Longing for Home

“If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.” CS Lewis.

Home is much better than camping! I am often the target of my family’s jokes because I claim to be a camper. I go crazy over the gadgets, cooking equipment and blow-up mattresses, but in reality I’m useless at sleeping in a tent and eating out of tins! I love the comforts of home too much. The reality is that Christians are a lot like campers. The Bible tells us that since this world is not our home, we shouldn’t blend in or make ourselves too comfortable here (1 Peter 2:11-12). Sometimes a campsite is an inhospitable and downright dangerous place. The tent gets leaky, is attractive to mosquitoes and the ablution facilities smell! Not to mention the noisy neighbours who play loud music all night! Do you sometimes have an indefinable longing in your soul? A homesickness for something lost? A powerful desire for all to be well, as it should be? Do you sometimes feel alienated from a culture that produces TV shows like “The Bachelor” and lives by the maxim “eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die?” It is a good sign if we don’t feel we belong. It is right to be homesick for a perfect home, where everyone will walk in harmony with God, where communities are connected, bodies and minds are healthy, and souls know rest and peace. God’s image in us cries out for a home of perfect order and beauty, where even the weakest are known, loved and welcome. Most of all, we groan for a lost home where there is no pain or death– where sin (the root of all suffering) is finally ripped up and tossed onto the bonfire for good. The good news of the gospel is that death is not the end for a believer, but only the beginning of the final chapter of God’s redemptive story. God is the ultimate homemaker and is restoring a grand home where all his children will live with him forever (John 14:1-3). This is not wishful thinking but God’s firm promise to every man, woman and child who dies “in Christ.” Our permanent home is called “the new heavens and the new earth” and it is beyond our wildest imagination (1 Cor 2:9). Paradise lost will be found again. There is a great welcome for every dying believer who enters eternity with Jesus: A home free of disease, death, disorder and despair. A place where only righteousness dwells (2 Peter 3:13Rev 21:1Isaiah 65:1765:22). A place where we can finally take off our shoes, put down our roots and never say goodbye.

But first we must shed the tent.

Our text today is from Hebrews 11:

By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going.By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. 10 For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.

13 All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. 14 People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. 15 If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.

17 By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, 18 even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” 19 Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death.

20 By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau in regard to their future.

21 By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of Joseph’s sons, and worshiped as he leaned on the top of his staff.

22 By faith Joseph, when his end was near, spoke about the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and gave instructions concerning the burial of his bones.

Stranger in a foreign land

Abraham left a home of idol worship because He believed God’s promise to take him to a better place, a land God would give him and his descendants. It was the land of Canaan. Yet Abraham, Isaac and Jacob lived as foreigners in the land of promise all their lifetimes. Although a wealthy man, Abraham’s family lived in tents and owned only a burial site, where Sarah, Abraham and later Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob and Leah were buried (Gen 23:691113). The writer of Hebrews tells us that Abraham’s faith was founded on a future hope: “For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God”(Heb 11:10). All the Patriarchs were looking forward to a better country, a heavenly one (Heb 11:14-15).

“Evidently, Abraham’s greatest hopes and dreams for a homeland were invested not in earthly Canaan but in his heavenly homeland, a city without foundations. No more moving from place to place in temporary lodging—this city would be designed in God’s mind and built with his hands.” (Nancy Guthrie, Hoping for Something Better.)

Like Abraham, we are still waiting for the day when “creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Rom 8:21). It is as though Christ has paid for the house, but God’s children are still waiting to move in. Those who love him are in the period of ‘groaning’, as we wait for creation’s redemption and our resurrected bodies.

Today, we can look back in history and see that Jesus fulfilled so many of the promises given to Abraham. We see now that Abraham’s faith was justified. But, like Abraham, Christians must live and die for God’s future promises that we cannot always see clearly now.

Living and dying by faith

Today, as in Abraham’s time, believers are called to believe God’s promises and never stop hoping in his clearly revealed word. Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see (Heb 11:1). Only God knows what tomorrow has in store for us, but this scene from the new heaven and new earth is what every believer can be certain of beyond the grave:

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Rev 21:1-4)

It seems strange at first that the writer of Hebrews chooses to highlight the faith of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph in the face of death, instead of choosing another act of bravery or heroism from their younger days. But the Patriarchs show steadfast confidence in God’s promise of home, right to their last breaths: As a dying man, Jacob’s faith was steadfast as he worshipped God and blessed Joseph’s sons. After living almost his entire lifetime as a stranger and exile in Egypt, Joseph ordered that his bones be buried in the promised land– his home (Gen 50:24-25Ex 13:19). It took another 400 years before Moses took those bones out of Egypt, but Joseph never stopped believing that God would rescue his family and take them back home. Even when Isaac was tied to the altar, Abraham believed that God could raise his beloved son from the dead, which is what every Christian is promised when Christ returns. Because Christ Jesus has been raised from the dead, all the Old Testament heroes of the faith, and every believer who has put their faith in Him, will be raised from the dead and clothed in resurrection bodies (1 Cor 15:20Hebrews 11:172022). When we lose the tent, we will find our home!

The King was homeless too

Are you homesick for the perfect garden where God placed the first man and woman to live, love and work? Do you long for the days of shalombefore man disobeyed, bickered and blamed—before we were banished from the Garden to wander restlessly in a hostile environment? It is good to know that Jesus himself experienced the same longings we have for home. All the fullness of the Father dwelt in Him, yet he willingly left his heavenly home to live in our fractured world. He left the “bosom of the Father” (John 1:18KJV) to be an alien and stranger on earth. He was the eternal Word who became flesh and pitched his tent among us (John 1:14). He lived as an exile, rejected by those who should have welcomed him. The world did not know him (John 1:1011). God’s Messiah had nowhere to lay his head as He ushered in the promised kingdom (Matt 8:19-20). He was “the stone” the Jewish leaders rejected, who became the cornerstone of God’s people  (Mark 12:10-11Acts 4:11-12Ps 118:22-23). In his death, Jesus was abandoned by his friends and surrounded by strangers. Worst of all, He took on our spiritual alienation when he was forsaken by His Father on the cross and cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:6Psalm 22:1). Jesus had no funeral and was buried in a borrowed grave. The King of the universe was homeless on earth in order to share his home with us.

The King’s prayer for the homeless

But, on the eve of his crucifixion, Jesus prayed for the protection of believers who live “in” the world, but are not “of” the world (John 17:1416). Like Jesus, we are homeless too. His prayer is steeped in longing and love for his Father and all believers throughout the centuries. It is a wonderful prayer for us to read when we find ourselves groaning for home. Jesus understands our longings for all to be well. He sees that our homes and families are not perfect. He grieves for our losses. Jesus promises that it will all be made right at a certain day in the future—the day he returns to earth and does his final work of restoration, renewal and redemption of the entire Creation. Jesus will come in his own time and in his own way, but he will come in glory and all the angels with him (Matt 25:31). His coming is our “blessed hope”, “the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13).

Revelation 21 gives a glimpse of what the new heavens and new earth will be like. I will leave the renovation of our future home in the capable hands of the ultimate Architect and Builder– God himself! Like Abraham, we are passengers in transit. We live in fragile tents. We are called to believe God and hope in his promises, even on behalf of believers who are unable to hope for themselves. Hebrews 11 reminds us not to grasp too tightly the things of this world, to travel light and keep our eyes fixed on the final destination. When it comes to our time to die, I pray that every person reading this devotion is ready to discard your tent and move into your new home.

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” (Revelation 21:5)

Live it out!

  1. Do you believe the promises of God’s word are trustworthy and true, as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph did? Are you sure of your ultimate destiny, or do you think the new heavens and new earth are wishful thinking?
  2. Do you know that no matter how wonderful your family or community is, you will never have all your longings for ‘home’ met on earth?
  3. Build community and friendship wherever you find yourself. Invest in people, not in things. The gathering of God’s people to worship, learn, pray and encourage one another is a dim reflection of the great community of believers who will share life in the heavenly city. In the meantime, God has told us to share our longings, hurts and hopes with fellow pilgrims along life’s journey (Heb 10:25).
  4. Invest in your relationship with God. After all, heaven is His home and you are His tabernacle in this world. He promises His presence and love until the day He takes you home (Rom 8:31-39John 15:9Ps 139:7Ex 33:14).
  5. Worship as you listen to Brooke Fraser singing the CS Lewis song (click here).

Prayer

Father, thank you for the example of these Old Testament believers who urge us to live and die by faith in your promises. We know it is only by your grace that we can fix our hearts on what our eyes cannot see, especially when we are old, sick or afraid, on the days your promises seem like a hazy dream. Lord, thank you for your promises of redemption that were fulfilled in Jesus– for your Son’s death, resurrection and ascension, and the great salvation that this achieved for believers and for the whole of creation. Thank you for your promised Holy Spirit who lives in our hearts today. As the believing Patriarchs blessed their descendants, we pray as believers that you would circumcise our hearts and the hearts of our descendants, so that we may love you with all our heart and soul, and live in your presence– today, tomorrow and forevermore (Deuteronomy 30:6). In the name of Jesus the Christ, Amen.

Useful resource:

  • Hoping for Something Better: Refusing to settle for life as usual.Book on Hebrews by Nancy Guthrie.

Keeping your head in the heat of the kitchen

“It wasn’t long before the gracious hostess in Martha collapsed and the Queen of Hearts took over, pointing fingers and screaming, “Off with their heads! Off with everyone’s head!” 

“The world clamours, “Do more! Be all that you can be!” But our Father whispers, “Be still and know that I am God.” ―  Joanna Weaver. *

The short story of Mary and Martha has always fascinated me. In just five verses, which describe Jesus’ visit to a home in Bethany in the first century, God speaks volumes to our families and homes today. The short story is like a multi-course meal which gets richer the more we chew on it. It addresses the perils of a performance-driven Christian life where activities are placed before heart attitude. It challenges the notion that we can do something to earn God’s favour before or after we are saved. It shows how an inherently good act of service can easily become a destructive thing when our attitude is wrong. It draws the link between an intimate, vital relationship with Jesus and fruitful Christian service. It challenges us to check our priorities and put first things first. It asks Christians in the digital age a pertinent question: how are you stewarding your precious attention span? The story of Mary and Martha is a cameo of the question Isaiah asked God’s people, “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.”(Isa 55:2).

At the Home of Martha and Mary

Luke 10:38 As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. 39 She had a sister called Mary,who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. 40 But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

41 “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, 42 but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42)

It’s hot in the kitchen!

We must work like Martha with a posture like Mary.”

I heard this expression in a sermon by Alistair Begg titled “A Biblical Approach to Anxiety,” and it struck a cord with me. To be honest, I’ve always had sympathy for Martha in the story. I wondered if Mary’s posture of sitting at Jesus’ feet could survive the heat of a kitchen at rush hour. I have prayed many times, “Jesus, teach me how to work like Martha– with a posture like Mary.”

