Habakkuk– The righteous shall live by faith

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

Look at the nations and be utterly amazed!

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

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

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

(Hab 1:5-610-11)

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

And the Lord answered me:

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

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

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

What about the faithful?

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

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

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

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

The righteous shall live by their faith.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wrath and mercy collide

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

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

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

Listen to Lux, by Antoine Bradford.

Habakkuk– the prophet who prayed with his eyes wide open

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

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

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

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

Habakkuk’s Complaint

The oracle that Habakkuk the prophet saw.

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

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

Honest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This was hardly the ‘amazing’ intervention Habakkuk expected!

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

Real

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

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

True

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

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

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

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

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

Light

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

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

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

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

Worship

Oh My Soul, by Casting Crowns.

Prayer

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

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

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

Homework!

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

Click here for Apple users.

Click here for Google Play.

Rest for the Weary

New series: Texts that changed my life.

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

Matthew 11:28-30:

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

Our work, and Christ’s

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

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

The easy yoke of work and rest

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

Yoked oxen resized

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

 

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

Soul rest

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

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

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

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

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

Rest is…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A poem about Rest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Worship and pray

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

The Hidden Sin of Self-righteousness

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

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

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

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

Who can discern his errors?

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

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

The anatomy of sin

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

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

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

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

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

Faith in the Physician

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

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

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

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

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

Minding our own planks!

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

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

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

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

Today is the day

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

Handing over the scalpel

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

Pray

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

In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Worship as you listen to “Purify my heart”. 

Snapshots of women adorning the gospel (part 2)

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

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

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

Snapshots from Rome

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

Costly but liberating faith

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

Trailblazers

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

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

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

Prayer for daughters of God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Benediction

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

Useful resources:

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

Men and Women (Roydon Frost- a sermon)

Snapshots of Women Adorning the gospel (part 1)

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

A woman’s gospel hub

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A rich heritage

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

Snapshots from Luke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Honey for the heart

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

Psalm 19:7-11

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

Sweet drippings of the soul!

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

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

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

The Reward is in the keeping!

In Psalm 19:11, David says:

“By them your servant is warned;

In keeping them there is great reward.”

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

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

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

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

The reward is in the eating!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pray

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

In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Worship

Listen to this classic song by Amy Grant.

Seeing God’s glory in the skies

In the Psalms, David often reminds himself to focus his vision on God instead of circumstances. Like us, his eyes saw danger and discouragement all around him, and he needed eyes of faith to see what lay beyond his physical horizons. He knew he needed insight, not just eyesight! For instance, In Psalm 123, king David looks beyond himself to the true King of the universe: “I lift up my eyes to you, to you who sits enthroned in heaven…our eyes look to the Lord our God, till he shows us his mercy.” In Psalm 121, David uses spiritual binoculars to zoom in on the Creator, “I lift up my eyes to the mountains. Where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth” (Ps 121:1-2). The Bible uses the old- fashioned exclamation “Behold” 1298 times! It is a powerful heads-up: “Hey you little human, look up and get a hold on what you see! Get out of the smoke and grasp the amazing apparition right before your eyes!” In the first six verses of Psalm 19, David calls us to Behold the Skies!

The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech,
and night to night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words,
whose voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
In them he has set a tent for the sun,
    which comes out like a bridegroom leaving his chamber,
and, like a strong man, runs its course with joy.
Its rising is from the end of the heavens,
and its circuit to the end of them,
and there is nothing hidden from its heat.

Speech of the Skies

(Ps 19:1-4)

The skies speak a universal language that requires no special skill or knowledge to understand. Even a small child can grasp it.

It is not the pantheistic speech of an impersonal force called ‘Mother Nature,’ who somehow appears out of nowhere to plant, nurture and inhabit the seeds of everything in the universe.

Nor is it the atheistic speech of the Big Bang, plus time, chance and random mutations, which somehow conspire together to produce complex life from nothing.

