It is amazing what you can do when you know that you are not alone. When we are by ourselves we can often feel alone and vulnerable. But when you are with others it is amazing how in life you are able to be brave and stand up for what is right. There is safety in numbers, there is a fortitude about it and because of that, there is an absolute power of people being present in the lives of others.
One of the ways I have seen this operate most profoundly is with my family and in particular with my wife, Cath, with our children, particularly when they have been sick. Our eldest daughter Rebecca experienced a very significant broken arm when she was just 2 years old. While there was amazing medical care for Rebecca, one of the ways she got through was her mum Cathey just being with her in hospital. Cath spent most of the night either wheeling her around the wards in a wheelchair, post the operation, or sleeping with her beside the bed. She was with her and our daughter got through it. There is an absolute power of people being present in the lives of others.
Why begin this way? This section of John, chapters 13-16, Jesus gives his parting instructions to his followers. He knows that he is about to leave them and that he is sending them out on a world mission. And so, he keeps reminding them of the reality that he is about to leave. One of the first references Jesus makes is classic, John 13:33.
My children, I will be with you only a little longer. You will look for me, and just as I told the Jews, so I tell you now: Where I am going, you cannot come. (NIV)
And in verses 18 and 28 Jesus keeps on reminding them of this reality saying he is leaving them.
I will not leave you as orphans. I will come to you. (NIV)
“You heard me say, ‘I am going away and I am coming back to you.’ If you loved me, you would be glad that I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I. I have told you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe. (NIV)
So, Jesus is going to leave his disciples as they have to embark on their mission to the world. So the question that this next passage is answering is this: How would it be possible for the disciples to fulfil Jesus mission in the world if he is leaving them? They have literally lived with Him for three years, walking in his footsteps, following his teaching, doing what he commanded. And now he is about to leave. But they must go out into the world and preach the gospel, how will they be able to do that if he is gone!
The question is the same for us: How do we live for Jesus in this world when he is in heaven? Jesus gives us two very strong words of instruction in this passage that he repeats: with obedience guiding us and with the Holy Spirit enabling us.
1. Obedience Guiding us.
Jesus starts in verse 15 by saying this.
“If you love me, keep my commands.” (NIV)
It’s pretty simple really!
The current age is one that I describe as being an age of what is called Expressive Individualism. Expressive Individualism is where what is most important in life is having the ability and freedom to express yourself the way you want to. Individual rights are what are most important. The belief that you submit yourself to another by obeying them is seen as old fashioned and to be honest, obsolete. If you don’t believe me, just go and ask someone this question, "Who is it that you are willing to obey?" And see what answer that you get. I suspect that most people will probably just laugh at you because the notion that you will obey someone seems incredibly old and from a past era.
Our culture says: "I live for myself." "I do what I want." "I express myself how I see fit." "Please don’t tell me what to do or how to do it."
Against this back drop Jesus says that his followers are to be very different. They are to willingly and joyfully lead a life of obedience to God and to himself. He doesn’t just say it once – he repeats it again and again and again. Four times he calls them to keep his commands or obey his teaching. It is actually the same word on each occasion in verse 15, 21, and 23.
If you love me, keep my commands. (NIV)
Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. (NIV)
Jesus replied, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me.” (NIV)
It is a very simple proposition–If you love Jesus you will obey Jesus by doing what he says. It is worth saying that Jesus is not saying that obedience to Him brings salvation. Rather, Obedience to Him is a result of knowing Him and experiencing salvation. You know Jesus, you are saved by Jesus and so you love Jesus. The result is that you obey Jesus.
The question that I think we need to ask is this: Why does he challenge the disciples this way? The answer is because he knows that there will be a cost to following him in the world. As followers of Jesus, we are sent into the world to serve him and make him known.
When you read through the book of Acts it describes the mission of these disciples, this is what you see.
We can expect all of the same if we are to follow him, and Jesus calls us to OBEY Him if we love Him, to Follow His Commands and Keep them. The obedience that we are called to is an obedience to what Jesus has revealed to us in His Word – the Scriptures.
This book is one that we are to read and we are to grapple with. We are to read and think about it and we are to marvel in it. But ultimately, we are to obey it, we are to do it and we are to carry Jesus words out.
And there will be commands that are hard personally:
There will be commands that seem so counter cultural that you will catch yourself thinking, "this can’t be right?" Or, "that seems so old fashioned?" Or, "surely we don’t need to follow that now?"
Jesus says "Trust me and obey my commands!"
To both challenge and encourage us, I want to give us a modern day example, but from a very different culture. In today’s 21st century Iran, the church is increasingly under intensifying persecution from both society and the state, as Christianity and anyone involved in spreading it is seen as a threat to the Republic’s Islamic identity.
The situation for 21st century Iranian Christians is that they are under constant threat of persecution from both society and the government, including discrimination, beatings, arrest, imprisonment, torture and killings. Christians are treated as second-class citizens in Iran and forced to worship in secret. When their faith is discovered, they face persecution from both society and the state. With this as the accepted viewpoint, brutal oppression awaits specific “offenders,” including any Christian who converts from Islam. Iran has made speaking the country’s official language of Farsi during church worship services illegal. And anyone leading or participating in a house church faces arrest and imprisonment.
Let me give you an example – a former Iranian House Church leader.
He knew that his work would one day result in prison. He used to be one of the leaders of a quickly growing house church movement. After receiving a probational sentence in 2009, he was imprisoned for three years in 2012. In 2015, he was released, when asked “Why didn’t I stop my work for the church after I was first arrested? I don’t really know,” he says. “There was no logical explanation, but we felt that the Lord wanted us to continue. We knew this would mean we could get arrested at any moment.” He loved Jesus, so he obeyed Him. He followed his commands. This is what it means to be a disciple in the world.
A leader of the Iranian underground church explained in a recent documentary film made about the rapid growth of their churches, that their goal is not planting churches but rather making disciples.
Disciples forsake the world and cling to Jesus 'till he comes. Converts don't, disciples aren't engaged in a culture war, converts are. Disciples cherish, obey, and share the word of God, converts don't. Disciples choose Jesus over anything and everything else, converts don't. Converts run when the fire comes, disciples don't.
2. The Holy Spirit Enabling us
The second word from Jesus in this passage is a word of comfort or encouragement: He says that for those who obey him, he will give them the Holy Spirit to be with them.
In John’s gospel, Jesus spoke a number of times prior to this about the coming of the Holy Spirit. In the Upper Room, he now says much more on this very important subject. Let’s look at verses 15-17 and 25-27 and see what Jesus says:
If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever - the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you... (NIV)
All this I have spoken while still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. (NIV)
What we learn about the Holy Spirit is as follows. He is an Advocate: In original language the word used here of the Holy Spirit meant legal assistant or advocate. The simplest and best way to understand what this means in our language is that he is saying that the Holy Spirit will be given to strengthen and help us. In other words, he is the presence of God in our life who will give us the strength to follow and obey Jesus, even when it is tough. Even when there are significant consequences. What is interesting to note, he is another advocate – 2nd to Jesus. "I’m going but He is coming".
He is the Spirit of Truth. And we need to read this description in the light of verse 25-26 where Jesus says that he would teach the disciples and remind the disciples of all that Jesus taught. This word from Jesus is incredibly important because what he is saying is that the Apostles would have the Holy spirit to effectively guide them to truth as the one who is the Spirit of Truth. And this is why we can have complete confidence that the New Testament, which is in effect the teaching of the Apostles, that is the truth. The Holy Spirit has inspired it.
The implication is that the Holy Spirit doesn’t just strengthen us, but also guides us by the teaching of the Apostles, through which we have access to the truth of Jesus. One of things that I am not going to touch on is the relationship between the Holy Spirit, the Lord Jesus and the Father, because of time. But I encourage you to read and ponder how Jesus describes the Holy Spirit. He is the one that the Father sends. He is the one who comes in Jesus name
There is this rich relationship between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit such that you can say they have their individual personhood yet ultimately are one being. In other words, the Trinity. And if you want to ponder that more, then talk to your pastor!
Back to the gift of the Holy Spirit. What Jesus is saying here is that if you are a follower of the Lord Jesus then, He will give you his Holy Spirit such that you know that you belong to him and that he lives in you. He comes to us and He dwells in us. The Holy Spirit is given by Jesus and the Father because he wanted them to know and he wants us to know that they will be never alone in the world. That we have the Spirit of God dwelling within us to guide us by His Word.
We are to be His witnesses. We are to seek the Kingdom of God to come and Jesus will strengthen us so that we have the power to do this.
Let me return to the example of the church in modern Day Iran. What has happened as a result of their obedience?
Like the church of Acts shows us, the persecution these believers suffered as a group of obedient disciples became a catalyst for the multiplication of believers and churches. When the Iranian revolution of 1979 established a hardline Islamic regime, the next two decades ushered in a wave of persecution that continues today. And when this persecution came, they didn’t scatter. The church was inspired and ignited by the Holy Spirit as they sought to obey Jesus. Though all missionaries were kicked out, though all evangelism was outlawed, though all Bibles in the Persian or Farsi language were banned, though several pastors were killed, though many feared the small, fledgling Iranian church wouldn’t survive. Instead, the church, fueled by the devotion and passion for Jesus, has multiplied exponentially. Iranians have become the Muslim people most open to the gospel in the Middle East today. They love Jesus and so they obey Him and he strengthens and guides them by his wonderful Holy Spirit.
As a result, more Iranians have become Christians in the last 20 years than in the previous 13 centuries put together since Islam came to Iran. Let me finish with Jesus closing words in this chapter from verse 27
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. (NIV)
Jesus calls us to go into this world, just like the disciples of the first Century. And he says if you love me you will obey me and my commands. And to enable us to do his work, he gives the power of his presence through the Holy Spirit to Guide us and protect. Friends, we are not alone in this world. The Spirit of God is with us, the Spirit of Truth, the Spirit of Power, the Spirit of Comfort. And he dwells in us and with us. So be not afraid but live for Him who died for you and rose again.
The letter to the Ephesians was written by the Apostle Paul to a largely Gentile church - and he writes to encourage this strong Christian community to keep building toward maturity together as a united family of believers in Christ.
It's in this second part of chapter 2 that Paul explains how Old Testament Israel were historically the only nation given a privileged relationship with the true and living God and the hope of an eternal relationship with God and each other under the rule of an eternal, rescuing King (Messiah).
It may seem foreign to us today but in the early 1st century the first Christians were Jewish. They saw Jesus as Israel’s promised Messiah. It took quite a while before they came to terms with the fact that Jesus was for gentiles too! It is with the coming of Jesus that Israel’s national exclusivity has become an international inclusivity that is offered to everyone in every tribe, tongue and nation.
I think this passage in Ephesians particularly resonates with me given that I have a Jewish/Gentile family background. Jewish on my mother’s side and Scottish on my father’s side. Most of my brothers and their families are Jewish - although we also had some Roman Catholic teachings during early childhood! (long story). We have some interesting family gatherings. Add this to growing up in South Africa and you can be sure I’ve seen a great deal of racial and religious prejudice - in and outside our churches.
In my early 20’s I came to faith in Christ and it has been something of a delight for me to learn more and more that Jesus is the Gentile and Jewish Messiah (King). I’m saved by Jesus on both sides! And both sides are saved in the same way, through faith in Jesus!
This great chapter in Ephesians explains both the vertical and horizontal aspects of the Gospel.
I believe this horizontal aspect is becoming all the more critical in a day and age where our world is becoming ever more polarized. In much of our social, political and economic world we are seeing more walls than bridges. Even the crusaders for ‘tolerance’ are proving to only be tolerant of those who believe and say the same as what they believe.
You have seen this in Australia particularly in the fallout over the Israel Folau saga - which has rippled around the world and has seen social media creating caricatures of Christianity depicting us as hateful and judgmental (and, ironically, showing much hate and judgmentalism in the process). The reality is, if you take the time to truly look at the gospel, you will discover that Christ is not a barrier builder, but rather the ultimate and eternal, barrier breaker.
From Exclusion to Inclusion (Verse 11-12)
Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)— remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. (NIV)
Paul is using language common to the 1st century Jesus world. The great divide of the 1st century world was between Jew and Gentile. The Jews were so fanatical about their “separateness” that even the ruling Roman Empire made special allowances and exemptions for them, so that they could maintain their religious exclusivity. The language of verse 11 refers to the derogatory way Jews referred to Gentiles of that day: “Uncircumcised”. Much like English Christendom referred to the unbelieving nations as “the great unwashed masses”. Paul reminds these Ephesian gentiles that before Christ came this Israelite ‘closed circle’ kept them from any chance of a relationship with the living God.
The Old Testament nation of Israel was God’s chosen people.
You will see in these verses 5 distinctives of our ‘exclusion’
In the Bible scholar William Hendriksen’s famous summary, the Gentiles were: ‘Christless, Stateless, Friendless, Hopeless and Godless’. But the gospel tells us that all those exclusions have all been overcome with the coming of Jesus in verse 13.
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. (NIV)
The language here of “Far - Near” has its roots in the Hebrew book of Isaiah 57:19. It refers to Jew from Gentile. Gentiles were “far away” from God. Israelites were said to be “near” to God. Paul says that now that Jesus has come, ‘far away’ gentiles have been brought ‘near’ to God, just as Israel was. By the Blood of Christ (v.13) which refers to death of Christ on the cross as payment for our sin. Jesus’ saving death makes it possible for all Gentiles who come to faith in Christ to be brought near to God - to the same covenant relationship (binding / certain / promise) given to Israel through the death of Jesus for their sin. Being “in Jesus” (v.13) means we are “in” all the promises given to Old Testament Israel. An eternal King, Citizenship, Country, Hope, God.
There is much to love and be patriotic about living in this most magnificent country. But even here your citizenship is limited to this one country and to this one life. In Jesus, that privilege of citizenship extends into eternity as he makes you citizens of the Kingdom of God.
From Hostility to Peace
Few people in history have managed to attain the level of reconciliation and peace that Nelson Mandela achieved in our country in 1994. Those late 1990’s were years of great excitement and reconciliation, yet as great as it was – that time has passed. Tensions and divisions have grown again, everyone seems to be at odds with each other again. The reality is this is the same all over the world - brief periods of unity and peace - usually around sport or nationalism - till brewing prejudice and conflict takes over.
The UN and many other organizations are trying to do a noble task in achieving world peace. But it’s not going to happen because the fundamental problem is we look for PEACE in the wrong place. Look at verse 14.
For he himself is our peace (NIV),
it’s NOT some Constitution or Political party or social movement
it's not an ideal or philosophy
it’s not even a religious system
It's a person, not a Statesman or a Guru, but a unique person. How has he achieved this peace? (Verse 14)
For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. (NIV)
This language connects us to the Jerusalem temple. The Jews knew what the “dividing wall of hostility” was. It was the wall that stopped gentiles from entering the Temple precinct. The Temple was the visible dwelling place of God in the midst of Israel. But only Jews could enter into the Temple courts - only Jews could “enter into God’s presence” in a sense. On the dividing wall the Jews had erected signs basically saying “Gentiles Keep Out” or, more precisely: “No Foreigners shall enter on pain of death”!
Paul tells us that in Jesus, this barrier is truly removed. Just as when Jesus died, at the moment of his death the Temple curtain was torn in two. So too the spiritual barrier that kept the nations from entering into God’s presence has been “destroyed” (v.13) Not a physical destruction because the wall was still there when Paul wrote this letter, but an ultimate destruction - the Law that stood behind the Wall. It’s the law that exposes our sin and excludes us from relationship with God and His people. Jesus takes that punishment for sin “in his flesh” and so sets it aside, opening the door for us to enter a relationship with Him.
Together - Jew and Gentile believers together in Christ. (Verse 15)
His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. (NIV)
In Jesus, Jew and Gentile believers become one humanity, this is really the key verse to Ephesians. Both of them reconciled together to God IN THE SAME WAY! How are Gentiles able to be reconciled to God? Through the cross of Jesus! How are Jews able to be reconciled to God? Through the cross of Jesus!
And so the same message is preached to both: (Verse 17)
He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. (NIV)
The message preached to Jews is the same message preached to Gentiles. Christ by His death on the cross has made it possible for us to have peace with God - and with each other. (Verse 18)
For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. (NIV)
I’m conscious of a trend in some Christian circles to say there is a separate way to God for Jews. There is nothing in the Bible to support that and its actually quite dangerous to teach that there is a Jewish way to salvation and a Gentile way to Salvation. Jesus is the one way for both Jew and Gentile.
From Foreigners to Family (Verse 19-22)
Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. (NIV)
We have here 3 pictures of the “blended family” of heaven.
Now I’ve realized that this magnificent picture is often more talked about than witnessed. The reality is demonstrating this united relationship in practice is hard work and many Christian communities take the easier route of keeping church to their own culture or tribe. But that’s not the picture the Gospel gives us. More importantly, we miss something of the power of the Gospel at work in our diverse unity in Christ.
I recently had the privilege of seeing a quite dramatic example of our ‘new humanity’ in Christ during my visit to Israel. As you know a long standing and violent barrier exists between Israel and the Palestinians with no solution in sight. I was curious to learn more and a helpful young Arabic speaking missionary from USA took me into the West Bank to meet a Palestinian family living in a village near Bethlehem. So I met with my Palestinian family and learned that the father “Abdul” was an ex-Hamas fighter who joined the movement as a teenager and was caught and jailed by the Israelis. In jail, this angry young man cried out to God with much despair and doubt. “Who is right?” was his cry. And God answered him, he shared about a dream he had. After his release he went back to his village and some time later a Christian worker happened to be walking through the village and wandered into the shop where Abdul was working. As soon as he saw this ‘foreigner’ he asked him ‘are you going to tell me about Jesus?’ and so the surprised Christian worker did exactly that and Abdul came to faith in Christ.
We spent the day sharing our stories with each other - including me having an opportunity to share the message of salvation and reconciliation in Jesus with some of his Muslim family. The most memorable statement I remember from that day was Abdul telling me how he grew up learning to hate the Jews and being full of violent anger against them. “Then I came to know Jesus” he said, “and now I love them, and I love their Book.”
So we sat and enjoyed a meal together, a Jewish Anglican Evangelical Bishop from South Africa and a young American Missionary from the Mid-West and an ex-Muslim Palestinian terrorist - and truly it felt more like family than even my blood relatives back home. There was a depth of relationship between us that only exists because of Jesus.
That’s the power of the Gospel. That brings peace with a Holy God – and true, lasting and eternal peace between the most diverse groups of people on the planet.
Sometimes people challenge me on this point and say ‘but there are groups that unite across the barriers using music or sport. You don’t need Jesus.’ It’s true that some unity does come through other means for a time. But its only in Jesus that both reconciliation with God and with each other is possible into eternity. If only for this life we pursue reconciliation it’s an incomplete, at best, and even futile exercise.
So, my brothers and sisters, the task and challenge for us is to continue to flesh out that gospel truth for the world to see. This means demonstrating the reconciliation we have with God in Christ AND with each other. It's all too easy to ‘stick with your own kind’ and even justify it with some Scripture twisting. It's remarkably easy to let grudges and divisions become a part of your church life. You can be members of the same church and share communion together and yet not be speaking to each other. That’s not just a personal issue, for Christians, that’s a gospel issue.
If God can change the heart of a Palestinian believer towards Israelis. Can he not also change your heart toward a fellow church member? Community member? Family member even? Perhaps even the lack of reconciliation with others has exposed the deeper reality that you lack reconciliation with God? It's only when you have come to Christ and truly turned to him by faith that the Spirit of God can work and convict us of the reconciliation we must seek with others.
Maybe that relationship is where some of you need to start today?
Imagine you’re the director of music for king David. David comes in one day and says, “I’ve written a good one”, and he gives you Psalm 139. What tune do you put it to? So you read through it, and in your mind you think that beautiful strings would be apt, with the triumphant, “you know me Lord” and “you made me Lord”. But then you get to verses 19 to 22: “If only you, God, would slay the wicked! Away from me, you who are bloodthirsty! They speak of you with evil intent; your adversaries misuse your name. Do I not hate those who hate you, Lord, and abhor those who are in rebellion against you? I have nothing but hatred for them; I count them my enemies.” (NIV) That sounds like it needs to be growled out over heavy metal electric guitars, doesn’t it? So what tune would we put the words to? And what should we do with final verses?
Yet the psalm is clearly meant to be read as one psalm as a unified whole. Verses 1 and 23 both pick up the language of “search” and “know.” And that is the prayer of this psalm. That’s reason David says everything else. So verse 1, “You have searched me, Lord, and you know me.” Again, verse 23, “Search me, God, and know my heart”. These statements raise another question: do you want to be searched? Do you want someone to know everything in your heart and to know all your thoughts?
I have been watching the drama series, “The Crown”. Season 1 was fantastic. John Lithgow’s portrayal of the aging Churchill was unbelievably good. And the episode where Graham Sutherland was commissioned to paint the great man was a stand out. That episode portrayed the great exchanges between the artist and the subject as Churchill sits for the portrait to be painted. And what became clear was that Churchill was petty and vain as well as being a genius. And finally when the painting is revealed in front of parliament, Churchill hates it. The artist has discerned a streak of cruelty in Churchill and captured it in the painting. And the result was that Clemmie Churchill burns the painting—this was true to history—because she sees that Winston cannot bear to have his nasty, petty, and cruel streak exposed.
Do you want someone to search every area of your thoughts and desires? Does that sound like a positive thing to you? But that is the prayer here, in verse 23, “Search me”. The whole psalm is heading to verses 23-24: “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” (NIV)
Perhaps that’s why some phrases are ambiguous. So in verse 5, David says to God: “You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me.” You hem me in and lay your hand upon me. Is that a good or a bad thing? Do you want to be hemmed in? It depends really if the person doing the “hemming” is a mugger or a lover! Again, the phrase “search me” might be positive or negative. God is a searcher of the human heart, and because we are sinful, we instinctively all want to withdraw and hide from him for fear of being exposed.
As we begin looking at this Psalm, I’m thankful that this psalm is “of David”. I am thankful that before I say the Psalm, it is a song of the Lord Jesus, David’s great descendent. Jesus is the ultimate messianic king that David foreshadowed. When Jesus sings this Psalm, it is true of him, and Jesus gives us this song to sing. Psalm 139 gives us the LORD, who is either frightening or reassuring. If we are Christians, we can sing this song joyfully, inviting God to “search me, O Lord”. We recognize that our hearts are a mixture of nobility and depravity. But legally, all that is wrong with us is taken by Jesus and replaced by his perfection. So Lord, I can be exposed before you and I know that you love me still.