I have often heard this story squeezed into the aperture of a particular lens. Some say Jesus is advocating a life of contemplation not action. Others focus on the difference in temperament between Mary and Martha. However, this story comes after Jesus sent 72 disciples to go into the towns on foot “as lambs among wolves,” to heal the sick and preach the gospel (Luke 10:1-11). Presumably all kinds of personalities would have made up the 72 sent to ‘sow’ the gospel of the kingdom. It was hard, hot work. The Christian life is not passive, but active and fruitful. And active service is not just for extrovert evangelistic types. The story of Mary and Martha also follows Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, where he taught that loving God and our neighbour requires action, not just words, thoughts or good intentions. The man showed pity only when he got on his knees in the dirt, treated the man’s wounds, transported him and paid for the innkeeper to look after him. The Samaritan’s service involved costly sacrifice and effort (Luke 10:33-35). That is what Jesus asks of us, because it is what He did for us on the cross.

So getting back to the story of Mary and Martha, Jesus himself knows that much of life is spent sweating in the kitchen. In fact, he sends us to work in the ‘kitchen’ (wherever that may be for us)…even to the ends of the earth (Matt 28:19-20; Acts 1:8). And, as a man who experienced the extremities of human experience, Jesus knows how hot the kitchen can get.

“Martha, Martha!”

Jesus is kind and gracious in his response to Martha’s meltdown. We know from John’s gospel that Jesus loved both sisters and was comfortable in their home (John 11:5). Jesus’ rebuke of Martha is tender but straight: “You are worried and upset about many things, 42 but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Martha enjoys hospitality, which is a good thing in God’s eyes. Christians are told to be hospitable and Martha takes this to heart. But her devotion to preparing a special meal for Jesus eclipses her devotion to Jesus himself. Listening to his voice is not a priority for her. Her attention is in the kitchen rather than on the words of the Saviour in the sitting room. The result is that her heart is fragmented and upset as she works. She is truly ticked off. I can imagine her sulking, sighing and mumbling under her breath!

Making a meal of it

In the text, there is no hint that the task is too much for her, but Martha has made too much of the task! She is fussing too much over less important things. She is complicating her life. Her service soon becomes a quest to live up to her own standards as the perfect hostess. Jesus has not asked for this, nor does he need it. But Martha turns her labours into a demanding duty, rather than a joy. Soon Martha is disgruntled with her sister, distracted by all the preparations and even irritated with Jesus for not paying attention to her raw deal.

“Lord, don’t you care?” is the same accusation that the disciples voiced in the boat when Jesus slept on a cushion through a storm (Mark 4:38). Jesus’ reply to the disciples was similar: “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?”

Troubled by many things

Like Martha, I have a tendency to be distracted, disgruntled and “troubled by many things.” When the kitchen gets too hot, I can easily strip off my apron and become like the Queen of Hearts, lopping off the heads of my family! I also bark orders to Jesus and everyone within earshot when I think I’m being taken for granted! Like Martha, I sometimes make too much of tasks and think I am indispensable to the world. Before I know it, my mind is fragmented and distracted. I cannot pay attention to the most important people as I feverishly labour to get a task done. Jesus gently reminds Martha, and us, to get our priorities straight (Luke 10:41-42). The kitchen of life is piping hot, and if you are anything like Martha…(or me), you need to practice the posture of Mary as you labour in the kitchen.

The attentive posture of Mary

In contrast, not much is said about Mary except that she sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to him. Jesus captured her attention fully. In middle-Eastern Jewish patriarchy, this would have been an outrage for a rabbi. Jesus doesn’t love Mary any more than Martha, but he welcomes her attentiveness and posture of humility and expectation. He sees Mary as one who knows her Shepherd’s voice and follows him (John 10:3-4). Her posture shows that she is teachable.

But is it fair that Martha is left to slave in the kitchen like Cinderella? It is highly unlikely that Mary was a lazy woman who had not helped Martha with the preparations before Jesus arrived. It is also possible that this same Mary is praised by Paul for working hard for the Christians in Rome (Rom 16:6). Her work ethic is not in question here. The issue is her devotion to Jesus and attentiveness to what he says.

Empty and expectant

Mary of Bethany had previously anointed the Lord Jesus with expensive ointment and wiped his feet with her hair (John 12:1-8). It is a beautiful story that is worth reading again if we are to understand Mary. She was a woman who treasured Jesus more than tasks and activities. She was not driven or distracted. She knew that the “one thing necessary” was not the quantity of courses nor the perfection of a meal, but being where God had chosen to reveal himself.  At that moment, it was at the feet of His Son.

Seek his face

Mary of Bethany prioritized intimacy with God over a performance-driven life. She knew that she was empty and needed to be filled with the word of life so that she could live a fruitful life. She found her rest in Jesus. Like David a thousand years before, Mary lived to seek God’s face though the face of His Son:

One thing I ask from the Lord,
    this only do I seek:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
    all the days of my life,
to gaze on the beauty of the Lord
    and to seek him in his temple.
For in the day of trouble
    he will keep me safe in his dwelling;
he will hide me in the shelter of his sacred tent
    and set me high upon a rock.

My heart says of you, “Seek his face!”
    Your face, Lord, I will seek.
11 Teach me your way, Lord;
    lead me in a straight path.


The people God employs

This story of Mary and Martha transcends hospitality, culture and gender. Your “hot kitchen” may be at school or university, in a workplace or a war zone, on a farm or factory, in a hospital or church—wherever God has placed you to live and work as a Christian. Isaiah describes the people God employs: “These are the ones I look on with favour: those who are humble and contrite in spirit, and who tremble at my word” (Isa 66:2). Isaiah is describing a person like Mary.

In the story of Mary and Martha, Jesus challenges us to put first things first. He invites us  to pay close attention to the word of life– “a lamp shining in a dark place” (Heb 2:12 Peter 1:19).  He calls us tenderly by name, as he called “Martha, Martha,” and asks:

  • Do you have a regular time to draw near and be attentive to my word? Or is your attention always on other things?
  • Are you distracted and troubled about many things, or are you resting in me?
  • Has your devotion to tasks or technology left you with a dried-up, stressed-out attitude?
  • Do you come to me each day, empty and expectant like Mary?
  • Do you love to gaze at my ‘face’ and all I have accomplished for your life now and into eternity?

It is my experience that when we value God’s presence more than our performance, perfection or phones, we will find that we are not standing alone in the heat of the kitchen. We will look up to see our Lord labouring right beside us. Instead of stressing to get it all done in time, we will discover that it’s not up to us after all. Jesus is the head chef and we are merely the potato peelers! What a relief indeed!

“Lord, I long to serve you in a fruitful Christian life. I long to be part of your Kingdom work on this earth in all kinds of ways. But I do not want to serve you with a dry, distracted or disgruntled heart. Please confront the Martha in me today as I seek to pursue the “one thing needed” to live a fruitful Christian life. Help me to steward my attention span and save the best of it for you. Help me to find rest in what you have already done. Amen.”

Useful quote and resources:

  • “It seems so right to provide for our own! It seems so proper to attend to the duties of our station! It is just here that our danger lies. Our families, our business, our daily callings, our household affairs, our interaction with society, all, all may become snares to our hearts, and may draw us away from God.” JC Ryle.

 

 

 

Why the Christian life is more like farming than Instagram View Larger Image

We live in a self-obsessed culture that craves the extraordinary, the awesome and the epic. High self-esteem is touted as the remedy for all ills. Contemporary sages advise us to meditate on how special and lovable we are. Paul’s description of a future generation is chillingly prophetic of our times:

“People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God (2 Tim 3:2).

Social media breathes and feeds self love. Its platforms produce instant and measurable acclaim. It is easy for Christians also to be carried away by the tide. Comparisons spawn a mood of impatience, restlessness and discontent for young people who expect to make an impact on the world within their first year of graduating. It is very different from the portrait the Bible paints of the Christian life: A picture of humility, service and sacrifice. A picture of self-forgetfulness, self-control and gratitude. A picture of a sinner saved and sustained by God’s grace. A picture of an eternal harvest after a lifetime of diligent planting, faithful watering and patient waiting on God. As children of our culture, let us remind ourselves that we are first children of the Most High God, called to live by his grace, not by our own gifts. Called to bear one another’s burdens rather than our own trophies. Called to have a sane opinion of ourselves. Called to read and study the Bible to know what God requires of us in this world: “To discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect”(Romans 12:2). If we look carefully at the Bible, we will see that the Christian life looks nothing like Instagram, and a lot like farming:

Our text today is Galatians 6:2-10:

Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor. For each will have to bear his own load.

Let the one who is taught the word share all good things with the one who teaches. Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. 10 So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.

On the farm

Paul compares the Christian life to the sowing and reaping of productive farm lands. The farmer is persistent and patient. He cannot farm with a remote control. His work seems ordinary and mundane, even pedantic, but the small tasks he performs day after day make the difference between a bumper crop and a complete disaster. Extraordinary returns are produced from ordinary labour over a lifetime. It’s the same for the Christian life: Although we labour in a world full of thorns and thistles, frustrations and setbacks, in Jesus Christ we can produce fruit that will last—an eternal harvest that cannot be spoilt or destroyed (Matt 6:19-21Gal 6:7;8;9). The Christian life is not about hanging in there till our perfect redemption. Redemption requires us to act positively and seize every opportunity to do good (Gal 6:105:13). It is about actively pushing back the darkness wherever we find ourselves (you in your small corner and I in mine.) This is called the doctrine of the “perseverance of the saints.”

Appearances are deceiving. The authentic Christian life is much like the growth of God’s kingdom: It germinates invisibly under the ground for a long time before it sprouts. It grows organically and gradually. It grows stronger after opposition and pruning. It produces a harvest only after the soil lies fallow and the farmer waits. It is difficult to measure the harvest until it is ultimately reaped. God works extraordinary things through the life of an ordinary Christian who gives him/herself wholeheartedly to the Lord’s service.

Our work and God’s

Jesus also uses this farmer analogy in his parable of the seed and the soils (Mark 4:26-29). In Christ’s parable, sowing is specifically related to our work of spreading the gospel, which is the ‘seed’ in the parable. We must not confuse our work with the Lord’s. We are, after all, not God’s appointed Messiahs.

Even with perfect diligence, the farmer cannot coax rain from the sky or control the inevitable hail and droughts. But often the farmer must fight an all-out war against enemies like pests, disease and weeds. Many years may seem like a dead loss. But in “due season”, the persistent farmer reaps a bountiful harvest which far exceeds the initial seeds planted. Paul tells us, “Be steadfast, immovable, give yourself fully to the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labour is not in vain”(1 Cor 15:58).“In the Lord” is the crucial phrase.

No matter how talented, intentional and diligent, not one of us can produce a harvest ourselves. Nor can we measure it accurately, post it on Instagram or produce a photo to prove it. Only the Holy Spirit can germinate a seed in the human heart and bring dead bones to life. Our gifts, education and energy– even those we have led to the Lord– are not ours to brag about.

The good we sow, the wars we win and the harvest we reap are all God’s gifts of grace, but we are invited to pray and labour alongside Christ and each other, in the power of God’s Spirit.

So let’s quit worrying about the weather and fretting about the size of the crop. Let’s stop forcing God into our timetable and instead trust that his timing is always best. Let’s get on with farming and leave the rest to the Lord of the harvest!

