Reminding People of God’s Reality

Last week I was asked to give a devotional for our church’s deacon meeting. I used the time to issue the following challenge – perhaps it will be edifying to you as well.

Reminding People of God’s Reality

I want to suggest that most of us get caught up in a reality of our own making so easily, and for so long, that it is often difficult to see God’s reality. This is especially true for those who are suffering. It seems more and more often that as I minister to the body of Christ, that men lean on the shallowness of watered down devotionals, and trinkets of the Word of God taken out of context and plunked down in ‘5 easy steps to happiness’, or ‘how to successfully arrange your day by God’s word.’

Too often have I visited a sick person who has wandered through unsatisfying pages of tripe, when he needs the richness of God’s unvarnished Word. It is your mission to bring that richness to their lives.

Yet, by His grace He has given us several means through which we may see His reality more clearly. Some of these include sharing a testimony from our own lives. Sometimes God uses great literature with rich stories of adventures in other words to bring back a wandering mind into the realities of His governance over this world. Very often though, He uses the traversing of a great wilderness where all good things seemed stripped away, to bring us to nothing in order that we would be reminded that we have everything we need in Him.

Some of the people we are ministering to do not want to spend time in God’s Word. They do not know it, or they have too often allowed the words of men – mostly weak kneed and watered down devotionals – to come between them and the words of God.

When they encounter the Word of God in all its brightness, they are brought back to reality – a reality of God’s making. They realize both judgment and grace. This is the best and most effective way to bring someone back to reality. Yet for the unwilling, there are these other more subtle ways of grace that God uses as “first steps” back to His glorious word.

Well-written fantasy, or allegory, can do just that. C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein wrote in such powerful prose that readers are transported from their world to another. In this other world they once again recognize the principles that rule our own world.

Tolkein wrote clearly about this saying…

“The Evangelium has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them, especially the “happy ending.” The Christian has still to work, with mind as well as body, to suffer, hope, and die; but he may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed. So great is the bounty with which he has been treated that he may now, perhaps, fairly dare to guess that in Fantasy he may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation. All tales may come true; and yet, at the last, redeemed, they may be as like and as unlike the forms that we give them as Man, finally redeemed, will be like and unlike the fallen that we know.”[1]

In Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, the ‘Voyage of the Dawn Treader’, a conversation ensues between Lucy, Edward, and the Christ-like character Aslan, which brings out similar truths:

“It isn’t Narnia, you know,” sobbed Lucy. “It’s you. We shan’t meet you there. And how can we live, never meeting you?”

“But you shall meet me, dear one,” said Aslan.
“Are -are you there too, Sir?” said Edmund.

“I am,” said Aslan. “But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.”[2]

But not everyone we minister to will have this literary background. Sometimes we find people so lost in despondency, and in the desert of their own suffering, that the only escape for them is the few hours of restless sleep they glean every night. We catch them, as it were, in the wasteland.

And it does no good to nurture the idea that God did not ordain their circumstances. Indeed, that is the lie which undermines our very ability to comfort them. Rather, we must point them to the truths of the gospel, and bring them to the only one who can anoint them with the balm necessary to salve their scabbed and worn feet from the desert walk.

It is in the desert where God trained Israel to have affection only for Him. It was in exile that great leaders were born. It was out of Egypt that God called His Son.

For as Samuel Rutherford points out, in a reference to Hosea 2:

I rejoice that He is come and hath chosen you in the furnace; it was even there where ye and He set tryst; that is an old gate of Christ’s. He keepeth the good old fashion with you, that was in Hosea’s days (Hosea 2:14). “Therefore, behold I will allure her, and bring her to the wilderness and speak to her heart.” There was no talking to her heart while He and she were in the fair and flourishing city and at ease; but out in the cold, hungry, waste wilderness, He allureth her, He whispered into her ear there, and said, “Thou art mine.”[3]

No matter what these “first steps” are, they are God’s gracious gifts to bring back wandering sheep to His fold.

It is our mission as leaders of the church to set that truth in front of them. That truth is this: All you are going through now is not meaningless. It is preordained by God in Christ so that you will treasure Him and His reality above all things.

Therefore my charge to you as leaders is to prevent nothing from coming between the people you are ministering to, and the great realities of the gospel of Christ. Do not let the watered down devotionals of our day, which are often Christ-less and bloodless, be your first line of defense. Take up great allegory from titans of literature, take up great writing from the Puritans, take up experience from God’s work in your own life and show how He has been faithful. Yet above all, take up the Word of God, and use it to shake men and women from the false realities of their own making. Shine truth into their lives in vivid colors and clearly written phrases. Do all you can to showcase the bloody, costly, gracious, glorious gospel of Christ, and in boldness and gentleness pour love into the lives of those you minister to in the weeks and months ahead.

I’ll just close with some thoughts from John Piper to those who are suffering, and the importance of preaching God’s Word to themselves in the midst of the wilderness:

Not only is all your affliction momentary, not only is all your affliction light in comparison to eternity and the glory there. But all of it is totally meaningful. Every millisecond of your pain, from the fallen nature or fallen man, every millisecond of your misery in the path of obedience is producing a peculiar glory you will get because of that.

I don’t care if it was cancer or criticism. I don’t care if it was slander or sickness. It wasn’t meaningless. It’s doing something! It’s not meaningless. Of course you can’t see what it’s doing. Don’t look to what is seen.

When your mom dies, when your kid dies, when you’ve got cancer at 40, when a car careens into the sidewalk and takes her out, don’t say, “That’s meaningless!” It’s not. It’s working for you an eternal weight of glory.

Therefore, therefore, do not lose heart. But take these truths and day by day focus on them. Preach them to yourself every morning. Get alone with God and preach his word into your mind until your heart sings with confidence that you are new and cared for.[4]

 

footnotes

[1]J.R.R. Tolkein, ‘On Fairy Stories’, http://www.rivendellcommunity.org/Formation/Tolkien_On_Fairy_Stories.pdf?utm_source=Desiring+God&utm_campaign=b5ec8d8fa5-RSS_EMAIL_CAMPAIGN&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_6da5f8315b-b5ec8d8fa5-99744309

[2] C.S. Lewis, ‘The Voyage of the Dawn Treader’, As quoted on goodreads.com, http://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/3349054-the-voyage-of-the-dawn-treader.

[3] Samuel Rutherford, ‘The Loveliness of Christ’, Pg. 64-65.

[4] John Piper, as found on desiringgod.com, http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/a-song-for-the-suffering-with-john-piper

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Weekend Reading: June 20, 2014

Summer is finally here (officially)!  So grab a towel and the kids and head to the pool – and keep your ipad or smartphone with you for some weekend reading.  Here are my top stories, videos, and things to check out as you kick back, or gear up for a busy weekend:

Amazon Fulfillment Center Insider’s Look – this was just a fascinating look inside Amazon’s gigantic warehouses – highly recommend you skim through this one.

HGTV cancels show due to Christian overtones – this is pretty much standard fair these days, but in case you missed it, two brothers who were stars in a brand new HGTV show titled ‘Flip it Forward’ have had their show canceled because **shockingly** they oppose muslim terrorists, abortion, and gay rights.

Disease is on the Border – if you’ve been watching the news at all lately, you’ve noticed that a flood of illegal immigrants has been amassing in Texas and Arizona. Many have come from South America via Mexico and are bringing contagious diseases with them.

Is Success Dangerous? – Jared Wilson says so, and has some good things for Christians to keep in mind.

America in a Spiritual Crisis – potential Presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul said Friday that America needs revival more than it needs political leadership…I agree with him there!

Great Music from Keith and Kristyn Getty – If you attend our Thursday Lifegroup here in Dublin Ohio you’ll know we sang a new song last night from this more recent release of the Getty’s.  Check it out!

