Becoming a steadfast Christian

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our faith in the furnace

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

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

The power of perspective.

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

What does steadfastness look like? (v 3)

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

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

Perfect and complete, lacking nothing (v 4)

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

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

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

God’s grace is sufficient for you

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

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

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

Turn your eyes upon Jesus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seeing is believing

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

What John saw

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

John 20:1-10

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

“Back to their homes”

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

Slow to understand

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

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

Humiliated, hopeless and hiding

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

Unlikely witnesses

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

Last at the cross, first at the grave

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

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

Seeing and believing slowly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Believing is not blind faith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seeing through their eyes

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

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

I believe!

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

Live it out!

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


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

In Jesus’ name Amen.

Worship and meditate on the cross this Easter!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mark 15:25-39

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

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

The day the sun went down

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

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

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

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

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

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

The curse of the cross

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

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

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

The curse reversed

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

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

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

A cry and a curtain

(Mark 15:343738).

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

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

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

Jesus is the rip in the curtain!

This is how Hebrews explains it:

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

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

The last word

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

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

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

A convert

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

“Surely this man was the Son of God!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Led like a lamb

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

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

Behold the Lamb!

John 1:29

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus is our perfect substitute Lamb.

Led like a lamb

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Jesus just another powerless victim?

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

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

  1. We remember that Jesus is our substitute.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. We remember our atonement.

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

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

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

  1. We remember the gifts of Good Friday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holding onto truth like a hummingbird

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

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

1 John 2:24:

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

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

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

Rooted and built up in Him

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

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

The Rock

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

The endless cycle of idea and action,

Endless invention, endless experiment,

Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;

Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;

Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.

All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,

All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,

But nearness to death no nearer to GOD.

Where is the Life we have lost in living?

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?

Wisdom lost in knowledge

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

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

Endless invention

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

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

God’s voice

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

See his face first

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

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

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

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

Tell me the old, old story

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

“Christ Jesus makes thee whole.”

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Holding onto the truth (part 1)

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

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

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

They will hold firmly to the truth.

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

Spot the fake

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

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

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

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

Remain in Him

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

What you have heard from the beginning

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

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

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

A warning to the gullible

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

Paul paints a startling picture that resembles our own generation:

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

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

Every Christian’s birthright

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

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

Stewards of truth

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

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

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


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

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

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


The Bible Explore Bible Devotional App (The Good Book company on App store or Google play).

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

Truth For Life app. Alistair Begg’s daily Bible-teaching ministry.

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


The Gospel Coalition US and The Gospel Coalition Africa websites.

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

Love is…

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

No shades of grey

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

We are dead to sin and alive to Christ.

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

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

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

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

Love is… self sacrifice.

Love is… action not words.

Love is… laying down our lives for others.

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

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

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

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

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

The message you have heard from the beginning.

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

The spirit of Cain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Spirit of Christ

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

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

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

Love is not self determinism. Love is self sacrifice.

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

The world at war.

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

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

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

Live it out!

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

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

Gripped by Love

We are born lovers. It is written into our DNA as human beings. It’s not a question of whether we love, but whom we love. The object of our affection will grip our heart, no matter what we say we believe or think. Whoever holds the key to our heart will determine how we will live and die. The Apostle John says that being filled with love is the second proof of being ‘born of God’. The first proof is that we obey God (see Kill sin before it kills you). John tells us that there are two opposing forces that vie for our love. Like light and darkness, they cannot be fused and have nothing in common.

Either we will love God or we will love the world.

1 John 2:15-17:

Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 16 For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life is not from the Father but is from the world. 17 And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.

1 John 4:7-21

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation* for our sins. 11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us…

16 So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him…  19 We love because he first loved us. 20 If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.

Living and loving through Jesus

1 John 4:19 was the first Bible verse I ever learned by heart: “We love because He first loved us.” My toddler version was: “I wuv God ‘coz he first wuved me,” and I repeated that verse like a parrot because it made me feel good. God’s love is personal to me. It has made all the difference to my life, and has, over time, shaped crucial decisions and the places I seek security and joy. Every time I bump my head against sin and become aware of how lost and weak I am in myself, God’s love shines warmer and brighter as I realise just how undeserved his grace is. My Saviour’s love has freed me up to love people without worrying if there will be anything left over for me. I know He loves me today as much as He will love me on the day I take my last breath. He will love me in sickness and in health, for richer and poorer, in wise moments and in stupid ones! And death will never part us.