If you are feeling weary and despondent today, this is God’s message to you:

“The one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.Let us not grow weary of doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up” (Gal 6:7-9 NIV).

An antidote to weariness is community

“Growing weary” is an occupational hazard of the Christian life. That’s why Paul repeats it in 2 Thessalonians 3:13 As for you, brothers, do not grow weary in doing good.” Paul also tells us to admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak and be patient with our struggling brothers and sisters (1 Thess 5:14). Christian fellowship is one of the greatest antidotes to weariness. However zealous we may be, we all have faint hearts and weak bodies. We are but dust. That’s why we need to labour alongside one another like runners in the Comrade’s marathon.

Let’s get practical!

https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/podcasts/tgc-podcast/snapshots-saints-endured/

  • Make sure you are connected to your local church. Serving and bearing each other’s burdens happens in community. Giving, growth groups and support groups, missions, pastoral care, gardening, prayer, children’s ministry, media, music and many other opportunities are available in local churches. Get involved, but read the three warnings below!

#1. Farming is not a celebrity business

Paul reminds us to keep a sane image of ourselves. We are fooling ourselves if we think we are something when we are nothing (Gal 6:3). Our freedom in Christ is not an excuse to indulge our human nature, but to serve each other humbly in love (Gal 5:13). Clearing bush, preparing soil and planting seeds is dirty, hard work. It cannot be delegated to a garden service! So too is service and discipleship, but it is how we practice the law of Christ (Gal 5:14). Sowing to please the Spirit is quite different from sowing for our own glory and fame (Gal 6:28). It will always produce the fruit of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5:22—love, joy, peace, forebearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control. If these fruits are lacking in our service, we must examine our labour to see whether we are sowing to please the Spirit or to quench our thirst for glory and fame.

Platforms, posts and profiles do not impress God. But children of God who bear the Spirit’s distinctive fruit, even as they go about serving and doing good to all– will please their Father immensely.

Just as farming is done on remote lands, we are called to labour in invisible corners where no one will thank or applaud us for what we are doing. “Whatever you do, work at it with your whole being, for the Lord, not for human masters, knowing that from the Lord you will receive an inheritance as a reward. You are serving the Lord Christ (Col 3:2324). Nothing is invisible to Jesus.

“Sowing to please the Spirit” means listening, waiting and relying on the Spirit each day, instead of just scattering wildly. As Proverbs 19:2 warns us: “Zeal without knowledge is not good, and hasty feet will miss the way.”– which brings us to our second warning!

#2. Beware of hasty feet!

It is easy to have hasty feet that miss God’s way when it comes to Christian ministry. That’s why Paul tells us to test our own work and not compare ourselves to others (Gal 6:4). Comparisons make us envious or conceited (Gal 5:26). When our eyes are on the ‘amazing’ things other people are doing, we become disheartened or discontent. Each of us has a different load to bear (Gal 6:5), a different temperament, measure of faith and calling. Comparisons are what drive Instagram, but they have no place in the Christian life (Rom 12:3).

#3. Beware of burnout!

Hasty feet can also lead to burnout! Christians are called to offer our bodies as living sacrifices, not half dead ones! God is not a slave driver and our bodies are not machines. We must not buy the lie that doing more and working longer will yield a greater harvest. It is not a Biblical or sustainable model of work. Every Christian should read Christopher Ash’s wise little book “Zeal without Burnout—Seven keys to a lifelong ministry of sustainable sacrifice.” In his book, Ash shares stories (including his own) of many faithful Christians who have experienced burnout in ministry and the warning bells and lessons they learned. Burnout is a dangerous and deceptive condition characterized by extreme exhaustion, lack of motivation and anxiety. It is a hard place to come back from. That is why every Christian should read this book and practice Ash’s Biblical keys to a sustainable Christian ministry. I wish I’d read it when I was 21.

I will end with Christopher Ash’s reminder to himself and every disciple of Christ:

“I am—and will never, this side of the resurrection, be more than—a creature of dust. I will rest content in my creaturely weakness; I will use the means God has given me to keep going in this life while I can; I will allow myself time to sleep; I will trust him enough to take a day off each week; I will invest in friendships and not be a proud loner; I will take with gladness the inward refreshment he offers me. I will serve the Lord Jesus with a glad and restful zeal, with all the energy that he works within me, but not with anxious toil, selfish ambition, the desire for the praise of people, and all the other ugly motivations that will destroy my soul. So help me God.”

Resources to help us not grow weary:

  1. Love Not Sleep. Article by Marshall Segal on Desiring God. Read online here.
  2. Zeal without Burnout—Seven keys to a lifelong ministry of sustainable sacrifice. Christopher Ash. Buy online at Takealot here:
  3. Snapshots of Saints who Endured. Podcast on “The Gospel Coalition”. Listen here: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/podcasts/tgc-podcast/snapshots-saints-endured/
  4. Listen here to “Faith to be strong (Carried along)” by Andrew Peterson. Share the whole album “After all these years Collection”with a friend.

Becoming a steadfast Christian

“When all kinds of trials and temptations crowd into your lives my brothers, don’t resent them as intruders, but welcome them as friends! Realise that they come to test your faith and to produce in you the quality of endurance. But let the process go on until that endurance is fully developed, and you will find you have become men of mature character with the right sort of independence… (J.B Phillips translation of James 1:2-4)

Only a masochist gets out of bed in the morning in search of trials and tribulations. But if we live in the real world, trouble will inevitably find us.

“Man is born unto trouble, as surely as the sparks fly upwards” (Job 5:7).

Loss, illness, disappointment and discouragement are like gangsters that ambush us along the road of life, sometimes in unexpected ways. As Christians, trials have the power to rob us of our joy and hope. After many years of facing the same enemies in the ring, you may wonder whether you have the strength to go one more round. Trials may make us question whether God has abandoned or forgotten us. Right now anxiety and despair may be your only constant companions. But the Bible calls Christians to stand on the cliff top and view our trials from God’s perspective. We will see three images emerging in the fog below: First, we see a furnace that tests and proves the genuineness our faith. Secondly, we see a personal trainer exercising our muscles for the marathon of life. Thirdly, we see a painstaking builder putting the finishes and unique trademarks on his beautiful building. The power of perspective changes our response to the troubles we face. If you are a Christian, trials hurt like crazy but they are not pointless. Trials produce faces etched with grace and compassion. They develop spiritual hardiness that cannot be learned in the comfort of a lecture theatre or from a life of ease. They produce believers who do not just call themselves Christians, but cry to God as their “Abba” Father. They produce steadfast Christians. That is why trials are not intruders but friends. Sometimes we only know that the faith we profess is a living flame when the lights are turned off all around us.

Today’s text was written by Jesus’s brother, James, to scattered persecuted Christians in the first century. James 1:2-4 (ESV):

“ Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”

Our faith in the furnace

Trials are the furnaces into which our Christian lives are poured to test whether they are real or fake. The result is a faith that is more precious than gold and a life that gives praise, glory and honour to our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:6-9). Being poured into a furnace is not an intrinsically joyful experience, but a painful one. Yet James urges us to ‘regard’ or ‘consider’ that experience as joy. He asks us to change our mindset to trials.

How on earth can we “count it as joy” when all our human instincts are telling us to hide, run, suppress or escape from the pain? My first responses to trouble are always panic, fear or frustration. Joy is the last thing on my mind. How do we get to the place where we no longer resent trials as intruders, but welcome them as friends? (JB Phillips translation).

The power of perspective.

James says that there is power in perspective. When we “consider” the permanent benefits of trials to train, tutor and test us, God will change our response to them. (It’s like my exercise trainer, Coach Kusch on Youtube! She keeps giving me visions of myself in a bikini to motivate me to embrace the burning in my glutes!) Perspective enables us to see hardship as a basis of joy rather than pointless misery. Verse 3 tells us to look at our circumstances in the light of what we know for sure even when it contradicts our feelings or circumstances: “For you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.” And steadfastness is the only road to spiritual maturity and the crown of life which God has promised to those who love him (James 1:412). Thinking with the destination in mind reminds us that this is not our home. It makes us realise that whatever suffering we endure now is working for our good. Perspective gives us the capacity to be joyful on even the hardest journey.

What does steadfastness look like? (v 3)

Think of what steadfastness looks like in your Christian life. It has to do with spiritual resilience and hardiness. It is the staying power that will get you to the finish line. It is the perseverance that develops from exercising your muscles of faith consistently day after day. Steadfastness cannot be turned on with a switch of willpower or choice. A steadfast heart is God’s gift when we place our confidence in Him. It comes to us when we stand firm in prayer, trust and obedience even when we feel disillusioned, disappointed and distressed. Don’t we all wish we were steadfast Christians who are not buffeted by every wave of life? Steadfastness can only develop when we submit to the testing of our faith, just as Jesus submitted himself to the cross with his eyes focussed on “the joy set before Him.” Jesus is the only perfectly steadfast man that ever lived.

What’s great about the Bible is that its human writers were not monks writing from ivory towers, but role models of faith lived out imperfectly in the real world. Hebrews 11 gives us an idea of the very flawed ‘heroes’ of faith who have gone before us. The common characteristic of each of them is steadfastness in their faith. They believed the promises of God would someday be fulfilled even though they couldn’t yet see or feel evidence of this. They grew steadfast by trusting in the steadfast love of the covenantal God.

Perfect and complete, lacking nothing (v 4)

A Christian will never be perfect. But mature faith and Christ-like character emerge from the furnace of trials. That’s because self deception and hypocrisy, self righteousness, selfishness and pride— get burnt up in the flames.

Faith and character bloom and bear fruit in the ashes of disappointment and tears, not in the nursery of constant success and happiness.

Those who “lack nothing” are seeking their happiness in Christ above all else. They are filled with the joy of the Lord and enabled to refresh others along the way. Don’t you long to become mature in your faith, lacking nothing?

God’s grace is sufficient for you

Paul was a man who became mature in his faith, yet he suffered more trials than any of us ever will. Paul tells us that he prayed three times for God to remove a ‘thorn’ in his flesh. We don’t know the specifics of his thorn but we know that it was painful, it had its origin in Satan, and God did not remove it in Paul’s lifetime. Yet Paul shows us what it means to “lack nothing” in his response to his thorn:

“But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9). Paul responded to his thorn by resting in God’s perfect purposes and grace (Rom 8:28- 29).

It is easy to have faith when everything is going well and our prayers are being answered just as we have asked. But trials force us to practice in real life what we know in theory. Trials show us whether we are women or men of faith. They ask us whether we truly believe that God’s grace is enough for us. Trials break the illusion that we are powerful and in charge. Temptations prove to us that we need the power and grace of Jesus to get us through even a single day. Adversity turns our eyes to look at the face of Jesus.

Turn your eyes upon Jesus

If you are overcome with trials of many kinds today, Jesus encourages you to keep your eyes on Him and not on your troubles:

“I have said these things to you, that IN ME you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world (John 16:33).

Only Jesus is the founder and perfecter of our faith. He showed us perfectly how to face trials of various kinds. He is the point of our lives. His grace is all we need to transform us into His image from glory to glory (2 Cor 3:18). Jesus endured the shame of the cross for the joy of purchasing our redemption (Heb 12:2). That’s why we too can face our trials with an attitude of joy.

