A few years back I was out for dinner with Mike and Jon, mates I went to Bible college with. We had a magnificent steak at the Berrima Pub. It’s one of those places where you cook your own steak on a big open grill, and I love that! So it’s worth a visit if you get the chance. Anyway, it was cold and wet, the middle of winter. We had our dinner, got back in the cars, and headed to Mike’s place where we were staying the night. Mike got in his car and I jumped in Jon’s.
The road from Berrima back toward Mittagong has no street lights on it, so it was pitch black and pouring rain. It was as slippery as an eel covered in olive oil. Jon and I are yapping away trying to solve the problems of the world as you do. We’re doing a bit under 80 ks. Then this flippin’ enormous wombat waddles out into the middle of the road right in front of us. I don’t know if you know this. but God made wombats out of reinforced concrete. They are a bit like colossal furry speed humps. If you hit a wombat in your car, it will destroy your suspension, you will be upside down in a ditch, and the wombat will limp away, bruised and mildly annoyed but otherwise unmoved by the experience.
Jon and I know this, and since there’s no cars coming the other way, Jon swerved to the right. I grabbed hold of the bar on the A-pillar. We were headed for the ditch on the right side of the road, so Johnny swerved back to the left and of course the back of the car started to swing around. And time stood still—you know that feeling you get when something like this is happening—everything just slows down. We both had that feeling. It’s pelting down with rain. The car’s now sideways across the road. We seem to have increased our speed and Jon has no control over the car at all. We’re both passengers. The wombat is blissfully unaware of our situation and continues plodding along.
We’re heading for the edge of the road by now, still in slow motion. Looking at each other, mildly concerned, I said, “This’ll be close, mate”. He said, “Mmm, looks that way”
Now backwards, we left the road and headed into about 20 metres of gravel. It’s spraying everywhere, quite noisy as it is hitting the underneath of the car, but we started to slow down as the back wheels dug into the gravel. Still heading for the Armco rail, we braced ourselves. But just before we hit it, the car stopped. Then time went back to normal speed. We got out and had a look. We’d stopped about six inches from the Armco rail. We had a nervous chuckle, thanked Jesus, and looked up at the wombat, which was still waddling along, utterly disinterested. So we got in the car and drove home … slowly. The whole slide from beginning to end probably only took ten seconds but it felt like half an hour: the ‘slo-mo’ was on.
I don’t know if that sort of thing’s ever happened to you, but have you had that feeling when something terrible is happening and everything feels like it’s in slow motion? It can happen if you get into a fight, or you get home to find that your house has been robbed, or if you witness a car accident or you’re involved in one. Something chaotic that hits you emotionally as well as physically, and it feels like you’re having an out of body experience. That’s what that slide felt like in my mate’s car. Most of us will be familiar with this feeling. This is what chapter 7 of Revelation feels like.
Revelation is a funny book. It all starts with a bang. We meet the risen and glorified Jesus in the first chapter. Then it calms down for a bit with the letters to the churches. This part in chapters 2 and 3 feels like some of the other letters in the New Testament, and most of us are probably familiar with them. It cranks up a notch in chapter 4 when we have this picture of God’s throne in heaven. Then it cranks up another notch in chapter 5 when God’s holding this scroll in his hand, and at first, no one in heaven can open it, This is very sad but then finally Jesus turns up. He’s called the triumphant ‘Lion of Judah’. Only when John turns around to look at this lion, he sees a lamb that looks like it’s been slaughtered, but is very much alive! This Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, who died but rose again conquering Satan, sin, and death. Only Jesus is able to open this scroll in God’s hand.
Now, the scroll doesn’t look like much. It’s sealed with seven seals. It turns out that this scroll is pretty much God’s master plan, with all the details of how he will save his people and judge sin. So, it’s basically the story of the world from beginning to end. The rest of Revelation is what’s written on this scroll.
When Jesus starts opening the seals in chapter 6, Revelation gets properly nuts. You may have heard the phrase ‘The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’. It comes from Revelation 6. The first four seals on the scroll are these guys, and they are part of the way God passes judgement on sin in his world. They bring war, violence, hunger, poverty, greed, oppression, and death with them. Of course, God’s own people are caught up in all those things. So halfway through chapter 6, when the fifth seal is opened, they ask, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?”
It’s a good question, isn’t it? What about the innocents? What about God’s people? I thought the whole point of being a Christian was that God is able to preserve our lives and bring us safely to heaven. So, what gives?
The hits keep coming and the question goes unanswered. The sixth seal is opened, and it’s natural disasters, things like earthquakes or tsunamis.
It’s an utterly chaotic scene and yet a quick glance at the news each night will tell you that Revelation 6 looks a lot like everyday life: wars, hunger, poverty, greed, destruction, and death. So listen to how Revelation chapter 6 ends, from verse 15:
Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and everyone else, both slave and free, hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. They called to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of Him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can withstand it?” (NIV)
That’s the question on everyone’s lips every day. When we get caught up in all the stuff that happens because we live in a world that’s stained by and feels the effects of God’s judgement on sin—everything from war to domestic violence, to famine and poverty, tsunamis and earthquakes, droughts and bushfires, sickness and death (all creation is groaning under the weight of sin)—the question has to be asked: who can stand up in it? The obvious answer seems to be ‘no one’—only that’s not the answer at all. The answer’s in Revelation chapter 7.
Revelation 7 is the ‘slow-mo’ button. Everything just slows down here. Look at the way it starts. Remember, this is in the middle of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse carving the place up, martyrs asking ‘how long’, and a litany of natural disasters. The first three verses of chapter 7 say this:
After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth to prevent any wind from blowing on the land or on the sea or on any tree. Then I saw another angel coming up from the east, having the seal of the Living God. He called out in a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm the land and the sea: “Do not harm the land or the sea or the trees until we put a seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God.” (NIV)
That’s the ‘slow-mo’ button! The question at the end of chapter 6 (Who can stand?) is now answered, and the answer is those who are sealed by God, in other words, Christians.
The seal the angel is talking about is the Holy Spirit. And he’s busy. Part of his job is to make us more like Jesus—which as you can imagine is a full-time gig—but he does much more than that. He’s God’s stamp of approval on us, guaranteeing our eternal rest.
I am still learning about what the Holy Spirit does in my life. My guess is that most of us are the same. So you’ll be pleased to know that on two Tuesday nights in January, the 7th and the 14th, our very own Dr David Jackson is going to be giving us a couple of lectures on the Holy Spirit, which will be fantastic! What I do know, though, is that the Holy Spirit is my seal, my guarantee. He marks me out as belonging to God. It’s a bit of a lame illustration, but he’s like a stamp you get on your hand or wrist in a theme park or a concert or a night club. That stamp tells the guy at the door that you’ve paid your money and you can get in. The Holy Spirit is like that for us, only we didn’t pay the price, but Jesus did.
The Holy Spirit assures us that we will be eternally safe. We’ll all suffer various things here for certain, but Revelation 7 is telling us that regardless of that, God’s people are sealed with the Holy Spirit and assured that we will all make it to heaven.
But then, that begs the question: how many of us are there? Since we’re talking about all of God’s people throughout all history, how many are we talking about? It must be a big number! But it’s not. Look at verse 4.
Then I heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000 from all the tribes of Israel. (NIV)
From there down to the end of verse 8, we read that there are 12,000 from each tribe in Old Testament Israel. And haven’t those few verses caused some arguments throughout history!
If you’re not all that familiar with the book of Revelation, it’s written in what was a popular style of writing back in the day known as ‘Apocalyptic literature’. One of the stand-out features of this gear is that there are numbers all the way through it, and the numbers aren’t meant to be taken as concrete figures. They’re symbolic of different things.
If chapter 7 finished at verse 8, and we were only told about the 12,000 people from each of the twelve tribes of Israel, it would be very confusing. We could easily think that there were only 144,000 people in heaven, which would be rather disappointing.
Mercifully, we aren’t supposed to imagine that there are literally only 144,000 people in heaven. It’s a symbolic number representing the full number of God’s people, from Old Testament times and New Testament times.
The number ‘a thousand’ in Revelation always represents completion. There were twelve tribes in Israel, and it’s no coincidence that Jesus had twelve main disciples. Over in Revelation 21, we see another picture of heaven. There are twelve gates. Each gate has a name of one of the twelve tribes of Israel. And there are twelve foundation stones for the wall, and each stone has one of the apostles’ name on it. So here in Revelation 7, you’ve got 12,000 people from each of the twelve tribes of Israel, representing the full number of God’s people from both Old and New Testament times. If you’re not quite convinced, look at the next couple of verses. See, John only ‘hears’ the number 144,000 in verse 4, but he turns around and ‘sees’ the vast crowd in verse 9. Have a look there:
After this I looked, and before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne and to the Lamb.” (NIV)
144,000 people is a big crowd, but if they all stood still for a while, you could count them easily enough. But it’s a symbolic number. John says we’re not going to be able to count all the people in heaven! All of God’s people from Old Testament times and now are there. And they’re from every nation on earth. Heaven is multicultural, so being part of a church called ‘Multicultural Bible Ministries’ is good practice for eternity! They’re wearing white, which is symbolic again. It tells us they’ve all been made righteous by Jesus, and they are doing what Christians are meant to be doing: joyfully praising God and Jesus.
And the angels standing around the throne and the elders and the four living creatures we met back in chapter 4 and 5 all join in the worship as well, so verse 11:
Amen! Praise and glory, and wisdom and thanks and honour and power and strength – be to our God for ever and ever! Amen! (NIV)
The last section is really cool. I’m not sure John understands exactly what he’s seeing. It seems that he has a slightly confused look on his face. (At least that’s the way I read it.) So, one of the elders leans over and asks him a question in verse 13:
Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes – who are they, and where did they come from?” I answered, “Sir, you know.” (NIV)
I’m pretty sure that’s John saying, “Well, I hope you know because I sure as heck don’t!”
And he said, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” (NIV)
Here’s another word that has caused no end of arguments between Christians:tribulation. Honestly, all denominations are the same with this stuff. We argue about stuff that, plain and simple, doesn’t matter, instead of getting on with the Great Commission and making disciples of Jesus from all nations. In the church I grew up in, say there were 60 old blokes in church on a Sunday morning. There would have been 70 different opinions on what the Great Tribulation was. They’d quote all the old Southern American Baptist preachers who had written books and commentaries on Revelation—Darby, Warfield, Schofield—and they’d argue about this stuff for hours. I loved it back in the day, because like any teenager I was impressionable, passionate, and I thought I knew everything. But we majored on the minors. We spent ages talking about stuff that doesn’t matter that much, and not enough time on the stuff that does. This is a constant danger for Christians, and we need to make sure we spend most of our time on the stuff that matters.
Anyway, here’s what the Great Tribulation is: life. So, the people in heaven, dressed in white robes, washed clean from their sin and righteous, they’re just ordinary Christians like you and me who get through life with their faith in Jesus intact, and now they’re dancing with Jesus and singing His praises for all they’re worth! The basic message of Revelation is, ‘Don’t Worry: Jesus Wins’. It’s mostly pretty simple. As wacked as it sometimes sounds, most of Revelation just tells us not to worry because Jesus wins and so do we.
And then you get to the last part of Revelation 7. This is awesome! Red Bull might give you wings but whatever drug they put in that garbage wears off. This doesn’t. Listen to what this elder says to John about the Christians in heaven. No matter what part of history they’re from or where they’re born, this is what John saw. So this is reality if you are a Christian, reading from verse 15:
[T]hey are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat down on them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd; He will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. (NIV)
So, here’s what Revelation 7 is saying to us today. The question we began with was: who can stand when God’s judgement is poured out? Our existence on this planet is difficult. Plenty of people live in standards way below our own: around 2 billion live in poverty. I can't speak for those people and we’re not them. You can only play the hand you’re dealt. So what’s this say to us in Sydney at the end of 2019? We were either born here or moved here. And this is by some margin the best place on earth to live. But even so, life is difficult enough here. We have the best standard of living, we enjoy peace, free and fair elections, we have beaches and the bush and the mountains and deserts and snow fields. Australia is an amazing place! We are safe and almost entirely secure.
And yet we have one of the highest rates of teenage suicide. And at least a couple of middle-aged men take their own lives each week. A lot more think about it. A whole heap of people self-harm. Around 30% of us struggle with mental illness. Our relationships with our families and our friends often give us joy but just as often make us cry ourselves to sleep at night. Many of us have issues with alcohol. Some of us struggle with weed and if it was legal plenty of us would be stoned fairly often. As you get older the only thing that changes is the degree to which your life and your family and your marriage is dysfunctional. Some of us are mildly dysfunctional, some of us are really in trouble. Being a Christian doesn’t prevent you from going through a divorce. My parents are divorced. Some of you are. Some of you might be one day. All of us know people who are divorced and we know it affects the whole family, kids especially.
And then there’s another bunch of people who’ve managed to negotiate most of life and so far, haven’t struggled that much with any of that stuff. If that’s you, you probably struggle to understand grace, and you’re probably quite proud of your achievements spiritually and relationally. And when you’re honest about yourself, you look down on other people who haven’t quite hit the high standards you’ve managed so far.
