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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Why Christ’s calling matters more than our occupation

Around 2600 years ago, the prophet Jeremiah wrote:

“Let not the wise boast of their wisdom
    or the strong boast of their strength
    or the rich boast of their riches,
but let the one who boasts boast about this:
    that they have the understanding to know me,
that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness,
    justice and righteousness on earth,
    for in these I delight,”
declares the Lord. (Jer 9:23-24 ESV)

This is surely one of the most counter-cultural messages ever recorded! It’s hard to resist our culture’s creed that says we should be doing something bigger, better, somewhere else. Or the self help ideologies that reveal the secret to unleash our inner greatness. The promise is that if we change our mindset, we will change our circumstances. And if we change our circumstances, all our problems will dissolve. After all, what can stand against the power of wealth, intelligence and physical strength?

Cultural gurus continue to feed the pride, discontent and restlessness that has marked humanity since the Fall. An Amazon bestseller has the sub-title, How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life.  The implication is clearly that your current life isn’t too great! Another by a self-made musical superstar is titled, It’s all in your own head— “a reminder that it starts with YOU, to believe in yourself, and to get out of your own way”. Eckart Tolle’s latest book promises Awakening to our Life’s Purpose and Anthony Ferris gives us the secrets to working a 4-hour workweek in Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich. Even in the so-called ‘Christian’ category, we are faced with Soar (TD Jakes); The Power of FavourI declare and Ten Powerful thoughts for a successful, abundant life”(Joel Osteen).

As a Christian, it can be hard to remain rooted in God’s priorities for our lives, to be content wherever He has placed us and to serve Christ faithfully in the small, mundane things which make up our current circumstances. That’s why Paul’s words to the first century Christians in Corinth are so apt and freeing for believers today. Today’s text hushes the restless sirens and reminds us that our calling in Christ matters infinitely more than our external status:

Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches. 18 Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. 19 For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God. 20 Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called. 21 Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) 22 For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a bondservant of Christ. 23 You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men. 24 So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God…

29 This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, 30 and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, 31 and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away. (1 Cor 7:17-2429-31 ESV).

Outward circumstances versus inner calling

Like us, the Corinthian Christians needed to grasp that their identity and significance was securely anchored in their Christian calling— not in cultural and religious symbols or social status. “Don’t be fooled by your rank!” says Paul, “You are free to serve Christ as Lord in and through every season and station of life—even if you are a slave, the least esteemed of all.” (1 Cor 7:192122).

This is a truly liberating message for Christians in a FOMO culture that assumes we are always stuck in the wrong place, with the wrong people, on the wrong side of the track! Christ’s calling re-sets our priorities and revolutionises our lives from the inside out. When the purpose of our lives is to honour, serve and speak for Christ, every job, no matter how menial, is significant Christian work. If God has placed you where you are, there will be opportunities to serve him there.

Paul applies this general principle to the two extreme social and religious distinctions of his time: Circumcision and Slavery. His answer to these two cultural boulders was radical in first century Corinth: Paul dismisses them as irrelevant! (1 Cor 7:1921) All that matters is serving Christ and being obedient to Him wherever God has placed them. They are first and foremost Christians.

What a shock to the Jewish believer’s mindset, which regarded circumcision as everything! It was the difference between being an insider and an outsider. The other half of the congregants were Gentile Greeks, who looked down on the circumcised. Similarly, a slave had the lowliest status of all. Slaves were the epitome of insignificance, yet Paul says their work and identity are also shaped by their calling in Christ, not by their status or job.

To change or not to change

Paul’s general rule to remain in the condition in which we are called does not mean that change is always wrong (1 Cor 7:172024). In fact, in verse 21b, Paul expressly tells slaves to use whatever opportunities they have to buy their freedom and improve their lot in life.

We also know that Christ’s call demands that we completely shed an illegal or immoral life, which may mean a career change or a big move for some Christians (1 Cor 6:11Luke 19:8).

Paul himself encourages us to change our style and methods of ministry to reach diverse people for the gospel (1 Cor 9:19-24).

Good stewardship of our gifts and opportunities leaves no space for an attitude of complacency or fatalism as Christians. We are always called to make choices with wisdom and prayer. But Paul’s message is clear: When Christ calls us, He is our new Master and we belong to Him wherever we find ourselves. We are freed from sin’s bondage and from cultural practices that have been fulfilled in Christ (Acts 15; Rom 4:9-11Gal 5:2-4Col 2:11). The only obstacle to serving and obeying Christ is sin—Not our external circumstances.

Swimming against the tide

I consider this passage as one of my favourites because it has often reminded me that the Christian life is simple and liberating. We are bondservants of Christ, not of men! Bought at a price and responsible to Him alone! (1 Cor 7:2223-24 NIV) When we serve Christ, God leads us with cords of kindness and ties of love, like a loving parent leads his child (Hos 11:4). His fetters always lead to true freedom and flourishing.

I turned 50 this year and have spent most of my married life as a stay-at-home mom. I’m now in my twentieth year of school lifts, lunch boxes, homework and exams! It’s impossible to quantify the tears I’ve dried, conversations, trips made to the ER and desperate prayers I’ve prayed for our kids. Yet sometimes in my insecure moments, I’ve felt that I don’t measure up to our culture’s yardstick of success and have wished for a career, title and income to prove my significance. Our third child is now in matric and in her last week before finals, the entire grade dressed up for their future vocation. Many doctors, lawyers and accountants arrived at school, but my daughter and her friends were dressed in an array of outfits, from ultra casual, to baggy tracksuits and slinky gym pants! They didn’t represent any recognisable career category, so I asked them who they were: “Oh, can’t you see that we’re the ‘coffee shop moms’!? You know, the ones who don’t go to work and spend their day at pilates, drinking skinny lattes and things like that!” They thought they were hilarious, but I sincerely hoped they didn’t tar all stay-at-home moms with the same brush!

