Have you ever seen a stressed sheep?

There’s a special variety of stress that comes over us as the year draws to a close. It’s not the good kind of stress that makes us perform better and think sharper. It’s that numbing, make-you-crazy kind of stress caused by excessive worry, hurry and too many choices and demands. Perhaps some loss, regret and conflict is also thrown into the mix. According to statistics released by the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), as many as one in six South Africans suffer from anxiety, depression and substance use . Our daily newspapers report increasing numbers of murders committed out of blind rage, and every year the levels of aggression, anger and hostility seem to intensify. With our official unemployment rate of 27% (6.2 million people) and retrenchment figures rising by more than 5% in the last year, it is no wonder so many South Africans feel a sense of frustration, fear and powerlessness . If driving in the traffic is a reliable gauge of the mental state of our nation, things don’t look good! The hard truth is that stress damages our emotional, physical and mental health. But King David knew all about that kind of stress when he wrote Psalm 23 three thousand years ago. It was a prayer to settle his own fears by declaring the Lord as the Shepherd of his quivering heart. Let’s meditate on how each verse of this timeless Psalm counters a stressor we face today.

Psalm 23

A Psalm of David

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
    He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
    He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
forever.

My Provider

Verse 1 is a powerful image of God as our great provider. David was himself a shepherd and likened his relationship with God to a shepherd and his sheep. God is my provider and will give me everything I need (Phil 4:19). I can trust Him completely (2 Cor 9:8). I am under His constant care and provision (Matt 6:34Luke 12:24Ps 34:10). He will supply all my needs (Phil 4:19). He will never abandon me (Heb 13:5). The only antidote to worry is to trust in One infinitely more powerful than myself, Jehovah-Jireh, my provider (Gen 22:14).

My Rest

(Ps 23:2)

I love that God makes us lie down! It’s not an option. God commands us to rest so that we can be restored. Keeping the Sabbath is one of the top ten commandments for a reason. God has made us to work for six days and rest for one. It is a rhythm built into our human DNA which we defy at our peril. The Sabbath is God’s gift of love to meet our deepest needs, not an oppressive burden to make us miserable. Jesus also invites us to come to Him to find rest every day of our lives. When we feel frantic, we need to be still and ask ourselves two honest questions:

  1. Do I know that my fruitfulness in life depends on God’s labour rather than my own?
  2. Am I striving too much on my own and resting too little in Jesus?

It may be time to recalibrate our rhythm of work and rest.

My Great Counsellor

(Ps 23:3)

The modern world considers it progress that we have many more choices available to us. But more choices require more decisions, and that translates into more stress. What do we hold onto and what should we let go of? Which school, which job, which house, which investment, which vitamin is best? Most people have hundreds of decisions to make every day, but moral choices are the ones that have the most far reaching implications. Verse 3 reminds God’s children that we have a Shepherd who will lead us along the “right paths” if only we follow his guidance. The Bible is God’s voice and becomes useful when we apply it to our lives. But how long do we spend in God’s word to grasp its meaning and respond to its message? Do we first spend precious hours worrying about a choice before getting on our knees to ask God for wisdom for the way ahead? The “mighty counselor” knows each of us intimately and the future is not uncertain to Him. He promises to guide us “for his name’s sake” and we can be sure that God knows what is best for us.

Do you steamroll ahead with your agenda? Or do you commit to the Lord whatever you do, and trust that He will establish your plans? (Prov 16:3). Regular consultation with the Great Counsellor is the only way to be free from anxiety in a world full of problems and pressures.

Fear No Evil

(Ps 23:4)

Verse 4 reminds us that in the darkest valleys of loss, disappointment, hurt or injustice, we do not need to be ruled by fear. Our Shepherd God will never leave us alone. He will fight for us with his “rod” and pull us back into the safety of the sheep pen with his “staff”. Fear is a paralysing emotion which can convince us to give up and withdraw from life. Or it can cause a flight or fight reaction which wreaks havoc in our lives and relationships. “I will fear no evil, for you are with me” is a deeply personal declaration of trust in God. Immersing ourselves in the Psalms is a God-ordained practice to build courage and faith when we are afraid (Ps 27:1Ps 115:11Ps 118:6). Declare these verses out loud (Isa 43:1Isa 35:4John 14:27Josh 1:9) and allow the truth of God’s word to seep courage into your bones and banish fear from your heart.

My Defender

(Ps 23:56)

David had many enemies who conspired against him, even his own friends and son. Nothing is worse than betrayal. David closes his Psalm by placing vengeance in God’s hands and focusing on the bigger picture and his place in eternity. God sometimes intervenes miraculously and saves us from harm (2 Sam 22:3) and it is right to pray for protection (Ps 140:4). But in God’s infinite wisdom and sovereignty, He sometimes defends us in other ways: He gives us his peace and joy that defies our circumstances. In another Psalm, David says, “When anxiety was great within me, your consolation brought me joy” (Ps 94:19). He protects us from Satan (2 Thess 3:3). He stands with us and will not leave us (Deut 31:6). He upholds and strengthens us through our ordeals (Isa 41:10). He gives us refuge under his wings until the disaster passes (Ps 57:1). Two things are certain—

  1. No one can snatch us out of our Father’s hand (John 10:282930).
  2. Nothing in all the world can separate us from our Father’s love (Rom 8:38-39).

A Song for the Surrendered

This Psalm reminds us that although we cannot avoid the valley of the shadow of death, we do not need to be driven by fear and anxiety as we walk through it. Jesus did that for us as he died on the cross and bore the sin and evil of the world. For three hours darkness covered the whole land (Mark 15:33Luke 23:44Matt 27:45) as Jesus walked alone through the valley of the shadow of death, forsaken by his Father, abandoned by his friends, rejected by those who should have recognised him and hated by his enemies.

There may be times that people will oppose or hate us, but we do not need to defend or justify ourselves. Jesus did not even open his mouth to defend himself in the great miscarriage of justice that sentenced him to be crucified. Instead, he entrusted himself to his Father who judges rightly (1 Peter 2:23). Our Shepherd will defend us and His approval is the only approval we should seek. He is the one who prepares our place at the great banquet of heaven. He anoints us with the oil of gospel blessings because of our status “in Christ”. Our cup overflows with his generous gift of forgiveness and grace, because Jesus drank the cup of God’s judgment and wrath for us on the cross.

As you end today’s devotion, pray Psalm 23 aloud to God and personalise each verse. Surrender each one of your stressors today to the Shepherd of your soul, Jesus Christ. Let Him lead you beside quiet waters and refresh your soul.

Pray

May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it. (1 Thess 5:23-24).

In Jesus’ name,

Amen.

Worship as you listen to Chris Tomlin’s Whom shall I fear? (click on this link)

Come Dine With Me

A few weeks ago we read together about Jesus’s Great Commission in Matthew 28. Today we are going to read about Yahweh’s Great Invitationin Isaiah 55. It is like an ancient echo of the conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well, when He revealed himself  as the long-awaited Messiah (A Leaky Bucket—John 4). The context of Isaiah 55’s great invitation is important: From chapter 40 onwards, Isaiah shines his spotlight on Israel’s final redemption and ultimate hope– the suffering Servant. This suffering Servant will bear the sins of God’s people and die in their place (Isa 53:4-6), then rise again to share the spoils of victory over sin and death (Isa 53:12). For this reason, Isaiah is often called “the Old testament evangelist” as the gospel announcement drips from his pen like honey. Today Isaiah invites us to come while God is near and satisfy our souls with spiritual water, wine and milk. The table is heaving and the tickets are free. He invites us to delight in the richest food, so that our soul may live. It reminds me of a day in the future when the doors of the great banquet hall of heaven will close. (Luke 13:24;25Matt 25:10). Only those who have accepted the great invitation will celebrate the marriage feast between Jesus and his people. The time to come to Jesus the Saviour will be over.