According to John, God’s love is what every child of God can “come to know and believe” as a fact, not just a theory (1 John 4:16). We are supposed to experience it as a reality for ourselves, because God has shown his love to us in a way that we cannot dispute (1 John 4:9-10). Because the holy God of the universe laid down his life for ours as a propitiation* for our sins, we can stake our life on this love. Even when it feels as though God is silent or has forgotten us. Even in the darkest dead-end streets of life, we can depend on it—without a shadow of doubt.

The acid test

For many years now I have led women’s Bible studies attended by ladies from a range of denominations, personalities and cultures. This week I have been with my children at university and attended my daughter’s student cell group. Beyond superficial differences in age, style and denomination, there is one quality that always arrests me in a community where God’s Spirit is alive and well: There is a tender affection for the Lord Jesus Christ. Christians who are growing and being sanctified by the Holy Spirit are eager to serve and obey God more, not out of duty or fear, but from a place of deep love and devotion. Even when they are struggling with life and have honest questions about their faith, they talk of Jesus in a personal, excited way as if He is precious and lovely to them. They are deeply offended if His name is dishonoured. For those who understand the gospel of grace, it is only natural to be completely devoted to the person who has rescued you from the precipice of disaster and death. And it is only logical that when you are gripped by God’s love, you will be moved by it to love others. It is a matter of cause and effect for Christ’s Beloved, as indeed we are if we are born again and know God (1 John 4:7).

Giving our hearts away

But even if we are God’s beloved, it is also easy for us to slip into a stale, stagnant faith over time. Love for God will always grow cold when we give the key of our heart to the world. Love of the world chokes our affection for Jesus. I do not know which is the chicken and the egg, but one thing is certain: if we are setting our hearts on things of the world, we cannot love God at the same time (1 John 2:15). These loves are always incompatible, because what the world delights in is not what our heavenly Father delights in, and vice versa (1 John 2:16). John gives you and me a serious reality check:

This world is not going to last, nor anything in it. Getting cozy with the world is like embracing a phantom in a fog.

If we are gripped by love of the world, we will stumble about aimlessly, eventually losing our way and wasting our life on stuff that is passing away—like vapour that slips through our fingers.  The world has a very short shelf life and we will have nothing to show for our investment in it. By contrast, living a life to please God is making an investment that lasts for all eternity (1 John 2:17). I am not a good shopper, and whenever I have spent longer than an hour at a shopping Mall, these words of Wordsworth’s poem ring like an alarm bell in my mind!

The world is too much with us; late and soon,

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—

Little we see in Nature that is ours;

We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

Three ways we give our hearts away

How exactly do we give our hearts away and “lay waste our powers”? The apostle John says, “Do not love the world or the things of the world” (1 John 2:15).  John is not speaking about loving nature or creation. In fact, the beauty of the universe restores us and should draw us closer to God, the Creator of everything (Ps 19:1-6). We do not give our hearts away or waste our time when we enjoy the blessings and cherish the people God has given us in this world. But John defines what he means by loving the world in 1 John 2:16:

Lust of the flesh and desire of the eyes is thirst for pleasure in things God has not designed to satisfy us. Selfish lust will always oust love, which is other-centred. Desire of the flesh and eyes is an inward-focussed striving or craving to have our needs met by whatever we have set our heart on– something which we do not have but yearn for. We give our heart away to what we desire most (Matt 6:21).

Pride of life is boasting (even silently) in things we do have– talents or things we have achieved, earned or acquired. When we give our heart away to pride, we stop loving God and others, and start serving ourselves instead. As long as we live for our own glory, we will always fear losing what the world has given us. Money can be a powerful symbol of self glory in a divided heart. That’s why Proverbs 62:10 gives us a wise warning, “If riches increase, set not your heart on them.” And the writer of Hebrews reminds us, “Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5).

When love grows cold

Loving the world always results in a cold heart towards Jesus. Our devotion to Him will become lukewarm and we will soon make excuses to avoid reading the Bible, praying and spending time with God’s people. It is hard enough to serve Jesus in a hostile world, but if we cling to the world’s trappings, we will lose our distinctive ‘saltiness’, becoming useless disciples (Matt 5:13). Flirting with the world is called ‘idolatry’ and is seriously offensive to God. We can no longer worship God with a full, blazing heart, in spirit and in truth. James puts it bluntly: Friendship with the world leads to enmity (hostility) with God (James 4:4).