The truth is that whatever our occupation or status, most of us feel restless from time to time, wondering if we’re in the right place and doing the right thing. We sometimes confuse our occupation with our calling as Christ’s bondservant. At 18 we worry that we are choosing the wrong career path, and from midlife onwards we wake up in a cold sweat worrying that the grains of sand have finally slipped through the hourglass! Like our culture, Christians also long for significance and fear not being useful or wasting our lives.

Christians are also tempted to blame our circumstances for not living for Christ in the here and now: My family, my employer, my unemployment, my financial situation, my depression, my sickness, my spouse, my education, my career choice, my singleness, my failure, my local church, my emotional baggage…

All of these and many others are possible excuses for not serving Christ and being discontent with our lot in life.

But if Jesus is our master, His yoke is easy. All He asks is that we remain faithful in the small things he has entrusted to us, wherever we are. He calls us to know and love Him, to exercise kindness and justice, and to walk obediently in whatever life He has assigned to us. We are free to ‘use’ the things of this world, but not to become ‘engrossed’ in them, “for this world in its present form is passing away” (1 Cor 7:31 NIV). Perhaps that’s why Paul reminded Timothy:

“Godliness with contentment is great gain” (1 Tim 6:6).

Worship

Listen to one of my favourite songs by Casting Crowns, The Very Next Thing.

Lord, help me to trust your rule in the life you have assigned to me, and to live for you wherever I am and whatever I do. Forgive me for my grumbling and restlessness, and fill me instead with your Spirit, so that I am content and joyful in any and every circumstance. Fix my eyes on Jesus so that I will seize every opportunity to show others who He is. In Jesus’ name.

Ready to answer

Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened.” 15 But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, 16 keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander (1 Peter 3:13-16).

Not a private faith

The New Testament leaves no doubt that a private faith in Christ is not an option (Mark 16:15Matt 24:14Matt 28:19-20). If Christ is our Saviour, He is also our Lord. Christians are Jesus’ ambassadors, through whom God makes his appeal to the world (2 Cor 5:20). It’s why Paul says, “We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.” Even Timothy, a naturally shy and unconfident type, was expected to do the work of an evangelist as part of his job as pastor of a church (2 Tim 4:5).

I must confess before I write another word that I’m naturally timid and unsure in the arena of evangelism. But I also long to be a more faithful ambassador for Christ. I want my hope to show, so that unbelievers may wonder and perhaps ask me about its source. I want to share the true message of Christ with joy and love and boldness. If my confident hope as a Christian is rooted in the grace of God, I want it to show in my manner of evangelism. Were it not for His grace, I would still be hoping for the best and trying to make the most of this brief and uncertain life on earth. So, while I know that evangelism doesn’t earn my place in God’s family, I long to be an active and enthusiastic witness to Jesus as Lord and Saviour, because I’m convinced He’s the only one who can give life and purpose to dying people. I believe that evangelism is part and parcel of being God’s salt and light in the world— His handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do (Eph 2:10).

Peter’s instruction is to always be prepared to give an answer to anyone who asks us to give a reason for the hope that is in us. That’s pretty unequivocal and comprehensive! But it can also be frightening.

Don’t fear—Revere Christ as Lord! (1 Peter 3:14-15)

Rebecca Pippert identifies fear as a major obstacle to sharing our faith: “Fear, not ignorance, is the real enemy of evangelism. We fear that our friends will reject or marginalize us if we speak about our faith; we fear that what we don’t know will be exposed; we fear that our beliefs will be challenged.”

If we read the whole of verse 15 instead of just focusing on the second half, we see that Peter gives us the antidote to fear: “Revere Christ as Lord in your hearts”. This is the basis for being a bold and fearless witness for Christ. Revering Christ as Lord in our hearts is a hinge statement with massive implications, not just for evangelism, but for all of life as a Christian.

Revering Christ as Lord in our hearts is much more than praying the sinner’s prayer and coming to a decision that Jesus is our Saviour. It is a continuous invitation to the Lord Jesus to rule our hearts—- to excite, teach, shape, guide and motivate our lives every day. We need to first look to Jesus to show us the kind of life to which he calls us and his model for reaching out to others. We need awe of Jesus the Saviour and King, which includes his grace and coming judgment. Only this reverence for Christ as Lord will overcome our fears of causing offence and being a nuisance to people.

Revering Christ as Lord in our hearts will also spill over into the goodness Peter speaks of in verse 13 and 16. We will communicate our message with gentleness and respect, because our manner will reflect how Jesus valued people from the least to the greatest (1 Peter 3:15). Our evangelism will be energized by our belief that the Kingdom of God is at hand and the living Christ is still stirring and breathing life into people’s hearts—perhaps even the person right next to us. If Jesus taught his friends and enemies alike how extravagant and unfailing God’s love is for people, so should our message and manner reflect this truth.

A flesh-and-blood example.

We see this in the story of Stephen, a man whose wisdom, faith, godly character, power and grace were evident for all to see (Acts 6:3810). Stephen continued to speak the truth about Christ boldly, even while being stoned to death. His message of Christ crucified was especially offensive to the hostile Jews in his audience, but Stephen saw the glory of God and Jesus sitting at His right hand (Acts 7:55-56). His reverence for the living Christ moved him to keep speaking, even though he knew his words were his own death sentence. Truth mingled with grace as Stephen forgave his murderers and prayed, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60). I cannot think of a more graphic picture of both the love of God and the truth of the gospel…except in the life and death of the Lord Jesus.

We can thank the Lord that we will probably never face the same degree of suffering, harm and threats as Stephen or Peter’s original readers experienced (1 Peter 3:13-14). However, unless our hearts are captivated by the real Jesus of history, who personifies love, grace and compassion; justice, holiness and majesty in equal measure, our attempts to share our faith will lack conviction and ring hollow.