Rather, the skies speak of a super- intelligent Artist who is marvellous and mighty, as well as personal and caring. It is not the speech of a passive observer, but of a Creator who sustains his creation day after day, millenia after millenia by the “word of his power” (Heb 1:3). As Paul explained to the Athenians, the Creator of the universe is not an UNKNOWN GOD, served by human hands as if he needed anything. God the Creator wants to be known by those to whom he has given life and breath. “God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being’”(Acts 17:27-28). God shows us his glory through the skies.

David had insight when he wrote this inspired poetry in Psalm 19. He grasped that the heavens gush God’s glory every day and night! In Genesis 1:6-8(NIV), the sky is called a ‘vault,’ an apt name for such a treasure chest of wonders that entice us to know the One who spoke it into existence.

My grandmother loved gardens, art, music and all things bright and beautiful. As an old woman in her nineties, she still sounded like an excited toddler when describing a spectacular scene. “Too wonderful for words” was her favourite expression! It’s exactly what David says about the skies.

The skies make a profound and humbling statement that requires no verbal commentary (Ps 19:1-3). We live in a fast-paced city with plenty of lights, smoke and sirens, but we need to take off our racing blinkers for long enough to go outside and gaze at the infinite stars in our back yard. We need to pay attention to the daily rhythms of the sun and trace the monthly phases of the moon. If we occasionally escape from man-made ceilings to sleep under God’s star-studded ‘vault’, we will know intuitively that we are very small and this is the work of a great and transcendent* Creator (*beyond or above the range of normal or physical human experience).

While it is true that God is transcendent and invisible, the Creator has left his fingerprints all over His finely tuned universe as evidence of what He is like. Through the skies, God makes his invisible nature known to all people on the planet every day. Wherever we are in the world, God pulls back the curtains of the heavens to give us a glimpse of his glory, power, majesty, creativity, order and infinite wisdom (Rom 1:19-20Jer 10:12). We observe his laws of nature in operation such as gravity, showcasing the logical, orderly way God normally upholds his universe.

The witness of creation is powerful, but not sufficient to unite us with our Creator. Only Jesus can do that. Christ came to earth as flesh and blood for the very purpose of making the invisible God known to us in person. “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature(Heb 1:3). “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities: all things were created by him and for him” (Col 1:15-16). The constellations cannot tell us the story of Jesus and his atoning sacrifice, and that is why we need God’s word in the Bible. That’s what we will explore next week in “Seeing God’s face in Scripture—Psalm 19:7-12)”. Nevertheless, creation has a powerful ministry which we should not take for granted.

Ministry of the Skies

When we think of the way God ministers to us as Christians, we usually think of the Bible, prayer and God’s people. But it is easy to neglect one of the most accessible, everyday channels of God’s grace– His beautiful world. Of all people, Christians should understand the language of awe and joy when we open our eyes to behold God’s handiwork.

If we know that our Saviour is also our Creator and that we have been made to be stewards of all Creation (Gen 2:16), it makes sense that God would minister to us as we respect, care for and enjoy his earth, including everything in and above it. If God walked with Adam and Eve in the garden before the earth was marred by sin, does it not please him to watch His children take a walk in nature, admire his handiwork and gasp at the heavens?

I love John Piper’s comment on God’s ministry through the skies:

“There is not a day that goes by, nor is there a place in the world, where God does not extend his ministry for the healing and hope and happiness and humility of those who will receive it. I’m speaking of the ministry of the Lord through what he has created, through the world of nature, especially what we see when we look up into the skies during the day and during the night.” (John Piper)

I don’t think this is conjecture. When God reassured Abraham of his eternal promises, he took him outside his tent to show him the stars in the sky. It gave Abraham comfort and strength to continue his journey of faith. Similarly, God gave Noah hope through a rainbow in the sky (Gen 9:12-15). God himself placed a bright star over the city of Bethlehem when Jesus was born, as a tangible sign that the Saviour of the world had come. The sign was so powerful that wise men from a distant land travelled to Bethlehem to see the baby Jesus. God used the heavens he had created to give tangible signs of his eternal covenant of grace and salvation. These signs ministered to people who had unveiled eyes to see them.