The first six verses are deeply personal. In every verse, David is accutely aware of himself before God. Notice the personal pronouns, “you” and “me” in each verse. And notice the “knowledge” words. David confesses that God knows him again and again. In verses 1, 2, and 4, David says that God’s “knows” him. In verse 3, God “discerns” him and is “familiar” with all his ways. This is not an abstract knowledge but a relational knowledge, the same sort of intimate knowledge that the Old Testament says that a man has of his wife, meaning sexual relations. God knows what we do (v. 2), what we think (v. 2), where we go (v. 3), what we say (v. 4), and what we need (v. 5).
Do you swaddle babies in Australia? The advice varies, of course, but in the UK, we’re told to swaddle a baby, that is, to wrap it up really tight in a blanket or cloth. Apparently it makes them feel safe and secure, like they were in the womb. A believer has no fear of being hemmed in by the LORD. Rather, it’s a source of enormous comfort to us.
As I went to take our son off to play cricket last week, my wife said to him, “Do you want to take a sandwich?” “No I’m fine”, came the surly reply. “Have you got a jumper? It might get cold when you are fielding.” “I’ll be fine”, he said in dismissive tones. My wife of course still gave them both to me, and off we went to the cricket match. And sure enough, while he was waiting to bat, he says, “I’m starving”. And I hand him the sandwich his mother gave me for him. And as the temperature dropped into afternoon as he was fielding, he became cold. “Do you want a jumper?”, I ask. “Yep.” His mother knows him. She hems him in.
And so verse 6 expresses that being hemmed in is “wonderful”: “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.” It is too extraordinary for me, thinks David. And of course it is indeed wonderful to be both known and loved, isn’t it? To be known only might be good, or it might lead people to be wary around you. There is a saying that “No man is a hero to his butler”—we all have them in England—meaning that the butler sees what you are really like. To be known but not loved is not really that good.
And to be loved is great, but not if there’s a wretched secret you want to keep, that the one who loves you doesn’t know, and puts the love of that person for you at risk. Suppose you are a drug dealer, or on the run from the FBI, and the one who loves you doesn’t know this. What a terrible thing to have to keep such secrets out of fear of losing that person’s love! But to be both known and loved as well, that is a special combination. It is for this reason that long marriages can be special—for then we are both known by our spouse, and loved at the same time despite our sin. Knowing that we’re both known and loved gives real confidence in life.
Verse 7 is another ambiguous verse: “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?”
Why would you flee from God’s presence? You would presumably flee from God if you have something to hide, or if your conscience is guilty before him. Who flees from God’s presence in the Bible? Adam and Eve flee from God after they have sinned, and pathetically hide behind fig leaves. The prophet Jonah impotently tries to flee from God when he doesn’t wish to go to Nineveh to preach to them. These are almost comical attempts to hide from God, and David knows it’s not possible to run away or hide from God.
In verses 8-10, there is no distance that David can run to escape God: “If I go up to the heavens, you are there; If I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, If I settle on the far side of the sea, Even there your hand will guide me, Your right hand will hold me fast.” (NIV)
And in verses 11-12, David knows that no darkness can cover him from God’s sight: “If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will hide me And the light become night around me,’ Even the darkness will not be dark to you; The night will shine like the day, For darkness is as light to you.” (NIV)
When does darkness descend upon the worst of shame? It is when God judges the guilty in Jesus upon the cross. As darkness descended upon Jesus as he hung on the cross, he bore the judgement of God on our sin and bore God’s wrath for us. How wonderful that Jesus said at that point to his Father, “Into your hands I commit my Spirit.”
When the Christian asks the question of verse 7, “Where can I go from your Spirit, where can I flee from your presence”, it is because the Christian doesn’t want to go from God’s presence. “Your Spirit” here is placed in parallel with “your presence”, literally, “your face”. This reminds us that God indeed is present with us to bless us by his Spirit. We are never alone. The Christian believer knows that no matter what we’ve done, no matter how guilty our consciences are before God, this does not mean we have to hide from God. Rather, we return to God with our guilt and say to him, “Father, I praise you for the Lord Jesus. I am ashamed at what I’ve done, but I know that Jesus has taken my shame, so that I can stand before you as an unembarrassed child.”
I was with a young family the other day, and the mum had just fed a young baby of five months. The mother burped her, lifted her up, and said, “Have you got a smile for mummy?” And as the young mum opened her mouth, at that very moment the baby had reflux and vomited straight into mum’s mouth. It was one of the most disgusting things that I’ve ever seen. But here’s what mum didn’t do. She didn’t say, “That’s it. You’ve crossed a line. I can feed you, change your nappy, and wash you, but that is unforgiveable!” No, she said nothing of the sort, for nothing can stop mum from loving baby. And there is nothing that can stop your heavenly Father from loving you, because the very worst sin that you have or will commit is paid for by Jesus. God your Father will always be with you. He will never let you go.
David confesses that God has made him, verse 13: “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” In verse13, the “inmost being” is the “inward parts”, literally the kidneys, and stands for the emotions and the emotional life. It is God’s work to create each of us in the wombs of our mothers. This of course is why Christians place such a high value on life in the womb.
David can’t help but have a little burst of praise about in verse 14, “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.” How the Lord shapes us in the womb determines so much about us: how clever or strong we might be, what weaknesses we may have, and what diseases we are susceptible to. All of this is God’s work! You did this Lord, you gave me all that I have.
In verses 15-16, David returns to contemplate God’s creation and plan for his life: “My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” (NIV) What does David do with this truth that God has ordained everything that will occur in David’s life? He doesn’t say, “So then everything I do is pointless”, because the Bible also insists that humans have responsibility for their choices. Neither does he say, “so then life will be easy and without any humps in the road now that God has planned out my life”, because in verse 19, David clearly is having a difficult time with enemies: “If only you, God, would slay the wicked! Away from me, you who are bloodthirsty!”
Rather, the knowledge that all David’s days were written for him by God before one of them came to be causes David to praise God in verse 17: “How precious to me are your thoughts, God! How vast is the sum of them!” Your thoughts are splendid, O God! What a God you are!
That does make a massive difference! Think of the Marvel superhero films, one of the more recent ones being “Avengers: Infinity War”. In this blockbuster, half of the heroes die, including Spiderman, my favourite. It’s sad, sort of. Because you know there’s a sequel, and also a trailer out for a new Spiderman movie, so you know before you see it that “Avengers: End Game” will have a pretty happy ending.
The book of your life has a happy ending if you’re a Christian. The plot may have many twists and turns. There’ll be sad moments and tragic moments. But know that the last page has you standing before Jesus in glory. So verse 18, “when I awake, I am still with you.” Those words, “When I awake” are true every morning, and they will be true when you wake from the sleep of death.
In the week before Easter three people I knew at church died. The resurrection of Jesus meant more to me this year than a long time as a result. Easter Sunday was wonderful. One day you will close your eyes in death, and then you will wake up, and the living God will be there.
What is David’s chief cause of anger? It is not that he has been wronged. We’re quick to get angry when someone does something against us. But the reason David is angry is given in verses 19-20: "If only you, God, would slay the wicked! Away from me, you who are bloodthirsty! They speak of you with evil intent; your adversaries misuse your name." (NIV)
David is angered because his enemies speak against God and take God’s name in vain. And so, in verses 21-22, David expresses his hatred for them: “Do I not hate those who hate you, Lord, and abhor those who are in rebellion against you? I have nothing but hatred for them; I count them my enemies.” Hatred is fine if it’s hatred of evil. If you don’t rejoice in the overthrow of evil, there’s something wrong with you. If wickedness is replaced with goodness, that is a wonderful thing.
David says in verse 23, “Search me, God, and know my heart” (NIV). Search me and see if my thoughts are aligned with your thoughts. Try me out and see if I love what you love and hate what you hate. At points in his life, David was indeed a “man after God’s own heart”. But we know that if God searched David, he would find sin, because we see it in Scripture.
Do we really want everything about us searched by the all-seeing God? A friend of mine recently visited some Palestinian friends in Israel. At Tel Aviv airport, he was asked who he had visited. He did not receive a positive response when he told them who he visited, so he was searched. It was the “taken to a room and strip off everything” type of search. He felt unbelievably exposed.
Given that this is the sort of search God can do, it is only Jesus Christ who can pray “search me” in verses 23-24 and expect Father to reply, “Yes my precious Son! You love what I love. Your thoughts are my thoughts!”
“Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”
For you and me, we can’t pray “search me” as a sinful man or woman, because God will of course find our many sins. But we can say, “Jesus, thank you that you sang this song perfectly and have given it to me to sing as I trust in you.” For the “way everlasting” is open for us, and God knowing us is wonderful news. He knows us and loves us and will hold us fast until glory.
They say that questions are powerful. Questions can establish friendship: “How are you? What’s your name?” Questions can build trust: “Have you done this before?” Questions can unlock important information: “Do you know the way?” Some people ask questions for a living, like lawyers, doctors, and journalists. And sometimes their questions can be uncomfortable. The current affairs programs like to say that they ask the tough questions, and the ABC has a program where the audience get to ask the questions.
Now you’ve been spending the last couple of weeks looking at one of the famous episodes in the life of Jesus from John chapter 6, and today we come to the last act. It began with a question in verse 5: Jesus asked Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for all these people to eat?” As usual, Jesus is in charge of the whole thing. John says with all the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, that Jesus only asked this to test him, for he already knew what he was going to do.
Jesus knows what he’s going to do, and he knows why he’s doing it. So he feeds more than 5000 people in the desert from just a few loaves of bread and two fish. Where we pick up the story, it’s the next day, and Jesus has been teaching the meaning of what he has done: don’t work for bread that goes moldy; instead, search for the food that lasts to eternal life. I haven’t come to feed your tummy; I’ve come to feed your soul. I’m not the bread guy; I’m the bread.
And at the end of the chapter we get to the question that the Bible wants to ask us. The Bible is a dangerous book to read, because we think we are reading it, but it is reading us. And this long chapter ends with the question that Jesus asks the twelve disciples. He’s fed thousands of people from a few bits of bread and fish, he’s walked on the water, he has been teaching the crowds by the sea, and the scholars in the synagogue. And now he says to his closest friends, his inner circle of followers in verse 67: “Jesus asked the Twelve, ‘You do not want to leave too, do you?’”
We listen in on this conversation and we hear this question. But God has kept this part of the Bible for us for two thousand years so that on the 28th anniversary of MBM, you and I would be here and we would hear Jesus ask this question in our presence today: “You do not want to leave too, do you?” You’ve read the story, you’ve heard the teaching, what are you going to do with Jesus?
And as this long chapter comes to an end, there’s division. In verse 60, many of the disciples said, “Who can accept this teaching?” In verse 61, the disciples were grumbling about this. In verse 64, Jesus says to his disciples, “There are some of you who do not believe.” In verse 66, John tells us, “From this time many of his disciples tuned back and no longer followed him.” There’s division!
I have not always followed Jesus. I did not grow up with Christian parents. My parents were Sri Lankan and my mother brought up me and my two sisters as Buddhists. But I read John’s Gospel for the first time in my life in 1986. I was 21 years old, and God was so kind to me. God opened my eyes to see that Jesus was a person who divided people. Some people agreed with him, some people disagreed with him. Some people were amazed at what he said, some people were angry about what he said. Some people believed, and some people went away. When I read John’s gospel, I noticed that people were divided about Jesus. It was very kind of God to let me see that. Sometimes you can read the Bible and not see what is right in front of you—but God let me see it. When I saw that Jesus divides people, it made me ask, “Am I for Jesus or against him?” I was a Buddhist, so I knew I was against Jesus. But I didn’t know why. And when I saw that Jesus divided people, I began to ask myself this question: “Why am I against Jesus?”
And that’s the question that Jesus asks his twelve disciples, and all of us, at the end of this chapter. “Are you for me or against me? Are you going on with me or are you going away without me?” Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also want to leave?”
John tells us why it would be foolish, and tragic, to leave Jesus. Maybe you have been following Jesus for many years. Maybe you are still deciding whether to follow Jesus or not. Today is a great to be in church, because in John 6, we find out why it so good to be with Jesus, and how we do that.
First, why stick with Jesus? The answer is, who he is and what he’s done. He’s the bread of life, who gives life and is real food, verse 49:
Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. (NIV)
Jesus compares the ancient times of the ancestors in the past, and his own day. In the past, Moses led his people through the wilderness, and God fed the people with bread from heaven, called ‘manna’, every morning and every evening for forty years. But Jesus says, “Guess what? Everyone who ate the manna that came down from heaven died.” They all died.
Now it’s the day after Jesus fed five thousand men, and perhaps another ten thousand women and children, from just five loaves of bread and two fish. And in a display of overcatering that would have made my mother proud, there were twelve baskets of leftovers—plenty to give everyone a take away container to take home.
But the point of the miracle is not that Jesus is a new Moses who can give them bread. The point of the miracle is that Jesus is new bread: bread that gives eternal life. Jesus says, in verse 51:
I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh which I will give for the life of the world. (NIV)
Now what does Jesus mean when he says that he will give his flesh for the life of the world? He is speaking about his death. He will give his flesh ‘for’ the life of the world. Such a little word, you hardly notice it, but such a wonderful word! Jesus gives his life on the cross for the world, on behalf of the world, for anyone.
At the very beginning of chapter 6, we’re told that everything that happens—the feeding of the thousands of people, and all the teaching that Jesus gives the next day—is happening during the feast of the passover. At the feast of the passover, lambs were sacrificed to remind the people that in ancient times, God rescued them from his judgement by giving them a sign that would save them: the blood of a lamb on their doorposts and window frames. So when God sent his judgement, death ‘passed over’ the houses that were painted with the blood of a lamb. The lamb was sacrificed instead of the firstborn in every household. The lamb took the place of the firstborn. The feast of passover reminded them each year, that they were rescued from God’s judgement by the sacrifice of a lamb.
Now at the passover, Jesus says, that he will give his flesh for the life of the world. His death on the cross will be a new passover. God’s judgement on the sin of the world, fell on Jesus when he died on the cross. Jesus is our passover lamb, just as John the Baptist said when he saw his cousin: behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. When Jesus gives his life for the world, when he dies for us, for anyone and whoever eats, when he dies in our place and on our behalf, he dies so that we may live. Notice what Jesus says about the life that he brings. In verse 53, without Jesus, we don’t have life at all:
Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink his blood, you have no life in you. (NIV)
Now Jesus has just fed thousands of people. They were all living people, and the next day they are alive enough and hungry enough to come after him for more bread. So he doesn’t mean that they are literally dead, but he does mean that they are spiritually dead. Without Jesus, there is no life with God.
It’s the passover, Jesus is speaking in the synagogue, he is talking to his own people, but he’s saying to them, “Without me, you have no spiritual life, you have no connection with God, you are spiritually dead.” Having made his point negatively, Jesus then states the same thing positively in the next verse, verse 54:
Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and I will raise them up at the last day. (NIV)
Whoever eats and drinks has eternal life. Whoever does not, has no life. Jesus leaves no room for many pathways, no room for the old religion of his own people, no room either for any other spirituality, because only Jesus dies for the life of the world. The world has many teachers but it has only one saviour. The world has many wise men but it has only one lamb of God who sacrificed his flesh for the life of the world. The world has many prophets but only one risen Lord who can raise others at the last day because he is victor over death.
Some people like to say, “I’m spiritual but not religious”, but Jesus says, “No, you’re not. You’re not spiritual. Without me, you’re spiritually dead, there’s no life in you!” The life that Jesus gives is rescue from the judgement we deserve, forgiveness from God, life that goes on into eternity, and most of all it is life with the Father and the Son, verse 55:
For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. (NIV)
Jesus says that his flesh is real food and his blood is real drink. And then he explains what that means: I in them, them in me; as I am with the Father, so they are with me.
Can you see how Jesus is talking about relationship with God? It is a relationship based on the forgiveness that reconciles us to God, relationship that will not be interrupted by death but will continue into eternity, relationship that is personal and close and privileged. It involves the same closeness that there is between the Father and the Son, between Jesus and his followers. It’s so good, it’s so amazing, it’s so wonderful, knowing God the Father, knowing God the Son, in the freedom and fullness of forgiveness and reconciliation, in this life and the next. It is real food and real drink.
Jesus mentions the Father here, but later in the Gospel of John, when he speaks of living in his followers, he will speak of the Spirit. Jesus lives in us by his Spirit. The Spirit of Jesus lives in those who belong to Jesus. No wonder Jesus uses the language of eating and drinking, because his Spirit lives in us. The Spirit enables us to pray to our Father, to receive and understand and obey his word, the Spirit assures us of the Father’s Iove. The Spirit of Jesus lives in us. And we are in Christ so that we know the Father’s love the way the Son knows the Father’s love. The indwelling Spirit unites us to Christ. This is real food and real drink.
It’s like Jesus knows how quickly we turn to fake food, to satisfy our deepest needs. Scott Bedbury is the advertising guru behind brands like ‘Nike’ and ‘Starbucks’. He says that advertisers try to tap into our deep psychological needs, like our desire to belong, the need to feel connected, to experience joy and fulfillment. Bedbury says that successful companies tap into our search for meaning. So ‘Apple’ don’t flog computers, they’re offering cool. And ‘Nike’ don’t sell joggers, they promise health and youth and long life.
And we fall into the advertisers trap of seeking to satisfy the deep hunger and thirst of our souls with food that cannot satisfy. This is why there are probably more people shopping right now, than in churches around Sydney. So we devote ever increasing amounts of time and energy and money into satisfying our appetites: food, drink, music, sex, relationships, travel, sport, experiences, sensations. And we never stop because we’re never satisfied. We’re always hungry for more fake food. But Jesus says he is that food that is real, which gives forgiveness, peace with God, and life with God now and forever.
We’ve thought about why we should stick with Jesus—because he gives life to the world and is real food (forgiveness and fellowship), so second, let’s think about how to stick with Jesus.
All the way through John chapter 6, Jesus is speaking symbolically. He uses the image of bread to speak of the life that he gives. He uses the image of flesh and blood to speak of the death that he dies. He gives life, he is essential for life, he satisfies our deep hunger, and he does it all by his death on the cross.
Then, throughout the chapter, Jesus teaches his listeners how to respond to him. So the chapter uses several different words to say the same thing: believe, come, listen, learn, eat, drink. Each word tells us something about what is involved in coming to trust and follow Jesus. ‘Believe’ tells us that we need to know Jesus, who he is and what he does. He is the living bread who comes down from heaven and gives his life for the life of the world. But we need not only to believe, but to act on what we know. We must ‘come’. We must hear Jesus’ invitation and respond to it. We are commanded to come. But Jesus says in verse 65 that no one can come to me unless the Father draws them. He says the same in verse 44.
John 6:44 was a key verse in my coming to trust in Jesus as my saviour. A friend had given me John’s Gospel to read. About the third time I was reading my way through John’s Gospel. I got to 6:44 where Jesus says, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them to me and I will raise them up on the last day.”
I got to that verse and it challenged me. It puzzled me. It even irritated me. As a Buddhist I didn’t believe in a last day. I believed that there was no last day, there was just day after day after day into eternity, the definition of suffering that went on and on until you escaped to the non-existence of nirvana. It took the Buddha five hundred lives to achieve that.
But even more than that, I looked at the words and wondered what it meant when Jesus said, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them to me.” I thought to myself, “How does God draw people to Jesus?” And then I thought, “Perhaps he is doing it now, as I read the Gospel. And that is just what Jesus says, in verse 45:
It is written in the prophets: “They will all be taught by God. Everyone who has heard the Father and learned from him comes to me.” (NIV)
The Father draws his people to come to Jesus by his word. so we must listen and learn from the Father. And Jesus says in today’s passage, the Father draws his people by his word and Spirit, verse 63:
The words I have spoken to you are full of the Spirit and life (NIV)
The words of Jesus the Son of God are full of the Spirit of God and full of the offer of life. I am the bread of life, so eat. I am the water of eternal life, so drink. I am the gate, so enter. I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father but by me. God draws people to Jesus by the words of Jesus in the Gospel, which are breathed out by his Spirit.
Who does the Father draw by the words of Jesus? Jesus says, “Anyone may eat of the bread that comes down from heaven” (v. 50), and Jesus says, “Whoever eats this bread will live forever” (v. 51). The invitation is open to all. How wonderful to be here with you at MBM in your 28th year and to look out across this room and see people from every tribe and language and nation. Of course! Because ‘anyone’ may eat and ‘whoever’ eats of this bread will live forever. The Father is drawing people from every tribe and language and race to know him and to follow his Son. He drew this Buddhist by the gospel and he draws Jews and Hindus and Atheists and Communists and Muslims and Secularists and Catholics and Orthodox and Anglicans by the words of Jesus in the gospel of Jesus breathed out by the Spirit of Jesus. Believe, come, look, listen, and eat. Seven times in nine verses, Jesus says those who believe in him must eat his flesh and drink his blood.
Now the disciples are confused. They say that it is a hard saying. Of course, if they were thinking that Jesus meant they had to actually eat his body and drink his blood, then that was a hard saying! It was forbidden for Jews to eat meat that had the blood in it. The idea of eating human flesh was impossible. The disciples would not have thought that Jesus was talking about the Lord’s Supper or communion, and we shouldn’t think of that either, for at least two reasons.
Here are two reasons why Jesus isn’t talking about the Lord’s Supper. First because he says in verse 61, “Does this offend you? Then what if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before?” Jesus is going to ascend to heaven via the cross. His body is going to heaven. If Jesus’ body is in heaven at the right hand of the Father then it is not on the communion table. Jesus is in heaven so his flesh and blood is not in the Lord’s Supper.
And the second reason Jesus cannot mean that eating his flesh and blood means taking communion is in verse 63: “The Spirit gives life, the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you, they are full of the Spirit and life.”