So what should we do if our heart is growing cold towards Jesus? The only remedy is to acknowledge the false love (idol) that grips our affections and to ‘burn the ships’, seeking God’s face for forgiveness and renewal. We cannot overcome love of the world in our own strength, but Jesus says that He has overcome the world (John 16:33). If we are in Christ and God’s Spirit is breaking the power of sin in our lives, we too can overcome (1 John 5:4). But we cannot be complacent. We need to turn our eyes to Jesus and do whatever it takes to rekindle our love for our Saviour, just as we would work on a marriage where love has grown stale. We are not slaves to our feelings, but must act in love and obedience to God, and wait for our feelings to follow:

Prioritise time with the Lord, go for a long walk with Him, talk about what He has done for us, remind ourselves of our first spark of love when we were born again. Stay accountable and confess our sins to Christian brothers and sisters. In this way, we do not give the world a gap to woo us. Intimacy with God is something that is built over time, laying down one small brick of love at a time. Intimacy grows through feeding our appetites godly food and placing ourselves in the three channels of grace God has provided to keep our affections alive to Him: 1. Daily reading of Scripture. 2. Prayer. 3. Meeting with God’s people (see David Mathis’s book titled The Habits of Grace).

Who of us doesn’t struggle daily with  desires of the flesh, the eyes and the pride of life? But we will only loosen the world’s grip on our heart through a more powerful devotion to Jesus, who is infinitely greater than the one who is in the world (1 John 4:4).

Do you love me?

Christian ministry is dangerous without this powerful devotion to Jesus, the Saviour. That’s why our risen Lord asks Peter three times, “Simon, son of Jonas, do you love me?” Before Peter is commissioned to feed the church, he is not asked, “Do you believe me?” or “Will you obey me?” Or “will you serve me?”  Love is the foundation of our faith and our ministry. “Do you love me?” is the most searching question Jesus asks every Christian, since each of us has been sent into the world as His ambassador.

We love because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19). The love that grips our hearts will make the world of difference. Is it the love of Christ… or the world?

Live it out!

  • What do you think of most of the time? Turn now to Jesus and ask Him to be the centre of your thoughts, your focus and your desires.

Sing this wonderful hymn to remind yourself of your Messiah, “who holds forever those he loves.” Is He worthy, by Andrew Peterson.

* Meaning of propitiation – the act of placating the wrath of God through Christ’s atoning death on the cross. “The prefix pro means “for,” so propitiation brings about a change in God’s attitude, so that He moves from being at enmity with us to being for us. Through the process of propitiation, we are restored into fellowship and favour with Him.” (see

Kill sin before it kills you

“There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.” (Proverbs 14:12.) Paul expands this proverb in Romans 8:13: “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” A Christian is called to be a sin slayer.

The Bible is not ashamed of binaries. Life and death. Light and darkness. The Spirit and the flesh. There is no neutral or fluid space in between. We either follow the Father of lights and the source of life and peace (James 1:17Mal 2:5Rom 8:6). Or we serve Satan, the father of lies and a murderer from the beginning (John 8:44). We either live as children of the day or the night (1 Thess 5:5). For the apostle John, obedience to God is the first proof that we are born of God. Obeying God is key to sanctification, which is defined by the Westminster Shorter Catechism as “the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.” During the lifelong  process of sanctification we are freed from sinful habits and take on Christlike desires and character traits. Sanctification is real transformation from the inside out, not just a superficial change of behaviour. Although we are saved by grace alone, through faith in Christ alone, there is  something active and ruthless about dying to sin and living to righteousness. Whether we like it or not, we are in a war with Satan, the enemy of God and of any person who bears God’s name. We need to kill sin before it kills us. Our texts today are from 1 John:

1 John 1:5-7: This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.

1 John 3:4-10: Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that he appeared in order to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous. Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God. 10 By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.

Sin is the ultimate wrecking ball

As children of a fluid, shifting culture, we tend to put sins into boxes labeled “Excusable”, “Serious”, “Naughty but nice.” But the unchanging God has no such categories. According to the apostle John, all sin originates with Satan, who makes it his business to lead us away from our Creator and onto a path of sin and rebellion against Him. That path may look innocuous and fun, but all sin is “lawlessness” and ultimately leads to death (1 John 3:4James 1:15). If you are a Christian, sin will always torpedo the joy Christ gives you (John 15:11). It will grieve God’s ‘seed,’ the Holy Spirit who lives in you (1 John 3:9Eph 4:30), and it displeases the Father who purchased you at a great price (1 Thess 4:1).