Always be prepared!

How do we prepare ourselves to give an answer to everyone who asks about our hope?

There are two engaging books that have challenged and inspired me to get out of my holy huddles and reach out to non-believers. They are Becky Pippert’s updated classic, Out of the Saltshaker and into the World: Evangelism as a way of life, and the biography of the late Nabeel Qureshi titled, Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus. With Christmas around the corner, I’d encourage you to buy these books for family members and friends, and request a copy for yourself! They will make you more intentional about discipleship and aware of your opportunities. From these two books, I’ve distilled seven practical ways to live out 1 Peter 3:15-16:

  1. We do not need more programmes, agendas or evangelism techniques, but more of Christ in our hearts! Spend time with the Lord Jesus and delight yourself in Him.
  2. You will cause most offence if you treat someone as your evangelistic project instead of a person! Care for the people God has placed around you and don’t feel guilty for not spewing out the whole gospel to every non-believer you meet.
  3. Ask questions and then listen! Find out who the person is and what their life is like before you give them a gospel presentation.
  4. Love people enough to answer their questions and overcome road blocks which prevent them from believing there is a God, trusting the Bible or seeing who Jesus is. If you don’t have the answers, invite them to a course like Christianity Explored or investigate the question together using a credible resource (eg, Ravi Zacharias Ministries, Lee Strobel or Josh Macdowell). Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus is a brilliant apologetics resource, couched in an engaging story.
  5. Be yourself! We are called to be witnesses of what we have seen and know, not to pretend what we don’t know! There is no more powerful witness than an ordinary Christian telling people what Christ means to them and His work in their lives. Click here for an example of one such Christian called Anita, a young single mom, who wrote this sincere testimony on her blog.
  6. Don’t be wishy-washy or apologetic about your faith. Ironically, people ultimately respect a person who communicates reasonable and definite ideas, rather than someone who cowers and dilutes the truth for fear of being labeled a religious bigot.
  7. Pray! Unless the Spirit opens doors and hearts, our ‘seeds’ will fall on the path and be snatched away before they take root. Yet, even our most feeble scattering of seed can prove fruitful if God’s Spirit is on the move.

Grace to fail

The best thing about 1 Peter 3:13-16 is its author! Writing these instructions must have triggered painful memories of that night in the high priest’s courtyard when Peter warmed his hands at a fire while Jesus faced the cross. Peter was the one who had identified Him as the Christ, the Son of the living God. But when it mattered most, he had answered, “Woman, I do not know him,”  “Man, I am not one of them,” “I do not know what you are talking about.” Peter would’ve winced to remember his repeated denials, the cries of the rooster and the sight of the Lord’s face (Luke 22:54-62). Yet, despite his failure and cowardice, Peter was the one asked to feed Christ’s lambs and tend his sheep (John 21:17). After spending 40 days with the risen Jesus, Peter delivered the most fearless testimony to thousands of Jews at Pentecost and never stopped witnessing for Christ until his own crucifixion (Acts 2:23-41).

Like Peter, you and I might not always be prepared to give an answer for the hope within us. We may tremble, fumble with words and leave out crucial bits. We may regret lost opportunities and incongruities between our walk and our talk. But our hope is rooted in the grace of God, not our evangelism prowess. That’s why we need to keep revering Christ as Lord in our hearts and trusting in his grace to make us faithful ambassadors of the King.

“For the eyes of the LORD move to and fro throughout the earth that He may strongly support those whose heart is completely His” (2 Chronicles 16:9a).

Casting every care

“Cast all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.”

1 Peter 5:7 is a favourite verse often quoted as an antidote to stress and worry. It is a timeless reminder to Christians to pray with utter dependence on our loving Father, no matter what our circumstances. The idea of casting is to literally throw our cares on the Lord, and to leave them with him, instead of trying to carry, control or retrieve them ourselves. But if we return this text to its rightful place in Peter’s letter, we see that this chapter is about shepherding God’s people through intense persecution. Peter’s main instruction to these suffering believers is to humble themselves under God’s mighty hand. It was only with this attitude of childlike trust that they could genuinely cast all their cares upon the Lord, knowing that he cared for them.

Let’s read this passage with humility and ask the Lord to show us what to do with our own anxious thoughts:

Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. 10 And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. 11 To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen (1 Peter 5:5-11).

A common condition and a timeless remedy

Peter’s original readers faced a set of uncontrollables that we can hardly imagine. They feared losing their homes, livelihoods, communities and lives at the whim of those who opposed their faith. Scattered as foreigners, they lived under constant threat for themselves and their loved ones. The threats were real, not imagined. In contrast, we worry about things that may never happen, past regrets that we cannot change, perceptions that aren’t true, and health and material issues that are, ironically, made worse by our worrying. Only a fraction of our concerns are in fact real and serious problems. But, Christians in every context have this in common with Peter’s original readers: All our daily cares can quickly morph into anxieties that choke us. The only antidote is a constant, childlike trust in God’s loving providence.

“Do not be anxious” was the timeless and unequivocal command of Jesus too (Matt 6:25-34). Peter’s instruction in 1 Peter 5:6-7 is like entrusting a loved one to a skilled surgeon, allowing a pilot to fly your plane or handing over your precious backpack to a sherpa to carry it safely to the top of a mountain. But of course, all these analogies break down because no human being is sovereign over every detail of the universe. No person is perfectly good, strong or wise, and there is no one on earth who cares for us as our Father does. Only the Lord Jesus could die in our place to become the Rock on whom we rest all our burdens. The cross is the ultimate proof that our lives matter to God.

In this text, Peter not only alludes to the common condition and the timeless remedy of anxiety, but also to a common source.

