted.

Our text today is Romans 1:16-17:

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 the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”

Not ashamed

Paul penned these words at a time when Christians who believed and spread the gospel message were persecuted, crucified, burnt as human torches, thrown to the lions and crucified. The cost of the gospel to these early believers in Rome is well depicted in the 2018 movie “Paul, the Apostle of Christ.” (It is worth watching). The only reason these ordinary men, women and children laid down their lives, instead of being silent or accommodating, is because they knew that it was the most powerful message the world would ever hear.

Felicitas lived in 101-162 AD. She and her seven sons were martyred in Rome. Her efforts to share the gospel with others were noticed by the pagan priests who then notified the Emperor. Before being martyred, she witnessed the death of each of her sons. The authorities gave her the opportunity to recant her witness after each son’s death, but she refused.

You can read more about historical and contemporary Christian martyrs here and here. History gives us perspective and challenges shallow, comfortable Christianity in free countries such as our own.

In Africa, a report by Open Doors claims that there were more recorded killings of Christians due to their faith in northern Nigeria in 2015 than in the rest of the world put together: 4028 out of a worldwide total of 7100 deaths in just one year. It is difficult to imagine the tribulation of these brothers and sisters in Christ on our own continent.

The gospel of Jesus Christ

Jesus prayed 24 hours before his own humiliating crucifixion, “The world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world” (John 17:14). From the first century to now, Christians have been shamed and killed because they were not ashamed of the gospel. They lost everything, not because they enjoyed being martyrs, nor because they wanted to belong to a cult (although there is great comfort in community). They willingly died because they knew the gospel was true and too precious to compromise. Here are seven truths that kept them spreading the ancient gospel of Jesus Christ:

1. They were convinced that no other message or religion provides a Saviour to bridge the gap between sinful human beings and a holy God(Rom 3:21-23). They knew that no one but Jesus can forgive sin and make us right with God through grace and not works (2 Cor 5:19Eph 2:8-9). The punishment they deserved had been meted out on God’s own Son (Rom 3:25-262 Cor 5:21).

2. They believed the incarnation—that Jesus, the Nazarene carpenter, who did miracles and spoke with authority and grace, was Yahweh himself in human form. They believed that Jesus had brought God’s kingdom to earth as he had promised through the prophets. Like Thomas and Peter, they recognized Jesus as God’s Messiah, their Lord and Saviour, not just as a moral teacher (Mark 8:27-2829-30John 14:10-11).

3.  They loved people enough to share the good news of undeserved grace. They were willing to take up their own crosses (literally) and follow their Master (Mark 8:34) because they were called to be ambassadors for Christ (2 Cor 5:20).

4. They had no doubt that Jesus had risen from the dead, as witnessed by hundreds of people who had seen him (1 Cor 15:1-23-56-7). The resurrection assured them that they too would be raised when Jesus returns to earth in glory, as King and Lord of all (1 Cor 15:23).

5. They believed Jesus’ prophecy that the gospel must first be proclaimed to all nations before his Kingdom would come in its fullness (Mark 13:10Matt 24:14). They saw themselves as ‘gospellers’ until his return.

6. They loved Jesus more than life itself, because of his loving sacrifice on the cross. They knew that their hardships were nothing compared to their Saviour’s, momentary sufferings against the backdrop of the new heavens and new earth (1 Peter 1:6-9).

7. They knew that the gospel would triumph over every obstacle until it brings believers into eternal joy in the presence of the God of the universe. The hope of the gospel was worth the ultimate sacrifice.

You will notice that I have deliberately used words like “know”, “convinced”, “certain”, “believed”. That does not mean that these believers were free of doubt, fear and despair. They were just human like us. But they were convinced by the Jesus they had experienced, and the gospel was too precious a gift to dilute its potency. They knew enough to entrust Jesus with their lives.

This was the gospel of Jesus Christ, and it remains just as powerful and precious today.

Revolutionary gospel vs impotent placebo

But today, the word “gospel” is often vaguely linked to ‘good tidings’ or stories about Jesus.

In an age where experience is prized above truth, and belonging above believing, it is easy to lose the revolutionary core of the gospel message.

If we reduce the gospel to platitudes, Jesus’s moral teachings, church programs and rituals, God’s powerful elixir will be diluted. The ‘gospel’ will become a comforting placebo that is impotent to save the lost.

I have seen this firsthand in some church services I have attended, most notably, my son’s school confirmation. It made me sick to the stomach how the gospel was barely mentioned as the foundation for twenty young boys’ serious confession of faith. After hours of ritual and ceremony, they were pronounced “good Christian gentlemen” without a hint of the essential Biblical truths which make our faith so precious. It bore no resemblance to the robust, costly faith of these ancient saints and, quite frankly, was a mockery to our Saviour’s precious sacrifice.

The true gospel as preached by Jesus, the apostles and the early church in Acts, was the announcement of a momentous event that would change the course of the world forever. The gospel is revolutionary in the truest sense. The event itself was the coming of God’s kingdom to earth, with Jesus Christ as its undisputed King. The gospel can be summarised in one profound affirmation:

JESUS IS LORD!

In next week’s devotion, “A Kingdom Gospel”, we will look at Jesus’ stunning gospel announcement in Luke 4:18-29. The following week we will examine the great commission of Matthew 28 in “A Fragrant Gospel.”

Live it out!

Are we sometimes slightly ashamed of the gospel for fear of offending people who disagree with us?

Do we truly understand that the gospel is the “power of God for salvation to everyone who believes?”

Is there a cost for us in following Jesus and being a ‘gospeller’ in the environment God has placed us?

Do we look and pray daily to find common ground with people in their brokenness and alienation, to point them to Jesus?

Pray

Father, I know that your Son will one day return to this earth in glory, with the angels. Help me to keep a constant vision of that day in my mind, so that I will not be afraid to lose myself for the sake of the gospel. Do not let me be ashamed of you in my generation, so that you will not be ashamed of me when you return as King. I seek to honour and please you alone. Thank you for the precious gift of the gospel. (Mark 8:34-38). There is no other name–Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen.

Worship the Lord Jesus with this beautiful reminder of the gospel by Andrew Paterson, Is he worthy?

Incomparable

starry-night-1149815_960_720

Who but God?

Quis ut Deus? When I was growing up, my dad loved to quote the Latin motto of his old school in the KZN Midlands. Translated as the Hebrew name Mi-Cha-El, it means, “Who but God?” In simple English, “To whom will you compare God?”

What I didn’t realize until much later, was that this rhetorical question is rooted in one of the most moving chapters of the Bible. It takes my breath away every time I read these verses from Isaiah 40.

Isaiah 40:12-21

“Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand
and marked off the heavens with a span,
enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure
and weighed the mountains in scales
and the hills in a balance?
13 Who has measured the Spirit of the Lord,
or what man shows him his counsel?
14 Whom did he consult,
and who made him understand?
Who taught him the path of justice,
and taught him knowledge,
and showed him the way of understanding?
15 Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket,
and are accounted as the dust on the scales;
behold, he takes up the coastlands like fine dust.
16 Lebanon would not suffice for fuel,
nor are its beasts enough for a burnt offering.
17 All the nations are as nothing before him,
they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness.

18 To whom then will you liken God,
or what likeness compare with him?
19 An idol! A craftsman casts it,
and a goldsmith overlays it with gold
and casts for it silver chains.
20 He who is too impoverished for an offering
chooses wood that will not rot;
he seeks out a skillful craftsman
to set up an idol that will not move.

21 Do you not know? Do you not hear?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
22 It is he who sits above the circle of the earth,
and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
and spreads them like a tent to dwell in;
23 who brings princes to nothing,
and makes the rulers of the earth as emptiness.

24 Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown,
scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth,
when he blows on them, and they wither,
and the tempest carries them off like stubble.

25 To whom then will you compare me,
that I should be like him? says the Holy One.
26 Lift up your eyes on high and see:
who created these?
He who brings out their host by number,
calling them all by name;
by the greatness of his might
and because he is strong in power,
not one is missing.

27 Why do you say, O Jacob,
and speak, O Israel,
“My way is hidden from the Lord,
and my right is disregarded by my God”?
28 Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
29 He gives power to the faint,
and to him who has no might he increases strength.
30 Even youths shall faint and be weary,
and young men shall fall exhausted;
31 but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength;
they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary;
they shall walk and not faint.”

Setting the Scene.

Isaiah 40 is primarily a word of comfort and encouragement for the people of Jerusalem, who will endure a holocaust and captivity in Babylon within 150 years. Their exile ensued from abandoning Yahweh and persistent idolatry (Isa 39:5-7). Written 700 years before Jesus’ birth, Isaiah 40bursts with gospel language. It begins with an announcement of Yahweh’s plan to build a highway between himself and his people. Isaiah sketches a scene of massive earthworks in the wilderness to reveal God’s glory to “all flesh” (Isa 40:5), not just to the people of Jerusalem. The voice that cries out is a momentous proclamation known in the ancient world as a “gospel”. Let us backtrack to the opening verses:

Listen! (Isa 40:1-6)

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
    and cry to her
that her warfare is ended,
    that her iniquity is pardoned,
that she has received from the Lord‘s hand
    double for all her sins.

3“Listen! It’s the voice of someone shouting,

“Prepare the way of the Lord;
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

6 A voice says, “Cry!”
    And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All flesh is grass,
    and all its beauty is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades
    when the breath of the Lord blows on it;
    surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
    but the word of our God will stand forever.”

An eternal song of redemption

Even without knowing the historical context, we hear strains of a song that resounds throughout the Bible. It serenades us with God’s tenderness and mercy (Isa 40:1-2); his promise to pardon and pay for sin (Isa 40:2), humanity’s weakness (Isa 40:6-8) and God’s extraordinary rescue plan (Isa 40:3-7) through his everlasting word (Isa 40:8). It is the ancient echo of a Redemption plan much grander than anything God achieved for the nation of Israel in the Old Testament. But who exactly is this God?

To Isaiah, God is incomparable. Idols and the world’s most powerful people are mere grasshoppers, transient grass and chaff beside the everlasting God, the creator and ruler of all (Isa 40:18-20222324). Their achievements are wilting flowers alongside God’s word, which stands forever (Isa 40:8).

Suddenly Isaiah’s mood swings.

In the most tender words, Yahweh, the mighty King becomes the Shepherd of his people:

“He will tend his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms;
he will carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead those that are with young” (Isa 40:11).

It is the sovereign Lord himself who “comes” (Isaiah 40:10) with power to rescue and strengthen his flock. To tend. Gather. Carry. Lead. As a parent, these gentle, intimate verbs choke me up.

Let the Redeemed of the Lord tell their story.

Isaiah 40 resonates deeply with me because it reminds me of a time many years ago when God opened the curtains of my heart to reveal a glimpse of who he is and who I am. It dawned on me that the Lord is incomparable (Isa 40:25) and the things I was living for were empty froth (Isa 40:17-19) and toppling idols (Isa 40:20). He lifted my eyes to see the stars he knows by name (Isa 40:26). He pierced through my ignorance and arrogance to show me that He alone is the Holy One, Judge of all mankind (Isa 40:14), ruler of the universe (Isa 40:22-23).

God took me on a journey back to the beginning and shone his spotlight on my useless idols. But then He switched his beam onto the gospel and Jesus’ sacrifice to pay for my sin. Psalm 107 says, “Let the redeemed of the Lord tell their story—those he redeemed from the hand of the foe.” This is my story of redemption:

Can I really trust God?