Read the story of Horatio G. Spafford (click here). He wrote the hymn “It is well with my soul” after a series of the worst tragedies imaginable. (Click here to listen to the hymn). He was not writing from an Ivory Tower or a comfortable couch. Spafford’s story helps us to understand what a steadfast Christian life looks like in reality. He inspires us to focus our eyes on Jesus so that we can see our trials in a different light. He shows us what it means to be confidently rooted in Christ even when his world disintegrated. Spafford’s life is an example of how to live out James 1:2-4 in the sweaty, bloody arena of life. Let the words written by this steadfast Christian on a terrible journey in 1873 sink deep into your soul:

When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll
Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say
It is well, it is well, with my soul

It is well
With my soul
It is well, it is well with my soul

Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ has regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed His own blood for my soul

My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, o my soul

It is well (it is well)
With my soul (with my soul)
It is well, it is well with my soul

Worship as you listen to “He will hold me fast”, by Shane and Shane. Click here.

“Like a Rock in the Billows”, by Barney E Warren:

Like a rock in the billows I would stable be,
Till the storm is overpast;
Then I long to harbor, Lord, with Thee,
In my heav’nly home at last

If I trust in Jesus, and obey His word,
If I lean upon His breast;
If I keep low down at His feet, I know
He will give me peace and rest.

Like a rock in the billows I would never yield
To the angry tossing wave;
I would cling to Christ, my sun and shield,
For His pow’r alone can save.

Like a rock in the billows of a boiling sea,
When its waters leap and foam,
I would rest secure, my Lord, in Thee,
Till the trumpet calls me home.

Like a rock in the billows I would fearless stand,
And defy the threat’ning blast;
For the Savior holds me by the hand,
Till the raging storm is past.

May the peace of God which surpasses all understanding, keep your hearts and your minds through Christ Jesus. – Philippians 4:7.

Seeing is believing

The Apostle John was an eye witness to the greatest event in world history. Well, to be accurate, John wasn’t actually inside the tomb when life returned to Jesus’s broken corpse. Nor did he actually witness Jesus sliding out of his grave clothes, taking off the white face cloth from his bloodied head and folding the linen neatly beside him. In fact, those closest to the action were four Roman soldiers who had closed the tomb with the official Roman seal and were guarding it with their lives (Matt 27:64-66). They felt the shudder of the earthquake and saw the angel of the Lord who rolled back the 2-ton stone from the door before sitting on it as if it were a deck chair. I wonder if the guards fainted before or after the angel had rolled back the stone to reveal a dead man walking! Perhaps just the sight of an angel dressed in white with a shining face was enough to shake those tough Roman guards and paralyze them with fear like dead men (Matt 28:2-4). Had John actually been an eyewitness to these events, his own shocked corpse may have been added to the empty tomb!

What John saw

But John was an eyewitness of the risen Jesus shortly after He burst out of the tomb early on Sunday morning. With his own eyes, John saw the empty tomb with the stone rolled away. The moment John saw the strips of linen and the headpiece lying neatly folded in the empty tomb, there was no doubt in his mind. “He saw and believed” (John 20:8). It was a moment of revelation. An epiphany. A point of no return. This is an extract from John’s eye witness account of what happened early on Resurrection Sunday:

John 20:1-10

“Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb.So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” So Peter went out with the other disciple, and they were going toward the tomb. Both of them were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. And stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there,and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples went back to their homes.”

“Back to their homes”

On the first Resurrection Sunday in history, the disciples just went home! Verse 10 is the typical throwaway comment that only an eye witness mentions. But doesn’t it strike you as an odd response after realising that Jesus’s body was missing from the sealed and guarded tomb? Instead of looking for the risen Jesus, John clues us in on why they just went home: “For as yet they did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead” (John 20:9). They were confused and slow to see the truth that was in front of them all along.

Slow to understand

Despite great miracles and Jesus’s prophecies of his death and resurrection, his disciples were slow to grasp the truth (John 20:9).

To be honest, I don’t blame them. After all, the only person who was known to perform resurrections was dead himself and sealed in a tomb. Let’s face it, for intelligent, logical people, resurrection from the dead belongs to the realm of science fiction or madness…or hoax (courtesy of Pastor Lukau!)

Humiliated, hopeless and hiding

The disciples had no idea what Jesus meant when He foretold that He would raise up the ‘temple’ 3 days after it had been destroyed, speaking metaphorically about the “temple of his body” (John 2:1921). After their rabbi was crucified, the disciples were humiliated, hopeless and in hiding. The trauma of the crucifixion was still raw in their minds. Resurrection was the last thing they expected. It is highly unlikely that this scattered, fearful group of disciples with no preconceived idea that Jesus would rise from the grave, could have colluded and fabricated a story of resurrection. From their viewpoint, their story had come to an abrupt end and there was no next chapter.

Unlikely witnesses

What the disciples had believed about Jesus being God’s promised Saviour was in stark contrast with the mutilated, dead body they saw with their eyes. In fact, it was only women who were brave enough to go to the tomb early on Sunday morning to check on Jesus’ body (Luke 24:1). Women of the first century were not considered credible witnesses. Even the disciples accused Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Mary (the mother of James) of seeing “a vision of angels” and telling “idle tales”. No one believed their eye witness accounts (Luke 24:10-1123).

Last at the cross, first at the grave

The most unlikely witness of all was Mary Magdalene, whom Jesus had freed from seven demons (Luke 8:2). If John were fabricating a story, this loyal lady was not an ideal witness to put at the scene of the tomb (John 20:1). But just as Mary Magdalene was last at the cross, she is first at the grave.

Mary’s grief is palpable as she stands outside the tomb crying (John 20:11). Imagine her confusion as she sees the ‘gardener’ and asks him where he has put the body. Imagine her joy as she hears Jesus calling her name and finally recognizes Him as her “Rabboni!” Isn’t it just like Jesus’s topsy turvy kingdom to choose Mary Magdalene as the first messenger of the resurrection? Mary is not unlike the Samaritan woman at the well who sees Jesus for who He is and becomes the first missionary to the Gentiles (John 4:39). Jesus speaks her name. Mary sees and instantly believes(John 20:11-18).

Seeing and believing slowly

Some disciples take a little longer to see and believe. They need things explained, and Jesus is always patient with our questions and doubts. On the road to Emmaus, the risen Jesus says to Cleopas and another disciple,

“O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:25-27).

Despite their knowledge of the Jewish Scriptures, the two disciples could not see that their whole Old Testament was peppered with prophecies of the death and resurrection of God’s Messiah.

Imagine the disciples’ flash of insight as they recalled a picture of their patriarch Abraham and his obedient son, Isaac, carrying a bundle of wood up Mount Moriah… Just like the stooped figure of Jesus walking up Calvary in obedience to his Father, bearing a heavy wooden cross (Gen 22:6;9John 19:17Luke 22:42).

Jesus the ram in the thicket! Jesus the Passover Lamb led to the slaughter! Jesus the atoning sacrifice of Yom Kippur and the scapegoat sent outside the city of Jerusalem to die (Lev 16:1510;21;22Heb 13:12). Jesus the Rock in the Wilderness (1 Cor 10:4)! Jesus the bronze serpent lifted on a pole (Num 21:4-9John 3:14-15)! Jesus the perfect substance of flawed shadows like Abel, Enoch, Noah, Job, Melchizedek, Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, David, Jonah, Jeremiah…

Imagine the amazement of Cleopas and his companion as it slowly dawned on them that even Judas’s betrayal of Jesus fulfilled what was written in the Old Testament (Acts 1:16-20). They would have realized that the crucifixion was no mistake but part of God’s great redemptive plan since the beginning of time. How I wish I could have been part of that road trip to Emmaus as the Lord Jesus miraculously turned the lights on little by little!

Suddenly Cleopas and his friend connected the dots and saw Jesus for who He was. They said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us…while he opened to us the Scriptures?” (Luke 24:32)

Their vision finally cleared and their burning hearts believed it. It is the miracle of seeing and believing that every follower of Jesus experiences somewhere on their spiritual journey.

Believing is not blind faith

Faith in Jesus Christ is not a crutch for the gullible and blind. John’s gospel is a cameo of the last three weeks of Jesus’ life through the eyes of a credible witness. It was written for an express purpose. “But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:31).

Believing Jesus’ resurrection is no small issue of personal preference. Life is at stake.

John asks us to believe his own testimony of the day he saw Christ’s grave clothes and folded face cloth in an empty tomb. John speaks of himself when he says, “He saw and believed” (John 20:8).

The empty tomb, rolled away stone and folded linen cloths were the basis for John’s belief.

It was not blind faith but faith based on what John saw.

Later he was even more convinced when he saw Jesus with his own eyes in the upper room and spent 40 days with Him before his ascension (Mark 16:14). John writes to convince us, who have never seen Jesus with our own eyes, that his resurrection is true (John 20:29).

If the resurrection is not real, Easter Friday is terrible news. In fact, the whole Christian faith is rubbish. Easter is a sick joke, our prayers a waste of breath, and we are naïve, gullible, deluded fools. Worst of all, we have no hope for ourselves beyond the grave. The Apostle Paul thought so too (1 Cor 15:1-20).

But John, Peter, Mary Magdalene, Paul (an enemy of Christians), James (the skeptical brother) and hundreds of other men and women who saw the risen Jesus— knew without a doubt that they were not deluded. They ate and spoke with him. It may have taken some of them longer than others, but when they believed, they were tortured, killed, disowned and exiled because they could not keep silent about what they had seen with their own eyes.

Seeing through their eyes

We too are called to see and believe in Jesus as the risen Lord. Not with our physical eyes, because Jesus is no longer with us, but by coming face to face with the eye-witness accounts of the New Testament. They show us the face of Christ in his life, death, resurrection and ascension. We cannot re-play history, but we can weigh up the credible testimonies of the apostles and offer a verdict of true or false.

We must choose to believe or disbelieve, but there is no middle ground.

I believe!

I believe Jesus rose from the dead beyond all reasonable doubt. I believe He conquered every enemy of God when He died on the cross and rose as King of the universe, the Root of David, the Lion of Judah! (Rev 5:5) I believe Jesus is the Lamb who died to ransom people from every tribe and language and nation, appointing us to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God (Rev 5:9-10). And I long for the day when I will see with my own eyes, hear with my own ears and stand with the thousands upon thousands of people and angels worshipping the Lamb on the throne! (Rev 5:11;12;1314) The greatest prayer of my heart today is that you will be there too.

Live it out!

  • Have you looked at the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection and do you believe it is true? If you are sceptical, you owe it to yourself to investigate this for yourself. Here are two places to start: Lee Strobel’s testimony and video The case for the resurrection and Frank Morison’s book Who moved the Stone? (click on the links). Jesus requires us to know the reason for the hope we have and to share it. Who will you share the gospel with this Easter?
  • Pray for eyes of unbelieving friends and family to be opened to see and believe in Jesus as their Lamb and Lord. No one can see it unless Jesus shows it to us.