Wiser than God?

Our culture would be horrified to draw a connection between anxiety and pride, but Peter isn’t. He contrasts God’s attitude towards the proud and humble in the same breath as his instruction to cast our cares on the Lord (1 Peter 5:5-7). Before we dismiss this as overly simplistic or harsh, let’s think through some of the outcomes of humility and pride in our own lives. I can personally vouch for the ones on pride:

Pride tells us we must depend on ourselves and meet our own needs. Pride believes the lie that we can control our lives and convince God to give us what we want. Pride thinks we know what’s best. Pride is entitled, and insists on our comfort, certainty and reputation. In pride, we boast of tomorrow’s gains (James 4:13-15).

In contrast, when we humble ourselves under God’s mighty hand, we willingly place ourselves under His providence. We remember that hardship is a normal part of Christ’s call to die to self, shared by all His followers in every generation (1 Peter 5:9Luke 14:2733Luke 9:23-24). We trust that our ultimate exaltation will come when the Lord Jesus, our Chief Shepherd returns (1 Peter 5:4;10). We know we can’t help ourselves, so we welcome God’s mighty hand as the helping hand of a parent or shepherd, not an oppressor. We believe that God will keep his promises in His good time, not ours (1 Peter 5:6).

A little while

Trusting God’s promises requires humility. History tells us that some of Peter’s readers would be strengthened and delivered by God’s grace in their lifetimes, but many would only be released from suffering in their deaths. The promise that God would exalt them in due time was not a guarantee of rescue from their troubles. Yet, Peter dares to say that in comparison with eternity, their suffering would last only “a little while” (1 Peter 5:10).

If Peter called these persecuted Christians to have an eternal perspective and childlike trust in the God of all grace, is this not our antidote to anxiety too? 

Of course, none of us has perfect faith. Nor did Peter, or his readers. At best, we cry out to Jesus like the bewildered dad of the demon-possessed boy, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). The important thing is to cast our cares on Christ anyway. The alternative is to be choked by them little by little.

Choked by cares

Peter implicitly warns us that anxiety is a dangerous state in which to live, as it leaves us in a self-focussed, vulnerable place where we are easy prey for Satan’s attacks (1 Peter 5:8). We cannot be watchful, resist the devil and remain firm and fruitful in our faith while choked by worry (1 Peter 5:9Mark 4:19). That’s why we need to cast off each day’s burdens on the Lord. As George MacDonald puts it, “No man ever sank under the burden of the day. It is when tomorrow’s burden is added to today’s burden that the weight is more than a man can bear. Never load yourself so.”

If the stakes are this high, it’s worth asking God each day to unmask our anxious thoughts, so that we can actively cast them on Him in prayer.

This passage is one of my favourites, because I have a tendency to worry about many things. It’s one thing for me to know intellectually that God is sovereign and that he cares for me, but it’s quite another thing to actually get on my knees and lay out my cares, one by one, before the Lord in prayer. “Casting all our cares” is a deliberate, no-holds-barred action that is often difficult and the last thing we feel like doing. It’s easier and more natural to fret than to pray! But the wonderful effect of this kind of casting is the peace that follows it. It’s a peace that transcends rational understanding– a heart assurance that God is in control and cares for us. When we make a daily habit of casting all our cares, big and small, on the Lord, prayer will become more instinctive and our concerns will be stopped in their tracks before they grow into full-fledged worry.

“You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in you.” (Isa 26:3).

Prayer

Father, you say that we must not be anxious for anything, but rather pray with thanksgiving and offer our requests to you. So, we thank you that you care for us and know each of our concerns. Thank you that you are always good, powerful and faithful– our constant provider, counsellor and refuge. Thank you that your purposes are always good–to make us wiser, deeper and more  Christ-like. Jesus, thank you that you are our Chief Shepherd. We want to trust you utterly, but our faith often wavers through fear and pride. By your Spirit and your Word, unmask our anxious thoughts and false lenses through which we see our lives. Forgive us for doubting you and for thinking we are wiser than you. Today we humble ourselves under your mighty hand and cast our cares on you, because you care for us. To you be the dominion forever and ever, Amen.

Worship

Listen to Oceans (Where feet may fail), by Shane and Shane.

God’s poetry

Series: My favourite texts. Eph 2:8-10.

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

If I’m honest, every day there’s either a Pharisee buzzing the intercom of my heart, aching to take me hostage to legalism and pride. Or there’s a Hedonist on my stoep, luring me to self-indulgence and laziness! Sometimes I find myself trying to earn God’s free gift of grace, and at other times I take it for granted. But Paul is emphatic that neither will do for God’s redeemed people. Both grace and goodness are the marks of a Christian. If grace is the tree of salvation, then good works are the natural fruit for which the tree was intended. It is never either grace or goodness for a Christian, but both. The Lord’s grace re-moulds us into His workmanship (poema) to reflect His goodness to the world. We are His poetry in motion.

By grace, for good

As Jen Michel writes in Surprised by Paradox, “by grace we die to self-deception and moral self-assuredness; we die to self-reliance and bootstrap religion; we die to self-trust and to the pocked, unreliable hope that we can save ourselves. All our old ways of earning our keep with God have gone. We don’t get grace because we change our lives—but our lives are indelibly changed because we get grace.” Paul says we are new creatures in Christ, re-purposed for good (2 Cor 5:17).

Today’s text describes us as God’s living works of art (poema), created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared beforehand for us to walk in (Eph 2:10).

God’s workmanship

Just as the heavens are God’s physical handiwork to declare His glory, so God intends for His people to shine like stars in the dark skies of our own culture. We are God’s spiritual handiwork, designed to express God’s glory and goodness in our everyday lives.

So Paul writes to the Christians in Philippi,

“Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.