When I was seven years old I became a Christian. I walked with God for many years at school, but when I went to university at 18, I was like a chicken finally released from the coop, desperate to be free and independent! I didn’t realize it at the time, but the deep question I’d never fully answered in my own heart was, “Can I really trust God to make me happy and give me the good life I want?” Although I was a believer, the enemy’s lies took root and eventually led me to a decision to enjoy varsity on my own terms without the interference of God. I was well and truly captured by the “hand of the foe” like my ancestors in Genesis 3. I never doubted God’s existence, but to my shame, I told him that I did not want to be a half-hearted hypocrite. I prayed to God to leave me alone to discover my own way. I was too busy enjoying myself to feel the full loss of the friendship with God I had always enjoyed. Living as a hedonist provided ample distractions from the realities of life for three years. I was stone deaf to the words of God (Isa 40:21).

At 21, I completed my undergraduate degree. My friends and I planned a holiday in Zimbabwe, which included a trip to Hwange National Park, a canoe trip from Kariba to Mana Pools, rounded off with a 21st birthday party in Harare (that I would attend alone.) As we travelled from one beautiful spot to another, the quiet of the bush started to press in on me and gave me a wistfulness I had suppressed for a long time. I felt strangely alien from the friends and banter around me. It left me feeling hollow and sad. What I craved most of all was to pray, but I knew I had no right to approach the God I’d rejected and despised. Since I’d walked away from him, I could surely not change my mind.

By the time we started paddling on the Zambezi, I began to sense the wonder of God’s creation in the wide open spaces teeming with life, and smells and sounds that are unique to the continent we call home. The first three days were scorching but uneventful. We paddled in a steady rhythm through peaceful valleys, watched birds, ate mealie meal and baked beans beside the river and slept under a trillion bright stars. I saw how the heavens wordlessly declare the glory of God and display his handiwork (Psalm 19:1).

Then suddenly, on the second day, the peace was broken. It honestly felt like all hell broke loose! First, a massive crocodile rammed into my single canoe, dug his teeth into the plastic and tried to turn it over. I’m no croc whisperer, but it was evident that the giant reptile was trying to pull me out of the boat. Even after being hit by many paddles, the croc continued to trail my canoe until I paddled safely to shore. The next day was almost as bad! I paddled between a mother and baby hippo and came face to face with the fiercest maternal love I have ever witnessed! I suspect I could have been ground to dust in an instant by one snap of those jaws.

At night we set up camp beside the river, but one night we were awoken from sleep by loud trumpeting and the stomping of a herd of elephant at close quarters. As I peeped out the tent, I saw their vast tree trunk limbs stepping carefully around us! I felt like a grasshopper.

That was the night I couldn’t help myself praying to God. It wasn’t for help or safety. I felt strangely safe, as though the God who had always known me was watching over me and pursuing me with kindness. I just told him the truth– that I would like to walk with him again, but my guilt was too great. I told God that I did not expect him to take me back, because I had made my choice to turn my back on him and I must bear the consequence of that decision. It was not a dramatic prayer but just a simple cry from the heart. I did not ask him for anything, as I feared I had committed the unpardonable sin and had forfeited that privilege.

My adventures were far from over when I left the Zambezi River. As I was driving alone in my car at the end of the paddling trip, a whole herd of Impala appeared in the road ahead of me. The large male impaled my windscreen with his horns! As I stopped the car to inspect the damage, I saw the bleeding impala lying mangled and dying in the dust.

Behold the Lamb of God.

As I sat in the dust with the bleeding impala on my lap, I saw in my mind a picture of Jesus dying on the cross, along with the title John the Baptist gave him—“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). It wasn’t a vision or audible voice, just a thought. But the message was unmistakably clear to me:

“Jesus has died for you, just as surely as this innocent impala has died because of you. Jesus gave up his life to pay for your sin—your rejection, your contempt, your unfaithfulness—all of it. It cost Him everything to forgive you. Don’t despise his sacrifice any longer.” It was a powerful object lesson that I’ve never experienced before or since that day.

The Holy Spirit was like Isaiah’s “voice in the wilderness” shouting the gospel into my heart, “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. Don’t run away from Him—Run to Him.”

In repentance and rest is your salvation (Isaiah 30:15).

As much as the Holy Spirit drew me to Jesus, I knew I had a choice to make. I could either choose rest and repentance in Jesus, or I could run from him again. I realised that the gospel of grace was being offered to me that day, just as it was on the day I first became a follower of Jesus Christ. The love of the Shepherd-God (Isaiah 40:11) swept over me as I cried and confessed my sin and prayed for forgiveness beside the road. I received only God’s compassion and healing in return for my guilt. It was the first time I truly understood God as my good Father and realised the horrendous offence of my rebel heart. I finally knew the answer to my question,

“Can I really trust God to make me happy and give me the good life I want?”

The emphatic answer is in Isaiah 40:272829-31, which you can read for yourself.

To end the story, I finally got back in my beaten up car, which now had no functional windscreen wipers or fan, and a badly cracked windscreen. I drove through a massive storm, barely able to see the road ahead of me, with a strange sense of peace—even when I realized I was running out of petrol! As I kept driving with the reserve tank on empty, I saw a perfect rainbow arching over the road ahead of me. It was just another tangible reminder of the God who is faithful to his covenant and saved his friend Noah and his family from the flood. I had no fear, as I knew his love for me was rooted in eternity. Foreknown…loved…before I was even born. A small problem with fuel was no challenge for my God who conspired with creation to draw me to himself!

One more miracle awaited me as my car started sputtering. I was free-wheeling down the hill when I saw the entrance to a small inn where I was able to harbour for the night. I had just enough money in my wallet to pay for a room and the couple who owned the inn happened to be Christians. They befriended me, prayed with me and arranged for my car to be repaired at no cost. I will never forget their kindness in helping a lost girl on her way back to God. When I woke up the next morning, it was the dawn of a new day – a new personal understanding of God’s sovereignty and his unfailing love. The ultimate irony is that I am now married to a crocodile farmer from Zimbabwe! Our livelihood comes from the same river where I was pursued by Gods kindness twenty-eight years ago.

Live it out!

If you feel lost, unworthy or fearful to come to God, know for sure that the gospel is for you. It is good news for those who know they have nothing to offer but their own weakness, shame and emptiness. The gospel is for those who know their need of a Saviour. Be sure of this:

“A bruised reed he will not break and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out”(Isaiah 42:6).

“How gracious he will be when you cry for help! As soon as he hears, he will answer you. (Isa 30:19). “The Lord binds up the bruises of his people and heals the wounds he inflicted (Isa 30:26).

Becoming whole is the work of a lifetime. God’s sovereignty and our choices are like two parallel lines of a railway track. Faith and obedience go hand in hand. Grace is required every step of the long and windy road. It has taken decades for the Lord to free me of some useless trinkets and idols I have clung to, and his redemptive work will continue until he takes me home.

I hope you have not been bored by my story of redemption! It has been good for me to remember the day I held a dead impala in my lap and saw my Saviour there.

This song “Rebel heart” by Lauren Daigle echoes the prayer of my heart as someone who has been forgiven and freed from much.

Pray Isaiah 40:27-31:

Lord, thank you that my way is not hidden from you and that you defend my cause. Thank you that you are the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth, the all-knowing and all-powerful ruler. Thank you that you give strength to weary and weak sinners like me. I come to you today in my frailty and put my hope in you. I pray for your grace to renew my strength today. I ask for fortitude to soar above the troubles I am facing, to run the race you have set out for me without stumbling or fainting.

In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Chosen by God (2) (Three big questions)

ladder to the clouds

Fate…chance…karma…natural selection.

There are many human explanations for the good, the bad and the ugly threading their way through life. None comes close to the doctrine of predestination, and its twin, providence, interwoven throughout the Scriptures. But do these doctrines make any difference to our lives?

Does it really matter?

Last week on The God Walk, we left off in Romans 8:28-30. Let’s re-read it carefully:

“28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. 29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. 30 And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.”

We know” is a strong assurance of truth. It is not about how we feel or what we think on a particular day. The Bible says that Christians can know certain things for sure. Our text roots our confidence in five actions that God has performed for us, events that link together like the rungs of a ladder. It reminded me of Jacob’s ladder to heaven.

  • God foreknew us
  • God predestined us
  • God called us
  • God justified us
  • God glorified us.

Last week we looked at God’s sovereignty and what it means to be chosen, called and foreknown, the first 3 rungs of the ladder. In the next few weeks we will look at what it means to be justified and glorified. But at this stage you may be thinking, “If God has done everything for me in salvation, then surely there is nothing left for me to do? I may as well fall asleep under the ladder until the angels carry me up to heaven!” This leads to three important questions:

  1. If God’s purposes are supreme, why pray or evangelise? God will do it anyway.
  2. If God’s purposes are supreme, how can I have free will?
  3. Is God unfair in choosing some and not others?

#1 Why evangelise or pray if only God can save?

If it is up to God to change a stony heart to flesh, does that mean we should passively let go and let God?

Church history answers this question. The New Testament leaders and authors firmly believed and wrote about predestination, yet they set the world alight with their evangelistic efforts and fervent prayers. They were martyred for their activities, not their passivity. They understood that God uses human agents to take the gospel invitation to the whole world and that God commands all people everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30); to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ and to love others (1 John 3:23). They did not wonder who was chosen and who wasn’t when they took their message to the world! Peter in his sermon at Pentecost begged everyone who was listening to repent and be baptized (Acts 2:38). John wrote, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16). No invitation could be more certain, inclusive and comprehensive than that. We are not God and cannot presume on the state of another person’s heart. But God’s purposes for salvation are made known to us:

God has ordained that His name will be great among the nations (Rev 7:9Mal 1:11Isa 62:6-7). This is what God has purposed and predestined from all eternity! Every believer is called by God to play a role in this great redemptive plan for men, women and children from every nation under the sun. There is a confluence between our call as chosen people of God, and Jesus’ Great Commission to go into all the world and make disciples (Matt 28:18-20).

Those who are called by Jesus are sent out by Jesus.

Acts 18:9-10 gives me courage when I’m timid to share Jesus with others. Paul is facing opposition to the gospel in Corinth and the Lord himself addresses him in a vision:

“Do not be afraid; keep on speaking and do not be silent. For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city.”

This verse should pierce our hearts! The Sovereign God has chosen many people in our city too. In Africa and in all the nations of the world. That is his sovereign purpose which cannot be thwarted. The Holy Spirit will prepare hearts to receive Jesus. It’s not up to our persuasive powers. At the same time, God calls us to action, not complacency. We must actively reach out, speak up, implore, persuade, appeal (2 Cor 5:20) and invitethe lost to come to Jesus, just as the Lord himself does (Isa 55:3). We must support missions. The Great Banquet of heaven is big enough for everyone, and ordinary Christians like you and me are sent to invite people on the highways and byways of life. Jesus, the Son of God himself, stands at the door of hearts and knocks, “If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me” (Rev 3:20).

You may be as timid as me. But if we are comfortably sleeping at the bottom of the proverbial ladder, God calls us to wake up from our slumber! (Eph 5:14Rom 13:11-14) We are called to stand strong, watchful and firm in the faith (1 Cor 16:13); to pray fervently (Col 4:2) to actively wrestle against evil (Eph 6:12); to prepare our minds for action (1 Peter 1:13-14);  to be doers, not just hearers of God’s word (James 1:22-25); to do the work of an evangelist and fulfill our ministry (2 Tim 4:5). God’s sovereign call and our efforts work hand in hand.

#2 Does God’s sovereignty negate free will?

It seems logical to a western 21st century mindset, that if God ordains everything, humans cannot have free choice. Thus, no one is guilty for their actions. But this reasoning is based on disjunctive (either-or), thinking. The Bible affirms conjunctive (both-and), thinking. Like a railway track with two parallel lines, the Bible sees both God’s sovereignty, and human responsibility, as true at the same time. We cannot grasp the gospel fully until we recognise the tension between these apparent contradictions—known as an antimony. Three Biblical instances illustrate this antimony effectively:

  • Genesis 50:19-2019 But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? 20 As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.