In other words, it’s not Jesus’ flesh that they need to eat, it’s his words, especially his words about his death on the cross. His Spirit-breathed words give life. we need to hear the gospel word and take it in. Faith comes by hearing, the apostle Paul says in another place. We feed on Jesus by hearing his gospel and believing it, listening, learning, and coming to the Father. And when we have the Lord’s Supper, that is what we do: we feed on Jesus in our hearts with thanksgiving as we hear his words, “this is my body given for you, this is my blood shed for the forgiveness of sins.”
We’ve thought about why we should stick with Jesus. He is the bread of life who gives his life for the life of the world: forgiveness, life with God, life eternal, no accusation, no isolation, no condemnation, rescued from judgement, relationship with God, rejoicing forever. Here’s how we stick with Jesus: believe, come, listen, learn, eat. Hear the Spirit-filled, life-giving gospel words of Jesus about himself, about his death and resurrection, his offer of forgiveness, his victory over death, his coming kingdom, his perfect reign—hear and take it in. Welcome the words of Jesus, let them be your food and drink, your health and hope, your light and life, your goal and glory, your journey and your joy.
John says, “Many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.” Did they want food for their bellies more than their souls? Did they fear men more than God? Were they anxious about tomorrow, distracted by worry, or seduced by gold? Were they bored that there were no more miracles? Was it too simple to ‘believe’ or too hard to take up their cross? Was it too narrow for Jesus to be the only path to life or too broad that anyone should come? Were they just looking for an excuse or did they think they would come back to it later?
Jesus said to the twelve, “You do not want to leave too, do you?”, in verses 68-69: "Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God." (NIV)
It is Jesus who does the work that God requires. He is bread, that we may feed on him. He gives his life for the world, that we may have life in his name. He gives his flesh that death may be put to death. He comes from heaven that we might know God. He has the Father’s seal of approval that God’s favour may rest on us. He is the Son who is sent, that we may be adopted as children. He does the will of his Father that none of those who the Father gives will be lost.
To whom shall we go? There is only one who has the words of eternal life.There is no one like him. There is only one, Jesus.
Like a lot of youth group kids who grew up in the Blue Mountains, after church on a Sunday night nearly every week we all ended up at Blaxland Maccas. There were no Maccas in the Mountains until I was about fifteen, but as soon as it was built, it was packed with church kids on a Sunday night. There were usually 4 youth groups or more there which was helpful for some cross-pollination. It was like having a combined youth event every week. I think several marriages had their beginnings over a dodgy Big Mac.
One week a mate of mine decided he’d do a bit of a prank on the kitchen staff and test out how well they made Big Macs. So he ordered one and it came out falling apart, lettuce all over the place, and nothing like the picture over the counter. So he sent it back. They made another one, and it was better but still not like the picture. So he put on his best straight face and sent that one back as well. The third time they got it right: it was perfect. We all knew what Dave was doing, and we were all falling about laughing. He’s a Baptist pastor now that bloke.
It must be hard to get food to look right all the time. Those cooking shows on TV—‘Master Chef’ or ‘My Kitchen Rules’—put so much emphasis on presentation. Jamie Oliver is the exception: he just seems to chuck food on a plate and dish it up, and somehow it still looks good. But everyone else presents their food as almost perfect.
A while ago, I was sitting in a chiropractor’s waiting room. I was flicking through a ‘Who’ magazine. There was a story in it about a bloke who was on Master Chef and he was spilling the beans about the show. Turns out that it’s all scripted. The food that’s served to the judges is usually cold because they’ve had to wait ‘til everyone was ready. There are professional chefs around the place to make sure everything is ‘plated-up’ perfectly. These chefs were teaching the contestants step by step how to cook whatever was on for that night, then demonstrating it for the contestants, and then the contestants would have a go, all the while being coached and helped by the professionals. So it nearly always looked like one of those cooking shows where the mess was put aside near the end and the chef would say, ‘Here’s one I prepared earlier’, and then would bring out the perfect example of what they were trying to make.
I reckon this is a good way to approach this part of Philippians. The first couple of verses are like the chef explaining to the contestants what they are about to make and giving them their ingredients. We’d call it the ‘theology section’. That’s verses 12-13. God is at work in us while we are at work in him. Then you’ve got the bit where they demonstrate what’s going to happen: that’s the ‘here’s what it looks like in practice’ bit. That’s verses 14-18, which basically says, ‘don’t grumble’. Then lastly you’ve got two examples: the ‘here’s one I prepared earlier’ part. That’s verses 19-30, where Paul puts the spotlight on Timothy and Epaphroditus to show us what’s possible as God works in us by his Spirit and we work hard at doing what God says. Let’s kick off with the theology section, verses 12-13:
12 Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfil his good purpose. (NIV)
OK, hands up if you do the right thing when someone is watching? Most of us find that pretty easy. But what if no one is around? What if no one is watching? It’s not so easy then, is it?
You will be shocked to hear that I got into a bit of trouble at school. I wasn’t a bad naughty kid. I was just always up for a laugh. In year ten we went through a phase of joining rubber bands together, folding bits of paper up, and firing them at each other. Our teacher had left the room one day and I was sitting next to an open window and took the opportunity to line up a good shot at a mate who was sitting about five or six metres away. It was a good shot. I got him in the rib cage! Everyone was laughing. But then it all went wrong. Our Senior Master, Mr Craig, had been watching me through the window. I had no idea. I felt this hand grab my shoulder through the window and a stern voice say, “Mr Wakeford! My office, now!” This was back when teachers had some authority. When you were in trouble, you were really in trouble. I got four cuts of the cane for that one.
If people are watching, it’s not too hard to do the right thing. But when you think no one is watching, it’s not so easy. In church, we’re nearly always on our best behaviour, aren’t we? We all get our ‘church face’ on just after we park the car. It’s called ‘The Car Park Miracle’ we looked at the other week in James 3. We walk in and usually manage to hold it all together. When we’re with friends for dinner or something like that, we do our best to behave like a Christian should. But what if we’re just with our family? Or what about when we’re at school or uni or work? How do we speak? What do we do? Do we have a few too many drinks? Do we let our guard down a bit? What do we look at on the computer or the TV when no one is around? What music do we listen to? What do we get up to with a boyfriend or girlfriend? What are the things we do when no one is around that we would never even think about doing if we were with other people? It’s worth thinking about, I reckon. I suspect that for most of us, there are things we do and say at home or work or school or uni or TAFE that we’d never do or say here at church.
Paul starts this section by saying that the Philippians were living like Christians while Paul was with them. But guess what—and this is pretty cool—Paul’s now heard from Epaphroditus that even when Paul is absent, they’re still doing the same thing. Their lifestyle still matches their faith. That’s impressive, and you’ve got to ask how they’ve managed it? The answer is in verses 12 and 13. They are working out their salvation with fear and trembling. That is, they’re figuring out what it means to live as a Christian day by day, knowing that even if there are no people are around, God is. And they know that God is at work in them at the same time that they are making an effort to display true Christian character in their daily lives.
That’s what Paul means when he says at the same time that they are working out their salvation—working out what it means to live like a Christian—God is also at work in them by his Spirit to change their will and their actions—what they think and what they do—so that their thinking and their lifestyle is conformed more and more to God’s good purposes for them.
This is really important for us. We sometimes wonder how on earth we’re meant to put our old ways behind us. We find it difficult from time to time. Our old sinful ways creep back into our thoughts and actions, and we hate it. But this says, ‘Don’t be discouraged! While we’re hard at work trying to make our lives match our faith in Jesus, God is hard at work in us by his Spirit, transforming our thoughts and our actions so we are able to live out our faith.’ God is at work in us day by day to make us more like Jesus. He’s the Master Chef if you like, and with God at work in us, what we dish up can be just about spot on. So what might this look like in practice? Have a look at the next bit from verse 14:
14 Do everything without grumbling or arguing, 15 so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky 16 as you hold firmly to the word of life. (NIV)
One of the issues in the church in Philippi was pride. Pride makes people argue and grumble. So in practice, “working out your salvation” will mean that you get on with life without arguing with each other or grumbling about everything. Imagine what life would be like if we didn’t argue or grumble?
A mate of mine is a Welsh bloke, David Jones. He’s a great preacher. I remember hearing him preach on this ages ago, and it has stuck with me ever since. He said that people end up looking like the thing they do most. People who were joyful looked like joy, smiling and generally in good spirits. People who were content looked like it, peaceful. People who were angry looked it: hard faced and bitter. And people who grumbled just end up looking like a grumble. And it’s true, isn’t it? Think of someone you know who’s always grumbling about something. What do they look like? A grumble. What do you always expect to hear coming out of their mouths? A grumble. Our character traits show up in our faces. So Paul says, ‘Do everything without arguing or grumbling.’ That’s what it looks like to work out your salvation. And as you do that, God is at work in you by his Spirit to produce the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. Those are the characteristics that should mark our lives as we follow Jesus. Arguing and grumbling are not the fruit of the Spirit!
If we put away arguing and grumbling and instead put on the fruit of the Spirit, we’d be blameless and pure. We’d stand out as being completely different to the world around us, like stars shining in a dark universe. That’s the idea.
So the question is, ‘Who are we when we’re not here? What sort of things do we do? Are we whinging and complaining? Are we gossiping? Do we talk about other people behind their backs? Are we slandering other people when they aren’t around? Do we tear people down? Are we argumentative and divisive? Are we grumbling about this and that? What kind of people are we? Do you complain about everything to your neighbours and friends? Or because we know Jesus and are filled with his Spirit, are we so different that we stand out like stars in the universe compared to the rest of the dark world around us? Or are we lazy? Have we stopped working on our character and behaviour? Are we frustrating the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives? Do we look like a grumble? Or do we look like joy?
That makes me ask the obvious question: What would it look like if we were getting it right? And Paul’s answered that by pointing us to Timothy and Epaphroditus. This is like the chef on the cooking show pulling out the perfectly plated up dish and saying, ‘Here’s one I prepared earlier!’ Have a look at verses 19-24. Here’s Timothy:
19 I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, that I also may be cheered when I receive news about you. 20 I have no one else like him, who will show genuine concern for your welfare. 21 For everyone looks out for their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. 22 But you know that Timothy has proved himself, because as a son with his father he has served with me in the work of the gospel. 23 I hope, therefore, to send him as soon as I see how things go with me. 24 And I am confident in the Lord that I myself will come soon. (NIV)
And then from verse 25 to verse 30, Epaphroditus:
25 But I think it is necessary to send back to you Epaphroditus, my brother, co-worker and fellow soldier, who is also your messenger, whom you sent to take care of my needs. 26 For he longs for all of you and is distressed because you heard he was ill.27 Indeed he was ill, and almost died. But God had mercy on him, and not on him only but also on me, to spare me sorrow upon sorrow. 28 Therefore I am all the more eager to send him, so that when you see him again you may be glad and I may have less anxiety.29 So then, welcome him in the Lord with great joy, and honour people like him,30 because he almost died for the work of Christ. He risked his life to make up for the help you yourselves could not give me. (NIV)
It’s interesting to look at the way Paul speaks about Timothy and Epaphroditus. You can tell Paul wasn’t an Aussie. He’s so genuine and open in his love for these blokes. His praise is heart-felt and warm. He’s not embarrassed to say exactly what he thinks. If Paul was an Aussie he’d still think the same stuff about these two blokes, but he’d never say it. He’d be bagging them out. He’d say Epaphroditus was a bit soft—had the man-flu, tore a heart muscle—that’s why he wanted to go home! He’d say Timothy was good at pretending to work hard for the gospel but really was a bit of a bludger, and that he hoped to send him away quickly because he’d be glad to be rid of him! I’m so glad Paul was not an Aussie!
I don’t know if you’ve spent much time with Americans, but they are much better at praising each other with real affection than we are. So I think the way Paul speaks here is instructive for us. There’s some room for growth here in the way we speak to each other. We also saw this the other week in James 3 about ‘taming the tongue’. So let’s not be a bunch of people who bag each other out when we really appreciate each other. I think MBM has a reputation as a church that really seeks to honour those who work hard for the Lord. So let’s keep doing that more and more – it’s such a great thing to do!
But here’s the thing: how Paul speaks is just as important as what he says. If we want to know what it looks like to continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling while God is hard at work in you by his Spirit, if you want to know what doing everything without arguing or grumbling looks like, if you want to know what shining like bright stars in a dark world looks like, Paul says: look at these two blokes.
They genuinely put other people before themselves. They work hard with all their energy. They suffer and don’t whinge. They aren’t afraid to be vulnerable, showing genuine concern for other people’s welfare. They carry on their work despite illness. They can’t wait to get back in the fight 100% once they are healthy again. They worry that others worry about them! They are Paul’s brothers, co-workers, fellow-soldiers. The bottom line is that we should honour people who have this character, because this is what it looks like to work out your salvation; this is what it looks like to put off arguing and grumbling and instead put on the fruit of the Spirit.
So I reckon the way we can pull this off is by looking at the example Paul gives us of Timothy and Epaphroditus, and have a go at imitating them. Timothy’s key characteristic is described in verses 21-22.
For everyone looks out for their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. 22 But you know that Timothy has proved himself, because as a son with his father he has served with me in the work of the gospel. (NIV)
Timothy looks out not for his own interests but for those of Jesus Christ. This was obviously a big thing for Timothy. Paul says that he’d proved himself in this regard as he served with Paul in the work of the Gospel. Timothy had put Jesus first in everything.
And what is Epaphroditus’ defining characteristic? There’s a lot of great things about him, but it’s his selflessness that hits me. Have a look at verses 26-27:
26 For he longs for all of you and is distressed because you heard he was ill.27 Indeed he was ill, and almost died. But God had mercy on him, and not on him only but also on me, to spare me sorrow upon sorrow. (NIV)
So Epaphroditus was a member of the church in Philippi. He’d been sent to Paul with a gift of money so Paul would be able to provide for his rent and food. But either on the way to Paul in Rome or while he was there, Epaphroditus got really sick, so sick that he almost died. Notice that Epaphroditus was distressed not because he was sick but because his friends back in Philippi heard he was sick, and they were worried!
This is amazing selflessness, but what a great example of the whole ‘It’s not about me!’ thing that we need to hear. Our culture has become incredibly individualistic, and that’s not a biblical or Christian thing. It’s a 21st century Western thing, and it’s the exact opposite of biblical Christianity. Nearly all the advertising we are bombarded with tells us that we are entitled; we have a right to do what we want to do when we want to do it; that it’s all about my instant satisfaction and my happiness, because hey, it’s all about me!
This stuff seeps into our hearts, and because it’s in our hearts, it’s crept into the church and into 21st century Western Christianity in general, and we have to fight it. It isn’t all about us. I am not the centre of the universe and neither are you. Our rights and our entitlements must take a back seat so that we can put Jesus first, because it’s all about him, not all about us.
Epaphroditus gets it. He knows it’s not all about him. He doesn’t want his friends to worry. He wants them to press on doing what they can to spread the gospel in Philippi. And if they’re spending too much time worrying about him, that’s going to take their focus off serving Jesus. That is a massively counter-cultural thing for us to hear. But we need to hear it. And notice what Paul says about Epaphroditus: ‘Honour people like him.’
You know as a church, we can make all the plans we like. We can put more staff on and expand the programmes we already have going. We can increase the number of people who are serving in different ministries. We can make any change we like. But I tell you what: if we just look out for our own interests, if we’re selfish, if we think it’s all about us not all about Jesus, we will get precisely nowhere.
With us and by ourselves, this is impossible. But this part of Philippians tells us that we are not alone. God is at work in us, changing our minds and transforming our actions. His Spirit is doing his work in us day by day so we look more like Jesus, so we’re marked not by arguing or grumbling, but by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. That’s how we shine out like stars, and that’s partly how we change the world.
My granny, my mum’s mum, lived a long life. She died when she was 95 years old, so she had a good knock. She was a solid Christian woman, but was also fairly old fashioned in her attitudes to certain things. For example, when I left the police force, I rebelled against short hair, so I didn’t have a hair cut for a couple of years. I thought I looked like Eddie Vedder from Pearl Jam! Granny would often say to me, “1 Corinthians 11 says that long hair on a man is a disgrace!”
Nonie and I got married in 1997 and I still had long hair, so at our reception, Granny produced a photo of me from when I was in the police force and had short hair. She showed it to just about everyone at our wedding, saying, “I know he looks ridiculous now, but he really is a lovely boy!” Interestingly, I look back at the photos of our wedding and granny was right: I didn’t look like Eddie Vedder: I looked ridiculous!
Anyway, years before this, she’d done a heap of research on both sides of our family tree. She went way back to about the year AD 900, which is pretty cool. Both sides of my family came out here from England. On my dad’s side of the family, his dad came out in 1922; his mother’s side a bit earlier. Her great grandfather got sick of living in England, so he built a big boat, put his whole family and all their possessions on it and sailed it out here in about 1870, which is a great effort! Tough stock. His son had the same adventurous spirit as well. He was an electrician who worked on the Harbour Bridge. He was up on the very top of the arch. The higher up you went, the more money you earned because it was so dangerous. That was dad’s side: adventurous, tough people.
Mum’s side all came out from England in the mid 1800s. But they didn’t build a boat. They were even tougher: they swam out (that’s a joke, by the way).
But, like all families, there are a few skeletons in our closet. “Where’s auntie?” “She’s having a holiday in the countryside.” “What kind of holiday?” “The kind of holiday that lasts for about nine or ten months.” And when auntie came back, what do you know? She’d adopted a little baby, who looks surprisingly like her neighbour from up the road. These days no one bats an eyelid at that sort of thing, but go back 80 years and it was a very different story. That sort of thing was incredibly scandalous!
There was at least one mysterious death. There were one or two drunks who managed to squander vast amounts of money. On a brighter note, there were also a heap of Christians and several of the men were preachers and pastors. I’m not the first Rev. Wakeford, which is cool.
You go back a bit further on my mum’s side, and one of my ancestors was the king of the southern half of England: lots of castles, vast tracts of land, servants, the whole nine yards. Now, I know that’s about 1,000 years ago, so it’s a fairly tenuous link to royalty, but don’t let that stop you from calling me ‘Sir’ from here on in, or perhaps, ‘your majesty’.
That’s my family tree. I figure it’s pretty normal: lots of branches and plenty of nuts! Yours probably doesn’t look that different. Go back far enough and you find all sorts of people. Family trees are fascinating things
It’s Christmas in a couple of days, so I thought we’d look at Jesus’ family tree: Jesus’ pedigree, if you like, not because it’s so much better than ours, but because, apart from having so many unpronounceable names, it’s probably not that different from yours or mine. I’ll show you what I mean from Matthew 1:1-16.
Apart from Jesus right at the end of our Bible reading, these are regular people. Some were deeply religious; some were total shockers; some were faithful people who had some epic brain snaps, just like us; and all of them, except the last one, Jesus, were sinners. They all rebelled against God in some way. Either they did what they weren't meant to do, or they didn’t do what they were meant to do. They’re just plain old sinners like you and me. So Jesus’ family tree is a bit like a mirror. As we look at this we see bits and pieces of ourselves.
Some of us are a bit religious. We come to church a few times a year: maybe Christmas and Easter and a few other times. And we do this because we think that by ticking that box a couple of times a year, we’re doing enough to keep God happy. Religious people know they aren’t perfect, but generally they hope their good deeds outweigh their bad deeds, and that God will be OK with them at the end.
Some of us are total shockers. Sure, we turn up regularly, but there are times when we’re having ourselves on. We give in to sin early and often, and our lives are a bit of a mess. Some of us keep our sin hidden a bit better, so we look pretty good. But under the façade lurks pride and arrogance: a feeling that we’re better than others. Christians who are like that are one of the main reasons so many folks stay away from Church. They’re sick of being judged.
Jesus’ family tree has all this, which means it’s both confronting and encouraging. It’s confronting because we see ourselves here. But it’s also encouraging because if God can save and bless and use this catalogue of muppets and wack-jobs then maybe he can do the same with me.
There are 42 men in this list and five women. I’ll mention a few of the blokes but we’ll spend more time looking at these five women, because a Jewish family tree with women in it is pretty unusual. Normally it’s just the men who are mentioned, so Matthew has included these women for a very specific reason.
The five women are Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary. These women were just like us: some made bad decisions; some grew up without knowing God; some were abused by others; some were just faithful and obedient. But all of them are included in Jesus’ family tree. These are the kind of people God rescues, redeems, forgives, blesses, and then works through. And it doesn’t matter that all five are women. Their stories apply to men as well. So, let’s get into it.
The first one is Tamar, verse 3. You can read her story back in the first book of the Bible, Genesis chapter 38, but briefly this is it. Tamar was married to a bloke named Er. His parents couldn’t figure out what to call him: “Er, Er”, and the name stuck. Anyway, he was wicked in God’s sight, so God killed him. There was no welfare back then, different to our culture. Back then, if a married bloke died without leaving any children, his nearest male relative had to marry the widow, take her into his home, and give her children to keep the dead husband’s family line going, and to ensure that the widow had someone to take care of her when she got old. It sounds kind of weird to us, but with no welfare, a widow was in real trouble. So this is a pretty good law that God gave his people.
Anyway, Er—Tamar’s wicked and now dead husband—had a brother. His name was Onan. It was his responsibility to give Tamar a child. But he was also wicked. He slept with Tamar but didn’t want the responsibility of having a child with her: so he didn’t finish the deed and instead spilled his seed on the ground, as it were. His sin was that he used Tamar for sex, showed her no respect or honour, and did not fulfil his responsibilities to her and provide her with a child. So God killed him as well.
Things aren’t looking too good for Tamar. Her father-in-law had another son, but since the first two sons died while married to Tamar, he was scared the same thing would happen to son number three. So he didn’t let him marry her. So Tamar took matters into her own hands and disguised herself as a prostitute, waited for her father-in-law to turn up, and seduced him. His name was Judah, verse 3. Tamar was desperate. She had sex with her father-in-law and got pregnant. She had twins, Perez and Zerah. Their mum was their dad’s daughter-in-law. Weird? Absolutely! So why mention this hill-billy freak show? Because Tamar’s story is not unlike some of ours. She was one of God’s people, but her life was a total mess. Maybe that describes you. You’re one of God’s people but your life’s a mess. You’ve been used and abused; and maybe you’ve tried to fix it yourself and only made matters worse.
