Are we safe in our houses?

Lockdown resizedBy Rosie Moore.

“Go, my people, enter your rooms and shut the doors behind you; hide yourselves for a little while until his wrath has passed by.” Isaiah 26:20.

In this series titled Big Questions, we’ve been looking at questions from the Bible. You can stop paging through your Bible, as this week’s big question isn’t there! It’s just a question from inside my own head as I read and re-read the many Watsapp messages applying Isaiah 26:20 directly to our nation in lockdown until the end of Passover on 16th April. When I see a verse in splendid isolation, I like to read what comes before and after the little gem to make sure that it actually says what I thought it said! Without context, it’s tempting to make myself the centre of the text and miss the depth of God’s message for all time. This week, as I allowed verse 20 to take its place within the whole chapter, against the backdrop of the rest of the Bible, I began to see that this little verse is indeed God’s word to His people, but in a far richer sense than I first imagined. Now that you’ve stocked up on all your supplies and are finally able to take a breath, I’d urge you to read chapter 26 slowly on your own. I will highlight extracts and draw out the main themes of the text, before considering how these apply to our own state of emergency.

Two cities

Isaiah 26 is essentially a song about two cities. The first is the strong city that God himself has made for all His people. Its gates are always open to its righteous citizens who keep faith. Salvation itself is the city’s walls of defence. There is safety, protection and privilege for those who live within its walls:

“In that day this song will be sung in the land of Judah:

We have a strong city;
God makes salvation
its walls and ramparts.
Open the gates
that the righteous nation may enter,
the nation that keeps faith” (Isa 26:1-2).

But the alternative is a lofty city of human pride and self-sufficiency. Its inhabitants will be humbled and its useless walls will be demolished and levelled to dust. The bricks and mortar of this proud city are no protection at all, and the feet of the poor will trample down the symbols of their oppression:

“He humbles those who dwell on high,
he lays the lofty city low;
he levels it to the ground
and casts it down to the dust.
Feet trample it down—
the feet of the oppressed,
the footsteps of the poor” (Isa 26:5-6).

Isaiah 26 is a song of trust, praise and meditation for God’s people, but it also asks each one of us which city we call home.

Double peace

Wedged between the two cities is one of the most encouraging promises that God’s people can hear in times of turmoil:

“You will keep in perfect peace
    those whose minds are steadfast,
    because they trust in you.
Trust in the Lord forever,
    for the Lord, the Lord himself, is the Rock eternal (Isa 26:3-4).

In the Hebrew, “perfect peace” is a double peace that comes to those who are devoted to God and firmly fix their eyes on Him under all circumstances. It is a steady and stable attitude that rests on his unchanging love and mighty power, unshaken by surrounding chaos.

Profound peace from God is nothing like the transitory peace that comes through the Headspace app on our cellphone, a session of yoga or a long walk on the beach. It’s not based on circumstances or state of mind, but on the eternal Rock (Phil 4:7Isa 26:4).

The waiting room

Throughout Isaiah’s prophecy, he is moving between the present (700BC) and the future. While the prophet is pointing to God’s glorious future, he never forgets the harsh realities for God’s people living on earth now. Verses 7-21 describes that present waiting room:

It’s a time when many people happily receive God’s benefits, but reject God himself and continue to do evil. They refuse to learn from God’s grace or his warnings (Isa 26:10). It’s a time when some people are blind to the hand of God in their lives (Isa 26:11), and when other gods rule instead of the One True Lord (Isa 26:13). It’s a time when God’s people are longing for redemption and groaning in distress, discipline and disgrace (Isa 26:916-18).

But at the same time, it’s also a world where God always makes a level path for the righteous (Isa 26:7). It’s a time when God’s faithful people wait and yearn for His name and His renown, rather than seeking their own fame. It’s an opportunity for God’s people to walk in faith and obedience (Isa 26:8-9). The waiting room is a world where God establishes peace for his people and grows them into a commonwealth that glorifies His name (Isa 26:15). Best of all, it’s a world where the dead will live again:

“But your dead will live; their bodies will rise. You who dwell in the dust, wake up and shout for joy. Your dew is like the dew of the morning; the earth will give birth to her dead (Isa 26:19).

It’s into this great tension that God speaks the poignant word that’s been shared all week on social media:

“Go, my people, enter your rooms and shut the doors behind you; hide yourselves for a little while until his wrath has passed by” (Isa 26:20).

It’s a truly amazing instruction, which is just as relevant for God’s waiting people today. But does this verse promise that God will keep us safe in our houses until the end of Passover, when the COVID threat has passed us by?

Hide yourselves for a little

It’s impossible to understand what this verse promises us today without looking through the lens of what happened in Egypt 1750 years before Isaiah was born: Isaiah 26:20 is a vivid picture of the first Passover night when the angel of death passed over the Israelite houses whose doors were marked by the blood of the lambs. The parallels are unmistakeable.

When the Lord goes through the land to strike down the Egyptians, he will see the blood on the top and sides of the doorframe and will pass over that doorway, and he will not permit the destroyer to enter your houses and strike you down (Isa 26:20).

At this first Passover in Egypt, God’s people literally hid themselves in their homes for the night until He led them safely out of slavery to their promised country.

But God’s word to His waiting people today must also be seen through the lens of what Jesus did on the cross at Passover in 33AD. Isaiah’s song longs for redemption, but God did indeed come to earth to bring redemption! He came in the form of His Son, the Passover Lamb that we remember at Easter, whose blood hides us from the wrath of God. This season of Lent is the time to marvel at this great peace that the Lord accomplished for us, just as Isaiah foretold (Isa 26:12). And it is the only basis for the perfect peace described in Isaiah 26:3-4.

The gospel tells us that anyone can enjoy the safety of the strong city of God, but we must trust in the salvation God Himself has provided. It is Jesus’s righteousness, and not our own, that makes us a “righteous” nation (Isa 26:7;2). Only His salvation forms our “walls” of protection (Isa 26:1). Jesus is the Lord of all the earth (Isa 26:13) and in Him the dead will rise again (Isa 26:19).

Jesus is the fulfilment of Isaiah’s song and He is the only safehouse that exists in this world.

The only safehouse

Our true safety depends on which passport we hold and to which city we belong. That is the primary message of Isaiah 26. But what does exactly does Isaiah 26 promise the people of God in our current lockdown, as we wait for COVID to pass?

Let’s think beyond our ‘safe’ middle class houses for a moment and imagine what it’s like to be God’s faithful people working in hospitals and ICU’s, pharmacies, old age homes, in the streets and the supermarkets, risking their lives to bring the viral pandemic under control. They are being sent out of their homes to protect the vulnerable. Imagine for a moment God’s people who are homeless, split from families or hooked up to a respirator fighting for their lives. The reality is that many of God’s faithful people don’t have “safe houses” to lock themselves into. But does that mean that they’re not secure or protected by God? Does that mean that they cannot “wait and hide themselves for a little” during this pandemic, or any other disaster?

Of course not! Scripture shows us that the image of hiding in our houses is a metaphor, (although very apt and sensible counsel for our time). Our hiding as Christians entails trusting that, for a little while, we suffer grief in all kinds of trials, our faith will be refined and prove genuine (1 Peter 1:6-7). It is believing that “our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Cor 4:17). Our waiting includes longing with all of creation for the earth’s final redemption (Romans 8:18-27Isa 26:16-21), as well as praying with hope in the promises of God’s word. But it also means acting lovingly for the good of others who need our help (Micah 6:8), caring not just for our own families, safe in our own homes, but for our neighbours too. Wherever we are and whatever we face in the coming weeks, we can give thanks and rejoice, because our hope, protection and safety are rooted in God’s good purposes (1 Thess 5:16-18Rom 8:28-30).

So, in answer to our big question, Are we safe in our houses? the answer is Yes and No. Staying home is the best way to flatten the curve of coronavirus in our nation, but not even Buckingham Palace was a safe place for Prince Charles! And more importantly, no one is safe from the incurable virus of sin which infects us all, not from the outside, but from the inside of every human heart. No amount of social distancing can save us. The only cure for this deadly virus is the vaccine God has provided. Jesus is the Passover Lamb that takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29).

Lockdown over this Easter period is a good time to unite as families and a nation, to reflect on how broken our world really is and how much we need a Saviour. It’s a good time for Christians to remember that we’re just campers here (1 Peter 2:11), citizens of a heavenly city with solid foundations, whose architect and builder is God (Heb 11:10). There is only one “safe house” to lock down in, and that is the house built on the Rock (Matt 7:24-27Luke 6:47-49). Jesus himself told us how this is done:

“Everyone who comes to me and hears my words and does them, I will show you what he is like: he is like a man building a house, who dug deep and laid the foundation on the rock. And when a flood arose, the stream broke against that house and could not shake it, because it had been well built. But the one who hears and does not do them is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the stream broke against it, immediately it fell, and the ruin of that house was great.”

Building on the Rock

My friends, this song of Isaiah has been a great blessing to me this week. Whether you know Christ in a personal way or not, the current State of Emergency asks us all some urgent questions. Let none of us be like those who will not learn that we’re beyond human help (Isa 26:10-11). I appeal to you to humbly ponder these questions and lock down in prayer:

  1. To what city do you belong —God’s safe city, or a flimsy city built on money, self-righteousness and pride?
  2. Do you experience the peace of a steadfast mind (Isa 26:3-4)?
  3. What are your heart’s desires (Isa 26:9)? Do you long for Christ’s salvation to reach the ends of the world? Do you yearn for His return to bring final redemption to our world? Do you live for God’s renown (Isa 26:8)? Or do you just hope for immediate relief from COVID-19 and safety in this world?

Prayer based on 1 Peter 1:3-6:

We praise you, God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! Thank you that in your great mercy, you have given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. We take safety and hope in an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade, kept in heaven for us. Protect our nation, protect our homes, especially the most vulnerable among us. Thank you that through our faith in Jesus, we are shielded by your power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. Keep us faithful as we wait in our houses for our true home, and give us grace to hide ourselves in you.