Travel by Drone! – This is a neat website where you can check out videos from cameras strapped to drones in top cities all over the world. A fun little diversion if you’re curious what Berlin or Kiev looks like from a few thousand feet above the ground.

Seeking the Face of God – this 2009 article by John Piper was helpful to me this week as I did a personal study on what it means to “seek the face” of the Lord.  One of my favorite scriptures is 1 Chron. 16:11 because it was Katie’s signature verse used to sign her love letters to me in college and reflected her desire for me to put God first – even before her.  Preview: “This setting of the mind is the opposite of mental coasting. It is a conscious choice to direct the heart toward God.”  Along similar lines, check out David Mathis’ article on ‘Bringing the Bible Home to Your Heart’ – h/t Parris Payden

My dog ate my emails – Former IRS Chief Lois Lerner’s emails seem to have disappeared, yet White House officials are unapologetic.  Go figure.

What do you do when you’re stuck in the Vegas Airport overnight? Why, shoot a music video using your iphone of course! – pretty funny stuff here! h/t Parris Payden

Pornolescence – Timely article by Tim Challies this week on the nature of Porn and its affect on Christian homes across America. – h/t Parris Payden

Hollywood Hearts Abortion and PCUSA Gay Marriage Update – Al Mohler gives a rundown on the vote of the Presbyterian Church USA (the more liberal of the two mainline Presbyterian denominations) to allow their ministers to marry same-sex couples.  He also discusses a new movie out of Hollywood’s sewers which seeks to make an abortion plot-line into a romantic comedy. Discretion advised if you’re listening with kids around.

How Suffering Leads to Joy and Hope – Two weeks ago I preached a message from Romans 5:1-5 on how suffering brings endurance, character and hope which ultimately yields joy.  The audio from that sermon is now posted if you have a desire to check it out.

In the Aftermath of Disappointing Elections – Tim Challies writes about his disappointment in the aftermath of the Ontario Elections the other day and how his faith, like Abraham’s, must be grounded in God’s character.  I wrote a similar piece just after the 2012 elections – find that little piece of archive goodness HERE. 

Resources, Resources!

Pray like a Puritan! – Looking for help in your prayer life? Check out the Valley of Vision.  These puritan prayers will inspire, deepen, and lift your heart as you prepare to spend time with the Lord.  Really enjoy this book!

Spurgeon at 180 – This week would have been C.H. Spurgeon’s 180th Birthday, and to celebrate the Confessing Baptists are giving away a complete sermon series – enter to win at the link above! h/t Parris Payden

Suffering and Hope

About a year ago I wrote a blog post called ‘suffering yields hope’, and today I get to take the text from that post (Romans 5:1-5) and preach a sermon based on that text.  I’ll be using some of the thoughts I had a year ago when I posted those thoughts, but below are my expanded notes on the matter.  In this particular text Paul is examining how hope is sparked (to use Tom Schreiner’s vocab) through adversity.  This is an odd thing for the saint to proclaim upon first blush, but as you look deeper into the text it makes a great deal of sense – at least “for those who have eyes to see.”

I pray you profit by the notes, and by this look at how suffering produces in us character and endurance – not in a vacuum, but by the powerful work of God’s Spirit within us.

PJW

Suffering Yields Hope: A look at Romans 5:3-5

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:1-5 ESV)

My thesis is that we Christians can have joy because of both the finished work of Christ, AND because of the unfinished working of God in our lives through trials. The first was accomplished through suffering, and so is the second, and tonight I want to explore how trials work to bring us joy.

From a personal perspective, this passage means a great deal to me. About a year ago my wife Kate and I began memorizing the first five verses in chapter five as a sort of faith response to some adversity we were working through.

I had lost my job and was in the nascent stages of a trying to figure what the future held for my family and my career. As Katie and I memorized and talked about the passage together, we began to see how God could use our trial to refine and even bless us more than we could have imagined at the time.

My sermon notes were born from a blog post I hammered out on my iPhone in a café in Old Town Alexandria. It was one of the most discouraging trips to the Washington DC area in recent memory, and in the midst of trying to refresh some old connections, I stopped between meetings and contemplated what this passage really meant.

Like Jacob, I was wrestling with God. I needed to know that my pain was more than simply an accident, more than just a cosmic mix up.   What I learned to do was trust in the word of God. To believe God and to bank on His promises and believe there is really hope for tomorrow. That’s what this passage is all about – promises and a hope born out of adversity, refined by pain, and sealed by the Spirit of God who is our down payment on that hope until the day Christ returns. Before we look at the passage let’s ask God for His blessing upon our evening.

Background of Justification

I’m going to focus tonight on Verses 3-5, but first we need to understand the foundation upon which Paul builds his case for hope:

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. (Romans 5:1-2)

Paul has spent the last chapter (four) arguing that Abraham was justified by faith and that this same faith that justified Abraham is what makes us right with God as well.

The result of this justification – this right relationship with God – is peace with God. John Stott says, “The pursuit of peace is a universal human obsession, whether it is international, industrial, domestic, or personal peace. Yet more fundamental than all these is peace with God, the reconciled relationship with him which is the first blessing of justification.

Abraham had faith in the future work of Christ, whereas we have faith in the finished work of Christ. It is this faith in Christ’s bloody cross-work that brings us peace with God. As Paul says elsewhere:

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. [14] For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility [15] by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, [16] and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. (Ephesians 2:13-16 ESV)

So Paul is describing the result of this reconciled relationship with God – and the result is peace and hope. That hope is “in the glory of God.” That is to say, that we rejoice in the fact that one day we will inherit the great result of a relationship with God – eternal life in His presence, amidst His glory.

This is point one – we have joy in the hope of future glory because of what Jesus has done for us on the cross.

Yet there is something missing isn’t there? All of the language employed by Paul indicates that there is peace with God now, and yet we still do not have realized peace in every area of our lives. There is a tension that every Christian faces between what is realized here in this life, and what will be enjoyed in the life to come – this is known as the “already/not yet.

It is the reality of this tension that leads Paul to explain to us that the hope we have through trials is grounded in the reality, both seen and unseen, of what Christ has accomplished through His reconciling work on the cross. But hope is also found in His subsequent work within us through the Holy Spirit which leads to His glory and our assurance.

Paul, who is a master at anticipating our doubt and cutting it off at the knees, goes on to explain these great truths and how they work themselves out. Having laid a foundation for how the gospel of Christ’s work brings us peace, he expands upon the thought…

Rejoicing in Sufferings and the Sequence of Joy

More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:3-5 ESV)

As I was examining this verse – verse 3 – a year ago during my own trials, I’ll admit that Paul’s words “we rejoice in our sufferings” seemed far from my own present reality. His writing didn’t match my attitude. But as is so often the case, God’s word corrected my attitude, and as I read through Paul’s reasoning I began to realize that there is a process in all of this – a sequence of events. God wasn’t going to grant me a sudden intellectual understanding that would zap my emotions and heart and that would be it. I had to live it, and work through it over time.[i]

I had to trust that this was the way He worked and that He was meticulously sovereign over the circumstances in my life. Most of us believe God is sovereign over all things, do we not? But do you believe that He is meticulously sovereign? Do you believe that His hand is in everything – allowing the evil and the good in your life as a means of refining you?

Well this is what Paul believed – Romans 8:28 ought to be a dead give away there. Here in chapter five Paul gives a detailed explanation as to why it is that as Christians we can expect an even greater hope from sufferings and it involves a sequence of refinement.

1. Suffering Produces Endurance

Tom Schreiner says, “Those who undergo troubles are toughened up, so that they are able to withstand the storms of life.”