It is hard to imagine the shame and violation Tamar would have felt, sinking to the level of pretending to be a prostitute and sleeping with the very man who should have been taking care of her. This woman is totally abandoned. Tamar’s story tells us that even in the darkest of circumstances, God is somehow still at work. He doesn’t pick the most respectable people or the most religious people. He often picks people whose lives are totally messed up, people who’ve been sinned against terribly, and he rescues them and provides for them. He mends their brokenness and blesses them. These people end up being a blessing to others. Tamar did. She is Jesus’ great-great-great-great-however-many-more-times-great-granny. That makes her story part of our story. God worked through her to bring Jesus to us.
The second and third women are both in verse 5. Rahab is first. You can read about her in the book of Joshua. Rahab didn’t disguise herself as a prostitute. She didn’t need to because she was a prostitute! Briefly, her story is this: after forty years of wandering around the desert for their disobedience to God, the people of Israel were again at the Jordan River, about to cross over into the Promised Land. Joshua sent two spies in to have a squiz. Where did they go? A brothel! That’s not what I learnt in Sunday School when I was a kid. I was told they went to an inn and had a nice hot cup of cocoa. They didn’t. They went to a brothel where they met Rahab, a prostitute. Rahab had heard of God’s people and she had heard of God. She knew her city was toast. The long and the short of it is this: the spies promise Rahab that if she hides them from the blokes who are looking for them, then she and her family will be spared when Israel invade. That is what ends up happening.
Rahab is included in Jesus’ family tree for the benefit of anyone who thinks they are out of God’s reach. If that’s you, listen to Rahab’s story and let her tell you that there is no such thing as being out of God’s reach.
It’s hard to imagine anyone further away from God than a prostitute from a godless town like Jericho. Yet, here she is, in Jesus’ family tree: and she’s in Hebrews 11 as well, the chapter about the heroes of faith in the Old Testament. How did all that happen? Well, God met her where she was. He saved her and he changed her. She started making decisions that brought her closer to God. She started to trust God instead of pretending he wasn’t there. She quit her job as a prostitute. She met and married a faithful, godly Israelite bloke. No one is too far from the God, who can turn the prostitute from Jericho into the great-great-great-great granny of God’s own Son!
Ruth is next. The book of Ruth in the Old Testament is all about her. She’s different to Tamar and Rahab. Her story is one of the most beautiful things in the Bible. She was an extraordinary woman. But, even so, what on earth is she doing in Jesus’ family tree? She wasn’t even Jewish! She was from Moab! Moab and Israel were sworn enemies! Ruth grew up worshipping false gods and had never even heard of the one true God. But she married a Jewish dude who’d moved to Moab with his parents for all the wrong reasons. He ended up dying. So did his brother and then their dad, leaving Ruth and her mother-in-law, Naomi, abandoned and without hope. After a while, Naomi decided to go back to Israel, and Ruth, her daughter-in-law, went with her.
It would have made much more sense for her to stay in her own county and get married to one of her own people. But she had come to know and trust God with an unshakable faith. Ruth loved God and totally trusted him. She stepped into harm’s way to take care of her mother-in-law, and God honoured Ruth for that choice. He protected her and provided her with more than enough food to survive. And after a short time he gave her a godly husband, Boaz. How cool is God! Boaz was Rahab’s son, the son of a former prostitute! Boaz was a man who also loved God and was completely honourable toward Ruth. A little while later they had a baby son, named Obed. He grew up and had a son named Jesse. Jesse grew up and had seven sons, the youngest of whom was named David. So, Ruth, the girl from Moab, a sworn enemy of God’s people, was the great grandmother of Israel’s greatest king. Only God can pull that sort of thing off. He’s awesome!
So why is Ruth here? Ruth shows us that Jesus is for all people, and that gives you and me great hope! We weren’t part of God’s people when we were born. Neither was Ruth. But the gospel isn’t limited to one nation of people: it’s for everyone. If you aren’t yet a Christian, this tells you that the gospel is for you, that Jesus is for you. And get this: there’s also a good chance that this church is for you. There are people from over 70 different nationalities who call MBM their spiritual home. Maybe you’re not a Christian just yet. Maybe you are not part of God’s big family just yet, but you can be. You are invited to join God’s family through believing in Jesus and giving your life to him.
Then you’ve got Bathsheba. Matthew doesn’t even say her name. He just says in verse 6, “David, the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah’s wife” (NIV).
You can read about David and Bathsheba in 2 Samuel 11. It is absolutely clear that David’s sin is the focus. He sees Bathsheba having a bath on her roof next door to the palace. She was a very beautiful woman. David should have been at war with his troops but he stayed at home. That was his first sin. Having seen his beautiful next-door neighbour in the bath—who was also married to one of his most famous, loyal, and brave soldiers—he should have just though that his mate Uriah was a very fortunate bloke, and left it at that. Instead, David sins again by sending one of his servants to bring her to the palace. They end up having sex and Bathsheba gets pregnant. David needs to hide his sin so David sends for Uriah. David has him brought back from the war, has dinner with him, and gets him drunk. Then David sends him home, hoping that he will sleep with his wife, and that everyone will assume that the baby is Uriah’s. However, Uriah is a far more honourable bloke than David, so he sleeps on the front steps of the palace instead of enjoying a night with his wife. Why? Because all his men are away from their wives fighting a war, so he’s not about do something they can’t do. The next day David does the same thing. He has dinner with Uriah, gets him drunk, and sends him home to be with his wife. Uriah sleeps on the steps of the palace again. Then David sends Uriah back to the war with a sealed letter to the commander. The letter tells the commander to put Uriah where the fighting is fiercest and then leave him high and dry in the hope that he will be killed. That is exactly what happened. Uriah, loyal, brave, and unbelievably honourable, is killed so that David’s sin remains hidden.
If you were going to do a family tree, this would be the thing you’d leave out: a king, an adulterous affair, an unplanned pregnancy, and a murder. So why does Matthew include it? It’s here because these are the people Jesus came to save. People like David, a faithful bloke most of his life but also a man who had some epic brain snaps; and people like Bathsheba, who’ve had terrible things done to them. It would seem that Bathsheba didn’t really have much choice in anything that happened. It all happened to her. Yet even this doesn’t put her out of Jesus’ reach.
Time and again Jesus meets people who had fallen into epic sins. He never ignores their sin. Instead, he put his finger right on it and points it out, but always so that he could then show them grace, mercy, forgiveness, and give them a fresh start. That’s what God did for David. A short while after it all happened, God confronted David with his sin. David repented. God gave him mercy, grace, and forgiveness. God looked at Bathsheba’s life that was now a train wreck, and over the next few years, he put her life back together as well. This is what God does: he redeems and repairs broken people.
I don’t know where you are at. For all I know, this might be exactly what you’re up to. I’ve preached to congregations within which there were adulterous relationships going on. It’s terrible, of course, but Christians aren’t immune from this sort of thing. So maybe this is you. It might be something else. But whatever it is, Jesus is pointing his finger at our sin so that we can’t ignore it. But he’s only doing that so that we will repent, so that he can show us mercy and grace, so that he can forgive us and restore us. That’s what Jesus does. He can take us from that dirty darkness of sin and bring us to the clean light of grace and forgiveness. That’s why Bathsheba is in Jesus’ family tree.
And lastly we’ve got Mary, down in verse 16. She was a teenager, engaged to be married to Joseph. Mary was a virgin, and rightly so. God came to her one day and told her that she was about to get pregnant. She knew this would be hard to explain to her fiancée, but that didn’t stop her from trusting God and obeying him.
She saw Joseph a while later and told him she was pregnant. Joseph knows full well it wasn’t him! “So who was it?”, he asks. “God”, she says. “Yeah, right!” She was right but, understandably, Joseph didn’t believe her. Next thing you know, God tells Joe to pull his head in and listen to his fiancée and get married. They would have a son and he was to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins. That’s what Jesus’ name means: the LORD saves.
So Mary was faithful and obedient. But that doesn’t mean she was perfect. When Jesus grew up, he started telling everyone that he was the saviour of God’s people, the Son of God, and that he and God were one. Mary thought her son was mad. She didn’t believe him. She heard him speak, saw him do miracles, but she thought he was out of his mind. It wasn’t until after Jesus was crucified and raised back to life that Mary finally figured out that Jesus wasn’t just her son, but that he was also her saviour.
Maybe this is you. You know about Jesus; you've heard about some of the things He said; you know about the miracles, but you haven’t yet crossed over from knowing about Jesus to believing in Jesus.
Well, Jesus came here to save his mum. And he came here to save you as well. You mightn’t be in the same boat as Tamar or Rahab or Ruth or Bathsheba. Maybe you’re like Mary. On the surface, things look good and respectable. You put up with Jesus but keep him at arm’s length. If that’s you, it’s time for you to stop messing about with Jesus. Sop resisting him and start making him your saviour and king.
Matthew’s family tree of Jesus really is a mirror. It gives us a long list of sinners who look just like us, except most of them have weird names. Apart from that, we’re just the same. None of them were so bad or so far away from God that they couldn’t be saved. And none of them were so close to God or so good that they didn’t need to be saved. That’s us. None of us are so bad or so far away from God that we can't be saved. And none of us are so good or so close to God that we don’t need to be saved. Jesus is the only one who is able to change your heart, save you from your sin, and give you a new life. That is why he came. That is why we’re here. That’s what Christmas is all about.
In our family, we have a custard recipe that we love and is delicious! My nan was taught the recipe by her mum and they enjoyed many years of eating the custard together. My nan then taught my mum the recipe and they enjoyed many years of eating it together. My mum now makes the custard in our household and we have enjoyed many years of eating it together, with our apple pie or fruit. If us kids are to know the recipe, not only do we need to enjoy eating it, but mum needs to teach us how to make it. My older sister Elyssa has already been taught the recipe. The custard recipe will continue on in the family. It has been passed on down the generations and if it is to continue, we have to keep teaching and enjoying the custard to our children and their children.
Our whole world actually works like this. It depends on the now generation teaching and modelling to the next generation. The whole schooling system is made to achieve this, so that society continues to flourish and develop. If we don’t teach and model things to the next generation, there won’t be a next generation. Or they will be useless and potentially destructive.
Family cultures work like this. We need to teach the next generation how to do the dishes, how to mow the lawn, whether we eat at the dinner at the table or not, why it’s important to say hello and goodbye and model spending time with family. A family culture can quickly collapse if the now generation don’t teach and model to the next generation.
My dad’s father used to sing all the time. And because he used to sing all the time, my dad now sings all the time. My sister sings all the time. I now have the urge to sing all the time. It’s a part of our family culture because it has been modeled and taught through the generations.
What the next generation will know and do is dependent upon the now generation teaching them and showing them.
In Judges 2, Israel is in a generational crisis. Although they haven’t been perfect in their obedience to God, they have had generations of knowing and worshiping the Almighty God of heaven and earth. God had promised them that they would be in an everlasting covenant relationship with him through a man named Abraham. They had been delivered out of slavery in Egypt. Led by Moses, they wandered in the desert for 40 years because of their disobedience. But God still provided for them and was still faithful. Now Moses had handed over the leadership baton to a new leader named Joshua. He had led the people into the land of Canaan, the land promised by God, and they had half-successfully driven out the previous inhabitants of the land. The generations of Israelites since Abraham had until this point been fairly successful in coming into what God has promised them. But the question that hits us as we read this powerful narrative is, “Will the next generation know? Will they love, serve, and worship the Lord? Will they trust, follow, and know Yahweh?”
The question is the same for us today. Will the next generation know?
It is crucial that they do! It’s not just that our society and families are at stake. This is a matter of people’s eternal destinies.
Three generations of Israelites are described in this passage of Scripture. We are going to engage with each of them, so that we might be fully equipped and convinced to invest in the next generation. We need to impact the generations to come.
After Joshua had dismissed the Israelites, they went to take possession of the land, each to their own inheritance. (Judges 2:6 NIV)
Joshua is the leader. He has just spoken to the Israelite community and then they have gone into each of their sections of land given to them. This part of Judges overlaps with the end of Joshua (Josh 24:28-31). This is so important! Israel have been delivered into the land God had promised them. We know from chapter 1, the rest of Judges, and from the book of Joshua, that the complete move into Canaan for Israel doesn’t actually happen. There are still Canaanites lived among them and owning parts of the land. The point here though is that life is good for Israel.
The people served the Lord throughout the lifetime of Joshua and of the elders who outlived him and who had seen all the great things the Lord had done for Israel. (Judges 2:7 NIV)
Not only have they been taken into the land, but they were serving the Lord and walking with him. They served the Lord though while Joshua was alive and while the leaders and elders who outlived Joshua were alive. Why? Joshua was anointed to be Israel’s leader by God through Moses by the laying on of hands (Joshua 27). When godly leadership is installed, God’s people flourish. Joshua had also called all of the leaders and elders of Israel before he died together (Joshua 23), and inspired them to keep walking in obedience with God by following all that the law says, warning them of the consequences if they didn’t, and urged them in remembering all the great works of God they had seen with their own eyes! This is the key to a generation of believers: knowing the greatness of God!
This first generation of Israelites under Joshua and the other elders leadership served the Lord because, in verse 7, “they had seen all the great things the Lord had done for Israel”. They had witnessed God’s mighty hand at work—maybe delivering them out of Egypt, providing for them in the desert, speaking to them from Mt Sinai, then taking them into the land, crossing the Jordon River, driving out powerful nations before them. For this generation and the next generation to know and worship God they must know of the greatness of God! Joshua handed over the baton as well as Moses.
Godly and God-anointed leadership is a must if God’s people are to flourish. We are so blessed to have great and godly and gifted Pastors and spouses at this church. We are also so blessed to have a heap of godly elders, deacons, and leaders in various ministry doing a range of things for this church. They help us make godly, wise choices and urge God’s people to be gospel driven, kingdom minded, and to model gospel-centered leadership to us. They are here because God has placed them here. We look to leaders to help us look to God.
Do you pray for our pastors, elders, deacons and leaders? Do you pray for more to be raised up? Are you praying that the leadership batten will be handed over well?
If we are not investing into the next generation, there will be no future leaders, pastors, and elders to whom we can hand over the baton! The key is that we need to know the greatness of God! For the now generation to impact greatly the next generation, we must know the greatness of God and we must model a life of worship and service to God!
How are you doing these things? How do you know about the greatness of God? Open your Bibles, pray for more understanding as you listen to him, exercise faith in your life as you see God’s greatness at work in your life. Turn up to Church. Have your children and other children look up to you as you worship God in song, as you pay attention and respond in sermons. Have them see that corporate Sunday worship is important to you.
Worship God with your life. Paul says in Romans 12, “Offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God: this is your true and proper worship”, in other words, “Love the Lord with all your heart, all your soul and with all your strength”. Are the decisions you make full of integrity? Are the words you use godly? Is the time you spend given to kingdom work? Are you using the gifts you have?
Teach the young. It’s implied here in story of this first generation, that they were taught not just by their leaders, but by their parents or other older people of influence in their lives. There is a solid generational connection. This probably means there was effective teaching to the next generation by the older generation.
When God gives the greatest commandment in Deuteronomy chapter 6, he says this in verses 6-9:
These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates. (NIV)
The law was to be taught to the children of Israel, and to be written over all their lives, and made visible in its very words in their households.
I’m so thankful I had a childhood where the Bible was open and present at our dinner table and in other areas of my life. I’m so thankful that I was taught to pray at night before bed. Although I had a period of severe rebellion, I was grounded in knowledge and experience of the greatness of God.
Do you teach your children? Is God’s Word shown or open in your home? If the next generation are to know and worship the Lord, it’s a must. Some of you need to begin to do this. Some of you need to start to do this again. Some of you need to know God first yourself and stop worshipping false God’s before you do this.
We have a great leader. His name is Jesus. The Bible says he came and he led us out of slavery to sin. He is our good shepherd who leads us and who laid down his life for us. Jesus is a greater Moses. He’s a greater Joshua and he’s the greatest leader in all of history. He enables us to be able to lead and invest and teach the next generation through the Holy Spirit and by the power of the gospel. He does all the heavy lifting. He is in us today. Paul says in Romans 8 that the Spirit of Christ is in those who belong to Christ. We are empowered to lead, to worship, and to teach.
The first generation of Israel after it entered the promised land is a flourishing generation that know the greatness of God. But the second generation is not so good.
After Israel enters the promised land, Joshua died, and verses 8 to 9 says that he was buried in the land God gave his tribe. Then all of the first generation died off, and another generation rose up, verse 10:
After that whole generation had been gathered to their ancestors, another generation grew up who knew neither the Lord nor what he had done for Israel. (NIV)
Okay, something happened here. The first generation knew God, but the second generation don’t know God. After Joshua handed the baton over to the elders and leaders, the leadership pipeline ends there. The bible doesn’t say that those leaders and elders commissioned others, or that God raised up and appointed another leader. When no leadership is installed, God’s people don’t flourish. There was no one leading and directing and guiding the people of God or proclaiming God’s greatness. The second generation hadn’t witnessed the great acts of the mighty God like the first generation. We can only assume that the second generation wasn’t taught by the first generation either. There was a disconnect, and the outcome was devastating. Judges chapter 2 verses 11 to 15:
Then the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord and served the Baals. They forsook the Lord, the God of their ancestors, who had brought them out of Egypt. They followed and worshiped various gods of the peoples around them. They aroused the Lord’s anger because they forsook him and served Baal and the Ashtoreths. In his anger against Israel the Lord gave them into the hands of raiders who plundered them. He sold them into the hands of their enemies all around, whom they were no longer able to resist. Whenever Israel went out to fight, the hand of the Lord was against them to defeat them, just as he had sworn to them. They were in great distress. (NIV)
Israel has completely back flipped. They have moved from a generation of God worshipers to a generation of false god idolaters. The first generation swore to Joshua in Joshua 24:24 that they would serve the Lord. There was no voice of the second generation that promised this. They followed the gods of the pagan Canaanites, the Baals and the Ashtoreths, which were said to provide agricultural success.
But God was angry because his people broke the first commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exod 20:3). So God judged them and gave them over to the hands of their enemies. The Lord’s hand that was with them was now against them. They would experience great and terrible distress. This was a very different people of God. God then raised up Judges who would save God’s people from their enemies. But if the second generation was bad, the third generation was even worse.
Judges 2:19 tells us about this third generation.
But when the judge died, the people returned to ways even more corrupt than those of their ancestors, following other gods and serving and worshiping them. They refused to give up their evil practices and stubborn ways. (NIV)
The third generation of Israel in the land were even more corrupt than the second generation! Verse 17 says that they “prostituted themselves to false gods”. They were God’s people and they sold themselves over to other gods. The hearts of Israel had been turned away from the One True Living God and had been given over to the petty, false gods of the pagan world that have no power and aren’t true, hence their name, ‘false gods’.
Do you want the next generation to look like this third generation? I don’t. We must know God, worship God and teach God to the next generation to impact generations to come! If your children don’t know or worship the Lord, don’t give up on them. I was once in the same boat as the second and third generations. I remember when I came back to church that I had found out that a whole bunch of the church family that my dad was pastoring at the time had been praying for me. That blew me away. “Always pray and never give up”, Jesus says.
How you live your life and what you show and teach the young has eternal consequences!
I love that MBM is a multi-generational Church. Our kids’ ministry is phenomenal. We start to teach kids from a very young age about Jesus. We have always seen the importance of investing in teenagers and youth. It is a crucial stage of their growth and development. Most people come to faith under 18. The 6pm service (which used to meet at 5pm) was started to reach the young adults of western Sydney. It’s now one our most vibrant, pumping, and largest services. We have the morning and traditional services to build up and reach the adults and oldies age group.
All these ministries and services create opportunities for different generations to invest into different generations.
Now a word to each of the generations we have here. To the ‘Baby Boomers’ and ‘Gen X’, you have a whole lifetime of knowledge and experience. Please pass it on. The world will tell you that you are now of no use. That is so far from the truth. You have so much to give, so much to teach, so much to offer. Be patient with the young though. We are often slow to learn. Let the young flourish. Don’t hold them back too much. They have a lot to offer: time, willingness, passion, creativity and gifts.
Picture your children. How do you want them to be living in 20 years? What do you want them to look like?
To ‘Gen Y’ and ‘Millennials’, don’t allow the culture voice that says, “The young generation is the most important” to dominate. We are important, but so is every generation. Take more time out to listen to those who are older. I struggle with this at times. We can be really arrogant at times. Ask the older ones to invest in you. Have lots of mentors. Try new things, you’re in a good season!
‘Gen Z’, you need to listen to your parents and grandparents and leaders. They want to teach you, they want to show you. They can’t if you aren’t playing ball.
Here are some closing words for everyone. Generations come and generations go, the only generation that will stand is the eternal kingdom generation. There is one thing that every generation has in common, and that is that Jesus is God and he is to be worshipped, loved, followed, and taught. Are you a part of the kingdom generation? This is the generation that “take up their cross and follow him”, who “worship in Spirit and truth”, who take the call to “make disciples of all nations” seriously, to make disciples of all generations in every nation!
Every generation has been given a clear warning by the Son of God that “whoever is ashamed of him in the adulterous and sinful generation, he will be ashamed of them when he returns with the holy angels in his Father’s glory.” Let us be the kingdom generational church who knows God, worships God, and teaches God to the next generation to impact generations to come!
The Bible isn’t just one book. It’s a mini-library. Through the 66 books of the Bible God tells us his story of how and why he saves his people. Because God is creative, he tells his story using different styles of writing. So there is poetry like Song of Songs, history like Samuel and Kings, prophecy like Isaiah, commandments and law like Leviticus, there are songs like the Psalms, there are the Gospels at the start of the New Testament and all those letters to early churches like Ephesians or Colossians. And for the most part, that stuff is pretty easy to understand. Then there is the Apocalyptic literature, which isn’t.
Some of us might be familiar with Apocalyptic literature. Some of us aren’t. But don’t panic, because ‘Apocalyptic’ is just a fancy theological word for the kind of writing that sounds like a cross between the surrealist art of Salvador Dali and the bloodthirsty mayhem of a Quentin Tarantino film with a soundtrack by Rage Against the Machine.
There is plenty of weird stuff in Apocalyptic writing: beasts that come out of the sea and have teeth of iron and horns all over their heads; stars that fall from the sky; the moon turns to blood; dragons make the odd appearance; some animals have ten heads; and there are all these strange numbers that pop up all over the place. These beasts and numbers are meant to be symbolic.