In Jesus’s name, Amen.

Do you not care that we are perishing?

Boat in distress resized Panic and fear are natural responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, as our cellphones alert us to  every advance of the viral storm on our borders, neighbourhoods and homes. Scientists estimate that between 40% and 80% of our population will be affected by the Coronavirus. But it is good to remind ourselves that we are not the pivot of history and our storm is not unique. Many plagues have stalked the planet before ours: In 260AD, Smallpox killed a third of the Roman Empire, and in 251AD a form of measles wreaked havoc on the world. In 1347 the Black Death wiped out 20 million people over five years. Then came the Plague of 1527, and a massive Cholera outbreak in London in 1854. The Spanish flu of 1918 killed over 50 million of those who managed to survive World War 1, and only five years ago, Ebola claimed 11 000 lives. Even now, billions of desert locusts are swarming in East Africa, posing a huge threat to the region’s food security.

Where is God in these great storms? Does He even care? To the naked eye, it may appear that God is powerless, asleep or indifferent to our world, if He exists at all.

These thoughts are implicit in the question that Jesus’s own disciples asked Him as they watched furious waves breaking over their fragile fishing boat: “Don’t you care that we are perishing?”

It was a personal and urgent question, since Jesus was fast asleep in the boat while they were baling water and fighting the storm. The miracle worker who’d just healed a paralytic, seemed detached and impassive to their plight. Or was He?

Today’s text is Mark 4:35-41.

On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” 36 And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him. 37 And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. 38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” 39 And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. 40 He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” 41 And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

Storms reveal faith and fear

“For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Cor 4:18).

The disciples already knew that Jesus was a powerful rabbi who taught with authority, healed the sick and cast out evil spirits with a word. They’d seen Jesus forgive the sins of a paralysed man and restore his atrophied muscles. Jesus had already shown them that he was powerful, good and wise. He was starting to reverse the chaotic effects of sin and sickness.

Yet, while the waves were breaking over their own boat, threatening to sink it, the disciples were confronted with an x-ray of their unbelief (Mark 4:40). At this stage, they did not fully grasp who Jesus was and what His Kingdom meant. Three questions in this brief story reveal their troubled hearts:

Teacher, don’t you care that we are perishing?” They accuse Jesus of indifference.

Why are you so afraid?” Jesus gently questions their panicked response.

Do you still have no faith?” Jesus probes deeper to the root of their fear.

We may know more than the disciples did on this terrifying day, but even as Christians, storms scan our hearts like giant x-ray machines and confront us with these same questions. Fear and faith are always vying for control. It’s easy to say that Jesus is the ruler of the universe generally, but it’s harder to trust him personally when the earth is moving under us. It’s easier to believe what we see with our eyes, than trust in the invisible Creator, who neither slumbers nor sleeps (Ps 121:3-5). It takes faith to trust in things not seen when the winds and waves are in our face (Heb 11:1). Storms test and grow genuine faith in Jesus.

Storms blast away our illusions of security. They expose the truth of our weak bodies, our volatile stock markets and fragile mortality. That’s exactly what the Coronavirus is doing. Apart from the immediate threat of illness, COVID-19 will have dramatic economic effects on families and communities in the coming months, perhaps years. Like believers in every storm, we are challenged to exercise our faith by caring for our neighbours’ needs and demonstrating what we believe about God’s unseen Kingdom. God’s greatest treasures are often hidden in our most difficult storms.

As clergyman James A. Aughley wrote: “As a weak limb grows stronger by exercise, so will your faith be strengthened by the very efforts you make in stretching it out towards things unseen.

Storms reveal Christ

There’s a fourth crucial question in our story. In the calm after the storm, the even more terrified disciples ask each other: “Who is this then, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” The storm forces them to question who Jesus really is and whether they can surrender their lives to him. The answer holds the key to this story.

In fact, the answer comes a chapter later from the lips of a demon-possessed hermit living among the tombs, shouting at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus Son of the Most High God?” (Mark 5:7).

The story of Jesus calming the storm is a dramatic preview of who Christ is and why He came to earth: He talks to the ferocious, life-threatening storm as if it’s a yap-dog. He literally orders the furious storm to shut up and sit down, and it obeys! Even the wild waves are tamed. It’s no wonder the disciples were even more afraid in the calm than the storm! They glimpsed the invisible Kingdom of God and sensed the presence of the King in the boat with them.

The disciples may have joined the dots more quickly than us. They knew the Old Testament symbols of turbulent waters and surging seas were pictures of spiritual and political forces that are hostile to God. When Jesus said, “Be still”, He revealed himself as God of heaven and earth, and declared war on His enemies. By overturning the forces of evil and chaos on the lake, he showed Himself to be “God of our salvation and the hope of all the ends of the earth:”

“O God of our salvation,
the hope of all the ends of the earth
and of the farthest seas…
who stills the roaring of the seas,
the roaring of their waves,
the tumult of the peoples,
so that those who dwell at the ends of the earth are in awe at your signs (Ps 65:5-8).

O Lord God of hosts,
who is mighty as you are, O Lord,
with your faithfulness all around you?
You rule the raging of the sea;
when its waves rise, you still them…
you scattered your enemies with your mighty arm. The heavens and earth are mine” (Ps 89:8-11).

In stilling the storm, Jesus showcased his invisible kingdom and His identity as King.

Don’t you care that we are perishing?

But even if Jesus rules the winds and the waves, it is still legitimate to ask if He cares. A King can be powerful, but not care for his subjects at all. Jesus answered that question himself:  “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).

The disciples’ question is full of dramatic irony. They believed that drowning that day was the worst fate they could face. Physical death was their idea of ‘perishing,’ as they watched their lives flash before them. Yet, this scene on Lake Galilee was just a drop in the ocean of what Christ would soon do to save the world from truly perishing:

To ‘perish’ is to be utterly consumed by the final, furious storm of God’s judgment against our sin (Rev 6:16). Since only Jesus can atone for sins, our only safe place is in the boat with Him. Just as Noah’s family was safe in the Ark when the Flood came, Jesus is the only and ultimate shelter from an infinitely more desperate death than drowning (Matt 24:37-39). Only those who believe in Him will be delivered when the storm of God’s wrath comes.

Jesus proved how much He cared. We only have to hear his prayer in Gethsemane, see his mutilated body on the cross, and listen to his cry of being God-forsaken, to know for sure that our faith in Jesus is well-founded. If that’s not proof that He cares, what will it take?

Let not your hearts be troubled

Jesus woke from his sleep of death to bring peace to our sinful, dysfunctional hearts. That’s the greatest miracle of all for those who put their trust in Him! And at the right time, the Lord will restore His disordered, furious, wild, turbulent and groaning creation, just as He stilled the winds and waves (Joel 2:25-26Isa 65:25Acts 3:21Rev 21:4-5).

Be still for a moment and imagine that lake after the ferocious storm. Focus on the invisible person of Christ and his unseen Kingdom. Let him tame our our worries and fears as we make them obedient to his power and love:

In every storm, we can be sure that Jesus does care for us. The Lord never slumbers or sleeps, even if it appears that way (Ps 121:41 Peter 5:7). If we’re in Christ, He’ll be in the boat with us by His Spirit, even when we die.

As we wash our hands and hunker down in our homes, we need to take this opportunity to anchor ourselves and our families in what we know is true, rather than being tossed about by every new case of COVID-19 and the uncertain future. We need to resist sensationalism and hysteria, because exercising faith means looking beyond what’s seen with the naked eye (2 Cor 4:18). Faith is seeing ourselves as a pinprick in the big storyline of Scripture: Creation, Fall, Redemption and Restoration. And faith means living now, not in fear and bewilderment, but in wisdom and the certain knowledge of what God is doing to redeem a people for himself and restore all of his Creation. Practical faith is making Jesus our secure hiding place by believing His Word and praying to him. It’s finding creative ways to care for each other as Jesus cares for us, and being always ready to give a reason for our hope in the rock-solid Kingdom of God– especially on social media! It’s the unseen things that must shape our values, our responses and everyday priorities. That’s how faith will win over fear. And that’s how our hearts will not be troubled.

“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:1-3).

Laura Story asks the question of God: “What if blessings come through rain drops? What if the rain, the storms, the hardest nights–are your mercies in disguise?”

Prayer

Lord God, thank you for caring enough that you left heaven and took the storm of judgement on our behalf on the cross. Thank you that your Word gives us many glimpses of your wonderful, eternal Kingdom, where you reign with peace, order and righteousness. Lord Jesus, keep our minds focussed on these unseen things as we navigate the challenging storm we face. Reassure our hearts that you are always with our loved ones and you care for us. Help us to look beyond ourselves to our neighbours who are physically vulnerable, or those who don’t know the peace only you can give. Teach us creative ways to love people even when we cannot make physical contact. May your invisible Kingdom govern our responses in the days ahead. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Did the Lord not make them one?

In last week’s big question (Have we not all one Father?) I wrote, “As a mirror reflects a face, our relationships reflect our religion”. If last week’s devotion was about living together as God’s sons and daughters, today’s is about living as the Bride of Christ. Once we grasp the ultimate Marriage to which all human marriages point, it should radically shape how we view marriage and romantic bonds. In the same text from Malachi, we’ll look at why faithfulness in marriage is such a big deal to God.

Malachi 2:10-16Have we not all one Father? Has not one God created us? Why then are we faithless to one another, profaning the covenant of our fathers? 11 Judah has been faithless, and a detestable thing has been committed in Israel and in Jerusalem. For Judah has profaned the sanctuary of the Lord, which he loves, and has married the daughter of a foreign god. 12 May the Lord cut off from the tents of Jacob any descendant of the man who does this, who brings an offering to the Lord of hosts! 13 And this second thing you do. You cover the Lord’s altar with tears, with weeping and groaning because he no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favor from your hand. 14 But you say, “Why does he not?” Because the Lord was witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. 15 Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union? And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and let none of you be faithless to the wife of your youth. 16 “For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her, says the Lord, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless.”