And Paul was no stranger to these storms; he was writing from experience. In 2 Corinthians 11 we read this:

Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. [24] Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. [25] Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; [26] on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; [27] in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. [28] And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. (2 Corinthians 11:23-28 ESV)

Yet through this Paul saw what trials yielded: Joy and Hope. Hope begets joy and the Spirit affirms (Rom. 8:16) that we are right to hope – he whispers to us that we won’t be disappointed in what our Father has planned for us!

Think about that closely and it makes sense. If you’ve been going through the exercise of running, you will gradually gain more and more endurance. The more you run, the longer you can run, the farther you can run, and what seemed like a difficult objective two months ago, is really a piece of cake today – you’ve built up endurance.

2. Suffering Produces Character

The same is true of character. As you run this race of life, and your endurance is built up, you will develop maturity. This is true of any human being, but it is also true of our spiritual lives as Christians. We develop a depth of maturity when we have endured many seasons of difficulty. We’ve been there. We know what to expect, and our minds are prepared. We have character – worn from years of first hand experience.

As John Stott says, “…if suffering leads to glory in the end, it leads to maturity meanwhile.”

God uses trials to produce character. The word here in the Greek is Dokime (dock-ee-may) and it’s the quality of a person who has been tested and has passed the test.[ii]

It is perhaps the most painfully ironic thing about life that human beings learn more from pain and testing than we do from blessing and easy times. We shouldn’t be surprised when our heavenly Father uses trials to create within us a character that leans on Him, and is more like His Son Jesus.

It is the testimony of history that those saints who have gone through the toughest trials have long endured as men and women of great character. Of course I have already mentioned Paul as our example, and we know Christ is our ultimate example, but there are scores of others throughout church history who have found themselves refined and built up in their faith by the trials God allowed to come their way. The testimony of history is so pervasive with this theme that many years ago John Foxe was compelled to document how Christian martyrs had died in the faith with great joy and zeal for their Lord.

When we have trial-refined character we see things like these men and women who died for their faith saw them. They learned to prize what is truly valuable above all the things of this life – their perspective was eternal and it was based in reality and work that Christ had accomplished on the cross and in their lives.

3. Suffering Produces Hope

As we build character hope is sparked. Character begets hope because the man or woman with character is wise; they have knowledge combined with wisdom and therefore know where to place their confidence. They’ve seen life’s transient and fleeting nature, and they know what the real stuff of life consists of (so to speak).

This long view is more than earthly wisdom earned by grey hairs, it’s spiritual wisdom banked by miles of suffering and character forming. It’s the experience of the Potter’s clay who (personified) looks down on the shop floor with knowing glances at the discarded mud that used to hang upon its/his ever winnowed cylindrical frame.

Schreiner rightly says, “Why does tested character spark hope? Because moral transformation constitutes evidence that one has really been changed by God. Thus it assures believers that the hope of future glory is not an illusion. There is a pattern of growth in the here and now, however imperfect, that indicates that we are changing. Believers, then, become assured that the process that God has begun he will complete (1 Cor. 1:8; Phil. 1:6).”

Not Put to Shame

As we go through this sequence of refinement, it is God’s love poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that witnesses to us, so to speak, that these trials are for a reason – a purpose.

This is point 2 of my thesis – that this internal witness of God’s love in our hearts is what causes us not be put to shame and to have hope through suffering. Therefore (as Stott says) “suffering is the best context in which to become assured of God’s love.”

“…the Spirit has the unique ministry of filling believers with the love of God. What Paul refers to here is the dynamic experience of the Spirit in one’s life.”[iii]

This is such an intangible thing isn’t it? I mean, how do you explain to an unbeliever that you know God’s working these things to your good? Obviously you point them to Scripture, but it’s hard to explain to them that when you read these Scriptures there’s an internal assurance going on. The Spirit is reassuring your heart and God’s love is made manifest to you in such a clear way that its simply undeniable that what is going on in your life is happening for a good reason.

As Stott rightly says, “what the Holy Spirit does is to make us deeply and refreshingly aware that God loves us. It is very similar to Paul’s later statement that ‘the Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children’ (8:16). There is little if any appreciable difference between being assured of God’s fatherhood and of his love.”[iv]

So while Christ’s finished work on the cross is our bedrock reality, and the great truth upon which our lives and future lives are built, God still has a plan for our refinement here in this life. That is what this sequence is all about. Paul is showing that we can have joy both because of what God has done in Christ, and also what God is doing through the Spirit in us now. For this reason we are not put to shame.

Now some might interject that hope can only be gained amidst trials if we respond correctly to trials. That is probably correct. However, God is working in us to help us do just that. He is working out His will within us and that’s why the link here with Romans 8 is so important and why we need to lean heavily on God during trials – indeed that is a great deal of what trials are meant to make us do. Therefore, we need to remember three key truths about this refinement process:

  1. That God is working for His good pleasure and is invested in this process of our life’s pains and trials

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, [13] for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12-13 ESV)

  1. That God is powerful enough to finish what He started

And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. (Philippians 1:6 ESV)

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. [29] For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. [30] And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. [31] What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? (Romans 8:28-31 ESV)

  1. That Jesus Himself suffered and saw joy through the agony and shame

We can look at Jesus, our supreme example, to see how He endured trials because of the hope He had – a well founded hope – that God would justify Him in His work. Listen to what Hebrews says:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, [2] looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1-2 ESV)

And Jesus was justified in His hope was He not? Paul certainly believes He was because of the resurrection. The resurrection confirmed that Jesus’ hopes were not in vain. And because we are united with Christ spiritually, we have reason for the same hope He had. Consider Romans 6:

We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Romans 6:4-5 ESV)

Jesus set for us not only the example of suffering, but of how to suffer: in joyful hope for a future not be worthy to be compared to this present age.

Conclusion

Therefore, the internal testimony of the Spirit, and the love God has shed abroad in our hearts, combined with the truth of Christ’s finished work on the cross, ought to give us ample reason for joy and for hope in this life.

As Christians, we look back (to the cross) we have hope. We look around us now (at our trials) we have hope. We look ahead (to Christ’s return) to the future, we have hope.

How many of us here will be spending some time – maybe a lot of time – in the hospital in coming days? How many of us will deal with sickness? How many of us will deal with job loss or financial difficulty? How many of us will have strife in relationships?

My guess is that the answer to all of these questions is that all of us will be dealing with these things because that is the life we’re promised. We’re not promised to have it easy when we become a Christian. The Christian life is a life of joy through adversity, not life without trouble.

God is calling us to believe in His promises, and to ground our hopes and our attitudes in the reality of His finished work on the cross, and the work He’s doing in our lives as evidenced by His love poured out through the Holy Spirit dwelling inside of us.

The consequences of this are vast. It means that sickness and death and financial ruin are cause for great joy. That’s right – great joy! These are signs of adoption, “God is treating you as sons” (Hebrews 12).   The real question we need to ask ourselves tonight is whether our attitudes reflect the reality of these truths. If you are a Christian and you are bitter about your circumstances then I urge you to repent of that bitterness and see that God is working in you to refine you and build your character in order to make you more like His Son.

If you are not a Christian, then this must seem completely foreign to you and probably a little strange. To think that the worst things in life can actually be turned on their heads in order to signify great blessing just isn’t a normal way of thinking about life – but that’s what Christ has done. He has turned the world upside down (Acts) and confounded the wisdom of the wise of this age. If you are not a believer in Christ, if you have not put your full faith and trust in His work on the cross, then you are still estranged from God and His wrath abides on you. You do not have peace with God, and the promises of peace and real joy in this lifetime and in the life to come are not yours…but they can be.

“Since Jesus is the Son of God…God’s saving promises are fulfilled only in Jesus and in knowing Jesus as the Son of God.”[v] Lay aside your pride and trust in Christ. Submit to His Lordship and repent of your sin – He is calling you to follow Him and to a life of abundant joy. Call upon His name and be saved.