This Saturday I am giving a talk on prayer at the Christ Church Midrand ladies’ breakfast, so have decided to write this devotion as a prayer in response to the great invitation of Isaiah 55. It is based on many Scriptures which I would encourage you to read as they pop up on your screen. Wherever you find yourself at this moment, Jesus is inviting you to come to him, just as you are. He knows your heart, so please adapt the prayer to your own situation and pray “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:2324).

Isaiah 55:1-7

“Come, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and he who has no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me;
hear, that your soul may live;
and I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
my steadfast, sure love for David.
Behold, I made him a witness to the peoples,
a leader and commander for the peoples.
Behold, you shall call a nation that you do not know,
and a nation that did not know you shall run to you,
because of the Lord your God, and of the Holy One of Israel,
for he has glorified you.

“Seek the Lord while he may be found;
call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake his way,
and the unrighteous man his thoughts;
let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.

Pray

Father, thank you that in Jesus there is pardon for sin. Thank you that you have made a way for me to belong to your chosen people, to enjoy your great banquet of salvation, completely free of charge. Today I accept your generous invitation to come. I come to you in the name of Jesus my Saviour– to drink and eat what is good. To enjoy the abundant life that Jesus has bought for me which I could not pay for myself.

Water

Jesus, I come to you today for life-giving ‘water’ (Isa 55:1). Refresh me on the inside with your spring that never runs dry and let me drink deeply of your internal and eternal well (John 4:1314). Lead my tired body beside still waters and restore my weary soul and mind today (Ps 23:2-3). Jesus, give me the rest and peace with God that only you can give (2 Cor 5:20Matt 11:282930).

Milk

Lord, I come to you today for ‘milk’ (Isa 55:1). Nourish my soul with your word day after day. Feed me like a newborn baby craving pure spiritual milk, so that I will grow up in my salvation and continue to taste your goodness each day of my life. (1 Peter 2:2). May I never lose my eagerness to drink your rich and nourishing word, sip by sip, cup by cup.

Wine

Father, I come to you today for ‘wine’, a symbol of joy and celebration, praise and laughter (Isa 55:1). I come to you to find my true contentment and delight. Let me never settle for lesser things. Thank you that even my greatest trials are pure joy in your sovereign hands because of the faith you are growing in me (James 1:2-3). I praise you that I do not merely have to endure life, but can enjoy it to your glory too. Thank you for the people and blessings that give me joy. Thank you that your grace is everywhere I look. Help me to choose gratitude over grumbling; faith over fear; praise over pessimism.

Godly thirst

Jesus, keep me forever thirsty and dependent on you. Do not let me become self sufficient, getting and spending my life on physical things only (Isa 55:2). Save me from a wasted life, ever searching, always wanting more, working for things that get old and dreams that cannot satisfy. Save me from being too ‘full’ and forgetting that everything I have comes from you. And save me from poverty too, “lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God” (Prov 30:9). I thirst for you today and seek you with all my heart (Jer 29:13).

Listen and Come

Lord, today I come, not just to hear you but to listen to you attentively, so that I may live (Isa 55:23). Give me understanding and help me to obey you with all my heart (Ps 119:34). I love your commands because they give life and healing to me (Prov 4:22). Thank you Jesus, son of David, that through your death and resurrection I inherit the covenant promises made to your people, Israel (Isa 55:3). Thank you that I am part of the true Israel and a child of the covenant (Gal 3:6789). Thank you that this everlasting covenant rests on your steadfast love, not on my faithfulness. May your goodness and mercy follow me all the days of my life and may I dwell in your house for eternity (Ps 23:6). I trust in you, Lord and I know my times are in your hand (Ps 31:13-15).

Seek and turn

Lord, today I seek you while you may be found and call on you while you are near. (Isa 55:6). I confess my great sin against you and make no excuse for it. I ask for you to be true to your promise of abundant forgiveness (Isa 55:7) and cleansing (1 John 1:9) because Jesus took the punishment I deserve. I confess that everything is disordered in me. Even my faith is half hearted and my desires warped. Today I turn away from my sin and towards your great mercy. I draw near to the throne of grace with confidence, that I may receive mercy (Heb 4:16). Holy Spirit, help me to control my tongue (Prov 4:24) and forsake my sin and selfishness (Prov 4:27) to live a life that pleases you. Help me to guard my heart, the source of everything I do and say (Prov 4:23). Keep my eyes fixed ahead (Prov 4:2627), not distracted to swerve to the right or left of the truth. I seek you and turn from my sin today.

Drink

I hold your symbolic water, milk and wine in my hands and drink deeply– for refreshment, for nourishment and for joy. For life itself, flowing over and spilling into my lap.

“You make known to me the path of life, in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” (Ps 16:11)

In Jesus’ precious name,

Amen.

RSVP

The gospel invitation is open to everyone, but we must ‘come’ to Jesus. We must RSVP. Everyone had a chance to enter the ark during the 100 years Noah took to build it, but only 8 people went inside. Then came the day when God shut the door of the ark and the flood destroyed all those left outside. I pray that everyone who reads this devotion has accepted God’s great invitation to Come! Drink! Live! We do not know how long the invitation will be extended. Call on the Lord today while He is near and seek Him while He may be found. And continue to come to Him every day of your life for refreshment, nourishment and joy. That is the only antidote to half-heartedness.

A Leaky Bucket

After his encounter with Nicodemus, an insider, Jesus speaks with a Samaritan woman, an outcast. His tone is more gentle with her and the encounter is laced with grace. Instead of a late night visit, this meeting takes place in the blistering heat of the midday sun beside Jacob’s well. Jesus is parched and tired after walking for at least six hours. Breaking all social, religious and gender taboos of the day, he strikes up a conversation with the woman about water, a precious commodity in this desert region. Instead of shunning her, Jesus artfully exposes the desperate thirst in the woman’s heart, the driving force behind her disordered life. If her soul was a bucket, it was leaking badly.

John 4:1-26; 39-42

Now Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that he was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John— although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples. So he left Judea and went back once more to Galilee.

Now he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon.

When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)

The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)

10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”

11 “Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?”

13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”

16 He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”

17 “I have no husband,” she replied.

Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. 18 The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”

19 “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”

21 “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”

25 The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”

26 Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he….”

39 Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I ever did.” 40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they urged him to stay with them, and he stayed two days. 41 And because of his words many more became believers.

42 They said to the woman, “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Saviour of the world.”

Rain can soak a leopard’s skin but it does not wash out its spots.

(African proverb)

Superficially, Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman couldn’t look more different. He has a designer life as an insider– a prosperous, respected, moral Jewish male. To use last week’s metaphor, his proverbial deck is well scrubbed. The woman by contrast, is a half-caste Samaritan defiled with Gentile blood and pagan worship practices, a female, socially despised and immoral. Her deck is in complete disarray– faded, cracked and warped. Rain could have soaked her skin but it would never have washed out its spots. No strict Jewish man would have come near her, as the woman points out (John 4:9). Only a woman full of shame would have visited the well at noon to avoid the virtuous women who filled their buckets early in the morning. We can surmise that this woman was rejected, used, disgraced and unloved if her string of sexual partners is anything to go by (John 4:17;18).