Some of us have been through significant illness. Others of us live with pain or discomfort. Most of us will get pretty sick at some point. For some of us it will be self-inflicted by lifestyle choices. For others, it’ll just be the hand we’re dealt. All of us have been to the funeral of someone we love, and all of us will one day attend our own funeral as well.
And you know, all of us are in one or more of those groups of people, trying to live the life we know we should be living, but often feeling like we’re fighting a battle we doubt we can win. and we’re just tired. We’re tired of pretending we’ve got it all together, tired of putting on the ‘church face’ in the car park every week. Sometimes life just seems too hard.
It might not be all of you. I could be way off, but I figure I’m a fairly normal sort of bloke and so most of the stuff I've just said applies to me as much as it applies to any of you. Life’s tough, and it shouldn’t surprise us. The Four Horsemen are running about the place. Christians are being martyred in many countries. Natural disasters are everywhere. The whole of creation is groaning as in the pains of childbirth waiting for the redemption that is coming. And you and I, along with all God’s people all around the world--and there are somewhere around 2.5 billion Christians on planet earth—all of us are caught up in it, doing our best to stay solid despite all the stuff that gets in our way.
So, let this last chunk of verses just wash over you for a bit, because no matter what life throws at us, if you know Jesus, if you’re a Christian, any sort of Christian, a messed-up one, a depressed one, an anxious one, a bitter, confused or angry one, a doubting Christian, or even, can you believe it, a self-righteous arrogant one, the day is coming when all the stuff that wears us down and hinders us from living for Jesus like we really want to will be forgotten. This is what we have to look forward to.
John sees this. He sees our future, and says we are before the throne of God and we serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter us with his presence. Never again will we hunger; never again will we thirst. The sun will not beat down on us, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the centre of the throne—the Lord Jesus himself—he will be our shepherd, he will lead us to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.”
There are lots of great love stories in our culture – "The Notebook" – great love story with Ryan Gosling and Rachael McAdams. From a while ago now, all the movies with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan: You’ve Got Mail - Joe Versus the Volcano – and of course, Sleepless in Seattle – great love story. The night I asked Nonie to marry me, we had a lovely dinner, watched Sleepless in Seattle then I proposed – she said ‘YES!’ – good times! Shrek was a great love story – Crazy Stupid Love – Steve Carrell, Ryan Gosling (again), Emma Stone – it’s hilarious and romantic – and good fun.
Then there’s Terminator 2 – another great love story – it’s true! Arnold Schwarzenegger is a Terminator T-800 Model 101 – and if you think a machine can’t love – think again! As the movie rolls on – Arnie grows to love John Connor and his mother, Sarah – so much that he not only spends the whole movie saving their lives and getting shot about a thousand times in the process – but at the end he gives his life to save humanity – great love story! It just has lots of guns and explosions and car chases – the perfect date night movie – keeps husband and wife happy!
Anyway, as good as those love stories are, they’re not a patch on the Bible. The whole Bible is a giant love story. God made us and loves us so much that despite the fact that all humanity have turned their backs on God, and to varying degrees, done exactly the opposite of what God requires of us and yet God’s love for His creation remains. To the extent that God becomes a man, Jesus, so that we can see exactly how much God loves us by giving His life for ours. He takes our sin and replaces it with His righteousness so that we can be reunited with God and enjoy Him forever. The Bible is the perfect love story.
Ruth is a short book in the Old Testament, there are only 4 chapters but it’s a mini version of that giant love story and it’s one of the most beautiful things in the Bible, I love it!
In case you missed last week let me catch you up to speed. Like any love story you’ve got to meet the characters. We meet Naomi’s family, Naomi is the wife, her name means ‘pleasant’ – great name! Elimelech is the husband, his name means ‘My God is King’ – another great name! They had two sons, ‘Mahlon’ and ‘Chilion’ – not sure what happened there, but Mahlon’s name means ‘sick’; and Chilion’s name means ‘destruction’. Probably not the best names to give your kids…
Anyway, there’s a famine in Israel and Elimelech decides to move his family to Moab. In case you’re wondering, that’s a bad decision, Elimelech should have stayed in Israel and trusted that God would provide for his family. Anyway they move and stay in Moab for 10 years, the boys grow up and get married, only there aren’t any Hebrew women who know and love the God of Israel to marry, so they marry Moabite women, who worship a false god, called Chemosh. Things are going from bad to worse. But then Elimelech and both his sons, Mahlon and Kilion get sick and die. Not really a surprise if you name your kids ‘sick’ and ‘destruction’ – but there you go.
That leaves Naomi a widow with 2 daughters-in-law who are now also widows: Orpah and Ruth. Naomi decides to go back to Israel, its the first good decision in the story, Orpah decides to stay in Moab but Ruth…Ruth is different, her name means ‘Companion’, ‘Friend’ or ‘Vision of beauty’. She’s had a conversion experience somehow and she’s come to trust the God of Israel completely. Although Naomi urges Ruth to stay in Moab, Ruth’s having none of it. She says this beautiful line in Ruth 1:16-17
“Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go, I will go, and where you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God my God. 17 Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.” (NIV)
You can only say something like that if you completely trust the God of Israel. So off they head 75 kilometres, on foot, which is the same as walking from here to a bit past Katoomba in the Blue Mountains, they get back to Israel and in Bethlehem. Naomi decides to change her name from Naomi, which remember means ‘Pleasant’ to Mara, which means ‘Bitter’ well she’s a widow, her daughter-in-law is a widow, her husband and both her sons are dead, so bitterness is reasonable. That brings us to Chapter 2 where we meet Boaz, he is the dude of dudes and his name means ‘Strong man’. When Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem it had two massive pillars holding it up, he named one of the pillars ‘Boaz’ after this bloke we meet in Ruth – it’s great name!
What we see in Ruth 2 is godly people behaving in a godly way toward each other and honouring God in the process. Both Boaz and Ruth are faithful people and they love God and they love His people and we get to see that faithfulness lived out here. Gentlemen, we look at the way Boaz treats Ruth and we get to see how God expects believing men to treat women, all women and, no surprise, it’s the polar opposite of what our culture tells us, but my goodness, if only more men were like Boaz then all the women we know would be so much safer than they currently are in our world. And ladies, you get to see a demonstration of the way you should rightly expect to be treated by Christian men.
So, we already know from Chapter 1 that Ruth loves God and trusts Him, in Chapter 2 we see what that faith looks like in her life. She trusts that God will provide because she knows God’s character, so she puts her faith into action. It’s harvest time in Israel and the Old Testament Law had a provision for poor people that the harvesters would not collect the grain right to the edge of their fields and they wouldn’t pick up everything that fell onto the ground. Poor people were allowed to walk along behind the harvesters and collect the stalks of grain that fell out of their bags and they could harvest the standing grain that was left on the edges of all the fields. God provided this law to bless poor people and Ruth was poor but trusted God and put her faith into action by going out and collecting the grain to keep her and Naomi alive.
Now, it just so happens that the field Ruth went to belonged to Boaz, we see that in verse 3. That’s Jewish humour, in case you missed it! Whoever wrote Ruth is telling us that God knows exactly what’s going on and while it might look like Ruth just stumbled into this particular field the author wants us to see God’s hand at work in the background. God led Ruth to this field because she has an appointment there with Boaz it just so happens.
In verse 4 we meet Boaz, the dude of Dudes! And it turns out that he’s an Anglican minister! You mightn’t be familiar with the old Prayer Book Anglican church service but that’s OK, don’t feel bad, it was originally written in 1549…and revised in 1662 but the first words the minister says in the old Prayer Book service are: “The Lord be with you!” And the people are meant to respond, “And also with you!” Only difference here is that all the blokes who work for Boaz are Baptists, so they say, “The Lord bless you!” Which is close enough.
Anyway, Boaz is a single bloke. He’s wealthy and he owns a decent farm and has a heap of people working for him and you can see by the way he greets his workers that he’s a godly bloke with a strong and living faith in God. He asks God to bless his workers and the way they respond tells us that they know they’re working for a good guy and they ask God to bless their boss.
Imagine how cool it would be to work for a bloke like that! Imagine you’re working away and your boss walks in and says, “The Lord be with you!” Ray says this to all of us all the time because he’s a great boss! If you’re a manager or in some sort of leadership role at work maybe it wouldn’t be a bad thing to somehow let your team or your staff know that you are the kind of person who wants God’s blessing to be on those around you. You mightn’t say it like Boaz does but you can say it in other ways and the way you treat your staff or your team can demonstrate it. My guess is that it would be quite a powerful thing in a secular workplace.
Anyway, in verse 5, Boaz asks his foreman, “Who does that young woman belong to?” If this was a movie, there’d be some strings playing in the background and maybe the cameras would be in soft-focus as they’d pan around to Ruth working away in the field collecting grain behind the harvesters. The foreman tells Boaz she’s the young woman who came back from Moab with Naomi, and it turns out she’s been working since early morning and it’s now later in the afternoon so she’s sweaty and dirty, her hair is a mess, she’s tired and if you asked her, she’d probably say she’s not looking her best. But notice that Boaz isn’t just looking at her outward appearance, he’s seen something more than her looks. He’s heard of this young woman, everyone has, you don’t turn up as a foreigner in Bethlehem with Naomi whom no one has seen for a decade and go unnoticed. People know that Ruth loves Naomi and cares for her and they also know she has come to trust in their God as well. Boaz sees Ruth’s character.
Our culture is almost the opposite, isn’t it? These days we’ve got Instagram and Facebook and all the other social media apps, all of which focus on the outward appearance of people and you can photoshop images of yourself to make you look the best you can, everything is about what you wear or what you’re not wearing more often. But God and God’s people should be paying much more attention to the heart to the character. This is what Boaz does and Ruth’s character is worth noticing.
Now listen to the way Boaz talks to Ruth. What I want you to hear as this conversation goes on is Boaz’s character. Remember, in this culture, a woman like Ruth was about as vulnerable as a woman can be. She’s a foreigner, she’s a widow so there’s no man to protect her, she’s alone and new in town. Moab and Israel were often at war with each other so even though people know she’s looking after Naomi there would have been some people who hated her just because she’s from Moab. And although she trusted God, there would have been some fear in her heart when she went out that morning because back then, as now, any terrible thing could have happened to a woman in this position. But listen to the godly example Boaz gives to men who love God and want to honour Him in their lives: Ruth 2:8-9
So Boaz said to Ruth, “My daughter, listen to me. Don’t go and glean in another field and don’t go away from here. Stay here with the women who work for me. Watch the field where the men are harvesting, and follow along after the women. I have told the men not to lay a hand on you. And whenever you are thirsty, go and get a drink from the water jars the men have filled.” (NIV)
Imagine how this would have sounded to Ruth. She now knows she’s safe with this man. She probably would not be safe anywhere else. He’s told his workers that if any of them touch her that’ll be the last thing they touch. If she’s thirsty, his water is her water and the other women in the field they are now your community and Ruth will be safe with them. Ruth 2:10-12
At this, she bowed down with her face to the ground. She asked him, “Why have I found such favour in your eyes that you notice me, a foreigner?” Boaz replied, “I’ve been told all about what you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband, how you left your father and mother and your homeland and came to live with a people you did not know before. May the Lord repay you for what you have done. May you be richly rewarded by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.” (NIV)
He’s not only provided a safe place for Ruth to work and gather food for her and Naomi, now he’s praying for her, that God would bless her for the kindness she has shown to her mother-in-law. And for her part, Ruth knows that socially, she wouldn’t normally be on the receiving end of this honourable behaviour from Boaz. Ruth 2:13
“May I continue to find favour in your eyes, my lord,” she said. “You have put me at ease by speaking kindly to your servant though I do not have the standing of one of your servants.” (NIV)
Boaz isn’t finished, Verses 14-16
At mealtime Boaz said to her, “Come over here. Have some bread and dip it in the wine vinegar.” When she sat down with the harvesters, he offered her some roasted grain. She ate all she wanted and had some left over. As she got up to glean, Boaz gave orders to his men, “Let her gather among the sheaves and don’t reprimand her. Even pull out some stalks for her from the bundles and leave them for her to pick up, and don’t rebuke her.” (NIV)
Boaz isn’t just offering his protection to Ruth, he’s going over the top in making sure she is well fed and has plenty of grain to take home to Naomi so she can be well fed also.
At this point in the story, there’s no romance going on here. This isn’t love at first sight, it’s respect and honour at first sight, because that is Boaz’s character. We find out in Chapter 3 that Boaz is quite a bit older than Ruth and when it looks like there might be something going on between them, he’s genuinely shocked that Ruth hasn’t gone and chased one of the younger men in town. So, this is just a good and godly man, acting in a good and godly way toward a younger woman he’s treating as if she was his daughter. Gentlemen, this is how each of us is meant to treat all the women we know. This is how God expects us to treat women, all women. Respect. Honour. Care. Protection. Provision.
I very rarely feel vulnerable, physically. Most men I know are the same, you don’t have to be 6’2” and almost 100kg to feel safe, you just basically have to be male. But you talk to any of the women you know, of any age, and it turns out that most women rarely feel safe and very often feel quite vulnerable. I can’t image that, if I’m honest. The world is not a safe place for the vast majority of females.