Joseph’s story is the classic illustration of providence in the life of a believer. God used the brothers’ evil deeds and worked them for His good purposes. But Joseph’s brothers were not God’s robots and God did not make them commit evil. They were responsible for their lies and betrayal, and Joseph affirms God’s sovereignty in judgment (v19). What they did was evil, not good. If the brothers were not responsible, they would not have needed to repent.

  • Acts 4:27-2827 for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, 28 to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.

If we only read verse 27, it would seem that Jesus died because of a conspiracy between the Jewish and Roman leaders. They bear the guilt for Jesus’ death. But in verse 28, Luke makes the stunning statement that Jesus died as a result of God’s decision taken in advance. This is an example of how human will and God’s predestined purposes are mutually compatible. God’s sovereignty does not override free will or exonerate evildoers. That would make nonsense of the concept of sin—the very reason why Jesus needed to die on the cross in the first place. We would not need the gospel if God’s sovereignty negated our free choices.

  • Mark 3:1313 And he went up on the mountain and called to him those whom he desired, and they came to him.

You may have noticed it, but this is an extraordinary statement made by Mark. Jesus is the sovereign God-man calling those he desires. It is as though he has an invite list. Yet, the invitees  are still responsible to cometo Jesus. Jesus does not force them to come against their will, but He makes them willing to come! In this verse, we see a convergence of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility, just as two streams would converge into one river. It is not a contradiction to say that we come to Christ because He calls us. God’s sovereignty makes our choice possible.

Spurgeon gives a helpful comment:

“I see in one place, God in providence presiding over all, and yet I see, and I cannot help seeing, that man acts as he pleases, and that God has left his actions, in a great measure, to his own free will…That God predestines, and yet that man is responsible, are two facts that few can see clearly. They are believed to be inconsistent and contradictory, but they are not. The fault is in our weak judgment. Two truths cannot be contradictory to each other.”

Timothy Keller’s article is useful if you would like to explore this question further.

#3 Is God unfair in choosing some and not others?

In my experience, this is a major stumbling block to receiving Christ, and it has been a hard question for me too. I cannot do justice to this question in a devotional like this. If you are grappling with your own faith in the fairness and goodness of God, or know someone who is, read these John Piper articles and teaching labs on Desiring God as a starting point.

I would also encourage you to prayerfully read chapters 9, 10 and 11 of Romans, where Paul deals with this specific question, especially as it relates to ethnic Israel and the true children of Abraham. Then read Job 38-42, an extraordinary interaction between Job and God. Job is seeking to explain his horrific, unjust suffering. At the heart of all our struggles with God are two basic questions: Can I trust God? Is God good? They were Job’s questions too.

God is no pocket pet–Job’s story.

I must warn you that the answers God gives in Romans and through Job’s virtual tour of the universe, do not sit comfortably with our culturally moulded views! Essentially, they are blunt reminders that God is the Creator of the universe and we are his creatures. He is the Potter and we are the clay. The Bible is unapologetic about this. We are not in a position to question God’s judgments, mercy and compassion. We cannot understand his purposes and do not deserve his mercy (Rom 9:15-21Rom 11:33-34). Like Job, our accusations against God are words without knowledge (Job 38:2). Like Job, we have no idea of the complexities of our own planet, let alone what is going on in the spiritual realm. Job never did see the front of the tapestry in his lifetime, but perhaps now, from the vantage point of heaven, he has eyes to see the thousands of men and women who have read his testimony of unwavering faithfulness in the face of unjust suffering. Even today, Job stands as a lighthouse to us. Perhaps this is a small glimpse into the ‘good’ that God works from evil. God’s greatly beloved servant Job, had no idea of his divine calling. And nor do we.

To a sceptic, it may seem like a cop out to mention the inscrutable wisdom of God. But if there is one thing I am learning from the God walk, it is that the triune God will not be domesticated by human beings. When my children were small, they used to collect toys called “Puppy in my Pocket.” The Lord Jehovah is not our pocket pet! He is wild and untameable (Job 41). As the beavers told the Pevensey children,

“Aslan is a lion- the Lion, the great Lion.” “Ooh” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion”…”Safe?” said Mr Beaver …”Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”― C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

Not safe, but good.

God is not safe, but He is good. I can tell you that, without a shadow of doubt.

His immense love and graciousness is beyond question. The greatest chapter on election also reminds us that the message of salvation is for allwho believe (Rom 10:11), for all who call on the name of Jesus (Rom 10:13). It is not just for a select few insiders.

Yes, we need Gods’ Spirit to breathe life into our dead hearts, but we also need to open our hearts to him.

Sincerity and heredity are simply not enough.

We are responsible for our own choices. God respects our choices and never forces his way into self-hardened hearts. “We are responsible for our rejection of the Gospel, but we are not responsible for our acceptance of it.” (Martin Lloyd Jones)

Live it out!

  • If it is God’s heart for everyone to come to repentance and be at peace with him (2 Peter 3:8-10), do you have the patient, compassionate heart of God? Do you love the lost as Jesus did?
  • Are you trusting God today with your life, whether you are rich or in debt, healthy or sick, happy or grieving, loved or rejected? Do you know for sure you are in God’s good hands, or are you still in the grip of blind fate or destiny?
  • Can you patiently wait on the Lord? Or do you prefer to take things into your own hands?

Pray.

Lord, give me faith to pray “Thy will be done”, while also walking through the doors you call me to enter. Give me the courage to trust and obey even when I don’t know what lies on the other side of the door. I am often blinded by the fog of being human. Father, keep me pressing forward in faith, confident of what I hope for and certain of what I cannot see. Through door after door, into unknown vistas, keep my eyes fixed on Jesus.

Your will be done…not my own. Melt my will and plans into yours, like sugar in a steamy cup of tea. May the result be a life that is always hot, and always sweet.

In Jesus’ name,

Amen.

Join me in the last devotion in this series Chosen by God, based on Isaiah 40. I will tell my personal story of redemption to illustrate the confluence of God’s sovereignty and free choice.

Meditate on the goodness of God with this amazing music video by Andrew Patterson.

Chosen by God (1) (And why it leads to confident living)

dad throwing up child

Fate…chance…fortune…karma…evolution.

There are many explanations for the Good, the Bad and the Ugly threading their way through life. None comes close to the doctrine of Predestination, and its twin –Providence- interwoven throughout the Scriptures. They are rooted in the assumption that God is sovereign over the universe. God reminds us of this through his prophet Isaiah:

Isaiah 46:9-10

Remember the former things, those of long ago;
I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is none like me.
10 I make known the end from the beginning,
from ancient times, what is still to come.
I say, ‘My purpose will stand,
and I will do all that I please.’

If uttered by a human being, these claims would be arrogant and undemocratic. Only a narcissist or delusional person would dare to say, “My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please!”  But God is not human or delusional. If He is truly the Creator of the universe, He is simply stating the facts.

He is unique. He is the only God. He knows everything. His purposes will stand. Other parts of the Bible tell us that God’s character is always a perfect balance of justice, wisdom, love and mercy (Ps 37:28Ex 22:22Rom 11:33Ps 86:5).

My prayer is that you will read today’s text with fresh eyes and an open heart. Ask the Holy Spirit to show you the good work He is doing in your life and plant a seed of confidence in your heart. This is a difficult subject, so be sure to hover over Biblical references to check the texts for yourself. We will read from verse 18 to set the context, but will focus on verse 28-31.

Romans 8:18-31

18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19 For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.

22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

26 In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.27 And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.

28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. 29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. 30 And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.

31 What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?

32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?…

37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

While creation ‘groans’

In his letter to persecuted Christians in Rome, Paul exposes the good, the bad and the ugly of life in its gory details. Humanity has rejected God’s rule and chosen to be their own judge of good and evil. Sin and rebellion are let loose with devastating consequences on the whole world (Romans 1-3). Creation is groaning, subject to decomposition and death, waiting to be liberated when Jesus returns as King (Rom 8:18-23).

Paul is describing our reality. Every day, we have painful reminders that life is fragile and transient—a pilgrimage between one state of nakedness to another. Yet, it is equally true that God is sovereign over all. Paul affirms the cruel suffering of his readers, but then sets their suffering against the backdrop of eternity. Instead of addressing them as victims, he treats them as victors (Romans 8:3137). They are called conquerors because God has chosen them as his special people. It is God who is ultimately behind everything that happens to them. Even while Creation groans, Paul addresses his readers as those “called to belong to Jesus Christ,” “loved by God and called to be saints” (Rom 1:6-7).

Being called and chosen is a big deal to Paul, and it should be to us if we are Christians. It is a truth that tethers us in turbulent times. It gives us a sense of belonging — a real home. It is a great comfort for believers who feel marginalised or homeless in this world. It is a source of humble confidence.

Foreknown…Chosen…

Predestined from eternity…Called…

Held by the providence of God…For all eternity!

If true, these statements have staggering implications for life. In Romans 8:18-31, Paul gives us eyes to see the invisible hand of God lovingly shaping his children and history on our behalf.

“The Tapestry”

The late Corrie ten Boom, a Dutch Christian who endured prison and Ravensbruck concentration camp after harbouring hundreds of Jews in her home during the holocaust, wrote this poem about her life, known as The Tapestry.

“My life is but a weaving
Between my God and me.
I cannot choose the colors
He weaveth steadily.

Oft’ times He weaveth sorrow;
And I in foolish pride
Forget He sees the upper
And I the underside.

Not ’til the loom is silent
And the shuttles cease to fly
Will God unroll the canvas
And reveal the reason why.

The dark threads are as needful
In the weaver’s skillful hand
As the threads of gold and silver
In the pattern He has planned

He knows, He loves, He cares;
Nothing this truth can dim.
He gives the very best to those
Who leave the choice to Him.”

Corrie ten Boom wrote The Tapestry because she believed that her destiny was safely rooted in eternity, with the all-sovereign God. Despite Naziism and the horrors she personally experienced, even the death of her family, her view of God did not change. She experienced her God, not as an indifferent Creator, but as the master weaver of his universe, with her life woven into his great purposes. It gave her comfort and confidence to know that no evil scheme could reverse this simple truth—“He knows, He loves, He cares.” Corrie’s life before, during and after Ravensbruck was deeply grounded in the truth of divine Predestination and Providence. After the war, it enabled her to forgive her enemies and ignited her with a desire to share Christ’s gospel across the world, until she died on her 91stbirthday. Can a particular view of God really affect someone so deeply?

I am persuaded that the entire sweep of the Bible affirms the sovereignty of God as the master architect and playwright of history. Neither fate, nor accident, nor karma determine our destiny. God is never taken by surprise. There is nothing random in the past, present or future. God even uses evil schemes and his enemies as agents to achieve his sovereign plans (Isaiah 37:26-32Isaiah 10:5). If you truly believe this, it will have profound practical effects in your life.

Your view of God determines how you see your role in the world, how you pray to God and how you treat people around you. It determines what you put your hope and confidence in. It determines your direction.

Predestination is a doctrine that rests on God’s sovereignty. It points to origins. Before the beginning of time, God, in his infinite wisdom, has chosen people to know, love and care for as his own.

On the flip side of the same coin is providence, which points to the way God keeps, guides and preserves his people. The Westminster Shorter Catechism gives a helpful definition of divine providence:

“God’s works of providence are, his most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures, and all their actions.”

For now, we are living on the underside of the tapestry. Our vision is obscured and distorted as we lack perspective to see how all the threads will be woven together. Only when the loom is silent and God unrolls the canvas, will we finally see how each thread played its part in the beautiful tapestry of God’s story. “For now I see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor 13:12).