A consumer contract

Our social mentors on love, sex and marriage are training us in faithlessness. Our culture is not too different from Judah in 400BC. If TV is an indicator, it seems we’ve traded the solemn covenant of marriage for a frivolous game or consumer contract based on feelings, compatibility and self-expression. I’m thinking of shows like ‘The Bachelor/ette’, ‘Love is Blind’, ‘Married at First Sight’; ‘Say Yes to the dress’; ‘First dates’, ‘90 Day Fiancé’; ‘Love Island’, ‘Our Perfect Wedding’, ‘Boer Soek ‘n Vrou’, ‘Cheaters’, ‘Are you the one?’ and ‘Uyang’thanda Na’?

We’re obsessed with hunting down the perfect partner and arranging the perfect wedding, but no one is interested in what happens when the honeymoon is over! These series may be entertaining, but the inferences aren’t subtle: Dating and getting married is like picking out an outfit from the shopping mall. We can return or exchange it when it no longer suits our tastes. Customized vows are a celebration of how you feel about your partner at the altar, all decked out in white dress and tuxedo, but they’re as fluid as shifting sands. Falling in love, having sex and getting married appear to be no more than romantic games we play, while break-ups and divorces are the inevitable bruises we get along the way.

Like any transaction protected by the Consumer Protection Act, there’s the right to choose, to privacy, to a cooling-off period and the right to return defective goods and claim a full refund if they are “of inferior quality, unsafe or hazardous.” If Pete had married me on that basis in 1993, he would have returned me shortly after the wedding!

A covenant of one-ness

 Did the Lord not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union?” (Mal 2:14-16).

But, Malachi understood that marriage is a sacred, one-flesh covenant. Marriage and sex are God’s idea, with no resemblance to the consumer contract the people of Judah have made it. After all, it was God Himself who presided over the first perfect wedding between a man and a woman in a perfect Garden. He is the same silent witness to every marriage thereafter (Mal 2:14). That first marriage was based on serious, permanent, exclusive promises. When their bodies came together in sexual intimacy, they were one flesh, “naked and unashamed,” with each other and before God (Gen 2:24-25). No walls, secrets or fear of rejection came between them. No performance or defect in husband or wife altered their union. What a beautiful picture of one-ness in every sense, spiritual, physical, emotional and intellectual! It was not a contract based on feelings and convenience that Adam and Eve stepped into at the beginning of the world, but a covenant of lifelong companionship and committed love, regardless of feelings or circumstances. Marriage was designed for God’s glory and their good. Of course, everything changed when Adam and Eve rejected God’s order and sin came into the world, but Eden remains the prototype of what God intends marriage to be, and Jesus endorsed it (Mark 10:6-12).

We enter into the same covenant of faithful love when we make marriage vows to each other. Let these promises sink in for a moment:

“I take you to be my wife/husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part, according to God’s holy law, in the presence of God I make this vow.”

Is this how we understand marriage and sex, or have we bought into the counterfeit version peddled by our culture?

Let no one separate

Jesus said, “So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate” (Mark 10:8-9).

Neither does the Bible allow us to separate our earthly marriage vows from our relationship with the Lord. Even our prayers may be hindered if we fail to honour our marriage partner (1 Peter 3:7).  That’s because we cannot separate earthly marriage from the great love story between God and His people. Human marriage was created to be a living, tangible image of that ultimate Covenant of faithful love between the Lord and His ‘treasured possession’ (Mal 3:17).

This interconnection explains Malachi’s outrage that Jewish men were marrying pagan women and rejecting their covenant wives. Three times he calls for faithfulness to the “wife of their youth” (Mal 2:1415b). Their adultery is living proof of their treachery to the Lord, who redeemed them as a people, loved them as a husband and longed to rejoice over them as a bridegroom over his bride (Isa 54:562: 5).

In fact, an entire book of the Bible personifies the Lord’s redemptive love towards his adulterous people, and it is written in the language of marriage:

I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion. 20 I will betroth you in faithfulness, and you will acknowledge the Lord….The Lord said to me, “Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another man and is an adulteress. Love her as the Lord loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods and love the sacred raisin cakes” (Hosea 2:19-203:1).

Judah had broken their relationship to God by looking for protection, fulfillment and pleasure in the arms of a foreign god, instead of returning to the one true God, the Lord who had always loved them (Mal 1:2).

Returning to the Groom

While it’s impossible to fully grasp the profound mystery of the ‘marriage’ between Christ and those who follow Him as Lord, we do know that Jesus described heaven as a wedding feast for God’s own Son and he invited everyone to come inside (Matt 22:2-13). We also know that Jesus himself is the Groom of the Old Testament and his bride is his people throughout history (Matt 9:15Mark 2:19Eph 5:2732). Like any loving husband, Jesus is jealous for our love and purity. He vows to present us spotless when He returns to take us home to live with him forever (Rev 19:7-9Rev 21:222:17). So it doesn’t matter whether we are single, married, divorced or widowed, every forgiven Christian is Christ’s treasured possession, his bride (1 Peter 2:9).

We can also be sure that we didn’t become Christ’s bride by performance, perfection or moral purity, but only because we responded in repentance to his greatest act of love towards us—his death on the cross. It was no commercial transaction, but a one-sided covenant of grace and forgiveness. All we had to do was repent, believe and receive his mercy (1 Peter 2:10).

Wearing the wedding clothes

We can be certain that God’s Son, our Bridegroom, is busy building a place in which his bride will live with him forever. Only the Bridegroom can provide the wedding dress of “fine linen, bright and clean” for the wedding supper (Revelation 19:7-9Matt 22:11-13). That’s why we need to confess our sin and ask to be cleansed and made one of his own.

For Christian couples, our marriages are dim pictures of what’s to come, but they are powerful drafts of how we make each other ready for the wedding supper of the Lamb. Are you playing an active part in the Lamb’s wedding preparations? If the Bridegroom returned today, would you and your spouse be ready?

If grace and repentance are required to attend God’s heavenly wedding, they are also the only way to live as husband and wife. Each time we break the one-ness of our covenant by being selfish, harsh or disloyal it is only genuine repentance and forgiveness that can redeem our bond. Reaching out to one another in grace and repentance can be hard and painful, but not nearly as miserable as an estranged marriage, or the anguish of divorce. Of course, there are Biblical concessions for divorce, but it should never be a first resort (Mark 10:5Matthew 19:91 Cor 7:15).

Guarding the spirit

Malachi warns us to guard our spirit, not just our actions. That’s because faithlessness begins in the heart and mind, and runs much deeper than cheating on your spouse (Matt 5:2228). Through pornography, anger or sulking we can break faith with our marriage partner, even if we don’t take a step out of the house. We are all guilty of faithlessness in one way or another.

To guard our marriage, we need to turn back to the ultimate Bridegroom over and over again to receive his mercy. Only when our hearts are devoted to Jesus, will we listen to him and value what matters to Him. Only He can make you a considerate husband who honours, protects and helps your wife to become all that God intends her to be (1 Peter 3:7Eph 5:27-32). Only reverence for Jesus can give a wife inner beauty and the grace to submit happily to her husband, even if he’s unbelieving or harsh (1 Peter 3:1-5). Only with Christ’s help can we raise children who love the Lord, as single or united parents. Only when a single person is faithful to Jesus as their Groom, can they be sexually steadfast and marry only a believer (1 Cor 7:392 Cor 6:14). It is only the ultimate Bridegroom who can knit a faithless man and woman together as spiritual companions, so that they nudge each other a step closer to Him every day. The kind of self-giving love needed to make our marriages beautiful, is unnatural to us and flows only from Christ who submitted to his Father, even to death, that we may be saved.

Like a garden, a nurtured marriage will grow and be fruitful, but left to itself, it will grow wild or die. If our faithless, wandering hearts are prone to think the grass is greener on the other side, let’s get busy watering our own garden.

P.S

The feature photograph is of my grandparents, Charles and Muriel Brand, who lived to celebrate their 70th wedding anniversary. I distinctly remember watching them in their kitchen at the end of their lives, Grandpa at the Magimix blending ingredients so my blind gran could serve her famous chicken liver paté. She was his megaphone at the dinner table when his deaf ears could no longer follow the conversation! Although my gran was an eccentric nutcase, my grandfather showed us what it means to delight in the wife of his youth. Apart from a four-year separation during World War 2, they cherished each other till death parted them at the age of 96, within five months of each other.

Excellent resource

Marriage Supper of the Lamb” is the last in a series by Timothy Keller which greatly refreshed Pete and my marriage. Listen to all 9 messages with your spouse or the person you hope to marry, so that you don’t settle for anything less than marriage as God intended. (Click here)

Have we not all one Father?

This is the first in a series titled “Big Questions.” I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but almost every page of the Bible is full of questions. Questions from man to God, questions from God to man, honest questions we dare not speak aloud, revealing and challenging questions. Over the coming weeks I hope to explore some of these big questions in their context. My prayer is that their answers will shape how we live out what we believe in real life. I do hope you’ll stay with us for this journey!

Today’s question, “Have we not all one Father?” is from Malachi, the last book of the Old Testament. In 430BC, the prophet Malachi fires four questions at the covenant people of God: “Have we not all one Father? Has not one God created us? Why then are we faithless to one another, profaning the covenant of our fathers?” Concerning marriage, he asks, “Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union?” In our text, Malachi asks probing questions that are just as relevant to God’s people living in a faithless world today. He urges us to stop messing about with shows of religion, but to ‘guard ourselves in our spirit’ and honour our marriage partners and fellow believers. That is how we honour the Father who first loved us and joined us together in a covenant of adoption through his Son. As a mirror reflects a face, our relationships reflect our religion. There’s no way to divorce our relationship with God from our earthly relationships, especially the most unique and intimate union of all—Marriage. Let’s pray that we would live out our identity as children of God so that the truth of the gospel is visible in our relationships.