14 Do everything without grumbling or arguing, 15 so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky 16 as you hold firmly to the word of life” (Phil 2:12-16).

Both God’s grace at work in our lives and our persistence in Christ (the word of life) enable us to shine like stars in our crooked generation.

God’s poetry in motion

Paul lays out who and whose we are, in contrast to who we once were before God’s grace transformed our sin-dead lives (Eph 2:1-3; 2:4-10).

In the literal Greek of verse 10, we are God’s living poetry (poiema)! A poem doesn’t write itself or take credit for its beauty! Likewise, we belong to God, not ourselves. We are just His voice. The only other time the word ‘poiema’ is used is Romans 1:20 to describe the things God made in creation. Nature is not the result of random mutations or mindless evolutionary processes. It is the ordered creative expression of the great Artist of the universe! That is why the Psalmist says, The heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge” (Ps 19:1-4).

Just as the heavens are God’s physical poetry, you and I are His spiritual creation, “born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God (1 Peter 1:23).

Just as God’s material creation is never aimless, slovenly, ugly, rushed or mass-produced, God doesn’t do a make-over or rehab job on His children either. He gives us a new nature and replaces our stony heart with a responsive one. We become an entirely new creature, re-born, re-created in Christ Jesus (2 Cor 5:17).

The Artist’s intention

The Bible is down-to-earth about God’s intention for our lives as Christians. Paul tells Timothy, “Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and generous and willing to share.” We’re warned against living idle, unproductive lives (1 Timothy 6:18Titus 3:14 and Heb 10:24).

If we read on in Ephesians, we see that God intends to show off His great wisdom, grace and character through His church down the ages (Eph 3:102:7). He intends for infant Christians to grow up into Jesus, and do our part in the work of Christ’s church (Eph 4:11-16). We are not just individual works of art created to sit in a gallery and look pretty! The Great Artist’s plan is that we get involved in a body of believers, united in purpose and love for one another and for the Lord (Eph 5:29-30). We are not saved merely for our own benefit and to please ourselves, but to serve Christ and build up God’s people (Eph 4:12). That is how we are pleasing to God.

Is it not an insult to God’s creative work to think of our lives as boring, useless or worthless? If we are God’s poetry, we dare not treat ourselves or others with disrespect or as inferior. God doesn’t produce shoddy works of art.

Just do the next good thing!

It’s wonderful to know that God has a plan for each of his children. It’s also great to be able to trust God’s good purposes to re-shape us into the likeness of Jesus (Rom 8:28-29). This gives us meaning, identity and hope in life.

But when I first read Eph 2:10 as a younger Christian, my over-active imagination swung like a trapeze artist over the impossible scenarios God may have prepared in advance for me! I imagined God composing a long bucket list of good works for me to do during my lifetime. It made me worry how on earth I would know what was on His list and whether it included being sent to a place with frogs and without Woolies (my greatest fears!) Seeing the many ‘good works’ I was neglecting or doing very badly, verse 10 became a burden rather than a blessing to me.

Then I stumbled upon a little book by Elisabeth Elliot titled The Shaping of a Christian family in which she described the overwhelming period shortly after her husband Jim was martyred in Ecuador. Elisabeth was left alone, with a small baby, to manage the jungle mission station. She was faced with a million things to do each day for which she was not trained or prepared. The Lord taught her that she didn’t need to know God’s whole plan, but just needed to stay connected to Christ and do the next good thing. She could trust Him with the big picture. Sometimes the next good thing was just to get the laundry done, call a friend, read her Bible, prepare the next lesson, be friendly to a stranger, or go to bed when she was tired.

I’m grateful for Elisabeth’s common sense wisdom which lifted an unnecessary burden I’d placed on myself. I now see Eph 2:10 as a great blessing. Fuelled by God’s round-the-clock grace, we are called to walk (perpateo) in a life of good works, not to fly! Being a pedestrian is an ordinary, natural part of life, and we too were created to do good in our modest lives, one step at a time. We do not have to seek out a grand calling or find some spectacular, visible form of ministry. We might only see our ‘calling’ in retrospect. As God’s poetry, we can leave Him to write the words.

Since we’ve been talking about God’s poetry, I will end with Elizabeth Elliot’s poem, Do the Next thing. May her ‘good work’ encourage you too:

From an old English parsonage down by the sea
There came in the twilight a message to me;
Its quaint Saxon legend, deeply engraven,
Hath, it seems to me, teaching from Heaven.
And on through the doors the quiet words ring
Like a low inspiration: “DO THE NEXT THING.”

Many a questioning, many a fear,
Many a doubt, hath its quieting here.
Moment by moment, let down from Heaven,
Time, opportunity, and guidance are given.
Fear not tomorrows, child of the King,
Trust them with Jesus, do the next thing

Do it immediately, do it with prayer;
Do it reliantly, casting all care;
Do it with reverence, tracing His hand
Who placed it before thee with earnest command.
Stayed on Omnipotence, safe ‘neath His wing,
Leave all results, do the next thing.

Looking for Jesus, ever serener,
Working or suffering, be thy demeanor;
In His dear presence, the rest of His calm,
The light of His countenance be thy psalm,
Strong in His faithfulness, praise and sing.
Then, as He beckons thee, do the next thing.

Timothy Keller’s prayer: Before work

Lord, all day may you give me an awareness of your presence, fruitfulness yet patience with your appointments, wisdom and compassion in my dealings, and Fatherly protection against dangers and adversities. Let me accept whatever degree of success or difficulty in my work you give me this day, and especially make me compassionate and ready to be interrupted in order to do good to others. In Jesus’s name.

Worship

Listen to Psalm 19, a song by Jess Ray.