Even now, God’s creation is not superfluous. His word does not return to him empty. He has given us the skies to minister directly to our hearts– not through intellect, audible words or logical reasoning– but through our senses, intuition and emotions. It is the wordless speech of AWE and JOY.

The Star of all stars

Ps 19:5-6

David experienced awe as he described the sun’s daily arc across the sky as a happy bridegroom and a champion marathon runner. I’m picturing my favourite Blitzbok player, Cecil Afrika, sprinting from one side of the field to the other to score a try, dreadlocks trailing behind! Or perhaps the sun is like Wade Van Niekerk demolishing the 400m track at the 2016 Olympics! It’s amazing that David pictured it as a ‘circuit’ even before he knew the earth was round.

It is easy to take for granted that the sun shows up every morning to run its race, but this is just one of the laws of nature that God has written into the earth’s fabric. The sun is God’s gift that reflects all the colours of the rainbow—red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. Without the sun, we would have no colour at all! Only an artist would bother creating a colourful universe. James 1:17 is one of my favourite reminders:

“Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows”.

The sun is a daily reminder that the joy of the Lord is our strength! I’ve had the joy of driving my children in an Easterly direction to school over the last ten years and we have watched the sun rise nearly every morning. As hard as it is to wake up on a dark and cold winter’s morning, the sunrise is exactly what we need to start the day. Here are some ways the Lord ministers to our bodies through the ‘Star of all stars’ that He carefully placed in the perfect spot, 92,935,700 miles from planet Earth:

The Sun:

  • Contains Full Spectrum Light, which increases dopamine and serotonin.
  • Increases Beta-endorphins, which improve mood and reduce pain.
  • Relaxes the nervous system and makes us calmer
  • Decreases need for painkillers by 21% post-surgery.
  • Increases Nitric Oxide, which helps improve blood flow
  • Increases Vitamin D
  • Lowers inflammation (UV is an immunosuppressant)
  • Improves Blood flow, brain function and alertness
  • Increases metabolism
  • Is anti-Microbial – the sun can irradiate large amounts of blood – against fungi, bacteria viruses, etc…
  • Increases CD8 Cells, which help the immune system
  • Breaks down adrenaline and cortisol, which are stress hormones.

In case you’d like to watch the sun rise or set, follow the phases of the moon or explore the treasure ‘vault’ of stars and planets in your region, visit https://www.timeanddate.com/sun/south-africa/johannesburg

No eye has seen

It is too wonderful for words that God is so much brighter and more glorious than even our amazing sun! We cannot even look upon His face and survive (Ex 33:20). It is hard to imagine that when the Lord returns and transforms the earth to its original perfection, God will be the light for us in the day and the night. Our sun and moon, which are so vital for life on earth, are only temporary lights in the sky, but our Creator is eternal, and His light will be all we need.

“The sun will no more be your light by day,
    nor will the brightness of the moon shine on you,
for the Lord will be your everlasting light,
    and your God will be your glory”. (Isa 60:19).

No wonder Paul wrote:

“No eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him”—(1 Cor 2:9).

That will be a day to behold! In the meantime, let us not cut ourselves off from God’s creation, but rather become fluent in the language of awe and joy.

Live it out!

  • In a world that is full of sin, hate, ugliness and destruction, do you take time to lift your eyes and gaze at what is beautiful and good? Allow God’s free gift of the skies to minister to your heart and share it with your family. It is a practical way to live out Phil 4:8:

“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things”.

Coming up!

For the next two weeks on The God Walk we will be looking at the rest of Psalm 19:

Psalm 19:8-11– Seeing God’s face in the Scriptures.

Psalm 19:12-14– Showing God’s glory through our lives.

Worship

Click below to listen to “Indescribable,” sung by Chris Tomlin.