Malachi 2:10-16

10“Have we not all one Father? Has not one God created us? Why then are we faithless to one another, profaning the covenant of our fathers?”  11 Judah has been faithless, and abomination has been committed in Israel and in Jerusalem. For Judah has profaned the sanctuary of the Lord, which he loves, and has married the daughter of a foreign god. 12 May the Lord cut off from the tents of Jacob any descendant of the man who does this, who brings an offering to the Lord of hosts!

13 And this second thing you do. You cover the Lord’s altar with tears, with weeping and groaning because he no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favor from your hand. 14 But you say, “Why does he not?” Because the Lord was witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. 15 Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union? And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and let none of you be faithless to the wife of your youth. 16 “For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her, says the Lord, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless.”

One faithful Father

“I have loved you,” says the Lord…My covenant with Levi was one of life and peace (Mal 1:2Mal 2:5). That’s the launch pad of Malachi’s oracle to the people of Judah in 430BC and the backdrop of our text today. We cannot give a whole answer to Malachi’s question unless we look through the lens of God’s covenant with His people through Abraham, Moses…and the perfect and final Mediator—Jesus Christ.

Malachi is reminding Judah that Yahweh has been completely faithful and true to them. He has loved them with an everlasting love. He is no tyrant or killjoy. Instead, God’s rule brings life and freedom to those who live under it. It is a covenant designed to promote human flourishing, not to stifle expression. Malachi cuts through the smoke and mirrors of their empty religion to expose three ways in which the people have despised God’s love and shown contempt for His covenant of life and peace.

  1. They broke trust in their dealings with each other (Mal 2:10).
  2. They married women who didn’t believe in the one true God, cutting off a godly legacy for future generations (Mal 2:11-12).
  3. They were unfaithful to their wives, trading them in for more desirable pagan women (Mal 2:14-16).

Yet, all the while they worshipped God with tears and brought Him their half-hearted offerings. They expected their God to save and bless them, but lived as though they were not accountable to Him (Mal 2:13). This was like groundhog day—a repeated pattern of faithlessness, hypocrisy and idolatry throughout the Old Testament.

Yet, over and over again the Lord calls the faithless to return to Him and be healed. Through another prophet (Jeremiah), God likens Himself to a despised father and the rejected husband of a faithless wife:

“I said,
How I would set you among my sons,
and give you a pleasant land,
a heritage most beautiful of all nations.
And I thought you would call me, My Father,
and would not turn from following me.

20 Surely, as a treacherous wife leaves her husband,
so have you been treacherous to me, O house of Israel,
declares the Lord…’”

22 “Return, O faithless sons;
I will heal your faithlessness.” (Jer 3:19)

Despite the faithlessness of Judah, Malachi foresees a day when the “sun of righteousness will come with healing in its wings” for those who fear God’s name. It’s the picture of God’s rule of life and peace being restored among his people and families being reconciled (Mal 4:2-5). Four hundred years after Malachi’s prophecy, the New Testament reveals God as Father, not of every person who is physically born, but those born again in Christ (John 1:13).We become sons and daughters of God when we know ourselves to be faithless, treacherous sinners and put our trust in the only faithful Son who ever lived—the Lord Jesus Christ. When He becomes our sin-bearer and master, we become Abraham’s seed, co-heirs bound together in God’s family forever (Gal 3:26Gal 4:5-7). It’s the covenant of adoption that allows us to call God “Abba! Father!” And it’s this covenant that is the bedrock of what it means to be a Christian in our relationships.

The covenant of adoption

J.I Packer describes the staggering implications of being a son or daughter of God:

“What is a Christian? The richest answer I know is that a Christian is one who has God as Father….Do I, as a Christian, understand myself? Do I know my own real identity? My own real destiny? I am a child of God. God is my Father; heaven is my home; every day is one day nearer. My Saviour is my brother. Every Christian is my brother or sister too…This is the Christian’s secret of a Christian life and of a God-honouring life.” (Knowing God).

My dad has handwritten Packer’s little manifesto for each of his grandchildren, to remind them of who they are, wherever they might be in the world. The covenant of adoption speaks radically to how we treat other believers (Mal 2:10) and how we see marriage (Mal 2:11-16).

God cares how we treat other believers

In the context of our adoption as God’s sons and daughters, being ‘faithless’ and ‘profaning the covenant’ is not just about lying or cheating one another, but also about failing to honour our spiritual siblings. There are many subtle attitudes and blatant behaviours that destroy family bonds and break faith between us. If the Church is Christ’s beloved Bride—then an insult towards a spiritual brother or sister is an injury to the Lord Himself. We’re a preview of God’s heavenly kingdom to the world around us, whether true or distorted. That’s why dismissive, disrespectful and scornful attitudes have no place amongst Christians, even if we disagree with each other.

On the flip side, we have the prototype of our Father and older brother to imitate in our dealings with each other: Faithful in care and mercy. Generous and interested in all that we do. Wise and available to help us. Patient with our weaknesses. Loyal friend and encouraging coach who sticks with us even when we mess up again and again. Father who disciplines us and runs towards us when others run away. Friend of faithless, unworthy sinners like ourselves. Our Father intends for this kind of faithful love to be the signature of his covenant children too (1 John 2:9-113:10-174:7).

As a parent, I know how much pleasure it gives me when my children treat each other with kindness, but I also know how it grieves me when they fight and refuse to say sorry or forgive. We’ve all seen how the actions and words of one child can greatly harm or help the whole family. Children give joy or grief to their parents by their attitude to one another. It’s the same in God’s covenant family.

If you and I think that we are eternally secure children of God, justified by faith alone, but we refuse to allow Jesus to rule over our human relationships, we must ask ourselves if we are showing the fruits of true repentance (Luke 3:8-11). Jesus himself asks us this in his parable of the rich man and Lazarus the beggar (Luke 16:19-31). The complacent Pharisees insisted that Abraham was their father, but Jesus replied, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the works Abraham did” (John 8:39).

The Bible is not ambiguous about the ‘works’ that befit those who share a spiritual Father. Let’s meditate on some of them now as we respond to Malachi’s big question: “Have we not all one Father?

Speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ (Ephesians 4:15).

But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness (1 Timothy 6:11).

Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom (James 3:13).

The Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, 25 with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth. (2 Timothy 2:24-25 NASB).

Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near (Philippians 4:5).

Prayer based on Ephesians 4:2-6:

Our Father in heaven, help us to be humble and gentle like our older brother Jesus. Give us grace to be patient, making allowance for each other’s faults because of your great love for us. Help us to be led along together by the Holy Spirit and so be at peace with one another. Lord, remind us that we are all parts of one body, we have the same Spirit, and we have all been called to the same glorious future. For us there is only one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and we all have the same God and Father who is over us all and in us all, and living through every part of us. In Jesus’ name and for His sake, Amen.

Next week’s devotion: Did He not make them one?

Please join us next week as we look at the second big issue from our text—Why marriage matters.

Disciples are witnesses

Every follower of Jesus is appointed and equipped to be His witness in the world. We’re witnesses even if we haven’t seen Christ’s miracles with our own eyes, heard his voice, touched His resurrected body or watched him ascend into heaven as King. If we call ourselves Christians, we are His witnesses, whether we like it or not. It’s just a matter of what kind of witness. Witnessing is not just for those original eye-witnesses in the first century or the few super-spiritual, extrovert Christians who lead our local church. Every believer whose mind has been opened by the Holy Spirit is a witness to the greatest true story of all time. No matter what our personality, the Holy Spirit will empower us to testify of what God has done through Christ. The great anomaly is that God’s Kingdom will advance in power to the ends of the earth through weak witnesses like ourselves. Let’s allow the Lord to show us a panorama of his global mission, so that we can take our place in it as faithful, Spirit-empowered witnesses. Today’s texts are from the end of Luke and beginning of Acts:

(Luke 24:45-49): Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”

(Acts 1:3-8): After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”

Off with the blinkers!

The original eye-witnesses of the resurrection asked Jesus a reasonable question given their context: “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:5)

It was a legitimate question given the fact that their minds had just been opened to see that Jesus was the long-awaited suffering Servant. What’s more, Christ had risen from the dead and said that they were on the verge of a great outpouring of the Spirit, as the prophets had promised (Micah 4:6-8Joel 2:28-32). Jesus’s Jewish disciples were desperately waiting for David’s King to free them from oppressive Roman rule, to gather and and restore Israel’s greatness. Surely that’s what the Spirit’s power was for? Perhaps Jesus was following the script after all!

But Jesus lifted their blinkers one inch at a time. There’s an overlap of 40 days at the end of Luke’s gospel and the beginning of Acts, between Jesus’s resurrection and his ascension. It must have been six weeks of stunning revelation as Jesus appeared to his disciples, ate with them and connected the Old Testament promises to His death and resurrection. He was opening the curtain to show them how the Kingdom of God would advance when He was no longer physically with them.

Jesus’ answer to their question is in Acts 1:8. It’s as though he takes them up a mountain and breaks open their narrow nationalistic perspective. He shows them a panorama of God’s vast Kingdom and its global mission which extends far beyond the borders of Jerusalem and the state of Israel. He won’t allow his disciples to speculate about the future unknowns, but rather tells them to get on with the certainty of building God’s kingdom in the meantime. This is the ‘known’ Jesus reveals: The Holy Spirit will empower them for Christ’s worldwide mission of proclaiming the gospel. The disciples are to be the true, restored Israel and a light for the Gentiles, so that God’s salvation might reach to the ends of the earth (the nations) as the Old Testament prophets had foreseen (Isa 49:6). This is exactly what those early witnesses did throughout the book of Acts, as thousands of Jews believed in David’s promised King, then Samaritans, a Roman centurion called Cornelius and his family, and complete outsiders like the Ethiopian eunuch and Gentiles. Just as Isaiah foretold (Acts 4:4Acts 8:510:34-3513:4715:1Isa 56:4)…

Seek first the Kingdom of God

If we are Christ’s disciples, we too must hear Jesus’ answer in verse 8! Like the disciples, we also love certainty and are prone to get caught up in useless questions of when and how Christ will return. We are exposed to many preachers and writers today who seem more obsessed about predicting the signs of the times than proclaiming the gospel clearly. They seldom speak about sin or our desperate need of a Saviour. Then there are the self-styled ‘anointed men of God’ who mimic the power of the Holy Spirit to extend their own petty kingdoms rather than Christ’s.