There are a few examples of Apocalyptic literature in the Bible. In the New Testament there are a couple of chapters in the Gospels that are Apocalyptic. Most of the book of Revelation is Apocalyptic. In the Old Testament there are parts of Zechariah and Ezekiel that are Apocalyptic, and there is also the back half of Daniel, from chapters 7 to 12.
Now, it must be said that Apocalyptic can be difficult to understand. Because of that, all sorts of strange things are written or said about it. If you Google ‘Daniel 7’ you get over 1.3 billion hits in 0.4 of a second and honestly, most of it is fairly dodgy.
So one thing I read the other week said that the fourth beast in Daniel 7 was clearly a Tyrannosaurus Rex that had 10 horns like a Mohawk. Another writer wanted to interpret Daniel 7 through Revelation 13 and said that the little blasphemous horn in Daniel 7 was the anti-Christ making an early appearance—which is possible—but then he went on to say that the anti-Christ was obviously Prince Charles. Now, people have varying opinions of Prince Charles but I reckon calling him the anti-Christ is bit much.
Then there are other folks who say we can’t interpret any of it for certain. Some of these also say that God can’t predict the future. So these people take any kind of prophetic element out of it. When they’ve finished, you’ve got nothing but a bunch of weird stories that offer no comfort to God’s people at all.
Like a lot of things, the truth lies somewhere between those two extremes. God willing, that’s what we’ll be hearing today. Our God is a speaking God. He reveals himself to us through his word so that we will know his character. He does this so we will grasp his holiness and bend our knees in worship to him. God also loves us like a perfect father loves his children. Because of that, he gives us the odd glimpse into the future so we will know without doubt that he has all things completely under his sovereign control. God’s people have always needed this reassurance through all ages and in every place. Whether Christians are being persecuted or their lives are just a mess for some other reason, Christians always need to be reminded that our God is sovereign and has all things under his control. Daniel 7 is one such glimpse into the future.
Seeing something that’s going to happen in the future, when it is something that you don’t fully understand, would be pretty overwhelming. That was Daniel’s experience. In Daniel 7 verse 1, he tells us that he was only able to write down the substance of this dream. This tells us that he saw more than he could describe. In the last verse, verse 28, he tells us that he was deeply troubled by his thoughts and his face turned pale. This is a heavy chapter but God has preserved it for our benefit so let’s hear what He has to say.
Daniel’s vision is from verses 2 to 14. It is explained to him from verse 16 down to the end of the chapter. I want us to have a quick look at the vision and the explanation, but then spend most of our time in verses 13 to 14.
The vision itself is quite similar in lots of ways to the vision Nebuchadnezzar had in Daniel chapter 2—only here, instead of a statue with four sections, there are four beasts. But like the statue, these beasts represent four kingdoms. So have a look at verse 4, and the first beast, which represents Babylon.
The first was like a lion, and it had the wings of an eagle. I watched until its wings were torn off and it was lifted from the ground so that it stood on two feet like a human being, and the mind of a human was given to it. (NIV)
You will remember that Nebuchadnezzar went mad for a while back in chapter 4, and that his hair became like an eagle’s feathers, and then he repented and he restored to sanity, so that he stood back up like a man. This first beast is Babylon.
The second beast stands for the Medo-Persian empire which followed Babylon, verse 5:
And there before me was a second beast, which looked like a bear. It was raised up on one of its sides, and it had three ribs in its mouth between its teeth. It was told, ‘Get up and eat your fill of flesh!’
The bear represents the Medo-Persian Empire. The Persians were much more powerful that the Medes, which is why the bear is raised up on one side. It had a big appetite for destruction. It’s been down to the RSL for some ribs and there’s three still stuck in its teeth, but a voice tells it to keep eating, which it does until the leopard comes along.
The third beast in verse 6, the leopard, is Greece under Alexander the Great.
After that, I looked, and there before me was another beast, one that looked like a leopard. And on its back it had four wings like those of a bird. This beast had four heads, and it was given authority to rule. (NIV)
The leopard is one of the quickest animals around, and likewise the Greek Empire expanded incredibly rapidly under Alexander the Great in the fourth century BC. The four wings and the four heads refers to what happened to the Greek Empire after Alexander the Great died. His empire was divided between his four most powerful Generals: Ptolemy, Seleucus, Antigonus, and Cassander.
The fourth beast in verse 7 represents Rome.
After that, in my vision at night I looked, and there before me was a fourth beast—terrifying and frightening and very powerful. It had large iron teeth; it crushed and devoured its victims and trampled underfoot whatever was left. It was different from all the former beasts, and it had ten horns. (NIV)
This one is too weird and terrifying for Daniel to describe. But it’s probably not a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Whatever it is, it freaks Daniel out. It is immensely powerful. With large iron teeth, it crushes and eats it’s victims. In the Bible, a horn generally symbolizes power. This beast has 10 horns at first, but in verse 8, three of the horns are dislodged by another little horn that had the eyes of a man and spoke boastfully. Terrific!
At least on one level, we can identify this beast with the Roman Empire. It was by far the most powerful of the four empires, and was pretty much unstoppable for the best part of 400 years.
But notice where these beasts come from, back in verses 2 to 3:
Daniel said: “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me were the four winds of heaven churning up the great sea. Four great beasts, each different from the others, came up out of the sea. (NIV)
In the Bible, the sea often represents chaos and evil. Here it represents an almost uncontrollable opposition to God and his people. This wild churning sea keeps throwing up empire after empire. Most are bad, others are worse. That’s why these beasts come out of the sea, the metaphorical home of all that is chaotic and evil and opposed to God and his people. It’s also why at the end of the Bible, in Revelation 22, John the Apostle tells us that there is no more sea. He is saying that the days of uncontrolled opposition to God are over. (He is not necessarily saying that there is no surfing in heaven.)
Anyway, when Daniel gets to the heavenly courtroom from verse 9, he sees the Lord Jesus being given dominion and power and victory over these four empires. We need to understand that Jesus’ victory and dominion is not limited to just these empires. Jesus is Lord and King over all empires, across all creation, and for all time. Christians through the ages—who have lived, or are living, under empires or in countries where they are persecuted, arrested, jailed, tortured, and murdered—have been able to read Daniel 7 and be comforted by the assurance that their king, king Jesus, is ultimately in control of what they are going through. In the end, they will win because Jesus has already won. That is why so many of our brothers and sisters in those places face death with such courage. They know they will reign with Christ no matter what.
This is summed up in verses 16 to 18. Have a look there, because Daniel is given an explanation of his vision:
So he told me and gave me the interpretation of these things: “The four great beasts are four kings that will rise from the earth. But the holy people of the Most High will receive the kingdom and will possess it forever—yes, for ever and ever.” (NIV)
This idea is repeated again in verses 26 and 27.
But the court will sit, and his power will be taken away and completely destroyed forever. Then the sovereignty, power and greatness of all the kingdoms under heaven will be handed over to the holy people of the Most High. His kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom, and all rulers will worship and obey him. (NIV)
There’s no doubt that God’s people will cop all sorts of terrible things from earthly kingdoms, but the eternal kingdom of God, of which every Christian is a part, is the only everlasting one, and when it comes in all its glory, God’s people will have rest and peace.
This is one of the central themes of all Apocalyptic writing in the Bible. It is written to God’s people who are suffering persecution to remind them that despite their present circumstances, in the end their victory is assured because God’s victory is assured.
At the moment, you and I don’t face much physical persecution. The insults and discrimination are ramping up against Christians. We saw that in the video Ray played last week about that university student who got kicked off his campus because he prayed for a fellow student. But physical persecution is coming. In many parts of the world, it’s a daily reality. Over the first 1,900 years of Christianity, around 14 million Christians were killed for their faith in Jesus. In the 118 years since then well over 30 million Christians were killed because of their faith in Jesus. Persecution is increasing rapidly. If you’re a Christian you need to understand that what we experience of life in Australia is different to virtually every other Christian throughout history. My question is, “What are we doing with this freedom?” The answer is, “Not all that much!” Most of us are pretty lukewarm. When was the last time you spoke to someone about Jesus?
The great irony is that when being a Christian is easy, churches decline. When Christians are persecuted, churches grow. I think we recognize this in our own Christian lives as well. When we are under pressure, our faith in Jesus deepens, and we grow spiritually. When we are under very little pressure, we get spiritually lazy and our faith gets shallow. If you’re not experiencing some heat for being a Christian, you’re probably not standing out for Jesus enough.
Come back to Daniel 7. This whole vision happens in the heavenly court room. God here, called the Ancient of Days, takes his seat as the great judge of all kingdoms and powers and authorities. Daniel describes God, in verses 9 to 10, as having clothes and hair that are as white as wool, symbolizing God’s purity. His throne is flaming with fire, symbolizing the power of his judgement.
Daniel tells us at the end of verse 10, that the court was seated and the books were opened. This is a scene of ultimate judgement, authority, and power. Forget your supreme court or your high court—this is where final judgement is handed down. All the beasts that Daniel saw eating ribs and terrifying people and whatever else are completely silenced in the face of the great judge. The court is now in session and we are about to meet the Lord Jesus, verses 13 to 14:
In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed. (NIV)
We know that this Son of Man is Jesus, because 81 times in the Gospels, Jesus called himself the ‘Son of Man’, and every time he said it, he was thinking of Daniel 7. And every time he said it, everyone who heard him thought, “Hey, this bloke thinks he’s the fella from Daniel 7!”
Well, yes, he did think that. Sometime between his crucifixion, and when he walked out of the tomb, Jesus was led into God’s presence. He did everything he was sent here to do, and because of that, he was given all power and authority and glory because it belongs to him. This is what Daniel saw in his vision: something that would happen over 500 years later. This is why, when you get to the end of Matthew 28, in verses 18 to 20, Jesus can say:
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. (NIV)
That is Jesus sending all his disciples out, including you and me, to make more disciples of all nations. The ‘Great Commission’ is given to us because Jesus is The Great King.
There are many who do not worship Jesus yet. But they will. On the Day Jesus comes back every eye will see, every knee will bow, every tongue will confess in heaven and on earth and under the earth, that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.
Some will do this with unspeakable joy and delight they will fall at His feet gladly. For example Queen Victoria, who reigned over Great Britain from 1837 to 1901, said she wanted desperately to be alive when Jesus returned so that she could come to him, take off her royal crown, lay it at Jesus’ feet, and worship him who she called ‘the true Monarch’. That’s fantastic, isn’t it! Queen Elizabeth shares that same conviction. Some will worship Jesus joyfully.
But others will do it fearfully with the dreadful realization that they were wrong about Jesus. But either way all will worship Jesus as King.
That is the reality. Jesus is the risen king of God’s kingdom. That is how he sees himself. The question for us is this: “How do we see Jesus? How do you see Jesus?”
There are a few options. Sometimes people choose ‘baby Jesus’. He’s cute, but he’s weak and helpless. ‘Wussy Jesus’ does not confront anyone and there is no need to fear him. ‘Aussie Jesus’ is a ‘no-worries-mate’ Jesus who approves of all our lifestyle and our choices. But it’s inappropriate to think of Jesus as a baby; or a teenager; or as a gentle teacher; or as a beaten up, weak, nails-through-his-hands-and-feet, spear-through-his-side, dying, crucified servant. He was all those things. But he grew up. He died and then rose again victorious. He conquered Satan, sin, and death. He was crowned with all authority, glory, and sovereign power. He doesn’t look weak and gentle anymore. Listen to this. This is Revelation 19 verses 11 to 16. This is what Jesus looks like now:
I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war. His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. Out of his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron sceptre.” He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written:
KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS. (NIV)
When we meet him, that is who we’ll see. That is why every knee will bow and every tongue confess that he is Lord. No one will be bowing down to a baby or a beat-up man who’s been crucified. But if you meet a bloke wearing a robe dipped in blood with the armies of heaven following him, riding a horse with a sword coming out of His mouth and a big tattoo on his legs, no one will be arguing with that guy! The only appropriate thing to do is bow down and worship him.
This is the picture of the Lord Jesus Daniel leaves us with: one who is crowned Lord of All, with absolute authority, glory, and sovereign power.
If you are not yet a Christian, is it because you have never been introduced to this Jesus? The time to stop rebelling against Jesus is now. All of us were once far away from God. All of us were sinners in need of a saviour. Those of us who are Christians have come to Jesus knowing we aren’t perfect and knowing we need forgiveness. If you don’t yet know Jesus as your king, you need to let go of your pride and humble yourself at his feet. He was a baby. He grew up and became a man. He suffered and died in your place to pay for your sin. He rose again and you will meet him at some point. It is perfectly clear that you want to meet him as your friend, brother, and saviour, and that you most certainly do not want to meet him as your enemy. If you’re not a Christian just yet but you know it’s time you were, please come and see me after church, and we can talk some more about Jesus and we can pray. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done or what you’re doing, it just matters that you’re forgiven, and for that you need Jesus.
If you are already a Christian, there’s so much to say. I wonder if we had this image of Jesus in our heads and hearts. I wonder how different our lives would look? I reckon we’d be much more determined to live a life that honours him. I reckon we’d be really intolerant of our own sin. We’d find less excuses for our sin. I reckon we’d talk about Jesus much more than we do. I reckon we’d be asking heaps of our friends to come to church with us and come to ‘Explaining Christianity’ with us. I reckon we’d find visitors and people we don’t know at church and talk to them and make sure they’re feeling welcome so they stick around and either become Christians or grow as Christians. I reckon we’d be really generous with our giving because we’d want to see his kingdom grow heaps!
I wonder if the main reason we—and please notice that I am saying we—because Daniel 7 hits me too. I wonder if the main reason we are so lukewarm at times is because our picture of Jesus is out of date. He was a baby. He is now the king of God’s universe. This Jesus is worth serving. He is worth loving. He is worth talking about. He’s not just worth dying for. He’s worth living for.
Are you someone who has lots of dreams and remembers them all? Or maybe you’re someone who doesn’t remember hardly any of your dreams? Or maybe you’re like me. I know that I have dreams. Sometimes I remember bits and pieces of them. Occasionally I’ll remember all of a dream. But sometimes I don’t remember if I had any dreams at all. Dreams are weird things, aren’t they?
Sometimes dreams are romantic. I remember a dream I had when I was in year five. There was this girl at school I liked but she didn’t seem interested in me, Then one night I had this dream of rescuing her from being attacked by a shark at school camp! Naturally, she fell in love with me. Life’s pretty simple when you’re eleven.
Then there are dreams that are just really fun. Whatever puts a smile on your face is the thing you’re dreaming about. For me, those sort of dreams usually involve a 911 GT3 RS. It’s probably different for most of you. But some of you probably also dream about 911 GT3 RS like me. But whatever floats your boat, the dream starts, and you’ve got a smile on your face. You’re having a great time, but then you wake up because you’ve got to go to the toilet! And you’re so disappointed because the dream was so cool. So you go as quickly as you can, you don’t turn the lights on, and you rush back to bed. But it’s dark so you trip over a shoe or something on your floor. You’re still trying to not wake up properly. Then you do your best to get back into the dream. And you can’t. It’s gone. That’s so frustrating!
Then there are those dreams you don’t understand. They’re so weird that you wake up and think about explaining it to someone, but decide not to because it would sound like you took acid before you went to sleep.
Then there are dreams we don’t like that much. Those dreams are usually related to what’s going on in life, so if there’s something really stressful going on, it’s hard to sleep anyway. But when we do get to sleep, our dreams are really tense. So we wake up feeling anxious instead of refreshed. In times of high-level, long-term stress, our anxiety affects our sleep and our dreams, and we just wake up drained. I don’t know if that’s happened to you but I’ve experienced that a bunch of times, and it’s horrible. That’s usually when you have that dream where you’re falling and you can’t grab hold of anything? You want to yell out for help, but nothing comes out of your mouth. You can feel your heart beating faster and faster. Then you wake up with a jolt. You’re panicking. Your eyes dart around your bedroom looking for danger. Then you lie back down with your eyes wide open. You want to go back to sleep because you’re tired. But you’re almost afraid to go back to sleep because you don’t want to get back to that dream.
I reckon that’s probably how Nebuchadnezzar felt after he woke up in Daniel 2. I reckon he completely freaked out. Verse 1 tells us that his mind was troubled and he couldn’t go back to sleep. This dream has him spooked. Now, at the time, Nebuchadnezzar was the most powerful man on the planet. What is it that powerful people fear most? Losing power. He’s not sure what the dream means, but he’s scared.
So he calls in his wise men: enchanters, astrologers, diviners, and magicians. These guys advise him about all sorts of stuff: from foreign policy to civil law to interpreting dreams. One of the resources the wise men have is their dream de-coding book. Back in the day, people thought that dreams were the gods’ way of telling you things. So over the years, the wise men had built up a library of reference books. It was a pretty simple system. The dreamer would tell the wise men their dream. The wise men would look up that that particular type of dream in their book. Then they would tell the dreamer what the dream meant. Easy.
In the past, Nebuchadnezzar has done this plenty of times. But this time is different. This dream isn’t normal, and he knows it. He doesn’t want an answer out of a book. He wants the truth. But deep down, I think he knows his wise men are fakes. He thinks he’s never going to know the real meaning of the dream. That’s scaring him more than he wants to admit. Sometimes when people are scared they get angry and irrational.
In verse 5 and again in verse 9, Nebuchadnezzar tells them that he wants one of them to not only interpret the dream but tell him what it was first! They’re stuffed and they know it. The wise men don’t actually have any power. All the stuff they do is smoke and mirrors. In verse 11, they admit it.
What the King asks is too difficult. No one can reveal the dream to the King except the gods and they do not live among humans! (NIV)
I don’t know if you’ve ever been into horoscopes, but they’re in the back of every magazine and newspaper. If you Google ‘horoscopes’, you get 130 million results in .3 of a second. It’s human nature for us to want to know the future. That’s why people read horoscopes. But they’re absolute rot.
Before she was a Christian, a friend of mine used to write horoscopes. She wasn’t an astrologer and she didn’t know much about star signs. But she was, and still is, a really good writer. So she wrote a horoscope that was in a bunch of magazines and newspapers. She just made the whole thing up. I reckon Nebuchadnezzar knows his astrologers and enchanters and wise men are like that. They’re just making stuff up. And Nebuchadnezzar is right.
He’s so angry with them that he orders to be executed every wise man, enchanter, and magician in Babylon. But the trouble is that Daniel and his three friends are in that group. They’re part of the wise men of Babylon. From verse 14, Daniel hears that he’s to be put to death. So he carefully asks why. Then once he hears what’s going on, he goes in to see Nebuchadnezzar and asks for time to interpret the dream. And when he gets home, have a look at verse 17:
Then Daniel returned to his house and explained the matter to his friends Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. He urged them to plead for mercy from the God of heaven concerning this mystery so that he and his friends might not be executed with the rest of the wise men of Babylon. (NIV)
Let’s just have a think about this for a moment. When we’re faced with a crisis, what do we do? We could panic. If you’re a bloke, you usually try to fix it yourself, or just hope that the problem goes away. If you’re a woman, maybe you talk about it over with friends. Maybe you freak out or cry or get angry. We all have different ways of dealing with a crisis. But look at what Daniel does. In a crisis, he finds his mates and they pray. They plead for mercy from the God of heaven that they might be saved.
It seems to me that if you want to get anything done you have to pray. All the way through the Bible, God’s people are people of prayer. When they’re not people of prayer they’re usually in trouble! Ezra 9, Nehemiah 9, and Daniel 9 are all prayers that each of those blokes prayed. Every letter Paul writes in the NT starts with him praying for the people to whom he’s writing. Jesus prayed heaps, and you’d think that he’d be the one bloke who probably didn’t need to pray!
You can go to Martin Luther’s house in Germany and walk through it in the top room is his study his desk is against a wall under a window that looks out over the city. There are two grooves worn into the floorboards where he would kneel and pray. The last 500 years of church history were shaped by a bloke who prayed so much he wore grooves in his floorboards. I’m not convinced I could wear a dent in my carpet! John Wesley once said that he had so much to do each day, he simply had to get up at 4am so that he had enough time to pray about all the stuff he had to do.
Pray first, then act. This is what Daniel and his friends do. They pray, hear from God, then act. I need to hear this because I get the order messed up. I encounter a problem. Sometimes I think then I act. Sometimes I act first and then think later. Either way, I so often pray last! Which is a bit like saying to God, “Are you OK with what I’ve decided to do after I’ve done it.” We’ve probably all done that! Daniel shows us the order it’s meant to be: a crisis, so pray, and get your friends to pray with you. Being a Christian is a team sport. We’re not in this alone. Hear from God then act.
God answers this prayer immediately and positively. He reveals the dream and its meaning to Daniel in a vision that night. In verse 29, Daniel tells Nebuchadnezzar what he saw in his dream. He saw a huge statue of four parts: a head of gold; arms and chest of silver; a belly and thighs of bronze; and legs and feet of iron mixed with clay. Then there’s this rock, cut out of a mountain, but not by human hands. The rock strikes the statue, which crumbles to dust and is blown away by the wind. The rock remains and grows. It gets massive and eventually fills the whole world.
Nebuchadnezzar wants to know what part of the dream represents him. Does the whole statue, or part of the statue, or the rock, represent him? So from verse 36, Daniel gives Nebuchadnezzar the interpretation of the dream.
The four parts of the statue represent four kingdoms. Babylon is the head of gold. You can see that in verse 38. Daniel says to Nebuchadnezzar, “You, King Nebuchadnezzar, are that head of gold”. Three other kingdoms will follow the Medo-Persian empire. Then comes the Greek empire. And lastly, the Roman empire is represented here by the legs and feet of iron and clay. Daniel doesn’t identify the kingdoms here in chapter 2. But he does identify them later in the book of Daniel, so we know these are the kingdoms to which the dream refers.
Then, from verse 44, Daniel tells Nebuchadnezzar the meaning of the rock. At some point in the future, God is going to break into history in a massive, earth shattering way. His kingdom will expand and fill the earth and will endure forever. As Daniel says in verse 45, the dream is true and the interpretation is trustworthy. Daniel didn’t know how this was going to happen. He just knew it would.
