The Freedom of Forgiveness

“Let it be known to you therefore, friends, that through this man (Jesus) forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses (Acts 13:38-39).

Many are amused, embarrassed or offended by talk of sin and repentance. After all, if there’s no God, each of us must define what is right and wrong for ourselves. Surely we will be free when we throw off the shackles of guilt imposed by society and religion? Surely feelings of shame and unworthiness vanish when we are finally true to ourselves? Yet, looking around our postmodern, post-truth world, we see a different picture—less freedom, less peace, less joy. More angst, more anxiety, more disorder. God’s word tells us that repentance is not a dirty word. In fact, it is the only way our souls can be clean from real sin and guilt, from the inside out. If we find ourselves in a mud bath, we can scrub ourselves to the bone, but will remain covered in mud. Our sin is like that oppressive mud bath, because we are unable to atone for ourselves no matter how many good deeds we do. When storms and pressure come, the benign mud bath often mutates into a mud slide which threatens to drown us in its deadly path. But when we receive the extravagant gift of God’s forgiveness through our Lord Jesus Christ, it is as though we are plucked out of the mud bath of our own sin and pride, and placed under a waterfall that cleanses and restores us to wholeness, rest and shalom to the depths of our soul. Peace with God our Father streams into every aspect of our lives, including our relationships with others. This is the freedom of forgiveness.

Our text today is Psalm 32:1-6

Blessed is the one
whose transgressions are forgiven,
whose sins are covered.
Blessed is the one
whose sin the Lord does not count against them
and in whose spirit is no deceit.

When I kept silent,
my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
For day and night
your hand was heavy on me;
my strength was sapped
as in the heat of summer.

Then I acknowledged my sin to you
and did not cover up my iniquity.
I said, “I will confess
my transgressions to the Lord.”
And you forgave
the guilt of my sin.

Therefore let all the faithful pray to you
while you may be found;
surely the rising of the mighty waters
will not reach them.

Undermining God’s grace

“No judgment”, “positive self talk” and “self love” sound like gracious and liberating buzzwords, but they can undermine the grace of God by implying that we do not need His forgiveness. The Psalmist in our text has no doubt that his sin and guilt are real (Ps 32:5) and that he has greatly offended God (Ps 32:4). He knows his actions are at odds with God’s will for his life. His guilt even causes physical symptoms that sap his vitality (Ps 32:3-4), but he does not try to affirm himself, ask God for relief or offer excuses. He does not delve into what was done to him to provoke his sinful reactions or blame his family of origin. He has no doubt about God’s holy character and His unchanging measure of what is good and acceptable. Then the tone of the Psalm lifts as the writer begins to pray to God, admitting that he is part of the problem, not part of the solution (Ps 32:5). At the same time he clutches onto the hope of forgiveness because he is breaking his silence and acknowledging his sin. As he removes the covers from hidden sin, he allows God to cover his shame instead, and receives forgiveness (Ps 32: 5). The result is that his anguished spirit is revitalized and blessed (Ps 32:1-2) and he walks in intimacy with the Lord again, praying and trusting him with the challenges of life (Ps 32:6). It is blessed forgiveness!

Solomon sums it up well in this proverb: “Whoever conceals their sins does not prosper, but the one who confesses and renounces them finds mercy” (Proverbs 28:13). We must be careful not to undermine God’s mercy by sugar coating sin.

Sin is why Jesus died

When Jesus proclaimed and proved himself to be God’s chosen Messiah, this was the core of his message: “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). I wonder what Jesus would say to those who speak only of God’s grace and love, but minimize sin and repentance? Brian McLaren, speaker in the emerging church movement and author of A New Kind Of Christian, argues, “The church latched on to that old doctrine of original sin like a dog to a stick, and before you knew it, the whole gospel got twisted around it. Instead of being God’s big message of saving love for the whole world, the gospel became a little bit of secret information on how to solve the pesky legal problem of original sin.”

But if there is no such thing as sin, how does the agonising death of the Lord Jesus prove God’s love for the whole world? Why was Jesus forsaken by God as he died? Why did Jesus cry out “It is finished?” What was finished? Why did the temple curtain split down the middle to give access to the Holy of Holies? What a wasted sacrifice of the only perfectly good man who ever lived (and thousands of faithful martyrs after him)… unless of course the bitter cup Jesus drank on the cross achieved what the Bible claims it did: Forgiveness of sin for everyone who repents and believes in Jesus’ name.