But God…

Series: My favourite texts

“But God…” is the most pregnant and hopeful phrase you and I can ever hear. There is no person and no situation so dead or so desperate that it is beyond Christ’s redemption. Do we truly believe that? Do we pray and live as if it were true? Today’s text is one of my favourites, as it takes me back in time and reminds me that nothing is impossible with God. We will save verse 8-10 for next week.

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 

But God…

“But God” is the key which unbolts the door to God’s stunning rescue of a people for Himself (Eph 2:4). I cannot imagine two more hopeful words to launch us into the strange and wonderful gospel of saving grace summarised in the next few verses. But the wonder of God’s grace is lost entirely if we miss the desperation of verse 1-3. Lest we forget who we once were, Paul paints us an arresting picture:

Spiritually hopeless and lifeless…but God.

Trapped in the orbit of our thoughts and desires…but God.

Captive to Satan’s power…but God.

Gripped by the ways of the world…but God.

Deserving of God’s just judgment…but God.

We were all in the same boat, whether we think of ourselves as good or bad people. We followed the trajectory of every son of Adam and daughter of Eve. We were God’s rivals. Rebels by nature and habit. We didn’t seek or love God. We couldn’t live for God’s glory, obsessed as we were with our own. We naturally did what God hates. ‘Sons of disobedience’ and ‘children of God’s wrath’ are not glowing titles, but according to God’s inspired word, they are accurate (Eph 2:2-3).

The walking dead

But Paul gets even more undiplomatic! He calls us dead. It is the Greek word necros, which means a rotting corpse. Just as a corpse cannot raise itself to life, neither can an unbeliever breathe life into his/her spirit. No matter how good, powerful, religious, smart or free we thought we were, we couldn’t grasp or accept the things of God (1 Cor 2:14). They were nonsense to us and we remained spiritually unclean. Jesus used similar words to describe the Pharisees– “whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean” (Matt 23:27). It’s not a pretty picture.

But God intervened in our lives supernaturally. He gave us eyes to see that Jesus is the Son of God– the Saviour of the world. God gave us life, simply because we trusted in the good news that Jesus died and rose to life on our behalf. He made children of wrath into children of God. If you are a Christian, eternal life has already begun (John 3:3610:28). Eternal, abundant life started the day you put your faith in Christ. You are truly alive! (Eph 2:5-7)

But God! These two little gems point to the miracle of saving grace in every believer’s life. Instead of indifference or hardness towards God, we now know Him intimately as our Father and pray to Him as if He cares and listens. We delight in Him and read His Word as if it speaks to us. We can’t get enough of learning and growing in our faith.

Maybe this text is old hat to you. Maybe it’s a long time since you first felt the initial excitement of spiritual life pulsing through your veins. Maybe life has worn you down. But this Scripture begs three questions of us:

Do we know the amazing grace Paul writes about?

Have we lost the wonder of God’s love, mercy and kindness to us?

Have we forgotten how much we need God’s grace?

Rich mercy, costly love

For Paul, God’s great love and rich mercy are not esoteric, warm and fuzzy emotions (Eph 2:4). Nor do they depict a benign Grandfather in the sky, smiling down and overlooking our petty offences.

God’s love and mercy were expressed in His Son’s excruciating sacrifice on a Roman cross in 33AD (John 3:16). In love, the Lord Jesus paid the appalling price to free us from hell and death. Love cost Him everything. That’s why we cannot lose the wonder of saving grace.

Where Jesus goes, we go

The other wonderful phrase– with Christ or in Christ– is repeated five times in verse 5-7, so it’s critical for Paul. If you’re as literal as me, it’s hard to grasp how we’ve already been spiritually raised and seated with Christin heaven, while we battle it out on earth’s dusty arena (Eph 2:6). But Paul’s verbs are in the Greek aorist tense and indicative voice to leave us no doubt. It’s done and dusted, eternally decreed from heaven, cast in stone. Christ is our forerunner, the “firstborn among many brothers” (Rom 8:29). Our bodies will be raised and glorified as His was, because where Christ goes, we go. We are already there with Him in spirit!

For a moment, just soak in what our union with Christ actually means by clicking on these texts:

God’s people are “one” with Christ (Rom 12:51 Cor 6:1712:13Col 1:18). If you’re in Christ, you were foreknown, called, justified and glorified even before the foundations of the earth (Rom 8:30Eph 1:4-10).

When Jesus died, we died. When Christ was raised to life, so were we (Rom 6:4-5). When He was seated at God’s right hand in heaven, we were given a chair beside Him (Col 3:1). We are bound by an intimate, eternal, irrevocable covenant with Christ (Heb 13:20-21). We are not just saved, but also kept by God’s amazing grace.

If that isn’t wonderful, then I don’t know what is!

Living in the dust at the foot of the cross*

But you may also be wondering how all this heavenly talk can be of any earthly good, and why this passage is one of my favourites.

It’s because the kindness and grace of God means everything to me. For three years at university I turned my back on God and lived for myself and by my own rules. I thought I was free and revelled in the values of my culture, believing my sin to be insignificant and trivial. I didn’t trust the Lord to make me happy and in fact asked Him to leave me alone–the Father who had loved and kept me, whom I’d known intimately for many years. I was no different than the prodigal son in Jesus’ story. But when I realised it was all empty and longed to come home to my Father, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I felt too ashamed and unworthy. Guilt choked my repentance. I could see how God would accept an unbeliever who knew no better, but my betrayal was unforgivable. I’d tasted the goodness of God, yet had wantonly rejected Him. That’s when the Lord pursued me all the way to a far corner of Zimbabwe where I was kayaking with friends. In a dramatic series of events, the Lord gave me some object lessons in how costly his grace was. I didn’t go looking for Jesus, but C.S Lewis’s ‘Hound of heaven’ found me and showed me why I needed a Saviour to die for my sins. There were no audible voices or visions, but God’s love and mercy were unmistakable. It was His kindness that led me to repentance, not condemnation. I finally grasped, at a heart level, what undeserved grace means. And I realised that it was for people exactly like me.