Useful Resources:

  • Fulbright, Exploring Creation with Astronomy; Exploring Creation with Botany; Exploring Creation with Zoology: Flying Creatures of the Fifth Day (Reading this amazing series of books with my children was one of the greatest blessings we shared.)
  • Website to visit https://www.timeanddate.com/sun/south-africa/johannesburg
Devotions, sign up to our mailing list logo

Abraham’s Dark Night of the Soul

Theology is the study of the nature of God and religious belief.

Abraham’s theology was tested in the laundry room of real experience. So is ours. His belief in God’s faithfulness spent 25 years in the laundry basket of delay. His faith in God’s goodness was whirled about in the washing machine of a risky future, famine and fear. His theology was hung out to dry on the washline of conflict and then pressed under the iron of testing. But when Abraham was around 115 years old, the iron got piping hot in the greatest test of all. God’s command to slaughter Isaac as a burnt offering may have been an acceptable practice in Canaan, but it conflicted with everything Abraham understood about the loving, faithful God who had sworn a covenant and guaranteed it with His own life (Gen 15; 17:19; 21). It made no sense at all. God had assured Abraham that Isaac would inherit the covenant promises—the nation, land, descendants and blessing to the nations. Isaac had been born by a miracle of God from a barren mother in her nineties (Gen 21:1-2). Along with the agony of killing his beloved son who brought laughter to their home, Abraham could not square God’s command with his covenant. Surely we would not blame Abraham if he ditched God at this point and followed his instincts and reason, just as he did in Egypt? “Did God really say…?” must have crossed his mind more than once on that terrible journey. However, Abraham did not delay or argue with God. Abraham’s darkest hour of fear was also his finest hour of faith.

As this ancient father trudged for three days up Mount Moriah with his only beloved son, his torment could only be paralleled by God the Father as His Son journeyed from Gethsemane to Golgotha two thousand years later.

Let us learn from Abraham’s faith in the darkest night of the soul.

Genesis 22

Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!”

“Here I am,” he replied.

Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”

Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.”

Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together,Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?”

“Yes, my son?” Abraham replied.

“The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”

Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together.

When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. 11 But the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!”

“Here I am,” he replied.

12 “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”

13 Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns.He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14 So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.”

15 The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven a second time 16 and said, “I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies,18 and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”

A father and son

In the three dreadful days it took for father and son to walk to the place God had told him about, Abraham had plenty of time to process the sting of God’s command. But time was not the same for the eternal Yahweh. In his sovereignty, God had already provided a ram in the thicket and instructed the angel to stay Abraham’s hand. God knew the outcome of the test but Abraham did not. As God’s faithful friend for over a century, Abraham must have felt that God had turned against him in his old age.

Amazingly, the author does not even mention how Abraham or Isaac felton this journey. Our text only provides painful details of what they did.Just unquestioning, humble obedience and a brief exchange between father and son:

“Where is the lamb for the sacrifice?” Isaac asks his father. “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son” (Gen 22:7-8). As a parent I want to scream at them to run home and abandon this ill-fated excursion!

But, in his darkest hour, haunted by doubt, despair and disorientation, Abraham chose to believe God rather than his perceptions.

The promised son also obeyed, rather than out-run or out-wrestle his aging father. Isaac, a sturdy youth, allowed himself to be bound and placed on the altar, like a meek lamb, a silent sheep before its shearers. One cannot help but see images of the Promised One in Isaiah 53:710.

Father and son’s faithful obedience was not born from a stoic sense of duty, but from a deep conviction that God would miraculously ‘provide’ on the mountain (Gen 22:8Heb 11:171819). They obeyed even though the means of provision remained a mystery.

Abraham teaches us something important about faith in the dark night of the soul which is confirmed by the wise advice of Jon Bloom:

“When your perceptions tell you something different than God’s promises, always, always, always trust God’s promises over your perceptions.” (When Your Worst Storm Comes.)

Father, I pray that you would give me grace to trust and obey you, even when my instincts and feelings pull me in another direction. May I act on your word, even if it leads to the loss of something precious. I cling to the certainty that somehow you will always provide.