We too need to take off our personal blinkers and ask what it really means to be an emissary of Christ, before whom every knee will bow. Jesus reminds us that no one knows the day or hour when He will return as Judge and King of the whole world (Matt 24:36Mark 13:32). But His return and rule are certainties, and in the meantime we’re to let down our nets, sow the seed of the word, keep the oil burning in our lamps and work in his harvest fields— At home and across the world. Let’s take care not to get so caught up with our personal dreams and ambitions; our own church and nationalistic interests, or our personal hobbyhorses about the future, that we are oblivious to the many unreached people groups around the world. If Christ is Lord of all, we are first and foremost citizens of His eternal kingdom and His witnesses to the world.

“Clothed with power”

It’s not education, affluence or military strength that advances Christ’s kingdom to the ends of the earth, but power from on high. The disciples needed to wait for the Holy Spirit in the city of Jerusalem before they launched out into the nations (Luke 24:47). But when the Spirit’s power was poured out on them, the terrified, uneducated disciples became bold witnesses of the gospel. Steven died a brave, Christ-exulting death, and Saul the murderer became Paul the greatest missionary who ever lived. Over and over again, the apostles testified about Jesus to ordinary and great people (Acts 24:223:155:3210:3910:4113:31). The Holy Spirit convinced and convicted hearts, so that thousands bowed before the King of kings.

Even today, the Holy Spirit prepares hearts to accept the truth. He equips and leads Christ’s witnesses. He gives us deep confidence about who Jesus is and the courage to speak out and even suffer for our testimony. The Spirit still gives us grace, faith and irresistible words of wisdom, like He gave Steven. He still teaches us what to say when we are opposed and stumbling for words (Acts 6:5-8Luke 12:11-12). Without His power, our best efforts to witness will fail.

“You will be my witnesses”

A ‘witness’ is not just a convert, but a disciple who represents and speaks for Christ as King and Saviour to the world. Even though we live 2000 years later, we can still be truthful, Spirit-filled witnesses if we speak plainly about what we know about Jesus and what He means to us. One of the most credible witnesses in the Bible is the demon-possessed man called Legion, who was once naked, tormented by demons, homeless and lived among the tombs. After Jesus freed him, he sat at Christ’s feet, clothed and in his right mind. He begged to stay with His Saviour, but Jesus sent him out saying, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” And he went away, proclaiming throughout the whole city how much Jesus had done for him” (Luke 8:39). That’s a lovely picture of an authentic witness! We too have a wealth of blessings in Christ to share with the whole city. Like Legion, we have experienced the mercy and grace of Jesus’s forgiveness. We now know His peace and love instead of alienation. The invisible God has revealed himself to us through His Son. We have a bridge to the Father through the cross of Jesus. What a wonderful testimony! If Jesus appointed Legion as his witness, surely we can be his witnesses too?

Prayer

Lord, help us to walk in the power of the Holy Spirit and take the gospel to our neighbours, our city, our nation and the world. Clothe us with power from on high and teach us what to say when we’re given an opportunity. Show us where we can build a gospel oasis in our family, workplace, school, university and city. Root us deeply in serving our local church and make us holy, so that our lives always reflect our witness. Lord, may your kingdom come on earth! Give us a heart for your mission to the ends of the earth. Fill us with the wonder of your salvation and then lead us to become witnesses to the unreached people of our world. In the name of Jesus, our Saviour and King, Amen.

Making disciples one seed at a time

My dad became a follower of Jesus in 1964. His unlikely conversion followed many months of weekly one-on-one meetings with an Anglican minister called Warwick Seymour in a little mining town called Carletonville. But the seed was first sown by a visiting preacher from London by the name of Dick Lucas. My dad says he can’t remember the sermon at all, but afterwards Lucas said something that troubled my dad greatly. Here’s the interchange as recorded in my dad’s biography, Branded by Grace:

“I stood there feeling out of place. All these holy Joes—not my types. The visitor walked up to me in the foyer after his address and introduced himself. He asked me who I was and what I did.

“I’m an engineer,” I replied.

“Are you a Christian?”

Gulping, I paused before responding, “Ja, well I try to be!”

“That’s impossible!” said Dick Lucas with a penetrating, piercing gaze…” (Branded by Grace, p70).

That short conversation with Dick Lucas left my dad feeling so exposed and uneasy that he was prompted to make an appointment with the resident minister to express his offence. It was this local pastor, Warwick Seymour, who watered and weeded my dad’s seedling faith. He removed the rocks of his objections and misconceptions. He walked him through the pages of Scripture and showed him why his best efforts to be a Christian would never be good enough. Then he led dad to the Saviour who changed his life irrevocably. This joint effort by two of Christ’s disciples generated a harvest that reaches down the generations. But ultimately we must look beyond the human sowers to the Farmer himself: It was God who enabled my dad to understand and receive his Word as truth; to personally confess that only Jesus has the authority to forgive sins; to ask His forgiveness in return for life and hope; to surrender his life to Christ as Lord. It was God who prepared the soil and germinated the seed in my dad’s heart. He alone is Lord of the harvest.

Five years after this great miracle, I was born, the last of four children. Warwick Seymour became my godfather and every year he gave me Bible stories and Christian books with a personal note scrawled on the front page. The message of those books had a powerful impact on my life because they spoke the truth of who Jesus is and how I could respond to Him, even as a small child. Once again, the powerful word produced a crop.

When I discovered the internet many years later, I decided to google the British man who had first scattered those seeds of truth in a backwater town in 1964. I discovered that Dick Lucas was a famous preacher with a huge church in London and many hundreds of sermons recorded online. I was curious about the man who had accepted an invitation to preach to a handful of people in a tiny parish on the West Rand, so began my own journey of listening to his sermons. I never forget the first message I heard from a series to businessmen in central London. It was on Jesus’ parable of the Sower, aptly titled “The Powerful Seed”. This parable has profoundly shaped the way I understand how disciples are made.

This is the parable of the Sower recorded by Luke. You will also find it in Mark 4 and Matthew 13:

And when a great crowd was gathering and people from town after town came to him, he said in a parable, “A sower went out to sow his seed. And as he sowed, some fell along the path and was trampled underfoot, and the birds of the air devoured it. And some fell on the rock, and as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up with it and choked it. And some fell into good soil and grew and yielded a hundredfold.” As he said these things, he called out, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

And when his disciples asked him what this parable meant, 10 he said, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but for others they are in parables, so that ‘seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.’ 11 Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. 12 The ones along the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. 13 And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe for a while, and in time of testing fall away. 14 And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature. 15 As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience. (Luke 8:4-15).

Led by the sower

A sower went out to sow his seed” (Luke 8:5). This statement at the beginning of the parable tells us the simple but supernatural means by which God’s kingdom comes to earth. Disciples are made when the word of God is proclaimed and received in the power of the Holy Spirit. We may get involved in all sorts of useful ministries, but the word is the centre pivot in God’s redemption plan. The word is the sprinkler system of Christ’s witness in the world.

In the context of this parable, Jesus is the proverbial sower who shows us what it looks like to sow seed. He spent three years of his life sharing the message of the kingdom with varied results. He modelled how to be generous and open-hearted while scattering the seeds of the kingdom of God from one town to another, being rejected by some hearers and accepted gladly by others (Luke 6:117:9). We might think it’s reckless to throw away seed on soil that’s unproductive, rocky and arid, but Jesus did it anyway. He didn’t avoid undeserving people, but preached and taught the good news of the kingdom in all manner of ways, and with great hope and power (Luke 8:14). He trained his disciples to do likewise when He left them (Acts 1:8Matt 28:18-20).

Ultimately, the church is called to sow the seed of the gospel in the hardest, most weed-ridden, sin-soaked soils of the human heart. After all, that was the state of our own hearts before the Holy Spirit turned them from stone to flesh (Ezekiel 36:26). It is not our right to guess which soils look soft and fertile, or to select the seed we think most suitable to grow. We are called to speak only the truth God has given us in the Bible, to do so liberally, and then to trust the Lord who owns the lands and the harvest.

“If God’s word gets into the soil of your heart and mine, there’s no telling what God will do” (Dick Lucas).

The priority and power of the seed

The hundred-fold harvest of Jesus’ parable began on the day of Pentecost. It was not the spectacular signs that convinced people, but Peter’s long, Spirit-led sermon that cut 3000 Jews to the heart and brought them to their knees in repentance and faith (Acts 2:37). Luke tells us that it was “with many words” that Peter bore witness and exhorted his hearers to save themselves from their crooked generation (Acts 2:40). “Those who received his word” were the good soil that heard the word and “held it fast” that day (Acts 2:41Luke 8:15). In turn, these converts returned to scatter the gospel in their homelands all over the world.

All through the book of Acts, we see the same pattern of the spirit-filled word of truth spawning disciples everywhere (Acts 4:4;13Acts 8:4-5Acts 12:24). After the disciples made the preaching of the word a priority, even hostile priests heard the word and believed (Acts 6:2;7).

He who has ears

Words in themselves are not powerful or magical. Even the Bible itself has no power to redeem a person who doesn’t see the face of Jesus in its pages (John 5:39-40). But when the Spirit of God shines in our hearts to show us who Jesus is, there’s no limit to what Spirit-led words can do. As disciples, it may seem like our seeds are small and our words are weak, but we must remember that it is God who makes a plant grow (1 Cor 3:6-7). The thriving harvest in Jesus’ parable is not produced by our intelligence, rhetoric or wit, but by speaking the truth of the gospel simply and clearly, in formal and informal ways. It may be through preaching and teaching, but it may also be through writing, praying, an everyday conversation or message on a phone, even through a song. It is this conviction that should keep us scattering the message week after week, over a lifetime, no matter how few or many respond. Let’s also admit that our own rocky and thorn-infested hearts are often hard of hearing and not always receptive and ready to apply the gospel to our lives. Let’s ask the Holy Spirit to help us to truly listen and love the truth of God’s Word, so that it will grow a deep root and produce abundant fruit in our lives. Then we will sow back the seed into the hearts of others.