 

 

 

[i] I like what Wiersbe says, “Justification is no escape from the trials of life…No amount of suffering can separate us from the Lord; instead trials bring us closer to the Lord and make us more like the Lord.”

[ii] John Stott, commentary on romans, page 142.

[iii] Schreiner, Commentary on Romans, page 257. He also quotes from Edwards here on how when the Spirit communicates God’s love, he’s basically communicating himself (I assume he means his character because of the doctrine of simplicity of God — God is love).

[iv] John Stott, Commentary on Romans, page 143.

[v] Tom Schreiner’s NT Biblical theology, chapter 7, pg. 233. This statement actually comes from the context of describing who Jesus is in relation to Johannine titles (the I Am and “logos” etc.) and how it is in knowing Jesus himself that is the key – the saving key, as it were – to being a part of/recipient of God’s promises (to Abraham and those who trust in what Jesus said). I enjoyed adding this quote because how often do we think of quoting a scholarly work when giving an invitation! Ha! The idea just made me chuckle – yet isn’t it true that it is the theology – when correctly understood – leads us to a right understanding of who God is? And that is the call here – for a right understanding of who Jesus is and for us to be reconciled to Him.

Relying on the Supernatural Power of Christ for Life and Strength

Below is a sermon I preached this past week on John 18:1-27.  It is the story of Peter’s three denials, and the power of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane.  The weakness of man contrasted so clearly against the backdrop of Christ’s majestic power is hard to miss.  I hope you find the notes enjoyable!

Impotency and Sufficiency: Relying on the Supernatural Power of Christ for Life and Strength

Chapter 18:1-27

Introduction/Overview

The more I read this section of Scripture, and the more I prayed about this message, the heavier the burden became to examine with you a few very simple, yet profound truths this morning.

First, the hopeless, helpless condition of Peter and all humanity who might try and save themselves – and indeed there is a need of saving.

Second, the majestic power of Jesus displayed in the saving power of His gospel. His very name brings men to their knees, and His triumph is through tragedy – and so also can yours be if you trust in His power and not your own.

Background

Now in the lead up to the events we’ve just read about that transpired the morning that Jesus Christ was captured and taken prisoner have been enumerated in chapters 13-17.  It has been a few months since you studied these passages, so let me just remind you that Jesus had come into Jerusalem riding on a colt – people triumphantly praising His arrival, which John details in chapter 12.

Then, John records an extraordinary series of teachings from Jesus to His disciples in the final hours of His life before the early morning events we read about in chapter 18.  These final chapters (13-17) are called his “farewell discourses”, though chapter 17 is really just a prayer between Him and the Father. This prayer is typically called ‘The High Priestly Prayer of Jesus.’

And having spent time on this already, I will not review all that was said, except to remind you that in that prayer Jesus explicitly prayed for His disciples, and not for the “world.”  He makes special mention of those who He came to save, and makes intercession on their behalf.  You really get the feeling from chapter 17 that there is a plan that is unfolding hour by hour here, that the Father and the Son who is filled with the Spirit are working in complete coordination on the unfolding of their glory in a way that will seem terrible and confusing to any bystander unacquainted with Jesus’ teaching.

The main thing to realize coming into this chapter is that Jesus is in complete control over that plan, and over every hour and indeed every moment of His life. As Jesus has already told us in chapter 10:

For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. [18] No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.” (John 10:17-18 ESV)

Now, let’s get into the text before us…

18:1-5 When Jesus had spoken these words, he went out with his disciples across the brook Kidron, where there was a garden, which he and his disciples entered. [2] Now Judas, who betrayed him, also knew the place, for Jesus often met there with his disciples. [3] So Judas, having procured a band of soldiers and some officers from the chief priests and the Pharisees, went there with lanterns and torches and weapons. [4] Then Jesus, knowing all that would happen to him, came forward and said to them, “Whom do you seek?” [5] They answered him, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus said to them, “I am he.” Judas, who betrayed him, was standing with them.

The Context

The brook “Kidron” is the Hebrew name for “Cedron” and means “dark waters”, and as A.W. Pink says is “emblematic of that black stream through which He was about to pass.”  The brook was on the east side of the city and eventually flows into the Dead Sea.  It runs between Jerusalem and the Mount of Olives some 200 feet below the base of the outer court of the Temple – it was on the west side of the city that Jesus was crucified (Pink/Josephus/Carson).

Pink notes the fulfillment of a few OT types:

…in crossing the brook Cedron, accompanied by His disciples, another Old Testament type was most strikingly fulfilled. In 2 Samuel 15 (note particularly verses 23, 3-, 31) we read of David, at the time of his shameful betrayal by his familiar friend Ahithophel, crossing the same brook; crossing it in tears, accompanied by his faithful followers. So David’s Son and Lord, crossed the Cedron while Judas was betraying Him to His foes.

So Jesus, having retired to a garden for prayer, to commune with the Father, is approached by a band of men led by Judas the betrayer. John doesn’t give all the details that the other gospel writers do here, and I think James Boice is right that he doesn’t do this because his goal is not to focus (as with Luke) on the humanity of Christ (sweating blood for instance), but rather on the power of the Son of God.

The number of men here is likely to be around 200 or so.  From the Greek text the word “cohort” usually is meant 1,000 men including cavalry, but the noun used here is speira which “can refer to a ‘maniple’ of only 200 men, and it is not necessary to assume that an entire maniple was present” (Carson/MacArthur).  The size of the group is an indication of the caution the Romans had during feast days when they would consolidate their troops in Jerusalem and garrison them at Antonia (Carson) in order to control any uprisings among the Jews.

In any case, the way that John has laid out the text here is to show that Jesus is in control of all of these events. Note that He picks the place where He will be found.  He doesn’t try to run to a new secret location knowing that Judas is on the loose etc.  No.  He goes to a familiar place, and knows full well that Judas will certainly find Him and fulfill a plan laid long before the foundation of the world.

Notice also that Jesus is the one who begins the confrontation with the soldiers. He initiates the conversation.  Though the scene must have been frightening, a mob of men with torches and weapons in the middle of the night, Jesus isn’t caught off guard or surprised by the arrival of this band of men.

John’s point about the knowledge and planning of the Son couldn’t be made more clear, “knowing all that would happen to Him,” John tells us that Jesus was in the drivers seat.

As John MacArthur says, “The apostle skillfully demonstrates that the shameful, debasing things done to Christ failed to detract from His person, but rather offered decisive proof of His glory.”

Some Practical Takeaways on Suffering

As we see Christ face the cross with utter certainty that the Father is with Him (John 17), we can take with us the promise that He is always with us no matter where we go, or what we go through (Matt. 28). Come what may, be it the loss of a loved one, or of a job, or whatever, He is with us, guiding our life with meticulous sovereignty (Ware).  Do you think God is taken by surprise by any of this?

He knows the details of your life because He ordained the details of your life. Even the sickness and the death. Even the loss and the letdown. God planned it all from before the world began.  And if you are not a Christian then you have no lens to properly view these events. They are foggy, and disheartening, and potentially even devastating. Without the eyes of Christ you are driving 80 mph through dense fog all the while hoping for the best and yet still surprised when you hit a pole.

Death and sickness and tragedy will come – we are promised they will come. But we who have Christ must view these events in their proper perspective – not simply as allowed by God but ordained by Him for our good and His glory. That is another sermon altogether! But needless to say that the God whose hand was in the suffering and death of His Son is also in your life – not just to make you appreciate the good times, but to fashion you after His Son in order that you might have true joy both now and forever in heaven.