Only the arrogant or foolish claim to see through a mirror clearly now.

How can a mortal, finite human being understand God’s sovereign plans? Who of us would like the job of holding the world together and directing its course? What about our free choice? Can we be held accountable?

These are big questions I cannot fully answer, but I will touch on them in the second part of this devotional. Please hang in to the end! But as a starting point, let us list some things we can know for certain about being chosen by God from His Word:

  • God has chosen, foreknown and called a people for Himself before the beginning of time, because of his sovereign purpose, good pleasure and will (2 Thess 2:13Eph 1:4-5). They are called his “treasured possession”, “holy to the Lord”. The basis of this calling is not on merit, but simply because God set his love on them and has entered an everlasting covenant of love with them (Deut 7:6-8).
  • We did not choose God. He chose us because of his undeserved favour and love for us (John 15:16Rom 11:5). The foreknowledge (Rom 8:29) of God is pregnant with meaning. It goes beyond mere cognition. Foreknowledge is synonymous with the Hebraic expression “jada”, which implies an intimate covenantal love relationship. To foreknow in verse 29 literally means to set his love upon and delight in us. Let the intimacy of this knowing love sink in for a moment. It is the same word used for the intimate love between husband and wife (Hosea 13:5). God addresses his people, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you (Jer 1:5).” “You only have I known of all the families of the earth (Amos 3:2).” Jesus says He knows his sheep and his sheep know him (John 10:14). We are only enabled to love him, because He first set his love on us (1 John 4:19).
  • All the days of God’s children were written in his book before even one of them came into existence (Psalm 139:16). God is not surprised on the day we are born or die!
  • We can only understand the truth of the gospel when God shines his light in our hearts (2 Cor 4:6), just as He did when He said, “Let there be light!” We are spiritually dead and helpless until God makes us alive with Christ (Eph 2:1-5). No one can come to Jesus unless the Father draws them (John 6:44).
  • God grants us repentance leading to knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:25-26).
  • God the Father predestined us to be adopted as sons, holy and blameless like Jesus, our older brother and Saviour (Eph 1:3-5). This is his plan for our lives. God’s purpose in choosing us and his providence in working everything for “good” in our lives, have identical aims: (1) To become more like Jesus in character (Romans 8:29) and (2) to proclaim His greatness in a dark world (1 Peter 2:9).

Walking humbly with our God.

The Westminster Catechism asks the question: What is the chief end of man?

The answer– To glorify God and enjoy Him forever.

This is the script God has authored for us from eternity. If I am a Christian, this means that I am not the author of my own story. I am not the Master of my own fate or the Captain of my soul. The poem Invictus, by William Henley, is the direct antithesis of Corrie ten Boom’s The Tapestry. It means I have nothing to prove to anyone. This is humbling but also liberating. It gives us the freedom of self forgetfulness. Christianity teaches that we do not make up our own story, but are characters in God’s epic story.

A story is a powerful thing. I love listening to stories of how people were saved. They always tell of how God drew them to himself. How they were lost and God stepped in through a string of events to bring them to himself. How they were blind to the gospel and then the mist dissolved. How their hostility turned to receptivity. How they found purpose and direction in their life, not just for now but for eternity.

Solomon said that God has set a longing for eternity in our hearts (Eccl 3:11). Perhaps it is to remind us that His work involves us in an eternal, spiritual purpose beyond ourselves. It is humbling to know we are minor actors on God’s eternal stage.

A scandal of the gospel is that God expressly chooses the foolish, weak and despised people of this world to shame the powerful and self reliant (1 Cor 1:26-29). Those who do not believe they need Jesus do not want to come to Him. They do not think they need to repent and believe. There is only one way to come to God the Father and to walk as a Christian– in humility and trust. We need to abandon our own glory and seek His.

Providence — our only security in a turbulent world.

In Romans 8: 28-31, God makes a special promise to those who belong to him. He assures us that his providence will rule over us all the days of our lives.

The promise is not that we will be protected from evil or suffering.

God does not promise to always intervene or answer our prayers in the way we think He should.

The promise does not apply to everyone. Sadly, in the normal course of events, things do not always turn out for the best.

The promise is for those that love the Lord and are called according to his purpose. For these people, God guarantees that He will have the final say over the effect of all things in their lives. The God who chooses his people will preserve his people (John 10:28). He will weave good from all things. He calls us to trust his wisdom and goodness in this. Beyond this we have no claims on God. This is our security in a turbulent world.

John Piper asks,

“The question is, which world would you rather live in? One where humans or Satan or chance govern what happens to you? Or one where an infinitely good, infinitely wise, infinitely powerful God works everything together for the good of those who trust him and for his glory?” (John Piper).

No matter what life events you may be facing, if you belong to Christ, Paul’s two rhetorical questions are addressed to you,

“For if God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Rom 8:31-32). This is the recipe for confident Christian living.

 

Join us in the next devotion to answer 3 important questions about predestination:

  1. If God’s purposes are supreme, why pray and why evangelise? God will do it anyway.
  2. If God’s purposes are supreme, how can we be morally responsible beings?
  3. Is God unfair in choosing some and not others?

Pray:

Make Colossians 1:9-11, Genesis 50:20 and Romans 8:28-31 your own prayer:

Lord, strengthen me to walk in a manner worthy of your name. Empower my efforts according to your glorious might. Sustain me with endurance, patience and joy even when my life is taking an unwanted detour. I do not always understand your purposes when bad things happen, but you are the King of the universe. You are wise and good and I trust that you are always working good from evil. Make my heart soft and supple so that through every circumstance, you may lovingly cast my character into the mould of your Son Jesus, my Saviour and Lord. Amen.

Worship God as you listen to this profound song by Chris Tomlin.

 

What is the blessed life?

mom and dad with child

Counting and naming blessings

Being conscious and grateful for everyday blessings is expressed in the simple hymn: “Count your blessings, name them one by one, and it will surprise you what the Lord has done.” But a quick glance at Facebook could convince a visiting alien that blessedness comes from having beautiful children, a new car, exotic holidays, great friends, getting a promotion or snagging a good looking partner! The gift is often praised, but the giver simply ignored. It is as if blessings come out of nowhere or are due credit for our efforts. For many people, the blessed life is nothing more profound than enjoying good luck, hereditary privilege or the fruits of one’s labours.

A matter of fact, not feeling

Christians also love to use the word blessed, although we are not always exactly sure what it means. We know that a blessed life is more profound than random luck and has something to do with God’s favour and protection. In the Bible, the Greek word for blessed (makarios) literally means happy, and blessings (eulogeo) are the bounty, favour or benefitswe receive from God’s hand. But these benefits have often been twisted by Bible teachers to refer to favourable circumstances and monetary rewards. Many pastors, particularly in Africa, have turned the Christian gospel into a commodity and teach their churches the principle of “seeding” (giving to the church) in order to reap material blessings and riches from God. But perpetual wealth, health and prosperity have never been the lived experience of godly believers through the millenia– including the prophets, Paul and the apostles, and Jesus Christ himself. The Bible simply does not teach this materialistic understanding of the blessed life. In fact, the first forty-three Psalms are meditations or prayers on the privileges or blessings of God’s favoured ones, yet they are drenched with the psalmist’s groans, cries, grief, persecution and personal torment. These ancient songs express God’s favour and blessing over oppressed, poor and helpless people.

Today’s text from Ephesians 1 gives flesh to the special “blessedness” of being a Christian. Here we see that being blessed is not just a feeling (which comes and goes depending on our circumstances) but a fact. It is a unique kind of privilege that has more to do with status than a fuzzy emotion. We are blessed because of our position as believers who are in Christ regardless of our social status, race or any other group identity. We are often blessed in spite of our circumstances, not because of them. Blessing has been conferred on us by God himself and it’s been done in the past tense. It is secure, unchangeable and unconditional. Blessedness is a matter of fact, not of feeling. It is the ultimate privilege and has nothing to do with good luck. The blessed life is something we can depend upon because it is based on God himself, not on ourselves or our circumstances.

Ephesians 1:3-14 (ESV)

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

11 In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, 12 so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. 13 In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.”

Blessed in Christ

(Ephesians 1:3-14)

It is true that everyone experiences God’s blessing in a general sense. God has blessed us with life in the world He has created, the ability to breathe and gasp at a beautiful sunset, hug a child and laugh with friends. Sometimes we don’t realise how blessed we are until we lose something precious. It is right to thank and praise God for every simple blessing and take nothing for granted. (James 1:17) Living with gratitude and joie de vivre is actually good for our physical and emotional health no matter who we are.

But in our Ephesians text, did you notice how many times Paul links blessing to being “in Christ” or “in him?” It is the way the Bible speaks of being united with Christ, which happens the moment we become a Christian. What a privilege to be blessed “in the Beloved” (Eph 1:6)! Union with Christ appears 165 times in the New Testament, which means it’s central to our faith.  The blessedness Paul is speaking about in Ephesians 3 is special and distinct. It is only experienced by being “in Christ.” Of course, this cannot mean a literal, physical union with Christ, as Jesus died in 33AD on a Roman cross. But it describes the reality of a believer’s intimate relationship with Jesus because he lives in our hearts by faith (Eph 3:17-19).   The Bible has many terms and images to describe this reality of being united with Christ. It is not just a loose link with Jesus or the way I feel close to him at certain times. Metaphorically speaking, a Christian has been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me (Gal 2:20).

John Murray describes the joyful blessing of being united with Christ like this: “Why does the believer entertain the thought of God’s determinate counsel with such joy? Why can he have patience in the perplexities and adversities of the present? Why can he have confident assurance with reference to the future and rejoice in hope of the glory of God? It is because he cannot think of past, present, or future apart from union with Christ.” (co-founder and past lecturer at Westminster Theological Seminary).

Being “in Christ” gives hope where many are in despair.

(Eph 1:9-14)

God’s ultimate plan for human history is found in Ephesians 1:9-10. On a certain day in the future, God will unite all things in heaven and on earth in Christ.  On this day, every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. He will rule supremely with no rival. But until that day, God gathers a special family for Himself whom He has chosen to be holy (Eph 1:4), adopted (Eph 1:5), redeemed and forgiven (Eph 1:7). He has opened our eyes to see the mystery of his will regarding Jesus (Eph 1:9), he has given us an inheritance (Eph 1:11) and sealed this future hope with his own Spirit who comes to live inside us (Eph 1:13-14). God has not only purchased us, but has also blessed this family under his rule with “every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.” We have purpose on this earth and into eternity. We enjoy great benefits and assurances this side of heaven. We are not the product of random chance and fate in this messy, unjust world. It is truly awesome that the Maker of the universe has given us this privilege on earth, and it is the blessing enjoyed by all God’s people through the ages. If we are Christ’s followers, we need to meditate on this truth every day. This is the only blessed life, regardless of the messages drummed into us by social media, advertisers or our own distorted minds and wavering emotions. This spiritual blessing is the only privilege worth having, because it speaks of God’s unfailing love for his children since before the world was made. It cannot be earned or lost.

No privilege of race, education or wealth comes close to blessedness in Christ.

(Eph 1:7-812-13)

Do you notice that none of these great blessings is due to a single thing we have accomplished or our group identity? Every blessing is God-given, “according to the riches of his grace” (Eph 1:7). It is a generous, undeserved treasure trove. It is initiated and “lavished upon us” by God (Eph 1:8).  Paul assures us that our “blessedness” does not depend on us. God was at work long before the creation of the world for the purpose of adopting us into his family. Given the timing, there is nothing we could have done to earn his selection.