Pray

Thank you, Jesus, for opening my heart and mind to the truth that you really died and rose to life again. Thank you that you are my own Saviour, not only at Easter but all year round. Like those disciples on the Emmaus road, please give me a burning heart to return to my friends and tell them that you have risen, that I know you and that you are our only hope. Give me the courage and the words to convince them of this truth. Thank you that you are my substitute Lamb and also the Lion of Judah who rules over the universe and will one day judge justly. Thank you that your body was broken on the cross to make me whole and that you rose again to give me life—- Life that is full, free and forever. Give me eyes to see you more clearly and a warm heart to love you more dearly each day.

In Jesus’ name Amen.

Worship and meditate on the cross this Easter!

Listen to Andrew Peterson’s Prologue and Volume 1 and 2 of The Resurrection Letters. His lyrics are amazing. Click on these links:

Elizabeth Cecelia Douglas Clephane  (1830 – 1869) was a Scottish songwriter who wrote this beautiful hymn “Beneath the Cross of Jesus.” Spot her Old Testament references as you meditate on the meaning of Easter.

Beneath the cross of Jesus I fain would take my stand,
The shadow of a mighty rock within a weary land;
A home within the wilderness, a rest upon the way,
From the burning of the noontide heat, and the burden of the day.

O safe and happy shelter, O refuge tried and sweet,
O trysting place where Heaven’s love and Heaven’s justice meet!
As to the holy patriarch that wondrous dream was given,
So seems my Saviour’s cross to me, a ladder up to heaven.

There lies beneath its shadow but on the further side
The darkness of an awful grave that gapes both deep and wide
And there between us stands the cross two arms outstretched to save
A watchman set to guard the way from that eternal grave.

Upon that cross of Jesus mine eye at times can see
The very dying form of One Who suffered there for me;
And from my stricken heart with tears two wonders I confess;
The wonders of redeeming love and my unworthiness.

I take, O cross, thy shadow for my abiding place;
I ask no other sunshine than the sunshine of His face;
Content to let the world go by to know no gain or loss,
My sinful self my only shame, my glory all the cross.

A Curse, a Cry, a Curtain.. and a Convert

The day Jesus died was not a dark night but a dark day. At noon the sun disappeared and the sky grew dark in Jerusalem. This strange darkness is mentioned by secular historians like Thallus, Phlegon, Africanus and Tertullian.

Just as the night skies were lit up by a bright star and choirs of angels on the night of Jesus’ birth, God turned off the sun’s light on the day His Son died. Without a doubt, the darkness was an ‘act of God’ in the truest sense.

The darkness was real and not a metaphor. It was the ominous sign of God’s curse on Jesus as He bore all human sin and rebellion as our substitute. Then came Jesus’s anguished cry, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” It silenced the mockery of the priests and hushed the insults of the passers-by and the criminals being crucified alongside Jesus. Then came another divine intervention. The temple curtain was ripped in two from top to bottom.

What was so striking about those three hours that caused a hardened Roman centurion to confess, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” What did the soldier see in Jesus that changed him so radically to make this stunning confession?

Mark 15:25-39

And it was the third hour when they crucified him. 26 And the inscription of the charge against him read, “The King of the Jews.” 27 And with him they crucified two robbers, one on his right and one on his left. 29 And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads and saying, “Aha! You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, 30 save yourself, and come down from the cross!” 31 So also the chief priests with the scribes mocked him to one another, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. 32 Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross that we may see and believe.” Those who were crucified with him also reviled him.

33 And when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour. 34 And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 35 And some of the bystanders hearing it said, “Behold, he is calling Elijah.”36 And someone ran and filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” 37 And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last. 38 And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. 39 And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!”

The day the sun went down

There is no naturalistic explanation for the three hours of midday darkness recorded by Matthew, Mark and Luke (Mark 15:33). Even secular historians agree that it happened. For example, Phelgon, a Greek historian in 137AD wrote:

“In the fourth year of the 202nd Olympiad (ie, AD 33) there was the greatest eclipse of the sun and it became night in the sixth hour of the day so that star even appeared in the heavens. There was a great earthquake in Bithynia and many things were overturned in Nicaea.

The problem with Phelgon’s naturalistic explanation is that an eclipse could not have caused the darkness. Jesus was crucified the day before Passover and eclipses do not occur during the full moon. The fact of the darkness is not in doubt from a historical point of view, just its cause.

The three hour darkness on the day of Christ’s crucifixion reminds us of the ninth plague when an ominous darkness settled over Egypt for three days preceding the death of the Egyptian firstborn sons. It was a sign of divine judgment to come.

Exodus 10:22  “So Moses stretched out his hand toward heaven, and there was pitch darkness in all the land of Egypt for three days.”

Yahweh himself entered the darkness of Egypt to liberate his people who were sheltered by the blood of the lambs they had sacrificed and eaten the previous night. That was the first Passover when the angel of death passed over the Israelite homes.

The curse of the cross

As darkness hung over the cross on the Friday before Passover in 33AD, the religious Jewish leaders must have felt an eerie nudge from the prophet Amos who, in 750BC, had foretold God’s judgment on Israel for their rejection of Him. Darkness was the portending sign:

“And on that day,” declares the Lord God,
    “I will make the sun go down at noon
    and darken the earth in broad daylight.
10 I will turn your feasts into mourning
    and all your songs into lamentation;
I will bring sackcloth on every waist
    and baldness on every head;
I will make it like the mourning for an only son
    and the end of it like a bitter day.” Amos 8:9-10

Was this first Easter Friday not a ‘bitter day’ when God the Father made the sun go down at noon in mourning for His only beloved Son?

The curse reversed

Even the Roman centurion realized that the crucifixion was no ordinary death. On the cross, God’s beloved Son died as the perfect Passover sacrifice. Through his death, Jesus reversed the curse that Adam and Eve brought upon creation when they refused to live under God’s rule (Gen 3:1017-19). Paul reminds us that only Jesus is qualified to redeem us from the curse of God’s judgment.

“For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law”…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 hung on a pole.” 14 He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit. (Gal 3:10;13-14)

Jesus became cursed in our place, so that every sinner may receive the blessing given to Abraham, through faith in Him. His willing death reversed the curse.

A cry and a curtain

(Mark 15:343738).

The centurion at the cross must have often heard the agonized shouts of condemned men, but Jesus’s cry was different. Mark records his actual words in Aramaic to heighten the intensity of Christ’s anguish as He was separated from His Father for the first time in all eternity. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This was a precise echo of David’s divine abandonment a thousand years before (Ps 22:1).

Jesus’s God-forsaken cry and the ripped curtain go to the heart of why Jesus died:

The essence of sin is that we forsake God. We reject His rule over our lives and disbelieve his word, just as Adam and Eve did. As a result of our sin, we are God-forsaken and alienated from Him, just as Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden. The temple curtain was the symbol of that separation. The curtain blocked sinful people from approaching God’s presence in the Holy of Holies. But when Jesus died and took the punishment for sin instead of us, God ripped this curtain from top to bottom to make a bold statement.

Jesus is the rip in the curtain!

This is how Hebrews explains it:

“…we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body” (Heb 10:19-20).

 “But when Christ came as high priest of the good things that are now already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not made with human hands, that is to say, is not a part of this creation. 12 He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption” (Heb 9:11-12).

The last word

God had the last word to the chief priests and Pharisees by tearing the curtain and opening up the way to the Holy of Holies.

The Jewish leaders had refused the offer of God’s Son and were desperate to see Him dead and buried before their Passover celebrations began. By ripping the curtain in half, God put an end to that Passover in 33AD, and also to their temple rituals forever. God’s message was loud and clear:

“My Son is the pure, perfect Passover Lamb who laid down his life for sinners. He is the final High Priest–the only sinless mediator between me and all who trust Him as Saviour. His broken body and blood is the ‘tabernacle’ not made with human hands. His death buys eternal redemption for sinners dressed in his perfect robes of righteousness. My Son has ripped open the barrier, so that anyone who believes in Him can approach me boldly. My Son has finished His work and fulfilled everything the temple and prophets pointed to. I forsook my Son on the cross so that believing sinners may never be God-forsaken again! The time for temple rituals and sacrifices is now over! The old has passed and the new has come (2 Cor 5:17). All I want is you—your whole life– for that is how you worship me (Rom 12:1-2). Put your faith in the Messiah I have provided and you will never be separated from me again. You will be my Temple (1 Cor 6:19), I will be your Father, and you will live with me forever!” *

A convert

The centurion who stood vigil at the cross somehow caught a glimpse of its stunning significance and confessed his belief out loud:

“Surely this man was the Son of God!”

Who knows what happened to this centurion, but his conversion is as remarkable as the thief who hung on the cross beside Jesus (Luke 23:40414243). By recording the centurion’s confession of faith, Mark sends us a powerful message:

Jesus is the Saviour of every undeserving sinner who calls to Him, no matter what you have done or where you have been. The only condition is that you look to the perfect Passover Lamb as your own Saviour and Lord.

Easter is good news for every sinner who has repented and believed in Jesus, the Son of God. Otherwise, Easter is nothing more than a season of empty rituals, just as the Passover was to the religious leaders of Jesus’s time. They trusted in their own righteousness and did not think they needed God’s Passover Lamb. They refused to walk through the torn curtain into the embrace of  God the Father.

Without personal faith in Jesus, Easter will give you false comfort. If you have not received Him as your own atoning sacrifice, you will go to your death alone and alienated from God. Only Jesus can cover for us as we walk into eternity. Jesus is the gap in the curtain that invites us to fellowship with God today, tomorrow and after the grave. I will end our devotion with Jesus’s own question to Martha at the death of his friend, Lazarus. He speaks to each of us too:

“I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; 26 and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?” John 11:25-26 

Do you live today with full assurance that you will live forever?

*Roydon Frost explains how Jesus is better in every way than what went before:

http://www.christchurchmidrand.co.za/2019/03/28/reflections-on-israel-and-the-church-from-hebrews/

Led like a lamb

“All we like sheep have gone astray;
    we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
    the iniquity of us all.” (Isa 53:6)

“To (Jesus) all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” (Acts 10:43)

Behold the Lamb!

John 1:29

I know God, because God first made himself known to my dad five years before I was born.

Not that I inherited my faith, but my father’s life after his conversion made Jesus real and beautiful to me from a young age. My dad was an indifferent agnostic until he encountered Jesus Christ when he was 25. This conversion radically altered his destiny and that of my mother, four children and 13 grandchildren. I have no doubt that future generations will continue to be the blessed beneficiaries of my dad’s spiritual rebirth in 1964. But what strikes me most about his conversion story is the faithful efforts of an Anglican pastor in a little mining town called Carletonville. Warwick Seymour didn’t just tell my dad the gospel in an abstract way. He took my dad by the hand and showed him from the whole Bible why Jesus appeared on earth and why He is the Saviour. My dad thought he could earn God’s favour by being more good than bad. For many months, Rev Seymour spent an entire evening every week patiently walking through Old Testament stories and symbols with my dad one by one: Abraham and Isaac (Gen 22); The Passover in Egypt (Ex 11 and 12); the sacrifices and the Scapegoat (Lev 16). They read Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53 together and many more prophecies like it. Eventually Rev Seymour got to the New Testament and pointed my dad to Jesus as the fulfillment of the substitute lamb—the spotless Lamb that God provided to take away the sin of the world (John 1:29). The Holy Spirit took the scales off my dad’s eyes:

“For me it was the transforming revelation. Jesus was the substitute—the ultimate, final, complete, perfect and irrevocable substitute lamb.(Branded by Grace by Chippy Brand: p74).