Just as darkness and light have nothing in common, God’s Spirit doesn’t mix with sin in our lives (1 John 3:7;9). When we ‘practice sin’, we are rebels against God and cannot have fellowship or peace with Him or others. We are even at odds with ourselves (1 John 1:6,7). Since sin is essentially placing ourselves on the throne instead of God, it is the ultimate wrecking ball. There is no unhappier person than a Christian chasing treasure and pleasure apart from God.

Burn the ships

When the infamous Spanish explorer Cortez arrived in the New World in 1519 with 600 men, he ordered them to burn all the ships. His message was clear, “There’s no turning back.” Two years later he conquered the Aztec empire. Likewise, every Christian must die to self before following Jesus and taking our place in God’s family (Mark 8:34-35Luke 14:27). This means turning our back on sin and those thought patterns which go against God’s commands and character. In the blink of an eye, the cozy familiar ships can take us back to our old habits and the old self which used to rule us. The byproducts of sin are dire, and that’s why we cannot play or flirt with it.

We are called first to own and then disown our sin. That means to confess our sin to God and then  turn against it so that it loses its grip on us, to stop excuses and blame, to leave ourselves no option but to trust and obey God going forward. It means hating not just the effects of sin, but the sin itself. It can be like a painful amputation or a violent struggle, but the alternative is even more painful: If you are a true child of God, sin steals your peace, it gives you a heavy heart, and you will have no rest while you are still serving it. That’s why burning the ships is not optional!

If ‘burning the ships’ is too dramatic an image for you, let me give you a more concrete example from my own life: One of the joys of writing The God Walk is that the Holy Spirit is first tattooing on my own heart what I pass on in my devotions. (Tattoos are painful but hopefully the effects are permanent!) Yesterday as I was writing this, I was feeling aggrieved by something and it made me too agitated to write, so I got on my knees and asked the Lord to show me why my response was so disproportionate to the offence. The Spirit showed me that the root of my heaviness was a false treasure, something I cared about too much, a source of satisfaction I was seeking and serving. So, as I confessed this particular idol, I asked the Lord to help me ‘burn the ships’ so I could not return to it. I asked him to change my heart so that I would despise it and throw it in the fire. It was a struggle that went on all day each time my mind raced back its stupid destructive obsession. I realized that deep down I didn’t really want to burn that ship completely and confessed that too. There is perverse pleasure in holding onto sinful thoughts and I am a chief self-saboteur! But I have learned the war language of 2 Corinthians 10:5, “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” It is the internal battle of every believer, as Paul describes in Romans 7.

By the time the sun set, I received that wonderful gift that only the Spirit can give. John calls it a “heart at rest” (1 John 3:19), an assurance that we belong to the truth. Those destructive feelings abated and I was released from their tyranny. John says we can have confidence before God and know our prayers are heard “because we keep his commands and do what pleases him”, starting with believing in his Son, Jesus Christ. (1 John 3:2223). We do what is right and then our feelings will follow. Keeping God’s commands is a daily struggle of confessing, believing Jesus and actively ‘burning the ships’ of our sinful desires, regardless of our feelings. Remember that John is not saying a Christian will stop sinning completely, but that we will not “keep on sinning” without a care.

John Owen (a Puritan) wrote a famous series of sermons titled “The Mortification of Sin in Believers” which he first preached to a youth group in 1656. Imagine the shock and horror of doing that to a group of millennials today! (You can read it here.) Owen’s plea inspired the title of this devotion:

“Do you mortify; do you make it your daily work; be always at it whilst you live; cease not a day from this work; be killing sin or it will be killing you.”

If we are tempted to think John Owen was a little extreme, we must hear the words of our Saviour, who died to take away our sin and save us from death and judgment:

If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell. (Matt 5:43-48)

There is nothing meek and mild about this command to kill sin! It’s like slaying a dragon and may cause some injury along the way. You have to get out of your hammock to do it. But there is one thing you can be sure of:

Sin leads to sorrow and death, but holiness leads to happiness and life.

Sin in disguise: Live it out!

What complicates matters is that Satan masquerades as an angel of light and sin does not always look like death and darkness (2 Cor 11:14):  ‘Self esteem’ may be a handy disguise for pride. Gossip and slander may be dressed up as ‘sharing prayer needs’. Greed and envy may masquerade as ‘ambition’. Cheating often hides behind ‘competition’; boastfulness behind ‘assertiveness’; manipulation behind ‘victimhood’. Bitterness and unforgiveness can lurk behind a legitimate ‘grievance’. Rudeness may be labelled ‘task driven’. Unfaithfulness or unkindness can be justified as ‘authentic’ and ‘being true to self’. If denying ourselves and taking up our cross is Christ’s command to every believer, we can be sure that burning our ships means killing every sneaky version of self promotion—self righteousness, self pity, self absorption, selfishness, self protection and narcissism….That’s the flesh. Pride may seem like a protective shell, but it makes us hellbent on destruction. Pride does not mix with God’s Spirit inside us. Pride blinds us to Satan’s schemes to destroy our faith, our relationships and our witness to the world.