18:6-11 When Jesus said to them, “I am he,” they drew back and fell to the ground. [7] So he asked them again, “Whom do you seek?” And they said, “Jesus of Nazareth.” [8] Jesus answered, “I told you that I am he. So, if you seek me, let these men go.” [9] This was to fulfill the word that he had spoken: “Of those whom you gave me I have lost not one.” [10] Then Simon Peter, having a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant and cut off his right ear. (The servant’s name was Malchus.) [11] So Jesus said to Peter, “Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?”

PART 1: The Power of the Son of God

Now we come to passage that is so majestic and so profound in its display of Christ’s power that I can hardly find the right words to describe what we read here.

The mob is looking for the man Jesus. They obviously don’t know which one He is.  But Jesus readily identifies Himself as who they are looking for.  And He does this by stating “I am he.” This phrase is ego eimiand it is undoubtedly the open declaration of Jesus as Jehovah.

Throughout Scripture, the revelation of the name of God and the glory of God has had a similar affect on men. It is the beautiful glory of His holiness which confounds men.

In Isaiah 6 the response of Isaiah to the holiness of God is similar:

[4] And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. [5] And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”  (Isaiah 6:4-5 ESV)

Isaiah cowered in fear. When Isaiah behold the glory of God he was exposed and saw, perhaps for the first time, not just who God is, but who he was (Sproul).

The revelation of the name of Christ is the revelation of who He is. He isn’t just saying, “I’m the dude you’re looking for”, He’s saying, “I AM who I AM”, He is disclosing to them the personal name of YHWY.

What happened here is hard to explain, but I believe it’s a preview of what Paul says will happen when Jesus returns:

Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9-11 ESV)

In that day men will either voluntarily bow in humble joy, or they will hit the dirt simply out of necessity.  This is what happens here.  The overpowering presence and revelation of the Son of God brings them to their knees. There are no choices here. All those who boldly proclaimed headship over their lives will suddenly realize the oxygen they suck has been a precious gift from the one who upholds all the planets by the power of His word (Heb. 1:1-3).

Such is the greatness of the Lord Jesus Christ. That is what we need to take away from this passage.  He is supreme. His power is so exacting, so overwhelming that at the mere mention of His name soldiers, criminals, and traitors eat the dirt their bones were fashioned from.

When they enter his airspace (so to speak) in that garden, they are on holy ground. They have dared to come before the burning bush without taking off the sandals, and in their ignorance and impudence they’ve come to apprehend the One who fashioned the cells of their existence. So we see here that the character and majestic holiness of Jesus is bound up in the name, and the revelation of this is too much for the finite soul to really process. It’s like a lightening storm that overwhelms your home’s circuits. The power is invisible to you but for a flash of light and then the power surges through all your electronic gear until your stuff is completely fried by the magnitude of that power.

Jesus, who has dwelt with the Father in unapproachable light from eternity past has cracked open a smidgen of His glory and it’s enough to level a mob.

Simply incredible.

Remember this in the coming weeks because when you think of the power of Jesus leveling a mob simply by the revelation of His name, you will begin to realize the obvious: He could easily have skipped the whole dying on the cross thing if He so desired.  And that’s the key word, is it not?  DESIRE.  Oh how different His are from ours!  Oh the infinite power, infinite knowledge bound up in the person of Jesus. Yet He allowed Himself to be taken as a lamb to the slaughter …for us! That’s His mission. He wields His power and knowledge with wisdom and His plans are never foiled.

Therefore, it was the purpose of Christ to surrender in order that He might conquer for our sakes.  Which leads me to my next point…

The Purpose of His Command

In the midst of this whole confusing scene, Jesus is obviously still in complete control, to the point where He issues and a command that the mob let His disciples go.  And, they do! Of course they do – for it is obvious who is controlling this situation…the man without a club, sword or staff.

But why?  In order to find the answer we need to flip back to chapter 17 where Jesus says this:

[12] While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled. (John 17:12 ESV)

Here He is speaking of the disciples. But He goes on:

[20] “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, [21] that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. (John 17:20-21 ESV)

That’s us!  That’s you, that’s me!

The purpose is so that his prayer and plan might come to pass for us. Even in the midst of all this seeming chaos, Jesus is getting everything He wants. There’s no coloring outside the lines here.  The picture is coming together just as He has foreordained, and that includes the gracious provision to allow His disciples to make it to safety, and bring us safely home to heaven.

This might be something that you recall from the final discourses as well, but in the hours leading up to Jesus’ arrest and betrayal, He is not focused whatsoever on His own impending pain, but on taking care that He imparts all the knowledge necessary to His disciples. He cares more about comforting them and keeping them from harm than saving His own skin. John perhaps encapsulates this best early in chapter 13 when he states:

Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. (John 13:1)

The Powerlessness and Futility of Our Efforts…

As we continue on, remember the power He displayed here, and marvel at His obedience. All of this when compared to Peter’s feeble efforts at saving his master surely puts our own human strength into focus does it not?  Peter’s rush to “do something” in the moment turns out to be the wrong thing. It is not that Peter is not valiant, or courageous, for perhaps he is…though I suspect he acted out of fear.

But what John is highlighting here by leaving this part in about Peter is to say that humanly speaking we try so very hard to be in control.  We lash out against the breakers as they come crashing down on our beachhead, as if we can stop them by our own power.  The futility of man and the power of God stand in contrast to each other, as we’ll see further in this next section, but the antithetical parallels with man in our fallen state are striking.

A.W. Pink notes some of the differences between Adam in the Garden of Eden, and Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane…

    • In Eden, Adam and Eve parleyed with Satan; in Gethsemane, the last Adam sought the face of His Father.
    • In Eden, Adam fell; in Gethsemane, the Redeemer conquered.
    • In the one Adam fell before Satan; in the other, the soldiers fell before Christ.
    • In Eden, Adam took the fruit from Eve’s hand; in Gethsemane, Christ received the cup from His Father’s hand.
    • In Eden, Adam hid himself; in Gethsemane Christ boldly showed Himself.
    • In Eden, God sought Adam; in Gethsemane, the last Adam sought God!

18:12-27 So the band of soldiers and their captain and the officers of the Jews arrested Jesus and bound him. [13] First they led him to Annas, for he was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, who was high priest that year. [14] It was Caiaphas who had advised the Jews that it would be expedient that one man should die for the people.

[15] Simon Peter followed Jesus, and so did another disciple. Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he entered with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest, [16] but Peter stood outside at the door. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out and spoke to the servant girl who kept watch at the door, and brought Peter in. [17] The servant girl at the door said to Peter, “You also are not one of this man’s disciples, are you?” He said, “I am not.” [18] Now the servants and officers had made a charcoal fire, because it was cold, and they were standing and warming themselves. Peter also was with them, standing and warming himself.

[19] The high priest then questioned Jesus about his disciples and his teaching. [20] Jesus answered him, “I have spoken openly to the world. I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret. [21] Why do you ask me? Ask those who have heard me what I said to them; they know what I said.” [22] When he had said these things, one of the officers standing by struck Jesus with his hand, saying, “Is that how you answer the high priest?” [23] Jesus answered him, “If what I said is wrong, bear witness about the wrong; but if what I said is right, why do you strike me?” [24] Annas then sent him bound to Caiaphas the high priest.

[25] Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. So they said to him, “You also are not one of his disciples, are you?” He denied it and said, “I am not.” [26] One of the servants of the high priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, “Did I not see you in the garden with him?” [27] Peter again denied it, and at once a rooster crowed.

A Mockery of Justice

Jesus has been taken away and in this passage of Scripture is brought before Annas and then before his son in law Caiaphas. Annas is not currently the high priest, but has been in the past, and is so powerful that he is actively involved in the affairs of temple and his son in law’s administration of things.

In his commentary on the book of Acts, Martyn Llyod-Jones gives some great background on these men:

Caiaphas, the high priest, was just a Sadducee write large.  It was his job to preside over the Sanhedrin. Annas, the father in law of Caiaphas, had been high priest but had been deposed by the Romans. The Jews, however, still regarded him as high priest. Both Annas and Caiaphas were well in with one another. Also present were john and Alexander, but we know nothing about them.