Not a son of his culture, but the Son of God

Group identity is nothing new to the planet! It was particularly rife in Jesus’ time. Humanity has always been divided into the haves and have-nots; insiders and outsiders; the virtuous and disgraceful; the powerful and the oppressed; those who are holding their lives together, and the junkies whose lives have unravelled. The African continent is repeatedly torn apart and impoverished by bitter conflicts and separation between different groups. But even though Jesus is fully aware of this woman’s nationality and her sexual immorality from the outset (John 4:17), he ignores typical distinctions based on gender, class, morality and ethnicity. Jesus is not a son of his culture, but the Son of God, a God who cares more about the heart than the outward appearance of a person (1 Sam 16:7). Instead of snubbing or recoiling from the woman in disgust, he connects with her by requesting a drink of water. This would have been an outrageous gesture for a Jewish man. But in Jesus’s eyes, Nicodemus the pious Jew, and the unclean woman from Samaria, are equally lost. Both need to be born again. Both need the living water that transcends all human categories.

Looking for water, finding Life

In the Limestone Hills around Sychar, life literally depended on finding water, and John 4:13; 14 is the pivot of this encounter: Jesus identifies himself as living water– God’s free gift to ALL who are thirsty. Jesus describes himself as an internal and eternal water source that wells up inside a person, giving life (John 4:14). The image is of a spring inside your body which keeps filling up and spilling over no matter how much of it you drink! This is an astonishing claim for anyone who knew the Jewish Scriptures.

The shock value is that Jesus is clearly identifying himself as Yahweh’s promised Saviour. Centuries before, Yahweh had promised that his people would draw water with joy from wells of salvation (Isa 12:3). He promised to pour water on a thirsty land, streams in the desert and an outpouring of his Spirit on future generations to enable them to flourish, like green grass in a lush meadow, like poplars planted by flowing streams (Isa 44:3; 4). Isaiah prophesied that Yahweh would bring his people home from captivity to “neither hunger nor thirst,” to be led beside springs of water and no longer to be scorched by the desert sun (Isa 49:10). The apostle John himself writes the last prophetic book of the Bible, Revelation, in which he identifies Jesus, the Lamb of God, as the source of this living water on the day of His return:

‘Never again will they hunger;
    never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat down on them,’
    nor any scorching heat.
17 For the Lamb at the centre of the throne
    will be their shepherd;
‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’
    ‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. (Rev 7:16-17)

Meditate for a minute on this emotive picture of Jesus, the divine Shepherd-Lamb leading his people to life-giving springs, wiping away every tear from their eyes and erasing every misery. This is the image Jesus ascribes to himself as he talks to the woman!

Imagine the climax of this encounter when the woman says, “I know that Messiah is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”

And, without a moment’s hesitation,  Jesus replies, “I, the one speaking to you– I am He …” (John 4:25; 26).

Looking for love, courting disaster

“I am he!”Jesus’s declaration was outrageous…unless of course it was true. Being able to tell a person their life story without any prior knowledge sounds a bit like something only God could do.

The woman may have been good at drawing water from Jacob’s well, but her soul was thirsty to the point of dehydration. She was looking to men to satisfy her thirst, perhaps in search of the one true love that would leave her feeling whole, significant and secure. Why else would she be shacking up with partner number six? (John 4:18) Yet, she was unloved and rejected despite their attention. Jesus knew all this about her without her saying a word.

He knew that her soul was a leaky bucket that kept drying up no matter how much she filled it with ‘love’. Today we might call it an addiction or dysfunction of some sort, but Jesus directs her to the thing that drives all addictions, even those that appear healthier than the woman’s. He puts his finger on the root of all our cravings which ultimately lead to disillusionment: FALSE WORSHIP. One of the most stark forms of false worship is the devotion to excess that we call greed, gluttony, jealousy and lust; the “I want more” reckless mentality which is rife in our world. Runaway desires that eventually lead to bondage, and ultimately to death. The endless seeking of pleasure…fame…approval…love, only to find disillusionment… emptiness…thirst…broken relationships. Jesus gently confronts the woman on this soul thirst (John 4:16; 17; 18). To mask her pain and guilt, the woman tries to sidestep the issue with a theological question about the proper location of the temple, a hot topic that still rages today (John 4:17). Jesus doesn’t dismiss her red herring, but rather uses it to reveal the disorder behind the woman’s leaky bucket. The cause (rather than the symptom) of her thirst is FALSE WORSHIP.

CS Lewis puts it well, “Love, having become a god, becomes a demon.” The Four Loves.

False worship

The Samaritan woman is a serial adulterer– a worshipper of her own desires, instead of the God who created and loved her. She is searching for redemption and love in all the wrong places.

But we cannot hold Scripture at arm’s length. We must ask the Son of God to direct the spotlight on our own hearts too. If Jesus is right, then false worship is the cause of our leaky bucket syndrome too! Every appetite can quickly become an object of worship that controls us, whether it is a socially acceptable desire, such as achievement, wealth, family and affirmation, or a less acceptable obsession like sex, drugs, anger or alcohol. If the beginning of soul emptiness is idolatry, the end is always slavery, as “a man is a slave to whatever has mastered him” (2 Peter 2:19). That is why Nicodemus is only a short walk from the woman at the well.

My grandfather was a humorous old Scot who spent five years of World War 2 in North Africa building bridges and roads for the Allied forces. At one point they marched for two days through the scorching desert and my grandfather nearly died of dehydration. The reason was that he had filled his water bottle with whisky, intensifying his thirst with every sip! This incident obviously left its mark on him because he often issued a grave warning to us grandchildren, “Whatever you do, NEVER EVER put whisky in your water bottle!” As though this was the greatest temptation we would face in life! My grandpa’s point was relevant to this devotion though: If we drink from a leaky bucket, we will find ourselves thirstier than ever. It is a simple matter of cause and effect, because we were created to worship the only true God.

True worship

If the cause of leaky buckets is false worship, Jesus proceeds to tell the woman about true worship. He says that true worshippers worship God the Father “in the Spirit and in truth”. The Father is seeking those whose worship is sincere and Spirit-filled, not those who are trying to put on a religious show (John 4:24). The real disgrace is not people like the Samaritan woman whose lives are in a mess, but those who play church to look respectable. Jesus sees into our hearts and cannot be fooled by empty rituals or super spiritual pretences of any kind. That is a form of false worship, and its deceptiveness makes it more perilous than any other kind. The picture Jesus gives of true worship is a beautiful reminder that God does not care about ethnic, gender, cultural, intellectual or denominational differences in his people. Those who put their trust in the Messiah must worship the Father as one, in the truth of the gospel, in unity and diversity, regardless of man-made distinctions (Gal 3:28).

But wait a minute, where does the woman’s temple question fit in? (John 4:20)

It’s not about location!