It is not cheap grace. It is costly grace bought by Christ’s blood. And it is for everyone who knows they cannot save themselves, because nothing is impossible with God (Mark 10:26-27).

It’s almost thirty years since that experience, and I’ve not lived my Christian life on its heady emotional fumes. The truth is that nothing very dramatic has happened to me since, but today I still find myself crying as I read the first few verses of Ephesians 2, because I am more aware of God’s rich mercy and great love towards me each passing year. His kindness remains irresistible. His compassions are like a stream that keeps running through the dustiest deserts of life. If I didn’t know that Christ’s work was done and that I’m securely seated with Him in heaven, I would doubt my salvation every day. If I don’t depend each day on God’s undeserved grace, I swing like a pendulum between trusting in myself; striving to be good enough; or giving up altogether because I fail so often. If the Lord hadn’t pursued me with unfailing love when my back was turned to Him, I would surely still be lost.

Worship

*Listen to this beautiful song, Mercy, by Matt Redman.

Pray

(Prayer of Timothy Keller, Upon Rising).

Father, thank you for the grace that has preserved my life to this moment. Now give me enough love for this day—a sense of love from you (so I’m not scared or driven), a welling up of love for you (so I’m not proud or selfish), and a resulting love for others (so I am not cold or distracted). Let your Spirit illumine my mind and enlarge my heart for that. And because it means nothing to begin well if one does not persevere, I ask that you would continue and increase your grace in me until you have led me into full communion with your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, that I may see his beautiful and great glory. And as I laid down in sleep and rose this morning only by your grace, keep me in a joyful, lively remembrance that whatever happens, I will someday know my final rising—the resurrection—because Jesus Christ laid down in death for me, and rose for my justification. In Jesus’s name.

My favourite texts: Clay Jars

In 1947, a young Bedouin shepherd tossed a rock into a cave at Qumram near the Dead Sea. He heard a cracking sound and investigated. To his amazement, he found clay jars filled with papyrus and leather scrolls almost 20 centuries old. Tens of thousands more scroll fragments were discovered in nearby caves. These treasures had been preserved by a Jewish sect called the Essenes, before the Romans destroyed their settlement in 68AD. The Dead Sea scrolls contain most of the Old Testament books, including two full copies of Isaiah. In Biblical times, valuables like sacred parchments, money and jewels were often placed inside cheap, ordinary clay jars to safeguard and pass on to future generations. Unlike their costly contents, there was nothing fancy about these clay jars, which were made from sand and cracked easily. They were humble, transient household vessels to steward an enduring treasure. This is what Paul’s readers in Corinth understood when they read 2 Corinthians 4, especially verse 7:

For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. 11 For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. 12 So death is at work in us, but life in you. (2 Cor 4:5-12).

Treasure in clay jars

From the whole chapter, it is clear that Paul’s “treasure” is the gospel of the suffering, crucified and risen Christ. It is a message to be safeguarded and passed on through ordinary Christians like us, who live and speak for Jesus, as He lives in and through us.

As a Christian, it is easy to think that we will live for Christ in the next phase of life, when troubles ease up, or we are stronger, older, wiser and better trained to be his witness. It’s easy to see ourselves as his vessel in church or on mission trips, but not behind the kitchen sink, our desk, our car’s steering wheel or in a hospital bed.

But jars of clay are by definition unimpressive, ordinary and easily broken. They are common household objects made from dust, as we are. The power is not in the container, but in its life-giving contents. Credit is not due to the storyteller, but to God’s great, eternal story, whose protagonist is Jesus (2 Cor 4:5). According to Paul, God’s glory is most vividly seen when His people showcase the life and death of Jesus. Ironically, Christ is revealed not apart from our ordinary lives, but in and through them.

Paul’s clay jar

I’m skeptical of people who speak of things outside their personal life experience. (Like me telling my kids all about the wonders of Maths when I can barely add two and two!) But today’s text rings true, because of the life of the man who wrote it. Paul knew a thing or two about being a battered, undistinguished clay jar. And he knew firsthand that the costly “treasure” entrusted to him on the Damascus road had power to give life to the dead; sight to the spiritually blind; worth to the worthless, and forgiveness to even the worst sinner— Saul of Tarsus, persecutor of God’s people.

Since the day he saw the ‘face’ of the risen Christ and was blinded by God’s light, all that mattered to Paul was magnifying Jesus, who suffered and died in his place. It was the undeserved grace of God that motivated him through rejection and hardships that we can barely imagine—painful floggings, hard labour, shipwrecks, near-death experiences, sleepless nights, hunger and thirst, robbery, a snake bite, exposure in the seas and wilderness (2 Cor 11:23-30Acts 17:5). Added to this were the plots of the Jews (Acts 20:19) and painful attacks of false apostles who undermined his work in Corinth. They boasted of super-spiritual credentials and mocked Paul’s weakness and afflictions as proof that he was not spiritual enough. Yet, knowing that further suffering and imprisonment awaited him, Paul continued to serve the Lord Jesus with single-minded passion. He knew he was a weak vessel through whom Christ lived:  “However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace” (Acts 20:24 NIV).

Quite literally, Paul’s suffering and death for the gospel brought eternal life to millions of believers like us around the world (2 Cor 4:12).

Clay jars that serve

I can hear you say, “But I am nothing like the legendary Paul! I’m exhausted by the mere sight of a map of his missionary journeys! ” I feel the same way.