Blessedness is sealed, signed and delivered by God himself to those who belong to Him. But it is also clear that we need to respond to God’s plan of redemption. We need to accept the invitation of redemption for ourselves. We need to hope and believe in Jesus ourselves. (Eph 1:12-13). There is no such thing as a proxy response.

Blessedness is built on redemption through Jesus. (Eph 1:7; 12-13)

The blessed life is freely available to us, but Jesus welcomes sinners to himself only on the basis of redemption through his blood and the forgiveness of our sins (Eph 1:7). Sin has no place in the presence of God. Evil deeply offends his holiness. We first need to be made right with God to claim these special blessings of God. They are not conferred by religion or ritual or heritage, but only through personally putting our trust in Jesus. That is why Peter affirms in the earliest sermons of the Christian faith that Jesus is the cornerstone, as “there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12). Jesus was unequivocal that He was the way, the truth and the life and that no one could come to the Father except by Him (John 14:6). Paul wrote to Timothy that there is only one God and one mediator between God and man–the man Jesus Christ (1 Tim 2:5). Jews were not exempt due to their special religious heritage. This is the gospel of our salvation— the word of truth that Paul refers to in verse 13 of our Ephesians text.

The unique word of truth

(Eph 1:13)

The text tells us that we are united with Christ when we hear the word of truth and believe in Jesus (v13). Nothing more is required than hearing and believing, but verse 13 is describing the greatest miracle known to mankind. Did you notice that Paul doesn’t refer to some vague idea of truth, but uses the definite article “the word of truth, the gospel of our salvation”? Abdu Murray’s excellent book, Saving Truth: Finding Meaning in a post-truth world describes how western culture has moved to a new worldview where personal feelings and preferences matter more than truth or objective facts.

“Western culture embraces confusion as a virtue and decries certainty as a sin. Those who are confused about sexuality and identity are viewed as heroes. Those who are confused about morality are progressive pioneers. Those who are confused about spirituality are praised as tolerant. Conversely, those who express certainty about any of these issues are seen as bigoted, oppressive, arrogant, or intolerant.”

Murray goes on to provide vital insight on how to share the gospel truth in a post-truth world, connecting with people in the things that matter to them, so that they will hear us and believe in Jesus.

The uniqueness and power of the gospel is inescapable: That the perfect Son of God should become flesh and live among us, that He should die for our sins on the cross and rise on the third day—this is a unique word that offers salvation, peace and hope to our generation in the same way as to any other in history.

It is the word of truth that needs to be clearly spoken, heard and believed: “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” (Rom 10:14The Triune God is a speaking God. He is not silent and He has shown us who He is and how we can know Him. We are God’s mouthpiece to communicate this word of truth to a confused generation. We need to learn to do it effectively in the post-truth world in which we live and in which our children are growing up.

Sealed with the Holy Spirit.

(Eph 1:13-14)

Amazingly, God has done more than speak his word of truth to us. His Spirit is alive in us and at work in our lives. The Holy Spirit is a person– the protector, counsellor, prompter, comforter, and the power and presence of God for those who are in Christ. He is the guarantee of a sure inheritance that cannot perish, spoil or fade (1 Peter 1:3-5).

Our inheritance is eternal life with God. This is our true legacy– the only glory worth seeking. The Holy Spirit is living proof of it.

Do you know the Spirit’s work and presence in your life?

What blessing really means.

Loss, failure, illness, broken relationships and death can smash the perfect image of our Facebook blessings in the blink of an eye.

Yet, in a recent season of my life when almost every pleasure and comfort was stripped away–when everything was dark and I could hardly breathe or eat a mouthful of food–when all I could do was lie face down, crying to God in desperation, and devour His word like a crazy person seeking water in the desert– that is when I knew his blessing more intensely than ever. I knew and felt deep down in my soul the paradox Jesus described: “Blessed are the poor in spirit; blessed are those who mourn” (Matt 5:3-4). I personally experienced the presence of the Holy Spirit more intimately than ever before and felt God’s grace and mercy drench me like warm, heavy rainfall. I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that my life was blessed. It was joy.

I experienced God’s blessing because of this simple truth in God’s word:

“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
    his mercies never come to an end;
 they are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.” (Lamentations 3:22-23)

God is faithful. Merciful. Steadfast in love.

I store hundreds of verses like this in my memory bank for times when I forget that my life is blessed. My blessing is based on His character, not my own. Nor my circumstances.

Elizabeth blessed her cousin Mary, the mother of Jesus, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” But blessed Mary would watch her beloved son brutally crucified 33 years later. In Mary’s life, and in our own lives as God’s children, true blessedness has everything to do with God’s favour and nothing to do with favourable circumstances.

If you are God’s child, you will experience the blessing of being at peace with God– forgiven of your great burden of guilt and sin through Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross (Romans 4:7). You will also know that the greatest blessing known to mankind is to be loved by the immortal God. It is the blessing of security–  the confidence of knowing that no one can accuse or stand against you, and no circumstance,  in heaven or earth, nor even death itself, can separate you from God’s love (Romans 8:31-39). Nothing can come between you and Jesus.

The ultimate water bladder

The certainty of God’s love is the water bladder in your hydration pack on a long trail. Without water, it won’t take long for thirst and dehydration to set in. You will wilt, get wobbly on your feet and start seeing mirages. Trust me, I’ve been there! Likewise, a believer cannot survive for long without sipping slowly and deeply on the living water of God’s eternal love for you. It is the surest way to keep your vision clear. It is the one great blessing around which all the others nestle comfortably.

Live out the blessed life!

  • Do you have a joyful, grateful heart that is evident to people around you? How do you typically respond to your blessings? Do you blessthe Lord (speak well of/ thank and praise Him), not just in Church but in your everyday encounters with people at home, school, work, in the supermarket, wherever you find yourself? Are you certain of the favour and love of God even if your circumstances are far from perfect?
  • If you are a parent, do you speak words of blessing over your children in the same way God honours and blesses you? Or are you shaming or disheartening your children by dishing out conditional approval?
  • Do you experience the love of God your Father at a heart level? Do you personally know the blessedness of Ephesians 1? If you are unsure, do not delay! Keep reading these devotions, ask God to reveal the “word of truth, the gospel of your salvation.” Make an appointment today with a trusted Christian to meet regularly until you know where you stand with God. Pray, however imperfectly. Don’t stop until you have more than head knowledge of God’s blessing.

Pray:

Turn Ephesians 3:16-21 into your own prayer:

“Father, I pray that out of your storehouse of rich blessings, you may strengthen me by your Spirit– with a deep inner strength that is more than human. Give me an unshakeable, secure confidence.

Jesus, I invite you to live in my heart through faith, every day, every moment. I ask that I may live my ordinary life securely rooted in your unfailing love for me.

May I, together with all your followers, fully grasp how wide and long and high and deep is your love for me.

Father, please let me experience in my mind and my heart the dimensions of your love which is greater than anything I can fathom.

As your child, may I be fully satisfied in you, content and grateful with my life. May I know that I am truly blessed in you.

Blessed be your name!

Glory to God in the church!
Glory to God in the Messiah, Jesus!
Glory down all the generations!
Glory through all millennia! Amen!”

Meditation:

In “Blessings,” Laura Story asks the question of God: “What if blessings come through rain drops? What if the rain, the storms, the hardest nights–are your mercies in disguise?” Listen to Laura Story and Matt Redman sing about the blessed life:

 

 

Every Believer’s Hydration Pack

active activity adventure backpack
Photo by Krivec Ales on Pexels.com

Ten essential items

If you are crazy enough to enter a trail run, you will know that a fully equipped hydration pack is an absolute essential. Being a novice, I was shocked to read the list of compulsory equipment I have to put in my hydration pack before merrily setting off to “Run-the-Berg” in October. The kit list includes a waterproof jacket, space blanket, whistle, fully charged cellphone, beanie, thermal vest, fleece, compass, sunscreen and first aid kit! That’s ten essential items, excluding the 1.5 litres of water we’re somehow supposed to squeeze in our nifty hydration packs strapped to our backs! I was suspecting overkill until I glanced at a picture of the mountains I will traverse, described as “notoriously unpredictable and unforgiving for the ill-prepared.” It was patently obvious that I was a member of the ‘ill-prepared’ club as I read on about the hazardous terrain and weather conditions of the trail I’d signed up for. It slowly dawned on me that my overpriced hydration pack and its contents was no joke! I would be a fool to wing it on my own without knowledge and preparation. Romantic visions of myself clad in simple shorts, T-shirt, and a pair of Bata takkies, free as a mountain goat under sunny African skies,  were embarrassingly inappropriate for the realities of this particular adventure! They were nothing but naive illusions. At best, they would leave me disgruntled and defeated. At worst, my fantasies would lead me to abandon the race altogether, or steer me to a sticky end.

It is the same with the God Walk.

Counting the cost

When Jesus calls us to be his disciples, he tells us to count the cost (Matt 16:24-26) and prepare for a long  journey ahead. He doesn’t paint a rosy picture when he calls us to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him. The God Walk is not a journey of super spiritual meditation, signs and wonders. Nor is it a direct route to health, wealth, inner peace and self actualisation as the world understands it. Jesus calls Himself the way to the Father (John 14:6), but doesn’t entice us with a comfortable, straight, smooth path. Instead, He candidly tells us that the world will hate and persecute us because of his name (John 15:18-25) and that we will face the same troubles he faced along the road.  Jesus is unequivocal: “The gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” He pulls no punches as he describes himself as the narrow way– not the mainstream, trendy, attractive path that leads to destruction (Matt 7:13-14).

We dare not forget that Jesus led the way up a steep hill called Golgotha, with a cross strapped to his back. It wasn’t exactly a nifty hydration pack.

It doesn’t always happen the day of our conversion, but sometime thereafter if we are walking as a Christian, we suddenly realise we are aliens in enemy territory, opposed, ridiculed and pressured to conform even by those we call our friends. We find we are in the world, but not of it (John 17:16) and the sting of that realisation surprises or hurts us. The Apostle Paul doesn’t sugarcoat the way of discipleship but calls us to offer ourselves as living sacrifices, active participants in a lifetime transformation programme through the renewal of our minds, capturing one thought at a time. (Rom 12:1-2) Paul describes keeping the faith as “fighting the fight” and “running the race” to receive the reward the righteous Judge has for us when He returns as King. (2 Tim 4:7-8)

This is no fun run!

From Genesis to Revelation, we are warned that the Enemy will try to deceive us and make us doubt and deny who we are and who God is. We may even believe the lie that we walk alone. Satan will entice us to do things our own way or to give up entirely on the God Walk before the finish because he is the ultimate liar, thief and murderer of our souls. (John 8:44)

But Jesus promises that the reward is well worth the cost of giving up everything to follow him.  He makes it clear that the only way you and I will save our life, is by losing it for Him. (Mark 8:34-38) The other side of the coin is death. The cost of rejecting Jesus’ call is that we will forfeit everything of value  and remain alienated from God, ourselves and those around us. The Bible is unequivocal. God’s way leads to life. Every other way ultimately leads to alienation, loss and death. God’s way leads to peace and joy. God’s way is in fact a person: the God-man Jesus Christ. “The Word became a human and lived among us” (John 1:14).  I am utterly convinced that the reward of walking with Jesus is infinitely greater than the cost of being his disciple. I am also convinced that it is the truth, even if we live in a post truth generation.

Jesus’ way may be hard, but it is truly blessed. He is the way to human flourishing on earth and eternal life spent with the God who made us in his own image.

The Bible has a lot to say about the preparation, route and destination of those who walk with God, as well as the prize Christians can look forward to beyond the finish line.

Ten essential truths for every Christian

There are no short cuts to the God Walk. It is not a sprint but more like an ultra-marathon or a mega-hike that lasts a lifetime. But God has graciously given us a “hydration pack” fully equipped with truths to get us through every section of the route. Without this pack of doctrines, we will quickly become thirsty and hungry, tired, injured, bewildered, disoriented and discouraged.