As Jesus predicted (John 4:21), the Jerusalem temple and the temple at Mt Gerizim were soon destroyed, in 70AD and the second century respectively. But Jesus tells the Samaritan woman that it doesn’t matter, because soon worship of the invisible God will no longer be tied to a physical location in Jerusalem or anywhere else (John 4:23-24). With hindsight we can know why: In the Old Testament, the Temple was the meeting place between God and sinful people. It was the place for sacrifice and atonement for sin. The Holy of Holies was the ‘dwelling’ place of God on earth. John tells us at the beginning of his gospel that Jesus, the Son of God, became flesh and made his ‘dwelling’ among us (John 1:14). Jesus calls his body the new Temple of God that will die and be raised to life (John 2:19; 20; 21). Everything the temple embodied, was fulfilled by Jesus on the cross! He paid the final sacrifice on the cross. He was the perfect atonement lamb. He split the temple curtain in half to give us access to God the Father. He was the High Priest who reconciles us to God. He was the Jewish Messiah from the line of David. In other words, through Jesus’ death and resurrection, Jesus becomes the symbolic Temple of God, the supreme and final meeting place between God and sinners. The physical building becomes obsolete.

And it is because of Jesus’s death and resurrection that every Christian becomes the temple of the Holy Spirit who lives inside us (1 Cor 3:16). God’s living people are now God’s dwelling place on earth, not a physical building in a special location or an ethnic nation! This is a truly revolutionary announcement by the Messiah.

Looking forward to the new Creation, there will be no temple building, because the Lord God and the Lamb are its temple (Rev 21:22). All those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life will enter (Rev 21:27). Jesus said to the Samaritan woman, “I am He.” True worship is about the person (Jesus) and the way in which we worship (in the Spirit). It is not about a physical temple or church building. Worship of the Father takes place in the lives of ordinary Christians filled by the Holy Spirit.

Live it out!

1.     Thirst is not quenched by a stagnant pool

Jesus’ lack of prejudice, his gentleness and insight, his scandalous grace and the masterful way he directs the Samaritan woman to himself via the vacuum in her soul, are a prototype of how we should share the gospel with love. The eager response of the woman and people of Samaria is my favourite part of the story (John 4:39; 40; 41; 42). Only the Holy Spirit could have caused such a faith-filled harvest. Phillip, John and Peter later became missionaries to Samaria to build on the work of Jesus and the woman at the well (Acts 8:5-8; Acts 8:14-17). Anyone can make disciples through their sincere testimony. Discipleship starts by knowing Jesus and drinking deeply from his well every day of our lives. Only then will the living water spill over into love for others. The thirst of the world cannot be quenched by a stagnant pool. Is your spring flowing with oxygen?

2.     A shamed wife becomes beloved

The story of the Samaritan woman stuns me each time I read it. Especially in the light of Isaiah 54, which I read this morning in my own time with the Lord. When Jesus removes the woman’s disgrace, he fulfils Isaiah’s prophecy about the restoration of Israel, Yahweh’s unfaithful ‘wife’. Stunningly, she (Israel) is called “the wife deserted and distressed in spirit—a wife who married young only to be rejected”. (Isa 54:6) Could there be a more apt description of the woman at the well? Perhaps you can relate to this loneliness or the pain of broken relationships. Because of Jesus, the Suffering Servant, God says to anyone who is drinking from a leaky bucket, “Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life (Rev 22:17).” “Do not be afraid; you will not be put to shame. Do not fear disgrace; you will not be humiliated. You will forget the shame of your youth…for your Maker is your husband— ” (Isa 54:4;5). Only Jesus, the great Bridegroom, can quench your spiritual thirst! Everyone who comes to him in faith and repentance is his radiant Bride, no matter what your past. But you must come and take the gift of living water for yourself.

Pray Ephesians 5:25-28:

Thank you Jesus, that you are the great Groom who will return to take me home as your Bride, holy and blameless in your sight. Father, thank you that because of Jesus, who gave up his life for me on the cross, I am cleansed and spotless, radiant and without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish. Help me to see myself like this and not to feel condemned by my sin in my weak moments. Thank you that you will never leave me or reject me because of your everlasting covenant with me. Help me to drink deeply of your living water and to quench my thirst only in you. May your living water spill out of my heart into love for those around me. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Worship as you listen to Chris Tomlin’s rendition of the hymn Come Thou Fount. (click here)

I would highly recommend the following books:

  1. Encounters with Jesus, by Timothy Keller.
  2. Addictions—A Banquet in the Grave, by Edward T. Welch.
  3. The Dynamic Ministry of Women in Early Christianity http://subspla.sh/ctpxc6k

1.     Further food for thought:

CS Lewis, Mere Christianity

“Most people, if they have really learned to look into their own hearts, would know that they do want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world. There are all sorts of things in this world that offer to give it to you, but they never quite keep their promise. The longings which arise in us when we first fall in love, or first think of some foreign country, or first take up some subject that excites us, are longings which no marriage, no travel, no learning, can really satisfy. I am not now speaking of what would be ordinarily called unsuccessful marriages, or holidays, or learned careers. I am speaking of the best possible ones. There was something we have grasped at, in that first moment of longing, which just fades away in the reality. I think everyone knows what I mean. The wife may be a good wife, and the hotels and scenery may have been excellent, and chemistry may be a very interesting job:  but something has evaded us.”

N.T Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking heaven, the resurrection and the Mission of the Church

“One of the primary laws of human life is that you become like what you worship; what’s more, you reflect what you worship not only to the object itself but also outward to the world around. Those who worship money increasingly define themselves in terms of it and increasingly treat other people as creditors, debtors, partners, or customers rather than as human beings. Those who worship sex define themselves in terms of it (their preferences, their practices, their past histories) and increasingly treat other people as actual or potential sex objects. Those who worship power define themselves in terms of it and treat other people as either collaborators, competitors, or pawns. These and many other forms of idolatry combine in a thousand ways, all of them damaging to the image-bearing quality of the people concerned and of those whose lives they touch.”

Ernest Becker:

“Modern man is drinking and drugging himself out of awareness, or he spends his time shopping, which is the same thing.

A Polished Deck

According to my brother, who sold up all his worldly goods to sail around the world with his family, the three most important parts of a sailing vessel are the HULL to keep water out,  the RUDDER to steer, and the KEEL to keep the yacht upright. Although largely invisible, without these essentials below deck, the boat is doomed to sink. He assures me that a polished deck is of no use in a storm! The trouble with humanity is that we try to satisfy our soul needs and our longing for significance with the equivalent of a shiny deck. In his frank encounter with a moral, religious man called Nicodemus, a pillar of the Jewish community, Jesus shatters any delusions of a polished deck. The Son of God candidly tells Nicodemus that his best efforts are futile without a new spiritual trajectory and orientation. Self help and external renovations are false security for this world and eternity. Jesus loves Nicodemus enough to tell him the most important truth he will ever hear– that only spiritual rebirth through the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, can breathe life into the human soul. Only a spiritual remedy can heal a fatal spiritual condition, no matter who you are. I pray that as you step into this real life encounter, you will recognise Nicodemus in yourself and will hear Jesus of Nazareth, God’s own Son, speaking directly to your heart, as He speaks to mine.

John 3: 1-21

Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”

Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”

“How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”

Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

“How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.

10 “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things?11 Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. 12 I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? 13 No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”

16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. 19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.