But the real Paul did not see himself as a legend at all, just a servant of the Lord (2 Cor 4:5). He served with “weakness, fear and much trembling.” He refused to peddle the gospel for his own fame or money, but just spoke directly and sincerely (2 Cor 2:17). He was not eloquent, wise or persuasive, but relied on the Spirit to bring life, so that the faith of his converts would not rest in man’s wisdom, but in God’s power alone (1 Cor 2:3-5).

Paul did not glory in his weaknesses and inadequacies, his sufferings and persecutions as a victim would do, but he knew that they were no barrier to God’s use. His competence and worth came from Christ alone, not himself. And unlike the super-apostles, he had no aspirations to be more than a clay jar.

Do we have the same attitude as Paul? Revealing the “face” of Christ is not only for apostles, missionaries or pastors. You are a uniquely placed jar, with a brief lifespan and singular opportunities that you alone will experience. When last did you talk to someone about the goodness of God in your life, or invite them to tell you their story (Ps 107:2)? Do people see that you find refuge and satisfaction in Christ, and rely on him to meet your needs? Do they watch you believing God when you are weak? Do they know that you find peace and joy in His presence, even when your circumstances are hard? Do they see you love and serve people without expecting affirmation? Have you ever thought of reading one of the gospels with a friend to re-discover the beauty of Jesus’s “face” together? Do you have hope when those around you have lost theirs?

All these “ordinary” things spotlight God’s glory and magnify the face of His Son. They also encourage other Christians in their faith.

In The Hobbit, Galadriel asks Gandalf why he brought Bilbo Baggins, a small weak hobbit, on a dangerous journey. Gandalf replies,

“Saruman believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keeps the darkness at bay, small acts of love. Why Bilbo Baggins? Perhaps it is because I am afraid, and he gives me courage.”

Clay jars that crack

In verse 7-12, Paul spotlights Christ’s power, which is most evident when we are weakest and unable to help ourselves. After all, Jesus did not come to gather the proud, but rather the poor and the destitute, the sick and the outcasts– those who were willing to repent of self importance. It’s no surprise then that our greatest strength and victory in the Christian life comes through hardship, not apart from it. The treasure of Christ shines brightest through the widest cracks in our clay pots.

That’s why Paul can make these four profound statements about every believer through whom Christ lives—Afflicted… but not crushed. Perplexed… but not in despair. Persecuted… but not forsaken. Struck down… but not destroyed (2 Cor 4:8-9). This is how Paul might answer us in our own afflictions:

Paul, I feel squeezed from every side. I’m oppressed by this darkness and can see no relief on the horizon.

“Yes, you’re hard pressed…and so was your Saviour. He bore your afflictions on the cross and stripped them of their power to crush you (Isa 53:4Matt 8:17). That’s why you’re a conqueror through Him who endured the cross for you (Rom 8:37).

Paul, I’m bewildered and confused, and don’t know what to do next. I can’t even pray.

“Yes, you’re perplexed…but Jesus is never confused. His Spirit will help and counsel you. He will strengthen and intercede in your stumbling prayers, until he has completed the work he began in you (John 14:26Phil 1:6Rom 8:26). Nothing in this world has the power to drive you to despair. Through Christ in you, you will overcome.”

Paul, I can’t take the mocking and criticism anymore. I feel a fool for believing you and the Bible, and I don’t know if I can keep standing for you any longer.

“Yes, you are persecuted for owning Christ’s name…but for His sake, you are blessed by God and never abandoned. “Lo, I will be with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt 5:10-12Matt 28:20). Nothing can separate you from God’s love in Christ” (Rom 8:39).

Paul, what if I’m knocked flat on my face by the unthinkable? What if the worst happens?

“Yes, you may be knocked down…but never knocked out. Jesus endured the unthinkable and rose to conquer it. If you are in Him and He in you, nothing can destroy you (1 Cor 4:10-12). He will fill you with joy in his presence, with eternal pleasures at His right hand” (Ps 16:11).

Broken jars that overcome.

Thank the Lord that our lives are not always dark and difficult! The Maker of all good things showers us with sweet pleasures and simple treasures to enjoy every day (Eccl 11:7-8). But we must never buy the lie that ‘victory’ always means sanctuary or deliverance from the troubles of life. That would have made Paul the most defeated Christian and Jesus the most pathetic failure that ever lived. We don’t have to wait for the “perfect” moment to show Christ’s face. That would be like a clay jar saying, “Wait until I’m painted and glazed, or until I’ve mended my cracks!” If He is our Treasure, out of our broken clay pots will come the radiance of Christ himself. That is victory.

Yet not I, but through Christ in me

Listen and pray the beautiful words of CityLight’s hymn, “Yet Not I, but Through Christ in Me”,

What gift of grace is Jesus my redeemer
There is no more for heaven now to give
He is my joy, my righteousness, and freedom
My steadfast love, my deep and boundless peace

To this I hold, my hope is only Jesus
For my life is wholly bound to His
Oh how strange and divine, I can sing: all is mine!
Yet not I, but through Christ in me

The night is dark but I am not forsaken
For by my side, the Saviour He will stay
I labour on in weakness and rejoicing
For in my need, His power is displayed

To this I hold, my Shepherd will defend me
Through the deepest valley He will lead
Oh the night has been won, and I shall overcome!
Yet not I, but through Christ in me

No fate I dread, I know I am forgiven
The future sure, the price it has been paid
For Jesus bled and suffered for my pardon

And He was raised to overthrow the grave

To this I hold, my sin has been defeated

Jesus now and ever is my plea

Oh the chains are released, I can sing: I am free!

Yet not I, but Christ in me.

With every breath I long to follow Jesus

For he has said that he will take me home

And day by day I know he will renew me

Until I stand with joy before the throne

To this I hold my hope is only Jesus

All the glory evermore to Him

When the race is complete, still my lips will repeat:

Yet not I but through Christ in me!

Amen.

(words and music by Jonny Robinson, Rich Thompson and Michael Farren.