We are a bit different to Daniel. From where we stand in history, we know how God did this and we know when. During the Roman empire, Jesus turned up. He’s the rock that was cut out of the mountain, but not by human hands. Jesus brought God’s kingdom to earth not by military might but by love. He did not come with the pride and arrogance of an earthly king, but with humility. Although Jesus is the king, he came to serve. He came to live the life we haven’t lived and die the death we deserve to die. From our vantage point, we know about the cross. We know that Jesus died. We know that Jesus didn’t stay dead. We know about the empty tomb. We know Jesus won the victory over Satan, sin, and death. We know that one day every eye will see and every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father. Daniel said it like this to Nebuchadnezzar in verse 45:
“The great God has shown the King what will take place in the future.” (NIV)
Daniel spoke not about what might happen in the future, or what Daniel wants to happen in the future, but what will happen in the future. You and I would say, “What has happened in the past.”
Well, Nebuchadnezzar is pretty shocked. He knows his own wise men couldn’t have done what Daniel just did. So he promotes Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. And the rest of the book is now set up for us.
I want us to notice a couple of things as we wrap this chapter up. One of the things Daniel teaches us really well is how we live in a culture that is opposed to God. I think it’s easy to forget this, but Daniel worked for a ruler who had destroyed his home and his city after a siege that lasted around two years. We don’t read anything about Daniel’s family so there is a good chance that Nebuchadnezzar’s soldiers had killed Daniel’s parents, brothers, and sisters. He was taken from Jerusalem when he was a young teenager, and he never made it back home. I think it’s easy for us to forget the tears Daniel cried when he thought about his home and his family and his friends who didn’t make it to Babylon. He would have cried when he remembered the temple in Jerusalem where God met with his people.
And yet Daniel treats Nebuchadnezzar with great respect. In verse 36 he calls him ‘the king of kings’. He calls him ‘your majesty’. He says that the kingdoms following Nebuchadnezzar’s are inferior. He respects the king, while at the same time he never shrinks back from his primary allegiance to the God of Israel.
Someone wiser than me says it like this: Daniel cooperated but didn’t compromise. I think that helps us figure out how we interact with our culture as it becomes harder and harder for us to be outspoken for our faith. We can still cooperate with our government and our workplaces and our employers and so on, but we need to make sure we don’t compromise. Exactly where we draw that line will be different in each circumstance. It’ll take a great deal of prayer and wisdom to know where to draw the line. But this is one of the things that stand out. Daniel and his friends draw the line clearly and early. And they don’t cross it for anything. It’s cooperation without compromise.
Daniel 2 also tells us something that all of God’s people need to hear from time to time. Kingdoms rise and fall. Empires come and go. Human history is littered with tyrannical rulers who rise up, one after the other, but in the end they all amount to precisely nothing. God’s kingdom is different. It turned up about 2,000 years ago when Jesus conquered Satan, sin, and death. It will outlast every king, ruler, dictator, kingdom, and empire. The Roman empire was knocked over by the Visigoths and Vandals, who were knocked over by the Byzantines, who were knocked over by Muslim expansion, who were knocked over by the Crusaders, who were knocked over by Muslims again. Then the Portuguese were the world superpower, then the Spanish, then the French, the Turks, the British. Hitler had shot at it. So did Stalin. Chairman Mao revolutionized China and right now, we’re all holding our breath waiting to see if militant Islam, China, Russia or a revitalized USA will come out on top. I’ve left a few out but you get the idea.
Daniel would tell us that it doesn’t really matter. Kingdoms come and go. They rise and fall. But God’s kingdom just marches on. What does that mean?
Every day people become Christians. Every day God’s Kingdom expands and is filling the whole earth. A while ago a few mission agencies got together and crunched the numbers. They wanted to see what was happening across the world and how effective Christian mission work was. In the end they came up with what they said was a fairly conservative figure. Every day roughly 53,000 people are saved. They are transferred from death to life from all sorts of different religions and countries, many of them in places where Christians are horribly persecuted. 53,000 people every day! Most of us are surprised and delighted by that. But I’m not sure our friend Daniel would be surprised. Daniel didn’t know what that rock was that struck the statue and reduced it to dust. He didn’t know who it might have been. But Daniel has been in heaven for a fair while now, and he’s known Jesus for at least a couple of thousand years. He’s seen history play out exactly as God said it would. In that dream, God’s kingdom grows bigger and bigger. There isn’t a country on earth where there are no Christians.
Kingdoms come and go. Some are more powerful than others. Some are more evil than others, but in the end, all of them bend the knee to Jesus.
That brings me to the last thing that Daniel 2 gives us: it gives us an antidote for doubt. Remember what Daniel went through. His home and country were destroyed. God’s temple had been flattened. His parents and family were almost certainly dead. He was living in exile. How often would doubts over God’s goodness and power and sovereignty have gone through Daniel’s mind? I reckon doubt would have been a constant companion for Daniel. I think that’s why the message of the whole book of Daniel is that God is resolutely, absolutely, 100% in control of all that happens. Here in Daniel chapter 2, that theme would have been the one thing Daniel needed to hear more than anything else: kingdoms rise and fall, but God’s kingdom goes on for all eternity.
All of us have moments of doubt. They can be caused by our own sin from time to time. But more often our doubts come when we’re really suffering through something: relationship breakdown, mental illness; emotional, physical, or psychological abuse; separation or divorce; serious illness; the death of someone we love; betrayal by someone we trusted. All of those things and more can cause us to doubt God’s goodness to us and his sovereignty over everything. I’m not sure Christians talk about this enough. So let’s go. Doubt is quite a normal thing in the Christian life. And there is an eternity of difference between doubt and disbelief. Disbelief cuts us off from Jesus. Doubt doesn’t.
Doubts among Christians are quite normal. Just in case you doubt that, here’s the end of Matthew 28, and a verse that I think gets almost no attention. Look at this:
Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him, but some doubted. (NIV)
Now, normally when you hear those verses read, whoever is reading them just keeps on going and gets to the bit where Jesus tells his disciples and us that our job is to tell the world about him and baptise the ones who believe! And that’s great. But what about the bit where some of the disciples are still doubting? They’ve just hung out with Jesus for the past month and a half after he died and rose again! He’s got nail marks in his hands and feet and a decent stab wound in his side. He can walk through doors and just randomly appear here or there, and some of the disciples are still doubting! I don’t feel so bad about my doubts now!
If those guys had doubts, I should probably expect to have doubts as well. They believed though, didn’t they? All the apostles died for their faith. These guys believed in Jesus with all their hearts. So we have to know that there’s an eternity of difference between doubt and disbelief. I think that’s another reason why Daniel is here in the OT. Remember verse 45:
The great God has shown the king what will take place in the future. The dream is true and its interpretation is trustworthy. (NIV)
God wants us to know that he knows what he is doing. He told Daniel this stuff almost 600 years before Jesus turned up and brought God’s kingdom in. Jesus was always God’s ‘Plan A’. There was no ‘Plan B’. It might look a mess to us at times. But from God’s perspective it all fits together exactly the way he designed it to.
It’s a bit like a tapestry. From the back it just looks messy and chaotic. But from the front it’s beautiful. Our problem is that most of the time, when we’re looking at life, it’s like we are looking at the back of the tapestry, not the front. I think Daniel gives us a glimpse at the front of the tapestry. It reminds us that yes, kingdoms rise and fall, empires come and go, but God’s kingdom is eternal. And that is the kingdom of which every Christian is a part. We will still doubt from time to time, but as long as we keep our eyes on Jesus and what he has already done for us, those doubts will fade into the background as quickly as they surface.
When we meet new people, we all do this thing—we want to get them in a box with a label as quickly as possible. To do this, we try to quickly figure out who they are and what they’re like. Of course, we know that most people hate being labelled or put in a box. So we try and be as sneaky as we can be in our labeling activities. The weird thing is that the new person that we’ve just met is sneakily trying to put us in a box as well. It’s human nature and we all do it.
So when we meet new people, we each have a series of questions that we ask to try and figure out who they are. The first one is often, “Where are you from?” That question might mean, “Which country are you from?” In that case, it’s a “What’s your heritage?” question. People have always asked me where I’m from. When I tell them that both sides of my family came to Australia from England over 100 years ago, I can tell that they’re really disappointed. I know this because they then tell me, “Oh, that’s a surprise, I thought you were Greek, or Italian, or Lebanese, or Spanish, or Israeli, or whatever else. Now that I work at MBM, Ray and Grant both reckon that I should be Maltese! I was called a ‘wog’ all the way through school, and most people still think I’m some sort of Mediterranean!
But the question might mean, “Where are you from?” might actually be a, “What suburb are you from?” question. We have a whole list of assumptions that we make about different suburbs in Sydney. If someone says that they are from the Eastern Suburbs, we might think, “Oh well, you’re rich and you’re a bit of a snob!” If we find out someone is from the North Shore, we might think, “Well, you’re pretentious and very well educated.” If someone is from the Shire, we might assume, “Well, you’re a tradie or in finance, you have at least three tattoos and aren’t aware of any other suburbs in Sydney.” If someone is from the West, we might think, “Well, you’re probably a pretty hard worker, you’re practical, you like Triple M, and everyone else in Sydney is secretly a little frightened of you, but you’re quite ok with that.” If someone is from the Blue Mountains, we might then think, “Well, you’re not planning on moving anywhere, your parents live around the corner, and you married someone you went to school with, and they’re possibly a distant relation.” Those stereotypes aren’t always true of course, but we all know each different part of Sydney has a reputation.
We might also ask where people went to school. We’re trying to figure out if they’re from a private school, a public school, or a parent controlled Christian school. And we also have a list of assumptions that we plug into each answer.
Then we ask what work they do. Is the person blue collar, white collar, no collar, dog collar? And we have another heap of assumptions we make. We’re trying to put people in a box with a label so that we’re comfortable with them.
Now, all the way through John’s Gospel, people are trying to do this to Jesus. When Jesus meets people, whether they are regular folks or religious leaders, they all ask him questions. They are trying to figure out what sort of box to put him in. The religious leaders are especially uncomfortable with Jesus because they don’t know him. They can’t control him. They’re also used to religious ritual, that everything is ordered the way that they are used to, and anything out of the ordinary freaks them out!
But the trouble is that there’s no box for Jesus. Every time they think they’ve got him figured out, Jesus says something that smashes their stupid box to pieces. It frustrates them, it makes them angry, and ultimately, it makes them want to kill Jesus—which, in the end, is exactly what they do.
While the religious leaders are busy trying to put Jesus in a human box, Jesus is busy putting himself into the box that says, ‘God’. Jesus is saying, “I’m God in the flesh”. That’s what is happening here in John 7, and it’s fascinating stuff.
As often happens in the Gospels, here in John 7 we find a crowd of people talking to Jesus. Some of them are religious leaders, but others are just regular folks. And there are three questions that they ask here, but Jesus doesn’t give them the answers they’re expecting, so it’s confusing for them, but fun for us!
So here are the three questions Jesus is asked in John 7: First, “Where did you go to school?”, verse 15. Second, “Where are you from?”, verses 25-27. Third, “Where are you going?”, verses 33-39.
The context of John 7 is one of the big festivals in the Jewish calendar, the Feast of Tabernacles. There were three major festivals throughout the year—Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles—and Jewish people were meant to go up to Jerusalem and worship God at each of these festivals. I’ll tell you more about the Feast of Tabernacles in a bit.
John 7 starts in Galilee, up in the north of Israel, with a conversation between Jesus and a few of his brothers. Mary and Joseph had plenty more kids after Jesus was born, and they turn up in a few places in the Gospels. But at this point, they don’t believe that Jesus is the Messiah. They just think Jesus is full of himself.
Jesus’ brothers were about to go up to Jerusalem for this Festival of Tabernacles, but Jesus tells them that he’s not going, and so they have a crack at him. Jesus was always planning on going to the festival, but he was just going to do it quietly. See, he knows that the Jewish religious leaders want to kill him, so he doesn’t march into Jerusalem with any fanfare. He just slips in through the back door. The triumphal entry into Jerusalem will happen, but that’s still about 6 months away.
So Jesus gets to Jerusalem in verse 11, and there are whispers among the crowds when they see him that they know who he is and that they know he does miracles and teaches with amazing authority. But opinion is divided in verse 12. Some think that Jesus is a good man, some think that he is a deceiver, but no one says anything publicly, because they were afraid of the Jewish religious leaders. The Jewish religious leaders haven’t given their verdict yet on who Jesus is—and that’s what people are waiting for. But no one is sure what to make of Jesus just yet. No one has been able to put him in a box, and that’s what they’re trying to do. So here’s their first question. Have a look at verse 14:
Not until halfway through the Festival did Jesus go up to the temple courts and begin to teach. The Jews there were amazed and asked, “How did this man get such learning without having been taught?” (NIV)
Where did you go to school? Jesus is preaching like no one they’ve ever heard, but they don’t know where he studied. Jesus didn’t go to any of the places they studied! So they ask, “Where did you go to school, Jesus?” Did he go to Moore College? Did He go to SMBC? Did he go to Dallas Seminary? Did he go to Hillsong College? What box can we put you in? The answer is, “None of the above.” Have a look at verse 16:
“My teaching is not my own. It comes from the One who sent me! Anyone who chooses to do the will of God will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own.” (NIV)
Jesus went to ‘The Bible College of Heaven’, or BCH for short!
There are all these assumptions behind this question. Where did you go to school? It’s quite arrogant really. The Jewish religious leaders want to see Jesus’ degree, they wanted a piece of paper to tell them that he was legit! But Jesus doesn’t have a piece of paper, he just has his word, and in quite a confronting way, he says that anyone who chooses to do the will of God will know that Jesus speaks with God’s authority!
Jesus isn’t the establishment. The Jewish religious leaders are. They have authority. Jesus doesn’t. They look the part with all their long flowing robes and big hats. Jesus just looks like a regular bloke. He’s a tradie, and that’s not enough for religious people.
When we moved back to Sydney from Tassie to work at Menai, we met this large group of youth leaders, aged from say 19-23. They mostly didn’t look like they should be leading anything. Tassie was high Anglican. It was very religious and quiet, with beautiful old stone buildings, all kinds of colourful robes, and ornate pews that were empty. But the guys at Menai were surfers and skaters and footy players. They had long hair. They were grotty. They didn’t look right. But they led right. These young men and women were on fire for Jesus. They were passionate and they led with integrity and they were zealous to see people saved. They were outstanding. But they didn’t look right and it upset a few of the more conservative parents at church.
That’s what’s going on here. Jesus doesn’t look right. Jesus doesn’t look ‘religious’ enough to be legit. So that’s their first question. They judge Jesus, and they think “You don’t look right, Jesus!” So they ask him, “Where did you go to school?” And the answer was “heaven”.
The second question was, “Jesus, where did you come from?” Have a look at verse 25:
At that point some of the people of Jerusalem began to ask, “Isn’t this the man they are trying to kill? Here he is, speaking publicly, and they are not saying a word to him. Have the authorities really concluded that he is the Messiah? But we know where this man is from; when the Messiah comes, no one will know where he is from.’” (NIV)
So here’s what’s happening. In the Old Testament, Micah 5 tells us that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem. But by the time Jesus turned up, a few Rabbis had said that no one will know where the Messiah comes from, and somehow this idea had been widely believed. But everyone knows where Jesus was from. He’s Jesus of Nazareth, isn’t he? Only, Jesus wasn’t born in Nazareth—that was just where he grew up. Where does Micah 5 say that the Messiah will be born? Bethlehem. Where was Jesus born? Bethlehem!
Now, I really don’t know what the crowd expected Jesus to say. Maybe they just thought that he’d say, “Nazareth”, or some other town, but I can guarantee you they weren’t expecting him to say this, in verse 28:
“Yes, you know me and you know where I am from. I am not here on my own authority, but He who sent me is true. You do not know Him, but I know Him, because I am from Him and He sent me!” (NIV)
Where are you from Jesus? The answer is heaven, the same as the answer to the first question.
From time to time you’ll hear people say that Jesus never claimed to be God. You can only think that if you’ve never read the Bible. He does it a bunch of times in John’s Gospel. He does it in John 5 when he says that God is his Father. He’ll do it again in John 10 when he says that, “I and the Father are one.” He does it again in John 8 and a few other places, and John 7 is one of them, for there he says that he was from God and that God sent him. In that culture a messenger had the authority of the one who sent him. That’s just how it worked. So when Jesus says that he’s from God and has been sent by God, the Jewish religious leaders understand exactly what he’s saying, that he is claiming equality with God.
That’s why some of them want to kill Jesus in verse 30. If they just thought Jesus was saying that he was a messenger or a courier or that he worked for ‘Startrack’, they wouldn’t care. But they know exactly what Jesus meant. Jesus claimed to be equal with God and so they wanted to kill him for blasphemy.
But there were others in the crowd who reacted differently. In verse 31, many in the crowd believed in him. Jesus just made logical sense. Everyone in Jerusalem knew Jesus was doing miracles. Everyone also knew the Messiah would do miracles when he came. Therefore, Jesus must be the Messiah! You see this all the way through John’s Gospel, that people are polarized by Jesus. Some believe him and love him, while others reject him and want to kill him.
We see the same thing here today in the conversations we have with people about Jesus. People either believe Jesus, worship him, love him, and trust him, or reject him. Some folks say they’re not sure, so they’re sitting on the fence. The bad news is that Satan owns the fence, and so if you’re unsure about Jesus, then you’re still rejecting him. But the good news is that Jesus is still calling you to change sides, to worship him and trust him and find mercy and forgiveness and a new life. That’s what Jesus is like: merciful and gracious, and he loves you.
So Jesus has been asked where he went to school, and the answer is heaven. He’s been asked where he’s from, and the answer is heaven.
They ask him where he’s going. And you might guess what his answer will be: heaven. From verse 33-36, this conversation happens between the Jewish religious leaders and Jesus, and they ask where Jesus is going. Jesus tells them that he is going back to the one who sent him, and they aren’t going to be able to follow him. That’s interesting, of course, but it’s verse 37 that grabs our attention. Jesus is heading back to heaven for a reason.
Now, we need to understand the Feast of Tabernacles if we want to understand what Jesus is saying here. It’s autumn, it’s dry in Israel at this time of year. Wells are drying up. Cisterns are low. Springs aren’t flowing like they normally do. The grass has died off on the hills, so everything’s brown. The grass isn’t going to grow back without water. Their next crops aren’t growing without God sending rain on their dry land. The wells aren’t going to fill back up, and the springs won’t flow properly without new rain. Part of the Feast of Tabernacles was corporate prayer for God to send rain to refresh the dry land.
But another part of the Feast of Tabernacles was spiritual. God’s people weren’t just praying for rain to refresh the dry land, but they were also asking God to refresh them spiritually when they got spiritually dry. They would sing some of the Psalms that spoke about spiritual refreshment at this Feast of Tabernacles. Psalm 42, “As the deer pants for the water so my soul longs for you, O God! My soul thirsts for God, for the living God, where can I go and meet with God? Or Psalm 63, “You, God, are my God; earnestly I seek you, my whole being longs for you, as in a dry and parched land where there is no water.”
The Feast went for seven days. On the first six days, the priests would walk out of the city along with the people, and go to a spring. One of the priests carried a golden pitcher. They would fill the pitcher with water and walk back to the temple. The priests would climb the steps to the outside altar and pour the water over the altar while the crowd of people sang some of the Psalms. They’d do this each morning for the first six days, and then on the seventh day, “the last and greatest day of the Feast”, they would do this seven times.
Partly, this ceremony was a plea to God to water the dry land with new rain so that their crops would grow. Partly it was symbolic. Back when God’s people were wandering in the desert in Numbers 20, they were thirsty and God brought water out of a rock. Also, both Zechariah and Ezekiel saw visions of rivers flowing out of the temple, symbolizing God’s blessing over His people.
Notice what Jesus does and says in verse 37:
On the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.’” By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. (NIV)
Understand that Jesus is using what is going on around him as a visual aid, but he’s reinterpreting it. He’s saying to the crowds of people who have come there to worship God and ask for Spiritual refreshment that they do not need religion or ritual or ceremony. Rather, they need him. They need the Lord Jesus and the Holy Spirit!
That’s what John tells us in verse 39. Jesus is talking about the time that will come only seven or eight months after this day, after Jesus has been crucified and raised back to life, after he has returned to heaven. That is the time when he will pour out his Spirit, and those who believe in him will be filled with the Holy Spirit in a way that God’s people have never experienced before.
With this festival going on all around him, with water being carried to the temple and poured on the altar over and over again, Jesus promises the fulfilment of all those Psalms they’d been singing and praying. Their souls will be refreshed. Their longing for God will be met with perfect intimacy. God himself will take up residence in their hearts by his Spirit. This is wonderful stuff.
But have you forgotten that feeling? Have you forgotten the joy that comes with knowing Jesus? Is that feeling of rivers of living water flowing through you only a distant memory? Sometimes, those rivers dry up a bit. Illness, problems within your family, persistent sin, laziness, relationship breakdown, separation or divorce, mental illness, there’s any number of causes, but from time to time, all of us forget the relationship we have with Jesus and we turn it into a religion. We just go through the motions and it gets dry and stale, restrictive, predictable.
That’s what religion is, isn’t it? Predictable. You know what’s going to happen and when, you know what’s going to be said and how. It’s a very controlled environment. A relationship with Jesus is none of those things.
Some folks in the crowd have just figured that out. It’s like they’ve been living in a black and white movie and someone just turned the colour on.
See if you can picture them. There’s the long line of priests carrying water from the spring, they are pouring it over the altar. There are crowds of people singing Psalms, yearning for God to refresh them, and you hear the commotion in the middle of the temple grounds. It’s Jesus. He’s speaking loudly. It’s awkward and uncomfortable. But you can’t not listen, because he’s offering that spiritual refreshing for which you’ve come to Jerusalem. For years and years you’ve sought it but never received it. And this Jesus is saying that all you have to do is come to him and believe in him, and rivers of living water will flow from within you. You just can’t ignore that, because that’s what you’ve longed for your whole life! Everyone does, we just look for it so often in all the wrong places.
It’s so easy to forget the difference Jesus makes. It’s so easy to slip into religion and forget relationship. We’re so used to reading the Gospels that we just miss the seismic shift that happens every time Jesus opens His mouth. This festival had been happening for hundreds of years and Jesus just turned it upside down. Most of us have read John 7 and maybe never noticed it.