Unimpressed by the deck

Nicodemus comes to Jesus in secret and calls him ‘Rabbi’ and ‘teacher from God’. He is spiritually astute to recognise that no ordinary man could have performed the miracles Jesus did, but he also fears offending his peers whose hatred for the rabbi has already become evident. He is a spiritual seeker walking a dangerous political tightrope, hence his late night visit. Nicodemus was used to being treated with respect and he is obviously impressed with Jesus. Perhaps he wants to invite him into the inner circle of religion and end the animosity. Yet, Jesus is not impressed with Nicodemus or his quiet diplomacy! He does not even respond to Nicodemus’s flattering address (John 3:2). Instead, Jesus plunges straight through the veneer to the core of this man. He loves him enough to tell him the truth.

“Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again”(John 3:3).

In spite of his shiny appearance, Jesus knew the darkness in Nicodemus’ heart. In fact, he sees the sorry state of each of our hearts (John 2:25) to which we are often blind. Who of us obeys even the first three commandments God gave to Moses? 1. Have no other gods but the one true God. 2. Worship God alone. 3. Do not misuse God’s name. Jesus sees how we constantly look to something other than God to save us; how we put ourselves in the place of God (Rom 7:18); how we try to be our own saviour; how we deceive ourselves (Jer 17:9Prov 4:23); how casually we treat God; how our own desires determine the way we live. Jesus knows our mixed motives and pride in its many guises (1 John 2:16). He sees the offence to God in our misplaced worship and lack of gratitude. The Son of God sees below the deck and cannot be fooled by illusions of goodness that even we sincerely believe. Jesus knew that Nicodemus could not be improved, because he understood the true nature of sin. That’s why he cut through Nicodemus’s polished deck and prescribed the spiritual cure to a fatal spiritual problem:

New birth by the Holy Spirit.

Just in case we do not recognise ourselves in Nicodemus, Jesus repeats it three times (John 3:357) in a tone that is urgent and unequivocal. “You must be born again!” Belonging to God’s kingdom depends on it. Being born again is not the requirement of some strange Christian cult. It comes from Jesus’ own lips. The midwife of this rebirth is the Holy Spirit.

A brand new baby

But why does Jesus prescribe a new birth? Aren’t there more dignified ways to enter God’s kingdom than as a howling newborn covered in blood and vernix? Isn’t this image a bit radical?

Imagine the life of a healthy unborn baby in the dark cave of a womb. Its experience is limited to the steady thump of mom’s heartbeat; whooshing of blood; stomach rumblings and incoherent sounds. The foetus peers through a fog of amniotic fluid for forty weeks before bursting into the world. Suddenly it is alive to vivid light, colour and distinct shapes, voices, facial expressions, adventures. Best of all, it is welcomed into the loving nurture of a family. The baby does nothing apart from accept its delivery into the world! It is naked and helpless, totally dependent on mom. This is the metaphor Jesus chooses to describe the radical transformation of every sinner who becomes a Christian and takes hold of life. The ‘labour’ belongs to the Triune God– Father, Son and Holy Spirit who play unique roles in the birth of a Christian: The Father loved us enough to send his own Son to die in our place (John 3:16). Jesus the Son willingly submits to the Father and dies in our place (John 10:18).  The Holy Spirit breathes life into a dead, dark spirit, like a wind kindling a fire (John 3:8). The work has been done. The ‘family’ that receives us is God’s people (John 13:34Eph 2:19.)

If you are ‘born of water and the Spirit’, you were like a newborn baby, delivered from a dark domain and transferred to the light, to the kingdom of God’s beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sin” (Col 1:13-14). Nicodemus, the concrete thinker, asks, “How can this be?” (John 3:9). He is baffled by these metaphors and still has many questions. Jesus explains that cleansing and a new spirit are an inside job.

An inside job: Water and the Spirit

Being born of “water and the Spirit” is something that happens on the INSIDE first, below the deck (John 3:5). We might be a bit confused by Jesus’ language, but he is speaking to a Pharisee who would have been able to recite this Old Testament prophecy of Ezekiel in his sleep:

25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. 26 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. 28 Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God. (Ezekiel 36:25-28)

It is mind blowing that 500 years before Jesus’ late night chat with Nicodemus, Ezekiel announced Yahweh’s wonderful restoration plan, which would bring great blessing to his people. It included:

A perfect cleansing of his people from all their sin and idolatry (Ezek 36:25).

The gift of a new, soft heart with new desires (Ezek 36:26).

God’s Spirit to move God’s people to live God’s way (Ezek 36:27).

It is a picture of homecoming and reconciliation (Ezek 36:28) between God and his rebel people. Nicodemus would have made the link as soon as Jesus spoke about being born of water and the Spirit (John 3:5-67-8). Water symbolises inner renewal and cleansing. (Unbeknown to Nicodemus, he would soon witness the death of God’s own Son in full and final payment for the sins of the world.) The Spirit regenerates the heart, steering its desires away from self destructive gods, towards God and his truth (Ezek 36:25John 3:21). This was spectacularly fulfilled at Pentecost (Acts 2:4) and in the heart of every believer. Just to be clear, Jesus goes on to tell Nicodemus about his part in being born again.

The outside story: Believe

“Whoever believes in him (Jesus) shall not die, but have eternal life.”

The outside story is that Nicodemus must give up his smug self sufficiency and surrender his veneer of virtue. He must expose himself to the light and stop hiding in the shadows (John 3:192021). He must live by the truth by trusting in Jesus instead of his efforts. The summative verse of the gospel and the whole Bible, is John 3:16. Life is ours if we rely on the sacrifice of Jesus who absorbed the judgment of God on our behalf (John 3:17).

To help Nicodemus understand his role in the new birth, Jesus astutely reminds him of a concrete Old Testament story: The Israelites had been wandering in the desert after being rescued from Egypt. Tired, grumpy and ungrateful, they complained incessantly to God and blamed him for everything. God sent a plague of poisonous snakes which killed many of them. The people begged Moses for God’s help. God told Moses to raise a bronze serpent on a pole. Those bitten by snakes only needed to look at the serpent on the pole and God healed them of their venomous bites (Numbers 21). That is the image Jesus applies to himself, soon to be lifted up on a Roman cross (John 3:131415). The bronze snake was just a shadow of the gospel promise, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved (Rom 10:9).”

True transformation

Why is faith in Jesus crucial? Because as sinners we are incapable of being at peace with God. Jesus is the only one qualified to wash away our sin because He is the only perfect man who bore our sin on the cross. He is the only way humanity can know God (John 17:3John 10:9).  And once we become a Christian, continuing to believe the Son is how we satisfy our soul longings and need for significance (1 John 5:11John 8:36Rom 8:12). It is only Jesus who can give us life that is abundant and free, because He is the only one who can re-orientate us away from ourselves, —our selfish pride, greed and ambitions, our warped addictions and desires that destroy us (John 10:10). Best of all, Jesus is the only one who can give us eternal life beyond the grave.

How does a Christian know and trust Jesus today? By asking for his forgiveness and developing a relationship with him. Taking simple baby steps to get to know Him. Growing in the habits of grace he has provided, like reading God’s word, praying and meeting with God’s people.

Without spiritual rebirth and growth into mature faith in Jesus, personal or social transformation will fail in the long term. The centre cannot hold without the spiritual power of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit to change the human heart and its desires. Human effort alone is lifeless, like scrubbing the deck of a yacht without attending to what’s below.

But with the RUDDER of God’s SPIRIT steering us, our trajectory will progressively move towards light as we begin to see that God’s ways are best for us (Isa 48:17). Our HULL will keep the stormy waves outside our boat, as we learn to trust in the FATHER who loves us and gives us new life through his SON. And our KEEL will steady us through turbulent oceans, as we hope in His promises to make all things new. The Trinity continues to empower our Christian journey.