 

Pray

Father, you know that my heart is far from the good soil described in your parable. I am often dull to your Word and slow to respond to even what I do understand. You know that I’m often defensive and unwilling to change, too disengaged and preoccupied with the cares of life to listen and absorb your truth. Holy Spirit, open my heart to see the beauty of the gospel of grace and the empty, dead souls all around me. Stir me to speak your truth in unredeemed places and please prepare the soils. Give me conviction to keep scattering the seeds you’ve given me until the final harvest or the day you take me home. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Am I a distracted or devoted disciple?

It’s easy for us to look through a 21st century lens and miss the full weight of what it means to be a disciple who makes disciples. The Greek word for ‘disciple’ means ‘learner,’ but discipleship in the 1st century went far beyond the walls of a classroom. A disciple was someone apprenticed to shadow a teacher in order to learn a certain way of thinking and living in the world. For a first century Jew, being a disciple meant rigorous training of the mind to learn certain truths from a rabbi. But it also meant learning a person— his wisdom and how he applied those truths to complex issues of life and death. It involved careful watching, listening, practising and asking questions to grasp and live out the teaching. That’s how those first disciples would have understood Jesus’ invitation to come and follow him. By binding themselves to Jesus constantly, they would learn and imitate his ways. Although the original 12 disciples were all men, many women were also devoted followers of Jesus (Luke 8:1-3), a scandal for a rabbi in middle-Eastern Jewish patriarchal culture. Sisters, Mary and Martha, were two such women. One day Jesus visited and enjoyed a meal in their home in Bethany. Luke’s short account cuts to the heart of discipleship and asks three questions of all of us who call ourselves Christ’s disciples:

Do I have a teachable heart?

Have I fallen into the trap of a performance-driven life?

Am I a devoted or distracted disciple?

“Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. 39 And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. 40 But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, 42 but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:38-42).

A teachable disciple

Attentiveness is a key trait of any disciple. Mary’s posture of sitting at Jesus’ feet, hungry to learn, reveals a teachable spirit. She comes to Jesus empty and expectant, waiting for him to fill her with his words of truth. This was the same Mary who had anointed the Lord Jesus with expensive ointment and wiped his feet with her hair (John 12:1-811:2). She was a devoted disciple who treasured Jesus more than anything. She hung onto His every word and listened to what He had to say about his upcoming death and resurrection, while other disciples were bickering about the cost of her alabaster jar of perfume (Matt 26:8-13). Mary had no doubt that the “one thing necessary” was to be where God had chosen to reveal himself — at the feet of his Son. Resting in her relationship with Jesus, she wasn’t driven or distracted by other demands or the perfection of a transient meal.

Mary’s attentive ear reminds me of the prophet Isaiah’s invitation 700 years earlier: “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food (Isa 55:2).” Mary knew that the Bread of life was in her house and His nourishment was of eternal worth. That’s why she chose to sit at her Lord’s feet and listen to His teaching.

A performance-driven disciple

I’m sure you’re sympathetic with Martha, like I am! That’s probably because she reminds us a lot of ourselves. Isn’t hospitality a noble act for any follower of Christ? (Heb 13:2) Wouldn’t you also want to impress God’s Messiah with a wonderful dinner in your home? But Martha made a real meal of the task and soon got grumpy with her sister and her guest for allowing her to run herself ragged in the kitchen! Martha’s devotion to service eclipsed her devotion to Jesus himself, and soon she felt like a slave “distracted with much serving” (Luke 10:40).

Don’t we all know the frazzled and fragmented response that creeps over us when we allow our household affairs and family, our work and leisure, even our good Christian ministry, draw us away from our devotion to Jesus?

Martha made hospitality the “one thing necessary,” instead of the person of Jesus.

But Jesus saw the heart behind her service and loved his friend enough to confront her (John 11:5). Perhaps he knew Martha was driven by a quest to live up to her own standards as the perfect hostess or for approval, which soon morphed into demanding duty instead of joyful service.

“Lord, don’t your care?” is exactly the same accusation the disciples voiced in the boat when Jesus slept through the storm. It’s the same bitter tone of the older brother’s question in the parable of the prodigal son (Mark 4:38Luke 15:29-30). Life never seems fair and contentment is elusive to the performance-driven person.

Jesus reads Martha’s distracted heart and makes a gentle but direct diagnosis—“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but only one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her”(Luke 10:41-42). An apt warning for us too if we are distracted disciples!

Devoted to the good portion

Jesus’s observation of Mary and Martha cuts right to the heart of discipleship, even in the 21st century. What is the “good portion” to which Mary was devoted?

In the Psalms, David gives us a clue: “The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot…My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Psalm 16:573:26). Old Testament believers understood that only God could save, provide, counsel and protect them. He was the source of their inheritance as the people of God—their promised blessings in this world and forever. The covenant-God was their shield and very great reward, not the blessings themselves (Gen 15:1 NIV). John Piper describes what it means for a believer to say that the Lord is my chosen portion:

“If there are a hundred portions of food and drink spread out on the table, and one of them is the Lord himself — he is my choice. Nothing satisfies — nothing nourishes and sustains — the way he does. He is my greatest good. My treasure of all treasures. My highest pleasure. My chosen portion of sirloin. My cup of finest wine… In other words, when the dice are rolled, and the straws are drawn, and the wheel is turned — whatever happens to us comes from the hand of God. God holds my lot. God decides it. God rules over it. God is my sovereign, and I am glad to have it so. I don’t just affirm it stoically; I exult in it.”

When Jesus praised Mary’s devotion, He was also making a potent statement about Himself as God’s Son: “am the gift of God’s sovereign grace! I am your supreme, everlasting inheritance! Martha, if am your portion, you need nothing else. My grace is sufficient if you find your rest in me, not in your works.”

If you are a disciple, Jesus’ yoke of training and service is always undergirded by rest and relationship in Him. As co-heirs with Jesus, we have God’s forgiveness, full approval and the blessings of His Kingdom. Our performance means nothing if it doesn’t spring from devotion.

Work with a posture like Mary

As Jesus’s disciples today, we need to learn a radically different way of living that only Jesus can teach us. In our digital age, endless distractions will threaten that diligent training. That’s why we have to catch ourselves when our daily quiet time, Church, Life group or family meals begin to slide off the wagon of our hectic lives. Disciples need time to learn and think and grapple with what Jesus was like—the Son of God who came to show us the Father and Creator of the universe. To listen to Him, we need to read and digest his Word, the Bible, in nourishing chunks, rather than nibbling titbits to keep us going another day. We need to carve out time to think through how to apply God’s truth to our lives and to pray deeply, alone and together. If even Jesus needed to withdraw into remote places to spend time with His Father, sometimes praying all night (Luke 5:166:129:1811:1), surely He’s our example to imitate?

Of course, the context of this story also doesn’t allow us to opt for a life of meditation and mysticism, seeking ‘spirituality’ as we spot dolphins from the beach! Our previous devotions in Luke 4 and Luke 14 show us that Jesus doesn’t call disciples to a life of comfort, nor to a cloister or pure academia, but He invites us to join Him in his work as fruitful fishers of men. In fact, when Jesus visited Mary and Martha, he had just sent 72 disciples into the towns on foot as “lambs among wolves” to heal the sick and preach the gospel (Luke 10:1-11). He’d just praised the Good Samaritan, whose love for God and his neighbour demanded costly service, not just words and good intentions (Luke 10:33-35). Mary herself lived an active life of secure and confident faith.

But in this story of the two sisters, Jesus is reminding us that disciples must first gather at His feet and listen attentively to his truth and teaching. Only then can we be sent into active service. A disciple must remain a lifelong learner, because we cannot give what we do not have.

Prayer (Psalm 73)

Yet I am always with you;
you hold me by my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel,
and afterward you will take me into glory.
Whom have I in heaven but you?
And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart
and my portion forever.

In Jesus’ name, amen.

Discipleship: No hidden costs

“Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple… In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples” (Luke 14:2733).

Have you ever started renovating a house, armed with zeal, grand plans and an impressive bank balance, only to realize months later that you’ve got neither a roof over your head nor funds to complete it? Unlike commercial contracts, there are no provisos or hidden costs in becoming a disciple of Jesus. Nor are there amendments, fine print and addendums attached. Unlike the White Witch of Narnia with her box of turkish delight, Jesus doesn’t entice or manipulate us to follow Him with fake promises of power, prestige or pleasure. Instead, he presents us with the whole deal up front and the preamble states that discipleship involves suffering and dying. He assures us that it won’t be easy.

Discipleship is a way of life, not a program or stage in the Christian life. No matter what our age or generation, the goal of being a Christian is always to follow Jesus as our greatest Treasure. It is to be with Him, to trust and learn from Him as Deliverer, Teacher and Friend to the end. But if Jesus himself is our great reward, He is also the suffering Servant-King who demands surrender of our whole heart in undiluted, unswerving devotion. All other allegiances are secondary. Jesus’s terms remain the same for disciples today, even if we don’t literally risk our lives to proclaim the gospel or attend church on Sunday. Today we will look at two ways we must accept Christ’s call to die and to live with him, a call that will bring suffering but much more joy. Our text is Luke 14:25-33:

Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: 26 “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. 27 And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

28 “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? 29 For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, 30 saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’

31 “Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Won’t he first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? 32 If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace. 33 In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.