That day my dad was “ransomed from the futile ways inherited from (his) forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot (1 Peter 1:18-19).”

Lest we be distracted by treasure hunts, Easter eggs and Lenten vows, this is the essence of Easter:

Jesus is our perfect substitute Lamb.

Led like a lamb

In 700BC, the prophet Isaiah foretold the life, death and resurrection of the suffering servant God promised. Here he describes him as a silent lamb ‘led to the slaughter’:

“He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
    yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
    and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
    so he opened not his mouth.” (Isaiah 53:6-7)

Surely this silent lamb is Jesus, whose story is told in the four gospels of the New Testament? Listen to Matthew’s account of him in chapter 27:

“Now Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus said, “You have said so.” 12 But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he gave no answer. 13 Then Pilate said to him, “Do you not hear how many things they testify against you?” 14 But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed… (Matt 27:12-14)

Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters, and they gathered the whole battalion before him. 28 And they stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, 29 and twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on his head and put a reed in his right hand. And kneeling before him, they mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” 30 And they spit on him and took the reed and struck him on the head. 31 And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him and led him away to crucify him.” (Matt 27:27-31)

But unlike every other Old Testament lamb that went before him, Jesus was a willing sacrifice. Unlike the Passover lamb that was slain and the Scapegoat that was sent out into the wilderness bearing the sins of the people, Jesus allowed himself to be led to the cross without compulsion or fight. He submitted to his Father’s will even though he knew it would  cause him indescribable physical and spiritual agony. Even to the point of being forsaken by his Father, “smitten by God and afflicted” (Isa 53:4Ps 22:1-2Matt 27:46). As the Son of God He was far from defenceless, yet he chose to be as meek as a lamb. He refused to use his divine power to defend himself (Matt 26:52-54) so that his righteousness could be proclaimed “to a people yet unborn, that he has done it” (Ps 22:31John 19:30Heb 10:10121418). He was the Son of God but also the Son of man.

Is Jesus just another powerless victim?

“But so what?” you might ask. “Other innocent men and women have been executed for crimes they didn’t commit. Through wars and oppression, many people have been slaughtered like defenceless lambs. Many have died as martyrs. What makes Jesus’s death so special that we get the whole Easter weekend off to celebrate it? Aren’t Christians morbid to replay Christ’s death over and over again like the movie Groundhog day?”

On Good Friday we recall the historical events surrounding Christ’s crucifixion in 33AD in Jerusalem. Here are three reasons why Good Friday is more than just a public holiday for  Christians:

  1. We remember that Jesus is our substitute.

Jesus’ death is unique because He died to be our substitute lamb. He died in our place. Christianity does not make sense unless we understand substitution. Easter is a gory farce if Jesus died merely to set an example of how to be a gracious martyr. There is nothing romantic or glorious about martyrdom.

Substitution is not something our culture generally mentions much, except perhaps on the sport’s field, but the Bible tells us that the essence of sin is that men and women substitute ourselves for God (Rom 1:21;23). We worship ourselves instead of God. We place ourselves on the throne where only God deserves to sit. We claim the authority that belongs only to God.

When God willingly sacrificed himself on the cross, He put himself where you and I deserve to be. He accepted the punishment that belongs to us alone.

This is what Christ’s substitution looked like in Isaiah’s words:

“He was pierced for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities…(Isa 53:5). The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all…(Isa 53:6b)…his soul makes an offering for guilt… (Isa 53:10b)….he bore the sin of many and makes intercession for the transgressors.”

For many Jewish people, the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 is the nation of Israel which has suffered unjust persecution in its history. But the prophecy is about more than just suffering. How can any human being or nation bear the sins of others or make an offering for guilt? Only God Himself can intercede on behalf of sinners.

And that is exactly who Isaiah’s ‘suffering servant’ is: God in the flesh. He is Jesus, the God-man that John the Baptist pointed to when he said, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29).

  1. We remember our atonement.

‘Atonement’ is defined as making amends for a wrong or paying compensation or restitution. It is a concept humans understand instinctively. People seek redemption by atoning for past mistakes or regrets. Guilt may lead us to make a great sacrifice to repay or atone for a misdeed. Atonement is a major theme in books like Disgrace, The Light Between Oceans, Atonement and The Kite Runner. Many authors create Christ-like heroes whose deaths liberate others. One of the most moving historical novels is The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah, set during the German occupation of France in World War 2. The main character, Isabelle Rosignol, joins the French resistance and develops a plan to help downed Allied airmen to escape over the mountains into neutral Spain. After successfully leading dozens of airmen to safety, operating under the code name “Nightingale”, she is caught and tortured. To rescue her, her father Julien falsely claims to be ‘the Nightingale’ and surrenders himself. He is shot while Isabelle watches. The scene is tragic but moving, as Julien stands in for his daughter to save her life. The analogy breaks down, but it is a glimpse of what atonement is about.

The problem is that no human being can offer true atonement. Not for ourselves or on behalf of anyone else. Each one of us is a sheep that has gone astray, turning to our own way (Isa 53:6). We do not follow the Shepherd of our souls and we have all sinned against a holy God, who cannot allow sin into His heaven. Just as Adam and Eve forfeited their home, peace and life in Eden, we forfeit ours because we have wandered like rebel sheep. Paradise is lost.

The good news about Good Friday is that Jesus, the perfect God-man, is the only One qualified to pay the debt we cannot pay ourselves. The Lamb of God offers us full, final, ultimate atonement, and there is nothing we can do to add to this (Heb 9:28). Just as Jesus promised the believing thief on the cross “paradise”, He offers every rebel sheep an eternal home with Him. In a grand twist, the slaughtered Lamb becomes the Good Shepherd of those who trust in Him for themselves (John 10:11-18).

  1. We remember the gifts of Good Friday

The first free gift of Good Friday is eternal life for those who believe (Rom 6:23b). There is nothing insignificant about the great exchange. We give him our sin and death. He gives us his righteousness and life. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor 5:21).

Because of Good Friday we also have the free gifts of forgiveness and peace with God.

“Upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace” (Isa 53: 5b).

He paid the penalty that our past, present and future sin deserves.

“Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant make many to be accounted righteous.” (Isa 53:11John 12:27John 17:1-5). Those who believe are free from blame, condemnation, judgment and the curse of death forever.

If you have been redeemed by Christ, there is nothing more to fear in this world or the next. Thank Jesus right now for each one of the wonderful gifts of Good Friday.

If you have never experienced Christ’s redemption, what is stopping you from taking up the great exchange and grasping the gifts of Easter for yourself? Without atonement from the Lamb of God, how do you hope to stand before God in judgment? (2 Cor 5:10Rom 14:121 Cor 4:5) In what or whom are you trusting for atonement?

As we approach Easter, let us drink deeply of the truth that in Jesus’s death, death has been swallowed up in victory (1 Cor 15:54).

Click on this link and listen to the song “Forever” as you think about the Lamb of God and the victory of Good Friday.

Holding onto truth like a hummingbird

Col 2:6-7Col 3:15-16

Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.  16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. 

1 John 2:24:

As for you, see that what you have heard from the beginning remains in you.

To grow up as a Christian, we need to be like a hummingbird, not a dragonfly. We need to hover over the truth, to drill down deep and drink from its rich nectar. Meditating and musing over Scripture is essential for spiritual nourishment. We cannot just skim over truth, picking up little tidbits of information like a dragonfly snatches flies. It is one thing to believe in the truth of the gospel but we will only grow to maturity when we “work the truth down until it affects the heart” (Timothy Keller). We need to linger longer over truth if we want it to change us.

Holding onto truth is one of the signs that God’s Spirit is alive and active in us. Sanctification is not about constantly seeking new experiences or signs from God, but about reminding ourselves of what we already know and allowing the Spirit to make this truth real in our lives. As John puts it, “See that what you have heard from the beginning remains in you (1John 2:24).” “Just as you were taught…” writes Paul (Col 2:7). It is not a new story, but the old story that will anchor us in shaky times.

Rooted and built up in Him

Paul tells us to walk in Christ, to be rootedestablished and built up in Him, to allow the word of Christ to settle and find a permanent home in us; to constantly remind ourselves and each other of the truth we share; to sing the truth of the gospel aloud with thankful hearts (Col 2:6-7Col 3:15-16). The word of Christ is so easily lost in the clutter and endless activity of our lives. It takes discipline to meditate and muse over God’s truth, but the “peace of God (that) will rule our hearts” is incomparable reward (Col 3:15).

Peace is sadly lacking in our world. Technology trains us to skim over the surface like a dragonfly, darting from one dopamine distraction to another. It is urgent for Christians to carve out a time of stillness in our day, to sip on God’s word like a hummingbird, and pray silently without distraction. We need to remind ourselves consistently of God’s truth or it will slip through the cracks of our burdened minds.

The Rock

T.S Elliot describes the 20th century aptly in his poem, “The Rock.” Its message is even more poignant in 2019 as we reap the whirlwind of technology:

The endless cycle of idea and action,

Endless invention, endless experiment,

Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;

Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;

Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.

All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,

All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,

But nearness to death no nearer to GOD.

Where is the Life we have lost in living?

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?

Wisdom lost in knowledge

As much as it is a blessing to have access to great Christian minds at the click of a mouse, it is easy for Christians to have knowledge of words, but ignorance of the Word. We must ask ourselves, “Are we gaining knowledge but losing wisdom?”

85 years have passed since TS Elliot wrote The Rock. The internet age has moved us beyond wisdom and knowledge—to mere information. We must ask ourselves whether all this information is not making us more ignorant of what the Bible actually says than ever before.

Endless invention

Elliot speaks of endless invention, endless experiment. Novelty and sensation rule in our post-truth world.

Screens are full of fake news, fake identities, fake reality shows and fake celebrities worshipped by gullible fans. “Right” is whatever feels right to me and “wrong” does not exist. Christians are not immune. What passes for Christian teaching is often self-seeking anecdotes, spectacular stories, emotive slogans, motivational parables, comforting words and a notable absence of Scripture. “Self” takes centre stage and God is made in man’s own image. The plain Word of God is too dated and dull for hearers accustomed to endless invention.

God’s voice

But the Bible is God’s voice to us! Do we actually believe this? Through Biblical text, the Holy Spirit awakens us to what God is really like. God’s word is an accurate mirror to expose our sin. It is a surgeon’s scalpel to peel back the truth of our bankrupt, desperate state. It is a compass to direct us to the only person who can rescue us from death and draw us back to our Father. From Genesis to Revelation, the Holy Spirit narrates God’s truth to us, showing us exactly how to know Him, grow up as His child and prepare to enter His heaven when we die. Without Scripture, man’s words are mere opinions that cannot keep us stable in shaky times. They have no power to save us, give us inner peace or keep us firm to the end (Heb 3:14Mark 13:13). They may even deceive us and lead us astray (Rom 16:18). Man’s endless invention is no gospel at all (Gal 1:6-7).