Whatever happened to Nicodemus?

For me, the most wonderful thing of all is knowing that Nicodemus didrespond to Jesus’ offer of life. We don’t know much about what happened after their clandestine meeting, but John tells us that Nicodemus tried to get a fair hearing for Jesus before the Jewish council (John 7:51). Who knows his torment at witnessing the injustice of the kangaroo court of his peers who condemned Jesus to be crucified. But later John describes Nicodemus as a ‘disciple’ of Jesus who took his body down from the cross with another rich Jew, Joseph of Arimathea. Together they lovingly prepared him for burial with 75 pounds of spices, wrapped his broken body in linen and placed our Lord in the tomb (John 19: 3839). How I pray that every person reading this devotion has responded to the Lord Jesus as Nicodemus did. Nicodemus stepped into the light and made his faith public at the crucifixion, despite inevitable persecution by his inner circle.

Just as Jesus frankly confronted him in the middle of the night, Nicodemus asks us the hard question, “What is it costing you to follow Jesus?”

Live it out!

  • Whether or not you are born again, if the Holy Spirit is stirring you today, Jesus is calling you to himself. Don’t ignore the wind of the Spirit when he blows on your heart. Go to Jesus. Make him your only Treasure, your one true desire. If you trust in Jesus, He will always satisfy you. If you fail Jesus, He will always forgive you. No other person or thing can do that for you.
  • Are you willing to love people with the truth as Jesus did with Nicodemus? Challenge yourself by listening to Love You With The Truth by Casting Crowns. (click on the link)
Lyrics of Love you with the truth, by Casting Crowns.
For the longest time, I believed the lie
That I’m not a strong enough believer
To be the friend that can take your hand
And lead you straight to Jesus
I’m waiting on the preachers, singers, and the teachers
To string the perfect words together
But every single time I have to say goodbye
I wonder will this be the last time
I can’t call myself your friend and walk away
When we love, we earn the right to speak the truth
When we speak truth, we show the world we truly love
I’m not pointing my finger, I’m holding out my hand
Let my life and my words be the proof
I’m gonna love you with the truth (Oh)

A Fragrant Gospel

The Namaqualand daisies are a multicoloured tapestry of desert blooms that defy the arid veld of the northern Cape after the spring rains. A honey-like scent diffuses the air for miles around. This striking display of beauty reminds me of what Christians should be like. Our spring rains have fallen! God’s kingdom has come to earth and it is our Father’s pleasure to give us the kingdom (Luke 12:32). We are his floral display, called to bloom and grow wherever on the planet He has planted us. As couriers of the best news the world has ever heard, we ought to be winsome bearers of a gospel that is both lovely and potent. Our lives and our lips (Heb 13:15-16) should diffuse a gospel fragrance, as we offer our bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God (Rom 12:1). In a new era, where people of every nation and tribe are forcing their way into God’s kingdom (Luke 16:16), Jesus calls us to diffuse the fragrance of the gospel both to our neighbours and the nations.

Our text today is Matthew 28:16-20:

16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted.18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Setting the scene

Three years after Jesus’ stunning synagogue announcement that God’s kingdom had come (Luke 4:14-21), the King was dead. Shamed as a criminal, blasphemer and bogus-king (Matt 27:37; John 19:2; 3; 15), Jesus was abandoned by everyone, even his friends. He was also God-forsaken (Matt 27:46).

Yet Jesus’ last words on the cross were, “It is finished!” (John 19:30)

What was finished? How could the light of the world lay dead in a dark tomb? How could his mission end in such epic failure? Were they blinded by his miracles?

Jesus’ followers must have been plagued with doubts and questions as they cowered in dark places, afraid for their lives. Yet, early on Sunday, when the women arrived at the tomb, they found the huge entrance stone rolled aside and the body missing. Two men in shiny clothes asked them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, he is risen! Don’t you remember how he told you the Messiah must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified and raised to life on the third day?” (Luke 24)

Jesus’ mission was accomplished! Andrew Patterson’s sings of how God rested on the Jewish Sabbath because his work was complete. Take a minute to meditate on the words of Patterson’s amazing song and thank Jesus for finishing his agonising work on the cross. His mission was to save the world by dying the death that every sinner deserves, and then rising to life. This is the true story of God’s unfailing love for the people He created. It is the only story that makes sense of our world and brings hope for now and eternity. It is literally a life-giving, life-saving story that Jesus tells his followers to announce to the world, as he stands on a mountain in Galilee. These are his last words to them as the risen Saviour. Directly afterwards, Jesus rises to heaven to take his place as King of the universe (Matt 28:18; Mark 16:19-20). Final words are important.

Honouring Jesus’ final words

The risen King’s final words are very clear instructions. Jesus appoints every Christian as a disciple, evangelist and discipler. In the original Greek, the imperative command is to “make disciples.” The secondary verbs “Go”, “Teach” and “Baptize” are the expressions of this primary command to make disciples.

Jesus’ Great Commission was not just for his faith-filled worshippers. I’m glad John mentions the doubters standing on the mountain with weak knees and glazed eyes, as I can see myself among them! (Matt 28:17) Not one of Christ’s followers is exempted from sharing the gospel, as this is how God has chosen to grow his kingdom. However, there is good news for the fearful– Your mission cannot fail, as its success does not depend on your own gifts or faith, but on two hard facts:

  1. Jesus has been given all authority in heaven and on earth (Matt 28:18).
  2. Jesus himself will be with you, even until the end of the age (Matt 28:20).

It is the presence of Immanuel – God with us—that enables us to fulfill the Great Commission. Thank God we are not on our own! But His kingdom will advance with or without us too.

“The Great Commission” was a phrase first coined by Hudson Taylor, the first missionary to China, who said, “The Great Commission is not an option to be considered; it is a command to be obeyed.”

Fragrance…or odour?

The problem arises in the manner in which Jesus’ final words are carried out. If we divorce the Great Commission from the Great Commandment of Jesus (Matt 22:37; 38; 39; 40), the gospel is no longer a sweet fragrance, but a pungent odour to those who hear it. There is nothing appealing about a pretentious, know-it-all evangelist. But there is something very winsome about a Christian who is personally moved by the gospel and whose witness is drenched in sincerity and grace.

Graciousness earns us the right to be heard (Col 4:6; 1 Peter 3:15) and reflects the nature of Christ and the gospel message. A fragrant gospeller does not assault with arguments or ridicule another person’s beliefs. Jesus knew his true enemy and never treated people as the enemy even if they were being used as Satan’s instruments. He did not ask his followers to defend His dignity. As Jesus taught in the synagogues, everyone praised him and was amazed at his gracious words (Luke 4:15; 22). The gospel may have offended many, but Jesus himself was not offensive.

If the person we are addressing does not see the love of Jesus in our eyes, our best arguments are futile. Without love, we will approach evangelism and discipleship as a great work we are doing for the Lord, like the self righteous Pharisees. Jesus described these zealots of his day as white-washed tombs (Matt 23:27). The odour of dead men’s bones is nothing like the fragrance of the gospel.

An unpretentious gospel

Helen Roseveare was a British doctor and missionary to Africa, specifically in the Congo for over 20 years. She passed away in 2016 at the age of 91. Helen trained nurses, ran a leprosy centre and a maternity hospital which still exists in the DRC. When civil war broke out, Helen was one of several missionaries held captive by rebel forces for over 5 months in 1964. She was beaten, terrorized, and brutally raped on more than one occasion.