There were two trials – one from the Jews, and one from the Romans. John’s narrative isn’t as concerned with the trials as it is with Christ – who is He, and what is His mission.

There were two trials, one Jewish and one Roman. The former began with informal examination by Annas (18:12-14, 19-23), possibly while members of the Sanhedrin were being hurriedly summoned. A session of the Sanhedrin (Mt. 26:57-68; Mk. 14:53-65) with frank consensus was followed by a formal decision at dawn and dispatch to Pilate (Mt. 27:1-2; Luke 22:66-71). The Roman trial began with a first examination before Pilate (Mt. 27:11-14; Jn. 18:28-38a), which was followed by Herod’s interrogation (Lk. 23:6-12) and Jesus’ final appearance before Pilate (Mt. 27:15-31; Jn. 18:38b – 19:16). (Carson)

It has been said by many who are experts in the Jewish law that these trials of Jesus were a sham.  They were actually illegal trials meant to ram through a decision based upon fear and hatred of Jesus.  The man Jesus was a threat to the socio-political stability of the Jewish state, and he needed to be dealt with.  That was the reality, and in the minds of these worldly priests, the ends justified the means.

PART II: The Weakness of Peter and Mankind

The way that John tells the story is really interesting. He weaves the denials of Peter in with the first part of the Jewish trial of Jesus.  So that the reader sees the paths of each man side by side, as it were. And Peter’s denial is set off against the meekness of the Lamb, sent to the slaughter.

While Peter is sinning, Jesus is obeying. While Peter is denying, Jesus is embracing who He is and why He came.

What should we take away from this?

Primarily this, that the good intentions of men are not enough when everything is on the line.

Remember who Peter is now…this is the man who became the boldest proclaimer of the gospel of Jesus Christ in the early church. Look at what we read in Acts 4:

[12] And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”

[13] Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus. (Acts 4:12-13 ESV)

The power of God was with Peter, look at what Luke tells us in the next chapter (Acts 5):

[12] Now many signs and wonders were regularly done among the people by the hands of the apostles. And they were all together in Solomon’s Portico. [13] None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high esteem. [14] And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women, [15] so that they even carried out the sick into the streets and laid them on cots and mats, that as Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on some of them. (Acts 5:12-15 ESV)

Yet…in his flesh Peter cannot own Jesus. When push comes to shove, he cannot and will not embrace or associate himself with Jesus at this point.  WHY? Well, we know enough about Peter to know that it isn’t simply because of a weak disposition within Peter.

Peter cannot and will not embrace Christ when the rubber meets the road because he is a fallen man and does not have the restorative power of the Holy Spirit working actively in his life.

Remember what side of the cross Peter is on. The difference between Peter after Pentecost and before is manifested in a big way here in John 18.  Peter is given the chance to identify with Christ, with His Lord, and instead of doing so He cowers.

C.H. Spurgeon explains the phenomenon:

Why is it that Christ Jesus is so little beloved? Why are even his professed followers so cold in their affections to him? Whence arise these things? Assuredly, dear brethren, we can trace them to no other source than this, the corruption and vitiation of the affections. We love that which we ought to hate, and we hate that which we ought to love. It is but human nature, fallen human nature, that man should love this present life better than the life to come. It is but the effect of the fall, that man should love sin better than righteousness, and the ways of this world better than the ways of God. And again, we repeat it, until these affections be renewed, and turned into a fresh channel by the gracious drawings of the Father, it is not possible for any man to love the Lord Jesus Christ. (‘Human Inability’, 1858)

This is where we find Peter, and this is where we find ourselves apart from the grace of Christ.

We are fallen men and women.  Sin is not simply what we do, it’s who we are – we are sinners. And to be a sinner, part of Adam’s fallen race, is to be without hope apart from the saving power of Jesus Christ.

Paul tells us of these truths in Romans 5:

Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin and so death spread to all men because all sinned – for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come. But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. (Romans 5:12-15)

But the power of Christ, endued to rebels, aliens, and blasphemers transforms by the Spirit of God, and conforms (us) from a product of the first Adam into the image of the Second. As Paul says:

But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. [17] Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. [18] And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:16-18 ESV)

Jonathan Edwards put it this way:

…it is the discovery of this divine excellency of Christ that makes them constant to Him: for it makes so deep an impression upon their minds that they cannot forget Him; they will follow Him whithersoever He goes, and it is in vain for any endeavor to draw them away from Him.

What Would You Have Done?

So because of the fall our natural state is one of deadness spiritually, and we naturally hate the light of the Gospel (John 3:19-21). Yet, there are many people who read of the fall in Genesis, and they think, “If I were there I would have done better!”  But that’s just the thing – you wouldn’t have done better.  Likewise you might think that if you were in the courtyard that night you wouldn’t have betrayed Jesus.

Well let me tell you, without the Spirit of God strengthening you, you would certainly have failed, just like Peter did.

Adam represented the very height of creation in the garden, yet he still sinned.  Peter was the most courageous man in the band of 12 – heck, he just cut off the ear of a guard! But his false courage was exposed when the rubber met the road, and yours would have as well.

Apart from Christ we are all lost.  We are blind men boldly marching in midnight toward a fiery grave. Ignorant of our fate we relish and proclaim a fool’s independence.  We affectionately treasure our world while spitting on the One who created it for us. This is our condition apart from Christ (Romans 5:10).  What a horrific state of affairs!

These realities are expressed in Peter and in the lives of millions of lost people around the world.  They’re in our neighborhoods, they’re in the grocery stores, they’re not just in India they’re in your Bible study!

***Chapter 18 ought to remind us how much Christ prized us and how little we prized Him. If Adam represented us in the garden, Peter represented us in the courtyard: Liars.  Frauds. Cowards.  Apart from Christ in the dark night of his soul, he flees into the darkness of night leaving the Prince of Light to single-handedly parry with the heaviest concentration of evil ever seen on this earth. And parry He does…much more than this He overcomes! …but that’s for future Sunday mornings!

Our Need and His Love

Our need is now obvious. If you were in the garden, in the courtyard, at the temple, you would also have betrayed Christ.  So our need for salvation cannot be met by our own efforts to cling to Christ. We don’t have the strength – when it comes down to it, we don’t even have the desire!

In these parallel accounts we see first the power of Christ, and also the weakness and failure of Peter.  But we know how the story ends, do we not? Jesus restores Peter, forgives Peter. And that same arm of restoration has been extended to us, as Paul says in Romans 5, “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.”

Theologian R.C. Sproul says “The passage also teaches us, especially in light of Peter’s later restoration, what kind of people Jesus died to save. He had no need to die for people who are sinless, for there are no such people. Have gave Himself for people who have it in them to betray Him, people like you and me. However, He will never betray those on whom He sets His love, but will love them faithfully for all time.”

Surely if this passage shows us anything it is the contrast between our Lord’s power and our power, our Lord’s disposition and our natural disposition, our natural desires and His heavenly desires.  Surely His love looks greater and greater the more we look at Peter and our own souls.

This is where He finds us.  Praise God He has not passed us over, but has shed His grace and mercy upon us, the underserving, the helpless, the hopeless in order that we may be given a hope that will never fail.

What is Our Response to These Things? 

Therefore, how do we rightly respond to these truths?

If you have not come to know Christ personally as your savior, if you have not been made alive from the spiritual death to which you were born into this world, then today is the day of salvation. Now is the time to bow to the ground and kiss the Son, submit to His Lordship.