Destroying the destroyer

If Satan has evil schemes, Jesus has a good mission— to “destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8). Satan’s name means ‘accuser’ and his modus operandi from the beginning has been to accuse, deceive and deface the image of God in us. Satan delights in leading humans into sin so that he can accuse us before God and demand judgment. But the gospel writes a different script for Christians: Sin is so serious that God’s own innocent Son had to come to earth as a man to die in our place, to take our sin away, so that we would not face the judgment of God (1 John 3:5). That’s how Jesus destroys Satan’s works on the cross. But whenever we tolerate sin patterns in our lives, we collude with Satan. Sin is treason against God, a foothold for the enemy to deface God’s image and glory in us. But when we live lives of holiness and obedience, we live under the blessing and protection of our heavenly Father. That is pure joy.

Joy in Jesus

No matter how hard our struggle is, there is incredible happiness for a Christian who walks in holiness, abiding daily in Christ (1 John 3:6). Sanctification is like the process of a worm transforming into a butterfly. It means dying to the old self and coming alive as a beautiful new creation. It is the only route to wholeness.

A third John– John Piper– concludes, “There is a preaching that almost never highlights the truth that Christ died not only to secure our forgiveness but to secure our sin-killing obedience to the commandments of the New Testament. [Christ] bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. (1 Peter 2:24) The beauty and power of the cross of Christ is seen and enjoyed in the blood-bought experience of obedience to Christ’s commands. Experiencing this is a dimension of joy that can be had no other way. A Christian Hedonist won’t be satisfied without it.”

Live it out:

  • Meditate on these commandments of God: 1 Cor 6:9-112 Cor 6:14Titus 2:12Eph 5:3-5Gal 5:19-21; Col 3. Which of God’s commands has the Holy Spirit convicted you of lately?
  • What sin are you slaying in your life right now?
  • Pray for the Spirit’s power to deal with the most insidious sin that underlies all other sin: Pride.

Worship with music:

Burn the Ships (For King and Country–Click and listen here.) Download the whole album on Itunes. There is a personal story of sin-killing behind the song– a great reminder to step into a new day and kill sin… or it will kill you.

Next week we will explore God’s great command to love (and not to love). Love is the second mark of being born of God. We will continue in John’s first letter as we dig deeper into the doctrine of Sanctification.

A Holy Heritage

Being born again is a miracle that dramatically and permanently changes a believer’s trajectory. Through the gates of Radical Repentance we move from death to life; from darkness to light; from the orphanage to the family of the Triune God. In place of fear we have a Father, and the father of lies has no claim over our lives (John 8:44Eph 2:1;2;3). Last week’s devotion, “From Slaves to Sons” featured a picture of a person in a hammock overlooking the world. I loved that picture the minute I saw it! It suggested to me the joy of being a child of God:

No fear!

No longer a slave to fear but a beloved son/daughter of ‘Abba’ Father. No longer striving in my own efforts but resting in the perfect work of Jesus, my older Brother. Forgiven and free, secure in Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, with a new perspective and destiny. There’s no end to the blessings of being an adopted child of God, as we’ve been discovering the last few months on The God Walk.

But we cannot bask in the ‘hammock’ of these wonderful truths for the rest of our lives, hoping that the Holy Spirit will miraculously transform us! The gospel is only half a gospel if it revels in the wonder of justification, but never the lifelong process of sanctification. It’s like a runner who enters a trail race, hears the starter gun, and then sits beside the road to admire the view and the goodies in his hydration pack! The hydration pack equips and the view inspires us for the journey ahead, but we must use every muscle of our body to run all the way to the finish line. For a child of God, getting right with God is the starting line. Each day thereafter, we take active steps of obedience to the Father as we run in the footsteps of our Lord Jesus Christ. As children who are ‘born of God’, we must take hold of our holy heritage. According to John’s first letter, there are three proofs that we are children of God —Obedience, Love and a commitment to Truth. We will be examining these three proofs over the next few weeks as we look at the doctrine of sanctification. Our text today is 1 John 2: 1-628-293:1-2:

The proof of obedience

“My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him:whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which Jesus walked…28 And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming. 29 If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him.