See his face first

Robert Murray McCheyne was a Scottish pastor who died of tuberculosis in 1892, at the age of 29. In his seven year ministry, McCheyne had an extraordinary influence on Scotland and brought many people to Christ. We would know nothing of this godly young man were it not for his friend, Andrew Bonar who recorded his letters, poems and sermons in a biography. It is good for us to look beyond our own self-centred culture to see a man after God’s own heart, dependent on the Holy Spirit, a real shepherd of God’s people who meditated on the truth of God’s word before he did anything else. Here is a snapshot of McCheyne’s character and priorities:

Above all things, cultivate your own spirit,” he wrote to a fellow-minister. “Your own soul is your first and greatest care. Seek to advance in personal holiness…I ought to spend the best part of the day in communion with God. It is my noblest and most fruitful employment.” It was M’Cheyne’s constant aim to avoid any hurry which prevents “the calm working of the Spirit on the heart. The dew comes down when all nature is at rest, when every leaf is still. A calm hour with God is worth a whole lifetime with man …For every look at self, take ten looks at Christ…I ought to pray before seeing any one… I feel it is far better to begin with God, to see His face first, to get my soul near him before it is near another.”

Four practical ways to meditate on God’s Word (from Psalm 77).

  1. Ask questions (Ps 77:5-9). Asaph the Psalmist writes, “My spirit made a diligent search…” You and I can ask ourselves: “What difference does this make to my life? In whom am I trusting? Have I forgotten this truth? Am I living in the light of this truth?” God can handle our questions and they recalibrate our thoughts and feelings to reflect the truth.
  2. Argue your case before God. Appeal to his character and promises. (Ps 77:10.) Remind God of his names, his love and his goodness until you are sure it is true. Wrestle with God.
  3. Recall God’s great deeds. (Ps 77:13-20.) Muse on what God has done for you in the past to give you hope, strength and victory in the present. Like Asaph, preach the truth to your shaky heart. Remind yourself of his steadfast love and faithfulness to all generations. Meditate on all that Jesus’ death achieved and pray back these truths to God. Give thanks for his resurrection and ascension; his specific kindnesses to you and answered prayers. Name your blessings one by one. By mentally circling around God’s greatness through meditation, we reverse the obsessive cycle of anxious thoughts that often trouble us.
  4. Memorize “Fighter verses!” God’s truth is your best weapon of war. Write down and memorize verses that speak directly to your heart. As you memorize truth and say or sing it aloud, it will become part of you. It will seep deep into your heart’s engine room. This year I discovered a phone app called “Fighter verses” which helps you learn and meditate on one verse per week. It is a brilliant tool that every Christian should use! Click here to find out more about Fighter Verses.

Tell me the old, old story

Long before the internet or fancy apps were invented, John and Paul wrote on ancient scrolls to remind the first Christians of the simple message proclaimed by Jesus and passed on by the apostles. It is a true story of sin and redemption that goes back to the beginning of time. It is so clear that even a child can understand it. My grandmother loved listening to the ancient hymn, “Tell me the old old story” when she was 100. She instinctively knew that this ‘old story’ was the only truth she could hold onto as she hobbled into eternity, as frail as a little bird. Because she believed this true story and put her trust in its main character, Jesus, it brought my gran nearer to death but also nearer to God. The Hymn tells the truth of who Jesus is—his divine glory and his love for us. It tells of who we are and God’s remedy for our hopeless condition. Best of all, it tells the simple truth that humanity desperately needs to hear:

“Christ Jesus makes thee whole.”

Hover like a hummingbird over the words as you listen to this great Hymn, Tell me the Old Old Story. I pray that none of us would think we are beyond the rich nectar of the true gospel story.

Tell me the old, old story,
Of unseen things above,
Of Jesus and His glory,
Of Jesus and His love;
Tell me the story simply,
As to a little child,
For I am weak and weary,
And helpless and defiled.

Tell me the old, old story,
Tell me the old, old story,
Tell me the old, old story,
Of Jesus and His love.

Tell me the story slowly,
That I may take it in—
That wonderful redemption,
God’s remedy for sin;
Tell me the story often,
For I forget so soon,
The “early dew” of morning
Has passed away at noon.

Tell me the story softly,
With earnest tones and grave;
Remember I’m the sinner
Whom Jesus came to save;
Tell me the story always,
If you would really be,
In any time of trouble,
A comforter to me.

Tell me the same old story,
When you have cause to fear
That this world’s empty glory
Is costing me too dear;
And when the Lord’s bright glory
Is dawning on my soul,
Tell me the old, old story:
“Christ Jesus makes thee whole.”

Pray

Father, help me to meet with you before I meet with anyone else. I need to hear your voice early in the day before I am distracted by the loud voices of the world around me. I want to linger longer over the old story so that it shapes my heart and my mind. Then I will live to please you. Help me to see the Bible as the rich source of truth it is – your very words to me. Lord Jesus, you loved people enough to tell them the truth about themselves. Help me to love others enough to point them to you, the only Saviour. Give me courage to read the Bible with my friends. My precious Lord Jesus, thank you that you are my Rock, my Root, my Redeemer, my Friend. Help me to remain in you moment by moment until I see you face to face. In Jesus’ name Amen.

Holding onto the truth (part 1)

The Apostle John gives his first century readers three hallmarks to be sure they are true Christians:

They will obey God. (see ‘Our Holy Heritage’ and ‘Kill sin before it kills you’)

They will love God and other people. (See ‘Gripped by love’ and ‘Love is…’)

They will hold firmly to the truth.

John challenges 21st century Christians with these tests too. Of course none of these traits can make us right with God. Only Christ’s death as our substitute can do that. Nor will we ever manifest these hallmarks perfectly this side of eternity. But these three marks are external proof that we have been born of God. They are visible signs that we are growing up spiritually as the Holy Spirit does his work of sanctification in our lives. We will be looking at John’s third hallmark today and next week—Holding onto the truth.

Spot the fake

When Banks train their staff to spot counterfeit notes, tellers are made to handle authentic money over and over again. They are taught to study the colours, texture, weight and images of the bills carefully. By being familiar with the real thing, they are equipped to spot the counterfeit. So too with God’s people. We need to be so steeped in the truth laid out plainly in God’s Word, that we instantly spot strange teaching when we hear it. New Testament writers and Jesus himself made it clear that false teaching will come from within the church (2 Peter 3:17Mark 13:22). Only Christians who are tethered to Biblical truth will stand firm against the many “winds of teaching” which can toss us back and forth (Eph 4:14). John calls all Christians living in “the last hour” not to be naïve or gullible, but to hold onto the one true gospel and know the real Jesus for themselves. That is how God equips us to spot the counterfeit.

Our text for the next two weeks is 1 John 2:18-27:

18 Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come. This is how we know it is the last hour. 19 They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us.

20 But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth. 21 I do not write to you because you do not know the truth, but because you do know it and because no lie comes from the truth. 22 Who is the liar? It is whoever denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a person is the antichrist—denying the Father and the Son. 23 No one who denies the Son has the Father; whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also. 24 As for you, see that what you have heard from the beginning remains in you. If it does, you also will remain in the Son and in the Father. 25 And this is what he promised us—eternal life. 26 I am writing these things to you about those who are trying to lead you astray.27 As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit—just as it has taught you, remain in him.

Remain in Him

John is reiterating what Jesus already said (John 15:4;5;6;71 John 2:27b). It is the open secret of the Christian life: If we are to grow up and bear fruit as Christians, we must remain in Christ, like a branch in the mother plant. “Remain” is from the Greek meno, meaning to abide, dwell, continue, be present, to wait, to stand. It implies a consistent, constant, close attachment to both the person of Christ (the Word), as well as the written Word of God, which contains the full story of redemption history from cover to cover.

What you have heard from the beginning

John says we must see that what we have heard from the beginningremains in us (1 John 2:24). We are to guard this truth  as if it were a treasure that God’s enemy is doing his best to destroy…which he is. After all, eternal life hangs in the balance (1 John 2:25).

That is why John warns Christians about false teachers who lead God’s people astray (1 John 2:26). False teaching is a lie directly from the lips of the enemy and is only combatted when ordinary Christians know the truth for ourselves.

That is why those who teach or influence Christians carry a great responsibility. They answer to the Lord Jesus himself. Their overarching role is to equip God’s people to serve Christ and to build up the body of believers to be unified in their faith and to live in a personal relationship with Jesus, the Son of God. Why? “So that we will longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming.” (Eph 4:11-14). We need leaders to fearlessly speak God’s truth into our lives to anchor us in the turbulent times in which we live.

A warning to the gullible

The writer to the Hebrews reminds us that nothing has changed. “Jesus is the same yesterday and today and forever. Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings” (Hebrews 13:8-9). We must not be sidetracked. Our culture of tolerance invites us to feast on a buffet of ideas, but there is only one true gospel and one name by which we can be saved (Gal 1:6-7Acts 4:12). We cannot obey God or love our neighbour if we do not know and love the truth. Like the first century Gnostics who spoke under the banner of Christ, there will always be teachers who add extras to the gospel of grace (Heb 13:9). False teachers will always feed their own appetites before serving our Lord Jesus. They will sow division and confusion rather than unifying and building up. “By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naïve people” (Rom 16:17-18). False teachers will continue to speculate about the future and obsess about myths, genealogies and meaningless talk that do not advance God’s work (1 Tim 1:4-6).

Paul paints a startling picture that resembles our own generation:

“For there will come a time when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear” (2 Tim 4:3).

It is true that half hearted worshippers will love inoffensive teachers who dilute the truth. Looking around at the visible church today, nothing has changed since the first century. John tells ordinary Christians that we must be so familiar with the truth passed down by Jesus and the Apostles, the message we first heard, that we are not dazzled by diversions (1 John 2:25-26). Teaching is not a matter of innovation but of constant reminding of the truth.

Every Christian’s birthright

Truth is not a novel insight. Nor do only a select few with ‘special anointing’ have access to it  “All of you” and “all things” are comprehensive terms (I John 2:2027b)). Jesus said that the Spirit will lead into truth all those who belong to Him, not just an elite few (John 16:13). The Spirit’s anointing is every Christian’s birthright (2 Cor 1:21Eph 4:7-8). It is subjective proof that we are God’s children. That is why John can say with confidence; “All of you know the truth” (1 John 2:20). The Spirit inside us will warn us when we hear something that jars with the truth and we must pay attention to those uneasy promptings. It is a heart knowledge.

But our knowledge of truth is also based on the objective reality of the real Jesus of history, the Son of God who existed from the beginning, who came to earth as a baby in Bethlehem, fully man yet co-equal with God. We learn the truth about his life, death, resurrection and ascension in the eye witness accounts of the New Testament. We see shadows of Him throughout the Old Testament. We are told the truth of the war that is raging now between the armies of heaven and hell in this era called ‘the last days’. And we are assured of the final consummation when Jesus returns as Judge and King of the new heaven and new earth. The Bible is a true account of history and God’s extraordinary plan to save the world through his Son. It is this precious truth that gives us the hope of eternal life (1 John 2:25). We are stewards of this truth to pass on to future generations.