Jesus’ gospel is simple and life changing. In verse 11 we read that He was going to drink of the “cup” that the Father had for Him.  That cup was filled with the wrath that rests on your soul right now if you aren’t a Christian.  John says earlier in chapter 3:

[36] Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him. (John 3:36 ESV)

There is everlasting life and peace with Jesus. There is joy and eternal bliss that has been reserved for those who trust in Him now.  Jesus doesn’t promise an easy road, but He promises life instead of death. You aren’t guaranteed another day or another hour of life. I pray that you will submit to His love and His lordship today.

For those of us who are children of God, saved from the wrath of the Father because of the work of Christ on the cross, we must not miss the importance of this text.

Today let us remember the beautiful thing about the gospel – Jesus does all the work. The same power that leveled an angry mob upholds us through the darkness and pain of life, and vanquishes our enemies. You no doubt have difficulties you’re battling today.  Are you leaning on your own strength?  Or are you resting in the name of the Son of God.

Peter thought he had it together, he thought he had the stuff to succeed.  But he learned the hard way that leaning on Christ is the only way to make it through this life.

For those of you who are believers, we must cling to the promises of God, and abide in His truth, knowing that He is faithful. In order to do that, we must be knowledge about what He says in His Word. Therefore, let me give you four things to take away from this passage:

  1. We must trust in His promises as Jesus trusted in the Father until the final breath of His life. 1 Corinthians 10:13 says it best:

No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.

  1. We must fill our minds with His word. Speak it when you lie down, and when you are out running errands. And as you meditate on and memorize the word of God, pray to the Lord and ask for His help to understand it and deeply engrain it in your mind so that when you face a “Peter Moment” you will have the sword ready to go.  As Paul says:

Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. [14] Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, [15] and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. [16] In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; [17] and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, [18] praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, (Ephesians 6:13-18 ESV)

  1. Put your mind and efforts into serving Him and others in obedience and with love through thick and thin. Those who are selflessly serving others bear those “Peter moments” better because they are grounded in the reality that others are more important, and that their citizenship is in heaven. Peter was so wrapped up in his own welfare that when it came to dying for Christ he was far from ready. Remember the words of Paul in Philippians:

Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. [5] Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, (Philippians 2:4-5 ESV)

  1. Lastly, when the crisis comes, do not lean on your own understanding as Peter did here (Prov. 3:5), but trust in the Lord even when you can’t see for the night that is closing in around you.

Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. [6] In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. (Proverbs 3:5-6 ESV)

Samuel Rutherford said, “My shallow and ebb thoughts are not the compass Christ saileth by. I leave his ways to himself, for they are far, far above me…There are windings and to’s and fro’s in his ways, which blind bodies like us cannot see.”

We must therefore look to the power of the Man in the garden, and realize that we can trust that He is who He says He is. Make yourself weak in your own eyes, and trust in His strength – the strength of the great I AM who sustains you and the whole world. Lean on His promises and trust that He is who He says He is.

Let’s close by examining the great words of Paul in Romans 8:31-39:

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? [32] He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? [33] Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. [34] Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. [35] Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? [36] As it is written,

            “For your sake we are being killed all the day long;

            we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

[37] No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. [38] For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, [39] nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:31-39)

 

Stand and Suffer like Bonhoeffer

Last week I finished Eric Metaxas’ highly acclaimed biography on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It has been a long time since I’ve committed to reading a biography, and perhaps I wasn’t ready for the book to shape my thinking as powerfully as this one has.

In light of that, I wanted to share a paragraph from the book that I found worth some reflection. The passage comes from one of the chapters on his imprisonment near the end of the book (pg. 463). The excerpt is from a letter to his best friend Eberhard Bethge from Tegel prison; here is what Bonhoeffer says:

When all possibility of cooperating in anything is suddenly cut off, then behind any anxiety about him there is the consciousness that his life has now been placed wholly in better and stronger hands. For you, and for us, the greatest task during the coming weeks and perhaps months, may be to entrust each other to those hands…Whatever weaknesses, miscalculations, and guilt there is in what precedes the facts, God is in the facts themselves. If we survive during these coming weeks and months, we shall be able to see quite clearly that all has turned out for the best. The idea that we could have avoided many of life’s difficulties if we had taken things more cautiously is too foolish to be entertained for a moment. As I look back on your past I am so convinced that what has happened hitherto has been right, that I feel that what is happening now is right too. To renounce a full life and its real joys in order to avoid pain is neither Christian nor human.

Two things really stood out to me. First, there is a difference between godly repentance for real sin, and wallowing in self-pity over possible “mistakes” that led to uncomfortable circumstances. In God’s grace we are able to live courageously and know that when we do run astray of the narrow path He is there to gently usher us back into His forgiving arms. But there is a distinct difference between mourning over a real sin harbored in the heart, and mourning over present circumstances brought on by a difficult decision to stand up (perhaps forcefully) for what is right (especially the Gospel).

What happens in the latter circumstance is that Satan whispers lies to our weary hearts saying, “See, you never would be in this wretched situation if you had just not said that. You should have left well enough alone. Just look at your circumstances! Surely God is punishing you for your actions!”

While the truth is that sometimes doing the right thing can be painful, and that leads me to the second point I see from the letter above: As Christians we are called to some amount of suffering in this life. Indeed Bonhoeffer says that its not even human not to suffer! Not suffering would be either living in a false reality (mentally), or not being human at all. Humans are frail; we are weak. In our comfortable American lives we often forget that we are mortal. Oh sure, we see death all around us, but it doesn’t phase us until it hits close to home…then we become unglued from our iPad or television and the raw and fallen nature of life strikes at our souls with devastating effect. We are tossed in the wind of our stormy circumstances (James 1).

Conclusion…

Bonhoeffer is calling us not to be uncertain of our calling, or the decisions we make to stand up for what is right. You can see him encourage his friend Eberhard not to question the past, and dwell on mistakes made. He is sure that at the end of the day God will resolve all things at His judgment seat. He says “God is in the facts.” The reason he can be so confident about this is because he knows that even if he was not perfect in his stand for right, he knows that God is the great and just judge of all things. He knows that he did what he did out of obedience and love for Christ – not because he expected the consequences to be a wonderful rosy blessing to him during his time here on earth.

This was tremendously encouraging to me. I can rest and work knowing that ultimately Christ’s righteousness is going to be mine, and that if I mess up I’m still covered. Furthermore, I’m not going to sit idly by and allow evil to run rampant all around me without standing up for the truth. Even though I will surely make mistakes, I will not listen to Satan’s lies, but will prayerfully and humbly do my best to speak the truth with the love of Christ. This is my calling as a Christian. And it takes courage, not only to speak in the moment, but to not look back with sinful remorse at what was said because it brought painful life circumstances. My suffering only reminds me that I am His (Heb. 12), and I am happy for the discipline, and for the honor of identifying with the Suffering Servant in this way.

If you have been obedient and spoken up for the gospel, and for Christ and all that is right and good, then do not look with regret at the consequences of your actions. Rather rejoice knowing that you are receiving a small dose of what Christ received during His life on earth, and know that you’ll receive all of what He has in store for you (namely Himself) when you and He meet on that happy day.

Disaster and Evil in our World

Given the recent events in Oklahoma, I wanted to repost what Dr. Al Mohler posted last night. This is a thoughtful, and biblical response to the horrific events brought on by the tornados this week. I hope you find this helpful…

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The Goodness of God and the Reality of Evil

May 21, 2013
Every thoughtful person must deal with the problem of evil. Evil acts and tragic events come to us all in this vale of tears known as human life. The problem of evil and suffering is undoubtedly the greatest theological challenge we face.

Most persons face this issue only in a time of crisis. A senseless accident, a wasting disease, or an awful crime demands some explanation. Yesterday, evil showed its face again as a giant tornado brought death and destruction to Moore, Oklahoma.