Father and Son

Your only son that you love” echoes three times in this story (Gen 22:21215), emphasizing the crux of Abraham’s test:

Isaac was Abraham’s promised seed, but he was also his only, belovedson. It is impossible to miss the parallel with the unique, earth-shattering sacrifice on a nearby hill two millennia later, when the Father of heaven did not spare his only begotten Son:

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” (John 3:16).

 Abraham trusted that God would provide on the Mountain of the Lord. God did indeed provide (Gen 22:813-14): First a ram in the thicket in exchange for Isaac’s life. Then His own Son in exchange for every sinner who believes (Rom 8:32). The truth of God’s provision was revealed to John the Baptist on the day Jesus was baptized,

“Behold the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).

“The Ram in the thicket” was a preview of the main feature film, “Jesus The Promised One”! God’s Son was provided on the mountain of the Lord in 33AD.

I wrote a little poem titled “Father and Son

Not a bundle of sticks, but a wooden cross

Borne upon his bloodied back

A Father grieves a precious loss

As noonday sky turns black.

Not a thicket, but a crown of thorns

Frames His disfigured face

“My God, My God!” The Father mourns

As the Son bears our disgrace.

The Father did not stay His hand

When darkness fell upon the land

For His perfect will was finally done

When He did not spare his only Son.

Father, thank you that you loved us so much that you did not withhold your only beloved Son. It was your will to make his life an offering for sin, so that you could suspend your hand of judgment on all who believe (Isa 53:1011). Thank you that your Son saw the ‘light of life’ when He was raised from the tomb and that I am one of those stars in the sky and grains of sand on the seashore you promised Abraham– a child of the covenant!

Epilogue on Abraham!

We have come to our last devotion in the life of Abraham. I hope you have enjoyed the journey! His remarkable story weaves together the faith, obedience and sacrifice of a flawed man who walked with the Lord and unwittingly became a central pivot of redemptive history. Just so that you know, Abraham saw his son Isaac marry Rebekah, and then went on to live to 175 years, “an old man and full of years, and he was gathered to his people” (Gen 25:7). That is a beautiful epitaph for a great man, isn’t it?

But even greater than the mortal man himself, are the stunning previews of the gospel screened through Abraham’s life two millenia before the appearance of God’s Anointed. Like all of us, Abraham saw through a glass dimly, but he believed that God would do what He had promised, and Jesus commended him highly for this expectant, hopeful faith:

Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.”

“You are not yet fifty years old,” they said to him, “and you have seen Abraham!”

“Very truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!” (John 8:56-59)

Abraham’s faith ebbed and flowed like ours, but Paul makes a stunning statement about God’s promises to Abraham:

Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.” (Gal 3:8).

Abraham was not blessed because he obeyed and was willing to sacrifice his son, although this pleased God greatly. Abraham was blessed because he believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness (Gen 15:6Rom 4:9Rom 4:22Gal 3:6). Faith in God’s provision made Abraham a friend of God, not his obedience or sacrifices. It is the same for us today. Only Jesus, the perfect God-man, can be our once-for-all sacrifice. Only the Son of God qualifies as the human substitute who stays the Father’s hand of judgment against us (Heb 10:5-67).

Only when we trust in the ‘Lamb’ God provided, do we have the right to call God our ‘Father’ and we are called His ‘friend’.

As children of God, it is only natural that we will want to live a life of sacrifice and obedience, as Abraham did (Hebrews 13:15-16Phil 4:18and Romans 12:1). Sacrifice and obedience are always woven together in the lives of God’s friends, because they are the proof that faith is real (James 2:20-23).

Father, I can scarcely believe that I am called your friend! Help me to trust your promises and build my life on them, regardless of my confused vision. Help me to obey like Abraham and Isaac without needing to know how all the pieces fit together.

A Blessing for fellow pilgrims

Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen (Heb 13:20-21).

    • Listen to this great hymn sung by Matt Redman and Chris Tomlin: The Wonderful Cross.

Abraham the Advocate

The dictionary defines an Advocate as a person who publicly supports or recommends a particular cause, a protector or patron. A person who puts a case on someone else’s behalf, who speaks for, argues for, pleads for.