One of my friends is a young woman I met through LiT and KYCK, she’s more like a daughter than a friend really. She was a strong Christian, crazy gifted in so many ways, and beautiful. She was travelling overseas and met a bloke who spiked her drink then sexually assaulted her on a beach. There was no one around to help her, there was no Boaz to make things right. When she told me what had happened to her, I cried, a lot. The world is not a safe place for most women, which means it is up to men, and particularly Christian men to make it safe. So, gentlemen, no matter where you are, if you see a woman in any sort of danger, it is your responsibility and mine, to stand between her and whatever or whoever is threatening her as quick as you can. This is exactly what Boaz is doing for Ruth, because he knows this is what God expects of him.
Ruth knows she is safe with Boaz, so in verse 17, after having something to eat, she goes back to work. As the chapter finishes, we learn that Ruth goes home to Naomi with about 13 kilos of Barley, that’s enough food for a week at least and Naomi is beside herself when Ruth comes home, and like many mothers-in-law, she has a bunch of questions! Where did you glean? Who’s field were you in?
Ruth tells Naomi she was in Boaz’s field and the penny drops for Naomi. Now, as I said before, there’s no love interest going on between Ruth and Boaz just yet but you can’t help feeling like Naomi is already thinking of how she might give Ruth a nudge so she might keep getting in Boaz’s way so he’ll notice her a bit more. And there’s a good reason for this. Look at Verses 20, 21
“The Lord bless him!” Naomi said to her daughter-in-law. “He has not stopped showing his kindness to the living and the dead.” She added, “That man is our close relative; he is one of our guardian-redeemers.” Then Ruth the Moabite said, “He even said to me, ‘Stay with my workers until they finish harvesting all my grain.’” (NIV)
One of the interesting provisions God made for His people was a law called ‘the Levirate Law’. Say you have a married couple and the husband died before they had any kids. The dead husband’s brother, or if he didn’t have a brother, another close relative, would marry the widow and provide her with children. This would do two things, it would keep the dead husband’s name alive so that it wouldn’t be lost plus it would provide the widow with children who would look after her as she got older. So while it might seem a weird law to our ears, it actually meant that widows would be cared for, it’s a lot like the law about not harvesting grain to the edge of your field so the poor could get some food, there was no government welfare back then, so God put several laws in place to provide for vulnerable people.
It just so happens that Boaz is closely related to Elimelech, which makes him what Naomi calls a ‘Guardian-redeemer’ that means it would be possible for Boaz to marry Ruth and provide children for her and grandchildren for Naomi, thus meaning they would be cared for as they got older and continuing the family line of Elimelech.
We’ll see how that plays out next week when Ray looks at the last 2 chapters of Ruth. But as we finish up Chapter 2, the glaringingly obvious message of this chapter is that even while life has taken several tragic turns for Naomi and Ruth, God is orchestrating one of the great comebacks for this family. He got them safely back to Bethlehem from Moab. He led Ruth to gather grain in a field that just so happened to belong to Boaz. Who just so happens to be a man of distinctly godly character. Because Boaz is God’s man in this situation, he provides for Ruth in so many ways: he gives her heaps of food; he gives her a community of women her age to do life with; he gives her absolute protection from anyone who would seek to do her harm; he prays for God’s blessing to be over her life. And on top of all that, it just so happens that Boaz is one of the few men capable of enacting this Levirate Law that God had put in place to provide for widows among His people and he can marry Ruth and provide a family for her.
One of the things I love about the Bible is that God tells us all these things about His people, warts and all. We read about their good times and their hard times, which, I don’t know about you, but I find heaps encouraging because I have good times and I have hard times as well.
What I find so encouraging about Ruth though, is that this is what good looks like. A mate of mine is a leadership coach, he spends time with ministers and church workers all over the place, training them in leadership and development and all that sort of thing. When he meets his clients, he has a series of questions for them, the best one, is this: ‘What does ‘good’ look like?’ All of us can ask this question of ourselves, our work life, our family life, our Christian life, our relationships. What does good look like? When you answer it, you figure out what you need to do to go from where you are to where you need to be as a husband, or a wife, as an employee or a manager or a boss, as a friend or a mentor, or just as a Christian.
Ruth 2 tells us what good looks like on so many levels. What does ‘good’ look like for Ruth? She’s got a strong faith in God, and she puts that faith into action by working hard and providing for Naomi. So for Ruth, good looks like trusting God in hard circumstances. She’s taking responsibility for herself and not expecting handouts or asking someone else to pay her bills. She receives kindness from Boaz and she accepts it joyfully, thanking Boaz for his kindness and also thanking God for His provision for her. Perfect.
What’s ‘good’ look like for Boaz? For Boaz, good looks like thinking, speaking and acting in a way that honours God in everything he does. He blesses his employees, he notices Ruth and speaks so kindly to her, praising her character and her hard work gathering grain for her and Naomi. He provides her with his protection and he makes her not just feel safe, but actually be safe. He provides way more food for her than she needs and places her in the community of women who work for him so that she will have an instant group of friends to share life with. Boaz provides everything Ruth will need to flourish in her new life in Israel, gentlemen, Boaz is one of the very best examples God has given us as we do our best to live in a way that honours God.
Ruth is a great love story, but it’s way more than just a love story. As I said in the beginning, Ruth is a mini-version of the enormous love story of the whole Bible. Boaz gives us a mini-version of the way God has provided for us in the Lord Jesus. Everything we need to flourish in this life, God has provided for us through Jesus. And more than that, everything we need for the life to come, God has also provided for us through the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus.
In 1995 I was in my first year at SMBC, we had a volleyball court and a heap of us would play volleyball in breaks from lectures. I was playing in bare feet and I stepped on a bee and got stung in the toe! It hurt like crazy. Somehow, it got infected and I started to get sick.
After a couple of days I had a pretty high temperature and there was this weird red line going up my right leg. I didn’t think much of it, men don’t like going to the doctor, we think everything will be ok without medical attention.
A couple of days later I was worse, my temperature was higher and the weird red line had now gone down my left leg as well and had also spread up both of my arms. Plus I had this rather large lump in my groin, about the size of half a tennis ball, which was a weird thing!
One of my mates at college was a bloke named Sam Chan and he’s a doctor, and some of you have probably heard Sam preach and he’s amazing! Anyway, I got Sam to come and see me and he took one look at me and saw the red lines all up my legs and arms and had a feel of the lump in my groin and just shook his head. ‘What are you doing, Steve! Why haven’t you gone to the doctor yet? You’ve got a massive infection in your lymph system, bro! You have to go to a GP now!’
I couldn’t walk by this stage so a couple of my mates carried me to a car and gave me a lift to a doctor near college. I was carried into the waiting room and as you can imagine, that caused a bit of a fuss and after I told the receptionist what was wrong, she sent me into the doctor immediately.
The doctor took a look at me and said, ‘Crikey mate, you’re sick, aren’t you?’ I nodded. He took my temperature and I was over 40 degrees. He asked what happened, I told him and he examined me properly. He got to the lump and swore – which I figured was a bad sign. But then it got worse, there was a door adjoining the other doctors room next door and he walked over, opened it and said, “Hey John, you’ve gotta come and look at this clown!” The other doctor came in and after giving me a brief examination said something worse than the first doctor did.
I was rushed to hospital and by the time I got there my temperature was 41.9 degrees and I was dead-set hallucinating! They put me on the strongest intravenous antibiotic they had and it took a full week for the infection to go away.
Here’s the thing, unless you looked at me closely, you couldn’t tell I was sick. From a distance I looked fine. If you got closer and had a good look you’d have seen the big red lines up and down my arms and legs and you’d have known there was something wrong on the inside. And only if you were a doctor would you have known my whole lymph system was infected and if I’d left it much longer, I could have died. But from a distance, I looked OK.
When Malachi started speaking to God’s people they were a lot like me. From a distance they looked fine. They were still going to the Temple and making sacrifices. They were still married and had families and all that sort of thing. They were still putting money into the Temple offering. But if you got a bit closer you’d have noticed there were some serious problems. They were making sacrifices all right but the animals they were using were damaged, or blind, or had three legs! And they were married all right but just to women who weren’t Jewish, they were from foreign countries so they worshipped foreign gods who were not gods at all which means their kids were growing up confused and with divided allegiances. They were still putting some money into the Temple offering boxes all right but they weren’t putting in what they owed to God they were just putting in some loose change. And once you figured all that out you’d have realised that there was a serious problem on the inside, their hearts were far from God. They were sick, and like me, if Malachi would have left it any longer it would have been fatal.
We’re in the back end of Malachi 3 today and this is the turning point of the book. Up to now we’ve heard 5 conversations between God and His corrupt people, individually, those conversations are pretty bad but when you put them together you realise man, their hearts are about as far from God as they can possibly be.
So, when we get to verse 13 of Chapter 3 we hear God’s verdict on His wayward people.
“You have spoken arrogantly against me,” says the Lord. “Yet you ask, ‘What have we said against you?’ “You have said, ‘It is futile to serve God. What do we gain by carrying out his requirements and going about like mourners before the Lord Almighty? But now we call the arrogant blessed. Certainly, evildoers prosper, and even when they put God to the test, they get away with it.’” (NIV)
Now, it’s important we understand this, there’s nothing wrong with asking God questions. When things are hard in your life, for any reason be it illness, grief, betrayal, trauma, relationship breakdown, mental illness, whatever, there’s no problem crying out to God and telling Him your problems and asking Him to do something about it. The Psalms are full of God’s people doing exactly that over and over again. So, what’s the problem here? Well, it’s the heart, isn’t it? It’s always the heart!
See, in the Psalms, the people who are crying out to God are doing so because they trust God, they love God and they know God is good, they know God is on their side and that God is for them, because all of that is true, they just don’t understand why things have gone so bad so they’re asking God to intervene and help them. My guess is that nearly all of us have done exactly that at some point and that’s ok. God doesn’t mind our honest questions and blunt conversations with Him. He’s a big God!
But here in Malachi that isn’t what’s happening. Here are people speaking totally arrogantly to God, they’re accusing Him of wrongdoing and they’re criticising Him. They aren’t driven by a heart that’s devoted to God, they’re driven by their own pride and self-importance!
See what they say in verse 14
‘It’s futile to serve God! What do we gain by carrying out His requirements and going about like mourners before the LORD Almighty?’ (NIV)
Their hearts are in the wrong place. Listen to what they’re really saying: “It’s all about me!”
They’ve forgotten God’s character! They think God is the fun police! That He wants them to walk around looking depressed like they’re walking home from a funeral. These are the sort of people who think, ‘If it’s fun it must be wrong because God doesn’t want me to have fun!’ But knowing God is meant to give us joy! When Paul talks about the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians the second one he mentions is ‘joy’ the Christian life is meant to be something that puts a smile on our face.
Now, two things. Firstly, life isn’t always joyful of course. All of us have experienced really hard times, some of us are in the middle of them right now, there are times when joy isn’t really high on the agenda. Secondly, it must also be said that there is a time and a place for mourning. When we’ve fallen into some dreadful sin it’s appropriate to quieten ourselves and reflect on what we’ve done, or failed to do, as the case may be. But, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 7:
Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. (NIV)
So Malachi isn’t telling us that God expects us to walk about grinning like lunatics all the time, but he is telling us that faking repentance and pretending you’re sorry for something isn’t going to fool God, that’s what Paul calls ‘worldly sorrow’ and it brings death. Real repentance that’s driven by the Holy Spirit takes us back to Jesus, who forgives our sin and restores our joy in the Christian life and that same Holy Spirit can and does give us joy, sometimes, miraculously, even in the middle of our suffering but He most certainly turns our sorrow back to joy when the hard part is over.
Come back to Malachi, because he isn’t finished with the hearts of the people. It gets a step worse again before it gets better. Verse 15
‘…they call the arrogant blessed; evildoers prosper – and even when they put God to the test, they get away with it.’ (NIV)
They’re looking at their society, with all the problems Malachi has raised over the past 3 chapters, and it would seem that deep down, they know a heap of people are doing the wrong thing. But they think God isn’t doing anything about it so their diagnosis is that God is blessing the arrogant and when people do really evil things, their diagnosis is that God must be powerless to do anything about it. That’s about the worst diagnosis of a serious problem you’ll ever hear and it’s as dumb as me sitting in my room getting sicker and sicker and not going to the doctor!
I tell you the one thing that’s worse than God’s swift judgement on sin, both personal sin and national sin, the one thing worse than God’s swift judgement on sin is God’s silence. Think about this personally and nationally. Personally, if we did the wrong thing and God immediately judged us for it in some way and we knew that for certain, we’d be a lot slower to do the wrong thing again.
Nationally, imagine a nation that sinks into deep moral sin, pick any nation. Declining morality, sexualisation of females of any age, greed, social injustice, racism, whatever, all the stuff we know is just plain wrong with our culture. Imagine if God saw it and then sent His judgement on us straight away and we were totally certain of it, we’d change what we were doing on a national scale pretty quickly. But what happens when God doesn’t seem to notice or doesn’t seem to do anything about it. Personally, we do the wrong thing and nothing happens, so we do it again and nothing happens, so we do it again and again and again. God’s silence means that our hearts get harder and harder and we are less and less likely to recognise that we’re even sinning at all. That’s far more terrifying than God’s swift judgement.