For the atheist, this is no great problem. Life is a cosmic accident, morality is an arbitrary game by which we order our lives, and meaning is non-existent. As Oxford University’s Professor Richard Dawkins explains, human life is nothing more than a way for selfish genes to multiply and reproduce. There is no meaning or dignity to humanity.

For the Christian Scientist, the material world and the experience of suffering and death are illusory. In other religions suffering is part of a great circle of life or recurring incarnations of spirit.

Some Christians simply explain suffering as the consequence of sins, known or unknown. Some suffering can be directly traced to sin. What we sow, so shall we reap, and multiple millions of persons can testify to this reality. Some persons suffer innocently by the sinful acts of others.

But Jesus rejected this as a blanket explanation for suffering, instructing His disciples in John 9 and Luke 13 that they could not always trace suffering back to sin. We should note that the problem of evil and suffering, the theological issue of theodicy, is customarily divided into evil of two kinds, moral and natural. Both are included in these passages. In Luke 13, the murder of the Galileans is clearly moral evil, a premeditated crime–just like the terrorist acts in New York and Washington. In John 9, a man is blind from birth, and Jesus tells the Twelve that this blindness cannot be traced back to this man’s sin, or that of his parents.

Natural evil comes without a moral agent. A tower falls, an earthquake shakes, a tornado destroys, a hurricane ravages, a spider bites, a disease debilitates and kills. The world is filled with wonders mixed with dangers. Gravity can save you or gravity can kill you. When a tower falls, it kills.

People all over the world are demanding an answer to the question of evil. It comes only to those who claim that God is mighty and that God is good. How could a good God allow these things to happen? How can a God of love allow killers to kill, terrorists to terrorize, and the wicked to escape without a trace?

No superficial answer will do. Our quandary is well known, and the atheists think they have our number. As a character in Archibald MacLeish’s play, J.B. asserts, “If God is God He is not good, if God is good He is not God; take the even, take the odd . . . .” As he sees it, God can be good, or He can be powerful, but He cannot be both.

We will either take our stand with God’s self-revelation in the Bible, or we are left to invent a deity of our own imagination. The Bible quickly excludes two false understandings.

First, the Bible reveals that God is omnipotent and omniscient. These are unconditional and categorical attributes. The sovereignty of God is the bedrock affirmation of biblical theism. The Creator rules over all creation. Not even a sparrow falls without His knowledge. He knows the number of hairs upon our heads. God rules and reigns over all nations and principalities. Not one atom or molecule of the universe is outside His active rule.

The sovereignty of God was affirmed by King Nebuchadnezzar, who confessed that God “does according to His will in the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and no one can ward off His hand or say to Him, ‘What have You done?’” [Daniel 4:36]. Process theologians have attempted to cut God’s power down to size, rendering the Creator as one power among others. The evangelical revisionists pushing open theism have attempted to cut God’s omniscience down to size, rendering Him as one mind among others.

Rabbi Harold Kushner argues that God is doing the best He can under the circumstances, but He lacks the power to either kill or cure. The openness theists argue that God is always ready with Plan B when Plan A fails. He is infinitely resourceful, they stress, just not really sovereign.

These are roads we dare not take, for the God of the Bible causes the rising and falling of nations and empires, and His rule is active and universal. Limited sovereignty is no sovereignty at all.

The second great error is to ascribe evil to God. But the Bible does not allow this argument. God is absolute righteousness, love, goodness, and justice. Most errors related to this issue occur because of our human tendency to impose an external standard–a human construction of goodness–upon God. But good does not so much define God as God defines good.

How then do we speak of God’s rule and reconcile this with the reality of evil? Between these two errors the Bible points us to the radical affirmation of God’s sovereignty as the ground of our salvation and the assurance of our own good. We cannot explain why God has allowed sin, but we understand that God’s glory is more perfectly demonstrated through the victory of Christ over sin. We cannot understand why God would allow sickness and suffering, but we must affirm that even these realities are rooted in sin and its cosmic effects.

How does God exercise His rule? Does He order all events by decree, or does He allow some evil acts by His mere permission? This much we know–we cannot speak of God’s decree in a way that would imply Him to be the author of evil, and we cannot fall back to speak of His mere permission, as if this allows a denial of His sovereignty and active will.

A venerable confession of faith states it rightly: “God from eternity, decrees or permits all things that come to pass, and perpetually upholds, directs, and governs all creatures and all events; yet so as not in any way to be the author or approver of sin nor to destroy the free will and responsibility of intelligent creatures.”

God is God, and God is good. As Paul affirms for the church, God’s sovereignty is the ground of our hope, the assurance of God’s justice as the last word, and God’s loving rule in the very events of our lives: “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, who are the called according to His purpose.” [Romans 8:28]

We dare not speak on God’s behalf to explain why He allowed these particular acts of evil to happen at this time to these persons and in this manner. Yet, at the same time, we dare not be silent when we should testify to the God of righteousness and love and justice who rules over all in omnipotence. Humility requires that we affirm all that the Bible teaches, and go no further. There is much we do not understand. As Charles Spurgeon explained, when we cannot trace God’s hand, we must simply trust His heart.

And so, we weep with those who weep, and we reach out with acts of care and compassion. We pray for those who are grieving and have experienced such loss. We cry for the children lost in this storm, even as we are so thankful for brave people who did their best to save lives as the winds raged. And, we pray: Even so, Lord come quickly.

This article was originally published on August 20, 2005. Last night I released a special edition of The Briefing completely dedicated to the challenge of Christian thinking in the wake of the Moore, Oklahoma tornado tragedy. Listen here: http://www.albertmohler.com/2013/05/20/the-briefing-special-edition-moore-oklahoma/

Suffering Yields Hope

Kate and I have been working to memorize Romans chapter five. The exercise has been most refreshing, and it has led me to really meditate on the greatness of the gospel – but also how upside-down gospel-thinking is to the way we normally think.

This hit me hard this morning as I read through the first five verses of the chapter:

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:1-5 ESV)

Verse 3 is perhaps my favorite verse, and it’s the one I think would be most enigmatic for the neophyte who hadn’t walked in the shoes of Bunyan’s Christian, for Paul tells us here that he rejoices in his sufferings. What? How can he do that?? Is he living the life I am living?! Well, if we read 2 Corinthians 12 we will find he is not – Paul’s life was much harder!

Yet through this Paul saw what trials yielded: Joy and Hope. Hope begets joy and the Spirit affirms (Rom. 8:16) that we are right to hope – he whispers to us that we won’t be disappointed in what our Father has planned for us!

This may seem like a leap – but that’s why Paul carefully explained the sequence: first trials, then endurance, then character, and then hope. Think about that closely and it makes sense. If you’ve been going through the exercise of running, you will gradually gain more and more endurance – such is the case with trials in this life.

The same is true of character. We develop a depth of maturity when we have endured. We’ve been there. We know what to expect, and our minds are prepared. We have character – worn from years of first hand experience.

Character begets hope because the man or woman with character is wise, they have knowledge combined with wisdom and therefore know where to place their confidence. They’ve seen life’s transient and fleeting nature, and they know what the real stuff of life consists of (so to speak). This long view is more than earthly wisdom earned by grey hairs, it’s spiritual wisdom banked by miles of suffering and character forming. It’s the experience of the Potter’s clay who (personified) looks down on the shop floor with knowing glances at the discarded mud that used to hang upon its ever winnowed cylindrical frame.

And because He is the one forming us, we can have confidence not to be ashamed – for he also looked forward to the joy of Heaven (Hebrews 12:2) and endured the pain and the cross (Phil. 2:6-10) and thereby set for us not only the example of suffering, but of how to suffer: in joyful hope for a future which will not be worthy to be compared to this present age.

That is what is meant when Paul ends that paragraph by saying, “hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” This pouring of love into our hearts is God’s down payment on our eternal joy, and it is a taste of the kingdom of our Lord Jesus!