  1. Dying to my comfort

It’s always been costly and uncomfortable to pursue the person and mission of Jesus, who carried his own cross and paid everything to purchase us as His own. We walk in Christ’s steps, and his path led to suffering in Jerusalem before rising in triumph from the tomb. The earliest disciples literally gave everything they had to follow Jesus– their possessions, community and lives. It’s still the same for many of our Christian brothers and sisters across the world today. (Click for sermon on the cost of discipleship)

But the danger for us living in a country where freedom of worship and association are protected is that we may be lulled into thinking that there is no cost to discipleship. Our modern individualist culture makes us believe that Church is somewhere we go to feel good about ourselves. At times we may feel guilty about our comfortable middle-class life and wonder whether we’re giving up anything for the sake of Christ. We may be asking ourselves, “What cross is Jesus calling me to bear?” The Bible narrative shows us that not every disciple follows Jesus in exactly the same way, but every disciple must die to whatever competes for our devotion to Christ and his gospel. We must crucify our idols, so that we are freed to become Christ’s disciples who make disciples. My greatest idol is comfort.

After forty years I’m still learning that my greatest joy comes when my heart is undivided and Jesus is in first place, before and above every other attachment, purpose or comfort. Before and above my home, my security, my money, my family, my holiday, my schedule and my convenience. Ironically, the greater the apparent cost to my comfort, the more intense the joy of following in Jesus’s steps, even when the path is hard or tiring. Conversely, I’m most dissatisfied and restless when I’m living like salt that’s lost its saltiness, insipid and wavering in my loyalty to Jesus (Luke 14:34).

Jesus knows that we’re a lot like Gollum, the swamp dweller who holds onto his Precious and will not let it go! There’s no sadder person than a disciple who is desperately clasping and grasping onto the treasures that detain us. The Lord knows the idols of our hearts and insists that we shatter them into a million tiny pieces. The irony is that the moment we die to our comforts and cling to Him, we are at last free to enjoy the friendship, wisdom, joy and peace that only Jesus can give. Christ told the rich young ruler that eternal treasures in heaven would cost him all his possessions: “Sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me (Matt 19:21)”. Jesus insists that we die to our comforts too, to make Him our ultimate Treasure.

  1. Dying to my ego

The deadliest enemy of every disciple is selfish pride, which must be crucified daily if we want to pursue the person and mission of Jesus. Following Jesus always happens in the context of each other rather than me, myself and I.

Independence must die to make way for inter-dependence and love.

John Piper, now 74 years old, is one of the most godly and respected Christian pastors of our time. Yet, he is honest enough to admit to four effects of selfishness which he is taking steps to slay in his own life. These emotional responses resonated with me:

Anger: the strong emotional opposition to the obstacle in my way. I tighten up and want to strike out verbally.

Self pity: a desire that others feel my woundedness and admire me for my being mistreated, and move to show me some sympathy.

Quickness to blame: a reflex to attribute to others the cause of my frustrating situation. Others can feel it in a tone of voice, a look on the face, a sideways query, or an outright accusation.

Sullenness: a sinking discouragement, moodiness, hopelessness, unresponsiveness and withdrawn emotional deadness.

Of course, the effect on marriage is that my wife feels blamed and disapproved of rather than cherished and cared for. Tender emotions shrivel. Hope is depleted. Strength to carry on in the hardships of ministry wanes.” (Why I love the Apostle Paul, John Piper).

Through months of frank self-assessment, Piper realized that if Christ’s death had cancelled his greatest sins, the Spirit of Christ would also empower him to break the grip of selfishness in his life. He repented of his passive attitude to his selfishness and actively set about killing, not coddling these cancelled sins. Piper’s confession is an encouragement to us all to crucify the subtle effects of ego and selfish pride in our lives. Only then will we be freed to live with such integrity and joy that we will help others take one step closer to Jesus.

Bearing my cross

Jesus never hid the costs and benefits of discipleship. He warned his original disciples that even though they would be reviled, persecuted and falsely accused on account of Him, they would still be blessed (Matt 5:10-11). The cost of being Christ’s disciple has always meant death to everything we once held dear and life in the person and mission of Jesus. It could mean a complete upheaval from our job, family and comfort. Or it could entail subtle forms of hostility, exclusion and ridicule. Even in a constitutional democracy like ours, there is always a cost to following Jesus and becoming a disciple who makes disciples. Taking up our cross is not just for the martyr or dedicated Christian in ‘full time’ ministry, but for every Christian who has accepted the invitation to God’s wonderful kingdom banquet (Luke 14:15-24).

“For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:35).

Prayer

Lord Jesus, thank you for inviting me to participate in your death, resurrection and gospel mission. I know that I did not seek you, but you pursued me and bought my salvation and adoption into your family. Thank you for giving me a new heart and spirit to transform me into your disciple, so that I in turn may disciple others. Lord, help me to follow you so closely that I am always ignited by your Spirit, truth, love, power and mission. Show me where my heart is divided and bring me to the place where I count my comforts, possessions and even my life as nothing compared to the joy of knowing you and helping others take one step closer to you. In Jesus’ precious name, Amen.

 

Disciples who make disciples

Jesus said, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him (Matt 4:19-20).

Do you remember that chorus- “I will make you fishers of men if you follow me?” As a child, those repeated lyrics perplexed me, as I mistook fishers (with an r) for fishes! As I sang, I imagined everyone in the congregation as half-fish, half-human, and wondered why Jesus would want to turn his disciples into mermaids! I’m pleased to see that Luke’s account clears up this confusion about fishers of men: “From now on you’ll be catching men” makes much more sense!

Today we’re reading the amazing story about how Jesus invited Peter, James and John to be his disciples by Lake Galilee. These fisherman didn’t appoint themselves leaders or apply to be disciples with an impressive CV. The Lord himself called them and set them apart by his irresistible grace. Those first disciples paid a high price for following Jesus. Peter was hung upside down on a cross, James was beheaded and John was exiled. Peter’s brother, Andrew, who was also on the lake that day, was crucified in Greece. These fishermen gave up their lives to know, follow and proclaim Jesus as Lord. Instead of safety, security and material blessings, they pursued God himself and found their joy in Him. After Jesus ascended and poured out His Spirit on them, these ordinary men became irrepressible witnesses who could not stop speaking of what they’d seen and heard (Acts 4:1-4). Their spirt-empowered message was never obscure or diluted and their devotion to the risen Jesus was unquenchable. Just think for a moment of these four fishermen by Lake Galilee in 30AD, and then fast forward to the 6000 followers of Christ in 60AD! And to the 100 000 believers in 180AD. And to the 31 million in 350AD. All because these fishermen followed Jesus and became fishers of men.

Fishers of men

“On one occasion, while the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he was standing by the lake of Gennesaret, and he saw two boats by the lake, but the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. Getting into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, he asked him to put out a little from the land. And he sat down and taught the people from the boat. And when he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” And Simon answered, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.” And when they had done this, they enclosed a large number of fish, and their nets were breaking. They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” For he and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish that they had taken, 10 and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” 11 And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him” (Luke 5:1-11).

Lord of the Fish

Alone, Peter caught no fish all night. Yet, against all logic as an experienced fisherman, Peter tentatively obeys Jesus by letting down his nets at midday and is stunned by what happens next. Peter learns that Jesus is Lord of the fish.

Jesus was no stranger to Simon. They’d been introduced through his brother Andrew, and Jesus had already given him his new name (John 1:40-42). Peter had hosted Jesus in his home, watched Jesus heal his mother-in-law and cast out an evil spirit (Luke 4:38-41). Peter had heard Jesus in the synagogues announcing the good news that God’s kingdom had arrived on earth. This day he’d listened to Jesus teach on the floating pulpit– his very own boat (Luke 5:3). But somehow this miraculous catch of fish was more personal. It was an epiphany that went far beyond intellectual knowledge or amazement. A picture of Jesus as Ruler of the fish, graciously jamming up Peter’s nets to bursting point, was what knocked the burly fisherman right off his feet. His eyes were opened to the Lord of heaven and earth standing before him… and his own unworthiness. Fear followed amazement at this display of abundant generosity. Just as Moses did not dare approach the burning bush for fear of being consumed, Peter was overcome by godly fear (Ex 3:5).

Godly fear

There is no such thing as a worthy disciple of Jesus. Peter knew it the moment he hauled in those bulging and breaking nets. His reaction may seem strange in our culture that worships self esteem, but Peter was accurate when He recognized who he was before Jesus and recoiled in horror, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8). Peter’s reverent fear is appropriate in the presence of a holy and awesome God. The Psalmist says, “Worship the Lord in the splendour of holiness; tremble before him, all the earth!” Isaiah’s response to the presence of God was “Woe is me! For I am undone, because I am a man of unclean lips (Ps 96:9Isa 6:5) and Solomon reminds us that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Prov 1:7). Jesus can only use people who know that they are utterly bankrupt before God—like Peter.

If we call ourselves Christians, godly fear should mark our lives, because the Holy Spirit has shown us who God is and who we are. Let’s allow the Bible to hold up a mirror to our soul:

At our core we’re God’s enemies and can only run from the Father (Col 1:21). Because we love darkness and hate the light, we harden our hearts and say no to God’s ways that lead to life (John 3:20Eph 4:18-19). We are impure in our thoughts, words and deeds (Rom 6:19). Our minds are so warped and blinded to the truth that even our emotions and desires are out of order, our hearts lie to us and our bodies are ruled by ungodly passions (Rom 1:26-282 Cor 4:41 Peter 2:11). We are spiritually dead with no escape from God’s rightful anger. If we look in the mirror honestly, this is who we are without Christ, and Peter knew it. Nevertheless, he trusted Jesus enough to let down his nets and fall contritely at His feet. Like all of us, Peter didn’t deserve to step into the Lord’s presence or be called his friend, but Jesus invited the fisherman to follow him anyway: “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.”

Followers become fishers

Let’s not miss that following Jesus preceded being fishers of men. So, gripped by the grace they’d seen in their bulging, broken nets, and assured by Jesus’s invitation, the two sets of brothers left behind all they’d ever known to follow the one person who could give them all they truly needed. They surrendered their careers and ambitions, possessions and security, comforts and plans to give themselves wholeheartedly to the Lord himself. They’d seen enough to know that Jesus was worth more than anything they could lose.