From the lips of Jesus

Jesus could not have painted a clearer picture of the emptiness, desperation and filth of sin alongside the extravagant forgiveness of the Father than in the parable of the lost son:

“Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living… 14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.

17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

The son was forgiven and reconciled with his father because he got up, went to his father and confessed his sin. He threw himself at his father’s mercy and then received his father’s forgiveness. Jesus sees each one of us as that prodigal, alienated from God because of our sin. If we create ways of saving ourselves without God, without a sense of sin and without the way He has provided for our forgiveness (repentance and trust in Jesus), we will remain in the pig pen, spiritually empty, alienated and in desperate need, but utterly without hope.

Biblical hope assures us that when we acknowledge our sin as an assault against heaven– against God himself– and come to the Saviour who has paid our ransom in full (Mark 10:45), we will always be met with the Father’s gracious and compassionate face (2 Chron 30:9b). We will experience the freedom and joy of forgiveness, along with the angels in heaven (Luke 15:10).

Live it out!

  • Distinguish false from true guilt. Feelings of shame due to another person’s actions or self condemnation are not convictions from the Holy Spirit, but lies from the enemy. Once you are forgiven, you are “in Christ” and no one can condemn you (Rom 8:1).
  • Pray the words of Psalm 51, which is a great template for confession: “Create in me a clean heart, O God… Wash me and make me clean O Lord…Against you only have I sinned… Restore to me the joy of your salvation.” Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us” (Matt 6:12).
  • Sin does not only distort our actions, but also our thoughts, desires, motives and will. Lay your heart bare before the Lord and ask Him to expose your blind spots. It is risky to pray for exposure, but better to be free than blind.

Pray

Father, search me and know my heart today. Test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting (Ps 139:23-24). Lord Jesus, I know my sins are great but I know that your forgiveness is greater. Please give me the blessing and freedom of your forgiveness, so that I may rest in your grace and mercy, not my efforts. Holy Spirit, give me assurance that I am absolutely forgiven in Jesus. Stir my heart with your great sacrifice so that I am truly sorry for my sin and am sad to offend you and violate your holiness. In Jesus’ precious name, Amen.

Join us over the next two weeks to explore what it means to repent and believe: “Repent, Believe and Receive” and “Radical Repentance.”

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Why Bible reading should be part of your holiday plans

The Apostle Paul spent his last days in a cold Roman prison convicted to die as a follower of Jesus of Nazareth. In that dungeon he wrote his final thoughts to his “son” Timothy to remind him of what was truly important and encourage him in his faith. He describes a society which is remarkably like our own– “But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. 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— having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people. (2 Timothy 3:1-5

There is a sense of urgency in Paul’s last written words to Timothy, and also to every believer living in the ‘last days’ (the time between Christ’s resurrection and his return). As we enter the holiday season, it is good to rest and renew our strength. But Paul warns us not to be lulled into a false sense of security, but to understand the times and wake up from our slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed (Rom 13:11Eph 5:14-18). Paul urges us to be “prepared in season and out of season” (2 Tim 4:2). Satan does not go on holiday when we pack our bags! When life slows down and we let our hair down, we have a God-given opportunity to taste the sweetness of His inspired Word and equip ourselves to live courageously for Him in 2019! Our text this week is 2 Timothy 3:14-17:

 

14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it 15 and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”

Hunger for God

The prospect of reading the Bible during the holidays may fill you with mixed feelings—perhaps reluctance at the thought of study after a year of hard work; perhaps guilt or dread at the idea of imposing duty and structure on lazy days; perhaps excitement at the thought of diving into a new book of the Bible. Guilt and duty are hopeless motivators for Bible reading and will definitely not sustain us during the holiday season. A neutral or complacent attitude towards God’s Word will be useless to combat “holiday rot!” Only awe and hunger for God himself can motivate us day after day to open our hearts to the Bible—to be receptive to its teaching, correction and training in righteousness. If we understand the miracle of God’s Word, the Logos, we will not see reading the Bible as medicine to swallow or a chore to tick off. It is pure pleasure, an experience of communion with God that is as sweet as honey (Ps 119:103Ps 19:10). That is how David saw it a millennium ago even though he only had the first five books to read—mere shadows of what was to come. He longed for greater intimacy with God and saw the law as a vital conduit to this relationship. Timothy’s “sacred writings” (2 Tim 3:15) were also limited to the Old Testament. But we are far more privileged than David or Timothy. What a gift the holidays provide to us to get a taste of the Bible’s 66 God-breathed books, written by around 40 different human authors, spanning over 1600 years! Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s Word –“the Word made flesh” and when we are guided by the Holy Spirit, we see Jesus and everything he has done for believers in the Old and New Testament. It is awe inspiring that we have free access to these sacred texts which tell the greatest story the world has ever heard! How strange that we should plan endless entertainment, distractions, meals and celebrations, but not give a thought to nurturing our souls on holiday? Let’s remember that the Word is essential to our Walk with God. Let’s commit ourselves to a plan of how we will spend time listening and talking to God in prayer over the holiday season. Let us approach his Word with anticipation, like opening a beautifully wrapped gift every day, full of messages that are trustworthy, true and satisfying (Ps 119:14-16).