In a world of people just ticking the religious box week by week, Jesus offers us something completely different.
Psalm 42: “As the deer pants for the water so my soul longs for you, O God! My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. Where can I go and meet with God?”
Psalm 63: “You, God, are my God; earnestly I seek you, my whole being longs for you, in a dry and parched land where there is no water.”
Friends, religion can’t fix that longing. It’s not designed to. Only Jesus can satisfy our spiritual thirst, when we come to him trusting in him, he takes our sin away. He changes our heart and he gives us his Spirit, and that changes everything.
I wonder what the Christian life would look like if we thought the Bible told us to really enjoy the life God’s given us? What would the Christian like look like if God said something like, “Life is short, have a great time!”? I reckon that would make evangelism much easier!
I don’t know what sort of Christianity you’ve grown up with or have been used to, but I didn’t grow up thinking that was what being a Christian is all about. Most of us have come to MBM from pretty diverse backgrounds—different denominations, religions, or no religion at all—but I grew up in a couple of pretty conservative Baptist churches up in the Blue Mountains. I had great pastors growing up. They were faithful and godly men who loved Jesus and preached well. Maybe it was the way I understood it, or maybe it was the culture in which I grew up, but the version of Christianity I grew up with wasn’t all that joyful. So while I believed in Jesus and was saved, as I look back at it, being a Christian wasn’t relaxed or fun. I didn’t think of God like my loving heavenly Father. He was more like a stern school headmaster who was ready to punish me whenever I did something wrong. Being a Christian was like a white-knuckle ride at Luna Park: I somehow knew I’d make it to the end, but I had to hang on for dear life in the meantime, and instead of having a smile on my face, there was some fear.
Being a Christian wasn’t really about what you did, it was about what you didn’t do or didn’t say or didn’t think. We were Baptists, right, so no one we knew drank alcohol. I remember being told that Jesus turned water into grape juice at the wedding at Cana in John 2 (that’s not true, by the way—it was wine, and lots of it, around 700 litres, and it would have been good stuff, something like a Penfold’s Grange!) but every Sunday on our way home from church for lunch we’d buy apple cider from the fruit shop (not alcoholic cider but fizzy apple drink) and we did this so often that the bloke who owned the fruit shop called it ‘Baptist Water’.
No one we knew smoked, yet every preacher I knew quoted Spurgeon who loved smoking his pipe! Someone once asked Spurgeon when he would stop smoking, and Spurgeon replied, “When I am smoking too much.” The bloke then said, “Oh, and when will that be, Mr Spurgeon?” The great man said, “When I have a lit pipe in each hand my dear brother!” Baptists don’t tell that Spurgeon story!
We were discouraged from listening to modern music, and no one ever talked about sex, because it might lead to dancing! We were Baptists, remember and you know the old joke? “Why don’t Baptists believe in sex before marriage? Because it might lead to dancing.”
I grew up thinking that what made you a Christian was all the stuff you didn’t do or didn’t say. That wasn’t what was preached—at least I’m pretty sure that wasn’t preached—it’s just the way I heard it. It was just the way the culture around me lived and I was part of that culture.
I don’t remember hearing a sermon on Ecclesiastes until I was about 30. I’ve often thought that was such a shame, because Ecclesiastes is a pretty cool part of the Bible. It’s real and honest, and I reckon it puts the joy back into being a Christian. It helps us make sense of what can be a pretty confusing life at times. We’ve been going through it in the holidays this year and we’re up to Ecclesiastes chapter 9 this week.
The big idea of Ecclesiastes chapter 9 is this: everyone dies, but not everyone truly lives. That was what I really needed to hear growing up. Instead, I got a long list of dos and don’ts, which just made me think God was always a bit angry with me. Everyone dies, not everyone truly lives. We’ll look at the depressing part first, that everyone dies, and then we’ll get cheered up as we figure out what a life truly lived looks like.
The guy who wrote Ecclesiastes wants us to face reality. He isn’t pretending everything’s ok, because it’s not.
So I reflected on all this and concluded that the righteous and the wise and what they do are in God’s hands, but no one knows whether love or hate awaits them. All share a common destiny—the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not. As it is with the good, so with the sinful; as it is with those who take oaths, so with those who are afraid to take them. This is the evil in everything that happens under the sun: The same destiny overtakes all. (Ecclesiastes 9:1-3 NIV)
It doesn’t matter who you are. It doesn’t matter what sort of person you are or how much money you have or don’t have. It doesn’t matter what sort of car you drive or how you drive it. It doesn’t matter what you do or don’t do, what you believe, or don’t believe, what you love or hate, whether you are a decent person or a terrible person—you and I are going to die. Unless Jesus comes back within the next 100 years or so, not a single one of us will still be alive. We’ll all be six foot under in a box or a small pile of ash on a mantelpiece somewhere. He’s a heaps cheerful fella, the bloke who wrote this. But it’s reality, isn’t it?
And worse, in chapter 9 verse 12, he tells us we have no idea when this is going to happen:
Moreover, no one knows when their hour will come: As fish are caught in a cruel net, or birds are taken in a snare, so people are trapped by evil times that fall unexpectedly upon them.
I reckon we all grasp the fact that we have a limited time here on God’s green earth. But I reckon most of us believe we’ll live for longer than we will. I have sat with dozens of people as they’ve died—and I’ve known hundreds more—and I can think of about six who thought they were ready. But nearly everyone else wanted more time with their family and friends. That’s totally normal, even for solid Christians who know exactly where they are going and who are really looking forward to meeting Jesus in person. Death breaks relationships, and we all hate that.
We worked at Menai for about 8 years. Within the first 18 months we buried five people who died way before their time. One was a young epileptic bloke who had a fit in his sleep and swallowed his tongue. One bloke was in his 60s who got crook with something vague. He went to hospital and never made it home. One was a fit bloke in his early 40s who just dropped dead out of the blue. There were also two people in their 30s, both were married with little kids, and both were lost to cancer in a very short space of time. All of them were Christians, all were loved, all important to a great many people. None of it made any sense at all, and it still doesn’t 11 years later. I have no doubt that many of you will be thinking of people you knew and loved who were called home way before you were ready to say goodbye. Death is nearly always an unwelcome guest.
And yet, the guy who wrote this book isn’t finished with the depressing stuff just yet. There are two more miserable things, and the first is in verse 3b:
The hearts of people, moreover, are full of evil and there is madness in their hearts while they live, and afterward they join the dead. (Ecclesiastes 9:3b NIV)
So it’s not just that we all die, but that while we’re alive our hearts are plagued by evil and madness. Sometimes we do terrible things, but sometimes, terrible things are done to us. All of us have experienced both. No one gets through life without some scars.
Oh, and one more thing—while we’re reaching for the Zoloft or Lexapro—just in case we aren’t depressed enough already, we read in verse 5:
For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even their name is forgotten. (Ecclesiastes 9:5 NIV)
Here’s what he means: Do you guys remember Alfred Alberts? He’s the famous American chemist and researcher who discovered the drug that lowers cholesterol. He saved countless lives over the years. No? Oh, OK, what about Henry Butler. He is the blind jazz pianist from New Orleans whose music changed a generation of jazz players. You know about him, don’t you? He was so good people said he sounded like he had 3 or 4 hands instead of 2! No? Oh, far out? What about Constance Adams. Surely you know her? She’s famous, working for NASA, and she designed all the living quarters for astronauts aboard the International Space Station. No, you don’t know her?
Those three people were all in the paper this week. They were in the New York Times—in the obituary section. They all died over the past week. Very famous people in their own fields: high caliber, high capacity, hugely talented. But we’ve never heard of them, and apart from their immediate family, neither has anyone else. Within 60 years, only their children will remember them.
So not only is death certain; we also don’t know when it will happen; our lives in the meantime are also marked by misery and misfortune; and on top of that, no one will remember us when we’re gone. And right about now, if this is your first week in church, or maybe you’ve been here for about a month, you’re probably thinking, “I’m in the wrong place, this sucks!”
And that’s the point the writer is making. One of the things this guy is doing is that he’s making us think about what life looks like without any reference to God. He’s trying to figure out the meaning of life without asking the God who made everything and everyone what he says is the meaning of life. And this is the answer he comes up with: there is no point to life if you’re going to do it without God. It just won’t make any sense. And he’s right, isn’t he? Plenty of us have tried it without God, and at some point we have all come to the same conclusion: life without God in it is pointless; it’s not fulfilling; there isn’t any meaningful purpose. You live, make a bit of money, maybe have a family, get old, die, and that’s the end.
Why do you think shows like ‘The Biggest Loser’, ‘Better Homes and Gardens’, ‘Masterchef’, and ‘My Kitchen Rules’ are so popular? Sure, they can be interesting to watch, but really, they’re about people trying desperately to find meaning in better food, a better house, or a better body. But is that really what life is all about?
Remember the big idea of this chapter: Everyone dies, not everyone truly lives.
But some people do truly live. So what does that look like? If I want to get the most out of this life, what should my life look like? It should look like verses 7-10:
Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do. Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil. Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun—all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom. (NIV)
I remember trying to read Ecclesiastes a few times when I was a teenager. I’d get about half way through the first chapter and hear the writer telling me that life was totally meaningless, and there’s no point to anything. At the time I was listening to Joy Division and The Cure and The Smiths—all of whom were pretty depressing—and I figured that Ecclesiastes wasn’t going to cheer me up any, so I gave it a miss.
I reckon the problem was that I didn’t really understand what the word ‘meaningless’ meant. I just took it to mean what I mean when I say something is meaningless. For example, there’s no point watching the Bulldogs play this season because we’re not going to win. Even the week when we have the bye, I’m not sure we’re going to get the two points. It’s meaningless.
But here’s the thing: you don’t have to know much about the Bible to know that God’s at pains to make sure we know that life has a huge purpose and that life is important, indeed, that you and I are eternally valuable to Him. We are fearfully and wonderfully made. He knows every hair on our heads. He knows when we sit and rise. He knows every word before it is on our lips. God says life is full of meaning.
Now, I’m convinced that the Bible doesn’t contradict itself, so when I read something that seems to be contradictory, I need to do some work and figure out what’s going on.
The word that’s translated ‘meaningless’ turns up in a few other places in the Old Testament and the Greek version of it turns up in the NT as well. These all help us get what he’s on about. It’s in Psalm 39 three times: "You have made my days a mere handbreadth. The span of my years is nothing before you. Each man’s life is but a breath. Man is a mere phantom as he goes to and fro. He bustles about, but only in vain.” And again it’s in verse 11, “Each man is but a breath.”
It’s in Psalm 144, “Man is like a breath, His days are like a fleeting shadow.” It’s in Proverbs 31, “Charm is deceptive and beauty is fleeting. But a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.” It’s also in James 4, when he says, “Now listen you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money. Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.’“
So maybe a better way to understand ‘meaningless’ in Ecclesiastes is that life is like a fleeting mist. You can’t really grasp it. It’s here one moment and gone the next. It’s like walking outside on cold mornings this week and there’s that lovely winter fog all around. You can see it but you can’t hold onto it. It slips through your fingers. All of a sudden the whole feel of Ecclesiastes changes. It has a different tone. Life isn’t dead-set meaningless in the way we normally use the word. Life isn’t pointless, but it’s hard to understand. It’s so fleeting, and it passes by so quickly. It’s the merest of breaths, like your warm breath turning to vapour on a cold morning: as quickly as it appears, it slips through your fingers and vanishes. That’s when the message of Ecclesiastes clicks into place. Look at verses 7 to 9 again:
Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do. Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil. Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this fleeting life that God has given you under the sun—all your fleeting days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun. (NIV)
When I was growing up, God was always the fun police. I’d never heard anything remotely like this from the front of church. The world is full of fantastic and fun things to do and see: art, music, golf, scuba diving, opera, UFC, race tracks and fast cars, fishing, camping, 4WDing, cooking lessons, travel to far away places, skiing, single malt whisky. For most of us, we’ve lived our lives with this idea that God made all this cool stuff for us, but then he looks down at us waving an angry finger saying, “Now, don’t you lot enjoy yourselves down there!”
I think that’s the opposite of what God is like. Ecclesiastes tells us what God is saying here: “Life is short. Eternity is really long, but life is short. So eat great food. Drink great wine. Enjoy sex with your wife or your husband. I made all three of those things. They’re my ideas and they’re excellent! Have a Coke and a smile!”
Now this is really important. It’s easy to hear this and then just think that we can do what we want. But that’s not what the rest of the Bible says. So we still need to understand a bit more. The guy who wrote this is assuming we are living within the boundaries God has set. See where he says that God already approves of what you do? That’s a key idea here. God has given us very clear boundaries. Enjoy alcohol, but don’t get drunk; don’t drink too much. Enjoy food, but eat healthy stuff, do some exercise, and if you’re piling on a few too many kilos you’re probably eating too much. Enjoy sex. It’s fantastic when you experience it within the boundaries God set for it, within a lifelong mutually respectful loving commitment called marriage between a man and a woman. Anything outside of that, and sex ends up being really destructive.
In verse 8 the writer says that we should be always clothed in white and have oil on our heads. That doesn’t make heaps of sense in our culture. White clothes are seriously hard to keep clean and oil on our heads all the time would be socially really awkward and lead to a great many bad hair days. But if you’re an Old Testament Israelite, that stuff means something totally different.
Clothed in white and oil on your head meant that you’re in party mode: you’re celebrating, and more than that, you’re doing it God’s way. Who in the Bible is usually wearing white? Righteous people, people who are living life God’s way. So this part of the Bible isn’t telling us to just cut loose and do what we want to do as far as food, alcohol, and sex are concerned. It’s telling us that God created so much good stuff for us to enjoy, but we need to enjoy this stuff within the boundaries God has set, so that we’re doing life God’s way.
We’ve all failed at that from time to time. We’ve all abused food, alcohol, or sex at some point. We’ve all crossed the boundaries God set. And when we do, life feels pretty pointless, like we’re out of step with reality. It just doesn’t work like we sense it’s meant to. If you’re not a Christian just yet, I reckon you resonate with that feeling. You might resist it for a while and you might try to pretend it’s all ok, but deep down, you sense there must be more to life.
The guy who wrote this didn’t know Jesus. He was around a long time before Jesus was born in that shed in Bethlehem. He didn’t know what Jesus would do. He didn’t know anything about the cross or the empty tomb. But he made the most of what he knew about God. You and I live after Jesus . We know something about his death and resurrection. We know something about the things Jesus said and did.
And yet, even if we just had Ecclesiastes to go on, I reckon we’d know life without reference to God makes no sense at all. I reckon we’d be able to figure out that life lived within the boundaries God sets is brilliant. That would mean we would enjoying the stuff God gave us to enjoy without abusing any of it or stepping outside God’s clear boundaries.
If you’re a Christian, you understand this. You might realise that you’ve overstepped those boundaries and you need to put a few things right with God. You can pray about those things.
You might not be a Christian just yet, but you know you’ve been doing life without God., You know you’ve overstepped the boundaries often enough, and not just with food or wine or sex, but with a whole heap of other things: greed, jealousy, pride, selfishness, the way you talk about people behind their backs, the way you lash out at people on social media or in person, whatever it might be. We’ve all been there. But more than that, you know something’s missing and you’re here because you suspect that maybe Jesus might have the answer you’re looking for. Every Christian you know was not a Christian at some point, and we’ve been where you are. How you start your life is nowhere near as important as how you finish it. You can pray about these things now, to come home to God through Jesus.
By 1938, most of Europe was completely terrified that another massive War was about to break out. Adolf Hitler had been in power in Germany for about 5 years. He’d invaded Czechoslovakia, and set up concentration camps. He had started his attempt at wiping out every Jew living in Europe.
In September of 1938, the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlin, went to Mu to meet with Hitler to try and avoid a full-blown European conflict. The agreement was that Hitler could keep the part of Czechoslovakia he’d taken as long as he didn’t invade any other countries. So on September 30th, Chamberlin arrived back in the UK and waved a signed agreement between himself and Hitler and declared to a huge crowd in front of him that there would be “Peace for our time.” People were happy and relieved. They wanted peace and it looked like they’d get it.
Unfortunately, history has judged Chamberlin a fool. That piece of paper he waved above his head was as useful as an ashtray on a Harley. Hitler had no intention of keeping his end of the bargain. Within a year, he’d invaded Poland on his way to attacking most of Europe. France and England both declared war on Germany. Chamberlin was defeated at the next election and Winston Churchill became the British Prime Minister—and the rest, as they say, is history. “Peace for our time” sounds lovely because no one wants to be at war, but in reality the war had already started.
It seems to me that most Christians are a bit like Neville Chamberlin in 1938. So many of us wander about in this dreamland thinking there will be peace in our lifetime and we just don’t realize we’re already at war.
We are at war with our culture. We live in a post-Christian country. Now, I know our State and Federal governments still make concessions for Christians, and that’s great while it lasts, but those concessions aren’t going to be there forever. And while around 60% of Aussies say they believe in God, less than 5% of us are in church on any given Sunday. Our media is quite opposed to Christianity and you all know what happens to you on social media when you take a stand for Jesus: you get hammered. We are at war with our culture.
We’re also at war with ourselves, and I don’t mean at war with other Christians. I mean that every Christian is at war internally. We have peace with God through Jesus. That is done and dusted. If you’re a Christian your sin is paid for by Jesus. It’s gone. God has forgiven you and me and he’s even forgotten our sin, which is amazing and fantastic. There’s no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus and we’re free in Christ. Look at the start of Galatians chapter 5, in verse 1, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free”, and then down in verse 13, “You my brothers and sisters were called to be free.”
So we have peace with God. But we don’t always have peace with ourselves. There’s an internal war going on in the heart of every Christian. This is the big problem Paul tackles in the back half of Galatians 5.
Up to this point in his letter, Paul’s been getting stuck into some pretty heavy theology. Paul’s Galatian friends, those to whom he wrote, heard about Jesus and said ‘yes’ to Jesus. God has forgiven them because he’s full of grace and mercy. At the same time, God has taken up residence in their hearts by his Spirit, so they have been born again. But in more recent times they’d been listening to a few dodgy preachers who had been telling them that they needed Jesus PLUS, that is, they needed Jesus but they also needed to obey all of the laws in the Old Testament. Basically, the false teachers were telling the Galatian Christians that they had to become Jewish if they wanted to really be Christians. Those dodgy preachers were wrong and Paul spends most of Galatians telling his friends that all they need is Jesus. Jesus plus anything isn’t going to work to save them.
Paul has said this in a few different ways using a few different illustrations, but he’s been saying the same thing over and over again. As far as being a Christian goes, the way in is the same as the way on. The way you become a Christian is the same as the way you stay a Christian. You just need faith in the Lord Jesus. That’s it.
But here in Galatians chapter 5, Paul gets practical. And the best thing about this part of Galatians is that it helps us understand why our lives look the way they do—because the reality is that every Christian lives with conflict. We are at war in ourselves and while we all want peace in our lifetime. We all long for peace in our lifetime but we so rarely find it and here’s why. I think the key part in this section is verses 16-17:
16 So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. (NIV)
I reckon we try to ignore this feeling most of the time, but if we’re honest with ourselves, we all know what Paul’s talking about.
We’ve all been there, every day. This is the elephant in the room. We’re free, we’re forgiven, there’s no condemnation for us, so why do I still struggle with sin? I hate sin. I don’t want to do the wrong thing. I want to do the right thing. So how come I still sin? Every Christian asks these questions. And the answer is this: this side of heaven, if you’re a Christian, you have two natures living in you. God has given you his Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit has a job description: he makes us aware of our sin. He points us to Jesus for forgiveness. He makes us want to live God’s way, and day by day, he transforms us so that over time we look more and more like Jesus. That’s our Holy Spirit-inspired nature.
But you and I also have another nature living in us this side of heaven: our old sinful nature, what Paul calls “the flesh” here. That old nature is the one that causes all the trouble. Satan is certainly a danger to the Christian, and he’ll do anything he can to trip us up and tempt us and make us doubt. But the greatest threat to my Christian life and witness isn’t Satan: it’s me. The greatest threat to your Christian life and witness isn’t Satan: it’s you. The flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other. We want peace for our time, but we find ourselves at war.
You and I know this conflict intimately. What’s our worst day? It’s those days we find ourselves being tempted to sin. It might be any sin. It might be lying. It might be passing on a juicy bit of gossip to someone so we feel powerful and ‘in the know’. It might be flirting at work or with your neighbour. It might be drugs. It might be too many drinks. It might be looking at dodgy stuff on your computer. It might be sex outside of marriage. It might be anger that’s out of control, or lust, or jealousy, or it might be none of those things, in which case it’s going to be the worst sin: self-righteous pride and arrogance that convinces us we’re better than all our Christian friends.
Whatever it is, we can feel it coming, and we’re resisting for a while and fighting it, and we can hear the Holy Spirit tell us to walk away, but that old sinful nature is yelling louder. It promises us so much and it’s so tempting. On our worst days, we give up the fight, we stop struggling and we sin. We hate those days. They are our worst days. We feel miserable, depressed, angry with ourselves, and worthless, like we’ve just totally let God down. It’s horrible, isn’t it?
Now, what are our best days? Those are the days when we’re faced with all those temptations I just mentioned, and the struggle is just as real, and we can hear the Holy Spirit cheering us on, we can hear that dodgy old sinful nature telling us to just get into it anyway, and we’re fighting and struggling, and slowly that old sinful nature’s voice fades and the voice of the Holy Spirit gets louder, and soon enough the temptation passes. And you have that euphoric moment when you’ve just put a sin to death, and you feel like you could go five rounds in a UFC title fight with Rob Whittaker. They’re our best days.
The thing is, of course, that these two natures are complete opposites, so the sorts of lives they produce are also complete opposites. It’s totally obvious when the old sinful nature is running the show, and it’s equally as obvious when the Holy Spirit is running the show. Have a look at Galatians chapter 5 verse 19:
19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, faction and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. (NIV)
Here’s the most important thing in those few verses: every Christian I have ever known, including myself, has moments when we’ve fallen into some sin or other, and we feel like we’ve gone too far, or that God will run out of patience, out of mercy and forgiveness for us. As far as I can figure, every Christian thinks that at some point. If that’s you, please look at the second part of verse 21:
I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
Now, this is something that’s been plaguing Christians for about 2,000 years. If we misunderstand what Paul is saying here it will seriously damage our sense of assurance. When I say assurance, I mean that God doesn’t just save us—he wants us to know with total assurance that we are saved.