In Genesis 18, at the ripe old age of 99, Abraham humbly but boldly approaches God like an Advocate approaches the bench of a High Court Judge on behalf of a guilty accused (Gen 18:27). Armed with a new name and a secure covenant, Abraham begins to live out God’s promise to make him a blessing to all families on earth (Gen 12:2-317:5).

In this extraordinary interchange, Abraham does not only plead for his nephew Lot and his family to be saved, but also for the contemptible Canaanites who live in Sodom. Like an Advocate for a monstrous criminal, Abraham pleads with God to save his disgraceful client. He begs the just Judge to spare the city’s wicked inhabitants on account of the righteous few who live among them.

In this unique chapter, Abraham points us to the Lord Jesus Christ, the only righteous Advocate qualified to represent sinners in the High Court of heaven. We get a glimpse of our great High Priest, who intercedes and prays to God on behalf of every believer. May this image remind us that we will never face any difficulty alone, as Jesus is pleading our case in the throne room of heaven (Rom 8:34).

My prayer is that this text may encourage us to live as God’s royal Priests (1 Peter 2:9), soft-hearted and bold like Abraham, always ready to serve and intercede in prayer on behalf of our family, friends, city, nation and world– even our worst enemies (Matt 5:44). Only the gospel can spare sinners from the judgment to come (2 Peter 2:69).

Our text today is Gen 18:22-33:

22 So the men turned from there and went toward Sodom, but Abraham still stood before the Lord. 23 Then Abraham drew near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24 Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it? 25 Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” 26 And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”

27 Abraham answered and said, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. 28 Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking. Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?” And he said, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.” 29 Again he spoke to him and said, “Suppose forty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of forty I will not do it.” 30 Then he said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak. Suppose thirty are found there.” He answered, “I will not do it, if I find thirty there.” 31 He said, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.” 32 Then he said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak again but this once. Suppose ten are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” 33 And the Lord went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham, and Abraham returned to his place.

Abraham the Intercessor

In Abraham’s role as pleading priest, he unwittingly provides a peek preview of the Great High Priest who pleads on behalf of believers in the throne room of heaven. Abraham is also an archetype of Christ’s royal priesthood in every generation (1 Peter 2:9). If we are children of God, we are called to be intercessors in our community, no matter how evil it may be and regardless of people’s foolish choices (eg, Lot in Gen 13:10).

The Canaanite community of Sodom and Gomorrah were not nice people (2 Peter 2:6Gen 13:13Ezekiel 16:49). Genesis 18:20 tells us that their sin was grave and their offence great. The “outcry against Sodom” paints a picture of cities without moral boundaries, where the cries of the oppressed and violated were heard by no one except God. Genesis 19 paints a sordid portrait of their vicious debauchery. Many modern contexts spring to mind, where powerless victims of abuse have no protectors, and atrocious evil runs wild.

Yet Abraham poses the question to God five times: “Suppose I find a few righteous people in the city, will you destroy the whole city?” The ‘righteous few’ shrinks from 50, 45, 40, 30, 20 to finally 10 people (Gen 18:242829303132). Each time, God’s reply is laced with grace and mercy, despite the depravity of Sodom. “For the sake of the few, I will not destroy the whole city.” These are not Abraham’s people he is pleading for, but violent, degenerate Canaanites who had previously captured Lot and his family (Gen 14). His appeals on behalf of a pagan city are unique to the Old Testament.

But then Abraham abruptly stops before the punchline! I can imagine him studying the fingers on his two hands as he pleads for God to save the city for the sake of 10 people. He never finishes by asking God what would happen if he found just ONE righteous person in Sodom. Perhaps Abraham realized that he would not find ten good men if he scoured the cities from top to bottom. Perhaps he knew that even Lot, his wife and two daughters had been tainted by what they saw and heard, living day after day in Sodom (2 Peter 2:8). But perhaps the truth dawned on him that “there is no one righteous, not even one. No one seeks God. All have turned aside. No one does good, not even one” (Rom 3:10-12). Perhaps Abraham instinctively understood, even without the law or scriptures, that “all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory” (Rom 3:23). I believe that Abraham knew there was no truly righteous person to be found in Sodom, or on planet earth for that matter.