From someone who sacrificed her whole life to be a fragrance of the gospel, this is her warning about mission:

“If you think you have come to the mission field because you are a little better than others, or as the cream of your church, or because of your medical degree, or for the service you can render the African church, or even for the souls you may see saved, you will fail. Remember, the Lord has only one purpose ultimately for each one of us, to make us more like Jesus. He is interested in your relationship with Himself. Let Him take you and mould you as He will; all the rest will take its rightful place.”

-Helen Roseveare

You will be inspired and humbled by the story of this remarkable woman who carried the fragrance of the gospel into new frontiers with humility and love. Read this link or listen to this podcast on the Extraordinary Life of Helen Roseveare.

“When the rhythm of the music changes, the dance step must change also.”

(African proverb)

While the truth of the ancient gospel story never changes, a fragrant gospeller prays for avenues to show the real face of Jesus in unique contexts. The gospel is not a generic formula, and we need the Spirit’s creativity to find points of contact which hit home.

The ministry of Paul demonstrates how skilful a Jewish Pharisee could be in dancing to the cultural rhythms of Greeks, Jews, Romans, slaves, prison warders and women.

Christine Dillon, a contemporary missionary in Asia, tells the story of the Bible in simple English, using oral narrative rather than reading. This is a creative way of sharing the gospel in Africa, which also has a tradition of storytelling. Click on the links to Christine’s websites here and here to see how it can be done.

Live it out!

Here are three practical ways we can match our dance step with the rhythm of today’s music:

  1. Don’t sound religious or use theological language with unbelievers who are Biblically illiterate or have bad memories of Church. Concepts like ‘sin’ and ‘atonement’ may be utterly foreign to those moulded by a ‘tolerance’ mindset. Rather  enquire about the ripple effects of alienation and discord visible to them personally and socially. Ask them the penetrating question, “How is life working out for you?” This common experience of brokenness is often the connection, which points to the effects of sin and our desperate need for redemption. Use their own vocabulary and concrete analogies to explain how Jesus offers life.
  2. Steer the conversation to the heart as the source of outward behaviour, moving from the symptoms to the cause. Don’t be afraid to admit your own tendency to serve gods that cannot save you and show how this idolatry is the root of your sin (Rom 1:18). A fragrant gospel shines its beam on God’s solution to a fatal heart disorder. If we are guided by genuine love as we speak, the Holy Spirit will give us the right words and expose our own blind spots, which are also our points of contact with unbelievers. As CS Lewis said, “Evangelism is just one beggar showing another beggar where to find food.”
  3. Practise the art of questioning. We will find points of commonality if we ask probing questions and listen long enough to hear the source of hunger in an empty soul. That is exactly what Jesus did. Next week we will look at the probing questions Jesus asked Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman in John 3. He presented the same gospel, but Jesus customised the message for his hearers.

It takes prayer, effort and time to find common ground, as Paul did (1 Cor 9:19; 20; 21; 22; 23), while remaining true to the Bible. Fortunately we do not have to be perfect evangelists, as we are not the builders of the kingdom. God is the Master builder. His mustard seed kingdom WILL become a kingdom of cosmic greatness (Mark 4:30; 31; 32). We are just called to scatter the seed (the word) on the soil (the hearts) of those we meet (Mark 4:1-20). One of the best ways to get the word into the soil is simply to read one of the New Testament Gospels with a friend. Don’t underestimate the power of words spoken in love to an unbeliever. God’s word will not return to Him empty (Isa 55:11).

Preach, teach, serve

The King himself is our role model and showed us that the gospel transforms every frontier of life. Jesus announced the gospel of personal salvation. He also preached the Sermon on the Mount and decried injustice and oppression, using parables like the Good Samaritan. He healed the sick, cast out demons and spoke truth to power. The gospel cannot be reduced to personal salvation alone, as Saints are needed to radiate the Kingdom of God in every sphere.

We diffuse the fragrance of the gospel by loving what God loves and hating what he hates, whether at home, in our neighbourhood or on mission. We care for orphans and widows in their distress. We get to know the Bible for ourselves and teach it on to others (Matt 28:20). We nurture younger believers to live out their new identity over a lifetime (Matt 28:19). The focus of Jesus’ Great Commission is to MAKE DISCIPLES, and this should be the focus of every local church. It is a long term project. A social, political or self-help gospel is a flimsy band aid which hides the gaping wound of the human heart, but is impotent to save.

Bloom and grow

Christians cannot love God or obey Him perfectly. Only Jesus did that. The aroma of his sacrifice was pleasing to God as he traded our sin for his perfection (Eph 5:2). We cannot do a single thing to add to the work of Jesus. It is finished. But the gospel calls us to a life that pleases God in all we do (2 Cor 5:9). To bloom and grow wherever we are. When ordinary believers are infused with the gospel and live to please their King, they diffuse the fragrance of the gospel throughout the world (2 Cor 2:15). Don’t underestimate the appeal of common daisies blooming in the desert. We are those daisies.

Pray Hebrews 13:20-21:

Our Father, the God who brings us peace, thank you that you resurrected our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of your eternal covenant. We ask you to equip us with everything good that we may do your will, working in us that which is pleasing in your sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.

I am indebted to the following wonderful Gospel resources:

A Kingdom Gospel

The gospel as preached by Jesus 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 at its centre was the coming of God’s kingdom to earth, with Jesus as its undisputed King. It can be summarised in one profound affirmation:

JESUS IS LORD!

In today’s devotion, we will look at Christ’s stunning gospel announcement in Galilee in 28AD. We will think through its profound implications for the world, as well the lives of those who accept Jesus as their King.

Luke 4:14-29:

14 Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. 15 He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him.

16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19     to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked.

23 Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ And you will tell me, ‘Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’”

24 “Truly I tell you,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown. 25 I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. 26 Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. 27 And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.”

28 All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff.

A staggering broadcast

To grasp the potency of the gospel, we must look to the chief gospeller himself, Jesus of Nazareth. That day in AD 28, in his home town, Jesus broadcast the momentous gospel that God’s kingdom had come to earth. Most stunning of all was his radical commentary in lieu of a sermon,

“Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

No ordinary Bible reading

This was no ordinary Bible reading from Isaiah 61:1-2. It also echoed the 700-year old prophecies of Isaiah 58:6 and 42:7, that God’s anointed Servant would “untie the cords of the yoke” and “release from the dungeon those sitting in darkness.” What visceral images of the Messiah’s redemptive power! The Jews who heard Jesus’s reading would have been familiar with their history: how Yahweh had made a way for them through the Red Sea, leaving their Egyptian slave drivers to lie at the bottom of the sea, “never to rise again, extinguished, snuffed out like a wick” (Isa 43:17).

No ordinary claim

Jesus was making an unmistakable declaration that he was the promised Messiah ushering in a new kingdom: a new dawn of freedom, forgiveness and restoration for the poor and the blind, the oppressed and captives. He was the liberator of his people held in dark dungeons of exile far from home.

“The year of the Lord’s favour” (Luke 4:19) is an allusion to Israel’s 50-year Jubilee, when all debts were cancelled and slaves were freed (Lev 25:8-55). The poor were given a fresh start with a clear slate. “Favour” is the Greek word dekton, which links with “being accepted”. The announcement clearly suggested that Jesus would make sinful people acceptable to God and break the chains of sin. The Jews understood this language of redemption clearly and would have had no doubt that Jesus was pointing to himself as the great Deliverer.