People often think of doctrines as boring theories that theologians think up to get us off the scent of true spirituality. Our generation is more concerned with experience and spectacular events. It values personal feelings and preferences above truth. But Biblical doctrines are living descriptions of God’s amazing dealings with human beings like us. Doctrines give us wisdom about true spirituality and the totality of human experience, including our bodies, minds and souls. Biblical doctrines give us God’s perspective on our place in the universe, which is far more accurate than subjective naval gazing. Moreover, doctrines have significant practical use for our lives, apart from giving us insight into God’s character and our human nature. The Apostles thought sound doctrine was vital and urged Christians in every age to teach what agrees with sound doctrine, to be trained in good doctrine (Titus 2:1) and to read Scripture carefully, keeping a close watch on our teaching, so that we do not forget what it means to be a Christian or lead others astray, or be deceived by false Shepherds (1 Tim 4:16). Teaching, training and reading is the essence of The God Walk devotion.

Doctrines of the faith are much like items in a hydration pack. They are essential for flourishing and survival along the trail of real life.

In the upcoming weeks of devotions, we will be unpacking our Christian hydration pack, looking at Biblical texts that show us what it means to be a Christian. I have chosen ten items for our hydration pack. Of course none of  these texts on their own tell the whole picture of what it means to be a Christian, but are just samples of the vast storehouse of God’s truth and promises that God has given us in his word. This is what it means to “hold fast to the word of life” until the day of Christ (Phil 2:15-16).

There are of course many more doctrines of faith than the ten I’ve chosen. But, if you are new to the Scriptures, hopefully these appetisers will whet your appetite to dig deeper into the Bible for yourself. As Paul put it to the Greeks of his day: God, who made the universe, gives life and breath to each of us only for a short time on this earth. He created you and me to know and be known by Him– “to seek Him and perhaps feel your way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for in him we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:24-28)

I pray that these ten truths will become the rudder of your mind, the anchor of your soul and the furnace of your heart as we run side by side the race God has set out for us. I pray that we will be fuelled with faith, hope and love that comes from walking with God.

Ten essential items for every believer’s hydration pack.

Here is our “kit list” for the next few weeks on The God Walk:

1. WHAT IT MEANS TO BE “BLESSED” BY GOD… (AND WHY IT’S THE ONLY PRIVILEGE WORTH HAVING )

2. WHAT IT MEANS TO BE “CHOSEN”BY GOD… (AND WHY WE CAN TRUST HIM)

3. WHAT “GOSPEL” REALLY MEANS…(AND HOW IT IS THE POWER OF GOD TO SAVE)

4.HOW A CHRISTIAN IS “BORN AGAIN…”(AND WHY SELF IMPROVEMENT IS FUTILE)

5. WHAT IT MEANS TO “BELIEVE” AND “REPENT…”(AND WHY YOU MUST STEP ACROSS THE LINE)

6. WHAT IT MEANS TO BE AN “ADOPTED” CHILD OF GOD…(AND HOW YOU CAN SAY NO TO FEAR)

7. WHAT IT MEANS TO BE “SANCTIFIED”…(AND WHY HOLINESS IS A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH)

8. WHAT IT MEANS TO “PERSEVERE” IN THE FAITH…(AND WHY WILLPOWER WILL NEVER BE ENOUGH)

9. WHAT “DEATH” MEANS TO A CHRISTIAN …(AND WHY YOU DON’T NEED TO FEAR IT)

10. WHAT “GLORY” MEANS TO A CHRISTIAN…(AND HOW TO LIVE WITH THE END IN MIND)

Disappointment- The Gift No One Wants

gift no one wantsBy Rosie Moore

Disappointment: Synonyms: sadness, regret, dismay; sorrow. Definition: sadness or displeasure caused by the non-fulfillment of one’s hopes or expectations.

Disappointment stops us in our tracks. Past disappointments can literally hold us in their grip and throttle today’s joys. Fear of future disappointments can be so paralysing that we cannot mobilise our courage to try new things or take risks. “Once bitten, twice shy,” we say, as we settle for mediocrity and procrastination. One of the worst pains of a parent is watching or anticipating our children’s disappointments. We dread their spirits being crushed. The Proverb is true:

“Hope deferred makes the heart sick,
    but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.” (Proverbs 13:1).

Social humiliation is one of our most primal human fears which goes hand in hand with disappointment. Perhaps that’s because fear of man has always been such a powerful idol. David prayed often that he would not be put to shame.

“O my God, in you I trust;
    let me not be put to shame;
    let not my enemies exult over me.”  (Psalm 25:2).

We’ve been made in the image of God to thrive in a creation that is perfectly good.

We long for a good life with no disappointments, doubts, discouragements, depression, despair and death. We long for Eden before the thorns and thistles. No wonder my kids and I love listening to this song of Jason Mraz on the way home from school.

“May you know the meaning of the word happiness
May you always lead from the beating in your chest
May you be treated like an esteemed guest
May you get to rest, may you catch your breath…”

Having it all.

No matter how much we long after utopia, life has shown me that the “charmed life” doesn’t exist this side of heaven even for the most privileged and gifted people. We can only dream of “having it all!” If we dig a little deeper into people’s lives and wait a little longer for things to unravel, we almost always find a back story of anxiety, fear and struggle that is hidden from public view. There is no vaccine against the brokenness of this world, although there is plenty of beauty, happiness and love mixed in. Gratitude is the best antidote to everyday troubles. But, if we are honest, we are prone to discouragement even when life is exceptionally good. Perhaps it’s better to accept the reality that there is no such thing as equal opportunities or equal outcomes. Comparisons are useless. We just need to make the best choices with what we’ve got.

Disappointment is not a futile diversion.

But for a Christian– a true Christ follower– disappointment is not a pointless diversion or blight, but a meaningful gift that can mould our character to look more like Jesus. It detaches us from the things we place our hope in and reconnects us to the only person who can bear our hopes eternally–God Himself. It tethers us to what matters. Disappointment is the gift no one wants and only a masochist would seek it out. But if we reluctantly find the gift of disappointment in our hands, we can either jump up and down in horror or make the choice to open the wrapping and dig a deeper mine of faith in God.

Treasures in the vacuum.

We will discover treasures in the vacuum of “deferred hope.” If we process the disappointment rather than avoid it, it will slowly dawn on us that we are not master of our own fate. We will come to love what is written on the card that accompanies the gift:

My beloved child. You have My Word that I will make all things in your life (that includes things that are good and bad; easy and hard; joyful and desperate) work together for your good, so that you will become more like my Son, Jesus. Let your older Brother show you the good way. Your loving Father.  P.S. Be assured that my love for you is the ultimate trump card. Keep Romans 8:28-29 and 31-39 handy at all times.)

Conformity to the likeness of Jesus: That’s the point and purpose of disappointment for all those who love God and are called to be His. And it includes the greatest humiliations and injustices, pain and suffering.

In Romans 5:5, Paul says,  “Hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.” Most translations render the word “disappoint” as “put to shame…”

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. (Rom 5:1-5 NIV).

Peace with God is not a feeling that comes and goes with the circumstances of life. It is a status secured only by putting our trust in the finished work of Jesus on the cross. Peace with God is a state of being right with God, acquiring the permanent status of a child of God with direct access to Him through personal faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Without Jesus there can be no peace with God. There is no disappointment or humiliation on earth that can mess with this peace with God. It means that I can pray to God any time without fear. What a contrast this is to the pitiful state of Adam and Eve as they covered their nakedness with fig leaves and tried to hide their shame from God in the Garden of Eden. (Genesis 3:7-10)

Hope does not disappoint.

I bask in the warmth of God’s grace, 
I stand secure, at peace with God.
I trust only in Christ my Saviour– the perfect Lamb
Who takes away the sin of the world.
I trust in the Lord Jesus–the sinless mediator
Whose innocent death split the temple curtain,
Giving me access to a holy God.
I boast in the sure hope that on the day I die, I will be in His presence
To enjoy His beautiful face for all eternity.
I hope in a new heaven and new earth
Where He will wipe away every tear,
And death shall be no more, 
Neither mourning, nor crying,
Nor pain anymore, ever. 
I glory in my sufferings today, because they have a purpose.
They sever the cord attaching me to all the things I boast in.
I glory in growing a deeper faith in my God;
a persevering, faithful spirit;
a strong, buoyant character;
an irrepressible hope that refuses to give in to despair.
I feel the warmth of God’s love pulsing through His Spirit.
For hope does not put me to shame.
Hope does not disappoint.

God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

In disappointment, I resonate with what David wrote a millenium ago in the closing verses of Psalm 73:

23 Nevertheless, I am continually with you; you hold my right hand.

24 You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory.

25 Whom have I in heaven but you?
    And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
26 My flesh and my heart may fail,
    but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Running the Marathon of Motherhood

running imagewoman-exercising-runner-athlete-training-on-road-fit-female-sport-fitness-model-training-jogging-outdoors-living-healthy-lifestyle-in-beautiful-mountain-nature-iceland-slow-

“Your kids will grow up in the blink of an eye.”

“Don’t worry, this season will end and things will get easier.”

“Just love them unconditionally! That’s all you need to know.”

I’ve heard these clichés often over the last 21 years of being a mom. A few weeks ago I sat beside my husband in Jameson Hall, UCT, at the graduation of our eldest daughter, Jessie. It was a blast from the past, with memories of my own graduation in the same hall 27 years beforehand. It felt like yesterday that I was a carefree student posing for photos in my cap and gown, brimming with excitement for the future– A future in which only three people featured– Me, Myself and I. Three years later I got married and admitted as an attorney. Life continued as usual, with perhaps a slight modification to my expectations of the future– now featuring Me, Myself, I, and My Husband as the main characters.

jess grad

But four years after tying the knot, on the coldest day of 1996, I brought home my adorable, but screaming, insatiable, colicky baby girl from the hospital, and this was the event that turned my life upside down. Motherhood changed my narrative irrevocably. By 2003 I was the mom of three daughters and a son, lost in the thick forest of nappies, naps, feeding, taxi driving and daily routines that were determined by my four children. My vision for the future was impaired by sleep deprivation and mom-brain, which remained unabated for at least a decade. The actors in my life narrative did not feature Me, Myself or I. In fact, these characters were nowhere to be seen in the cast. I wondered if the old Me would ever return to the set.

The truth is that it is hard to keep perspective when you are a mom in the trenches of raising small children. But through the lens of my own daughters (now aged 21, 16 and 14) and my son (aged 19), I look back at the last two decades and have clarity about two things:

First, I trusted in God too little as a mother, and second, I underestimated the power of small but important things done day after day, year after year over a long period of time. 

Here are some insights from hindsight to share with a younger Christian woman in the turbulent ocean of motherhood. I hope that they will anchor you, so that you do not become a prisoner of the tide.

You are raising your children for eternity, not just for bedtime or an “easier” season when they are older.

Keep looking into the eyes of your children and know that God loves these little people deeply and has entrusted them specifically to you to lead them to Himself. He has not made a mistake in making you the mother of your children, and Jesus invited all children to come to him. They are your ‘homegroup’, your mission field and your closest community. They are the lambs you feed first, as you have been appointed as their shepherd. They are the first targets of Jesus’ Great Commission to his disciples to go and make disciples of all nations, (starting at home) “teaching them to observe all that I have taught you”.  If we are Christ-followers and believe the truth of the Gospel, this is one job we have to do diligently. I have learned over the years that I cannot force my children to love the Lord, but I know that to be winsome and credible, we need to have a living, intimate relationship with Jesus ourselves. Children smell hypocrisy a mile off, and the Gospel is primarily caught, not taught. Early on in my mothering, I read God’s command to the people of Israel and felt its weight as a mother:

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes.  You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-9)

I have plastered sticky notes with verses and reminders all over my house, but over the long haul this passage has been my rudder more than any other. Think of it like this: Loving the Lord our God with our heart, soul and might is intricately connected with the act of taking God’s words into our own hearts and passing them down to our children, day in and day out, like a baton in a relay.