Show me!

“Tell me and I forget.

Teach me and I remember.

Involve me and I learn.”

Benjamin Franklin was right. We remember nothing when we are just told things. The same goes for reading the Bible. Although the Bible is full of life changing power and can cut into our hearts like a surgeon’s scalpel (Hebrews 4:1213), its words are not magic bullets that automatically transform us. We need to do more than just read Scripture. We need to first open our hearts and pray, “God, show me the meaning of this text. Help me to understand your truth, not my own.” Then read the text carefully, following clues in the margins and notes of your Bible so that you understand what the text is saying to its original readers and against the backdrop of the rest of the Bible. See this as a treasure hunt rather than hard work!

Teach me!

Then whisper the simple prayer, “God, teach me what you want me to learn. ” Be still and quiet as you observe details in the text that stand out for you. Think and chew on it as a cow chews on the cud. Meditate on the words as if you are warming your hands at a fire. No word is wasted or arbitrary. When God the Holy Spirit teaches us, He doesn’t do it all at once. He peels away thoughts like an onion, layer by layer, leading us deeper and deeper into the truth of his Word. In a whole lifetime of reading Scripture, we will always be struck by new truths and will never plumb the depths of God’s Word.

Change me!

But the Bible is useless to us if it remains in our head and does not seep into our heart and emotions, our will, thoughts and actions. Our final prayer as we read Scripture is a commitment to action and a simple request: “Lord, I surrender my will to you. Please change me.” It is a prayer of yielding our whole hearts to God like the good, receptive soil in the parable of the sower. The rebuking, correcting and training function of the Bible can only take place when the veil is removed from our eyes and we finally see the attitudes, behaviours and thought patterns that need to be changed. Each day we need to turn away from ourselves and towards God—a daily recalibration as we wrestle actively and honestly with God’s Word. “Faith without works is dead,” says James (James 2:17). Jesus is looking for doers of the word, not just hearers or talkers (James 1:22232425). “The eyes of the Lord range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him” (2 Chron 16:9). Jesus accused the Pharisees of being ‘blind guides’ because their knowledge of Scripture led to information, but not transformation. Paul warns Timothy of people who are “always learning but never able to acknowledge the truth” (2 Tim 3:7). Scribble down what the Holy Spirit is showing you as he confronts, comforts and convicts you with the inspired text of Scripture. Be specific and hold yourself accountable to your commitments.

Live it out!

  • ROMA is a useful acronym to help you wrestle with your Bible this holiday.

R- Read

O- Observe

M- Meditate / meaning

A- Apply.

  • Plan to read a book of the Bible this holiday and download the Explore Bible Devotional app (The Good Book Company) on your phone to guide you through it in bite-sized daily readings. The App is simple to use (even for the technologically challenged), the devotions are brilliantly written by some of the world’s best Bible teachers, and are very practical. I use the Explore Bible Devotional app as a vital companion to my quiet time as it helps me to interpret the text in front of me against the backdrop of the whole Bible, instead of through the lens of my own personal hobbyhorses. Start a new journal to jot down your thoughts and prayers. As you look back on your journal this time next year, you will be amazed at what God has done and how many of your prayers He has answered.

A river of grace for 2019

Imagine filling your mind every day with heaven’s pure river of wisdom, intimacy and guidance. The Bible is a flowing stream of grace that God himself has provided to enable you to be fruitful in season and not to wither (Ps 1:3)– To remain nourished and restored through every season of life. See this holiday as a gap to reflect on eternal things, to see the beauty of Jesus on every page of Scripture, to spend time taking pleasure in God’s beautiful world and renewing your awe and love for the One who created you and has numbered all your days. Make up your mind today not to succumb to holiday rot! Allow God’s Word to transform you into a man or woman who is mature and complete, equipped for every good work in the coming year 2 Tim 3:17

Pray:

Lord, thank you for getting us through this year and never leaving our side. Help us to lift our drooping hands and strengthen our weak knees at this time. Make straight paths for our feet so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed (Heb 12:12-13). Please restore us this holiday season and remind us that Christmas is all about you and your gift of Jesus.