On a national level it’s the same thing. We live in a fairly morally bankrupt society and yet we’re one of the richest countries on earth with one of the highest standards of living, one of the best health care and hospital systems in history and free public education, we’re livin’ the dream, baby! God’s poured out His blessings on us and yet as a culture, we’re doing our best to remove any thought or talk of God from the public square. And God seems silent on our moral decay and our multitude of sins of every imaginable description, but you mention the idea that maybe our country has gone off the rails and you get hammered.
Nonie found this through the week, listen to this:
First we overlook sin.
Then we permit sin.
Then we legalise sin.
Then we promote sin.
Then we celebrate sin.
Then we persecute those who still call it sin.
And that happens when God is silent about sin and doesn’t bring His swift judgement. I tell you the truth, God’s silence is far, far worse than His clear judgement because without quick judgement from God sin continues, hearts get harder, people get further away from God. That’s what’s happened to Israel in Malachi’s day. And, if I might, it’s also what’s happened to us as well, and yes, OK, to every other country on the planet as well! We desperately need God to intervene and soften our hearts! Because, it’s always about the heart.
All the issues Malachi raises with God’s people through his book are symptoms of the real problem: the state of their hearts. See, all the way through the Old Testament, God tells His people how they should live, what sort of sacrifices they should offer when they sin, what yearly festivals they need to keep, how they’re meant to live with each other, what they’re meant to do as His people, but He constantly warns them of the danger of doing all those things on the outside but having hearts that are a million miles from honouring Him. Isaiah says it best: Isaiah 29:13
“These people come near to me with their mouth and honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” (NIV)
The heart of the human problem, is the human heart. Up to this point in Malachi there’s been almost no good news at all. But then you get to Malachi 3:16 and the picture changes. It’s amazing how many times this happens in the Bible, but sometime have a look at all the cool verses that turn up in Chapter 3 and verse 16 of so many books of the Bible. Max Lucado wrote a beautiful book on this a few years back and it’ll send shivers up your spine. Anyway look at Malachi 3:16, this is fantastic!
Then those who feared the Lord talked with each other, and the Lord listened and heard. A scroll of remembrance was written in his presence concerning those who feared the Lord and honoured his name. (NIV)
After all the doom and gloom of the people saying God doesn’t love them, offering dodgy sacrifices, robbing God, marrying people who worship other gods and all the rest, suddenly you realise that not everyone in Jerusalem had lost the plot. There were still a bunch of people who feared the Lord, that means they treated God with the respect and honour that is rightly His. They knew God loved them, they stayed faithful to the Jewish people they’d married, they were giving generously to God’s work, they were sacrificing their best animals to God when they’d sinned…and God noticed. They’d been talking together about the state of their nation, their hearts were broken because of the sin of their neighbours. They weren’t self-righteous about it, they weren’t judging other people, they were just so distressed at the widespread corruption, they couldn’t believe what was happening at the Temple. Israel was a mess.
Now, notice they aren’t isolated, they’re not trying to live as people who trust God on their own. They talked together, they met together, they encouraged each other to persevere in their devotion to God and living His way. Folks, it’s impossible to do the Christian life on your own, we need church. We need to be in a growth group. We need to meet together and talk together and encourage each other to persevere. The Bible knows nothing of solitary Christianity.
These Old Testament believers had been praying about what was going on and asking God to hear them and act. And, like He always does, God heard the cries of His people, He wrote their names in this Scroll of Remembrance, which is probably the same thing John refers to as ‘The Lamb’s Book of Life’ in Revelation, this is the list of people who have turned to God in repentance and faith and have trusted in Him for their salvation. If you’re a Christian here today, your name is in this scroll of Remembrance as well, your name is in the Lamb’s Book of Life.
And it gets better. Verse 17
“On the day when I act,” says the Lord Almighty, “they will be my treasured possession. I will spare them, just as a father has compassion and spares his son who serves him. And you will again see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between those who serve God and those who do not. (NIV)
There are two things here we need to see and we’ll look at them in reverse order, so we’ll start with verse 18.
On the Day when God acts, when He intervenes and rights all the wrongs, all the ambiguities and blurry lines of this life will be brought into sharp focus. The people in Malachi’s day couldn’t tell the difference between the righteous and the wicked, between those who trusted God and those who didn’t, we have the same problem most of the time, don’t we? It’s often so hard to see the difference between Christians and people who don’t yet know Jesus. Sometimes it’s easy, of course, but often it’s not. On the Day God acts and brings history to an end all that ambiguity vanishes.
In Matthew 25 Jesus phrased it as separating the Sheep from the Goats, the sheep being the people are saved by faith in Jesus and the goats being people who end their lives not trusting in Jesus. It’s the same idea as here in Malachi, there will be a clear distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between those who serve God and those who do not. The message for us is to make sure we are included in the first group who have been made righteous by God and who serve Him.
But let’s finish with what Malachi says in verse 17, this idea of being God’s treasured possession.
I’m not sure if you’ve ever thought of yourself as someone’s treasured possession, so let’s just pause a moment and let it sink in. Treasured possession.
You might be married or in a relationship and you would hope that you are the treasured possession of your wife, or husband, your boyfriend or girlfriend. Not in a forceful, stalker kind of way that means you need an AVO, but in a loving way where you feel cherished by your partner. All of us long for that feeling whether we are in a relationship or we’re single. It’s a fundamental human need. Sometimes we have it and it feels fantastic, doesn’t it? But sometimes, things go wrong, we hurt the ones we love or we are hurt by them and that feeling of being someone’s treasured possession disappears. Not every Christian marriage is a bed of roses, my Christian parents divorced when I was 26, so I know what that mess does to you. On a human level, being someone’s treasured possession can fade away to nothing.
But Malachi is telling us something vastly different. He’s telling us that those who fear God, those who trust Him, those who love Him, those who give Him the honour that rightfully His, this God calls those people His ‘Treasured Possession’. This is a declaration of God’s unending, unconditional, never-failing love for His people and you and I need to hear this, often. If you’re a Christian, you are God’s Treasured possession.
We’d all love to be more consistent as Christians, we’d love to be less hypocritical, we’d love to be more obedient and less prone to giving in to temptation and sinning but until we get to Heaven, you and I are going to be fighting a battle with our old sinful nature, some days we’ll win that fight but some days we’ll lose it.
Sometimes, life is just really hard. We all suffer, we’re all betrayed at some point, many of us have had traumatic experiences and we feel distant from God, as if He’s stopped caring for us.
The overwhelming tendency for all of us is to think that our circumstances or our sin means that God withdraws His love from us for a time. It’s a natural human thing because so many of us are so used to love being conditional. This is what’s so different about God, His love for us isn’t based on our performance or our obedience or our anything, it’s based on His character which never, ever, changes.
You don’t need to answer out loud, but, are you a Christian? Do you know that you’re a sinner who needs a Saviour? do you know that Saviour is Jesus? Have you trusted in His death and resurrection for the complete forgiveness of your sin? If you can say yes to those questions, even if that ‘yes’ is a bit hesitant at times, you need to hear that the God of Heaven and Earth, the Almighty God who formed you in your mother’s womb, that God, the only God says: “On the day when I act, they will be my treasured possession.”
Life throws all sorts of horrible stuff at us from time to time, sometimes it can feel more like a continuous barrage and that stuff can really undo our faith and unsettle our trust in Jesus and leave us feeling like God has turned away from us, it happens to all of us at some point and it’s one of the loneliest places on earth when it does.
If that’s you right now or if it is you at some point in the future you need Malachi 3:17, where the God who will one day gently and lovingly wipe every tear from our eyes, looks at us with all our brokenness, all our despair, that longing ache all of us have to find our true home, that God says, “Christian, you are my Treasured Possession.”
I am a car guy. I always have been. Some of my earliest memories are of steering our family car while sitting on my dad’s lap—which today would get you in trouble, but back in the seventies in the Blue Mountains, it was pretty normal! I often tell Nonie about different cars and point them out on the road. I tell her all sorts of things about cars: how much power and torque they have, or what they drive like. You’d think I’d know after 23 years of marriage, but she’s totally uninterested in cars. She goes to sleep.
I know it’s a bit embarrassing, but I memorised power outputs of V8 Falcons and Commodores when I was younger. Then I got interested in fast European cars. I’m obsessed with Porsche 911s. Normal people think I’m quite mad, and they’re probably right. But I can’t help it. I love cars.
I have two cars, which I know sounds a bit much, but they’re both old, so don’t get too excited! I have a little Golf that’s about ten years old and falling apart. The headlining is all saggy, and when I’m driving, it rests on my head, which is incredibly annoying! And I have a 27 year old Land Cruiser that I use for camping and 4WDing. I use the Golf nearly every day, but only use the truck when I get away for a camping trip or something like that.
When I’m driving the Golf, I’m like everyone else in Sydney traffic. It’s a small car, so no one lets me in. I have to wait at intersections like everyone else. I have to dodge other cars driven by people who are texting or looking out the window or whatever else they’re doing apart from concentrating on driving. Like everyone else, I get to where I’m going, and I’m stressed and giving thanks to God that I made it through another slog to work or wherever through Sydney’s chaotic traffic.
But then the Golf goes in for a service and I use my truck for a day or two. All of a sudden, driving in Sydney traffic is different. The Golf is small and no one cares about it. No one lets me in. No one’s terrified of a Golf. But the ‘Cruiser is a massive thing. It weighs nearly 3 tonnes and is pretty imposing. It’s got a big steel bull bar. I’ve lifted the suspension and put huge tyres on it. Small children point at it and go, “Oooohhh! Look at that big truck, mum!” That makes me feel good! Parking is a nightmare, of course, and it has the turning circle of an oil tanker. But it’s heaps of fun in traffic, because everyone gets out of my way. Merging is easy. I just indicate and move over, and the rest of the traffic stops! People see me coming and they think, “I’m not pulling out in front of that thing! I’ll get squashed!” So they let me through. It’s awesome!
When I’m driving it, I feel like Psalm 2 is about my ‘Cruiser.
‘Why do the Camrys merge and the Corollas indicate in vain? The Daihatsus of the earth rise up and the Astras band together against the Land Cruiser and against its driver, saying, “Let us break their bull bar and throw off their lifted suspension!” The One enthroned behind the wheel laughs, the driver scoffs at them. He rebukes them in his merriment and terrifies them in his joy, saying, “I have installed 35” tyres on my ‘Cruiser, my politically incorrect Land Cruiser!”
OK, so I’m hamming it up a fair bit, but you get the point, hopefully.
Psalm 2 isn’t about a lifted Land Cruiser. It’s about something, or rather someone, much more impressive. On first reading, it’s about what God has done for Israel’s greatest king, David, but as you read it a bit closer, you realise that what it’s saying has to be about someone much more powerful than just a normal human King, however great David may have been. Psalm 2 is ultimately about what God has done for and through the Lord Jesus.
I’ve split this Psalm up into 3 sections: First, verses 1-6 are about the challenge to God’s king. Second, verses 7-9 are about the coronation of God’s king. Third, verses 10-12 are about the celebration of God’s king. We’ll see what this psalm is saying about David in its immediate context. But as we go through it we’ll also see how the New Testament writers use it as they apply it to the Lord Jesus. So let’s get into it the first section.
1 Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain?
2 The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together
against the Lord and against his anointed, saying,
3 “Let us break their chains and throw off their shackles.”
4 The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them.
5 He rebukes them in his anger and terrifies them in his wrath, saying,
6 “I have installed my king on Zion, my holy mountain.” (NIV)
The immediate context is that David has been crowned king of Israel. It would be around 960 BC. Saul was the first king of Israel, but he was unfaithful to God, so God took him out and replaced him with David, a man after God’s own heart most of the time. David’s journey to the throne was pretty rough. Saul tried to kill him a few times, the Philistines had a crack at him, and a bunch of other people tried to make another bloke king, but ultimately, God’s will prevailed like it always does, and David was anointed by the High Priest of Israel as God’s king.
That word ‘anointed’ is key to this psalm. You know the word, ‘Messiah’? Well, it’s the same as the word, ‘Christ’. Messiah is Hebrew, Christ is Greek, and they both mean the same thing, ‘the anointed one’, literally, ‘the one smeared with oil’.
In the Old Testament, three types of people were anointed with oil: prophets, priests, and kings. They all had oil poured on their heads. This symbolised God’s ‘seal of approval’, if you like. The prophets spoke God’s word to God’s people. The priests mediated between God and his people at the temple. And the king led God’s people. So here Psalm 2 is telling us that David has been anointed as God’s messiah, the man responsible to lead God’s people as their king.
That helps us realise that the question in verse 1, “Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain?” isn’t a request for information. It’s really an exclamation of astonishment! If David is God’s anointed king and God has installed David on his holy mountain, then why on earth would anyone challenge this king? It’s crazy! It’s like a little Honda Jazz thinking it’s going to pull out of an intersection in front of my ‘Cruiser. What are you doing, you maniac?? You’re going to get destroyed. You’ll be like a little speed hump!
God has put David on the throne of Israel. The nations around Israel are mad if they think they have any chance of defeating David in battle. They challenge God’s king, and God laughs at them first, so verse 4, “the One enthroned in heaven laughs, the LORD scoffs at them”. But then it gets serious in verse 5: “He rebukes them in his anger and terrifies them in his wrath. I have installed my king on Zion, my holy mountain!” The challenge to God’s king is serious, but in the end, it is sheer lunacy and it amounts to nothing.