Loving God and obeying his design for parenting cannot be separated.  

As God’s covenant people, Christian moms have more to talk of with our children than the Israelites, because we live after Jesus and the New Testament. We not only have God’s precepts and wisdom for living from the Old Testament, but also the Gospel which gives flesh and bone to these principles of truth. If you have ever objected to being your child’s teacher, God’s Word takes issue with that! Every mom is a teacher and we cannot leave this task to school or any other person, no matter how much we have on our plate. Your work as a mom is done line upon line, precept upon precept, over a long period of time– it is never instant or once off.  It is strange how, at the time, I thought none of my children were listening to me reading Leading Little Ones to God or The Child’s Story Bible or Little Pilgrim’s Progress— sometimes we nodded off before the end of our devotion! But today they all remember the time we spent reading books, memorising Scriptures, praying together and going to Bible Tots. The Holy Spirit did not allow his Word to come back empty and by God’s grace all of our children have soft hearts towards the Lord, although this was not always so. Small family habits, rituals and casual conversations over many years do not have the power to save our children, but they are like the careful laying down of paper, twigs and firelighters in a hearth, ready for the Holy Spirit to light the match and breathe life and warmth into cold hearts.

You are in this for the long haul!

I was under the false impression that mom’s work would be done in a decade but nothing could be further from the truth. Talking about God to your children really hots up when they become teenagers and young adults! High school and university are breeding grounds for postmodern thinking which says that truth is what we feel, and only unintelligent, unscientific people have faith in a supernatural creator. Moms need to be around to talk to their older kids about how God’s purposes relate to evolution, science, transgenderism, marriage, sex, relationships, pornography, work, philosophy and psychology. Our children need to become thinkers, as opposed to robots who process information and accept ideas without thinking through their implications for all of life. Our four children are always being challenged by fellow students and teachers at school and university, by movies, TV and social media. Moms need to be on our toes, so that our teenage children can respectfully give a reason for the hope within them (1 Peter 3:15).  Here are some resources I have found helpful in equipping my children to answer the Questions Christians hope no one will ask. Apologetics videos and debates, you tube and podcasts are powerful tools to use with teenagers. Make sure your older children get to RZIM events on South African campuses and churches. Like us, our children need a firm rudder so they are not prisoners of the tide. Extended family, the Church, home group and Christian friends are great allies in leading our children to the Lord, so stay connected to the body of Christ.

The monumental task of mothering is God’s work.

Every day as a mother is a never-to-be-repeated moment in time– a trust from God our Father. Mothering is God’s work as much as any other career or vocation. In Genesis 1 and 2 we are told that God made men and women in his own image, to be fruitful and multiply, and to rule and reign over his Creation. This is not just about giving birth! As image bearers, we are called to create order from chaos like God did at Creation; to be fruitful in our work and to govern and bring order to our sphere of influence, which is our homes for much of our lives. If you are a mom who feels your work is futile, endless, meaningless and insignificant; if you are seeking God’s purpose for your life and His design for your work; if you are looking for a way to serve in ministry, this perspective on motherhood is radical: Motherhood is your primary work and ministry for many years.

It is easy to get bogged down in the moment instead of living with the end in mind. There is a subtle message in our culture whispering that moms are supposed to tolerate their children until they are more civilised and that school will teach them to behave. Since the roots of a child’s moral and character development are established between 18 months and 11 years old, this is a dangerous lie. Put another way, a mother’s work will have by far the greatest impact on the character of her adult children than any other influence. The worst advice I ever received as a mom was to ignore my child’s bad behaviour, and the best advice was from an author called Kevin Leman who has written a number of excellent books on parenting and marriage, including the sensible Parenting your Powerful Child. The bottom line is: character flaws in your child will be entrenched rather than diminished as they grow older, unless you step in with loving correction and training.

There is nothing futile or meaningless about endless cycles of wiping up messes, feeding and cleaning children, comforting them when they are sick or hurting, helping them with homework, speaking kindly, correcting and discipling, talking to them about how to deal with temptation and welcoming strangers in your home. God sees this unseen work and it is good in his eyes. Whether you are a working or stay-at-home mom, a widow or single mom, a mom in children’s ministry or a woman who looks after other people’s children, be assured that your contribution is not related to  financial rewards or approval.

Paid or unpaid, recognised or unappreciated, your undercover boss is always Jesus.

You are Jesus’ image-bearer, his hands, feet and mouthpiece, and Jesus says your work is good. Your mothering matters. It is service to the King of Kings. It is a contribution to your family and society. When you feel distracted or FOMO, or when you want to throw in the towel, remember Nehemiah’s reply when Sanballat tried to divert him, “I am carrying on a great project and cannot go down!” (Nehemiah 6:3)

Harness the strength of surrender!

Moms need to learn to raise the white flag of surrender instead of believing the myth that we are in control. There is strength in surrender. We tend to overthink, overanalyse, worry too much and fret about things we can’t control. Peace will only come through the surrender of these things to the Father who loves us and cares for the details and uncertainties of life this side of heaven. Mary, Jesus’s mother, is our greatest example of surrender. She exchanged her vision of the future as a devout Jewish wife and mother for crazy obedience to God’s plan. She embraced all the weaknesses, struggles and anguish of raising the Messiah and watching him die on a cross. She agreed to be all that God intended her to be even at great cost to her own expectations, and God honoured and favoured her. (Luke 1:30)

Surrender to rest and restoration.

We sometimes confuse busyness with fruitfulness, refusing to take care of our own needs until we hit the wall. That isn’t smart because the whole pack of cards goes down when mom goes down. Find what you love doing– what restores your energy– and do it often. For me, being in the sun and running in nature fills up my cup so that I can live with joy and contentment. Without the soul food of prayer, God’s Word and connection with the people I love and trust, I quickly get depleted. Take time to prepare and eat nutritious food and allow yourself to lie down for a long deep sleep when you feel weary. Neglect the warning signals of your body at your peril! This is not a sprint. A long marathon always includes walking and resting along the route.

Surrender to repentance.

My children have been a test of my faith because being a mom has often brought me to my knees in desperation! They have extracted fears and insecurities I never knew I had, including some dark and difficult things– a temper, need for approval, self pity, self indulgence, self righteousness– to mention just the tip of the iceberg. Be sure of this, moms: You will sin and your children will sin, over and over again. I am convinced that we have been put in our homes to show, in a personal and sometimes painful way, what it means to live in a humble state of confession, repentance and forgiveness.  The hardest script to learn is: “I was wrong. I am sorry. Please forgive me!” Yet, these nine words are potent and necessary for our children to hear and learn to say often for the sake of their own relationships.

Surrender to prayer.

You will never convert your children or control their free will. But the Holy Spirit can draw your children to himself, awaken their hearts to God’s love, and open their eyes to understand the Gospel. He alone can win them over. This is why we need to to surrender in prayer every day. I have seen the miraculous fruit of nagging God on my children’s behalf over and over again and I am convinced that the earnest prayers of a believing mom are powerful and effective. (James 5:16)

Surrender to dependence.

You will never find the strength, wisdom, joy and patience required for the mom-journey in yourself or your gifts, but God promises to supply all your needs, day by day, like manna in the desert. You will never be given a week’s supply, only a day. Self sufficiency is a useless crutch for a mom, so surrender it once and for all.

“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.” Elisabeth Elliot.

Surrender to the Saviour.

You will never find ultimate satisfaction in your children or a human relationship. Do trust in Jesus and rest in him alone, in every season of motherhood, from crib to empty nest and beyond. Model to your children what trust means in practical everyday life. Otherwise, the world will lead them to believe that friends, a partner, blessings, wealth, achievements or popularity will satisfy them.

Surrender your expectations.

You will never be the ideal mom and will never raise the perfect child. You risk losing your child’s heart when you disapprove of him/her as a human being or act like you’ve got it all together.

Teach your children to make the best of whatever crumbs they find in their hands, instead of always searching for a feast of false expectations.

May all of us respond to God’s vision for our lives with the surrender of Mary, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”

Surrender your hurts.

Surrender your anxiety and failures, fears, regrets, doubts, pain and sickness to Jesus, and practice this as a family, so that your children witness Christ’s redemptive power and comfort in this messy business of life. You will never escape hardships in your family and sometimes will be hit by wave after wave of disappointment or anguish. But there is hope: Disappointments are God-appointments for the Christian family. My own experience is that in suffering we either run towards Jesus or away from Him. We either experience firsthand that nothing can separate us from the love of God, or we stagger in our own strength under the unbearable weight of pain. The choice is ours, and we bring our children along with us.

Finally, bless your family!

Family rituals are powerful and moms can make these happen.

Get your family together regularly to thank God for his provision and bless each member verbally, including your husband. It may feel unnatural at first, but soon your children will bask in the sense of identity and unity they gain from being part of a family that serves the Lord, stands together and depends on His grace. It is so easy for us to criticise and shame our children or dishonour our husbands as we rush to meet the demands of school and work, but blessing family members aloud is a lifetime gift that costs us nothing. Simple words like “I’m proud of your perseverance,” “You handled that setback incredibly well this week,” “Thank you for being an amazing husband” are soothing for the soul.

We have a formal ‘blessing’ dinner on Saturday evenings to remind ourselves of God’s  provision and to honour and encourage our children. It is modelled on Shabbat which Jewish families celebrate on Friday evenings to prepare for the Sabbath. Pete leads the service, in which each family member participates, and then we enjoy a special dinner together. The explicit blessing of this dinner has enriched us all greatly.

Happy Mother’s day!

Moms, my prayer is that you will know that every day is Mother’s Day! Each new morning is a unique opportunity to bless and bring life to your home. You have been given an epic marathon to run, which morphs and meanders over the years, but never  gets less challenging or less significant. Don’t waste a single day on needless fretting, nor underestimate the longterm power of small habits, repeated day after day, in love.

“Let your eyes look straight ahead. Fix your gaze directly before you. Make level paths for your feet. And take only ways that are firm. Do not swerve to the right or left.” (Proverbs 4:25-27)

P.S. As for “Me, Myself and I“, the characters that got lost in motherhood– don’t worry about surrendering them! They may leave the cast for a while, but you will find your true self again and it will be a better version of the “me” you left behind. Jesus himself promised that if we want to save our life we will lose it, “but whoever loses their life for me will find it.” (Matthew 16:25)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jesus’s Resurrection Is No April Fool

empty_tomb11By Rosie Moore.

Today is Easter Sunday, the day Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. It may fall on April Fool’s Day this year, but I am convinced that Jesus really is alive today and this is no joke. If the physical resurrection of Jesus was a hoax, it is a sick joke and the whole of the Christian faith collapses. My prayers are worthless, the faith on which I build my life is just wishful thinking. If Jesus is just another a dead martyr, it follows that I am a naive, deluded, gullible fool.

I cannot put my faith and life in the hands of a dead Saviour. The Apostle Paul agrees in first Corinthians 15:

1 Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 2 By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.

3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.

12 But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19 If only for this life we have  hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. 20 But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.

What Paul is saying is logical: If Jesus did not rise from the dead, faith in the Gospel is meaningless. Death is the end for Christians and nothing follows. We should not entertain false delusions. Our purposeless lives will be snuffed out like a candle and there is no hope of our bodies being raised to life or going to heaven. It’s dust to dust, ashes to ashes. Our religion is false. Martyrs of the faith who suffered horrible deaths died in vain. If Jesus did not rise from the dead, the Christian faith is a mass deception and a sick joke.