Jesus, help us to sit at your feet like Mary, instead of being distracted by many lesser things, as Martha was. Help us to choose what is better this holiday, instead of trying to do everything (Luke 10:38-41). Jesus, you are the living Word, and we pray that you will help us to connect to you through the written Word of Scripture in the coming weeks (John 1:1418). Please equip us for every good work in 2019.

In Jesus’ name

Amen.

Thank God for speaking to you through his Word as you listen to this classic hymn by Amy Grant. Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path is based on Psalm 119:105 (click here).

Have you ever seen a stressed sheep?

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

Psalm 23

A Psalm of David

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

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

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

My Provider

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

My Rest

(Ps 23:2)

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

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

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

My Great Counsellor

(Ps 23:3)

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

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

Fear No Evil

(Ps 23:4)

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

My Defender

(Ps 23:56)

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

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

A Song for the Surrendered

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

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

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

Pray

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

In Jesus’ name,

Amen.

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

Come Dine With Me

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

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

Isaiah 55:1-7

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

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

Pray

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

Water

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

Milk

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

Wine

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

Godly thirst

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

Listen and Come

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

Seek and turn

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

Drink

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

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

In Jesus’ precious name,

Amen.

RSVP

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

A Leaky Bucket

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

John 4:1-26; 39-42

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

17 “I have no husband,” she replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(African proverb)

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

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

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

Looking for water, finding Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking for love, courting disaster

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

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

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

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

False worship

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

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

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

True worship

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

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

It’s not about location!

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

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

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

Live it out!

1.     Thirst is not quenched by a stagnant pool

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

2.     A shamed wife becomes beloved

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

Pray Ephesians 5:25-28:

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

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

I would highly recommend the following books:

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

1.     Further food for thought:

CS Lewis, Mere Christianity

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

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

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

Ernest Becker:

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

A Polished Deck

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

John 3: 1-21

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

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

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

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

“How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.

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

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

Unimpressed by the deck

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

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

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

New birth by the Holy Spirit.

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

A brand new baby

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

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

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

An inside job: Water and the Spirit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The outside story: Believe

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

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

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

True transformation

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

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

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

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

Whatever happened to Nicodemus?

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

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

Live it out!

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

A Fragrant Gospel

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

Our text today is Matthew 28:16-20:

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

Setting the scene

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

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

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

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

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

Honouring Jesus’ final words

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

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

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

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

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

Fragrance…or odour?

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

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

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

An unpretentious gospel

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

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

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

-Helen Roseveare

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

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

(African proverb)

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

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

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

Live it out!

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

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

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

Preach, teach, serve

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

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

Bloom and grow

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

Pray Hebrews 13:20-21:

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

I am indebted to the following wonderful Gospel resources:

A Kingdom Gospel

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

JESUS IS LORD!

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

Luke 4:14-29:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A staggering broadcast

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

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

No ordinary Bible reading

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

No ordinary claim

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

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

The time is now!

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

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

Jesus bound the strong man

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

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

The cross is the bedrock of Christ’s reign

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

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

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

Infusing the gospel of the kingdom

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

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

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

Time to bear arms!

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

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

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

1. Resisting dark feelings

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

2. Resisting temptation

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

3. Resisting disorder

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

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

Live it out!

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

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

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

Pray Colossians 2:13-15:

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

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

Amen.

I highly recommended you read:

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

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

A Precious Gospel

flower growing in rock

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

Our text today is Romans 1:16-17:

I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”

Not ashamed

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

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

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

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

The gospel of Jesus Christ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Revolutionary gospel vs impotent placebo

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

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

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

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

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

JESUS IS LORD!

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

Live it out!

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

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

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

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

Pray

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

Amen.

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

Incomparable

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Who but God?

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

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

Isaiah 40:12-21

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

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

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

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

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

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

Setting the Scene.

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

Listen! (Isa 40:1-6)

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

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

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

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

An eternal song of redemption

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

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

Suddenly Isaiah’s mood swings.

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

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

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

Let the Redeemed of the Lord tell their story.

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

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

Can I really trust God?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Behold the Lamb of God.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Live it out!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pray Isaiah 40:27-31:

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

In Jesus’ name, Amen.