The Ultimate Go-Between

Abraham could not have foreseen the appearance of one truly righteous man qualified to represent and save the many who deserve judgment– even Abraham himself. He could not have imagined that Yahweh, the just Judge of all the earth would send His Son to earth to die for the guilty, to be their High Priest and Advocate, their Bridge—the ultimate Go-Between and only Mediator between man and God (1 Tim 2:5John 14:6Heb 9:24).

What a wonderful picture this story paints of Jesus as our great High Priest, interceding for us in the throne room of heaven! He who stood like a rock through every temptation; passed every test with flying colours; triumphed through every trial and stayed on the cross when He could have saved himself—that same Jesus is praying for you and me as we face our own trials! He is fighting as our Champion who has conquered death itself. As our Advocate, He is campaigning on our behalf, pleading our case before the Father even when we give him good reason to disapprove and find fault with us. We stand acquitted, forgiven and freed from judgment, only because we are represented by the perfect Mediator of a bettercovenant than Abraham ever had. What a powerful rebuttal when Satan accuses us! Read how the writer of Hebrews describes it:

22 This makes Jesus the guarantor of a better covenant.

23 The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office, 24 but Jesus holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. 25 Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them. 26 For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. (Hebrews 7:22-26)

It is good to know that our high priest lives to make intercession for us, but even better to know what He is praying for.

What Jesus prays on our behalf

In the High Priestly Prayer recorded in John 17, the Lord Jesus gives us a peek into some of his pleas for all Christians throughout the ages. Jesus prays:

That we will be kept safe from the evil one (John 17:15); be kept holy in the world (John 17:16); that we would be sanctified by holding tight to the truth of God’s word (John 17:1719); that God would equip and send us out into the world as his emissaries (John 17:18); that we would be credible witnesses as we abide in Christ’s love (John 17:2126); that we would be united with other believers and together shine God’s love for all the world to see (John 17:23), and that we would get safely to heaven to enjoy Christ’s reign forever and ever (John 17:24).

Now that we know Jesus’s prayer requests for us, let us plead and pray these same prayers on behalf of ourselves and those we care about. Even on behalf of our enemies and those we despise. Let us behave as Christ’s priests in our generation, knowing that it is only by grace that we have been called out of darkness to proclaim his wonderful acts to the world (1 Peter 2:9).

What more can we possibly need for this life that the prayers of Jesus haven’t covered?

Pray

Lord, rescue me from the sin of self righteousness. I am no better than Lot or any of the people of Sodom. Help me not to be a critic, a fault finder or a disapprover, but give me eyes to see the grace you have lavished on me to make me your child. Make me your pleading priest in my home, my city, my nation and my generation. I want to be a bridge to lead people to Jesus, the only one who is qualified to take sinners into your presence. Give me energy, boldness and grit to keep interceding in prayer for those who need you. I know you invite me to wrestle with you in prayer and do not despise my sincere appeals. Give me your grace to pray for my enemies and those that hurt me. When all is said and done, may I entrust my future to Jesus, the guardian of my heavenly inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade (1 Peter 1:4).

In Jesus’ precious name, Amen.

Meditate on these great words of the hymn “Before the throne of God above” Click here to listen.

Before the throne of God above
I have a strong, a perfect plea:
A great High Priest, whose name is Love,
Who ever lives and pleads for me.
My name is graven on his hands,
My name is written on his heart;
I know that while in heaven he stands
No tongue can bid me thence depart
No tongue can bid me thence depart.
When Satan tempts me to despair,
And tells me of the guilt within,
Upward I look, and see him there
Who made an end of all my sin.
Because a sinless Savior died,
My sinful soul is counted free;
For God, the Just, is satisfied
To look on Him and pardon me
To look on Him and pardon me
Written by Charitie Lees Bancroft (1841–1923)