Evidence is critical

Check out the following evidence for yourself and reach your own verdict:

  1. Jesus was killed by crucifixion. There is no dispute about that among secular and Christian historians. Muslims, who claim that Jesus did not die, have no historical basis for this claim. No one has ever survived a Roman crucifixion.
  2. The tomb was empty on Sunday morning after the crucifixion. Even the enemies of Jesus admitted that. 
  3. The tomb was secured by a stone weighing 1-2 tons and guarded by Roman soldiers who faced death if they allowed the body to be stolen. They were bribed to lie about the disciples stealing the body, as it was common cause that the tomb was empty. 
  4. The authorities and Jews had every reason to produce the body when stories of  resurrection began to circulate, but no body was produced. The body could not be produced because the body was missing!
  5. Jesus was repeatedly seen alive on at least eleven separate occasions. It is impossible for five hundred people to hallucinate about the same encounter with the risen Jesus all at the same time. Many eye witnesses were still alive when Paul wrote this letter to the Corinthian church and could have contradicted his claims as well as the clear accounts in all four Gospels.
  6. Jesus’s disciples genuinely believed Jesus was alive…and they were willing to die for this belief rather than deny it. This radical change from cowards to martyrs can only be explained if they actually saw Jesus alive. Why would they die for something they knew to be a lie?
  7. Paul, an enemy of Christianity, and James,  Jesus’ skeptical brother, were converted after they saw Jesus alive. What else could possibly account for this radical change?

This Resurrection Sunday I am struck with fresh wonder at John’s eye witness account in John 20: 1-18:

20 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. 2 So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”

3 So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. 4 Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, 7 as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen. 8 Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. 9 (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.) 10 Then the disciples went back to where they were staying.

11 Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb 12 and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. 13 They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”

“They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” 14 At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. 15 He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”). 17 Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

18 Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.

Last at the cross, first at the grave

It’s amazing that the first person to see Jesus alive is Mary Magdalene, a woman who had no legal or social standing in Jewish culture. Jesus had freed her from seven demons (Luke 8:2) and restored her sanity. She was so devoted to Jesus that she left her home in Magdala to follow Him and gave her life to support his ministry. She owed Jesus everything. But she wasn’t just a fan of Jesus. She never left his side on his journey from Galilee to Jerusalem. Even when His close friends deserted Jesus, Mary stayed, listening to his trial and sentencing by Pilate. She watched her Saviour die and helped prepare his body for burial. On the first Easter Sunday morning, it was Mary Magdalene who was at the tomb earliest in the morning to witness the greatest event in world history. Imagine her grief as she stood outside the tomb crying (v 11). Imagine her confusion as she saw the ‘gardener’ and asked where he had put the body. Imagine her excitement as she finally recognised Jesus as “Rabboni” and heard his voice calling her to be the first messenger of the good news!

The first missionary

Jesus chose Mary Magdalene to be the first Christian missionary, an unthinkable thing to do in their patriarchal society. After her personal encounter, Mary knew without a doubt that Jesus was alive, and she was bubbling over with joy on her way to spread the good news. Women counted for nothing in this culture, especially a woman who had been crazy and possessed by demons. She wasn’t a leader of Jesus’ followers, just a supporter. Yet, Jesus chose this woman to be the first ambassador of the Gospel, a woman with a mission!

This encounter reminds me that Jesus doesn’t choose us because of our talent, background, strength, goodness, achievements or intelligence. He calls the weak and messed up among us, saving us entirely by his own work, not ours. Mary had personally  experienced redemption and that’s why she loved Jesus so much. That’s why she was the last at the cross and first at the tomb.  I look at my own heart this Easter morning and hope that I experience the same love and devotion for Jesus that I see in Mary. I never want to forget how Jesus has redeemed me and called me by name to be his own. 

Jesus called her name

At first Mary is confused and mistaken about who Jesus is. “Why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” Jesus’s questions are full of  tenderness. That is exactly how Jesus deals with us when we stumble with honest doubts and questions. He doesn’t get angry or impatient with us as we grapple with the truth.

Mary has been running around in a panic trying to find Jesus in the wrong places. I think she may have worried that without Jesus she would become the old demon-possessed Mary again. But then Jesus does a remarkable thing. 

He comes to her and calls her name, “Mary”. His call is personal and intimate.  Jesus tenderly calls her name and Mary instantly recognises Jesus. Her doubt and confusion  vanishes. As Jesus had predicted earlier, “his sheep follow Him because they know His voice.” (John 10:3-4.) 

Is that your experience this Easter? Do you know Jesus personally as Mary did? Do you know his voice? Do you know him as the Saviour who comes to you, clears your mind and comforts your heart? There will be many April fool’s jokes today but this isn’t one of them. Jesus is alive today and very close to us. He wants to be known by us in the same way he knew Mary, Peter, John and his other followers. Read John 14 if you would like to know Jesus in this intimate way. He made extraordinary claims about himself like: “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) He proved that he was not just a moral teacher when he physically rose from the dead. Do not let this season pass by without grasping hold of the person at the centre of Easter–Jesus Christ, the risen Lamb of God, the scapegoat of heaven, the Saviour of the world, the Lord and King of all, the one who calls you by name.

Download and meditate on the incredibly beautiful songs of Andrew Patterson in the Prologue and Volume 1 and 2 of The Resurrection Letters, especially his song “Is He worthy?“. The lyrics will fill you with awe.

 

 

 

 

Jesus is the ultimate scapegoat

By Rosie Moorescapegoat

Jesus’s arrest, trials, suffering and crucifixion were the definitive miscarriage of justice imposed on the only innocent man that walked this earth. He was the definitive scapegoat, the truly blameless one who bore others’ guilt, the object of irrational hatred.

The innocent scapegoat

Pontius Pilate knew it and said, “I find no guilt in this man.”  “After examining him before you, behold, I did not find this man guilty of any of your charges against him. Neither did Herod, for he sent him back to us. Look, nothing deserving death has been done by him.” (Luke 23:15-16) Yet Pilate let the savage crowd choose to release Barabbas, a violent rebel and murderer, instead of the Jewish rabbi who epitomised virtue and moral spotlessness. Jesus’s death meant the possibility of life for Barabbas, a detestable sinner who deserved death.

Even the criminal on the cross next to Jesus is a character witness, insisting “this man has done nothing wrong”, and the Roman centurion who watched Jesus die declared “Certainly this man was innocent!” (Luke 23:47) What led both men to put their trust in Jesus, even though it was obvious He was dying or already dead? What power could Jesus exert as a corpse? Both these witnesses of the crucifixion recognised that Jesus was not a mere man but the Son of God and that his death was not the last word.

In the tomb.

On Easter Saturday we look back at the Passover in 33BC when Jesus’ dead body lay in a tomb belonging to a rich man called Joseph, sealed by a stone weighing between 1-2 tons, and guarded by at least four Roman soldiers. To his followers, Jesus’s death must have seemed like a tragic failure, but God the Father used the threads of monstrous injustice against His Son to weave a magnificent tapestry of victory over death and sin.

When I was growing up, I was always confused by statements thrown around by Christians like, “Jesus died for us. He died for our sins.  Jesus saves us from our sin.” That explained nothing to me.  A million questions remained, “What did he have to die for? What’s the point of an innocent man dying? How can he save me from my sin when he didn’t do my sins?” The prepositions “for” and “from” made no sense in my mind.

That is until I read about the Jewish ritual of the scapegoat laid out in Leviticus 16 and the mystery started to take shape that Jesus is the “scapegoat” of heaven. He is the one who diedinstead of me. He died as my substitute. The innocent takes the punishment of the guilty. From the time of the Exodus, Jews celebrated the Day of Atonement, when the High priest took two goats, chosen by lot, and presented them at the door of the tabernacle. One was to be offered to God (YHWH) as a blood sacrifice and the other was chosen to be the scapegoat to be sent away into the wilderness. The blood of the slain goat was taken by the High Priest into the Holy of Holies behind the sacred veil of the tabernacle (later the temple) and sprinkled on the Mercy seat, the lid of the ark of the covenant which housed the two stone tablets of the Ten commandments. Later the High Priest would confess the sins of the Israelites to God, placing the sins figuratively on the head of the scapegoat, who would symbolically take them away into the desert, never to be seen again. This is a shadow of what Jesus would do when he died on the cross.

The scapegoat.

History illustrates that it’s human nature to create scapegoats out of an individual or people group, to shift blame for all that goes wrong in a society regardless of who is truly guilty. In the first century, Emperor Nero targeted the early Christians by accusing them of starting the fire in Rome. His scapegoating led to the torture and execution of thousands in the new faith who were killed for sport, eaten by animals, even lit up and burned alive as torches. In the 1930’s, Stalin scapegoated the Kulak peasant class for all the woes of Russia, (even though they were the most productive farmers) causing the deaths of 7 million Russians from the ensuing famine. Likewise, Hitler scapegoated Jews for all the problems Germany was facing and murdered at least six million innocent men, women and children. In Rwanda, the Hutu majority government scapegoated the Tutsi minority, resulting in a mass slaughter of almost a million Rwandans during a 100-day period from April to July 1994. The 21st century is no different. The blame game is still the preferred modus operandi of those who wish to deflect blame and dodge accountability for their own guilty actions. After all, it is much easier to scapegoat an individual or group  rather than own up to one’s own wrongdoing and fix the problem in constructive ways. Scapegoating may be effective for those who hold power, but it is unfair and cruel, and can lead to death or great harm to the scapegoat.

Jesus was the ultimate scapegoat and the only truly innocent one. He died so that Barabbas could go free. As Jesus took his last breath on the cross, he said, “It is finished!” What was finished? His mission to redeem sinners was complete. It was the exchange of our sin for his righteousness; of our guilt for his innocence; of our life for his death. He paid for our sin with his unjust death. There is no human being beyond his redemption, not even someone like Barabbas. Just like the scapegoat of the Old Testament, “for our sake he (God) made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21) The most wonderful thing about Jesus’s mission is that is is borne out of love…pure unadulterated love! The kind of love that we are unable to fathom. This is how Paul describes the sheer love that motivated Jesus’s sacrifice:

“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.” (Romans 5:5-9)

Jesus is the only one who can absorb the wrath of God, who can make us right with God and remove the burden of sin from us forever, because He is the only sinless one and because He is God. He is the only effective scapegoat who can cleanse us and give us a new heart and a new start. We may try to appease our consciences, forgive and excuse ourselves, but our sin is against a holy God who detests any form of sin and wrongdoing. We cannot forgive our own sin or compensate with good deeds.  But all our blame and guilt can be placed onto Jesus, like that Old Testament scapegoat who was sent out to die in the wilderness, weighed down symbolically by the sins of the people. Just as God provided a ram in the thicket for Abraham to sacrifice instead of his precious son Isaac, God the Father watched his own son Jesus walk up a hill called Calvary and die willingly as our substitute.

The amazing exchange.

The only condition for this exchange is that we face up to our guilt and own it. We accept Jesus as our scapegoat. The amazing exchange was taken up by all the disciples except Judas. It was taken up by the three Mary’s and millions of other followers of Christ through the centuries. It was taken up by the thief on the cross in his dying moments, the centurion at the foot of the cross and Joseph of Arimathea. But it was not taken up by those who were blind to their own guilt– the religious leaders, Herod, Pilate and many others who saw Jesus face to face and hated him in spite of his goodness.  Neutrality is not an option if you understand who Jesus saw himself to be. He is either your scapegoat or your judge. Jesus leaves us no third option.