Now, look at how Jesus’ disciples use these verses in Acts 4. The context is that Peter and John were going to the temple to pray. They met a bloke out the front of the temple who was paralysed and so was begging people for food or money. The risen and glorified Jesus enabled Peter to speak words of healing to this man and up he gets! He runs through the temple jumping and dancing and leaping about like I did when Tottenham scored the winning goal in the last second of the game against Ajax to get into the Champion’s League Final last Thursday morning. I was going completely berserk, but you guys just know I had to get it this sermon somehow!
Anyway, in Acts 4, Peter and John get dragged in front of the Jewish religious leaders to explain themselves, which they do. Then they’re threatened by those same religious leaders that they are not to speak ever again about the Lord Jesus. Then you get to Acts 4 verse 23-30, and notice how Jesus’ followers use Psalm 2:
23 On their release, Peter and John went back to their own people and reported all that the chief priests and the elders had said to them. 24 When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God. “Sovereign Lord,” they said, “you made the heavens and the earth and the sea, and everything in them. 25 You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David:
“‘Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain?
26 The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together
against the Lord and against his anointed one.'
27 Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. 28 They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen. 29 Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. 30 Stretch out your hand to heal and perform signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” (NIV)
Jesus’ followers know this psalm is originally about king David and that David wrote it, but they also know that it points forward in history to the Lord Jesus himself, God’s ultimate great king and messiah. They know Herod and Pilate and most of Israel conspired and plotted against Jesus, but they also know Jesus’ death wasn’t a shock to God. The cross was always God’s plan, and so was the resurrection!
So the nations around Israel were a challenge to king David when he wrote Psalm 2, but ultimately that challenge amounted to nothing. In the same way, Herod and Pilate and most of Israel were a challenge to Jesus, but ultimately, that challenge also amounted to nothing! God scoffs at his enemies. He laughs at them. Then he rebukes them and terrifies them in his wrath. And Jesus walks out of the tomb!
We see the same thing happening all around us today. In the 1960s in the Cultural Revolution in China, Chairman Mao tried to wipe Christianity out of China altogether.
“Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain? The Kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the LORD and against His Anointed One, saying, ‘Let us break their chains and throw off their fetters.’ The One enthroned in Heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them.
God says, “There are now more than 130 million Chinese Christians, Chairman Mao. Your challenge to me is arrogant lunacy and you will spend eternity in hell understanding the consequences of it.”
Today, you and I see immense injustice in our world. We see governments opposed to God oppressing and persecuting God’s people. Closer to home, each of us experience similar things, even if not on that sort of scale. Psalm 2 reminds us that opposition to God is lunacy and that ultimately, God and therefore God’s people will have the last laugh. God’s justice will prevail.
7 I will proclaim the Lord’s decree: He said to me, “You are my son; today I have become your father.8 Ask me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession. 9 You will break them with a rod of iron; you will dash them to pieces like pottery.” (NIV)
So in the first section, it’s David speaking. Now here in the second section, it’s God speaking, and it’s God speaking to David, but only in a limited way. There’s a sense in which at David’s coronation, God becomes his father. The king of Israel was often referred to as ‘God’s son’. But the nations aren’t David’s inheritance. The ends of the earth aren’t David’s possession. He’s the king of Israel, not the king of the world. That’s why this can only be about David in a limited way. So we have to go to the New Testament to figure out what this is really talking about.
So here’s a few parts of the New Testament, and listen to the echo of Psalm 2 in these verses. The first is Matthew 3 when Jesus is baptised:
As soon as Jesus was baptised, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; I am well pleased with Him.” (NIV)
We hear that, and we’re reminded of Psalm 2:7: “You are my Son, today I have become your Father.”
Then you’ve got Matthew 17, when Jesus goes up this mountain with Peter, James, and John, and is transfigured. That’s not a word we normally use or are familiar with, but it means that for a moment, Jesus peeled back his human body, as it were, and allowed his disciples to catch a glimpse of what he really looks like. Have a go at this:
After six days, Jesus took with Him Peter, James and John, the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There He was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light.
While he (Peter) was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased. Listen to Him!” (Matt 17:1-2, 5 NIV)
Again, we’re back in Psalm 2:7, “You are my Son.”
Then you’ve got Acts 13. This time it’s Paul preaching in a synagogue in Antioch. Here’s verses 32-33:
“We tell you the good news: What God promised our ancestors, He has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus. As it is written in the second Psalm: ‘You are my Son; today I have become your Father.’” (NIV)
So, yes, Psalm 2 is about David’s coronation but only partly. These words of Psalm 2 are totally fulfilled in the Lord Jesus, God’s true Son.
OK, so we’ve got a challenge to God’s anointed king that’s ultimately completely pointless. We’ve got the coronation of God’s king, and God calls the king his Son. Then lastly, we’ve got the celebration of the king.
The last few verses of Psalm 2 are where we are invited to take refuge in God’s great king.
10 Therefore, you kings, be wise; be warned, you rulers of the earth.
11 Serve the Lord with fear and celebrate his rule with trembling.
12 Kiss his son, or he will be angry and your way will lead to your destruction,
for his wrath can flare up in a moment. Blessed are all who take refuge in him. (NIV)
This really is an Old Testament version of Phillip Jensen’s ‘Two Ways to Live’. At first this sounds like a warning and sure, there’s a fairly blunt warning here, but I think that the overall tone of these last few verses is a gracious offer of mercy. The whole earth is invited to seek refuge in God’s king.
In king David’s time, God had made a covenant with his people. A covenant is like an agreement. He rescued his people, adopted them as his children, he promised them that as long as they kept their side of the agreement they made with him, he would protect them from their enemies and bless everything they put their hands to.
Unfortunately, as you read through the Old Testament, it quickly becomes clear that Israel didn’t often keep their side of the covenant they made with God. They kept doing the wrong thing. They worshipped false gods. They treated the poor and vulnerable in their society miserably instead of looking after them as they were meant to. They ignored all the people God sent their way to call them back to being faithful to him. And after a few hundred years of God being patient, his patience ran out and he punished them for their rejection of him.
We need to look at the end of Psalm 2 through everything God did through the Lord Jesus. See, we’re not living in Jerusalem under the Old Agreement God made with his people. We’re not Old Testament Jews who go to the temple to make sacrifices to God when we sin.
No, it’s different for us. It’s different for everyone now. “God shows His love for us in this: it was while we were still sinners that Christ died for us.” Jesus said, “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Jesus is God’s ultimate great king and messiah. He lived the life we haven’t lived, and died the death we deserved to die. Then God raised Jesus from death to prove that everything he did and said was true.
Therefore, let us be wise, let us be warned. We can choose to joyfully serve the Lord Jesus with reverent fear. We can choose to kiss him. That means we can choose to honour and worship Jesus as he deserves. Or, we can choose to continue in our own way. But we need to know that in the end that way leads to destruction, because at some point, his wrath will flare up in an instant against all those who reject him. The wise choice is to take refuge in Jesus as the only safe place available to us.
In the late 1700s and early 1800s as people moved to the West away from the East Coast cities in the United States, they got to the vast flat prairies in the middle of the USA. There were many dangers facing these people, one of which was that the flat ground was covered in long grass. When lightening hit the ground, the grass would burn up and be pushed along by strong winds. Their covered wagons were often just burned up and lots of people died.
After a while they figured out the only way they could be safe as they travelled west. They’d see and smell smoke coming their way and they knew they had to act fast. They’d crouch down in the grass with their backs to the wind, and light the grass in front of them. The wind would push the fire away from them and burn up all the grass. Then they’d move their wagons onto the burnt grass and wait. Soon enough the fire approaching them would hit the already burnt grass and the fire went out because there was nothing left to burn. The only safe place to stand was somewhere the fire had already been.
It’s the same with us. Psalm 2 tells us that God’s wrath can flare up in an instant and I promise you it will burn up anything in its path. The only safe place to stand is somewhere God’s anger has already been. That safe place is the Lord Jesus. He took God’s anger on himself when he was crucified, and only in him are we safe, because God’s anger isn’t going to burn the same place twice.
Blessed are all who take refuge in Jesus, the only one who God has anointed and installed as his ultimate king.
Sport is a huge thing in Aussie culture. Not everyone is a sports fan, though. I’m married to Nonie, and she’s about as interested in sport as I am in making macramé wall hangings. I was still playing soccer every weekend when we got married, and I just couldn’t get her to come along to games. But then we had three sons who all played soccer when they were younger, and she didn’t miss a game! Standing on the sidelines, cheering away, she even put her hand up to manage their teams for a couple of seasons: unbelievable! So it turns out that anyone can be a sports fan!
In the NRL, I’m a Bulldogs fan. I sense we are going to have a pretty poor year. We could be in a battle to avoid the wooden spoon, if I’m honest. But most years, it’s good to be a Bulldogs fan. We usually make the finals, and we win a premiership every now and then. There’s lots of banter here between fans of different teams, and that’s a good thing. When the Dogs get up I feel vindicated and I let everyone know about it! But when the Dragons win, for example, it’s painful. No sense of vindication, just misery and a very happy Ray Galea.
In the English Premier League, I’m a Spurs fan. I’m a mad Spurs fan actually! We’ve been pretty average for about 40 years if I’m honest, but the past few years have been fantastic: brand new stadium, one of the best in the world, high quality team, one of the best coaches in world football, nowhere near as much money as Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea, or Arsenal, but more heart than all of them! Glorious! When we win games, the sense of vindication is immense. It is such a euphoric feeling. I feel fantastic for days!
The problem is that I have good mates here and elsewhere who love those other teams, and when they beat Spurs, I never hear the end of it, because they are vindicated not me. Scott Lavender is a mad Liverpool fan. We share an office here at church, so I’m quite glad he’s moving to Castle Hill, and I don’t have to hear about how great Liverpool are anymore every day at work. Still, perhaps Arsenal won’t make the top four this season, and that my friends, is glorious vindication!
For most of the past 20 years, the Aussie men’s cricket team have been almost unbeatable. We won just about everything there is to win and all Aussie cricket fans felt vindicated. But now pretty much everyone beats us. So if you’re South African, Indian, English, and possibly even Canadian or Bangladeshi, you feel vindicated, because you can beat us without tampering with the ball. So perhaps we should all be fans of the Australian Women’s Cricket Team, because they almost never lose a game, and have never had any major scandals like ball tampering, and they are the most successful women’s cricket team in history! We’d all feel vindicated all the time if we followed them!
Sport is like that, isn’t it? If your team wins, you feel vindicated. If your team loses, someone else feels vindicated. But there’s always next week, or next season, or the next series. There’s always another chance for vindication. I reckon one of the great things about sport is the emotional roller coaster of glorious highs and heart-breaking lows. Most days it’s good to be a Spurs fan. Most days it’s good to be a Bulldogs fan. But when they lose that glorious vindication is gone.
Being a Christian is quite different, because every day is a good day to be a Christian. But it is especially good today, Easter Sunday. That’s the best day to be a Christian! Why? Vindication. Jesus won. Our sporting teams win some and lose some. Jesus is different. He won the most decisive victory of all time almost 2,000 years ago, and he remains undefeated!
The Jewish religious leaders wanted Jesus dead because he kept claiming to be God in the flesh. The Romans obliged by nailing Jesus to a cross, and he died. He was put in a tomb. A huge stone was rolled across the entrance of the tomb. All seemed lost.
But that was Friday. Sunday’s coming, and what a comeback! On that first Easter Sunday morning, when some of Jesus’ friends went to the tomb to prepare his body for a more decent burial, he just wasn’t there! Gone. Disappeared. An angel was sitting on the stone that had been over the entrance to the tomb, and he gets to say one of the best lines in the whole Bible. He asks Jesus’ friends: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” That is what vindication sounds like!
Pretty much every book in the New Testament talks about Jesus’ resurrection, but 1 Corinthians 15 is the most comprehensive. It’s Paul’s response to a group of people in a church in Corinth who had been saying that there’s no such thing as someone rising from the dead. Have a look at verses 1-8:
Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas [that’s Peter], and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. (NIV)
The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is one of ancient history’s most comprehensively documented and independently corroborated events. So many people saw Jesus after he rose again individuals: small groups of people, and on one occasion, Jesus was seen by a crowd of five hundred people. It’s impossible to fake that sort of thing. When Paul wrote this, most of that crowd of five hundred people were still alive, which means that his readers could have gone and asked the eyewitnesses themselves to check the story out. The resurrection isn’t just a matter of faith, it’s a matter of evidence.
And yet there have always been people who didn’t believe. They know the evidence is there, but they just reject it.
Go back to the day it happened. The Jews had asked the Romans to put a guard in front of Jesus’ tomb, because they thought Jesus’ disciples would come and steal his body, and then claim Jesus was alive again like He said He would be.
The Romans weren’t taking any chances. Jerusalem had a long history of rebellious attitudes toward Rome, plus it was the Passover festival. So Jerusalem was full of people from all over the place. It was pretty tense. So they weren’t about to send only a few soldiers to guard the tomb. A regular number for this sort of thing was four soldiers, but with all that was going on, they’d have sent heaps more. Most historians reckon about forty. Fair enough. The problem was that on that first Easter Sunday morning, the guards were all still there, but Jesus wasn’t.