Stewards of truth

There are no short cuts to being good stewards of truth. We must engage with our Bible and steep ourselves in its truth from beginning to end. We must tremble at God’s word as we seek to handle it properly (Isa 66:2), especially if we have influence over others. We must not twist the plain truth of the Bible to support our own agenda. We must have a plan to read Scripture for ourselves and not just listen to what other people say about it. We must choose a local church which faithfully teaches the whole counsel of God’s Word, not just the bits the preacher fancies.

All Christians are God’s holy people and priests to proclaim gospel truth to a confused world (1 Peter 2:9). We desperately need clarity on what this truth entails. We have the Holy Spirit’s anointing (1 John 2:27) to understand the Bible and apply it. God’s Spirit and God’s Word act in tandem in our lives. We will easily become unbalanced or deceived if we pit the Spirit and the Word against each other, or if we focus on one without the other. Someone wrote this true statement:

“All word and no spirit, we dry up. All Spirit and no Word, we blow up. Both Word and Spirit, we grow up.”(Unknown author)

Pray

Lord Jesus, help me to see you as you really are, to savour your greatness, your beauty and your worth. Help me to treasure the gospel and to truly love people enough to share the truth with them. Help me to hold onto the truth, not because I want to be right or to win arguments, but because I want other people to know Jesus as their own Lord and Saviour. Father, help me to love you with all my heart, soul and might. Then I will be able to love my neighbour as myself and will obey your commands and serve you with a glad heart. Thank you for the true gospel of grace by which I am saved through faith in what Jesus has done for me on the cross. My precious Saviour, keep me mindful of your undeserved grace every second of day, so that my life will show the perfect tension between grace and truth– as yours did when you walked on this earth. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Join us next week for part 2 of “Holding onto the truth”.

Here are three Bible-centred resources that are anchoring our family members in the turbulent waves of our times (click on the links to find out more):

1.

The Bible Explore Bible Devotional App (The Good Book company on App store or Google play). https://www.thegoodbook.com/explore-app

https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.thegoodbook.explore&hl=en

(The Explore app contains daily Bible readings with questions to help you engage with the Bible text, comment to get you thinking, and ideas for further reading, prayer and application. It includes the Bible text so that you can open up the Bible wherever you are, whenever you can. Explore is written by trusted Bible teachers with a passion for getting God’s word to work in people’s lives. Contributors include Timothy Keller, Mark Dever, Mike McKinley, Christopher Ash, Graham Beynon, Tim Chester and Stephen Witmer.)

2.
Truth For Life app. Alistair Begg’s daily Bible-teaching ministry. https://itunes.apple.com/za/app/truth-for-life/id387699558?mt=8

(Begg’s daily 20 minute messages are easy to download and listen to later when stuck in traffic during load shedding and to make the gym more tolerable!)

3.

The Gospel Coalition US and The Gospel Coalition Africa websites.

(These have many trustworthy contemporary articles, blogs, discussions and sermons to help Christians apply truth to life.)

Love is…

“We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love each other. Whoever does not love remains in death” (1 John 3:14).

No shades of grey

John has no shades of grey when he describes true disciples of Jesus:

We are dead to sin and alive to Christ.

We walk in the light, not the darkness. Obedience is our first mark of distinction (See Our Holy HeritageKill sin before it kills you).

Our second trademark is that we will love God and each other because God is love. We love, because God first loved us” (1 John 4:810; see Gripped by love).

Love cannot save us, but love demonstrates that we are born again. It is visible proof that God’s invisible Spirit is changing us day by day. It is the practical expression of living in submission to Christ, our ‘Bridegroom’ and the ‘Vine’ that produces good fruit in us moment by moment. The more we love God, the more we will love the people He has made in his own image.

For me, love does not come easily or naturally. It is sometimes hard for me to know what love requires in each relationship and situation. I am naturally self-centred, task driven and prefer to be alone than in community. I thank Jesus that He is not just my example but my sin-bearer! And I thank my home groups for teaching me the joy of living and loving in community. But we live in a world that has distorted the idea of love, turning it into a flexible, sentimental thing that can be moulded by our own desires and imaginations. ‘Love’ is something that is tossed aside when something better comes along. ‘Love’ is trumped by our dreams and goals. We have truly made love in our own image. Today John challenges us with God’s unchanging truth of what love is:

Love is… self sacrifice.

Love is… action not words.

Love is… laying down our lives for others.

Let us pray that God’s Spirit would change us profoundly, moment by moment, to enable us to practically love our neighbours as we love ourselves.

1 John 3:11-23; 4:20-21

11 For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. 12 We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous. 13 Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you. 14 We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death. 15 Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.

16 By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. 17 But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? 18 Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.

20 If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.21 And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.

The message you have heard from the beginning.

We live at a time when people disdain the old and uncritically fawn over the new. John is speaking to Christians living in an age of Gnosticism similar to today’s ideologies. False teachers were offering a mystical door to salvation. The Athenian mindset of John’s day was obsessed by new ideas (Acts 17:21), spiritual experiences and special knowledge and revelation. But John reminds them that Jesus is the God-man who came to earth in real space and time. His physical body died and came back to life. Jesus is now with his followers by his Spirit. The message of Jesus and the apostles is down-to-earth. It has no shades of grey or mirky shadows. It is the truth that ‘was from the beginning’– not hearsay but first hand knowledge (1 John 1:123). Faith in this Jesus, whose narrative is told in the eye witness accounts of the New Testament, is the only basis for fellowship with God the Father. Like the true Jesus, true love has no shades of grey.

The spirit of Cain.

To show us what love is, (and is not), John reaches back to the book of Genesis for a man in the second generation of humankind—Cain. Cain is contrasted with Jesus (1 John 3:1216) and John challenges us to ask ourselves who we are emulating. Are we allowing rebellion against God and jealousy to take root in our hearts, bearing the thorns of hate and murder, like Cain? Or are we living in full submission to God, giving our lives away out of love for each other, like Jesus? We may be shocked at the idea that we can be like Cain who murdered his brother, but remember Jesus’s words that anyone who hates his brother is a murderer in his heart (Matt 5:21-22). It is useful to re-read how Cain came to murder Abel in Genesis 4:1-16, and the warning God gave him before killing his brother,

“But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it” (Gen 4:7).

God, who knows Cain’s heart, warns him to guard it. But Cain does not master his desires. He shows a settled refusal to soften his hard heart. His envy of his brother gives rise to hatred, and hatred manifests in murder. The Bible talks of envy as coveting. In Cain’s case, breaking the 10th commandment, “Do not covet” leads him to murder his own flesh and blood. Joseph’s brothers show the same progression from envy, to hatred, to selling Joseph as a slave. Humanity in 2019 is no different from our ancestors in Genesis. The heart is the wellspring of life and all our outward actions flow from it (Prov 4:23Matt 15:18).

In his classic True Spirituality, Francis Schaeffer makes the point that all sin originates in the 10th commandment, “Do not covet.” Exodus 20:17is the heart condition which leads us to break the other 9 commandments. Schaeffer shows how our proper human desires easily turn into coveting (P205):

Desire becomes sin when it fails to include love of God or men… there are two practical tests as to when we are coveting against God or men; first, I am to love God enough to be contented; second, I am to love men enough not to envy… and this is not only envy for money, it is for everything….Natural desires have become coveting against a fellow creature, one of our kind, when we have a mentality that would give us secret satisfaction at his misfortune.”

We must search our hearts often with these two tests: Contentment and Envy. Coveting is inward rot that spills its poison into our outward actions and words, as it did in Cain’s life. I know in my own life that coveting leads to ingratitude, anger and many other sins in my own life. Love and coveting cannot co-exist. We are either led by the spirit of Cain or the Spirit of Christ.

The Spirit of Christ

Christ’s love always travels from the heart to the hands and feet of those ruled by His Spirit. Like the good Samaritan, a Christian who is Spirit-led cannot look away when someone is in need or distress (1 John 3:17Luke 10:25-37). It is easy to love ‘everyone’ in a vague, generic kind of way, but much harder to love someone in particular. It is easy to avoid someone in need than to get up close and personal, to see and hear them, to share their suffering (Luke 10:33). It is easy to be moved and to feel pity, but it is another thing to give up our time; to bandage up someone’s ‘wounds’; to use our car, our home and give up our money (Luke 10:34-35). Most of us will not die martyrs as Jesus did, but we are still called to lay down our lives for each other, especially for believers (1 John 3:16John 15:12-13).

Of course we cannot meet every need or save the world. Jesus himself did not heal everyone. But love comes from the conviction that every life matters to God. Love starts with small things. That may mean laying down just a part of my time and energy to connect with a brother or sister in need. Love is holding loosely to our comforts, our schedule, our dreams, our money and our desires so that we can care for people (1 John 3:17-18). Love may mean giving away a whole chunk of our lives as we look after an elderly parent or sick friend, or raise an adopted child. Love means never standing in the way of another’s holiness, nor taking what does not belong to me sexually from another person. Love treats every person with dignity, while racism embodies the spirit of Cain. Love is being thoughtful and not irritable or resentful. Love does not want what someone else has (1 Cor 13:4). Love does not have a need for special attention or recognition (1 Cor 13:4-5). Love patiently bears with people rather than quarrelling and gossiping ( Cor 13:7). Love makes peace and is not rude (1 Cor 13:5). Love does not sow division, pick fights or take revenge (1 Peter 3:9Rom 12:17). Love believes the best even when people disappoint us. Love is not a matter of word and talk, but of action and truth (1 John 3:18).

The Biblical definition of love is down to earth: We cannot claim to love an invisible God if we do not love the real flesh and blood people around us. We demonstrate our love for God by practically and sacrificially loving each other. This is not a new message on love. Love fulfills the Old Testament Law and prophets (Rom 13:8;9;10) and has always been God’s greatest commandment (Matt 22:40). It is not only good doctrine and faithful preaching of the word that draws people to Jesus. It is also the sweet witness of love in our church community that convinces people that the gospel is true.

Love is not self determinism. Love is self sacrifice.

(Read Jen Oshman’s book review, Girl, follow Jesus)

The world at war.

John says we should not be surprised when the world hates us (1 John 3:13). If Cain represents the world and Abel symbolizes faithful believers, the way of the world is to covet and drag others down in order to pull oneself up. Just as Cain hated Abel for his righteousness, many people feel threatened by Christians who don’t strive and jostle for position. Light exposes darkness. The world hated God’s prophets, Jesus, the apostles and faithful Christians throughout history.

Love, light and life will always be at war with hatred, darkness and death.

Rather, we should be surprised if we always have the world’s approval and acceptance. The world’s love is not something to be envied. The question John asks us throughout his letter is this: Which side are you living for?

Live it out!

CS Lewis and John Stott give some no-nonsense, practical advice about loving each other. Let’s put these principles into action:

  • “Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.” C.S Lewis. Mere Christianity.
  • “It is impossible to pray for someone without loving him, and impossible to go on praying for him without discovering that our love for him grows and matures.” John Stott
  • “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.” CS. Lewis, The Four Loves