The time is now!

In Mark’s gospel, Jesus proclaims the good news of God, “The time has come. The Kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:14-15).

But instead of accepting the gospel as good news, it caused great offence to those who did not believe the prophet from next door (Luke 4:28-29), was God’s anointed king (John 8:46-47). Jesus’s claim to be Messiah and Yahweh himself was the ultimate blasphemy for them. It was this stunning confession that ultimately got Jesus condemned by the Jewish rulers, and crucified (Mark 14:6263). It still offends today, as human rebels want to establish their own kingdoms. Apart from being an unambiguous declaration of kingship, it was also a declaration of war.

Jesus bound the strong man

We live in a world at war. The enemy of the King is Satan, the ruler of this world since Genesis 3. In Jesus’ own words, he is the murderer from the beginning, a liar and the father of lies (John 8:44-45). He has held creation and its occupants in captivity to sin, death and brokenness ever since Adam and Eve chose to obey the cunning serpent instead of God. But as far back as Genesis 3:15, God promised that one of Eve’s descendants would crush the devil’s head. Jesus came to do just exactly that.

He started his ministry by driving out a demon (Mark 1:25-26). When accused of working with Satan, Jesus explained that he came to bind the strong man (Satan) so that he, the stronger man, could plunder the strong man’s house (Mark 3:27). Jesus clearly taught that he would judge the ruler of this world and recover what Satan had robbed. But instead of doing it with a spectacle of greatness, Jesus bound the “strong man” when he became a “servant” and died on the cross.

The cross is the bedrock of Christ’s reign

In what seemed like the ultimate defeat and humiliation, Jesus sacrificed his life on a Roman  cross, in the greatest miscarriage of human justice, to establish his reign on earth. It is scandalous that the all-powerful King of the universe should die for his rebellious people, but this is what grace is. Paul says, “He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Col 2:13-15). The great defeat was the ultimate triumph.

On the basis of his obedience to God, even to the point of death, Jesus bound the “strong man”, Satan himself. Jesus bought us forgiveness and life by obeying God instead of listening to Satan and grasping onto power for himself.

On the cross Jesus reversed the effects of Adam and Eve’s sin in the garden, when they obeyed the serpent and brought death. When Satan tempted Jesus with all the kingdoms of the world, He resisted the enemy because his kingdom was not of this world. Jesus knew that he had to die to redeem spiritual captives (Luke 4:5678). “If I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.” (John 12:31-33.) When Jesus returns as King and Judge, he comes to finally destroy Satan and his demons (Rev 20:29-10), and to take his people home.

Infusing the gospel of the kingdom

“Make your bed!” This is the most famous rule of Jordan Peterson’s bestselling 12 Rules for Life –An antidote to chaos. It is another way of saying that before we try to fix others or the world around us, we should attend to the brokenness inside us. In other words, set your own house in order before criticising the world, and start with the small things.

It is the same for the gospel. Before Christians can DIFFUSE the world with the fragrance of the gospel (the subject of next week’s devotion), the gospel must first INFUSE our own hearts and minds. It is easy to say that Jesus is King and his kingdom has come to earth, but quite another thing to think and live with this mindset when assaulted by the daily struggles of life.

I can hear you say, “What practical difference can the Kingdom Gospel make to my life today? Isn’t redemption just about going to heaven one day?” Let me try to convince you that it makes all the difference in the world– right now!

Time to bear arms!

Right now, in this world, every Christian is at war. We are in a cosmic war on the side of Christ’s Kingdom against Satan’s kingdom. As the King’s recruits, each of us is called up to serve and bear arms (Eph 6:12)! There is no “peace in our time” even if final victory is certain. There is also no neutral territory. The kingdom of Self is just another province of the kingdom of Satan.

Most of this war is fought on the turf of our hearts. Our enemy is tough and we may get injured on the messy battlefield of life. But if the gospel is a life-saving, health-infusing drip, we need the constant trickle of God’s word into our broken lives to remind us of the truth that we have been set free. Free to serve, free to fight and free to live as the King’s redeemed people (Gal 5:13). Sometimes this drip may be akin to chemotherapy, which destroys the toxic lies of Satan and our sinful nature with painful side effects. But only if the light of Christ the King reigns in our inner world, will we reflect his light in our households, communities, nations and the world.

Let me give three concrete examples of how to infuse the gospel of Christ’s Kingdom in our lives:

1. Resisting dark feelings

Every time you fight feelings of anxiety, hopelessness or shame using the word of God (Romans 8:1), thinking on his promises and lovely things (Phil 4:8), you are standing against the Kingdom of darkness. Every time you turn your eyes on Jesus the King, instead of bowing to your feelings, Jesus is reigning in your heart (Ps 42:11).  Click on Lily Million’s beautiful rendition of the classic song “Turn your eyes upon Jesus”, and fight to live the lyrics.

2. Resisting temptation

Every time you pray against temptation to lust, gossip, be bitter, take revenge, wallow in self pity or criticise, you are choking the power of Satan over you (Eph 4:26-27). When you oppose an addiction or self harm, or when you flee from evil, you are standing firm against the yoke of slavery. You are living as a free person, not entangled by sin (Gal 5:1). Every time you submit yourself to the King and resist the devil, your enemy flees from you (James 4:7). You were not freed by Jesus to remain a captive to the enemy, for “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36).

3. Resisting disorder

When you forgive, act as a peacemaker, or create order out of chaos in your home, you are agreeing with Jesus’s prayer, “Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” Jesus is reigning in the small slither of the world you call home.

Before you can diffuse the gospel’s fragrance to the world, Jesus must first reign as King in your own life.

Live it out!

Spiritual blindness and illusions of goodness are much more dangerous than physical shackles or cataracts on the eyes. Jesus gives sight to the blind and preaches good news to the “poor”—those that know they need him. Is your heart like a beggar’s? Do you find it easy to submit and depend on Jesus as King?

If you are not sure you are part of Christ’s Kingdom, this is a matter to be settled! If Jesus is who He claimed to be, he requires a personal response to his gospel (Mark 1:14-15). I implore you to read one of the New Testament Gospels to get a firsthand account of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Many were astonished at his teaching and even demons recognized Jesus as “the Holy one of God,” (Mark 1:24), but being part of his Kingdom means bowing the knee to the King.

Are you bearing arms and fighting for the Kingdom of light in your inner world? What daily habits might you consider to ensure the drip of the Kingdom gospel infuses your bloodstream?

Pray Colossians 2:13-15:

Father, today we turn our eyes on your Son, Jesus, who has brought us from the kingdom of death into the kingdom of life. Thank you for freeing us from the chains of sin and death. Thank you that we are forgiven and free indeed. Thank you that every shameful thing we think, say or do has been nailed to the cross and can never rise up to condemn us. Help us, by your Spirit, to fight against the darkness within us and stand firm in our freedom. We praise you as the victorious King. Help us to live as ambassadors of your kingdom in our hearts and homes.

In the name of the king of Kings, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen.

I highly recommended you read:

The Gospel of the Kingdom– Jesus’ Revolutionary Message, by David Seccombe. Click on this link to buy your copy online.

Click here for Lily Million’s rendition of the classic “Turn your eyes upon Jesus.”

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.