So they came up with a plan. Near the end of Matthew 28, we read that the Jewish religious leaders gave the Roman soldiers a heap of money and told them to tell Pilate that the disciples had snuck in during the night, while all forty or so guards were asleep all at the same time mind you, crept through the sleeping soldiers without waking any of them up, silently rolled the huge stone away from the tomb, stole Jesus’ body, and silently carried him back through the sleeping soldiers. So these would be the same disciples who fled in fear when Jesus was arrested, and the same disciples who hid in an upper room and locked the doors on Easter Sunday for fear of the Jews. We’re meant to believe this fearful bunch of sissies suddenly had the courage of an SAS commando unit and took on forty armed guards and stole the most heavily guarded body of the most famous person to have ever been executed in Jerusalem. I don’t think so. It’s rubbish that takes more faith to believe than to believe Jesus rose from the dead! And yet some people still believe it today!
That isn’t what happened, of course. Jesus really did walk out of that tomb a couple of thousand years ago and is still very much alive today.
But you have to ask the question, “What if he didn’t? What if the resurrection never happened? Have a look at verses 12-18:
But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. (NIV)
If there’s no resurrection, preaching is useless, Christian faith is useless, we tell lies about God, Christians are stuck with their sins, there’s no forgiveness, and the Christians who have died aren’t in heaven but they’re lost forever. The bottom line is in verse 19, “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than anyone” (NIV).
That’s pretty bleak, isn’t it? Hypothetically, if there’s no resurrection, if Jesus is still dead, then Christians are deluded nutters.
The resurrection is the one event on which Christianity stands and falls. If there’s no resurrection there’s no Christianity. Paul knows it, so from here to the end of the chapter he cracks into the reality of the resurrection and what it means for all of us. You could spend weeks preaching through it, but we’re going to take ten minutes! Have a look at verses 20-22:
But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. (NIV)
Let’s pick up just two things out of that. First, Jesus’ resurrection is different to others who were raised in the New Testament. His resurrection body changes everything. Second, there are only two options for us: we are either dead in Adam, or alive in Christ.
About our first point—that Jesus’ resurrection body changes everything—in the New Testament, we read about four people who were raised from the dead. Three were raised by Jesus: Lazarus in John 11; the widow’s son in Luke 7; and a young girl in Mark 5. Then in Acts 20, a young man named Eutychus was raised by God, through Paul after he fell out of a window while Paul preached for about five hours—which is reasonable. We’d probably all fall out the window as well! Each of these people were most certainly dead: Lazarus, for example had been in a tomb for four days! But here’s the thing: they were raised in the same earthly body they died in, which means that they all had to go through death again later. Just imagine how disappointing that would have been for each of them.
So how is Jesus’ resurrection body different? Well, while those four people still had the same physical limitations after they were raised, Jesus did not. When Neo got shot and killed in ‘The Matrix’, then came back to life and could stop bullets just by raising his hand and could walk through walls and all that, the Cohen brothers weren’t working with an original thought. They just nicked it straight out of the Bible actually. They nicked most of ‘the Matrix’ out of the Bible!
After Jesus was raised everything was different! Locked doors were no obstacle for the risen Lord Jesus. He appeared in one place, disappeared then turned up somewhere else. Jesus was raised with a resurrection body and that changes everything. That is what Paul is talking about when he says “first fruits”. Jesus was the first one to be raised with a new resurrection body. It was still recognizably him, but he was different. He explains this a bit more down in verses 42-44:
So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. (NIV)
When we are raised from the dead, we will still have our own body, we will all recognize and know each other in heaven, but we won’t have the same limitations as we do now. It will be a resurrection body. This body that is getting weaker with age will be changed, from perishable to imperishable, from dishonourable to glorious, from weak to powerful, from natural to spiritual, just like Jesus’ body was changed. He is the “first fruits”, the prototype, if you like, and we will be like him after this body dies. I will be raised with a resurrection body, a body that’s fit for heaven. But in the meantime, I’m stuck with this.
You know, nothing in this world works the way it was meant to in the beginning. After sin came into God’s good creation, everything went downhill. That means that in this life, some of us are going to suffer physically pretty badly. It might come early in life, or it might come later in life, but plenty of us are going to go through some pretty terrible physical suffering. If we live long enough, this body we have, even if it’s young and strong now, will deteriorate at some point. We’ll get old. Things will stop working the way they’re meant to. This body will let us down. And all of us will one day be at our own funeral.
But the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead on that first Easter Sunday tells us that our suffering and on our last day, our own death will not be the end of our story. For those of us who have faith in Jesus, this body will be raised and all the imperfections. All the things that went wrong, all the pain, the cancer, the dementia, the heart disease, the tumours, all the suffering, all of that will be long-forgotten and not even a distant memory, just dismissed and replaced with a glorious, vindicated, resurrection body, one that cannot get sick, cannot suffer, cannot deteriorate, and cannot die. That’s the first thing we learn from the resurrection.
The second point is that Paul says there are two options for us, in verse 22, that we are either in Adam or in Christ. So what does he mean by that?
Well, he says in verse 21 that since death entered the world through one man, Adam, so also resurrection from the dead enters the world through another man, Jesus. What he means is that when Adam sinned right back near the start, one of the consequences of his sin was that death entered God’s good creation. Now, it is vital that we understand that we were not created to die. God made us to live with him forever. Sin brought death, and death is an unwelcome guest. Think of any funeral you have been to, even a funeral where death seemed a relief, because the person had been in immense pain, or even a funeral for a solid Christian you knew was now home with the Lord. Do you think for even a second, that the people gathered are happy that death has come knocking on the door of someone they loved? Emphatically, no way! As much as we all know we will die, we grieve and mourn, because deep down we know that death is not natural. It is not what God intended.
But see, the resurrection of Jesus tells us that God has intervened and destroyed the power of death. Certainly, these physical bodies will die, but the resurrection says, “That is not the end!” This body is sown perishable. That means it’s put in the ground, like a seed dies in the ground, so that new life can come. That’s what will happen to every single one of us unless Jesus returns within the next hundred years. We will be put in the ground dead, but will rise again totally imperishable, and more alive than we have ever been!
And here’s where we have a choice. Paul says in verse 22, “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive” (NIV). This might sound confusing, but it’s really quite simple: everyone who has ever been born is a descendant of Adam. If you trace anyone’s family tree back far enough, you will get to one man: Adam. A Christian is someone who has been born once in the normal way, but then at some point later down the track has been “born again”, not in some weird hippie re-birthing ceremony at Stone Henge, but a spiritual birth. Jesus talks about it in John 3. He says that no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again. It just means beginning again, starting over, pressing the re-set button, a fresh start at life with Jesus at the centre. The thing is, we can’t do this by ourselves.
We’re like those kids in that cave in Thailand a year or so ago. They absolutely could not save themselves. A team of people from outside the cave had to figure out a way to get in there and rescue those boys, and they had to go to extraordinary lengths to do it, risking their lives in the process, and tragically, one of them died, but all the boys were rescued in the end.
We can solve a lot of problems and invent all sorts of things. We can land people on the moon supposedly, we can fly from one side of the world to the other in only a few hours, I can chat to my mate in Vietnam on my mobile phone, and press a button on it and we can see each other. He can do it while he’s riding his scooter in seven lanes of crazy traffic in Saigon for goodness sake! But we can't fix the problem of sin, we can't beat death, we can’t get home to God by ourselves. We need to be rescued, and the only way we can be rescued is if we are in Christ. In Adam, all die. In Jesus all are raised again. Jesus is our only hope of rescue.
Paul says this is the choice that faces all people because of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. You can choose to remain in Adam in your natural state, separated from God, or you can press the re-set button, and start again with Jesus, and get home to God where you belong.
Jesus’ resurrection changes everything the way you live and the way you die. Someone once asked John Wesley why his church was growing so rapidly in the mid 1700s. He replied, “Look at the way our people die.” The Christians in Wesley’s church simply didn’t fear death. They knew that to live is Christ, but to die is gain. The way they faced their own death showed their friends they knew there was something indescribably wonderful waiting for them after they went through death. That made their friends look more closely at Jesus, and many thousands turned to Jesus and became Christians.
The resurrection of Jesus tells us why Christians who are persecuted for their faith steadfastly refuse to deny Christ. A few years back, twelve Christian pastors in Sudan were kidnapped by Muslim soldiers, and put in a cell. They were told that they would only be given food or water if they converted to Islam. One by one, as the days and weeks went by, they all died. Not one of them denied Christ. Why? They knew Jesus conquered death and so would they. There was something better waiting for them, so they didn’t lose hope.
This is the power of the resurrection. It changes everything. Nothing can undo the resurrection of Jesus, and that means that nothing we go through can undo our own resurrection. Just as Jesus rose, so too will we, the ultimate vindication. The choice is ours. As in Adam all die, but in Christ all will be made alive.
There aren’t many situations in life where we’re completely in the dark. Even in the middle of the night we’re not completely in the dark: there’s a street light on outside; or a bit of light pollution from the city; or maybe you leave a bathroom light on so you can see where you’re going if you get up in the night. Complete darkness is elusive. Where can you go to get away from light?
A few years back a mate and I took our kids driving through the Simpson Desert. In the middle of the night there is absolutely no man-made light. On the horizon in every direction there’s no sign of civilization. But if there’s no cloud cover, the moon and the stars are so bright it’s hard to get to sleep! So even in the middle of the desert there’s still light.
I can only think of two places I’ve been where there’s no light. Once was when I was chasing a young bloke up those big drain pipes in Lethbridge Park just off Luxford Rd. I was running flat out, bent over heaps. I wasn’t far behind him at the start, but he was doing his best impersonation of Usain Bolt, and after about 50 metres I’d lost him. Everything was completely black and I couldn’t see a thing. There’s only so far you want to run flat out in the dark. At some point you realize it’s pretty stupid, so I turned around and walked back along the pipe. It was OK though, because I knew where he lived, so I went and woke him up the next morning at 10 past 7 and arrested him!
Then there are caves. I’ve been caving a bunch of times, abseiling through a hole in the ground, and crawling along through rock squeezes, and all that sort of thing. It’s probably quite dangerous—as we saw in Thailand last year when all those kids got stuck in that cave—but it’s also really cool.
But the best thing about caving is stopping to have a rest where there’s a bit of space and everyone turning their head torches off. It’s incredible. There is absolutely no light once you get past about 10 metres into a cave. If we turn off the lights here, it would be dark, but we could still see each other a bit. When you’re in a cave 100 metres underground, you literally cannot see your hand if you hold it against your nose. It’s completely disorientating—but at the same time, it’s amazing. Then one by one, you turn your head torches back on, and little by little light creeps in, and the darkness creeps back.
If you go up to Jenolan Caves you can experience this quite safely in some of the big caves, and I reckon it’s worth doing because for nearly all of us. There’s always some light we can see by, even in the middle of the night.
All the way through his Gospel, John uses light and darkness to help us understand what Jesus is doing through his ministry. In chapter 1, John talks about Jesus as the light that came into the dark world: the light shone in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. In chapter 3, Nicodemus comes to visit Jesus at night. John’s not just telling us what time it was: he’s telling us that Nicodemus was spiritually in the dark. In chapter 9, Jesus says that he’s the light of the world, and then he gives sight to a man who was born blind, turning his darkness into light. Light and dark are big themes in John’s Gospel.
We’re in the back half of John chapter 7. I reckon a good way for us to think about this passage is to think of it as a dimmer switch that most of us have on our lights at home. You turn it one way and the light reduces, and you turn it the other way and light increases. In the back half of John 7, we meet four sets of people—the crowds, the temple guards, the religious leaders, and Nicodemus— and we see the responses they make to what Jesus says and does.
Like everything John does through his Gospel, he’s providing us with enough information to make the right response to Jesus. John wants us to look at the evidence and come to the conclusion that Jesus really is the Son of God, to believe in him, and to have life in his name. So let’s have a look at these four groups of people and the responses they make to Jesus. We’ll figure out where the dimmer switch is for them. I don’t know where all of you guys stand with Jesus, but I reckon we’ll see a reflection of ourselves here, so we’ll also see where the dimmer switch is for us.
John 7 takes place at the feast of tabernacles. This festival was about being refreshed by God, physically and spiritually. It was autumn, so there hadn’t been much rain. As the seasons changed, the land needed new rain to water the crops, plus it was a reminder to the people of Israel of their time in the desert after they escaped from slavery in Egypt. They needed God to provide water from the rock, and they needed spiritual refreshment as well. In the desert they lived in tents—another word for ‘tent’ is ‘tabernacle’—so it’s the feast of tabernacles.