 3:1 See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. 2 Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. 3 And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself, as he is pure.

Talk is cheap but the walk is costly.

The apostle John could not be more direct in his letter to all God’s children: A claim that we are God’s children is empty if not backed up by obedience to our heavenly Father. If we are truly ‘born of God’, we will ‘practice righteousness’ and walk the same path Jesus walked (1 John 2:529). It is matter of cause and effect.

John is in rapture as he reminds us of our identity as children of God and our heavenly family home (1 John 3:12). I love his affectionate words to motivate us to copy our older Brother’s example of purity (1 John 2:6293:3). Obedience to God’s moral standard is an expression of our love for the Father and the outflowing of His love for us (1 John 2:5). Obedience is an observable genetic trait which proves our holy heritage.

Peter and the apostles give us an example of how costly this obedience can be in a world that does not recognize Christ as Lord (1 John 3:1b). They chose to obey God rather than the world even though it cost them beatings, imprisonment and ultimately their lives (Acts 5:282941). We too are instructed to “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to Him” (Col 1:10), to practice righteousness, not just to talk about it (1 John 2:29). Talk is cheap, but the Christ-walk is costly. Jesus teaches the identical message in John 15:14,

“You are my friends if you do what I command.”

Jesus doesn’t offer suggestions or wise words. He is not fooled by false spirituality or bold claims (Matthew 7:22;23). He is Lord over every inch of our lives, because He is God. There are no half measures. Living as a Christian means obeying the Father as Jesus did (1 John 2:5,6). For Jesus, the cost of obedience was death on a Roman cross.

Never perfect but ever striving

But knowing that we are just little children who don’t look much like our older Brother yet, the gentle Apostle first encourages us (1 John 2:1). He reminds us of his earlier promise (1 John 1: 8,9,10.) There is no such thing as a perfect Christian and we are fooling ourselves and calling God a liar if we hide or deny our sin. Every time we fall, Jesus is there to defend us in the court of heaven as He’s paid our penalty in full (Rom 8:1). We are a work in progress.

But after the acquittal, we must look our sin square in the face and own it. Every moment we actively ‘abide’ (or continue) in Jesus (1 John 2:28), we place ourselves under God’s standards, not man’s. In fact, John calls us hypocrites if we claim to know God but habitually do as we please (1 John 2:4).

Just as children in a healthy family resemble their parents and try to please them, God’s children will take on the family likeness, even though we are not always perfect. Holiness is our distinct family heritage. But we do not strive in our own power. Remember that we are children of the Triune God and one of the members of the Trinity is the Holy Spirit, the guarantor of our adoption. He has made his home in our hearts. Only God’s Spirit can transform us into the image of Jesus ‘from one degree of glory to another’ (2 Cor 3:18). Only the Spirit’s conviction can help us to see our sin and ask for forgiveness (John 16:8). Only the Spirit can give us different desires (Phil 2:13). It is the Spirit of truth who opens our eyes to understand reality (John 16:12-15). Only the Counsellor empowers our prayers and helps us in our weaknesses (Rom 8:26). Only the Spirit gives us the power to exercise self control and say “No!” to sin (1 Cor 3:17). Only through the Holy Spirit can we produce good fruit (Gal 5:22;23). That’s why it’s impossible to please God unless we are born again and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (John 3:5;6;8).

There can be no holy heritage without the Holy Spirit.

Burn the ships!

You may be wondering what the feature picture at the top of this devotion is all about. You’ll have to join me next week to find out! In “Burn the Ships!” we will look at what it takes to “continue in Christ” and the unbreakable link between holiness and happiness. Don’t miss it! As a sneak preview in the meantime, you can listen to our family’s favourite song Burn the Ships (For King and Country–Click and listen here.)

Live out today’s devotion:

  1. Be honest about your Christ-walk. Spend time thinking and praying about whether your walk matches your talk. Ask people close to you whether they can see the proof of obedience in your life in real concrete ways.
  2. What command of God the Father have you recently obeyed? Was there a cost to yourself?
  3. Worship as you meditate on the holiness of God and the work of the Trinity in your life. Click on here to listen the hymn, Holy, Holy, Holy sung by Shane and Shane. Only when we get a glimpse into the character of God can we truly appreciate our identity as Abba’s child and the Spirit’s work in our lives. Pray about what the words of this hymn mean to you.