So, when Paul gives us that list of sins in verse 19, and he says that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God, we really need to get our heads around what “live like this” means. So I’m going to tell you what he does mean, and then I’m going to tell you what he does not mean.
He does mean this: that those who continue to do these things—day after day, night after night, week after week, month after month, habitually doing the same dodgy stuff over and over again without any sense of regret or guilt—those people are demonstrating by their lifestyle that they are not Christians. They’re not the worst people in the world. They’re not dreadful people. They’re regular people who are just your average person who doesn’t know Jesus just yet. That’s what Paul does mean.
He does not mean this: he’s not talking about Christians who love Jesus and try to live a life that pleases God, but who fall into sin from time to time, who feel regret and sadness at their sin, who feel the conviction of the Holy Spirit and are compelled to repent and go back to Jesus for forgiveness. Paul isn’t talking to that sort of person.
Maybe think of it like moving house. I grew up in the Blue Mountains in Blaxland East. When I was a kid we lived at the end of a dirt road. Over the years it was tarred and extended and more houses were built. I moved from there to Springwood when I was 21. But from time to time over the past 25 years, I’ve driven past my childhood home. I’ve had a look around my old neighbourhood. I’ve seen a few of my old neighbours and hung out with a few of my old friends. But I don’t live there anymore. I don’t have a set of keys to the house. I can’t park my car in the driveway. I can’t collect the mail. I’ve moved to a different house.
When you become a Christian, it’s like you’ve moved house from your old neighbourhood. You have a new address. You park your car in a different place. You sleep in a different room. But from time to time you feel like you want to go back to your old neighbourhood. You go back and look around, maybe catch up with your old neighbours and friends. But pretty soon, you realize you don’t live there anymore. You don’t belong. You don’t have keys to the house. You can’t park your car there or sleep there. And then it dawns on you: you’re not actually comfortable there either. You used to be, \but now you’ve moved on. You feel ‘out of place’, like you just don’t fit in there anymore. And you realise you’ve got to go home.
I reckon that’s a good way for us to get our heads around what Paul is saying in verse 21. Some folks are just stuck in their sin without remorse or conviction, not really interested in living God’s way. They are “living like this” list of sins in verse 19, and so they’re not saved. And that’s a very different thing to a regular Christian who loves Jesus but from time to time falls into sin, and is remorseful about it, regrets it, repents quickly and wants to do better next time, and has another go at getting it right tomorrow. That person is saved.
Any and every Christian has this struggle with the old sinful nature. On our bad days, we resemble that list we just talked about, and we hate it. On our good days we look like we’re meant to look.
So here’s what life looks like when we’re following the Holy Spirit, in verses 22 to 25:
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. (NIV)
I reckon that sounds just fantastic! Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control. Even if you’re not a Christian just yet, that’s an attractive list. You’d love people to say that about you character. I want my life to look like that. Sometimes it does and that’s brilliant! But the trouble is that there are days when it doesn’t look like that and it actually looks a bit more like the first list, the dodgy one.
So that makes me want to ask Paul a question. See, I get what he’s saying, that we have two natures—one’s evil and the other’s good. I get that he’s saying our lives are meant to look like this second list rather than that first list. I get that. No problem. My question is, How? How am I meant to do that, Paul? Because, I’m a pretty realistic sort of bloke, and it’s hard to do this. It’s hard to live a consistently Christian life that honours the Lord Jesus. I want to do it, but I don’t always get it right.
And if he was here, Paul would sit down beside me, and put a pastoral hand on my shoulder, and he’d gently say, “I get it, Steve. I know how you feel, brother.” Then he’d probably say a little less gently, “I figured pretty much everyone would find it hard, so I repeated the most important thing 7 times in 10 verses. Did you miss it, brother?”
See, Paul mentions the Holy Spirit seven times from verse 16 to verse 25. Have a look at all of them, and you can count them out for me as we go if you like.
v.16: So I say, walk by the Spirit and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.
v.17: The flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh.
v.18: But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law.
v.22: But the fruit of the Spirit is …
v.25: Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.
This is how we live the Christian life: we listen to the Holy Spirit and we follow his lead. It sounds so jolly simple. There has to be more to it, but there really isn’t. The Holy Spirit speaks to us a few ways. He speaks to us through great Christian songs—that’s why music and singing have always been such a huge part of worship—the Psalms are God speaking to us through song and we have an incredibly rich tradition of great Christian songs through which God still speaks to us today. Sometimes, the Holy Spirit speaks to us through our Christian brothers and sisters—a word of encouragement or maybe a word of rebuke. Sometimes he even speaks to us through creation—Psalm 19 tells us that the heavens declare the glory of God, the stars proclaim the work of his hands. But 99% of the time he just speaks to us through God’s Word: frighteningly simple! Yet how many of us leave our Bibles unopened most of the week?
I tell you this: God hasn’t made the Christian life impossible. There’s no question that it’s difficult from time to time. All of us know this. We also know that nothing is impossible with God. God makes all things possible. You want to keep in step with the Spirit. Listen to him speak to you through your Bible, and then you’ll know what pleases God and what displeases God and day by day. The Holy Spirit will enable you to put to death that old sinful nature and live more consistently for Jesus.
I reckon we overcomplicate this stuff so much. But listen to how simply Paul puts it: “Walk by the Spirit and you won’t want to gratify the desires of the flesh. It’s so straightforward, and when you think about it for a moment you reseal it’s just so true. If you’re living your life walking by the Holy Spirit—you’re reading your Bible and you’re praying heaps, you’re sticking close to Jesus, you don’t actually want to do the wrong thing. You don’t want to lie, you don’t want to be that crazy gossipy Christian, you don’t want to steal stuff from your work or cheat at school, you don’t want watch porn or get drunk at that party on the weekend or that night off when no one’s home, and even better, you don’t want to be proud or self-righteous about any of those sins you’ve managed to avoid either, because you know you’re a sinner saved by God’s grace through Jesus and it’s the Holy Spirit who’s at work in you—so you’ve got no room to boast anyway!
Think of it like this: Spurgeon said, “a Bible that’s falling apart is usually owned by someone who isn’t!” So if your Bible is in really good condition, there’s a solid chance your life will be falling apart. If your Bible is falling apart there’s a solid chance your life will be in good condition and you’ll be keeping in step with the Holy Spirit, and isn’t that what all of us really want, deep down?
Paul is stressed out because of this church. They started with Jesus, but he feared that they were about to lose him. And if you’ve started your journey with Jesus, there’s only one way to lose him, and that’s by pulling your trust from him, and believing you’ll get to heaven by trusting in another saviour.
The saviour who most often takes the place of Jesus isn’t Batman or Wonder Woman or the Pope—it’s ourselves. We trust Jesus to start our journey with God, but then we fall back into our old ways by trying to keep God’s approval by what we say and do. That is the very thing that Jesus set us free from, because it is a dead end.
Good things are good to do, but if you do them to try to earn God’s approval, or even keep it, they become their own form of slavery. And anyone who’s had to work for their father’s approval will tell you what kind of slavery that is. It’s cruel and it’s a dead end, because we can’t work our way to heaven and we can’t work our way into the family of God. That’s not the way you get there.
Jesus met a young guy one day who asked him, ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’ This man is right about one thing, and that is that heaven is an inheritance for the children of God. But in his question, we see the typical mistake that people make when they think about themselves in relation to heaven. You can see the problem in the way that he asked the question. The problem is that you can’t earn an inheritance. It’s either yours because you’re the son or daughter of the bloke who owns the asset, or it’s someone else’s inheritance. And if it’s someone else’s inheritance, you can work all you like, but it’ll never end up in your hands.
Think of the Packer empire. There were plenty of people working for Kerry Packer when he died, but only one man got full control of his estate, and that was James Packer, Kerry’s son. No surprise there! The inheritance is for the children.
So the million dollar question is, ‘How do we become the children of God?’ Note that the question is not, ‘What must I do to earn something that isn’t rightfully mine’, but ‘how do I become a child of God and so rightly and properly receive my inheritance in the kingdom of God.’
If you’re here today and you don’t know the answer to that question, the good news that we celebrate every week here at MBM is that God has made a way for us to know how we can become children of God and rightfully receive that inheritance. John chapter 1 verses 9 to 12 tells us how:
9 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God. (NIV)
That’s why Jesus came.
The church in Galatia knew this. They knew that they weren’t reconciled to God because of anything they did. They simply trusted in Jesus and they were brought into God’s family.
Jesus explained this himself when he said in John chapter 8 verses 34 to 36:
Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. 35 Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. 36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. (NIV)
The problem for the church in Galatia is that old habits die hard. These Christians were falling back into their old ways, back into this slavish habit of trying to earn God’s approval as if that was even possible in the first place.
It’s not a surprise, because all human attempts at religion end up focusing on oneself, on the individual, on me and what I have to do to impress God. But that’s the way of the slave, not the son. Jesus came to set us free from that.
And so Paul reminds them of who the Galatian Christians are, to remind them what they already have as heirs of all that God has made, because Jesus has made them sons and daughters of God.
Paul first explains how receiving an inheritance works on a human level, in Galatians chapter 4 verses 1 and 2:
1 What I am saying is that as long as an heir is underage, he is no different from a slave, although he owns the whole estate. 2 The heir is subject to guardians and trustees until the time set by his father. (NIV)
And then in verses 3 to 5, Paul applies it as it relates to the Christian:
3 So also, when we were underage, we were in slavery under the basic spiritual forces of the world. 4 But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, 5 to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship. (NIV)
You might have already heard that Christianity is a rescue religion. That is exactly what it is. Paul here talks about being in slavery under the basic spiritual forces of the world (v. 4). You might think, ‘That’s not me! I was nobody’s slave, I am my own man!’ But in our relationship to God, we were all in slavery at one time and in one way or another. Paul says it in verse 3, ‘we were in slavery under the basic spiritual forces of the world’ (NIV).
In another of Paul’s letters in the New Testament, he describes these basic spiritual forces as, ‘hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition’ (Col 2:8). And unfortunately, that is a net that’s wide enough to catch us all. Hollow and deceptive philosophy is basically any idea about God that’s not accurate to who he is. We’re all caught in that one, one way or another. And it includes any idea about heaven that makes us think that it’s ours by rite of passage or ours by way of effort. Paul says that these philosophies are hollow and deceptive, and that at one time we were all enslaved by them.
The other example Paul uses is ‘human tradition’. This is really any idea about how to relate to God that’s been handed down to us from our family or our culture that never actually came from God. Paul says that kind of tradition is hollow and deceptive.
Not all tradition is bad. If your tradition is to get together and have lunch with the family after church every second Sunday, or your tradition is to read your kids a book before you put them to bed, then they are good. But just don’t mix your traditions with the way you relate to God. They don’t mix. Jesus made this one clear when he said this in Matthew chapter 15 verses 8 and 9:
8 “These people honour me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
9 They worship me in vain;
their teachings are merely human rules.”
The warning here for those who haven’t yet given their lives to Jesus is that we must listen to Jesus and not your parents. Listen to God and not your grandmother. And the warning for those of us who have put our trust in Jesus and who have become children of God is, ‘Don’t slip back into your old way of thinking.’
I know we’ve looked at this already but remember that our life with God begins by trusting in Jesus, and we stand by trusting in Jesus. And on the day when those who have trusted in him stand before him as the great judge, and are welcomed into his kingdom with a ‘Well done, son, well done daughter’, it will only be because we have persevered by trusting in Jesus till the end.
But we need to be careful. Even God’s own law can enslave us if we trust in it and not in Jesus himself to bring us to God.
This happened to a man named John Wesley back in the 1700s. Wesley was the son of a preacher. He went to Oxford University in the 1700s and with his brother Charles was part of a group that called itself the Holy Club. That wouldn’t go down so well at Miller TAFE, but those were different days back then. These guys knew their Bibles, spoke with grace, visited the sick, and preached in the gaols. They spent time with orphaned children, fed them, clothed them, and educated them. They didn’t work on Saturday in obedience to the fourth commandment, nor did they work on Sunday because on that day Jesus rose from the dead. They gave money to the poor, fasted, and prayed. And it was some time after all this that John Wesley said that he became a Christian.
Now that begs the question, what the hell was he if he wasn’t a Christian? In reflection upon those days, John Wesley later said that he was a slave to God’s law. Note that it was not that anything he was doing was bad in and of itself. But Wesley was a slave to God’s law because he thought that God would accept him based on what he was doing. He said, ‘I had faith, but it was the faith of a slave and not a son.’ And when he realized that he was in slavery to God’s law, and that it was Jesus who died to forgive him, and make him a son, he said that ‘he felt his heart strangely warmed’. And as he let go of his effort to earn God’s approval, and trusted in Jesus and him alone, John Wesley said that for the first time he felt confident that heaven was his home, and that God had accepted him as he was in Christ. He’d been adopted. He’d moved from being a slave to being a son.
But do you see how careful we’ve got to be? We’ve got to remember that Jesus is the saviour, not us. Thank God for that, because we can be confident that he did enough to make us children of God, and to secure our inheritance as his sons. Paul tells us this in verses 6 to 7:
6 Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” 7 So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir. (NIV)
That’s how you get right with God. You don’t earn his approval, but he offers forgiveness through Jesus. This means we can rest in 3 ways:
I don’t know how many times I see TV shows and movies made about people busting their guts to build businesses and careers motivated by trying to earn their parent’s approval, most often their dad’s. That might be you. They say most fathers are either too hard or too distant, and the truth is that this is most of us. This is often the cause of sibling rivalry, a lack of confidence in what other people might think of us, and a lack of confidence in who we are as people. But it’s deadly and it’s slavery. Jesus has set us free from that. What he did on the cross was enough for God to forgive you, accept you, adopt you, and approve of you. We can rest in God’s approval.
We can rest in God’s love because God’s love it’s not based on our performance, but on Jesus, and that what he did was enough. So Paul says elsewhere that nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Jesus.
38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39 NIV)
We can rest in that love. Every time we ask the question, ‘Does God really love me?’, we can look to the cross that casts a shadow over all of human history, and we can remember that ‘he died for me’.
Every time I break the law and I think, ‘Does God still love me?’, I see Jesus on the cross in my minds eye and remember that my sin was the very reason why he went there—not because I was perfect, but because I’m not. His love motivated him to do that. And we can rest secure in that love.
We can rest secure in our future because eternal life is not based on our performance—on how well we keep the law, how smart we are, how moral we become, what we look like, or anything else—but because Jesus made us sons and daughters of God. He says, “And if we are children, then we are also heirs.” We can rest secure in that.
People are future orientated, which means we make decisions now, based on where we’re going. We sacrifice now, for the future. We live with hope now, based on what our future will be. That is why the last week of the school term isn’t such a drag – holidays pull them through. That’s why a trip to Europe pulls you through an entire month of work. We live in light of what’s to come.
In Christ, our future is set in stone. We will receive eternal life so long as we trust in Jesus. That changes the way we live, the way we think, the way we deal with tragedy, and the way we support one another as we go through it. And it should set the direction of our hearts, so that in everything that we do, we do it in light of that day, when we take our last breath and open our eyes, and step into a kingdom that will never perish, spoil, or fade. And in that place, our feet will stand firm, our legs are strong, our eyes will see clearly. Crying is heard no more, death is a thing of the past, pain is a distant memory, and Jesus in the flesh is forever before us. We can rest secure in that because that future is secure in Jesus, and it is ours.
No one in their right mind would want to go back into slavery after becoming a son. So Paul says this in verses 8 and 9:
8 Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods. 9 But now that you know God—or rather are known by God—how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable forces? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again? (NIV)
Jesus tells a story of a young man who blew his father’s inheritance and comes back to his father saying, ‘I am not worthy to be called your son, make me like one of your slaves’ (Luke 15). That makes sense cause the kid doesn’t feel like he deserves to be called ‘son’ anymore. And the father in that story who resembles God, slaps him out of it and puts a ring on his finger, and a cloak on his back and says, ‘You are my son, I’m just so glad you came back to me.’ Becoming a slave would make sense if someone like that didn’t feel like they deserved the name of ‘son’. What wouldn’t make sense is that the son came back to his father some time after this warm acceptance from his father, and saying, ‘I know you’ve reinstated me as your son, but I’d prefer to be your slave.’ It’s one thing to say ‘I don’t deserve it’. It’s quite another thing to say, ‘I don’t want it’.
And that’s what a Christian does when they go from trusting in Jesus, to trusting in what they do to keep God’s approval. They go from acting like a son, to acting like a slave. And Paul here is saying, ‘Seriously boys, you want to go back to that?’
Paul ends this passage by saying in verse 10, ’You are observing special days and months and seasons and years!’ These were some of the things the Galatians were doing to impress God. Verse 11, Paul says, ‘I fear for you, that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you.’
This can happen for us when our religion becomes a formality, rather than a relationship with Jesus. So for example, we think that it is something we do on Sundays, and then forget about on Monday, or something we feel like doing during Easter, but not during winter, or something we celebrate at Christmas, but not every other day. Paul says that when that sort of thing starts to happen, ‘I fear for you, that I have wasted my efforts on you.’
Jesus made us sons not slaves. This is not a once a week thing, it’s not only during lent, it’s not only when you’re here at church , it’s not even three times a day. It’s an all of life thing, because it is now who you are. And the only thing that can stop you from being who are is letting yourself become what you were.
I’ll finish with one more story of another Englishman named John Newton who lived around the same time as John Wesley. John Newton lost his mum at an early age and ended up becoming a human slave trader. He did this for years before he asked God for mercy. Newton found mercy when he gave his life to Jesus. He was very aware of how cunning the devil could be, and he was still very well aware of the devil he himself used to be. So to help him from going back into any form of slavery from which he had been saved, he had a verse from the Bible written in bold letters and fastened to the wall of his study. It was Deuteronomy 15:15, ‘Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you.’ (NIV)
The point of it is, remember what you were, and the slavery you were in, remember who you are now and the freedom that you have, and never forget what Jesus did to bring you out of one and into the other. Fix these things upon your minds and enjoy them, or else we’re likely to forget them.
The divine attributes are the qualities and characteristics of God. Let Joseph Mizzi take you through a summary of the God we worship.
God is personal; he is not simply an impersonal force or energy, as imagined in Eastern pantheistic religions. God thinks, chooses according to his will, loves and hates. He speaks to us, and we to him; he enters into and maintains a personal relationship with people. He designates himself ‘I am’ (Ex 3:14), and we address him with familiar titles such as ‘Father’.
God is spirit (John 4:24); consequently he is invisible (Heb 11:27), and does not have a physical body like us (Luke 24:39). Scripture speaks about ‘the eyes’ and ‘the hands’ of the Lord, but evidently such language is figurative.
God is independent; he is self-existent and does not need anything or anyone. We are dependent on God for every moment of our existence, but God has life in himself (John 5:26). ‘Nor is He worshiped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things’ (Acts 17:25).
God is immutable, that is, he does not change. He is ever the same in all his perfections. He cannot become more, or less, wise, holy and good. He is infinite in power; he does not grow weary, and he cannot become more powerful than he is. ‘For I am the LORD, I do not change’ (Malachi 3:6).
God is eternal and is in no way limited by time which is itself part of his creation. God knows no beginning and will have no end. ‘Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever You had formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God’ (Ps 90:2).
God is omnipresent. Being present everywhere, he is not limited by space. ‘Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend into heaven, You are there; if I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there’ (Ps 139:7, 8).
God is omniscient; he knows everything. He does not need to learn anything; he is never forgetful. He knows himself and all his creation perfectly. ‘Known to God from eternity are all His works’ (Acts 15:18). God knows us perfectly: ‘O LORD, You have searched me and known me. You know my sitting down and my rising up; You understand my thought afar off. You comprehend my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways’ (Ps 139:1-3).
God is good. ‘For You, Lord, are good, and ready to forgive, and abundant in mercy to all those who call upon You’ (Ps 86:5). ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:8). He is merciful, delivering sinners from their just condemnation; he is gracious, granting them blessings they do not deserve.
God is holy; he is distinct from all creatures and exalted above them in infinite majesty and purity. ‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory!’ (Isa 6:3). God is morally perfect. ‘God is light and in Him is no darkness at all’ (1 John 1:5).
God is righteous. He is always perfectly just and never guilty of the slightest injustice. ‘The LORD is righteous in all His ways’ (Ps 145:17). His law is the expression of his righteousness, rewarding obedience and punishing disobedience.
God is faithful. ‘God is not a man, that He should lie, nor a son of man, that He should repent. Has He said, and will He not do? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good? (Num 23:19). His children can rest assured that he will perform all his promises and lead them to final glory. God ‘will also confirm you to the end, that you may be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord’ (1 Cor 1:8, 9).
God is sovereign; he possesses absolute power and authority, and exercises total control over all his creation. He acts exactly as he desires; nobody can annul his will or frustrate his intentions. He ‘works all things according to the counsel of His will’ (Eph 1:11). ‘His dominion is an everlasting dominion, and His kingdom is from generation to generation. All the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing; He does according to His will in the army of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth. No one can restrain His hand or say to Him, ‘What have You done?’’ (Dan 4:34, 35).
God is omnipotent, that is, almighty, all-powerful. He is able to do whatever he wills. ‘I know that You can do everything, and that no purpose of Yours can be withheld from You’ (Job 42:2). In him we enjoy absolute security. ‘He who dwells in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty’ (Ps 91:1).
This is the true and living God – infinite and perfect in all his attributes! Being proud and sinful, the natural man cannot and will not bow before his Maker in adoration and obedience. Though the first commandment warns against having other gods other than the true God, man has come up with other ‘gods’, less than the true God, fashioned according to his imagination.
May God give us grace to know him in his majesty, that we may know him in truth, trusting and loving him with all our hearts. God alone can open our eyes and reveal his glory to us.
‘Give unto the LORD, O you mighty ones; give unto the LORD glory and strength. Give unto the LORD the glory due to His name; worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness’(Ps 29:1, 2).
(Taken from Christian Thumbnails – A Survey of the Core Beliefs of Christianity by Joseph Mizzi p21-22)