The priests would lead a procession from the temple in Jerusalem to the pool of Siloam. They’d fill a big water jar and carry it back to the temple, and then pour the water over the altar. They’d do this once a day for six days, then on the last and greatest day of the festival, they’d do it seven times. All the while, the people would be singing psalms and rejoicing. Jerusalem is full of Israelites who’ve come from all over the place to worship God. And in the middle of all that’s going on, Jesus says, verses 37-38:
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. (NIV)
He’s claiming to be the one through whom God would spiritually refresh his people! John confirms this in verse 38, by telling us that Jesus was talking about the Holy Spirit. In just a couple of years, Jesus would be crucified. He’d die then three days later be raised to new life, and then and only then would he give the Holy Spirit to all who believed in him for the forgiveness of their sin. It’s a massive claim from Jesus, so let’s look at how these groups of people respond.
The crowd are first. Where’s their dimmer switch? Verse 40: "On hearing his words, some of the people said, “Surely this man is the Prophet.” Dimmer switch turned to the right just a fraction. Yes, they are right. Jesus is a prophet. But he’s much more than that. It’s a bit like saying that Tiger Woods is a golfer. It’s true, but he’s more than just a golfer. I’m a golfer, but I’m not Tiger Woods! It’s like saying that we’re mammals. That’s true as well, but it’s nowhere near the full story. So, dimmer switch is on, but there’s not much light happening.
We all know people like this. I have plenty of friends who think Jesus was a great moral teacher. I met a Seikh fella at the gym last week. We started talking and after a bit, I asked him what he thought of Jesus. He said Jesus was a great prophet, like Mohammad and the Buddha. See, Sikhs believe there’s only one God and that all religions lead us to God, that they’re all the same and they’re all valid. That’s not too different to the way some of the crowd respond to Jesus: he is a prophet but nothing more.
Others go a bit further, in verse 41: “Others said, “He is the Messiah.” The dimmer switch is turned to the right a bit more here. Jesus is the Messiah. He’s the saviour that the Old Testament had been talking about for roughly 1,500 years! Thing is that for many people in the crowd, their definition of the Messiah is different to God’s. And that’s a big problem.
We all know people who think something like this as well. There are plenty of folks in Australia who would say that Jesus was the Son of God. They’d tick the box marked ‘Christian’ in the census every five years. They’d come to church at Easter and Christmas. But their definition of ‘Messiah’ and God’s definition of ‘Messiah’ are different, and Jesus doesn’t really make much of an impact on their lives. So, yes, the dimmer switch is turned to the right a bit more, but it’s still pretty dark.
There are others in the crowd who are far from convinced, verses 41-44:
Still others asked, “How can the Messiah come from Galilee? Does not Scripture say that the Messiah will come from David’s descendants and from Bethlehem, the town where David lived?” Thus the people were divided because of Jesus. Some wanted to seize him, but no one laid a hand on him. (NIV)
Their dimmer switch is turned to the left a fair bit. You know how people say that a little bit of knowledge is dangerous? Do you remember when you started driving—and I reckon this is particularly true for the men among us—but when you get your ‘Ps’, you are convinced that you have the same ability to drive as Craig Lowndes (or for us it was Peter Brock back then, the ‘king of the mountain’). Maybe it was just the blokes I grew up with in the mountains, but when we got our licences, we all through we were completely indestructible. So we drove like lunatics. We only had a small amount of knowledge as far as car control went, but we thought we were amazing. The first day I drove by myself, I crashed into a mate’s car while I was trying to park my car! What a muppet! A small amount of knowledge tricks you into thinking you’re better than you are.
Most of the crowd is like this. They know from their Scriptures—what we call the Old Testament—that the Messiah is going to be related to king David. This is why those genealogies in Matthew and Luke are so important. At first glance they’re just a long list of unpronounceable names, but they’re vital! Jewish people have OCD when it comes to family records—they did back then and they still do now. Jesus’ family tree proves that Jesus is related to King David, but the crowd don’t know that. They just think he’s Mary’s son, his dad was Joseph, and there was something a bit dodgy about his birth.
They also know that the Messiah is going to be born in Bethlehem, but they all think Jesus is from Nazareth. That’s what he was known as, wasn’t he? He was Jesus of where? Nazareth. Only he wasn’t. He was born in some sort of stable outside a pub in Bethlehem, where the Messiah was meant to be born. Only the crowds don’t know that. Can you see how a little bit of knowledge is dangerous?
These folks are all around us today. We all know people like this. I spoke at a flash girl’s school a couple of years ago, and one of the teachers asked me to stay for a while and lead her year 10 scripture class. I love doing that sort of thing so we had heaps of fun. It was an Anglican school, and most of the girls in the class thought they were Christians. So I started talking about God’s intention for human sexuality. Game on! I could say stuff the teacher just couldn’t, and it was brilliant!
The most outspoken girl was Claire. She was really confident and articulate. So I asked her if she was a Christian. She said, ‘Yes.’ I asked her what she thought of the Bible’s take on human sexuality. She said it was rubbish, out-dated, and offensive. I said, “Cool. Now, the thing is, Claire, if you’re a Christian, at some point you need to agree with God, because although you’re obviously intelligent, neither you or I are wiser than God. So I reckon what you’ve done is this: there’s heaps of stuff about Jesus that you really love, but there are things in the Bible that you hate. So you’ve taken the stuff you love and mixed it with your own thoughts on other issues, and you’ve created a whole new religion—let’s call it ‘Clair-ianity’—and you’re the archbishop of your new religion.”
It wasn’t an offensive convo. Neither of us was angry and she started smiling. “Yeah”, she said. “That’s right. I’m the first female archbishop!” Everyone fell about laughing. It was excellent. The first step in becoming a Christian is often realizing you aren’t one. A little bit of knowledge can often be really dangerous—it was for Claire in that school a couple of years ago and it was for some of the folks in the crowd in John 7 a couple of thousand years ago.
What about the Temple Guards. Have a look at verses 45-46:
Finally the temple guards went back to the chief priests and the Pharisees, who asked them, “Why didn’t you bring him in?” “No one ever spoke the way this man does,” the guards replied. (NIV)
There’s a bit more light here, isn’t there? The dimmer switch turns up a bit more. I’ve said this often, but Christianity is a simple thing made difficult by religious people. You probably all know the KISS theory: Keep It SIMPLE, STUPID! The temple guards know the KISS Theory. They don’t understand Jesus fully just yet, but they know he’s worth listening to. These guys are like cops—and we have a few here—and you guys know I was one. After a while, cops get quite good at making fast and usually accurate assessments of people. And you have to, because if you get it wrong you usually get a smack in the head or much worse. Like our police officers and prison wardens, these temple guards have seen their fair share of trouble makers and blokes who should be locked up. They know for sure that Jesus is neither of those. Listen to what they said: “No one ever spoke the way this man does.”
Up until this time in history, no one had ever claimed to be the one through whom God would pour out spiritual refreshment on his people. It’s a ridiculous thing to say, unless it’s true. These temple guards have met plenty of liars and lunatics, but they’d never met the Lord before. They know Jesus isn’t a liar. They’re positive he’s not a lunatic. Now, they don’t come out and say it, but you get the feeling that these guys sense that Jesus might just be the Lord.
Maybe this is you. You’ve never heard anyone say the stuff Jesus says. You’ve never heard of anyone doing the things Jesus did. So you’ve come to church to find out what’s going on, because you know there’s much more to this Jesus than meets the eye. You’re in the right place. If you haven’t come to ‘Explaining Christianity’ yet, we’re starting another one just after Easter in a month or so, so come along!
And what about the Pharisees. Oh, man, you can always leave it to the religious people to stuff things up, and get it all the wrong way ‘round! With breath-taking arrogance they dismiss the cops by saying, verse 47: “You mean he has deceived you also?” The Pharisees retorted in verses 48 and 49: “Have any of the rulers or any of the Pharisees believed in him? No! But this mob that knows nothing of the law—there is a curse on them.”
The dimmer switch just went down again. They are so arrogant. We don’t believe in Jesus, therefore neither should anyone else. In fact, you lot must be as dumb as a box of hammers. You know nothing about the law, and we know it inside out. Therefore, you lot are cursed by God! Have a look at how they finish up in verse 52:
They replied, “Are you from Galilee, too? Look into it, and you will find that a prophet does not come out of Galilee.” (NIV)
Again with the Galilee thing! You know, for a bunch of blokes who claim to know the law so well, they seem to have forgotten that both Jonah and Nahum came from Galilee, and last I checked, both those blokes were prophets!
Now, don’t miss this: in the New Testament, the harshest things Jesus says are always directed at the religious leaders, and this is exactly why. See, these religious leaders claim to speak for God, but nothing could be further from the truth. Not only do they prevent people from trusting Jesus; they persecute people who follow Jesus; and with their oppressive rules, they make it incredibly hard for anyone else to even hear about Jesus.
And don’t for a second think that people like this were only around in the first century. No way! Church hierarchies are chock-a-block full of their descendants. It doesn’t matter what denomination you care to think about: they all have one thing in common, they all claim to be God’s mouthpiece. And at one time or another, they’ve all got it desperately wrong. They’ve all led their people into awful sin, and they’ve all hidden Jesus behind so many layers of religion that make it so hard to see the real Jesus.
I reckon this is why all of us need to really watch our hearts and ask ourselves tough questions often. “Am I becoming religious? Do I think Christianity is about rules I need to keep?” Christianity isn’t a religion, it’s the relationship we have with God by the power of the Holy Spirit because of the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. The biggest errors and the most horrible of sins Christians have gotten themselves into over the past 2,000 years have nearly always happened when we’ve turned the whole thing into a religion.
Before we get miserable and think there’s no hope, one man speaks up. It’s Nicodemus. Have a look at verses 50-51:
Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus earlier and who was one of their own number, asked, “Does our law condemn a man without first hearing him to find out what he has been doing?” (NIV)
I can’t wait to meet this bloke. If we had Nicodemus here and we interviewed him at church, his testimony would be that saying ‘Yes’ to Jesus took a few years. Come back to John 3 for a minute. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, he doesn’t want any of his religious mates to know he’s talking to Jesus, and he’s in the dark spiritually speaking. But he has that fantastic convo with Jesus about having to be born again if you want to see God’s Kingdom. And that convo made a massive impact on him. Here in chapter 7, you can see that Jesus has turned up Nico’s dimmer switch just a bit. While all his religious mates are so quick to condemn Jesus, Nicodemus reminds them that God tells his people that before anyone is condemned, they must have a fair hearing.
Nicodemus knows there’s something massive about Jesus. He’s not sure what it is just yet, but he knows enough to be certain that he wants to give Jesus a chance to speak. He wants to hear more of Jesus!
By the time we get to the end of John’s Gospel, the dimmer switch has been fully lit up for Nicodemus. He’s one of two men who get Jesus’ body and cover Him with spices to prepare Him for a proper burial. It was a public declaration from Nicodemus that he sides with Jesus. Remember this guy was one of, if not the leading, Pharisee of his day, so that first Good Friday when Nicodemus went with his mate Joseph to take Jesus’ body down, that was the end of his life as a respected Pharisee. But it was also the beginning of his walk with Jesus, which is better by so far it’s almost indescribable. Any of us who are Christians will meet Nicodemus in heaven, and that’ll be cool!
What response have you made to Jesus? Where’s your dimmer switch? Is Jesus just a prophet to you? Your dimmer switch is turned just a tiny bit to the right. Do you realize, like the temple guards, that no one has ever spoken like Jesus? Your dimmer switch is turned to the right a bit more, but it’s still pretty dark. Do you reject Jesus like the religious leaders? The dimmer switch is turned all the way to the left, the light switch is turned off and the bulb has been taken out!
Or are you someone who takes Jesus at his word? Do you realize that like me you’re a sinner who needs a saviour? Do you know that Jesus’ death and resurrection takes away our sin and brings us back to God, that it’s only through Jesus that all our spiritual needs can be met?
Where is your dimmer switch? Jesus said in verses 37-38: “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.” (NIV)
Before I became a pastor, I was a police officer here in Mount Druitt for about 5 years. Most of the time, I loved it! Sometimes it was pretty awful of course, but most of the time, it was awesome! One of the best things about being a cop was that every day was different. I never knew what would happen or what sort of situations I would find myself in. Work was nearly always exciting and often dangerous. It was like playing cops and robbers with a uniform, a fast car, and a handgun, and I got paid for it. What’s not to love?
I was on night shift one night. It was winter so it was pretty cold. It was around 2:30am. Everything was pretty quiet, so we were all playing cards in the station. There was a pizza shop just across the road from Uncle Bucks. Back then, there were only a handful of shops and they’d just opened. We used to get pizzas from these two blokes every now and then, and they weren’t bad. Anyway, at about 2:30am there was this almighty explosion. It shook the windows of the police station. We all bolted outside and saw this huge fireball going up in the sky. My mate and I ran out the back to grab a car and got over there in half a minute. What a scene! Three of the five shops were flattened and on fire. As we got closer, we saw the two blokes who owned the shop. They were lying on the ground in the car park. They were both alive, but their clothes were all burnt, their hair was gone, and they were in shock.
It turns out that the shop wasn’t going all that well, so they decided to set the place on fire and claim the insurance. We had a chat to these blokes when they were able to talk. They had overestimated the amount of fuel they’d need for the task. The shop was about five meters wide and about 20 meters deep, but they had poured five 20 liter jerry cans of petrol into the shop, ran a trail of it out into the car park (but only went about 15 meters) and then lit it. About 3 seconds later, ‘ka-boom’! Luckily the blokes weren’t hurt, so it was actually pretty funny, and completely unexpected! But that’s what being a cop was like. It was a massive adrenaline rush, and we never knew what would happen next. Work was always full of surprises!