Jesus kept his promise to make them ‘fishers of men.’ The miracle catch of fish was a vivid picture of what Jesus would do through Peter and this unimpressive band of fishermen from northern Israel. Three years later, Peter’s Spirit-empowered message of the gospel would take the world by storm. Three thousand people were cut to the heart on the day of Pentecost and baptized in the name of Jesus, gathered into Peter’s net in a single day (Acts 2:40-41). Then 2000 more believers squeezed their way in (Acts 4:4), and on and on until the nets were splitting open with those who repented, believed and surrendered all to follow Jesus and make more disciples. Two thousand years later, we still read the life-giving message written by Peter and John in the Bible and Jesus is still adding to his kingdom those who are being saved.

But that day the four fishermen could not have foreseen the cost of following Jesus. Or the horrific path their Master would walk three years later to bridge the chasm between sinners and God the Father.

A divine appointment—then and now.

It’s impossible to read this story and conclude that being a Christian is about following a set of moral values or inspiring stories. The essence of being a Christian is not going to church, making a decision, or believing from an armchair, as helpful as these things are. It is about following Jesus Christ as Lord of the lake, the fish and all of life, every day of the week, wherever we are. Being a Christian is a divine appointment, as Jesus tells his followers in every age,

“You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last”(John 15:16-17).

You and I stand on the other side of the cross from Peter. We know that we can only call ourselves Christians because we have been made forever holy and perfect through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ once for all (Heb 10:1014). The empty tomb in 33AD is our assurance that Jesus has accomplished everything needed for us to draw near to God, so we don’t need to say, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” What a joy to know that we are safely in Jesus’s net—captured, forgiven and freely given all that those bursting nets represent! Grace and abundant life, peace and human flourishing flow like a river into every Jesus follower, since we are in Christ and He is in us forever. The believer’s joy has begun in this life and will be perfected in glory as we follow in the slipstream of Jesus. It is only this joy that can propel us from the inside to follow Jesus and become disciples that make disciples.

Prayer

Lord Jesus, I give all of me to you in 2020. Give me eyes to see the lavish grace of your sacrifice to save a sinful wretch like me. Show me who you are and show me who I am in you. Lord, help me to follow and imitate you by reading your Word, praying and helping others take one step closer to you this year. Help me to see you more clearly, love you more dearly and follow you more nearly. Soften my heart to respond to your grace, so that I will love and learn from you, rather than serve you out of duty. Let me not be like a stubborn animal that needs to be prodded and pressured to obey you. Jesus, you are not just the Lord of the lake and the fish, but the Lord of heaven and earth and my life too. Help me to trust you to do impossible things and to follow you beyond my comfort zone. Show me where to let down my nets and remind me that only you can gather the fish and fill them to overflowing. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Building bridges… or driving wedges?

“If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails (1 Cor 13:1-8a).

A jacuzzi or a sword?

I wonder how many times you’ve heard the thirteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians at a wedding? Familiar words of Scripture tend to comfort and massage us after many years of hearing them, like the warm water jets of a Jacuzzi! But this chapter of the Bible is a two-edged sword if ever there was one. It was never intended as a vague, sweet lullaby on the virtues of love, but as a stinging rebuke to the Corinthian Christians, who were full of spiritual pride and arrogance, but short on love. In the previous chapters, Paul says he has no praise for them at all, “for your meetings do more harm than good” (1 Cor 11:1722). Some Christians who thought they were more spiritual and useful than others, misused their spiritual gifts as symbols of power, causing rifts and rivalries (1 Cor 12). Chapter 11 and 12 are like an evidence room full of unloving behaviours. Instead of building bridges between other believers, they were driving wedges. It was a great discredit to the gospel.

Are we bridge builders or wedge drivers in our own church, Bible study and family? Can we replace the word “love” in these verses with our own name?

The only way we can answer these questions is to get past vague generalities and assess ourselves against the Bible’s detailed rubric of what love is…and what it is not. There are at least fifteen things about what love does and does not do in this passage. Let’s look at this familiar chapter with fresh eyes and ask the Lord to hold up a mirror to our own hearts.

Love is longsuffering

The very first thing Paul says about love is that it is patient and kind. We often think of patience as the pause button that stops us flying off the handle. Or we may imagine kindness as a soft emotion that translates into endless tolerance and no judgment. But in this passage, it means ‘longsuffering’, the same word to describe the persevering, unfailing love of God in Christ, which leads sinners to repentance (Rom 2:41 Tim 1:16).

It was the patient, kind love of God which culminated in His Son dying on the cross as our Saviour.

For Paul, we never graduate from treating people with kindness and patience. If we want to be more than just a big noise, everything we do should build up the body of Christ, not tear it apart (1 Cor 14:26). The starting point is to know that we are sinners saved by God’s grace. Spiritual pride is incongruous with our “compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness” (Ex 34:6). Just as the Lord has been longsuffering with us in our rebellion and compulsive sins against Him, God’s will is that his people reflect his compassionate heart in our dealings with one another (Col 3:12-13Eph 4:21 Thess 5:14). Love is not an elective, but part of the main curriculum of Christian living!

Kind, patient love is not an enabling, permissive love, which overlooks abuse, sin or falsehood, and resembles a doormat. Nor is it a fickle emotion that depends on the other person’s response. Kindness and patience are evidence that God’s Spirit is alive and active in our lives (Gal 5:22). Kind, patient love is determined to act in a certain way, often in spite of our instincts or feelings. It is an intentional decision to give and take less offense: To always protect, always trust, always hope, always persevere. Love never fails (1 Cor 13:7).

It is seen in the redeeming love of Hosea for Gomer. It is the picture of Jesus setting his face towards Jerusalem, sweating blood in the Garden of Gethsemane and willingly dying in our place to make us right with God. There is nothing weak or mushy about love that is patient and kind.

Love is not proud

The enemy of love is not hate. It’s pride.

Pride causes us to be puffed up and wise in our own eyes—a sin so instinctive and lethal that the Bible talks of it often (Rom 12:3,16Prov 26:12Prov 3:7Isa 5:21). Love and haughtiness are incompatible.

In an insightful article titled, “Never be wise in your own eyes”, Marshall Segal explains how pride is the cunning enemy of a group of believers and how it can be defeated:

“Pride slowly, subtly, and quite surely endears us to ourselves. Often, the longer those close to us know us, the less remarkable or impressive we seem. Ironically, the opposite often arises in our own eyes…Pride selfishly sets itself—its wisdom, its gifts, its experience, its potential—above everyone else…

One act of war against pride is to marvel at the army of grace at our side, all the other grace-filled, grace-empowered members of the body of Christ…True humility does not quietly despise graces that are not its own, but loves them just as much, and even more…God makes us humbly, even uncomfortably dependent on one another. And as we mature in humility, we not only acknowledge that dependence, but relish God’s wisdom in weaving us together by grace…Whatever the infinite mind and imagination of heaven has shown you, remember how painfully little you still know….

When we refuse to be wise in our own eyes, celebrating the grace we see in others, admitting how little we still know, and boasting all the more in our weaknesses, God gets his glory— and we see someone far more satisfying than what we loved in the mirror.”

So what happens when we declare war on our pride? Wonderful things! Humility opens the door to love. When love is invited in and allowed to flourish, we are not jealous of other Christians’ ministries or gifts. We don’t need to boast or become defensive of our own. We are not arrogant about what we know or who we are. We are not rude, even if we disagree. We don’t insist on getting our own way or enforcing our rights. We are not irritable or easily provoked. We don’t nurse grievances or feed the bitter root of resentment, but learn instead to speak frankly and generously, giving people the benefit of the doubt. We don’t coddle habits like slander or gossip, but enjoy honest, face-to-face conversations with one another. Our dealings with other Christians are laced with grace, even when we feel aggrieved. Love’s goal is to build up and be helpful to the body of Christ, not to divide or weaken it. These are the implications of love described in 1 Cor 13:4-7.

Where the rubber hits the road

Of course, you’re probably shaking your head and secretly mumbling, “What planet is she on? No group of people behaves like this all the time, not even Christians. Always this…Never that….Paul’s expecting utopia on earth and it’s never going to happen! Surely our job is to guard the truth and get the gospel out? Christians must learn not to be such fragile snowflakes!”

The problem is that the New Testament gives us no loophole to escape the clearly revealed will of God in 1 Cor 13! Love is foundational, and without it our goals and gifts are null and void (1 Cor 13:114:26). In fact, love is our greatest asset in discipleship and evangelism.

Love between Christians is both the litmus test and visible proof to the watching world that the gospel is true (John 13:351 John 4:101112). Love is so vastly different from the rude, brash and boastful world in which we live. A marriage, a family, a church or a life group marked by this kind of love is an astonishing and winsome sight to behold. On the other extreme, as a child I was part of a church that split apart, and in my twenties I was a lawyer in bitter divorces and lawsuits between Christians. It was a shock to witness worse cruelty, rudeness and narcissism than I’d ever seen even in non-Christian circles. There is no greater disgrace to the gospel than professing Christians who refuse to crucify pride and are forever finding loopholes to dodge the clear mandate of love which is given to each and every one of God’s children.

Our patient love for each other communicates how our Father loves and redeems sinners. The way we build bridges through confessing our sin and forgiving one another demonstrates how Christ reconciles broken people to himself and to each other. Our kindness and gentleness is living proof that the Spirit transforms selfish sinners into the image of Christ. When we  encourage one another, we are proclaiming that Jesus is indeed the Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Prince of Peace! Our theology is believable when we love one another.

If love is a bridge and pride is a wedge, which one are we building in our short time on earth?

“And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor 13:13).

Prayer

Lord, I realise that I don’t even begin to resemble the picture of love painted in this passage. Please forgive me for the impatient and unkind ways I’ve treated people this week. Hold up a mirror to my life and show me where love is absent and pride is dancing on the stage. Infuse me with your strong, determined, relentless love. Fill me with reminders of your great grace in dying on the cross for me while I was still your enemy. Only a picture of your face will free me from my self-seeking pride. I look so forward to seeing you face-to-face when I will experience pure and perfect love for all eternity. Only your love will keep me loving others in the meantime. In Jesus’s name, Amen.

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