Now, one of the things I love about Jesus is that he constantly surprises me. I’ve been a Christian for a while—which means I’ve known Jesus for a while—and yet he still constantly surprises me in so many ways. So one of the few things I’ve learned about being a Christian and following Jesus is that you’ve always got to expect the unexpected.
I want Jesus to be predictable, because predictable is safe. I can come up with all sorts of fancy philosophical reasons for this. But when you strip them all away and get real, the fact is that I like predictability, because it gives me the feeling that I’m in control. Control is a deeply human desire, isn’t it? How often do we all love saying, “Oh, yes, I knew that would happen!”? Or, “Of course I knew you were going to say that!”? We love that stuff because it tricks us into believing that we’re in control of whatever situation we’re in. But it’s a complete nonsense. All it takes is a restructure at work so that you lose your job, a car accident, a bad medical test result out of the blue, a failed exam you expected to pass, the unexpected death of someone close to you, or an exploding pizza shop in the middle of the night, and we realize that we’re not in control of anything.
All through the Gospels people want to control Jesus. They think they know what Jesus will say and do, but he constantly surprises, because Jesus has a different agenda. People expect him to do one thing, but he so often does something else. John 6 is a great example of this. This is a long chapter, so we’ve broken it up into three sermons, that you’ll hear this week and the next two weeks, Lord willing. I think the two main questions this first section answers are first, “What does God ask of us?”, and second, “What does it mean to be fed by God?”
I love John’s Gospel. The way he writes is just fantastic. John tells us about seven of Jesus’ miracles, though he calls them ‘signs’. With each sign, there is a corresponding sermon preached by Jesus. So for example, Jesus says that he is “the light of the world”, and he opens the eyes of a man born blind. Jesus says that he is “the resurrection and the life”, and he raises Lazarus from the dead. Here in John 6, Jesus feeds 5,000 men, and then tells people that he is the bread of life. The crowds of people and Jesus’ own disciples really aren’t expecting any of this stuff to happen, and when they see it, they consistently misunderstand what Jesus is saying.
Jesus is by Lake Galilee and he’s been doing miracles for a while now, so people are turning up from everywhere to be healed. It’s around April, our Easter and the Jewish Passover, a couple of years before Jesus was crucified and raised from the dead. There are hills just on the shore of Lake Galilee, John tells us its Roman name as well, ‘the Sea of Tiberias’, named after the Roman Emperor. There’s also a small city called Tiberias still there. Anyway, Jesus wandered up one of the hills and sat down with his disciples, but this massive crowd of people followed him. There were about 5,000 men. The other Gospel writers tell us that there were women and children with them, so we’re looking at a crowd of 12 or 15 thousand people.
Jesus would have been heaps of fun to hang around, I reckon. Have a look at verses 5 and 6:
When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do. (NIV)
He’s having a laugh. It’s almost cheeky. “Now, where on earth are we going to find enough food for all these people?” Poor old Philip doesn’t know what’s going on and doesn’t care about where they’d find enough food. All he can think about is the cost of catering! He says, “It’d cost roughly 30 grand in our money, and that’s just for entrée!” Keeping the laughs flowing is Peter’s brother, Andrew, in verse 9:
Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many? (NIV)
Well, you asked, Jesus! There are 12,000 people or so, and I’ve stolen a poor kid’s lunch. What have you got? If this happened now, Jesus would say, “Challenge accepted!”
Jesus gets everyone to sit down, prays to give thanks for what they’ve got, and then turns a ‘happy meal’ into a feast where there’s so much food left over that the disciples get a basket each and fill them with the remains. It seems that Christians have always over-catered. I mean, seriously, how many church events have you ever been to where there’s not enough food? That’s right, none!
Anyway, the crowd are impressed, as anyone would be. They all knew they didn’t bring any food, but their tummies were now full. So they know for certain that Jesus can’t only heal the sick: he can do anything. But here’s the kicker: they totally misunderstand the reality that this sign points to. Have a look at verses 14-15:
After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.” Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself. (NIV)
To understand what this means, you have to know what Jews thought in the first century AD. Jewish people were expecting a prophet like no other who had come before. They were waiting for a Messiah, a Saviour. Their Scriptures, what we call the ‘Old Testament’, are full of these promises that God makes about the one who would come and rescue God’s people. The thing is that by the first century AD, Israel had been occupied territory for about 600 years. They had been invaded first by the Babylonians, then by the Greeks, and then the Romans had control over Israel. So when Jews thought about this promised Saviour, they all thought it meant a military leader who would galvanize Israel and lead a successful rebellion against the might of the Roman Empire and restore Israel’s independence.
So when they realize Jesus can do these fantastic miracles, such as healing people or feeding thousands of people with next to nothing, they think back to Deuteronomy 18. In that part of the Old Testament, God tells Moses that someone like Moses himself (only better) would turn up. When that happens, God’s people had to follow him. The first century Jews added this genuine promise to some of their incorrect assumptions about the Messiah to come, and they figure that Jesus must be ‘the one’ they’re waiting for, and they want to make him their king by force. Jesus knows all this, so he takes off. Jesus is in fact their king, and one day everyone will see it, but his coronation won’t happen like this. Jesus will be made king through his death in our place on the cross and by being raised by God back to new life for our salvation. But Jesus has much to do before his coronation.
In the next section, John 6:16-24, John tells us about the time that Jesus walked on water in the middle of a freak storm. These sorts of storms still happen on Lake Galilee from time to time. Cold wind from the north hits the hot air from the south-east coming in from the desert. When that happens, the usually calm Lake Galilee turns into a place at which you could hold a surfing contest. I think John includes this partly because it’s just another example of Jesus doing stuff only God can do. This tells us that Jesus is not just your average punter but he is actually God. The other reason I think he gives us this story is because John is setting up the next day for us.
The crowd saw the disciples leave, but they knew that Jesus wasn’t with them. So the next morning they head north and go around the lake to find him. Lake Galilee is a decent size, but since just about everyone travelled by walking back then, no one was fazed by it. We would all complain and want a cab or an Uber Camel. Anyway, off they go, and by the time we get to verse 25, they’ve found Jesus again and ask when he got there.
His answer is vintage Jesus. No mucking around, no small talk, just this totally unexpected answer that leaves these guys floundering. Have a look at verses 26 to 29:
Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.” Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?” Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” (NIV)
Do you notice their first question is small talk: “Ah, Jesus, how’d you get here mate?” You’d expect Jesus to say, “Oh, I ducked over last night after the BBQ”. Only he doesn’t. This is one of the many Ron Burgandy moments in the Bible. The crowd ask a simple question and they get this complex answer about the meaning of life. So their second question is the one just about everyone asks at some point or other: “What must we do to do the work God requires?”
Jesus contrasts what they want with what they need. They want more food. They need their sin forgiven. The last meal they had was yesterday afternoon. It’s now mid-morning the next day and they’re hungry. They want Jesus to do the magic catering thing again! Instead they get confronted with their deepest need: eternal life with God. That promise God holds out to anyone who believes in Jesus: sin forgiven; life redeemed; washed clean; ready to meet God as friends and adopted children.
Notice that Jesus speaks about what they need as ‘work’. I’ve always found this interesting. He’s doing that on purpose, of course. See, we all desperately want to contribute something to our salvation. We naturally feel as if there’s something we can do that will make God happy with us. So when Jesus says, “Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life”, they are hanging on the edge of their seats as if the greatest secret of the universe is about to be revealed. And you can hear that in their question in verse 28, “What must we do to do the work God requires?”
Again, you’d expect Jesus to launch into a long and exhausting list of all the stuff we all suspect God wants of us: strict obedience, no bacon, no prawns or lobster, perfect thoughts, perfect words, perfect actions, and some great quest or other. Instead, Jesus just says, “The work of God is this: believe in the one He has sent.” In other words, God just wants us to believe in Jesus. That’s it: no special task, no exhausting program of rigid obedience to earn God’s favour, just believe in Jesus and he takes care of everything. His death pays for your sin and mine. He gives us his Spirit who chips away at our old sinful nature and slowly but surely makes us more like Jesus.
And yes, it takes determination to persevere, because it can be quite easy to get side-tracked or disappointed with a church or with other Christians and so give up on Jesus. It can be easy to get side-tracked by suffering or sickness. It can be easy to get side-tracked by being single when you want to be married or by being married when you suspect you’d be better off single. It’s easy to get side-tracked if you’re picked on at school or bullied. It is easy to get side-tracked by mental illness that just drains away your joy in knowing Jesus. Any number of things can knock us off course. But I think when that stuff happens, the key to persevering is to keep your eyes and your heart on Jesus, because people will fail us from time to time, but Jesus never does.
That’s why Jesus can say that when you boil it all down, the only thing God wants from us is trust. That’s it. Believe in Jesus, and everything else slots into place once you get that sorted out. It won’t be perfect, but it works.
And again, the crowd just miss it by miles. And before we get all proud of ourselves, we all know that we’ve missed this point a fair few times over the years. Look at what the crowd say in response, verses 30 to 31:
So they asked him, “What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” (NIV)
One of my good mates is an atheist. He’s an excellent bloke and we have lots of great conversations about Jesus. He’s one of these people who say, “Look, I’d believe if Jesus turned up here and started doing a few miracles.” You’ve probably got a few friends who say that sort of things. And if you don’t, you probably need to get out a bit more and find some! I want to believe people who say that sort of thing, but my guess is that they could see Jesus do miracles and still not believe. They’d find some other excuse for rejecting him. Think about the vast number of people who actually did see Jesus do more miracles than you can poke a stick at over the course of three years. We are talking about hundreds of thousands of people: Jews, Romans, all sorts of visitors to Israel over that time. Yet by the beginning of Acts, there are only about 120 Christians in the world. Why? Because Jesus didn’t follow other people’s agenda. He always did the unexpected and it ticked people off.
See, this crowd is a perfect example. They followed Jesus because they knew he could make sick people well. Then they saw him feed roughly 12,000 people with a ‘happy meal’. They’ve no idea how he got to the other side of the lake in the middle of the night, but there he is. But then they have the hide to ask for another sign. They even dare to compare Jesus to Moses. They think Moses fed the people of Israel with manna for 40 years while they wandered about in the desert between leaving Egypt and getting into the Promised Land. They’re saying, “Hey you only did the food thing once. Moses did it for 40 years mate!”
I tell you the truth, you and I aren’t all that dissimilar to this. How many of us have experienced God do outrageous things in front of our eyes in years past, and yet how often do we complain that he’s not doing what we want him to do now? How many of us have seen the most unlikely of people become Christians? How many of us have seen God intervene in all sorts of ways: serious illness healed, a job provided from out of nowhere, a seemingly chance meeting with someone that proves to be a massive blessing but one that only God could organize, a baby born when there seemed little hope, or a family provided through fostering when hope was gone, a son or daughter off the rails who comes home to Jesus like the prodigal, a high school teen who is anxious and cutting and looks headed for real trouble. But then Jesus turns up and it’s like a new dawn: a mended heart and a smile and passion to help other teens who are in the same mess, addictions that are overcome that give you real freedom, or missionary work that continues despite serious persecution where thousands are saved—the list could go on and on. There are plenty of times when we pray for those things and God gives us a negative answer. But our problem is the same as this crowd in John 6. We focus on the negative so much. We focus on just what we want so much that we fail to remember all the amazing things we’ve seen God do time and time again with our own eyes—let alone all the stuff we can read about over 2,000 years of church history and what we know God did with his own people in the Bible. We close our eyes and harden our hearts, and like this crowd, we forget that Jesus is standing right in front of us, saying, “Don’t worry; don’t be afraid, just believe in me. I’ve got this. Trust me!” Look at how this first part of John 6 ends, in verses 32-34:
Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” “Sir,” they said, “always give us this bread.” (NIV)
Over the rest of John chapter 6 Jesus will expand on what this means. But for now we just need to understand that it wasn’t Moses who fed God’s people. It was God. And that food back in the desert in the Old Testament got stale and rotten. It didn’t last long, and as soon as they made it to the Promised Land, God stopped giving it to them. But the true bread of God that comes down from heaven to feed and give life to the whole world doesn’t come in a packet, or get stale or rotten—it is Jesus.
Remember those questions we started with? What does God ask of us? And the answer is simply to believe in Jesus, to trust in him. That’s it.
What does it mean to be fed by God? Well, the crowd misunderstand. By the end of chapter 6, they all walk away from Jesus, because he’s not what they expected.
Someone much smarter than me said it like this: “He who is already king has come to open his kingdom to people, but in their blindness people try to force him to be the kind of king they want. Thus they fail to get the king they need and also lose the kingdom he offers.”
For you and me, what it means to be fed by God is really pretty simple. We need to strip away our agendas, all our religious assumptions, our pride and self-righteousness, our health and career, our house, a boyfriend or girlfriend, a husband or wife, a fantastic HSC result or early admission into uni—anything like that or that’s our agenda. That stuff won’t ever satisfy us for more than a moment. For us to be fed by God means that we need to be completely and eternally satisfied with Jesus. He is enough. “Sir, always give us this bread.” Just give us Jesus.